Utopian Speculation: Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown

UP TO NOW, it has been one of the principal tenets of the critical theory of society (and particularly Marxian theory) to refrain from what might be reasonably called utopian speculation.

– Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation

Emerson once remarked that Americans lived in the ‘optative mood’ – The Transcendentalist (1842):

Our American literature and spiritual history are, we confess, in the optative mood; but whoso knows these seething brains, these admirable radicals, these unsocial worshippers, these talkers who talk the sun and moon away, will believe that this heresy cannot pass away without leaving its mark.

Marcuse, a child of Marxian thought,  and native of Germany could have agreed with Emerson up to a point, but would have added only the communist dictum of Marx himself that the optative mood of communism is “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” What Marcuse did say in his Essay on Liberation is that “what is denounced as “utopian” is no longer that which has “no place” and cannot have any place in the historical universe, but rather that which is blocked from coming about by the power of the established societies.”1

So it was the repressive/oppressive regimes of both the liberal and socialist states of his era that he saw as the problem that was causing a blockage to all those creative potentials that needed to be released through utopian realization. As he put it “the question is no longer: how can the individual satisfy his own needs without hurting others, but rather: how can he satisfy his needs without hurting himself, without reproducing, through his aspirations and satisfactions, his dependence on an exploitative apparatus which, in satisfying his needs, perpetuates his servitude?” (KL 69-71) That Marcuse was correct in his diagnoses but incorrect in the treatment is old hat. He saw that we needed a new direction, and new institutions and relationships of production, ones that would express the ascent of needs and satisfactions very different from and even antagonistic to those prevalent in the exploitative societies. Yet, he based his criteria on a malformed notion of ‘instincts’ and their liberation:

Such a change would constitute the instinctual basis for freedom which the long history of class society has blocked. Freedom would become the environment of an organism which is no longer capable of adapting to the competitive performances required for well-being under domination, no longer capable of tolerating the aggressiveness, brutality, and ugliness of the established way of life.(KL 74-77).

Such were the flower power theories of the sixties. Did they lead to liberation and freedom, or the sado-masochistic structures of unfreedom and the hyperintensive repressions of our own era? That Marcuse saw this and was a little more realist and pessimistic in the prospects of transformation and utopian change is telling: “The search for specific historical agents of revolutionary change in the advanced capitalist countries is indeed meaningless. Revolutionary forces emerge in the process of change itself; the translation of the potential into the actual is the work of political practice.”(KL 1107-1108). Marcuse still believed in the myth of the Part, of the intellectual vanguard of an elite force of intellectuals guiding the masses toward liberation from their oppressors. He believe in constructionsism, that we could plan a free non-exploitative society in which the ‘life instincts’ (Freud) strove for “unification and enhancement of life” that would energize work in a fully awakened society based on the Pleasure Principle. As he stated it:

 The “incentives” would then be built into the instinctual structure of men. Their sensibility would register, as biological reactions, the difference between the ugly and the beautiful, between calm and noise, tenderness and brutality, intelligence and stupidity, joy and fun, and it would correlate this distinction with that between freedom and servitude. Freud’s last theoretical conception recognizes the erotic instincts as work instincts— work for the creation of a sensuous environment. The social expression of the liberated work instinct is cooperation, which, grounded in solidarity, directs the organization of the realm of necessity and the development of the realm of freedom. And there is an answer to the question which troubles the minds of so many men of good will: what are the people in a free society going to do? The answer which, I believe, strikes at the heart of the matter was given by a young black girl. She said: for the first time in our life, we shall be free to think about what we are going to do. (KL 1262-1272).

What it came down to for Marcuse was that rather than looking to the workers as the revolutionary vanguard, Marcuse put his faith in an alliance between radical intellectuals and those groups not yet integrated into one-dimensional society, the socially marginalized, the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other race and other colours, the unemployed and the unemployable. These were the people whose standards of living demanded the ending of intolerable conditions and institutions and whose resistance to one-dimensional society would not be diverted by the system. Their opposition was revolutionary even if their consciousness was not. (wiki article)

Psychotic patients exposed to continuous Vietnam war newsreel material have shown marked improvements in overall health, self-maintenance and ability to cope with tasks.

– J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition

William Burroughs once said of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition it was a “profound and disquieting book”, and that within its pages the “nonsexual roots of sexuality are explored with a surgeon’s precision.” 2 Burroughs summed it up aptly when he said “The line between inner and outer landscapes is breaking down. Earthquakes can result from seismic upheavals within the human mind. The whole random universe of the industrial age is breaking down into cryptic fragments…” (preface). The memorable opening passage gives us the flavor of that dysfunctional era that is still with us even now:

Apocalypse. A disquieting feature of this annual exhibition – to which the patients themselves were not invited – was the marked preoccupation of the paintings with the theme of world cataclysm, as if these long-incarcerated patients had sensed some seismic upheaval within the minds of their doctors and nurses. As Catherine Austin walked around the converted gymnasium these bizarre images, with their fusion of Eniwetok and Luna Park, Freud and Elizabeth Taylor, reminded her of the slides of exposed spinal levels in Travis’s office. They hung on the enamelled walls like the codes of insoluble dreams, the keys to a nightmare in which she had begun to play a more willing and calculated role. Primly she buttoned her white coat as Dr Nathan approached, holding his gold-tipped cigarette to one nostril. ‘Ah, Dr Austin . . . What do you think of them? I see there’s War in Hell.’

Norman O. Brown in one of his more acute essays within Life Against Death called this sort of intense staging – after Middleton Murray, ‘The Excremental Vision’. Many of the first critics of Ballard’s work saw in it a dark presentiment and felt compelled to castigate its intent. Brown speaking not of those critics but of a previous generation of critics hit the tone of that reception perfectly: “After admitting into consciousness the unpleasant facts which previous criticism had repressed, they proceed to protect themselves and us against the disturbing impact of the excremental vision by systematic distortion, denunciation, and depreciation. It is a perfect example, in the field of literary criticism, of Freud’s notion that the first way in which consciousness becomes conscious of a repressed idea is by emphatically denying it.”3 In this essay Brown turns against both the psychoanalytic critics and the critical psychoanalysts of his day who seek to diagnose such writing as Jonathan Swift or a J.G. Ballard as case studies in pure insanity:

At this point common humanity revolts. If personal immaculateness, ambition, and the championship of righteous causes are neurotic traits, who shall ‘scape whipping? And certainly no genius will escape if this kind of psychoanalysis is turned loose on literary texts. Common humanity makes us turn in revulsion against Huxley, Murry, and the psychoanalysts. By what right do they issue certificates of lunacy? By virtue of their own pre-eminent sanity?Death (KL 3360-3363).

The key to this is an attack on elitism, and especially the presumption of vanguard intellectuals. Brown following Sándor Ferenczi and others termed this the ‘annal vision’, and quoting Swift who himself battled such elitist forces in his dead remarked on this himself, saying: “When writers of all sizes, like freemen of cities, are at liberty to throw out their filth and excrementitious productions, in every street as they please, what can the consequence be, but that the town must be poisoned and become such another jakes, as by report of great travellers, Edinburgh is at night.” (KL 3633-3636). One wonders what Swift might have thought of blogging if he were alive today.

Brown like Marcuse saw the repression of instinctual life as the dramatic tension within modern society. Like Marcuse he would battle for the Pleasure Principle against the Reality Principle. “Behind this naïve notion of “reality-thinking” is Freud’s unquestioning (he could not question everything) attitude to science, that Comtian attitude which saw man passing through the stages of magic and religion till it finally arrives at the scientific stage, where he is at last mature— i.e., where he has abandoned the pleasure-principle, has adapted himself to reality, and has learned to direct his libido toward real objects in the outer world.” (KL 4277-4281).

All this would lead Brown toward a theory of money, of the economics of power and the sacred, one that would understand that it was not liberation that men wanted but power over others, dominion rather than freedom: “the hidden middle term connecting money and the whole domain of the sacred is power (social power). Classical economic theory, with its model of perfect competition, ignores the factor of power. Ruskin was not deceived— Ruskin whom Mumford rightly raised from the dead as the “fundamental economist of the biotechnic order”:  “Mercantile economy … signifies the accumulation, in the hands of individuals, of legal and moral claim upon, or power over, the labour of others”; “What is really desired, under the name of riches, is, essentially, power over men.” (KL 4533-4537). Brown says Marx noted the fact, inexplicable by the medium-of-exchange theory of money, that it is intrinsic to the nature of money to get condensed in useless objects, and that this is also an intrinsic feature of capitalism inherited from the precapitalist stage: “In the early stages of the circulation of commodities it is the surplus use-values alone that are converted into money. Gold and silver thus become of themselves social expressions for superfluity of wealth.”(KL 4546-4549). It is just here that Marx came close to the notion of money as prestige, and to the connection between prestige and the practically useless, the “surplus use-value.” Instead we find Marx in the first volume of Capital making prestige the essential value of money; that is to say, the essence of money is not its function in exchange, but power. And Marx says this: Under capitalism “social power becomes the private power of private persons.” (Marx, Capital, I, 149) As Brown suggests: “The value of money does not lie in the value with which the labor theory of value is concerned. And conversely— this is the crucial point— the labor theory of value does not contain the answer to the problem of power.” (KL 4571-4572).

Money is the heart of the new accumulation complex; the capacity of money to bear interest is its energy; its body is that fundamental institution of civilized man, the city.

– Norman O. Brown,  Life Against Death

Brown would affirm the truism that the devotion of the economic surplus to sacred ends is nothing new. What is new, he stated, is the primacy of sublimation in the domain of the sacred. But the essence of sublimation is the reification of the superfluous-sacred in monumental, enduring form. Hence it is in the city that money finally settles upon the most durable precious metals. As he states it: “The city is a deposit of accumulated sublimation, and by the same token a deposit of accumulated guilt. The temple buildings which dominate the first cities are monuments of accumulated guilt and expiation. The process of expiation, no longer a totemic communion of persons, has been reified and passes into piles of stone and gold and many other things beside. Hence a city is itself, like money, crystallized guilt.” (KL  5161-5164). As he tells us every city is an eternal city, and civilized money lasts forever: it endures; time and the city accumulate. But to endure is to conquer death. “Civilization is an attempt to overcome death; and thus we come to the lowest circle in Freud’s inferno, the death instinct.” (KL 5175-5177).

In archaic societies Brown rehearses the Eliadian or anthropological myths of his day that archaic men conquered death by living by assimilating the lives of their dead ancestors in an eternal return of the same lives in a mythical time without end: “…living is submerged by assimilation with ancestral archetypes: what we do now is only a repetition of what they did then. This is the pattern of eternal return. Hence archaic society has no real history; and within archaic society there is no individuality. There is no history because there is no individuality; individuality is asserted by breaking with the ancestral archetypes and thus making history. Immortality— the wish to be father of oneself— is attained by assimilation into the fund of ancestral souls, out of which comes each generation and into which they return. Again the pattern of eternal return.” (KL 5204-5212).

To overcome such contradictions modern man created history and new forms of civilization, new modes of time and the sacred. As Brown tells us culture and civilization originates in the denial of life and the body, and the impossibility of denying life in the body is what makes all cultures unstable defusions of life instinct and death instinct. It follows that the recovery of life in the body is the hidden aim of history, in the sense that the recovery of life in the body would put an end to the dynamic disequilibrium. The historical series of cultural patterns— the stages in the history of the neurosis— exhibit a dialectic of two seemingly contradictory trends: on the one hand, ever increasing denial of the body, and, on the other hand, the slow return of the repressed in an alienated form. (KL  5419-5423). Yet, ultimately in our flight from death we’ve produced lifeless bodies, and are more automaton, or zombiefied as a result. Everyday the psychopathic truth is revealed as we notice more and more how many affectless people surround us in our everyday workplaces and even in our most intimate relationships. For Brown we are caught in a hellish circle, scripted by the inner demons of our own dark desires, the sublimating ego in its flight from death acquires an ever increasing capacity to die by increasingly mortifying the body. The transformation of life into death-in-life, which is the achievement of higher civilization, prepares mankind to accept death.

Is there a way out of the madness, Brown asks. He quotes a passage from Henry Miller whose utopian speculations Brown tell us point us in the right direction:

“The cultural era is past. The new civilization, which may take centuries or a few thousand years to usher in, will not be another civilization— it will be the open stretch of realization which all the past civilizations have pointed to. The city, which was the birth-place of civilization, such as we know it to be, will exist no more. There will be nuclei of course, but they will be mobile and fluid. The peoples of the earth will no longer be shut off from one another within states but will flow freely over the surface of the earth and intermingle. There will be no fixed constellations of human aggregates. Governments will give way to management, using the word in a broad sense. The politician will become as superannuated as the dodo bird. The machine will never be dominated, as some imagine; it will be scrapped, eventually, but not before men have understood the nature of the mystery which binds them to their creation. The worship, investigation and subjugation of the machine will give way to the lure of all that is truly occult. This problem is bound up with the larger one of power— and of possession. Man will be forced to realize that power must be kept open, fluid and free. His aim will be not to possess power but to radiate it.”4

Brown tells us the Freud offered no solace, that psychoanalysis lead only to the final result of death-in-life, that we can expect only a short term reprieve through sublimation but that through accumulation of money, power, and prestige we will all end in the mummified zombielands of some final internment. For Brown there was only one possible solution: “the question confronting mankind is the abolition of repression— in traditional Christian language, the resurrection of the body.” (KL 5568-5569). Yet, like many others in his day and age Brown reverted to fantasias and mythic modes to convey his illustrious path to utopia: “The death instinct is reconciled with the life instinct only in a life which is not repressed, which leaves no “unlived lines” in the human body, the death instinct then being affirmed in a body which is willing to die. And, because the body is satisfied, the death instinct no longer drives it to change itself and make history, and therefore, as Christian theology divined, its activity is in eternity.” (KL 5575-5578). Brown new the answer: the abolition of repression, but he did not know the right questions on exactly what was needed to do this. Instead of concrete programs he tells us we should look to the poets and mystics, to the occult and hidden traditions.

Instead of pragmatic notions on how we can attain such things he offers us platitudes:

The resurrection of the body is a social project facing mankind as a whole, and it will become a practical political problem when the statesmen of the world are called upon to deliver happiness instead of power, when political economy becomes a science of use-values instead of exchange-values— a science of enjoyment instead of a science of accumulation. In the face of this tremendous human problem, contemporary social theory, both capitalist and socialist, has nothing to say. Contemporary social theory (again we must honor Veblen as an exception) has been completely taken in by the inhuman abstractions of the path of sublimation, and has no contact with concrete human beings, with their concrete bodies, their concrete though repressed desires, and their concrete neuroses. (KL 5756-5761).

Not that these ideas are not good pointers: happiness not power in governance, economic use-value rather than exchange-value (enjoyment rather than accumulation). All good, and we can agree that yes, capitalists and socialists are silent for the most part in such things.  Brown came to the conclusion that our rationality, the Enlightenment program itself was the culprit, and that we may therefore entertain the hypothesis that formal logic and the law of contradiction are the rules whereby the mind submits to operate under general conditions of repression. As with the concept of time, Kant’s categories of rationality would then turn out to be the categories of repression. And conversely, “dialectical” would be the struggle of the mind to circumvent repression and make the unconscious conscious. (KL 5827-5830). This is the conception that would inform much of later thought in an understanding of how the control society is based on an internalization of this thanatropic sublimation, of this accumulation of money and power that leads into ever repetitive closure of civilization into a darker and darker circle of death and automated zombielike death-in-life existence. Brown hoped we might find ways to circumvent the rational mind and its dark enlightenment hold on our bodies. But it would not happen.

Next I want to take up the work of Ernest Becker another psychoanalytic thinker who took up these threads but with a more pragmatic turn and less mystical utopianism. But that is for another post… and another day! I hope to bring this journey up to our present time through a myriad of political and philosophical theorists and praxis. Somewhere in there is a program yet to be realized for emancipation. The notion in the above thinkers is that there is a way out, that utopian speculation is a part of it, that repression and the reality-principle, sublimation and the death-instinct are all interrelated and that we’ve since the Enlightenment internalized all these mechanisms of the rationalizing mind, become our own worst enemies. That we’ve allowed ourselves to fall for the great myths of leaders and elitists in the academic and political arena rather than taking on the power within ourselves is another part. So many loose threads to say the least. Yet, like Ariadne we have a think red line to lead us through the maze: death and the maiden.

Will we ever see the light of day again?

In the sixties the psychedelic culture, the culture of psychotropics and acid, mushrooms, mescaline, trips, etc. found one path in breaking the hold on the rational mind. But the Reality Police closed that world down fast, and left us with downers and uppers, speed, coke, and that world of drugs unscathed. Is there a connection between radical sixties an these mind drugs? Having lived through them, and having studied psychopharmacology and entheogens/ethnobotany and the history of these mind drugs in earlier cultures I still believe there is something there to investigate, something legitimate that our academics and scholars would be wise to invest more time in study. Having experimented with these mind altering substances over a lifetime I do believe that these natural substances offer us a view onto reality worth exploring. We may in the end discover that the religious practices of latter religions once started in such knowledge and ritual techniques and practices surrounding the twin poles of Shamanism and Voodooism of the Congo. The one (Shaminism) strove to train the mind to travel into alterity, exploring mindscapes of a reality, our reality seen through a different perspective, while the other allowed the forces of nature to inhabit the practitioners like divine horsemen, allowing the material manifestation of energies that resided in the earth itself. Maybe this form of visionary materialism or polymorphism is what we’re missing in our grey world: the sense of festival and play, of dance and emancipation of energy. We live in such bland staid worlds of thought and work that we forget that the universe is a celebration of life not some dark festival of death.

1. Marcuse, Herbert (1971-06-01). An Essay on Liberation (Kindle Locations 62-64). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.
2. J.G. Ballard. The Atrocity Exhibition. Preface by William Burroughs (Flamingo, 1993)
3. Brown, Norman O. (2012-04-15). Life Against Death (Kindle Locations 3301-3304). Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition.
4. Henry Miller, Sunday After the War (New York: New Directions), pp. 154– 155. Copyright, 1944, by Henry Miller.

7 thoughts on “Utopian Speculation: Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown

  1. I’ve always held a fond spot in my heart for the writings and thoughts of Marcuse, which, even through the overriding pessimism of “One Dimensional Man,” held out on glimmers of hope. His was a world where the dialectic had ended, a prototype of the “no future” heralded by Baudrillard and Bifo and the likes of neo-cons like Fukuyama. At the same time, Marcuse always seemed to come so close, and yet fall away because of his reliance on the Frankfurt School’s Hegelianism and pretty orthodox Freudianism – the vision was ultimately one of Anarcho-Marxism without the Leninist vanguard, yet the philosophical trappings were very indicative of its modernist predecessors.

    What interests me is that in Marcuse’s “Eros and Civilization,” (a book he later called a failure, but in a lot of ways packs more of a punch, so to speak, than “One Dimensional Man), he writes of the conflicts of the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle and how this precipitates sexual/social repression, but the way to the outside is through the door of technology. For Marcuse, “technics” free up labor time through the streamlining of processes, which allows more time for “subversive” libidinally-charged activities. This is a pretty big misstep, especially in light of the flexible hegemony of post-Fordism immaterial labor and the processes of cybernetic machinic enslavement, but he quickly redeems himself by positing that the closer that civilization moves towards some kind of freedom, the breakdown of the imposed Reality Principle, the move civilization rebounds itself, the megamachine placing people in a “state of permanent mobilization, internal and external.” (Eros and Civilization, pg. 85) As we move deeper into a work where production chains will soon be collapsing under the Third Industrial Revolution, we should keep this in mind when we consider the new ways that power formations deal with this new, internal threat. I find Marcuse’s own (and Brown’s, as well) urgings appealing, about integrating the “poetic and erotic,” surrealist detournments, into pragmatic revolt, to be appealing, especially in the face of the gray composition of the control society.

    Regarding Brown and the Sacred, I thought this article might be an interesting little dovetail, even if the “Sacred” discussed is the one proposed by Bataille (who did influence Brown, after all):



    • What seems interesting to me is this notion that like William Blake at the beginning of the Enlightenment both Marcuse and Brown saw the need to reorganize the repressive logics of Reason, of Kant’s categories, of the filters that have enslaved us within thought processes that keep us bound between the repressive regime of sublimation and the organic energy of sexuation. Blake, of course, saw that removing the repression led only to the logics of failed revolution within organicism. Links to Blake’s pics: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/blake-los-and-orc-t00547. Blake was my first awakening to poetry and its logics. That he was so misunderstood in his own age where they thought he was mad and full of mystical mumbo jumbo, when in actuality he was writing about history is concrete imagistic terms rather than using the logics of reason. All of his work is a critique of the Enlightenment.

      Northrup Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, and Erdman’s Prophet Against Empire were still for me at least the starting points of an emancipatory theoretics. As a poet Blake was my prime precursor beyond Shakespeare. I’ve attuned myself to a lot of tradition since that early period, but that will always be where my poetic self was born in the bed of William Blake’s strange bid against the regimes of Enlightenment logics. Strange that… I guess that’s why those in that line of descent have always held a close place in my heart!


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