The following is an essay written for a course called “post-secular Jewish emancipatory thought,” taught by Richard Shapiro in the Social and Cultural Anthropology department at CIIS.
In May of 2010, the Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at Middlesex University, Ed Esche, informed the philosophy department that its funding had been permanently revoked. Despite being widely recognized as one of the leading research centers on Continental philosophy in the world (and the only such center in the UK), the University administration determined that greater revenue would be generated if its financial resources were more efficiently allocated. The Dean remarked that, despite its excellent academic reputation, the department made no “measurable” contribution to the University.
It seems that thinking has little role left to play in a hyper-capitalist society, where knowledge is a commodity and culture is sculpted by social engineers to entertain and persuade us. The advance of civilization marches onward, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, “by extending the number of important operations we can perform without thinking about them” (Introduction to Mathematics, 1911). Thinking is aimed at the negation of the given, the status quo: philosophy must strive to break free of the custodial role prescribed for it by the dominant culture. “Official philosophy,” where it is still permitted to exist as a legitimate “occupation,” is supposed to aid the scientist’s accumulation of instrumental knowledge by “[preventing] the waste of mental energy” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1987, p. 202). Genuine philosophy cannot produce standardized knowledge to be packaged and sold for the corporate sponsored “enrichment of the mind” (Eros and Civilization, 1974, p. xxiii); rather, philosophy is a thinking which “refuses to capitulate to the prevailing division of labor and does not accept prescribed tasks…[It is] an effort to resist suggestion…[by giving] voice to the contradiction between belief and reality” (DE, p. 202). If education is now a business, philosophers no longer belong in universities. Philosophy is truth telling, not truth selling.
Industrial capitalism has not only come to disregard and downplay the disruptive effects of thinking. The free expression of Eros has also been undermined. Despite the much-vaunted sexual revolution of the 1960s, any release of instinctual energies is prescribed by the requirement that it be “satisfied within the framework of commerce and profit” (EC, xxiii). As a young person seeking liberation through education and the love of wisdom (philosophy), I am compelled by nature to construct a sensuous rationality capable of bringing forth a non-repressive civilization. Those in society granted the privilege of “spending” their time doing “nothing but” thinking are shrinking in number, so there is a special urgency to my present inquiry. What does it mean to do philosophy in a corporate economy happily perpetuated by a well-fed, well-entertained populace? Thinking is precisely thinking about nothing—thinking what is not, and so discovering what remains possible. Thinking is an activity without meaning within the context of consumption and production, since it emerges from the memory of an entirely different way of being. Thinking is the attempt to step outside the repressively comfortable circle of life-so-defined.
I aim to think the possibility of reconciliation between Logos and Eros, between thinking and feeling. This will require more than the intellectual revolt of philosophical imagination against abstraction, but also the instinctual rebellion of youthful eroticism against repression. Capitalist society cannot be successfully countered by the explosive release of orgiastic impulse alone, since such explosions already find their approved expression in a multibillion dollar pornography industry; nor can even the most penetrating critiques of commodity fetishism outpace the wit of advertisers and the allure of personal electronics. Instead, mind and body must reunite for a new kind of fight against an enemy who has already penetrated the inner sanctum of our own soul. The enemy is not the government bureaucrat or corporate executive, but the machinations of “the system” of which they, too, are victims.
Philosophy must therefore join forces with psychoanalysis in order to liberate our human potential for joyful life from the surplus-repression of industrial capitalist civilization. Following Herbert Marcuse, psychoanalysis must be extended beyond the individual to include society, since today “the cure of the personal disorder depends more directly than before on the cure of the general disorder” (EC, p. xxvii).
What are the lessons of psychoanalysis for philosophy; which is to say, what has the thinking ego to learn from the unconscious soul? Freud would remind the philosopher that his supposedly logical thought processes originate in the memory of bodily gratifications and are driven forward by the impulse to recollect these same past gratifications (EC, p. 31). Because the ego is perpetually frustrated in its attempts to fully recall the past, it becomes increasingly offensive and antagonistic in pursuit of its objects (EC, p. 109). Thinking is not entirely free, but seems to act out of the unconscious necessity of the pleasure principle. Thought must come to recognize its embodied context and to except the instinctual ground from which it emerges. But psychoanalysis, the science of the psyche, also has something to learn from philosophy, the art of the psyche.
The soul, says Aristotle, is the form of the body, and the body a broken version of the whole. The body is ruled by necessity, the death drive always drawing it back into blissful extinction in the inorganic realm. The soul still enjoys the pleasures of the dying body, but it also has a taste for something higher: the integral freedom of imagination, where desire can be made to coincide with gratification. The psyche exists midway between the freedom of the spirit and the feelings of the body. Its task is to integrate the ideas of the former with the reality of the later. The imagination is the site of this integration, and its cultivated expression can transform unconscious necessity into conscious freedom.
Though Western philosophy has long championed Logos, Reason, or Spirit as the essence of Being, and therefore privileged production and mastery of nature over receptive participation, the Platonic tradition offers an alternative. In the Symposium, Eros is described as the desire for wholeness and wisdom, rather than dominance. It reminds the ego of a time when subject and object had not yet split, and promises an eventual return to paradise. Similarly, in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the highest form of Reason is the opposite of the prevailing, Enlightenment conception of a subject always attempting to progress over and against an object. For Hegel, absolute knowledge is the result of a cyclical development culminating in “attained and sustained fulfillment, the transparent unity of subject and object” (EC, p. 116). Unfortunately, this fulfillment is spiritual, a freedom won only in the Idea and not in reality. “In reality, neither remembrance nor absolute knowledge redeems that which was and is” (EC, p. 119).
Marcuse argues that philosophy, despite its great spiritual protests, has been unable to overturn the dominant reality principle of Enlightenment rationality. The sought after transformation of society requires more than the ontologization of Eros along side Logos; it requires a higher form of participation in nature won by the re-enchantment of culture, defined not as the rigidly enforced deflection and methodical sacrifice of libido (EC, p. 3), but as its fullest expression.
Enlightenment, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, “has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters” (DE, p. 1). “Yet,” they go on, “the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.” The liberation promised by the Enlightenment was to be accomplished by the disenchanting effects of an instrumental rationality capable of explaining and controlling nature (inner and outer) for the good of society. Directing our ever-increasing intellectual and material forces toward collective benefit, so the story goes, requires repressing the pleasure-seeking and boundary-dissolving instincts of our individual organism. This “social contract” of voluntary repression is supposed to be in service of life against death, freedom against slavery; but the contract is signed under duress, since neurotic guilt, rather than conscious love guides the forced choice. The rationalization of our organism by the dominant culture is accepted more as a punishment than a present. Having been thus “scientifically managed” (EC, xii) by society, we become thoroughly alienated from our labor, our pleasure, and our cosmic ground. Human life has been made into a mere means to the end of economic progress—progress measured in terms of the consumption of a resource base organized so as to artificially enforce scarcity (an issue to which I will return below).
If the world wars of the 20th century were not shocking enough to dispel the sacrificial myth of mythlessness underlying the rationale for industrial civilization, the worsening socioeconomic and ecological crises of the 21st century have all but fully exposed the madness of its attempt to scientifically master the life of the psyche and the earth.
The philosophical inquiry to follow will revolve around two related questions: 1) Can there be civilized life without repression? 2) Can there be scientific knowledge without disenchantment?
Approaching an answer to the first question will require unpacking the sociological implications of psychoanalysis. Marcuse’s philosophical reconstruction of Freud’s theory of “primary narcissism” will provide the conceptual basis upon which to critique the latter’s assumption that sociality begins only with human civilization. On the contrary, it will be argued that sociality is basic to nature, and that therefore civilized life need not be based upon a traumatic break within the individual psyche between the pleasure principle of the id and the reality principle of the super ego.
The second question is related to the first, in that the surplus-repression governing industrial civilization objectifies both the human psyche and the natural world. Whereas mythical consciousness participates in an inherently meaningful cosmos no less animated than the human soul, scientific rationalism has separated meaning from intelligibility by transforming nature into a “mathematical manifold” (DE, p. 19) awaiting technological manipulation. In light of Marcuse’s discussion of the mytho-poeic and aesthetic dimensions of the psyche as potential avenues to overcoming the opposition of man and nature enforced by the instrumental rationality of the performance principle, it will be argued that any psychological reconciliation between the id and the super ego remains superficial without a concomitant cosmological reconciliation between the soul and the cosmos.
Instead of domination and mastery, civilization can be founded upon playful participation. Through the liberation of Eros and the emergence of a sensual rationality, the industrial performance principle and its image of ourselves and of nature as mere means can be challenged and transformed.
Can there be civilization without repression? Or, as Freud’s corpus suggests, is the “free gratification of man’s instinctual needs…incompatible with civilized society” (EC, p. 3)? Marcuse argues that the human civilian need not be made into an instrument of labor, forced to delay self-gratification in order to toil for the survival of the whole. Such instrumentalization of the individual represents one possible, and particularly alienating mode of industrial enculturation. Nietzsche exposed the conceptual roots allowing for the perpetuation of this mode, which grow out of the “gigantic fallacy on which Western philosophy and morality [are] built”: that which mistakes contingent facts for essences, thereby making metaphysical principles out of historical conditions (EC, p. 121).
Freud’s reading of the relationship between the pleasure and reality principles is built atop the Darwinian notion of a “struggle for existence” resulting from the scarcity inherent to natural life. Freud offers a devastating critique of the idea of an rational individual so crucial to liberal political theory, but he nonetheless describes the origins of civilization through the emergence of a social contract based upon the idea that the human individual’s selfish desire for immediate gratification must be checked in order to safeguard the future happiness of society (EC, pg. 13). Civilization is deemed necessarily repressive, since unrestrained individual gratification would quickly lead to the collapse of the labor force that secures the resources vital to social organization.
However, Darwin’s understanding of scarcity and the struggle of each against all can be shown to have more to do with the capitalist economic conditions holding sway in 19th century England than it does with nature. Scarcity, and the competitive model of social relations in which it results, is not rooted in the natural world, but is the result of an artificially controlled distribution of resources. What Freud and Darwin took to be the essence of nature was actually the result of a contingent form of economic organization. Rather than a war of each against all, post-Darwinian biology has come to recognize symbiosis as the rule, rather than the exception, in the natural world.
Regardless of whether or not the state of nature is truly an out and out struggle, Marcuse argues modern technological advances have now made it possible to all but eliminate scarcity and scale back the need for industrial toil. That billions of people still go hungry and billions more sell their labor and leisure time to corporations can no longer be legitimated by the naturalization of scarcity and competition.
If scarcity is the result of capitalism, rather than its justification, the surplus-repression of civilization must also have historical, rather than biological causes. Marcuse unpacks Freud’s own understanding of instinct to reveal how Eros contains within itself the germ of a reality principle all its own. Unlike in some of Freud’s formulations, the performance principle of capitalism need not be understood as the only possible reality (EC, p. 45). As the example of artistic production proves, there may indeed be a “work-instinct” (EC, p. 84) that avoids alienation. Sociality, too, can emerge instinctually, through the still gratifying sublimation of aim-inhibited sexuality (EC, p. 82). A non-repressive civilization is possible, since there is a psychic force empowered by the pleasure principle of the id that is nonetheless capable of being made conscious: the imagination (EC, p. 140).
Imagination, says Marcuse,
links the deepest layers of the unconscious with the highest products of consciousness (art), the dream with the reality; it preserves the archetypes of the genus, the perpetual but repressed ideas of the collective and individual memory, the tabooed images of freedom (EC, p. 141).
The performance principle of industrial civilization divides the psyche into an ego interested in the usefulness of rationality, geared toward truthful representation and skillful manipulation of nature, and an unconscious id caught up in the useless daydreaming of imagination, absorbed in the childish fantasies of the pleasure principle. The birth of a truly free civilization will require the cultivation of imagination as an organ of perception, capable of giving intelligible and realistic form to the archetypal desires of the psyche. The split between the pleasure ego and the reality ego must be overturned so that the image-making capacities of the id are consciously granted their constitutive role in the formation of reality. Contra Freud, the notion of a reality principle that avoids repression is not retrogression to an impossible subhuman past (EC, p. 147). The restoring of imagination to its proper role in the psychic construction of reality signals the coming of civilization’s most mature phase (EC, p. 150).
It is not simply that imagination must begin to play a role in our perception of reality; it is that the rational ego must come to recognize the freedom it already exercises in bringing forth a society dominated by the performance principle. The current structure of society is a contingently imagined product, not the natural and necessary result of trying to civilize unruly instinct. The implementation of the performance principle’s repressive norms has occurred slowly over the course of many generations, and so few individuals are aware of being subjected to it. The primordial trauma responsible for characterizing the modern subject’s alienated way of being is normally buried in the collective unconscious.
“In the ‘normal’ development,” writes Marcuse,
the individual lives his repression ‘freely’ as his own life: he desires what he is supposed to desire; his gratifications are profitable to him and to others…Repression disappears in the grand objective order of things which rewards more or less adequately the complying individuals and, in so doing, reproduces more or less adequately society as a whole (EC, p. 46).
Only sustained contemplation and cultivated imagination can dig up what has been repressed, namely the existence of “an undifferentiated, unified libido prior to the division into ego and external objects” (EC, p. 168). Freud’s discovery of this pre-egoic stage of “primary narcissism” forced the retraction of an earlier theory claiming the primacy of the self-preservation instinct. As Freud described it, “the ego-feeling we are aware of now is…only a shrunken vestige of a far more extensive feeling—a feeling which embraced the universe” (ibid.).
Marcuse argues that the re-activation of this primary stage of libidinal identity with the universe, given the formation of a mature ego capable of integrating it, would produce a re-sexualized body no longer satisfied with being used as a “full-time instrument of labor” (EC, p. 201), and a sensualized reason, no longer satisfied with the objectification of nature. Through the process of the conscious cultivation of imagination, regression is made progressive (EC, p. 19), the entire personality becomes eroticized, and reality itself is transformed. This re-emergence of libido is more a spread than an explosion, according to Marcuse, “a spread over private and societal relations which bridges the gap maintained between them by a repressive reality principle” (EC, p. 202).
The narrow confines of acceptable sexual desire dictated by the performance principle are opened up, and sexuality is transformed into a cosmic principle: Eros. As in the Symposium, Eros is ontologized in recognition of the fact that “Being is essentially the striving for pleasure” (EC, p. 125). This new way of inhabiting an eroticized body in a fundamentally pleasure-seeking world undoes the historically enforced repression responsible for the antagonistic separation between the spiritual and physical parts of our organism (EC, p. 210). The transformation of sexuality into Eros allows the pleasure principle to begin its own process of realization towards ever-more refined receptivity and sensuousness. These aims lead inevitably to “the abolition of toil, the amelioration of the environment, the conquest of disease and decay, [and] the creation of luxury”—all those effects long assumed to be impossible without severely restricting our natural inclinations (EC, p. 211). Work, defined by the performance principle as a necessary means to an end, is replaced by play, which takes pleasure in an activity for its own sake, even where its content is no different than work (EC, p. 215).
The ontologization of Eros has further consequences for modern science’s understanding of the universe. Contemporary physics defines energy as the ability to do work. This is no mere metaphor; it reveals that the established performance principle has infected the theories of even the hardest of the sciences. To the extent that nature is granted any “inner life” at all, its activity is believed to be that of forced, mechanical labor. Philosophical reflection upon the revelations of psychoanalysis leads not only to the liberation of man, but to that of nature, now free to display the wealth of its many forms before a more receptive subjectivity (EC, p. 190). Energy, as Blake put it, is no longer trapped in endless toil, but understood to be celebrating existence in eternal delight.
Thinking need not only be in the service of rationalization. It can also liberate. When the soul is freed to imaginatively perceive the natural possibilities of its existence, civilization is not imperiled, but greatly improved. If it were true that “the price of progress in civilization is paid in forfeiting happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt” (EC, p. 78), then the grand venture of our species would not be worth it. Only the unconscious memory of a promised paradise could have kept us toiling for so long. It is time this potential be made conscious.
 What Marcuse calls the “performance principle.”
 For Marcuse, surplus-repression refers to “the restrictions necessitated by social domination,” and is distinguished from basic repression, or “the modifications of the instincts necessary for the perpetuation of the human race in civilization” (EC, p. 35).
 “The theory of natural selection, it is said, could only have originated in England, because only laissez-faire England provided the atomistic, egotistic mentality necessary to its conception. Only there could Darwin have blandly assumed that the basic unit was the individual, the basic instinct self-interest, and the basic activity struggle. Spengler, describing the Origin as ‘the application of economics to biology,’ said that it reeked of the atmosphere of the English factory … natural selection arose … in England because it was a perfect expression of Victorian ‘greed-philosophy,’ of the capitalist ethic and Manchester economics.” -Himmelfarb, G., Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, W.W. Norton, New York, p. 418, 1962.
 See The Symbiotic Planet by Lynn Margulis (1999).
What do you think?