This is a transcript of episode #113 on The Frankfurt School. Check out the episode page HERE.
So hypothetical situation: let’s say you listened to these last five episodes on the Frankfurt school…let’s say you took it upon yourself to do a little more research on your own… and let’s say you pulled up an overview of all the works Herbert Marcuse ever produced. What you would see…and this applies to many of the key players in the Frankfurt School at the time as well..what you’d see is a very clear, repeated presence of books and essays concerned with the subject of art and aesthetics.
Now seeing that…this can be kind of confusing at first…like, why would that be the case? I mean if the task of the Frankfurt School was to find out what went wrong during the thinking of the Enlightenment, to examine the effects of advanced capitalism in the west, to try to figure out why the revolution Marx prophesied never came…if that’s your goal, why are you wasting even a second of your time talking about something like…you know, the form of a piece of artwork…or how people and works of art interface with each other in the world…why are we talking about any of this stuff?
Now the extension to that…and it’s a very common, understandable, natural human reaction to what we’ve talked about so far…ok, say Marcuse’s right. I now realize I’m living in a totalitarian society…I mean, is that something we should be taking lightly here? Like really if what the Frankfurt School’s saying is true, why should we be concerned with art right now? Why make a movie about how bad things are? Why are we gonna write a catchy little jingle about how we’re needlessly repressed? No, how about we DO something about it. Let’s go. Let’s get out into the streets and take back the country that apparently was never ours to begin with! Let’s string politicians up with chicken wire if we have to! It’s time to CHANGE things! Right now.
Marcuse would look at this person and he would understand their anger…he would understand their passion for wanting to change the world for the better…but he’d probably say to them… that when it comes to the process of liberation, from forces of domination that are AS entrenched as these one are…don’t mistake movement, for progress. That being angry and screaming at people and taking to the streets may make you FEEL like you’re doing something that’s changing the world for the better…but you have to examine and re-examine your tactics…are you really changing anything there?
Because again, Marxist revolutions throughout history have shown time and time again that you can’t implement these ideas into a capitalist society by force. And again, if something is ever gonna happen that even remotely resembles this kind of revolution that’s being suggested…it’s not gonna come by people taking to the streets…it’s going to come by way of a slow shifting of class consciousness. It’s going to come by educating people. It’s going to come by getting people to see themselves and their place in the world in a different way. It’s going to come by explaining to people how it’s even possible, that every day up until the point they heard this stuff they lived immersed in a system like this without ever realizing it. In other words, in the language of Marcuse, it’s going to come by changing the way that people view their subjectivity.
Now let’s explain that a bit…subjectivity’s one of those words that’s easy for people to bring their own definitions to it…and it may cause some confusion. A bit of foreshadowing here, but when we eventually get to covering the second half of the 20th century on this show, what we’re going to see is a lot of philosophers focusing on this concept in philosophy called subjectivity. Or in other words, where do we get all the ideas we have up in our heads about ourselves, our place in the world and what is going on all around us in our version of reality?
That’s a key distinction to make there…our version of reality…because as we’re all aware what a particular human being believes is going on all around them is not necessarily connected to what’s actually going on around them…we can see countless examples of this throughout history: If you lived two-thousand years ago as a Platonist you might have had an Essentialist perception of your world. The essence of what you are is that you are a rational animal…navigating the universe of Plato’s Timaeus the world made up of these tetrahedrons and octohedrons that are too small for you to see.
Say you lived a little later in history you might have a subjectivity that was much more informed by religion…a little later than that maybe you’d be informed by idealism and some version of Kant. Flash forward in history from there and you could have a structuralist version of subjectivity…that in the same way…you know if you wanted to explain to someone what a free-throw was in a basketball game…for you to be able to explain to them what a free throw was, they would first have to have an understanding of tons of other things that are related to it, right?…what basketball is…of what a game is…of what sports are at all…but it goes the other way too…they’d also have to have an understanding of what a basketball is….what a hoop is…what the lines on the floor denote…but even then they’d have to have FURTHER more FUNDAMENTAL knowledge of measurement and distance to be able to understand the concept of 15 feet away from the backboard…this goes on indefinitely in both directions…to explain the concept of a free throw is really to just explain the relationships between a free throw and all of the concepts around it in a given system…the meaning of a free throw…IS the set of relationships it has to other things within a larger system. Well, what if our subjectivity is the same way? That everything about who you are and where you fit into the world is dictated by some system that you’re a part of?
Now that’s not where this discussion of subjectivity ends…even beyond that there are post-structuralists that would say…that the very concept of subjectivity is something that we’ve imposed upon discourse…mostly just because it corresponds with language and the subject/object way that we speak about things…but also because of the practical benefits it provides, when we impose this illusion of subjectivity onto ourselves… now we can do all kinds of cool stuff…we can make truth claims based on a subjective position…now we can construct philosophical systems, tons of stuff…the point is: there are a lot of theories about subjectivity out there, and it’s crucial for us to understand how important this question is to the philosophers doing their work at this time.
So in the case of Marcuse…the shifting of class consciousness is the shifting of people’s subjectivity. Where does the average american worker get their subjectivity? Where do they get their ideas about who they are…how they fit into the world…how America fits into the world and everything else? Well, after they graduate school, from the culture industry. Many people get their version of reality from distorted, oversimplified pictures of the world, that are really just products served up to workers to appease them after a long day at a job they don’t feel connected to.
See that’s the thing…the culture industry is kind of like the world’s worst psycho-therapist. Like imagine you go in to therapy, you sit down, the person asks you how your week was and you say, gah it was horrible. Horrible. My boss still has it out for me. She’s jealous, she scared I’m gonna take her job and she persecutes me every day. It’s misery. Then I go home and my domestic life partner is just constantly annoying me…and what’s worse: they’re doing it on purpose, doctor! They’re slowly trying to make me slip into madness so that they can lock me away in an institution and get the life insurance money! What if when you said that to the therapist they replied back and said, wow. What a perfectly accurate depiction of what’s going on in your world! I mean, your life is horrible!
No…that would be the worst therapist in the world. The therapists job among many other things is to help get you to see the black and white ways you are looking at the world and present you with alternative version of reality that may be more accurate. Well what does the culture industry do? REINFORCE the black and white ways you’re looking at the world and NOT present you with alternative versions of reality. The culture industry produces masses of people with this type of subjectivity. Masses of people that when they hear a more nuanced, deep discussion… an alternative view of the world they live in… they run in the other direction, exhausted and intimidated. Oh, I hear a lot of big words and smart people stuff…I don’t like that…I’m gonna go watch that storage TV show where they find the lost sarcophagus of Ramses the second in Cleveland somewhere.
This is the reason why people like Marcuse are so concerned with art and aesthetics. Because the reality of the world we live in… is that Marcuse and one of his colleagues can sit around and have discussions all day long about this alternative picture of the average american’s subjectivity…but if the average american worker would rather jump off a building than have to do the work of challenging the way they see things…those words and ideas are effectively doing nothing when it comes to shifting class consciousness. What tools do we have that can get through to people?
Well to Marcuse, one of the answers is art. Great works of art have the ability to deliver people a message that normal speech just can’t deliver on it’s own. Great works of art have the ability… to make people feel…and feel intensely…masses of people…not just people that happen to be a graduate student under Marcuse. Works of art have the ability to show the average person an alternative view of themselves, the way the world is, their subjectivity…and because of this…to Marcuse…works of art have the potential to be a tool for liberation. Liberation from the narrow subjectivity given to Americans by the culture industry.
“The truth of art lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality to define what is real.”
The truth of art. See, in a way Marcuse’s looking at great works of art the same way WE might look at a great science experiment. What’s a great science experiment? Well they’re all equally great, I’m not playing favorites…but how about the ones that lead us to what seems like a more accurate picture of the universe? What happens? Formerly, before we did this science experiment, knowledge about a piece of the universe was obscured from us. Now it should be said, the result of this experiment has ALWAYS been the way that things are…I lived every day of my life up until that point ignorant of this little piece of the universe…and now here I am. A little more enlightened…my view of things around me a little more accurate thanks to this great science experiment. Well to Marcuse, works of art have the ability to do this very same thing at a cultural level. They can show people pieces of reality that were going on all around them that they never noticed before because they were immersed in it. Works of art have the ability to actually SHIFT a person’s subjectivity, and broaden it.
Now if you think Marcuse’s gonna follow up with hey, everyone! Make a bunch of art that shows people how horrible Capitalism is! No, actually his scope is much larger than that…economics is not the only area art has the potential for liberation. See, Marcuse notices a problem in Marx…when Marx looks back at history and sees the exploited class of people in the varying economic systems, he mistakenly spends the majority of his work thinking about the domination and oppression of people, solely in terms of what economic role they play.
Marcuse would want to point out, well we obviously know people have been oppressed based on other factors outside of what economic role they play. In the case of the United States specifically… on racial grounds, predominantly African Americans. Gender grounds, predominantly women. Grounds of sexual orientation, predominantly anything that isn’t heterosexual. Great works of art not only have the ability to show people a different perspective of the world they live in in terms of economics…they also have the ability to show people the struggle and reality of other groups that are repressed for different reasons. The potential for liberation, still there.
For example, when NWA comes out with the song F the Police in 1988. That song is an opportunity for the average american immersed in their everyday life of work and consumption to see a piece of reality that they don’t necessarily have to see every day in 1988. To hear the pain and anger of a historically repressed group of people. Human beings living in these cordoned off neighborhoods looked at as the other, largely ignored by the governments that serve them, left to fend for themselves, and among all the other problems they have, they’re left to contend with the fact that if they ever have a reason to call the police, they can’t even trust them to enforce the law in a way that doesn’t discriminate against them.
This song is an opportunity for the average American worker in 1988… to see a reality of the world around them that existed the whole time, but they were blocked from seeing it because of the narrow subjectivity the culture industry had given them. Just like with a great science experiment, this song has the potential to deliver to people a slightly more accurate picture of the world they live in, in other words: to change their subjectivity.
Now you may hear that and think, well what happened? I mean everyone’s heard that song…and it doesn’t seem like it sparked some sort of national discussion and a shifting of class consciousness. Marcuse would probably say, don’t get me wrong. Art is not a panacea. Art may be a tool for liberation but it’s not a tool that’s as effective as a hammer at hammering in a nail. It’s kind of like using a screwdriver to hammer in a nail. It’s janky…and part of the reason why is because Capitalism is just SO resilient, and capable of absorbing any sort of potential liberation and turning it into a money making product for the masses to consume.
Sure, that song has the potential to change the way people think about the relationship between police and minorities, but it also has the potential to become co-opted by Capitalism, turned into a hit song, played at the Super Bowl and then eventually the genre being filled with artists worshipping Capitalism constantly talking about what Lamborghini they’re going to buy next. How many people that hear that song hear the cries of historical oppression and how many say, oh man that’s a sick beat. Yeah, I have that song on my phone…anytime the cops pull me over and give me a ticket I blast that song…I get what Ice Cube’s talking about there! No liberation…it just becomes…a product in the consumers infinite landscape of products.
See because as Marcuse would say, liberation always occurs dialectically. What he means by that is, that if art, in any way, ever, leads to the liberation of people…one of the problems you run in to is that it always needs to liberate people while being created and distributed within the current system of domination and the tools that are available. For example if you wanted to try to liberate people from Capitalism, you would need to operate within the system of Capitalism to do that. Same as if you wanted to liberate women, you would have to do so from within a world where women are oppressed and need to be liberated. But don’t take these two examples as a prescription from Marcuse, he’s making a larger point here about liberation in general. That the forces of domination always give rise to the forces of liberation. But one thing we should ALL understand and take EXTREMELY seriously…is that it goes the other way too…the forces of liberation always give rise to the new forces of domination in what appears to be a constant historical cycle that we’re locked in. Marcuse thinks it’s possible to bring about a world where the people being liberated don’t feel the need to dominate and oppress another group of people once they’re liberated. The goal shouldn’t be just taking turns repressing each other for the rest of time. That strategy is EQUALLY ignorant, outdated and from a bygone era of history.
Marcuse would say, sure, art is far from perfect. But what better tool do we have within Capitalism to peacefully bring about this world and end this constant dialectic of oppressing each other? What other tools do we have for liberation? What the political system? Marcuse would say, uh, yeah…maybe at ONE point in this country’s history…maybe if this wasn’t AS advanced a version of monopoly capitalism. Good luck unless you have 8 trillion dollars and enough money to outspend all the companies that currently fund the campaigns of politicians in exchange for influence on legislation; no the revolutionary potential of politics has been corroded and disintegrated by Capitalism.
Again, this is why art and aesthetics are so important to many members of the Frankfurt School, not just Marcuse. Because we’re living in an advanced version of monopoly capitalism that has defused and co-opted all of the liberating potential we USED to have…art is one of the only things we have left.
Marcuse has a quote:
“Art doesn’t change the world, but it may change the consciousness of people who CAN change the world.”
Now at first that may seem like an applause break point…art doesn’t change the world WE CHANGE IT! But it’s actually referencing something that isn’t immediately on the surface…something that goes hand in hand with his idea of The Great Refusal.
So art all by itself, no matter how revolutionary and liberating it may be…doesn’t really do anything. I mean I’m serious if you look at it, it really doesn’t do anything…it’s this inert thing that just kind of hangs there on the museum wall until it decomposes and the sun explodes in 4 billion years. In other words, how revolutionary a piece of artwork is comes down not to the intentions of the artist, not how great of a person they are…but to the answer to the question: how many minds has this piece of artwork changed? To how many people has this piece of art delivered an alternative way of viewing the world that they’re receptive to and hadn’t thought of before? Marcuse would say that if the goal is a shifting of class consciousness….You can have the most revolutionary piece of art ever in terms of intent by the artist…but if it just hangs there and never inspires any change in people…what has that work of art really done to change things for the better?
What Marcuse’s getting at here is a distinction he makes repeatedly in his middle to late work…the difference between theory and praxis. The dictionary definition being actual practice, as distinguished from theory. So you can understand what he’s getting at. You know, theory…you can listen to these theories from the Frankfurt school all day long…replay this series over and over again. You can buy a bunch more books on these theories…you can dedicate you entire life to these theories about the Capitalist Totalitarian society Marcuse thinks we’re living in, but if you never change anything about the way that you live, if you never actually change anything about society for the better…what good were any of these theories just sitting up in your head? Just like the piece of art that just hangs on the wall…if nobody ever hears these ideas and takes action on them, what was the point?
Marcuse says that the point of theory SHOULD be to inform and direct praxis. Not to sit around in academic institutions theorizing about things until the end of time. Not just to understand the ideas we’ve talked about in this series, but to actually make The Great Refusal and live in opposition to affluent society. There’s a reason he refers to The Great Refusal as a form of radical subjectivity. There’s a reason he thinks of true art as a physical embodiment of radical subjectivity. Because you can have the best intentions in the world with your art, you can take to the streets and scream at people all you want, but if you’re not getting through to people, changing their minds, broadening their subjectivity…you might be mistaking movement with progress.
Like we talked about, if any of this stuff the Frankfurt School says has any validity, it’s a natural human reaction to want to be angry and scream at people in the street… but if progress is defined by a shifting of class consciousness, and you can count on one hand the number of people whose subjectivity has been broadened by your screaming, Marcuse would say maybe it’s best to reexamine your strategy.
No Marcuse’s not a fan of getting angry, screaming, being condescending towards these “dumb” people that just don’t realize the truth. To Marcuse, this isn’t the fault of the working class for going along with it. These are not evil people…these are people that should be treated with compassion…people who were born against their will…into a culture they had no control over…educated by teachers and programs that they had no ultimate say in…spat out into a alienated workforce that they didn’t sign off on. These aren’t people you should be mad at and blame, to Marcuse, they’re byproducts of historical forces that were out of their control. Why be pompous and condescending and call them dumb?
The path forward to Marcuse is not anger and blame…it is theory and praxis. Praxis would be misguided, out of control screaming in the streets if it didn’t have a good strategy and theory behind it, and theory without praxis would just be a bunch of people talking about things and never actually doing anything.
The real trick to Marcuse is finding a balance between the two and being honest enough with yourself to take a true assessment of how much good you’re really doing. But that said… he and other members of the Frankfurt School… would want to point out that is much easier said than done.
I mean, you’re not fighting against a sweet little, fluffy kitten here…you’re fighting against, monopoly Capitalism. This enemy is resilient. This enemy sees you coming and has dozens, hundreds of traps for you to fall into that silence radical subjectivity and transform you into somebody that just perpetuates the system. Living the Great Refusal, saying no to affluent society and that which is…Capitalism looks at you as a human being the same way it looks at a piece of artwork. What I mean is, again, a great piece of artwork is a physical embodiment of radical subjectivity… where sometimes the forces of Capitalism step in, take control over it, remove it’s potential for liberation and turn it into just a product. Well so too, if you’re living as an embodiment of radical subjectivity, Capitalism has ways of removing your potential for liberation… and turning YOU into someone who just keeps the status-quo going.
See, truly living the great refusal… can sometimes take an enormous amount of sacrifice. The people who have made the choice to fight against the way that things are…many of them have uprooted their entire existence, these aren’t just ideas to them…they suffer and grind on a daily basis for the cause of liberation, many of them have even given their own life. We can do an episode on the Great Refusal once again I’m going to leave it up to the demand I receive, but the point I want to make is that there is a big difference between people that hear the ideas of the Frankfurt School, think they’re making good points and complain about how messed up the system is, and these people that are actually making The Great Refusal. It’s not the Good Refusal. Not the fair to midland refusal. These traps that Capitalism sets for you to fall into…they’re so alluring. When you’ve structured your life around and lived so long in work mode and consumption mode…such an easy trap to fall into is to hear these theories, get angry, feel indignant and self-righteous, and then spend the rest of your life screaming and chanting and pepper spraying your way to never changing a single person’s subjectivity. Such an easy trap…to have all the theories right, but the wrong kind of praxis. What’s ironic to Marcuse, because of the power of Capitalism…is how easy it is to know the theories of the Frankfurt School and become as complicit in the way that things are as the people you’re screaming at.
When average american goes to their job, feel alienated, never question anything, and consume products by the culture industry that reinforce their idea that nothing is wrong with the United States, they will go on to change the subjectivity of a grand total of zero people. Doesn’t matter how right your theories are…if your method of praxis is not actually changing people’s minds…if it’s not finding a way to relate to your fellow people as a human beings and convey a message…if it’s only serving to scratch some personal itch you have of feeling like something drastic needs to change about the world…you’re not changing people’s subjectivity…you’re being selfish…all the while perpetuating the vice grip Capitalism has on the country, where in your own small way you ensure that people will continue to be polarized in this country, dogmatic about their beliefs, talking towards each other, talking past each other…but never talking with each other.
Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.