One-Dimensionality and the Uses of Transcendence

During my self-sabbatical, I have been using my commute time to read books that I have been vaguely meaning to read for a while. One of those was Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. I enjoyed it — and may even blog about it some day — and decided to continue on the track of “obsolete social criticism” by reading Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. I somehow expected it to be a, well, one-dimensional diatribe against postwar conformism, but I have found it very energizing — even moving. Perhaps it’s just landing differently because my brain is finally starting to heal from burnout, but I think it has a lot to say to our neoliberal moment and to the perpetual “crisis of the humanities.” For this post, though, rather than doing a book report or review, I want to focus on one of his simplest yet most powerful points — namely, what exactly he means by “one-dimensional” — and how this pushed me to rethink some things.

By “one-dimensional,” Marcuse doesn’t mean that people are simply flat or uninteresting. He means there is only one possible perspective by which to evaluate things — namely, the perspective of the whole economic-political-technological system. The goals and benefits of the system are taken to be self-evident, and the failure of an individual to achieve, seek, or value them is taken to be a purely individual pathology. The successful cure of that pathology is essentially to bring them into conformity with the goals of the system, in both their behavior and their way of thinking. No alternative is considered possible or desirable.

Writing in 1964, Marcuse believes this holds equally for the capitalist and communist blocs, which is a typical move among European intellectuals of that era. In any case, much of what he says about his own capitalist context remains familiar under our different configuration of capitalism. I think of things like “hiring workers of more diverse backgrounds actually helps productivity” or “saving the environment would actually boost economic growth” — every goal has to be subordinated and reinscribed within the overriding goals of the system to be worth considering.

What’s the alternative to a one-dimensional world? Turns out it’s a two-dimensional world! The imagery is not super compelling or coherent in my view, because suddenly it seems like we’re talking about lines or planes. But what he means is that there are two different perspectives — one “positive” (the official position of the extant system or social order) and one “negative” (a critical perspective). The negative perspective can manifest in any number of different ways, and indeed any given social order may have multiple “dissenting views” on the level of content, but on the level of form, they all belong to the second, critical dimension — which Marcuse often calls the transcendent dimension.

That’s where I experienced a record-scratch moment, because for most of my intellectual career, I have had a polemic against the notion of transcendence — reacting primarily against the Radical Orthodox vision of transcendence as the foundation of an ontological hierarchy. Obviously as a Marxist, Marcuse isn’t embracing that kind of transcendence. Instead it’s a kind of negative transcendence — it transcends the “official” social order by seeing beyond it, and only in that respect. It does not offer access to additional “content” that does or should supplement the primary perspective. It is not a parallel world that sits in judgment of our primary world. Rather, it is a demand or a promise of a possible future or alternative — a future of this world, an alternative to this world, one arising out of the dissatisfactions and other hidden or denied elements of negativity within the “official” positivity of the existing order.

The kind of transcendence I didn’t like was precisely an attempt to deny transcendence in Marcuse’s sense. It was an attempt to colonize the space of transcendence and compress both “dimensions” into a single hierarchical world — one with no alternative or appeal. By contrast, something I used to say that always pissed people off in the theology blogging days — namely that theologians, as critical intellectuals, are always necessarily alienated from church practice to some degree — points to Marcuse’s sense of transcendence.

This realization also resonated with some thoughts I have recently been having about Plato — which wound up in the self-titled introductory chapter to my recent book What is Theology?, for instance. What is cool about Plato’s Republic is not the blueprint he provides for the ideal city, but the very fact that everything is radically up for grabs, including “natural” things like reproduction. It is a transcendent vision insofar as it transcends the limitations and norms of Athenian society, and it is transcendent of Athenian society in specific, expressive of the dissatisfactions and injustices of that society.

It’s not just philosophers who speak in transcendent ways for Marcuse. One of his most striking example is what happens when a worker complains that “wages are too low.” From the HR perspective, the way to handle this complaint is to “translate” it into a particular problem this individual is having — for instance, maybe he is having financial trouble because his wife is sick and he can’t afford the medical bills. The problem would then be resolved by offering him temporary assistance toward paying those bills. Surely there is some degree of truth to this. I would be surprised if someone complained that “wages are too low” without having their own wages at least partly in mind. But as Marcuse points out, the “translation” loses a great deal. He did not say he needed temporary financial assistance (though he very well might). What he actually said was a more universal claim that transcends his individual situation. More than that, it implicitly appeals to more universal values, such as justice, which provide a transcendent perspective from which to pass judgment on the system as a whole. That critical, transcendent element is completely evacuated in the “translation” — indeed, that’s obviously the whole point.

Going back to my examples, when we hear that “hiring more diverse workers actually helps productivity,” we are “translating” a demand for justice (namely that employers should stop discriminating) that implicitly challenges the system into an argument that presupposes the system’s own terms. It may well be true that greater diversity leads to greater productivity. I can see how that might happen. But when people are asking for greater diversity, they are making an unconditional demand based on a principle of justice or fairness — one that deserves to be fulfilled even if it should happen to hurt productivity. We can say the same of the idea that saving the environment will actually help the economy. That may be true or it may not, but the demand to save the environment presupposes that the environment is a priority that transcends the economy. We should save the environment even if it would hurt the economy. Even taking the next logical step and saying we can’t have an economy at all without the environment is a move to collapse the radical demand back into the terms of the system. The committed environmentalist is saying: we need to save the environment, come what may.

A one-dimensional system — like postwar Fordism, or post-Stalinist Communism, or neoliberalism — trains people to be unable to make or hear such transcendent demands. Marcuse makes a good case that philosophy properly conceived — which emphatically does not include conventional analytic philosophy, even when it’s Wittgenstein! — does in fact train people to be able to make or hear such demands, as does literature. This is the case for the humanities! But it’s hardly a case for why the system would pay for the humanities. Just the opposite, in fact — even if we compromise and claim (perhaps rightly) that our apparently unproductive reflections are the only source of real “innovation” (in the sense of new profit streams). There is quite literally no reason, on the system’s own terms, that it should promote these habits of thought. That’s why it’s a bad system. Trying to meet it halfway will always only mean being collapsed back into its terms.