How can Herbert Marcuse, that most reluctant father of the 1960s New Left, whose name was once emblazoned on banners alongside Marx and Mao, help us to understand contemporary geographies? In turn, what can a geographic perspective bring to Marcuse’s work? The present offering suggests that Herbert Marcuse’s political and theoretical legacy affords sustenance in dismal times. My belief is that a Marcusean-inspired geography, developed across this book, will sustain and renew principles that are profoundly original and significant in Marcuse’s wide-ranging philosophies. In this work, I demonstrate how Marcuse’s lifelong struggle to adapt Marxism to changing contexts continues to have a remarkable degree of currency. When read and interpreted spatially, Marcuse’s writings provide a rich approach to politics, space, and concepts of human liberation.
The time is right for staging Marcuse’s comeback. Not only have the conditions to which he initially responded intensified, but the Left is arguably in need of some collective soul-searching. We are living in irrational and confusing times. Consider just a few contemporary contradictions: Over the past four decades, the upward distribution of income has cost American workers nearly 50 trillion dollars, making life for many an experiment in staggering inequality (Rand Corporation; see Price and Edwards 2020). In the United States, those who occupy precarious social and economic positions and arguably had the most to lose, voted against their own interests, helping to elect billionaire presidents. Worldwide, border fortification is experiencing a renaissance while data suggests that most people oppose building walls. Yet, the culture of border militarization that now extends deep into our lives and psyches continues relatively unabated. This is in spite of evidence that such constructions are ineffective (Pew Research Center 2019). As a society, we are more outraged than ever about the ways in which
Once again freedom is on the anvil. We are surveilled and managed to an unprecedented degree, all the while being diverted by consumer goods and the seeming impasse of ideological conflict. Witness the growing unrest among world populations in response to police brutality, environmental crisis, economic inequality, and the astonishing concentration of wealth. Marcuse’s penetrating critiques are as pertinent now, when considered in relation to neoliberalism, as they were in the context of what he called ‘advanced industrial society’. From identity shaping tactics and the pre-emptive subduing of opposition, to governing strategies which construct human beings as sites of investment and disinvestment, Marcuse remains prescient in his writings. His insights concerning the processes whereby the superstructural spheres of daily experience, politics, and art, are steadily economized and the extent to which political-economic imperatives penetrate culture, the environment, and space are eerily familiar. As such, there is a strategic temporality to re-encountering Marcuse’s writing at this historical moment.
There is an old joke, recounted many times, about a German worker who gets a job in Siberia. He is aware that all mail will be read by censors. He relays this message to his friends: “Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: ‘Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theaters show films from the West, – the only thing unavailable is red ink.’ 1
Marcuse’s thoughts and words, elaborated upon and extended to the real-world examples referenced above, help to articulate why the status quo seems to be on a winning streak. It provides the red ink, if you will. Fundamentally, Marcuse’s oeuvre is about what it means to be radical. His critiques are radical in the sense that they penetrate to the roots of alienation in existing systems of production, consumption, and social control. To be radical then, translates initially into a diagnosis of our current reality. Why, for example, do we opt for a conformism which oppresses us instead of being active agents in a world we want to live in? Rather than thwarting law-like systems that go against our personal politics, we tolerate and succumb to them. Introjection, defined as internalizing the status quo, means that for better or worse we believe in the way things are. In other words, we capitulate to a system we perceive as delivering the goods. Marcuse’s use of the phrase ‘one-dimensional’ captures this conundrum. It refers to social structures and behaviours without alternatives that minimize the possibilities for transcendence and alternative realities. One-dimensionality is intricately linked with capitalism, which sets the boundaries of rationality, encouraging mechanistic thinking wherein
Marcuse’s radical project operates in many different registers at once, effectively confronting the rigidity of Marxism. His contributions, interrogated and extended across the following chapters, are not discrete but are instead dialectical, deconstructive, and reconstructive. His work not only diagnoses how the current mode of production dampens other possibilities but draws on the potentialities of imagination to tap into what is as yet unrealized. In his multiple attempts (some more successful than others) to bridge divides between theory and practice; the ‘real’ and the metaphysical; and the individual and society, Marcuse urges a closer look at how freedom from material need has produced its own means of servitude.
This book argues that an adaptation and extension of Marcuse’s philosophies provide the tools from individual to societal scales to oppose and conceivably overturn the status quo. In short, this entails a multi-faceted method that deconstructs the world as we know it and reconstructs a qualitatively different one. The chapters that follow deliberately unmoor Marcuse’s theories from their original spaces of engagement. On offer is a strategically constructed blueprint that seeks to retrieve elements of a critical revolutionary subjectivity. Crucially, this is not a naive humanistic approach tethered to an uncompromising Reason unresponsive to trends in social theory. Rather, this book uses Marcuse’s insights as a portal to problematize and seek a modification to the content of revolutionary subjectivity and, as a result, frees us to think about other ways to be oppositional.
What I propose contributes to a long tradition of spatializing social theory in geography. Since the 1970s, geography’s project has been to recognize the imbrication of the social and the spatial.
Marxist geography has been instrumental in the importation of social theory into the discipline, arguing against space and place as mere outcomes of other processes. Rather than a background for things to happen, a sort of ‘empty’ or ‘dead’ plane, space is produced actively through the actions of people and particular sets of relations. The spatial dimension is a force shaping social action and never external to the social world. Understood in this way, spatial practices structure the determining conditions of social life. To paraphrase Ed Soja (1980), (building on Henri Lefebvre) space is not separated from politics but is in fact brimming with ideologies. In other words, the social is the spatial and vice versa. As a result of this legacy, I argue that a central problematic within Marcuse’s work – the containment of social change – is at root a spatial problematic. Digging a bit deeper, and taking a cue from the title of the book, it is reasonable to ask what exactly it means to ‘spatialize’ Marcuse? In the most succinct terms, spatializing Marcuse involves drawing on the development of geo-spatial thought in order to recognize that space is immanent within Marcuse’s
Many readers are likely familiar with Marcuse for his association with the Frankfurt School. As one of its founding members, and a principal architect of Critical Theory, Marcuse and his colleagues challenged processes leading to the governing value system of society. The Frankfurt School developed an apparatus to understand the times they lived through and, in the process, modernized Marxism by bringing in Freudian psychoanalysis. At the heart of their studies was an aversion to closed philosophical systems. Members opted instead for an integration of philosophy and social analysis through praxis, or the transformation of the social order. One of the distinguishing features of praxis (as opposed to mere action) is that praxis is informed by theoretical considerations. The merger of theory and practice holds the potential to overcome the contradictions of the social order and is thus a keystone of revolutionary activity.
Marcuse began his academic pursuits at Humboldt University in Berlin but transferred his studies to the University of Freiburg at the edge of the Black Forest in 1920. In 1922 Marcuse would produce his first major work and doctoral thesis, ‘The German Artist-Novel’. It was in Freiburg that he met Max Horkheimer as well as the mathematician, Sophie Wertheim, his first wife, and attended lectures by Edmund Husserl. Husserl was known for his philosophical approach of ‘phenomenology’, an intentional correlation of acts of consciousness with their objects (Feenberg and Leiss 2007). Heidegger, Husserl’s student, would go on to adapt Husserl’s method through his groundbreaking concept of ‘being-in-the-world’, an analytic interpreting the activity of existence (Dreyfus 1990, Heidegger, Kisiel and Sheehan 2007). Following the completion of his doctorate, Marcuse returned to Berlin and worked in a book shop where he prepared a bibliography on Schiller. Then, according to a 1977 interview: “I read Sein und Zeit [Heidegger’s Being and Time] when it came out in 1927 and after having read it, I decided to go back to Freiburg and worked with Heidegger until December 1932, when I left Germany a few days before Hitler’s ascent to power” (quoted in Kellner 1984, 33).
Many of Marcuse’s writings in these years addressed the concentration of political and economic power; the relationship between commodity production and the containment of social change; and theories of the destructive uses of rationality. He argued that the massive surplus of wealth created through economic and technological development had reduced the individual to a cog in the wheel of the larger machine of production. To understand how these concepts can be adapted to have particular relevance now, I draw on the geopolitics of bordering and recent US political events. These examples (in Chapter 2) will show how taking a Marcusean-inspired geography seriously can explicate the stultifying relations of reality. In later years, Marcuse focused on unrealized potentialities, and the possibilities of imaginative fantasy. Some of his most creative thinking is reflected in the notion of utopia as an expression of Eros. I expand the radical potential of Marcuse’s formulation through two concrete examples: Wikipedia and Aztlán (Chapter 4).
Taken as a body of work, it is evident that Marcuse’s brand of Marxism responded to European trends in thought such as existentialism and psychoanalysis. But these seemingly abstract theoretical formulations emerged to take on concrete relevance in the 1960s. Marcuse’s writings suddenly voiced resonant narratives for marginalized peoples, the working classes, and student movements. His radical credentials were certified through his teachings (his most famous student was Angela Davis at Brandeis University) and in his influence on civil rights and antiwar movements seeking to adapt his ‘power of negative thinking’ to transform existing conditions (Briggs, 1979). Throughout his long career, Marcuse became best known for the contention that progressive and regressive forces co-existed simultaneously. His signature integration of multiple theories across disciplines eventually earned him the label ‘Dean of the New Human Spirit’. In the context of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse was exceptional for his political militancy and his commitment to the production of alternative subjectivities through praxis. Striving to preserve a radical vision contributed to an increasing estrangement from his former colleagues, Max Horkheimer
What I do say is that a great deal of our productive forces today are wasted and channeled into destructive forces, and that indeed, these abused dimensions of technology of the productive forces could be cut out altogether. For example, planned obsolescence. The production of innumerable brands and gadgets who are in the last analysis all the same. The production of innumerable different marks of automobiles which in the last analysis does not warrant this waste of time, energy, and capital simply in order to make some slight changes in the model and the looks of whatever it is, and the incredible amount of time, [and] intelligence [that] are wasted in publicity for all of these things. … A budget with which you can, without much exaggeration, eliminate much of the poverty and misery on earth today. I only wanted to point out, I believe in this society, an incredible amount of aggressiveness and destructiveness is accumulated precisely because of the empty prosperity which then simply erupts on an international level, for example, in the war in Vietnam. 6 It erupts on a very different level here at home. For example, the language of our newspapers, in the violent words and images of our televisions, and so on and so on. (Kellner 2014, 274)
Reason is the fundamental category of philosophical thought, the only one by means of which it has bound itself to human destiny. Philosophy wanted to discover the ultimate and most general grounds of Being. Under the name of reason, it conceived the idea of an authentic Being in which all significant antitheses (of subject and object, essence and appearance, thought and being) were reconciled. Connected with this idea was the conviction that what exists is not immediately and already rational but must rather be brought to reason. As the Given world was bound up with rational thought, and indeed, ontologically dependent on it, all that contradicted reason or was not rational was posited as something that had to be overcome. Reason was established as a critical tribunal. (Quoted in Jay 1973, 60)
With the commitment to reconstruct Reason came a failure to anticipate postmodern attacks on grand narratives of liberation (Schoolman, 1980; Kellner, 1984). 7 Likewise, there are limitations when it comes to Marcuse’s reliance on Freudian conceptions. This aspect of Marcuse’s Critical Theory ‘presupposes a constant amount of instinctual energy that strives to maintain an equilibrium, as if the human organism was a thermodynamic, hydraulic system governed by the laws of the conservation of energy and inertia’ (Kellner 1984, 162). Such mechanistic thinking has provided cause for his work to be discarded entirely in many theoretical circles. Further contributing to his having fallen out of favour is the inaccuracy of some of his judgements. Marcuse underestimated the extent to which the economic system can continue to reproduce itself and overestimated the all-encompassing nature of repression.
Although these failings lend credibility to some of his detractors, hegemonic interpretations of Marcuse have stymied his potential. Rather than extending and adapting Marcuse’s theories, interpreters of Marcuse can fall into the category of disciples insofar as they suffer the same pitfalls as any strict adherents to singular readings of texts. This is evident within certain strands of Marxism engulfed in mild idolatry at the expense of diversity of explanation or translation. Passing judgement on brilliant thinkers is an academic pastime. Nonetheless, some scholars contend that true democracy is tied in with the sensibility found in Marcuse’s writings
Glibness aside, Marcuse deserves to be freed from his critics and the idea that he has little to say to present-day society. This book is about more than rescuing the content of Marcuse’s thought from the traditional treatment to which it has been confined, although we can do that too. In the same way that Marxism is subject to revision because of its status as an historical theory (at least in the eyes of the Frankfurt School), so is Marcuse’s work malleable to current conditions. There is nothing in his thought that limits its extension to the incorporation of spatiality. It would be imprudent to be an ‘orthodox Marcusean’. Instead, I imagine his work as an accompanying modality that, like a bridge, can take us to new places. Marcuse himself was a skilled extrapolator. In a 1979 interview with Helen Hawkins for KPBS Public Radio, Marcuse described one of his most widely read books: “I call Eros and Civilization an extrapolation of Freud because I use the hypotheses of Freud but go beyond them. In other words, what I say and state in Freudian terms is not necessarily that which Freud himself would have used and approved of” (1979b).
The need is to adapt Marcuse’s work to respond to contemporary circumstances. In spatializing Marcuse, the vista before us is a panorama of objects and corridors of analysis. This project is partially about understanding the containment of social change and the deepening of the status quo. Such a story necessarily involves the eclipse of interiority, the deep penetration of the market into our private space and the increasing one-dimensionality of global policies and practices. But what follows is not simply a tale of gloom and doom. As Marcuse himself might say: this we must reject outright. Part of his obscured legacy is the quest to assess the true nature of opposition and in the book, I take up that challenge. The roles of illusion and complicity, coupled with the call for a tangible way forward, present a jumping off point – an invitation to infuse spatiality and empower Marcuse’s work as a relentlessly transformative geography of liberation.
All this I did with the aim of understanding just why, at a time when the conditions for an authentic revolution were present, the revolution had collapsed or been defeated, the old forces had come back to power, and the whole business was beginning again in degenerate form.
This disappointment led him in early years to Marx and eventually to the belief that Marxism as it stood had lost its efficacy as a theory of liberation. Marcuse set about challenging and transforming some of the fundamental premises of orthodox Marxism. These premises include countering Marx’s capitalist stagnation with a concept of expansion, the development of an affluency thesis over Marx’s impoverishment thesis, the notion of the integration rather than the radicalization of the working class, and (over) estimating capitalist stabilization in lieu of capitalism’s breakdown (Kellner 1984).
Having seen first-hand the cooperation between science, politics, and the military through the rise of German fascism, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War, Marcuse knew that revolutions are not made solely for economic reasons. He was employed throughout his life in a variety of government-related positions before securing an academic post relatively late in his career. Following America’s entry into the Second World War, Marcuse and some of his Institute colleagues dedicated their efforts to the struggle against fascism. Along with Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer, Marcuse first joined the Office of War Information, a branch of the Office of the Coordination of Information, set up by Roosevelt in 1941, and was tasked with setting up an international secret service for the United States. Marcuse worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an agency which was ultimately absorbed by the CIA, and conceived to conduct psychological warfare against the Axis powers. There he worked first as a political analyst; later his unit was transferred to the State Department and put in charge of the Central European Division. During this time, Marcuse identified groups in Germany that could work towards reconstruction after the war and those who could not, as part of a de-Nazification programme. When he was asked in a conversation with Habermas if any of his suggestions were taken, or if his work was of consequence, Marcuse responded: “On the contrary. Those whom we had listed first as ‘economic war criminals’ were very quickly back in the decisive positions of responsibility in the German economy”. 9
The 1940s and 1950s were a difficult time for Marcuse. Unable to secure a university post, he stayed in Washington to work. To add to his isolation, many of his colleagues returned to Germany, while his close friend and
From the ashes of Heideggerian Marxism coupled with intellectual influences from Schiller and Freud (among many others) would emerge a re-scaled Marxist perspective: from the societal level to the individual scale. The characteristic themes of Marcuse’s post-Second World War writings build on the role of technology in fortifying the decline of individuality, democracy, and freedom. Critics have sometimes characterized this period as steeped in a deep pessimism whereas subsequent books such as Eros and Civilization and The Aesthetic Dimension (1978) reveal Marcuse’s continued commitment to utopic thinking and its role in overcoming alienation. In his last essays, Marcuse retreats from optimism in the wake of the suppression of the New Left. In spite of this, Marcuse magically achieves a unity of politics, philosophy, psychology, and aesthetics.
In the chapters that follow, I have sought to create lines of flight that encourage thinking with Marcuse rather than being his disciple. Marcuse’s diagnoses of society are said to be overly general, lacking firm empirical grounding. What is more, Marcuse has been both lauded and accused of dialectical writing, a style which accepts ambiguities, contradictions, and ornate language. 10 I aim to provide a two-fold corrective to those not entirely unfounded critiques. The chapters draw on a variety of diverse examples ranging from imaginative mapping techniques to contemporary politics. I highlight how adaptations of Marcuse’s work can be applied to both real and imagined spaces and places. To the latter point about his writing, I anticipate that readers will accept that complex language is part of distilling the disjuncture between appearance and reality. Nonetheless, a key element in elaborating a Marcusean-inspired geography is the challenge of interpreting and applying his potent if complicated concepts to the world we inhabit today.
Chapter 2, ‘Dimensionality Flattened’, explores how the dialectical movement towards liberation seems to have stalled by excavating how the status quo maintains its grip on society. I analyse three provocative and entangled concepts in relation to the spatial containment of social
One of the more compelling aspects of Marcuse’s social philosophy is that it does not remain stagnant over time. As times changed, so did his thoughts. After One-Dimensional Man (1964), he gradually came to believe that capitalism as a social totality does not hold. Accepting capitalism’s fractured and broken character provides opportunities for transcendence. If the dual forces of constraint and freedom are the subjects of Chapter 2, then overturning the limits of possibilities is a central concern of Chapter 3, ‘Mission: Reconstruction’. At its core, Marcusean Critical Theory emphasizes the incorporation of revolutionary politics, pushing us towards different possibilities which can negate power relations. Praxis, that merger between theory and practice, simultaneously alienated him from his Frankfurt School colleagues and served to inspire global student movements. Chapter 3 explores the reconstructive aspects of Marcuse’s writings through current politics. Using ‘Twitter politics’ (which I define as the call for social change by digital means) and the Open Borders movement as examples, I assess how and whether these instances of political action enact preconditions for liberation, which include: the uses of immanent critique; the power of negative thinking; and the politics of refusal. Immanent critique is a fundamental methodological tool of Critical Theory, presupposing that those ideals or principles already present in some form in the current social order are a valid basis for social critique (Honneth 2001). This is not so distant
Related to immanent critique is the idea of ‘thought in contradiction’, or the power of negative thinking, which proposes that every existing state can overcome its immediate form. Breaking through what Marcuse calls the ‘administered consciousness’ (Marcuse 1968a, xx) requires the negation of false needs through individual reason and choice. The subjective conditions for radical social change begin with the ‘Great Refusal – the protest against that which is’ (1964, 63). Marcuse was known both for his radicalism and his sense of humour, at one time announcing to a student that the more straight one’s attire, the more possible it was to speak one’s nonconformist political viewpoints (Marcuse 2005, 194). He therefore conceived of opposition and resistance as both ‘mode-of-doing’ and ‘mode-of-being’. Andrew Feenberg, a former student of Marcuse and co-author of The Essential Marcuse reminds us that Marcuse never gave in and never gave up: ‘Marcuse never ceased reinterpreting and reconfiguring the Critical Theory of society with a single aim in mind: to track the obscure path to the socialist utopia through the latest transformations in capitalist societies in an epoch marked by an astonishing rise in material wealth’ (Feenberg and Leiss 2007, xxxix).
True to the Marcusean methodology of deliberately linking theory with practice, Chapter 4 expands on the concept of utopia using examples from the digital world and subaltern mappings. By infusing topology into Marcuse’s work, I introduce dense but important theoretical concepts to new audiences by showing the utility of these theories in relation to oppositional space. The chapter reviews Marcuse’s revision of Freudian principles to fit the conditions of advanced industrial capitalism. Drawing specifically on Eros and Civilization and Marcuse’s other mature works, I conceive of Marcuse’s utopic thinking as right here, not yet, and over. This triad is a theoretical and material formation operating in various overlapping registers at once. The simultaneity afforded through topology swaps what ‘is’ for different relational modes and being-in-the-world. In this construction, utopia ceases to be aspirational but is at once a beginning point, an end point, and everything in between. The struggle for utopia lends itself to non-instrumentality, the affirmation of fantasy, and an anti-pragmatism with implications for a prefigurative politics.
Chapter 5 stages an encounter between Marcuse and post-foundationalist thought. One of the book’s aims is to illustrate Marcuse’s relevance and applicability within the current socio-political milieu. That necessarily entails exploring the possible intersections of Critical Theory and poststructuralism, to the extent that the latter is a unified tradition. Because geography has narrated Marxism and poststructuralism as distant and antagonistic, it is not surprising that Marcuse’s theoretical contributions largely have been interpreted as incompatible with what is arguably a dominant paradigm
In 1974, at a lecture delivered at Stanford University, Marcuse began with the following remark: “I believe the Women’s Liberation Movement today is, perhaps the most important and potentially the most radical political movement that we have, even if the consciousness of this fact has not penetrated the Movement as a whole.” 11 While circumstances have changed and Marcuse had a complex relationship with feminism, Chapter 6 speculates on the uses of a Marcusean geography for an updated socialist feminism. It prompts us to take seriously the feminist critique of the Marxist tradition without abandoning a political economy approach and asks: what happens if those insights are then applied to the possibilities of Marcuse’s work? Marcuse also believed that disenfranchised people could be agents of revolutionary change. In the final chapter, I advocate for a ‘meso’ socio-spatial positionality which retains the oppositional politics so crucial to Marcuse’s own work and simultaneously diversifies the Marxist project. Chapter 6 considers how Marcuse’s adapted philosophy might understand the prospects for political action through the lens of ongoing social and political struggles inspired by the Black Radical Tradition.
Infusing spatiality into Marcuse’s philosophies offers a distinctive kind of thought and practice that helps us to overturn habitual perspectives mooring us in the status quo. Marcuse’s heretofore unexplored spatio-temporal conceptions of conformity and resistance arm us against the comfort and delusion of familiarity. Marcuse’s work is relevant to geographers and social scientists because, when adapted and extended, his philosophies provide a substantially different reading of dominant Marxist and post-political perspectives. Even more significantly, as demonstrated in the book, his work is crucial to the pursuit of a prefigurative politics. If the value of Critical Theory is how it helps us to change the world, then there is no better time to resuscitate and re-invigorate the emancipatory thinking of Herbert Marcuse. He offers us an old philosophy for new times.