Marcuse on the transcendent project

by Sebastian Benthall

Perhaps you’ve had this moment: it’s in the wee hours of the morning. You can’t sleep. The previous day was another shock to your sense of order in the universe and your place in it. You’ve begun to question your political ideals, your social responsibilities. Turning aside you see a book you read long ago that you remember gave you a sense of direction–a direction you have since repudiated. What did it say again?

I’m referring to Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, published in 1964.Whitfield in Dissent has a great summary of Marcuse’s career–a meteoric rise, a fast fall. He was a student of Heidegger and the Frankfurt School and applied that theory in a timely way in the 60’s.

My memory of Marcuse had been reduced to the Frankfurt School themes–technology transforming all scientific inquiry into operationalization and the resulting cultural homogeneity. I believe now that I had forgotten at least two important points.

The first is the notion of technological rationality–that pervasive technology changes what people think of as rational. This is different from instrumental rationality, which is the means ends rationality of an agent, which Frankfurt School thinkers tend to believe drive technological development and adoption. Rather, this is a claim about the effect of technology on society’s self-understanding. And example might be how the ubiquity of Facebook has changed our perception of personal privacy.

So Marcuse is very explicit about how artifacts have politics in a very thick sense, though he is rarely cited in contemporary scholarly discourse on the subject. Credit for this concept goes typically to Langdon Winner, citing his 1980 publication “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture gives only the briefest of mention to Marcuse, despite his impact on counterculture and his concern with technology. I suppose this means the New Left, associated with Marcuse, had little to do with the emergence of cyberculture.

More significantly for me than this point was a second, which was Marcuse’s outline of the transcendental project. I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve met a Kantian at Berkeley and this has refreshed my interest in transcendental idealism and its intellectual consequences. In particular, Foucault described himself as one following Kant’s project, and in our discussion of Foucault in Classics it became discursively clear in a moment I may never forget precisely how well Foucault succeeded in this.

The revealing question was this. For Foucault, all knowledge exists in a particular system of discipline and power. Scientific knowledge orders reality in such and such a way, depends for its existence on institutions that establish the authority of scientists, etc. Fine. So, one asks, what system of power does Foucault’s knowledge participate in?

The only available answer is: a new one, where Foucauldeans critique existing modes of power and create discursive space for modes of life beyond existing norms. Foucault’s ideas are tools for transcending social systems and opening new social worlds.

That’s great for Foucault and we’ve seen plenty of counternormative social movements make successful use of him. But that doesn’t help with the problems of technologization of society. Here, Marcuse is more relevant. He is also much more explicit about his philosophical intentions in, for example, this account of the trancendent project:

(1) The transcendent project must be in accordance with the real possibilities open at the attained level of the material and intellectual culture.

(2) The transcendent project, in order to falsify the established totality, must demonstrate its own higher rationality in the threefold sense that

(a) it offers the prospect of preserving and improving the productive achievements of civilization;

(b) it defines the established totality in its very structure, basic tendencies, and relations;

(c) its realization offers a greater chance for the pacification of existence, within the framework of institutions which offer a greater chance for the free development of human needs and faculties.

Obviously, this notion of rationality contains, especially in the last statement, a value judgment, and I reiterate what I stated before: I believe that the very concept of Reason originates in this values judgment, and that the concept of truth cannot be divorced from the value of Reason.

I won’t apologize for Marcuse’s use of the dialect of German Idealism because if I had my way the kinds of concepts he employs and the capitalization of the word Reason would come back into common use in educated circles. Graduate school has made me extraordinarily cynical, but not so cynical that it has shaken my belief that an ideal–really any ideal–but in particular as robust an ideal as Reason is important for making society not suck, and that it’s appropriate to transmit such an ideal (and perhaps only this ideal) through the institution of the university. These are old fashioned ideas and honestly I’m not sure how I acquired them myself. But this is a digression.

My point is that in this view of societal progress, society can improve itself, but only by transcending itself and in its moment of transcendence freely choosing an alternative that expands humanity’s potential for flourishing.

“Peachy,” you say. “Where’s the so what?”

Besides that I think the transcendent project is a worthwhile project that we should collectively try to achieve? Well, there’s this: I think that most people have given up on the transcendent project and that this is a shame. Specifically, I’m disappointed in the critical project, which has since the 60’s become enshrined within the social system, for no longer aspiring to transcendence. Criticality has, alas, been recuperated. (I have in mind here, for example, what has been called critical algorithm studies)

And then there’s this: Marcuse’s insight into the transcendent project is that it has to “be in accordance with the real possibilities open at the attained level of the material and intellectual culture” and also that “it defines the established totality in its very structure, basic tendencies, and relations.” It cannot transcend anything without first including all of what is there. And this is precisely the weakness of this critical project as it now stands: that it excludes the mathematical and engineering logic that is at the heart of contemporary technics and thereby, despite its lip service to giving technology first class citizenship within its Actor Network, in fact fails to “define the established totality in its very structure, basic tendencies, and relations.” There is a very important body of theoretical work at the foundation of computer science and statistics, the theory that grounds the instrumental force and also systemic ubiquity of information technology and now data science. The continued crisis of our now very, very late modern capitalism are due partly, IMHO, by our failure to dialectically synthesize the hegemonic computational paradigm, which is not going to be defeated by ‘refusal’, with expressions of human interest that resist it.

I’m hopeful because recently I’ve learned about new research agendas that may be on to accomplishing just this. I doubt they will take on the perhaps too grandiose mantle of “the trancendent project.” But I for one would be glad if they did.