Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin and the Teachings of the Hunchback, Paul of Tarsus

hunchback

This is my 4th blog entry connected with a course I’ve been taking in New York City for the past 7 weeks. The course is called “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory.” It’s taught by the great critical theory scholar, Stanley Aronowitz and has been a great joy for me. I love the subject; my classmates are very smart, and Stanley is . . . well, Stanley. He’s provocative, delightfully quirky, and extremely sharp even after the stroke that (at his age of 85) has confined him to a wheelchair. It’s a great privilege studying with him. As you can see from my previous blogs here, here, here, and here, the course readings from Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin have been challenging. The ones analyzed below are equally so. This week, my responses are to Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, and to a brief essay from Walter Benjamin called “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

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Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin and the Teachings of the Hunchback Paul of Tarsus

What is the basis of critical thinking? Is it rationality? Is it logic? No, it’s theology.

That, at least, is the implied argument of the critical theorists, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. For them, the foundation of critical thought is what economist and liberation theologian, Franz Hinkelammert (the convener Costa Rica’s Critical Thinking Group) terms “the critique of mythic reason.” That is, the foundation of critical thought for Marcuse and Benjamin is myth involving interaction between human beings and the divine or ineffable transcendent. Marcuse’s preferred mythology is Greek. Benjamin suggests that his derives from the Judeo-Christian tradition in general and from St. Paul in particular.

The purpose of what follows is to summarize and offer some brief commentary on the relevant arguments of both Marcuse and Benjamin. To do so, this essay will first of all place Marcuse’s use of mythology within the context of his more general argument as outlined in his Eros and Civilization. Marcuse’s thought will then be compared with that of Walter Benjamin as expressed in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” with each Benjamin’s highly poetic 18 theses “translated” into more straight-forward prose. The essay will conclude by arguing that Benjamin’s theological approach is more effective than Marcuse’s in terms of critical theory. It will add, however, that Benjamin’s use of the Judeo-Christian tradition stops short of the depth achieved by Hinkelammert’s commentary informed by the theology of liberation – and in particular by Hinkelammert’s analysis of the writings of Paul of Tarsus whose thought he identifies as the root of what has come to be known as critical theory.

Eros and Civilization

Herbert Marcuse’s seminal Eros and Civilization attempts to elaborate the critical implications of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory (245). In doing so, it builds on the model of repression so brilliantly explained by Freud in his own Civilization and its Discontents. Marcuse connects Freud’s theory of the inevitable conflict between civilization and its laws on the one hand, and the fundamental human drive for complete happiness on the other.

With Freud, Marcuse identifies that drive with the Greek word Eros understood on his view, as much more expansive than mere sexual love (205). In doing so, Marcuse acknowledges the term’s mythological roots. Even more, Christian theologians might find theological overtones in his use of Eros which arguably makes the drive for complete happiness equivalent to “God” as described by the author of the Christian Testament’s First Letter of John which identifies God with love itself (I JN 4:7-21).

In the process of stating his argument, Marcuse critically reviews the stages of human development shared by all human beings from birth, through early family life, education, employment, marriage, family life, and death.

Marcuse notes that throughout those stages, humans gradually internalize restrictions on the self-centered drives (especially sexual) common to all humans. Such restrictions are necessary for the ordering of human community that avoids Hobbes war of each against all. Nevertheless, Marcuse finds that the social control required for such order soon develops into “surplus repression” far beyond that required for rational order (35, 37, 87f, 131, 235).

In the light of that reality, Marcuse’s overriding question becomes how to identify and escape excessive control that ends up serving the interests of dominant few, while immiserating all others. The chief misery imposed by those classes is that of alienated labor which requires that humans spend most of their lives performing (and recovering from) mind-numbing and body-destroying activities that have little or no intrinsic value (45).

Again, in order to answer his question about exiting this situation, Marcuse traces the origins of surplus repression. It begins, of course, in the family with a child’s relationship to his parents, especially (in the west’s patriarchal culture) with one’s relationship to father. Following the pattern of Freud’s myth of the primal horde, male children begin their lives confronted with a father who unreasonably imposes surplus repression upon them. His excessive demands cause rebellion paralleling that described in the Primal Horde myth (15). However, in most cases, rather than actually murdering the father, rebellion usually takes the form of sexual deviation from patriarchal restrictions.

Deviation from sexual restrictions is especially important, because (in the words of Erich Fromm) “Sexuality offers one of the most elemental and strongest possibilities of gratification and happiness.” Moreover, “. . . the fulfillment of this one fundamental possibility of happiness” of necessity leads to “an increase in the claim for gratification and happiness in other spheres of the human existence” (243). In other words, the human sexual drive represents the spearhead of Eros, the fundamental life force. That basic drive, Marcuse argues, lurks at the heart of all rebellion against civilization’s super-repression.

Eros differs from sexuality in that it is far less focused on genitalia (205). Even more, it locates its contested terrain on the fields of myth, art, philosophy, liberating education, and play.
Play proves especially important for Marcuse, because (in contradiction to society’s demands for productivity – and its “performance principle” expressed in alienated labor) “play is unproductive and useless precisely because it cancels the repressive and exploitative traits of labor and leisure” (195). It manifests existence without anxiety or compulsion and thus incarnates human freedom (187).

As noted earlier, the repressed human drive towards such liberation finds expression in philosophy, art, folklore, fairy tales, phantasy, and myth. Marcuse finds the latter especially expressive in the cases of Orpheus, Dionysius, Prometheus, Narcissus, Pandora. Accordingly, he devotes two entire chapters (8 &9) to analysis of Greek mythology. Myths provide instances of phantasy’s expression that “speaks the language of the pleasure principle, of freedom from repression, of uninhibited desire and gratification” (142).

Nevertheless, phantasies based on Greek mythology, though preserving the truth of “The Great Refusal” (to be entirely controlled by alienated labor), remain according to Marcuse’s analysis, “entirely inconsequential” in terms of actual resolving the problem in question (160).

In other words, while Marcuse focuses on a divine Eros in a promising way, he throws up his hands regarding the question of how to talk about its liberating reality to those for whom the very Greek mythology he finds so meaningful lacks resonance. He similarly characterizes folklore, fairytale, literature and art as also insignificant in terms of yielding a reality principle that realistically provides liberation from the “surplus repression” of the one that prevails (160).

This leads to the question: if Greek mythology is so ineffective, then why spend two chapters on the subject? Why did not Marcuse instead explore the liberating dimensions of the mythology of the Judeo-Christian tradition with which so many in the West can indeed identify? It might even be said that for the 75% of “Americans” who identify as Christian, their religious tradition amounts to a kind of underlying popular philosophy that supplies meaning for their lives. Therefore, finding and describing connections between that tradition and liberation from surplus repression would hardly be “inconsequential.”

Clearly, Marcuse was aware of such possibilities. His friend and Frankfurt School colleague, Erich Fromm, had already identified them in his The Dogma of Christ also published (like Eros and Civilization) in 1955. Moreover, Marcuse himself references such possibilities in Eros and Civilization, although he doesn’t elaborate the allusion. There, he observes:

“The message of the Son was the message of liberation: the overthrow of the Law (which is domination) by Agape (which is Eros). That would fit in with the heretical image of Jesus as the Redeemer in the flesh, the Messiah who came to save man here on earth. Then the subsequent transubstantiation of the Messiah, the deification of the Son beside the Father would be a betrayal of his message by his own disciples – the denial of the liberation in the flesh, the revenge on the redeemer. Christianity would then have surrendered the gospel of Agape-Eros again to the Law . . .” (69-73)

Here Marcuse introduces a crucial distinction between the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth on the one hand and his “transubstantiation” from a human being into the very equal of God. Beforehand, Marcuse says, Jesus was actually a heretic, an earthly Messiah intent on liberating actually existing human beings from oppressive legal systems. His followers, however gradually transformed his liberating Gospel of Agape-Eros into an instrument enforcing a super-repressive Law.

Having opened this promising door of critical analysis, Marcuse unexplainedly leaves it ajar without pursuing its promise.

Benjamin’s 18 Theses

In his final entry in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, a collection of Walter Benjamin’s works reflecting his work as a critical theorist, Walter Benjamin ventures into the realm of Judeo-Christian theology that Marcuse so carefully avoids. Benjamin does so in the context of offering a series of eighteen theses on historical materialism and its philosophy of history. By the way, I take “historical materialism” to mean the philosophical conclusion holding that historical experience creates ideas rather than ideas creating historical experience.

Following this conclusion, Benjamin presents a highly contextualized approach to history wherein each of the latter’s moments is shaped by all previous ones as well as by prevailing ideologies and the historian’s own experience of life.

In other words, the writing of history is not simply a matter of recording events that unfolded in time understood as homogenous and empty of cultural influences and repercussions from what came before. Neither is it merely a matter of recording the past for the sake of preserving disconnected memories. Rather, historiography has the social purpose of shedding light on present dangers and crises for purposes of discovering exits from such existential threats.

Crucially for Benjamin (as already indicated), historical method is not only materialistic in the sense just referenced; it is also highly theological. As we shall see, Benjamin’s very first thesis in his list of 18 makes this point by suggesting Pauline theology as the guiding force of critical thought. Subsequently, virtually every thesis in the author’s list contains some reference to elements such as: theology itself (253), redemption, Messianic power, Judgment Day, the kingdom of God, spiritual things (254), good tidings, the Messiah, redeemer, Antichrist (255), theologians (256), angels, Paradise (257), monastic discipline, friars, meditation, Protestant ethics (258), savior (259), mysticism (261), Messianic time (263), the Torah, and prayer (264).

Moreover, like medieval religious practice, Benjamin’s theses are intended to turn the attention of readers away from the world and its affairs – but this time as described by traitorous politicians entrapped by a stubborn belief in the religion of progress (258). In fact, given Benjamin’s theological interests (4, 253) it is easy to interpret his theses on the philosophy of history as attempts to reinterpret theology in the service of historical materialism.

All of this may become evident in the following summaries of each our author’s 18 theses:

Thesis I: In an atmosphere of smoke and mirrors, and guided by theology, critical thought in the form of historical materialism promises inevitable victory over its opponent – viz. automated technology. And this, despite the latter’s deceptions that distort and reverse perception of reality into its mirror-opposite.

Thesis II: Historical materialists agree that Past (lost opportunities), Present (attempts to reverse those losses) and future (refusal to deal with the consequences of present action) exist in dynamic dialectical relationship captured by the words of history, redemption, and envy.

Thesis III: It is true that no event is insignificant in the long course of history. However, the significance of particular events can only be known at history’s conclusion.

Thesis IV: Despite apparent setbacks in workers’ struggles against ruling class domination, the long arc of history bends towards the victory of the poor and oppressed, because their subtle courage, humor, cunning and fortitude are more powerful than the gross tools of their oppressors.

Thesis V: Historical materialists (vs. mere chroniclers of past events) realize that recollection of past events is valuable only insofar as those events relate to and illuminate the present.

Thesis VI: The threats represented by ruling class attempts to reduce traditions about the past to tools supporting conformism must be resisted so that the past’s recollection might serve resistance and liberation instead.

Thesis VII: Historians who recount history without connecting it to present existential threats serve the interests of the world’s rulers (past and present) who steal the spirit and artifacts of those they’ve subdued. Historical materialists swim against that current.

Thesis VIII: History must reflect the “pedagogy of the oppressed,” which makes us aware of the changes necessary to overcome the perennial state of danger that has always characterized human existence and its struggle against oppression, which even its opponents treat as inevitable.

Thesis IX: As history’s messengers (angels), historical materialists perceive “progress” as responsible for an unending series of catastrophes. Ironically however, the devastating power of those very calamities prevents historical materialists from successfully alerting audiences to their own loss and lack of perception.

Thesis X: The accepted understanding of history (as a detached chronicling of the past) only serves traitorous politicians who have surrendered to fascism with its uncritical belief in progress, its manipulation of the masses, and its totalitarian structures.

Thesis XI: The conformity of the German working class is grounded in the conviction that “progress” includes and benefits its members. Alienated and enslaving factory work has been dignified by this belief. However, contrary to the convictions of “vulgar Marxism,” technology need not destroy, but could actually enhance and make nature more fruitful.

Thesis XII: It is angry recollection of the past rather than concern for the future and future generations that inspires resistance and rebellion in the working class which is the real repository of meaningful history.

Thesis XIII: Any valid critique of the Social-Democratic concept of progress (as anthropocentric, boundless, and irresistible) must be context-based rather than ignorant of historical context – as is the common Social-Democratic understanding of history.

Thesis XIV: Since only the present moment (the mystical nunc stans) is real, any consideration of the past has value only insofar as it sheds light on the present always characterized by ruling-class domination.

Thesis XV: Revolutionary holidays stop the ongoing continuum of history at decisive junctures – eternalizing the moment of liberation like the clocks simultaneously stopped by bullets on the first evening of fighting in the French Revolution, July 1789.

Thesis XVI: In contrast to historicists, historical materialists experience the present not as a transition to the future, but as an end in itself shaped by past events.

Thesis XVII: Unlike historicism, materialist historiography is not merely additive and does not treat time as homogenous, empty and inexorably in motion. The materialist approach is more contemplative, since it allows thinking (and therefore time) to stop so that history’s flow might be perceived as a unified whole. This pause and perception enables the historian (and his audience) to identify history’s underlying oppression and to uncover openings (past and present) for revolutionary change as the overriding project of one’s life.

Thesis XVIII: Humankind’s 50,000-year stature in a 14 million-year-old universe is nearly insignificant. As a result: (A) Alleging causal connections between historical events remains highly speculative (though any given present is both influenced by the past and contains intimations of a salvific future) and (B) the Jewish concept of time (as fundamental openness to a better future) is helpful here, since it is neither empty nor homogenous, nor magical.

Franz Hinkelammert’s Reading of Benjamin

Analyzing the story recounted in Benjamin’s first thesis on the philosophy of history, liberation theologian, Franz Hinkelammert specifically connects Benjamin with Paul of Tarsus and with critical theory. In doing so, Hinkelammert advances the theory of this brief review, viz. that theology constitutes the foundation of critical theory.

In fact, Hinkelammert considers Paul as the West’s first critical thinker. As such, Paul’s thinking, Hinkelammert argues, anticipates critical theory’s historical materialism, universalism, anarchism, and identification of the messianic function of the world’s poor and oppressed (Hinkelammert: La malidicion que pesa sobre la ley: Las raices del pensamiento critico en Pablo de Tarso. Editorial Arlekin. San Jose, Costa Rica, 2010. 16). More specifically, Hinkelammert recognizes the apostle as the hunchback pulling the strings of the puppet (historical materialism) in Benjamin’s cryptic parable (pictured above) recounted in the opening lines of “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

Hinkelammert justifies doing so on the basis of the following observations:

• By his own admission, Benjamin’s basic orientation was decidedly towards the biblical past.
• He lamented that the biblical “wizened” founders of modern thought remained hidden and out-of-sight (Benjamin 253, Hinkelammert 23).
• In one of Benjamin’s surviving fragments, the latter’s closest friend, Gershom Scholem, celebrated Paul as the most notable example of a revolutionary Jewish mystic (Hinkelammert 14).
• Like the hunchback in Benjamin’s story, Paul suffered from some kind of physical deformity as described in II COR 12:7-9.
• Benjamin description of the parable’s puppet as wearing “Turkish attire” reminds us that its hidden alleged puppet-master, St. Paul, came specifically from Tarsus which is located in modern day Turkey (Hinkelammert 15).
• Other commentators like Jacob Taubes have found the presence of Paul’s thinking prominent not only in Benjamin, but in the most important currents of modern thought including that of Freud and Nietzsche. (The latter by the way, signaled support for this review’s thesis by villainizing Paul for the apostle’s anarchism, defense of the poor and oppressed, and prefiguration of Marx and of historical materialism) (16).
• Above all, Paul’s criticism of Law as the sin of the world, prepared the way for critical theory’s criticism of market law and of the state as the armed force imposing the will of the ruling class on the oppressed majority (17). For both Paul and critical theorists, complying with an oppressive law remains completely immoral (18).

Conclusion

Tellingly for this review’s thesis – that theology is the basis of critical theory – Hinkelammert points out that after Benjamin’s suicide in 1940, his fragment “Capitalism as Religion” came to light. The fragment drew a direct line from orthodox Christianity to capitalism whose system and ideology, Benjamin argues, replicates point-by-point (in secular terms) the elements of medieval Catholic orthodoxy.

However, according to Hinkelammert, Benjamin failed to note, much less exploit, the critical difference between such orthodoxy and the original message and praxis of the thoroughly Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth. Had he done so, Hinkelammert observes, Benjamin would have strengthened his conclusion about the connections between Paul and historical materialism, since the teachings of St. Paul followed so closely those of the radical prophet and mystic Jesus of Nazareth.

In the end, it is Paul’s critique Law as well as the apostle’s anarchism and defense of the poor that prefigures the elaborations of Marx and Freud as understood by critical thinkers Benjamin and Marcuse. Only by embracing Paul’s influence, Benjamin correctly observes, can historical materialism claim its assured destiny as victor over the technological automaton intent on destroying us all.

Contemporary critical thinkers and activists would do well to heed Benjamin’s advice. They would do well to join liberation theologians in exploiting the popular power of a reinterpreted Judeo-Christian tradition that supports subversion, anarchism, and the hermeneutical privilege of the poor.

Film & YouTube as Means of Revolutionary Production

Walter Benjamin

This is the third essay I’ve written for a course on critical theory I’m taking under Stanley Aronowitz at the People’s Forum in New York City. It’s a response to a piece written by Walter Benjamin (pictured above) entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

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Film & YouTube as Means of Revolutionary Production

As we complete the first third of our course, “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory,” I’m beginning to see the logic behind the progression of our assigned readings so far. To my surprise I’m also perceiving more clearly the vital connections between our course and the book on critical thinking that I published in the middle of April.

My book is called The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news. Written specifically to introduce advanced secondary students as well as college freshmen and sophomores to easily-understood critical theory, Magic Glasses centralizes structural (especially economic) analysis along with ideological distinctions and historical considerations in the form of Ten Rules for Critical Thinking.

The rules are deduced from the work of liberation theologians at a think tank in San Jose, Costa Rica, where my wife, Peggy, and I have worked on-and-off since 1992. The study center is called the Departamento Ecumenico de Investigaciones. Until recently, it was headed by Franz Hinkelammert, a leading economist and liberation theologian who now leads The Critical Thinking Group also located in San Jose. His many books are generously peppered with references to Frankfurt School authors.

Drawing on Hinkelammert and others, and in the spirit of our reading from Benjamin, my Magic Glasses also forges connections between contemporary politics in this age of Donald Trump in terms of an unmistakable world-wide drift towards fascism. But even more to the point of this week’s reading assignment, Magic Glasses highlights film as a tool for awakening within students their latent revolutionary consciousness.

With all of that in mind, what follows will first of all briefly connect this week’s assignment from Walter Benjamin with our previous readings from Theodor Adorno on “Progress” and “On Subject and Object.” Secondly, this review will present my summary of our third reading, Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There he identifies film as “the most powerful agent” for facilitating the work of contemporary mass movements. Though warning of its dangers, he sees it as a tool for raising consciousness and catalyzing political praxis. My brief essay will conclude by illustrating Benjamin’s points with my own teaching practices as reflected in the book referenced above.

Reading Connections

Our first two readings from Adorno emphasized vital points about human beings in general and critical thinkers in particular. Contrary to biblical teachings and the analysis of Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant, Adorno insisted that human beings were not created fully-fledged.

Instead, they are products of evolution; they are works specifically “in-progress” importantly shaped by their historical and material contexts. As such, their fate is still undetermined and might well end in failure – even in the extinction of the human race. Technological development does not guarantee human progress. Rather, uncontrolled it actually threatens the very survival of our race.

Only progress understood as a development of critical consciousness paralleling technical advance and given direction by the very victims of merely mechanical progress, can save us. Salvific consciousness of this kind liberates its possessors to employ technology in the service of human development rather than for its destruction.

In other words (and this brings us to Adorno’s “On Subject and Object”), a major task of critical thinking is to facilitate the transformation of those who use technology from objects to subjects – into conscious agents employing technology in the service of human liberation.

Put more concretely, technological gadgets like radio, movies, television, computers, and I Phones can easily objectify or reify unconscious users and stealthily shape their lives and thinking. Transformed into subjects, the gadgets themselves can turn those who use them into unthinking objects and deprive the unwary of their essential identity as conscious agents directing their lives towards specifically human purposes. Once again: according to Adorno, those purposes centralize the liberation of those whom the structures of capitalism routinely objectify and deform into oppressed, marginalized, despised, and humiliated sub-humans.

So, how exactly do Adorno’s abstract generalizations about technology’s power to captivate and transform human beings into objects shake down in concrete, historical terms?

Benjamin’s Essay

The question brings us to Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There, the author confronts his readers with stark political choices inherent in technological “progress.” That choice, Benjamin argues, is principally between fascism on the one hand and communism on the other.

However, before he gets to that decision, Benjamin delineates the status questionis. He reviews the history of mechanical reproduction. The Greeks knew exceedingly few forms of mechanical duplication. Reproductions took the form of stamped coins for commercial use, along with bronze and terra cotta artifacts. Other forms of mechanical reproduction followed. They took the shape of wood cuts, the printing press, lithographs, photographic negatives, and movie films including sound recordings. (We might add that “progress” continues today in the forms of computers, I Phones, digital cameras along with associated social media.)

Each development in the list just itemized profoundly impacted human beings in Adorno’s terms, specifically as objects and as subjects.

On the one hand and objectively speaking, the developments in question often straightened the horizons of those interacting with the resulting products. As Benjamin puts it, a reproduced piece of art detached from the history of its production and ownership lost its uniqueness. It lost its “aura” – the halo connecting it to time and space beyond the context of its immediate user. Thus, one viewing a Greek statue of Venus might have no idea of its original value as an object of religious veneration, much less as an object of condemnation by the medieval church which considered it an idol. Moreover, the decontextualized observer would typically remain detached from the history of the statue’s ownership and of the monetary value given it in various contexts.

Even more importantly in terms of reifying naïve observers, Benjamin points out that objects of art produced in mass quantities can be used to propagandize viewers-turned-consumers. This is especially true in the case of photography appearing in magazines and even more so with film. In magazines and newspapers, de rigueur captions actually tell people what their eyes should be seeing. Movie images change so quickly that (for the unaware) successive frames in effect give meaning or interpret the ones preceding them. Assaulted by rapidly changing figures and scenes, the viewer has no time to analyze her or his past or immediate experiences.

In this way, photography and film, especially when coordinated by the ruling classes become perfect vehicles for propaganda and the spread of ideology. Germany’s fascists (in power at the time Benjamin penned this essay in 1936) were quick to recognize the potential of this new technology. Accordingly, they utilized the new visual arts for purposes of brain-washing and massive indoctrination – even employing film to glorify war as the apotheosis of human development. Anticipating their later U.S. counterparts, the Nazis effectively convinced the uncritical that “being all you can be” involves killing one’s fellow human beings and utterly destroying their property in “beautiful” acts of murder, mayhem, and self-immolation. Carried to its logical conclusion, such human objectification, Benjamin warned, leads inexorably to envisioning the apex of human development as mass suicide. (The subsequent development of nuclear weapons and dawning awareness about anthropogenic climate chaos may well prove him to be prophetic.)

Yes, without doubt, Benjamin is correct in expressing serious reservations about the objectifying dangers of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. However, there’s another side to the coin he describes. By its virtue, human subjects as such can also seize the apparatus of such duplication and employ it for purposes of human liberation. Thus:

• Widespread reproduction of art works has turned everyone into a critic.
• Or into film actor of sorts
• Similarly, (and even more-so with the advent of the internet) virtually everyone can discover “an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports,” etc.
• And (I would add) the capability of YouTube to excerpt clips from Hollywood films and from documentaries enhances possibilities for critical teachers to (in Benjamin’s words) “promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property.”

And that brings me back to The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news.

Magic Glasses

There I use YouTube clips of classic and contemporary films to illustrate each of my ten rules for critical thinking which include (1) Reflect Systemically, (2) Select Market (as an organizing principle), (3) Reject Neutrality, (4) Suspect Ideology, (5) Respect History, (6) Inspect Scientifically, (7) Quadra-Sect Violence, (8) Connect with Your Deepest Self, (9) Collect Conclusions, and (10) Detect Silences. Film clips featured in the book come from films such as Traffic, The Post, Avatar, Sausage Party, The Distinguished Gentleman, Good Will Hunting, American Sniper, Captain Phillips, American History X, War Dogs, Bulworth, and the Broadway musical, Hamilton.

The clips, lasting no more than ten minutes each, have been selected to connect directly with my ten rules. Because of their brevity, and if students missed the point or wanted to see the clip again, any film excerpt can be viewed again with nothing lost in terms of class time. This ability to extract and repeat overcomes Benjamin’s objection about film images whose rapid succession prevent careful analysis or reflection.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about. It comes from Good Will Hunting. There the Matt Damon character, Will Hunting himself, is interviewed for a position in the National Security Agency. He’s asked why he shouldn’t take the job. Hunting responds:

Will’s answer is, of course, ironic. However, his response provides a good example of the kind of critical analysis that can be stimulated by short film clips. This one raises questions about connecting contemporary issues into a coherent whole. Will Hunting traces the effects of an anticipated assignment at the NSA from his desk there, to a war involving senseless carnage, a friend’s participation in that war, oil prices, environmental destruction on a massive scale, unemployment problems in the U.S., job loss to cheap Third World labor, and to corrupt politicians, who avoid military service, while somehow managing to get elected to the highest office in the land.

In terms of stimulating critical thinking, all the teacher has to do is ask students, “What did you see?”

Conclusion

I suppose what I’m saying here is that I found Walter Benjamin’s essay not only helpfully coherent with previous readings in our course; I also found his words about film and its use in stimulating critical thinking encouraging in terms of my own thoughts and praxis as a teacher and author.

Against Individualism: a Review of Theodore Adorno’s Essay “On Subject & Object”

Army

This is the second “homework” essay that I’ve written in connection with a course on critical theory that I’m taking at The People’s Forum in New York City. As I mentioned last week, the course is taught by Stanley Aronowitz and is called “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory.”

This week’s reading, our second from Theodore Adorno was entitled simply “On Subject and Object.” It was extremely abstract and difficult to understand. So, during the class I proposed the following question for Stanley. I said,

“I truly admire Adorno’s brilliance. And I appreciate how spending hours trying to decipher his meaning can yield a satisfaction and kind of pleasure for intellectuals who enjoy solving world-puzzles. In addition, I recognized that the expenditure of such time and effort can certainly lead one to think more deeply and to appropriate insights that might not emerge from grappling with more easily understandable prose.

However, who besides the intellectuals just mentioned can suffer these texts? Who, besides the exceedingly few, has the energy to endure them? Their ideas are obscured, not clarified, by references, vocabulary, and tone that comes off as pretentious, elite and even obscurantist.

If they are truly interested in world-changing praxis (as critical theorists claim) why write like this, rather than in a more accessible manner?”

Stanley’s response to me was direct. He said, “The text is so difficult because Adorno is writing for me, not for you.” He went on to explain that our author was actually quite adept at writing for ordinary people in very engaging ways. Adorno frequently spoke on the radio during the 1930s, and was very popular. However, when authoring essays like “On Subject and Object,” his audience turned out to be philosophers familiar with the entire works of Kant, Heidegger, Hegel, Freud, Marx, and others. Stanley himself falls into that category — I, not so much. Hence my difficulties and those of my classmates.

In any case, and for what it’s worth, here is my attempt to “translate” into concrete language what I understood from grappling with this Adorno text myself.
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The Need for Greater Objectivity
(A review of Adorno’s “On Subject and Object”)

In our contemporary culture, the forces of capitalism, advertising, and consumption all lionize individualism. Standing out from the crowd, doing-your own thing, and writing your own story are sold as paramount forms of being human. Outside one’s own family, any kind of collectivism is perceived as a threat.

Even the military claims to be a vehicle empowering enlistees to “be all that you can be.” In the end, however, those who sign up inevitably discover that all the army allows them to be are pawns whose highest aspiration is not individual development, but reduction to sameness, conformity, and blind obedience in the service of an organization whose main purpose turns out to be killing and breaking things.

Apparently, it’s the same for everyone. In psychological terms, those the culture has encouraged to be autonomous subjects – whatever their line of work – are reduced to objects not only on the job, but at home and even in their recreational activities. We all end up doing what we’re told within parameters that stifle (in Theodor Adorno’s words) pure spontaneity and originary apperception. That is, our systemic structures frustrate what we’re told is our absolutely dynamic principle (255).

But is that our fate as humans – universal objectification and individual frustration (247)? Why is it so difficult to be a subject and so easy to be reduced to object-hood?

In his essay “On Subject and Object,” Adorno takes up those questions. In short, his answer is, “Well, it’s complicated . . .” (245). You see, he argues, individualized subjectivity (as understood by the dominant culture) isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it leads to isolation, self-captivity and ultimately to the domination of others (246, 252, 257).

However, there is another form of subjectivity –one more authentic than encouraged by our culture – that recognizes a dialectical relationship between subjectivity and objectivity. Appropriating that subjectivity, so to speak, should be our life’s objective.

Moreover, being an object should not be entirely vilified. Ironically, and properly understood, it should be embraced as humankind’s salvation, as the prerequisite for achieving authentic subject-hood and the peace we all desire. To achieve peace, Adorno observes, the individual must selectively subordinate self to collective (247). In that dialectical process of on-going give-and-take between subjectivity and objectivity, lies our salvation.

In other words, “On Subject and Object” is written against the popular understanding of overriding individualism. Adorno’s basic argument is that the individual cannot be understood apart from society. This is because the individual is actually the product of society – and this according to the insights provided by linguistic analysis, evolutionary theory and biology, along with reflection on personal experience, philosophy, and, above all by critical theory.

Adorno considers those sources one-by-one.

• Language: Adorno begins his analysis linguistically. He points out that what we call “subject” is intelligible only in its relationship to “object.” Or more clearly put, the very terms “subject” or “individual” make sense only in relationship to humanity at large. Similarly, any reference to a particular person as such presupposes the concept of human species from which subjects distinguish themselves. Even personal names such as “Stanley” or “Michael” are employed to separate the individuals so-called from presupposed others. In other words, our very language reveals a dialectical relationship between individuals and society. The dialectic suggests that the collective is more important than generally recognized in our highly individualistic culture (245).
• Evolutionary biology supports that suggestion. Contrary to origin myths found in all cultures, human beings did not emerge full-fledged (246-247, 258). Rather (as works-in-progress) they developed gradually from lower forms of life. Even then, and for millennia, their primary identification remained with group, clan, or tribe (258). Only gradually did any concept of individual emerge. And only in the last few centuries, with the surfacing of capitalism – with the emergence of homo oeconomicus – did individualism and its ideological emphasis on subject become primary (248). Put otherwise, evolutionary biology testifies to the fact that any notion of subject contains within it a certain objectivity; deep down, it has a core of object (250). The subject was produced by the collective.
• Personal experience as a primary criterion of truth (252, 254) supports the relevant conclusions of evolutionary biology. For years in childhood and adolescence, none of us can really fend for ourselves, but are dependent for survival on family and tribe. Confronted by a hostile environment, human beings are much more ill-equipped to survive than other creatures. Instead, we require a kind of rudimentary social cooperation with others of our species even to defend ourselves from less developed counterparts. All of this signals a priority of species over individual subjects (258).
• Philosophy since the Enlightenment has obscured such primacy. The “Copernican turn” of Immanuel Kant emphasized human subjectivity as never before (251, 254). Till Kant, conventional wisdom typically imagined the process of knowledge as the result of a knowing subject confronting an object “out there” (246). For Kant, however, inborn categories of knowledge fundamentally shaped all objects perceived by the subject in question. In a sense, then, on Kant’s analysis, the human subject actively constituted reality (255).
• Critical Theory, however, along with the general sociology of knowledge has called Kant’s radical subjectivity into question. True: critical theorists (like Adorno himself) agree that human beings do in fact interpret reality according to subjective categories. However, those categories themselves are produced by society. Specifically, and increasingly since the middle of the 18th century, they have been manufactured by capitalist ideology (248, 250-254). That ideology has deformed humans into individual subjects pure and simple. On the one hand, it has made them captives within themselves (252, 257). On the other, it has set them against the collective as they seek to impose their sovereign wills upon the group (246). War is the unavoidable upshot.

Conclusion

Adorno is interested in peace, not war (247). Yes, he wants to affirm subjectivity, spontaneity and originary apperception as our absolutely dynamic principle. However, on his view, absolutizing the subject over-against the collective fetishistically reifies and deforms human beings (251). It sets them against each other and creates a tragic situation where it is indeed possible for army propagandists to convince the young that they can reach their highest potential by killing their brothers and sisters and by destroying the latter’s homes, schools, churches, hospitals and factories.

Only by de-emphasizing individual subjectivity, by recognizing the priority of human community, by retaining a dialectical understanding of subject’s relationship to object, and of individual to species, can such tragedy be averted.