Saturday, 18 June 2011

Herbert Marcuse and One-dimensionality

Defining one-dimensionality requires a particular train of thought as the conditions which become apparent in the understanding of a one-dimensional individual requires such individual to look back, inward onto their own being/existence. One-dimensionality evolves as a result of the suppression of oppositional behaviour and the defamation of positive critical thought; idea's formed that are utopian in nature are repressed due to the strength of forces acting to prevent their realisation. Through introjection “the self transposes the outer into the inner” (1991: 10), this acts in two ways. Firstly in a psychoanalytical sense it explains how one's behaviour is a condition of their immediate environment; learned and replicated behaviour which is realised and then internalised. In addition it allows the individual an 'inner freedom', an inner private space where they become and remain themselves. In contemporary society this private space has been invaded and mechanised by the Establishment and the forces of consumption. This assimilates the individual with others allowing for an identification with society, throughout it and as a whole – one's individuality becomes evermore lost to them even as science and technology increasingly explains what constitutes human demeanour.

The concept derived from Herbert Marcuse – a protagonist of the Frankfurt School – first articulated in the 1964 book One-dimensional Man, regularly referred to as a one of the most important published texts in a decade of surmountable political change. The work of Marcuse and others of the Frankfurt School was a response to the rapidity of developed capitalist societies and traditional Marxist theories inadequate acknowledgement of capitalisms grasp on the infrastructures of many democratic nations. Within the Frankfurt School the theorists of the time somewhat shared common questions and goals, reanimating Marxism while taking from other disciplines and schools of thought – combining the sociological, psychological and philosophical. Marcuse was particularly concerned with forms of social control and how over time causal agents such as consumerism and a preoccupation with commodities, affect one's freedoms. Throughout modern history Marcuse asserts that the individuals consciousness has been altered to conform/to be happy with the status quo. He explains, “the Happy Consciousness – the belief that the real is rational and that the system delivers the goods – reflects the new conformism which is a facet of technological rationality translated into social behaviour” (1991: 84). This is a powerful critique of modernities conditional cultural superiority, its well presented simulation of progressive industrial society and its efficiency in absorbing any resourceful opposition. The key wording within the previous statement is that of the rationalisation of capitalism, a process aided by societies most influential institutions such as the media, the education system and politics. For Marcuse the media plays an influential role in the shaping of the universe of communication (1991: 85), this is where one-dimensional behaviour is found. One-dimensional behaviour displays a control over one's ability to be critical of the dominant forces acting within society this can be through language, identification and the invasion of cognition. This is a result of the way in which individuals within society are organised by the governing bodies which seek to sell a version of reality to the masses. The political infiltrates the individual obscuring their needs and aspirations and their satisfaction with and acceptance of such promotes capitalism; this managed society becomes the epitome of all reason and a society beyond reasonable doubt.

Marcuse is asking the reader whether or not they have the comprehension to see through the veiled society which lies at the core of their very existence, to challenge the status quo. Either the individual can accept the vulgarity of being trapped within a reality constructed by the proponents of capitalism or act against the equivocator’s of one-dimensionality, de-constructing the 'unfreedom's' presently repressing oppositional behaviours. One way the control of social behaviour can be observed lies in the functionalisation of language which “helps to repel non-conformist elements from the structure and movement of speech” (1991: 86). Within a society there are certain rules and notions to how one should speak and be spoken too in an appropriate manner. Those who subscribe to the correct way of using language defend its 'properness' and treat oppositional forms of language such as slang and varieties of colloquial speech with disdain and ridicule. Being able to reshape language and use slang is a way of defying the powers that be, a small scale revolt against control, an elation gained trough 'deviant' kinds of communication. 'Proper' forms of language and its promotion in daily life, such as in the in workplace, in communication with strangers and even within the most stringent home-lives lend to one-dimensionality, one way of speaking, the correct way. The executives, the government officials, the time-keepers and managers (.ibid) speak a language different of that of the worker 'the common man'. Their language is one of order and organisation, one which stimulates people to act, to consume and to accept their social positioning – voiding the development of meaning. Marcuse believed that standardising of behaviour, such as in the control of one's speech is a repressive construct, satisfied with things as they are and not as they could be. When words are standardised they lose their conceptual flavour, they have a singular usage and become cliché. In this sense communication is governed and contained, stumping the development of meaning and closing off the meaning of 'things'. Marcuse states, “the noun governs the sentence in an authoritarian and totalitarian fashion, and the sentence becomes a deceleration to be accepted – it repels demonstration, qualification, negation of its codified and declared meaning” (1991:87). The conditions of modernity are abrasive, especially when considering the development of the human being. It would seem that there exists nature by its own accord and modernity (the nurturing entity in the process of development) both intertwined and effected by the other. The effectiveness of the one-dimensional agency is represented in man's relationship and appropriation with nature. Nature is objectified and quantified, in turn leading to the destruction of resources and a high accumulation of waste – society extracts from nature what it requires and/or wants without considering the detrimental affects within a wider context. As John K. Galbraith stated, “the Community is too well off to care” (1956: 96); modernity forgoes the realities of rationality for a callousness which objectifies the inanimate or the living through a judgement of value and exchange. When combined with advancements in technologies, technologies that have restructured labour and acts of pleasure/enjoyment, a vision of a world emerges that is oblique and self centred, one in which the individual does not do or think of their own accord – one-dimensional.

One of Marcuse's strong-points is his ability to dissect the forces of domination and the methods which they use, undermining the foundations of traditional culture. He sieves through societies controlling nature to adequately explain why people accept society as it is. The answer is one-dimensionality, an abstract concept when understood can be used to pull apart the encroaching conformism eating away at the foundations of a free human experience. This is why Marcuse's work was and is influential, he offered a 'new' way of critically thinking about the complexity of existing societies. The older forms of thinking (i.e. the uncritical) allow capitalism free reign, to expose its substance and to pursue the reinforcement of one-dimensional thinking. While the new critical ways of thinking seek an alternative or for Marcuse, 'negative thinking' (1991: xiv) not only aids in the negation of the existing forms of thought but also offers a higher perception of possibilities and a greater emphasis on change.

It would appear that modernity needs one-dimensionality to function affectively; concentrating ones mind on a singular path gives one a direction which they dare not deviate from, indeed to deviate would be considered wrong. The only limitation to the concept is that the time in which it was conceived now belongs to the pages of history. Not in that the events that have constituted to the creation of such a concept are unimportant, on the contrary, but technologically and politically so much has changed since Marcuse's death that the concept need to be adapted to serve a contemporary audience. When Marcuse attacks the media for is role in fortifying the controlling forces ideologies, he talks of a media unlike anything that exists today with 24 hour television and the Internet. Even more crucial to the evolution of Marcuse's critical analysis, would be to evaluate the media's integration with technology so that they form a inseparable relationship. Also the effects of social media such as Facebook and Youtube where the individual gives up part of themselves in an effort to be part of something which is inclusive and part of the norm, further strengthening one-dimensionality. It is of great importance for the social sciences to not only acknowledge one-dimensionality but to modify its content so that it can be used to help those who wish to change society in contemporary times. Modernity is with us, in every fibre of social life, in every available space in which it can be conceived, and so to act against it would be foolish. What would be more applicable would be to reconstitute the fundamentals of one-dimensionality so that it can be used as a way of criticising the key roles of mass culture and improving contemporary capitalist societies.


Galbraith, J. K. (1956). American Capitalism. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Marcuse, H. (1991). One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial Society. Routledge, London.