Moronization and the End of Privacy

by Rob Horning

15 January 2010


After having battled through the critiques of positivism and analytic philosophy in Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, I was happy to come across some passages toward the end, which seemed to justify the effort. He is describing the conditions of autonomy within a consumer society, in which industrially instigated “needs” are promulgated socially and to a degree constitute what is “social.”

Can you tell I have been reading Marcuse? Contra Marcuse, let me have a crack at that in plainer language: as far as I can tell, Marcuse argues that technological advancement, because it is fixated on exploitation and productivity, has brought with it a false liberty that obscures real freedom, which is a matter of generating autonomous needs and decreasing the amount of domination required to reproduce society. The “sale of [our society’s] goods has been accompanied by moronization, the perpetuation of toil, and the promotion of frustration” rather than by true liberation from the brutalities of nature, necessity and hierarchical oppression. The success of this sick society depends on our being inculcated with the appropriate needs that direct our energy to ends that support the existing social relations; i.e., we chase an idea of identity that depends on consumer goods as signifiers and mass media as a means of articulation. Consumerism seizes a monopoly on the making of social meaning. It provides the system in which a given meaning of a thing, a practice, can transcend one’s personal idiosyncratic view and become something we all know will be widely understood and interpreted predictably.
Interestingly, Marcuse regards this as the end of privacy:

Expansion has, in all forms of team-work, community life, and fun, invaded the inner space of privacy and practically eliminated the possibility of that isolation in which the individual, thrown back on himself alone, can think and question and find. This sort of privacy—the sole condition that, on the basis of satisfied vital needs, can give meaning to freedom and independence of thought—has long since become the most expensive commodity, available only to the very rich (who don’t use it). In this respect, too, “culture” reveals its feudal origins and limitations. It can become democratic only through the abolition of mass democracy, i.e., if society has succeeded in restoring the prerogatives of privacy by granting them to all and protecting them for each.

To the denial of freedom, even of the possibility of freedom, corresponds the granting of liberties where they strengthen the repression. The degree to which the population is allowed to break the peace wherever there still is peace and silence, to be ugly and to uglify things, to ooze familiarity, to offend against good form is frightening. It is frightening because it expresses the lawful and even organized effort to reject the Other in his own right, to prevent autonomy even in a small, reserved sphere of existence. In the overdeveloped countries, an ever-larger part of the population becomes one huge captive audience—captured not by a totalitarian regime but by the liberties of the citizens whose media of amusement and elevation compel the Other to partake of their sounds, sights, and smells.

You can see why the Frankfurt school theorists are sometimes dismissed as elitist. But this captures something of why critics are horrified at social networks—it erodes the possibility of privacy even further while all the while making its surrender seem voluntary. (Just have a look at Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, proclaiming the end of privacy as a social norm.) And what is lost with privacy is not just safety from prying eyes and identity thieves and surveillance; rather we elect to give up privacy to participate in the “media of amusement and elevation” rather then sit quietly in a room, as Pascal prescribed. And with that we surrender our ability to be self-directed (such as it is), to create our own wants, to think, to be other. Instead we look for distinctions within the social language of commercial objects and activities, and then we look to promote ourselves through them. This is what it means by and large to be social, to interact with other people, particularly through a medium like Facebook, which simultaneously records these exchanges and transforms them into marketing and demographic data. Hence, that data is what we are choosing to reduce ourselves to.

As a result of this ongoing process of needs administration, we can end up feeling helpless when the apparatus is disabled. I always notice this when I travel. Suddenly the system that tells me what to want is opaque to me. Here’s how Marcuse puts it:

Massive socialization begins at home and arrests the development of consciousness and conscience. The attainment of autonomy demands conditions in which the repressed dimensions of experience can come to life again; their liberation demands repression of the heteronomous needs and satisfactions which organize life in this society. The more they have become the individual’s own needs and satisfactions, the more would their repression appear to be an all but fatal deprivation. But precisely by virtue of this fatal character, it may create the primary subjective prerequisite for qualitative change—namely, the redefinition of needs.

To take an (unfortunately fantastic) example: the mere absence of all advertising and of all indoctrinating media of information and entertainment would plunge the individual into a traumatic void where he would have the chance to wonder and to think, to know himself (or rather the negative of himself) and his society. Deprived of his false fathers, leaders, friends, and representatives, he would have to learn his ABC’s again. But the words and sentences which he would form might come out very differently, and so might his aspirations and fears.

To be sure, such a situation would be an unbearable nightmare. While the people can support the continuous creation of nuclear weapons, radioactive fallout, and questionable foodstuffs, they cannot (for this very reason!) tolerate being deprived of the entertainment and education which make them capable of reproducing the arrangements for their defense and/or destruction. The non-functioning of television and the allied media might thus begin to achieve what the inherent contradictions of capitalism did not achieve—the disintegration of the system. The creation of repressive needs has long since become part of socially necessary labor—necessary in the sense that without it, the established mode of production could not be sustained. Neither problems of psychology nor of aesthetics are at stake, but the material base of domination.

So to call Marcuse an elitist is to miss the point. The critique is not about the “uglification” of pop culture (though he does seem to regard that as a hint to its inadequacy). It’s about what manufactured culture accomplishes in the maintenance of the existing relations of production—how they perpetuate norms of exploitation, oppression, domination, etc., in the name of productivity, understood by consumers as “entertainment” or a lush surfeit of goods, and understood by capitalists as profit and further capital accumulation.

But Marcuse sees hopefulness in this, I think, as he seems to be arguing that the more dependent we become on these media technologies to constitute our desires, our identities, and the more they are centralized, the easier it will be for revolutionaries to know what to disrupt to change society completely. Once the internet supplies all our social needs and let’s us become what we are in the sick society, simply destroying the internet will set everybody “free” to build a “real” one—that’s basically the fantasy that The Matrix depicts.

Capitalism hasn’t destroyed itself with its rapacity, as Marx predicted. Perhaps, Marcuse seems to imply, unhinged consumerism will do the trick. But he still ends the book on a note of profound pessimism, with the “Great Refusal” that’s necessary to stop the one-dimensionalizing of everything unlikely to come from anyone who isn’t already beyond the pale of society. “The economic and technical capabilities of the established societies are sufficiently vast to allow for adjustments and concession to the underdog, and their armed forces sufficiently trained and equipped to take care of emergency situations.” The absolute refusal that’s necessary from the critical-theory point of view “seems the more unreasonable the more the established system develops its productivity and alleviates the burden of life.”

So what do we do? Live in a jelly jar? Is this the first step?


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