Anonymous authority

by Rob Horning

26 June 2008


I’ve been on a kick where I’m reading works by outdated Frankfurt School thinkers—first, Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse, then Escape From Freedom by Erich Fromm. (Maybe I’ll move on The Authoritarian Personality next.) Marcuse argues that economic productivity has moved us beyond scarcity as a motive, and therefore civilization should be capable of transcending Freud’s reality principle, which asserts (as Marcuse interprets it) that we need to repress libidinal urges and channel them into alienated labor, into work conceived as a necessary evil. This transcendence, Marcuse argues, would be a matter of ceasing to repressive erotic impulses, a position that is easy to lampoon as a call to free love and orgies and pansexual abandon. (Because he is working in the hypersexualized Freudian context, he practically invites this interpretation.) But if one puts aside the polymorphous perversity, one can see a more useful ideal that Marcuse is sketching out, basically a utopian version of the grail of meaningful work for all: “The free development of transformed libido within transformed institutions, while eroticizing previously tabooed zones, time, and relations, would minimize the manifestations of mere sexuality by integrating them into a far larger order, including the order of work.” If I’m understanding this correctly (the 1960s context of this book tempts me to use the word grok), he’s saying that non-repressed society—a culture that moved beyond capitalism’s repressive reason and no longer mandated the “performance principle”—would not be fixated on genital sex, but would instead suffuse social relations with the positive vibes of love. “The organism in its entirety becomes the substratum of sexuality, while at the same time the instinct’s objective is no longer absorbed by a specialized function—namely, that of bringing ‘one’s own genitals into contact with those of someone of the opposite sex.’ ” That fixation, he suggests, is the product of the repressive culture; in the utopian culture the joy limited to sexual intimacy would be accessible in basically any social activity (and bourgeois fictions like the nuclear family and “falling in love” would fall away). Then we would finally be free, without institutions working to make us repress our libidinous instincts and sacrifice the primal pleasures of sensuousness and free play.

Now, it would be easier to buy into this if it conjured up in me the vision of idealized Fourierist phlanastèries instead of the Manson family. But I get stuck on the dirty-hippie attempt to realize these ideals, shed their hang-ups and unleash free love, an effort doomed by the way it was embedded in a hostile culture and easily coopted and enticed by that culture. The lesson to seems to have been that one can’t will oneself into the post-repressed state, the institutions that shape us—the society in which who we are has meaning—need to be changed before we can change. Efforts to set up alternative, independent societies are useful to the degree that their ideas are absorbed and shift the nature of the hegemonic culture, but in and of themselves, they are doomed to eventual failure.

Why? As Marcuse points out,

Civilization has to defend itself against the specter of a world which could be free. If society cannot use its growing productivity for reducing repression (because such usage would upset the status quo), productivity must be turned against the individuals; it becomes itself an instrument of universal control. Totalitarianism spreads over late industrial civilization wherever the interests of domination prevail upon productivity, arresting and diverting its potentialities.

The methods for doing this? Marcuse lays them out in a passage that seems to draw heavily from Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment:  The “coordination of the private and public existence of spontaneous and required reactions. The promotion of thoughtless leisure activities, the triumph of anti-intellectual ideologies, exemplify the trend…. The individuals who relax in this uniformly controlled reality recall not the dream but the day, not the fairy tale but its denunciation. In their erotic relations, they ‘keep their appointments’—with charm, with romance, with their favorite commercials.” Technology is not helping. In a passage that would please Nicholas Carr, he writes, “With the control of information, with the absorption of individual into mass communication, knowledge is administered and confined. The individual does not really know what is going on; the overpowering machine of education and entertainment unites him with all the others in a state of anesthesia from which all detrimental ideas tend to be excluded.” Think of the internet in this light, and there might be reason to fear Google, which is nothing if not an administrator of knowledge, perhaps the most efficient the world has ever seen.

Marcuse says that the non-repressive utopia will be based on “purposiveness without purpose” and “lawfulness without law”—an ethos of aestheticism. Fromm, too, dreams of human liberation into “an active and spontaneous realization of the individual self.”  But in Escape From Freedom he argues that we often see individuality as a burden, as a state of insecurity and purposelessness that is not pleasurable but intolerable.

Capitalism not only freed man from traditional bonds, but it also contributed tremendously to the increasing of positive freedom, to the growth of an active, critical, responsible self. However, while this was one effect capitalism had on the process of growing freedom, at the same time it made the individual more alone and isolated and imbued him with a feeling of insignificance and powerlessness.

  Capitalism destroys the traditional ways our identity would be anchored, in the class or religion to which we were born, in the duties assigned to us, in our our overall lack of social or geographical mobility. The powerlessness and unrootedness is exacerbated by the rationalization of life in a capitalist society, with all relations between people reified, instrumentalized and marked with alienation and mutual manipulation. People have no value in and of themselves, but only in what they can contribute and sell. So in isolation, they learn that they are worthless, with no innate qualities.

Fromm figured this left them vulnerable to totalitarian movements like Nazism, that promised to supply individuals a purpose in supplication to an authority figure who alleviates one’s feelings of inferiority and insignificance but taking away the burden of individuality. It’s obvious he has Hitler and Mussolini in mind, but Fromm also points to anonymous authority, which reigns while leaving its subjects seemingly free.

It is disguised as common sense, science, psychic health, normality, public opinion. It does not demand anything except the self-evident. It seems to use no pressure but only mild persuasion…. In anonymous authority, both command and commander have become invisible. It is like being fired at by an invisible enemy. There is nobody and nothing to fight back against.

  This analysis presages Althusser’s definition of ideology, in which such dispersed, institutional authority is actually constituitive of the individual rather than a response to developing individualism. In Decoding Advertisements Judith Williamson looks at how that authority manifests specifically in advertisements, which present themselves as common sense and help us call into a being a sharpened sense of identity that we then become reliant on—as though it were the source of our integrity. Ads seem always to be reminding us of what we already know; that is the velvet way they exercise their insidious authority.

Fromm characterizes the seductiveness of ads, as anonymous authority, in a similar way.

It does not appeal to reason but to emotion…. by attracting the customer and at the same time weakening his critical abilities by the sex appeal of a pretty girl; by terrorizing him with the threat of b.o. or halitosis, or yet again by stimulating daydreams about a sudden change in one’s whole course of life brought about by buying a certain shirt or soap. All these methods are essentially irrational; they have nothing to do with the qualities of the merchandise, and they smother and kill the critical capacities of the customer like an opiate or outright hypnosis. They give him a certain satisfaction by their daydreaming qualities just as movies do, but at the same time they increase his feeling of smallness and powerlessness.

That passage touches on a few of my favorite themes—(a) ads and entertainment are indistinguishable, (b) ads turn our insecurity into a feeling of certainty and a possibility for productive action—a purchase, (c) ads work by stimulating fantasies not about the product but about ourselves; they encourage us to consume our sense of ourselves vicariously; to enjoy ourselves through the product the way we would enjoy the details of the lives of any other celebrity—it puts us on their level, particularly when ads feature celebrity endorsements, and most significant, I think, (d) the point of ads collectively is to reduce our objections to non-logic and experience it as liberation.

Of course, Marcuse sees the undermining of reason—of constricting, repressing rationality—as liberation. But ad discourse evokes a fantasia that merely teases us with the kind of non-repression Marcuse sees as being just around the corner in his dialectic of civilization. We “keep our appiontments” with commercials, just like Marcuse noted, but what we experience there is enough of the utopian promise to defuse the possibility of our ever fighting to bring that utopia into being. Ads de-repress us as they exert their authority; they solve our problems with individuality while seeming to reinforce our freedom (our freedom from hang-ups). It seems that capitalism’s systems for entertaining/controlling us can absorb even the rationality-smashing protocol and make it too serve the status quo.

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