Marcuse, Schiller and Web 2.0

I’ve been reading Eros and Civilization, Marcuse’s book about Freudian theory. The number of people willing to take Freud seriously has probably diminished severely since 1955, when it was published. And the 1960s would seem to have discredited the idea that hedonism could point the way to revolution. The core idea is that society now generates “surplus repression” that is no longer needed to assure the survival of civilization, now that we have better technology. This repression keeps us enslaved to capital and stuck pursuing alienated forms of labor instead of the free play of our human faculties. But the affluent society should present no obstacles (other than ideological ones) to ridding ourselves of surplus repression and getting in touch with ourselves. Whether or not society has moved in that direction is an open question.

One indicator would be a decrease in employment — people would be less willing to work for money. Another would be production taking place outside of the aegis of the market — i.e., peer production. And the nature of narcissism would be reversed: “narcissism, usually understood as egoistic withdrawal from reality, here is connected with oneness with the universe…. Beyond all immature autoeroticism, narcissism denotes a fundamental relatedness to reality which may generate a comprehensive existential order…. Narcissus’s life is that of beauty, and his existence is contemplation.” Perhaps the narcissism in our culture that social critics across the political spectrum have complained about since the 1970s is actually cause for celebration, the manifestation of a new organization of culture that champions personal display over ascetic achievement, which is arguably a mystification of capitalist accumulation for its own sake. I’m not ready to sign on to that interpretation, but I am less inclined to immediately dismiss it.

Marcuse includes a chapter on the aesthetic theory of 18th century philosopher Friedrich Schiller, whom he makes sound surprisingly relevant. As Marcuse explains it, Schiller’s philosophy seems to fit the Web 2.0 mode of reflexive self-display:

The aesthetic experience would arrest the violent and exploitative productivity which made man into an instrument of labor. But he would not be returned to a state of suffering passivity. His existence would still be activity, but “what he possess and produces need no longer bear the traces of servitude, the fearful design of its purpose”; beyond want and anxiety, human activity becomes display — the free manifestation of personalities.

Later he describes one of the main elements of Schiller’s aesthetics as “the transformation of toil (labor) into play, and of repressive productivity into ‘display’ — a transformation that must be preceded by the conquest of want (scarcity) as the determining factor of civilization.” Some would argue that those conditions are now fairly close to being met — that we live in a culture of abundance, certainly of digital abundance, and immaterial labor (online sociality) is supplanting alienated toil for wages. One way, then, of understanding all the identity production online is as the kind of “good” narcissism, this sort of playful display.

I’m still too deeply skeptical of aesthetics to fully buy into this. I am inclined to interpret narcissism as a more profound form of alienation rather than freedom from it, and immaterial labor as a subtle form of exploitation, the colonization of a sanctified space by commercialism. But Marcuse’s ideas have challenged me to think about how to articulate my reasons for thinking this. (I’m not up to the challenge right now, however.) I need better explanations for why all the things I criticize all the time are not in fact positive developments.