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Marcuse was right

In the Boston Review, Ronald Aronson writes about the continued relevance of Herbert Marcuse today, especially his magnum opus, One-Dimensional Man. Aronson asks, “As we read One-Dimensional Man today, do we not again and again seem to be encountering the society in which we live?”

Today, all new forms of opposition become paralyzed before being formed; cynicism infects all politics; even imagining an alternative seems futile.
But consider the wider context, our one-dimensional societies. There is no meaningful opposition in the political, social, and media worlds; all new forms of opposition become paralyzed before being formed; cynicism infects all politics; even imagining an alternative seems futile. The American political system is widely regarded as broken, but this is certainly by intent, so that the government is rendered unable to take effective action on anything that matters, including soaring inequality and corporate domination of the political and legislative process.

So how can opposition form? How to respond? As Marcuse asked toward the end of One-Dimensional Man, “How can the administered individuals—who have made their mutilation into their own liberties and satisfactions . . . liberate themselves from themselves as well as from their masters? How is it even thinkable that the vicious circle be broken?” His answer, framed in semi-apocalyptic terms, is a root-and-branch rejection of the existing order and the creation of a “new sensibility.”

This means that typical political strategies go nowhere. “The totalitarian tendencies of the one-dimensional society render the traditional ways and means of protest ineffective—perhaps even dangerous because they preserve the illusion of popular sovereignty,” Marcuse writes. Thus, from the point of view of One-Dimensional Man, most arguments over the strategy and structures of Occupy miss the point. Rather than be recognizably political, a new radical movement would have to—will still have to—be as much about creating a different sensibility and different values as about an effective alternative politics.

Above image: Herbert Marcuse and Angela Davis. Via critical-theory.com.


I don’t see how to create a new sensibility when all are connected to the present order so overwhelmingly. To isolate oneself only leads to the internet which is just as colonised as the streets. Does art, can art create new sensibilities, and if so, what would be good examples?

Very difficult to find a point of entry to this problem. I also wonder if or how it could be possible to create a new sensibility and would add the question if this can be accomplished only through art. I think there’s merit to a concept of art as something that helps understanding and interpreting the circumstances we live in. That’s why people keep trying to wrestle with social and political issues through the lens of art. However art - to be comprehended by recipients - you can argue requires education or access to a certain standard of living. So something I see connected with this is the (not at all new) question how art can reach beyond a priviliged audience, or one outside of the artworld, to create this “new sensibility”.

FYI: Somehow this links back to some question I subsumed in a topic proposal I called Bridging the gap >>