23 January 2014

Marcuse and Objects

Herbert Marcuse
For Marcuse, the a priori concept of the object precedes and makes possible its appropriation by rational theory and practice. That is, that the links between science, technology and society are shared in the form of experience created through the technological a priori that creates a quantifiable reality of science and hence an instrumentalizable reality for society (Feenberg 2013) – objects as such. That is, "when technics becomes the universal form of material production, it circumscribes an entire culture; it projects a historical totality – a 'world'" (Marcuse 1999: 154). In other words, "technology has become the great vehicle for reification – reification in its most mature and effective form" (Marcuse 1999:168). As such "the world tends to become the stuff of total administration, which absorbs even the administrators" (Marcuse 199: 169). Thus, Marcuse argues that,
The science of nature develops under the technological a priori which projects nature as potential instrumentality, stuff of control and organisation. And the apprehension of nature as (hypothetical) instrumentality precedes the development of all particular technical organisation (Marcuse 1999: 153). 
Even experience itself becomes "corrupted" because of the way in which experience is mediated through technologies and scientific methods resulting in abstract labour and the fetishism of commodities (Feenberg 2013: 609). The measure of society is then, in this account, eliminated, depriving society and individuals of a means to critique or provide justifications against the prevailing a priori of technological rationality. This,
technological reality, the object world, (including the subjects) is experienced as a world of instrumentalities. The technological context predefines the form in which the objects appear... The object world is thus the world of a specific historical project, and is never accessible outside the historical project which organises matter, and the organisation of matter is at one and the same time a theoretical and a practical enterprise (Marcuse 1999: 219). 
As such, there are two moments that Marcuse identifies in relation to this, namely quantification and instrumentalization. He writes, firstly regarding quantification that,
The quantification of nature, which led to its explication in terms of mathematical structures, separated reality from all inherent ends and, consequently, separated the true from the good, science from ethics... And no matter how constitutive may be the role of the subject as point of observation, measurement, and calculation, this subject cannot play its scientific role as ethical or aesthetic or political agent (Marcuse 1999: 146-7)
Secondly he explains that it is claimed that,
Theoretically, the transformation of man and nature has no other objective limits than those offered by the brute factuality of matter, its still unmastered resistance to knowledge and control. To the degree which this conception becomes applicable and effective in reality, the latter is approached as a (hypothetical) system of instrumentalities; the metaphysical "being-as-such" gives way to "being-instrument." Moreover, proved in its effectiveness, this conception works as an a priori – it predetermines experience, it projects the direction of the transformation of nature, it organizes the whole (Marcuse 1999: 152). 
This creates a way of being, and experience of and set of practices towards everyday life that embody and realise this a priori in a number of moments across a life experience. Indeed, it develops an attitude or a towards-which that is infused with the instrumentality towards the world that conceives of it as being a world of entities which can be known, controlled, manipulated and if required transformed. Consequently,
the "correct" attitude towards instrumentality is the technical approach, the correct logos is techno-logy, which projects and responds to a technological reality. In this reality, matter as well as science is "neutral"; objectivity has neither a telos in itself nor is it structured towards a telos. But it is precisely its neutral character which relates objectivity to a specific historical Subject – namely, to the consciousness that prevails in the society by which and for which this neutrality is established. It operates in the very abstractions which constitute the new rationality – as an internal rather than external factor... the reduction of secondary to primary qualities, quantification and abstraction from "particular sorts of entities" (Marcuse 1999: 156). 
The question then becomes the extent to which this totalising system overwhelms the capacity for agency, and as such a critical consciousness. Indeed, related to this is the important question of the relationship between science and technology itself, in as much as the question to be addressed is, is science prior to technology and therefore a condition of possibility for it? Or has science become technologised to the extent that science is now itself subjected to a technological a priori? The latter a position held by Heidegger, for example. In other words, is science "complicit with the system of domination that prevails under capitalism" (Feenberg 2013: 609). Indeed, Marcuse agreed that,
Critical analysis must dissociate itself from that which it strives to comprehend; the philosophic terms must be other than the ordinary ones in order to elucidate the full meaning of the latter. For the established universe of discourse bears throughout the marks of the specific modes of domination, organisation, and manipulation to which the members of a society are subjects (Marcuse 1999: 193). 
The danger of "one-dimensionality" that the lack of critical thought implies, creates a form of modern reason that has domination built into its structure. Indeed, Horkheimer and Adorno argue,
The thing-like quality of the means, which makes the means universally available, its “objective validity” for everyone, itself implies a criticism of the domination from which thought has arisen as its means. On the way from mythology to logistics, thought has lost the element of reflection on itself, and machinery mutilates people today, even if it also feeds them. In the form of machines, however, alienated reason is moving toward a society which reconciles thought, in its solidification as an apparatus both material and intellectual, with a liberated living element, and relates it to society itself as its true subject. The particularist origin and the universal perspective of thought have always been inseparable. Today, with the transformation of the world into industry, the perspective of the universal, the social realization of thought, is so fully open to view that thought is repudiated by the rulers themselves as mere ideology (Horkheimer and Adorno 1999: 37; quoted in Feenberg 2013: 609).
How then to recover the capacity for reflection and thought and thus to move to a new mode of experience, a "two dimensional experience responsive to the potentialities of people and things" (Feenberg 2013: 610). This would require a new orientation towards potentiality, or what I call elsewhere possibility (Berry 2014) that would enable this new spirit of criticality, critical reason as such. In other words, the reconfiguring of quantification practices and instrumental processes away from domination (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse) and control (Habermas), instead towards reflexivity, critique and democratic practices.

For Feenberg this requires "counter-acting the tendencies towards domination in the technological a priori" through the "materialization of values" (Feenberg 2013: 613). This he argues can be found at specific intervention points within the materialisation of this a priori, such as in design processes. Feenberg argues that "design is the mediation through which the potential for domination contained in scientific-technical rationality enters the social world as a civilisational project" (Feenberg 2013: 613). Instead, Feenberg argues that the "socialist a priori" should inform the processes of technical implementation and technical practice. However, it seems to me that this misses the instrumentality implicit in design and design practices more generally, which often tend to maximise instrumental values in their application of concepts of efficiency and organisation. This, in some senses requires a call for a radical politicisation of design, or a new form of critical design which is different and more revolutionary than the form outlined by Dunne & Raby (2013). Here we might start making connections to new forms of rationality that offer possibilities to augment or perhaps replace instrumental rationalities, for example in the potentialities of critical computational rationalities, iteracies, and other computational competences whose performance and practice are not necessarily tied to instrumental notions of efficiency and order, nor to capitalist forms of reification (Berry 2014).


Berry, D. M. (2014) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury.

Dunne, A. and  Raby, F. (2013) Critical Design FAQ, accessed 23/1/2013, http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/bydandr/13/0

Feenberg, F. (2013) Marcuse’s Phenomenology: Reading Chapter Six of One-Dimensional Man, Constellations, Volume 20, Number 4, pp. 604-614.

Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. W. (1999) The Dialectic of Enlightenment, London: Verso.

Marcuse, H. (1999) One-dimensional Man, London: Routledge.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for so succinctly stating our current ("modern") condition. Techno- logy does indeed operate "in the very abstractions which constitute the new rationality – as an internal rather than external factor... the reduction of secondary to primary qualities." We are approaching the singularity, where reification runs up against physical limits.

    Science is of course complicit in locking down and collecting rent on each and every analogue granule. Quantification practices and instrumental processes can't drill down much further, and we agents have been pinned down, constrained by objects of our own making.
    Fortunately, "critical computational rationalities, iteracies, and other computational competences" are exploding. With them, we can achieve inflection of self out into community/network, making objectification obsolete.
    Design must by needs set the course of inquiry and thus experience, which makes it the target of politics and rentiers. Thus we must reduce it to its elements and make its specifics accessible to everyone. Geometry supplies the schematics for mutual creation of unique spaces to forge a new reality out of the rich interaction of networked agents.
    Thanks again, @semprephi


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