Reading Marcuse in Burlington, Vermont

Herbert Marcuse’s classic book, One-Dimensional Man (1964), was an indictment of what he characterized as the flattening out of contemporary American consciousness into a closed system of self-reflexive rationality that resisted external (two-dimensional) critique. His whole book is an explanation of how very difficult it is to see beyond the “rationality” of any given social construct, but also an imperative to create the conditions under which we might.  Marcuse calls for a rediscovery of a lost dialectic, a two-dimensional space which keeps alive the friction between ideal and real, status quo and possibility, and which might facilitate social critique and agency for change.

Marcuse distinguishes between the inherent value of nature, culture, human relations and the quantified, instrumental use to which such things are all too often reduced. While we can hardly help but value everything based on our human interests, as somehow ‘instrumental’ for our human ‘use’, some uses are more strictly utilitarian than others; some serve the continuation of a status quo more than others. Individually and socially we have an under-developed interest in the qualitative aspects of nature or human relations, focusing instead on efficiency, practicality, and exploitation of resources.  Two-dimensional discourse helps us to transcend the needs of the vested interests in a current system to consider not only alternate answers, but completely different questions. Critical, utopian thinking occurs within a dialectical system which allows for meaningful wrestling with the real contradictions and irreducible nature of human social life. Our current one-dimensional society, on the other hand, amounts to what Marcuse calls totalitarianism, controlling and closing down all aspects of modern existence.

These days in Burlington, Vermont, the “rationality” of our elected officials is just the kind of imbedded system Marcuse illustrates in his book, a system which uses its own intrinsic logic to block criticism and alternative visions while grinning through its teeth. Like the affluent society in Marcuse’s book, our happy little city is represented by the Disneyland of our clean, efficient, modern, tourist-friendly Church Street Market Place. Anyone who would dare to criticize it or the coming “improvements” is seen as a grumbler or, in Marcuse’s terminology, “irrational”. Why wouldn’t you want a nice new 14-story mall? What could you have against renovating the city park even if it means privatizing and paving over part of it? What in the world could be wrong with live-work spaces for artists next to agro-pubs in what was once the affordable arts district? “Positive thinking” in Marcuse’s terminology is defined as conformist acquiescence, a sort of “what makes you smile about the South End” cheerfulness which obviates the need for any real analysis or engagement. “Negative thinking” is paradoxically the more utopian way of thinking, a two-dimensional critical stance that finds its way towards thinking outside of the limited rationality of any given construct. Marcuse called it “The Great Refusal”. In local terms, if given the choice between 8 and 14 stories for the mall in a circular sent out by the city, instead of choosing 8 as the less damaging alternative, we might turn the flyer into a paper airplane, or, perhaps more constructively, create an entirely new circular telling our neighbors and the city officials that we don’t want any mall at all, that we would like to turn the Church Street Market Place into the Church Street Meeting Place, featuring an open community center with gardens on its roof. Convenience, affluence, technological bedazzlement all contribute to a lulling of the oppositional mindset—today even more than in Marcuse’s day; but amelioration in the form of simulacra (a few bike paths here, a few signs saying we are a green city there, a measly percentage of “affordable housing” in exchange for an open wild) must not be mistaken for progress. Within the rationality of a certain system, ruled over by professional consultants and measured by a purely quantifiable bottom line, what we are offered may seem perfectly reasonable. Taking into consideration the crisis of climate change and species loss; the deadening effects of wage slavery on cultural, intellectual, and social life; the exorbitant price of housing in our town; our drug crisis; and a mass of men and women “leading lives of quiet desperation,” we are proud to be called “unreasonable” by the powers that be. The Great Refusal is afoot, in the creative opposition to the old Champlain Parkway design, in the refusal to accept a zoning change to the arts district, in a massive resistance to the mall project, in the beginnings of new alliances and coalitions throughout the city, in our increasing courage to imagine alternatives to the limited status quo. As Marcuse writes, “In the exigencies of thought and in the madness of love is the destructive refusal of the established way of life….”.

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