Monday, 23 November 2015

The difference between Marcuse and Benjamin - and why they affirmed popular culture for opposite reasons

Last month I went through a number of texts by and about Herbert Marcuse. This made me think a little bit about the relation between him and some other thinkers associated with the so-called Frankfurt School, such as Adorno and Benjamin.

It's fairly common to find texts contrasting Marcuse to Adorno. Despite many similarities in their theoretical ideas, they diverged in their view on the student movement of the late 60s. It is well known that Marcuse championed the students while Adorno disparaged and antagonized them. Unlike Adorno, Marcuse also affirmed parts of the popular culture of the 1960s, such as black music and Bob Dylan. Generally, the picture one gets from these texts is stereotypical: Adorno was elitist and conservative while Marcuse was open and genuinely interested in social change - or, as Zizek put it: "Adorno is bad, he hated jazz. Marcuse is good; solidarity with the students and so on" [1].

The difference between the two thinkers is well captured, I think, in the following passage by Wiggershaus, which suggests how something of the different temperaments of these two thinkers coloured their theoretical concepts:
Marcuse spoke of liberation from exploitation and oppression, meaning the liberation of those who were exploited and oppressed. Adorno, when he spoke of emancipation, was thinking more of a form of emancipation suggested by his view of his own situation, and emancipation from fear, from violence, from the humiliation of conformism; he characterized a “better condition” as one in which “one can be different without fear”. (Wiggershaus 1994:394) 
Other writers go a bit further, probing for the theoretical reasons for their differences. Habermas, for instance, argues in an influential essay that Marcuse's affirmation of libido was a crucial difference between the two thinkers. Unlike Adorno, Marcuse possessed an "affirmative" trait that saved him from defeatism and that was rooted in his "chiliastic trust in a revitalizing dynamic of instincts" (Habermas 1988:. 9). [2]. 

However, in my view a more interesting comparison can be made between Marcuse and Benjamin. Why? Like Marcuse, Benjamin is often said to have been a champion of popular culture, and like Marcuse he is often contrasted to Adorno. Yet the impulse to lump them together must be resisted. In fact, I think it can easily be shown that they are more of polar opposites than Marcuse and Adorno, at least in terms of their theoretical positions and their view on art. Below I will try to show why.

Marcuse and Angela Davis

Habermas is quite right that there is an affirmative side to Marcuse's thought. This is evident in his view on art. To be sure, Marcuse never forgets to remind the reader that art is ideological: the beauty, happiness and reconciliation it offers only exists within the work of art itself and leaves the suffering of the real, social world as it is. The consolation it offers us is thus false. But at least in the best works of art, there is a promise of happiness that keeps alive the painful awareness that the world doesn't live up to its ideal, that the real social world should be better than it is. Good art is thus not only ideological but also utopian: the reconciliation it offers us is only imaginary, yet precisely this imaginary, fictitious resolution throws the suffering of the real world in sharper relief and makes us long for something better. The ideological and utopian sides of art are not neatly separable. It is precisely by successfully presenting a beautiful semblance separated off from reality that art keeps the utopian promise alive.

This view of art's ambiguity remains remarkably constant throughout Marcuse's writings, from the first programmatic formulation in "The Affirmative Culture" from 1937 to his last book The Aesthetic Dimension from 1977. Here it should be noted that the art Marcuse writes about is almost exclusively the famous, classical or modernist pieces of bourgeois art. It is there, above all, that he seems to be able to locate the promise of happiness. Very seldom does he find much positive to say about popular culture. Popular culture is simply too much part and parcel of the general tendencies of society to be able to offer resistance to it.

The only exception is in works like An Essay on Liberation or Counter-revolution and Revolt, written at the height of his engagement with the student movement. Here parts of popular culture - above all black music and the culture of the "black ghetto" - are given a warm embrace. Take the following famous quote from An Essay on Liberation:
But a far more subversive universe of discourse announces itself in the language of black militants. […] Thus, the blacks “take over” some of the most sublime and sublimated concepts of Western civilization, desublimate them, and redefine them. […] they are soul brothers, the soul is black, violent, orgiastic; it is no longer in Beethoven, Schubert, but in the blues, in jazz, in rock 'n' roll, in "soul food". (Marcuse 1969:29)
The background of this shift is clearly that Marcuse is no longer as pessimistic about the possibility of social change. Only a few years earlier, when he wrote One-dimensional Man, he had still tended to see the flattening out of art's utopian function the dominant tendency in society. What happens with An Esssay on Liberation is that he starts to sense that there is a real chance for the promise of happiness once vouchsafed in the realm of autonomous art to become a political force and to be fulfilled in society itself. "Now", he writes, the "threatening homogeneity [is] loosening up, and an alternative is beginning to break into the repressive continuum” (Marcuse 1969:7). Against Adorno, he defends the social efficacy of the aesthetic. Rather than standing above society, it can impact the relations of production directly. Art doesn't have to remain in the domain of "illusory" art. Instead, he suggests "the historical possibility of conditions in which the aesthetic could become a gesellschaftliche Produktivkraft"(ibid. 35).

Art, then, no longer needs to isolate itself from society since the Utopian aspects anticipated in the great works of bourgeois art are starting to overflow the borders of art and infiltrate society itself. It is becoming a social force, realized in society and expressed in popular culture, especially black culture. Along with this change, the need for an autonomous art isolated from society lessens. In a suggestive passage, Marcuse describes this transformation as an incorporation of the "libertarian possibilities of the revolution" into the material development that frees them up from the need to be confined to art: "Prior to their incorporation into the material development, these possibilities are 'sur-realistic': they belong to the poetic imagination, formed and expressed in the poetic language" (ibid. 28).

Almost a decade after An Essay on Liberation, when the revolt of the sixties had ebbed away, Marcuse wrote The Aesthetic Dimension. Recognizing that the promise of happiness remained unfulfilled after all, Marcuse now reverts to a defense of autonomous art, acknowledging his debt to Adorno. Art is still said to be revolutionary but only because because of its own aesthetic dimension and its ability to maintain an "uncompromising estrangement" from society (Marcuse 1978:30). His view of popular culture has also become more disparaging [3]:
If it is at all meaningful to speak of a mass base for art in capitalist society, this would refer only to pop art and best sellers. In the present, the subject to which authentic art appeals is socially anonymous; it does not coincide with the potential subject of revolutionary practice. (ibid. 32)
This work seemingly appears like a retreat from Marcuse's previous optimism regarding the potential of art to be realized in society as a social force. Yet even in this work, he emphasizes that the potential itself remains intact. Autonomous art is necessary only as long as the "images (Schein) of the Beautiful and of fulfillment" are "denied by the society” (ibid. 28). In the sixties, he tells us, the world was on the verge of ending such denial. “Even now in the established society, the indictment and the promise preserved in art lose their unreal and utopian character to the degree to which they inform the strategy of oppositional movements (as they did in the sixties)” (ibid. 28). To Marcuse, then, art was not condemned to remain trapped for ever in the dichotomy between separating itself from the masses or degenerating into one-dimensional amusement. The protest movements of the sixtees showed that there was a real possibility for the utopian promise of art to be realized in society. 

What remained the same in Marcuse's thought was his affirmation of the image of happiness offered by art. No matter whether he saw the possibilities of realizing this happiness in society as closed or not, he was always able to point to something valuable in art which he could hold on to and which in his view deserved to be realized in society. As I will show below, this is a decisive difference between him and Benjamin.


Rather than searching for a redeeming feature of art in its promise of happiness or beautiful semblance, Benjamin tended to prefer forms of art that in some sense disrupted or destroyed such promises or such semblance. We can see this in his embrace of surrealism, which he was fond of just like Marcuse but for different reasons. What attracted him wasn't the attempt to shape a poetic language capable of expressing Eros or serving as a vehicle for its possible realization in society but rather the use of the shock effect. The montage in particular attracted him as a possible model of criticism. Through the montage-like juxtaposition of incongruous elements, criticism could set off explosive disruptions that might trigger a "dialectics of awakening" from the mythical slumber constantly regenerated by capitalism.

The philosophical ideas underpinning this preference for the negative or disruptive are presented already in The Origins of the German Tragic Drama. This is a pre-Marxist work in which the basicaly theological structure of Benjamin's thought is plain to see. The work is famous for the opposition he establishes between the symbol and the allegory, but to understand how he thinks about these two terms it is crucial to relate them to a third element which is only briefly mentioned in the work but which functions as a kind of inivisble center around which the other two terms circle.

This is element is the theological symbol, the only symbol Benjamin is prepared to grant the status of a placeholder for truth. Art can never aspire to transmit this truth. As long as symbols remain within the domain of art, their ability to create a semblance of truth and beauty - of providing direct access to a higher meaning which is brought into our presence by artistic means - becomes precisely what makes them so perversely false in Benjamin's eyes. The Romantics elevated the symbol over the allegory, claiming it was aesthetically superior. Benjamin, by contrast, defends the allegory. The allegory may very well be clumsier than the symbol, having to refer to its pairing with a concept rather than carrying its meaning within itself. But this very clumsiness redeems it. At least it never pretends to be hand us the truth. Its very operation proclaims the distance from truth, and thus helps us free ourselves of the spell of art.

In his later writings, as Benjamin's thought shifts to Marxism from Jewish mysticism, the terminology of The Origins falls out of use. However, the categories developed in this early work remain central, structuring and influencing his Marxism. Although he ceases to write of the theological symbol, the place of the latter remains central in his conceptual scheme. The place becomes filled with terms like divine violence, general strike, revolution and the arrival of Messiah. As for the symbol, it shows up as aura or auratic art, while the place of allegory is taken by terms like technical reproduction, shock, montage, photo and glass architecture.

Let us have a closer look at the aura. Just like the symbol, the aura endows its object with beauty but at the same time blocks us from truth. Benjamin describes it as the appearance of a beautiful presence, which is felt to be like the scent of another world, distinct from the everyday. In what he calls auratic art it is not difficult to recognize the kind of art whose promise of happiness Marcuse embraced in "The Affirmative Culture". In contrast to Marcuse, however, Benjamin's quest is for the very opposite of auratic art. His preference is for art forms that by bringing about a dissolution of the aura help us "wake up from the 19th century": Dada, montage, mechanical reproduction, film, photo, glass architecture and the theatre of Brecht. If there is a truth, it cannot be approached through the aura, but only negatively, though shock-like montages that "ruin" preexisting contexts of meaning in order to make way for the arrival of this truth.

It is this quest for an awakening from the 19th century that explains Benjamin's preoccupation with popular culture. He closes in on it, in fascination, yet he keeps his distance. He affirms it not because he likes it, or sees happiness in it, but because it liberates him, however brutally - because it is eye-opening in its destructiveness.

While both Marcuse and Benjamin at times affirm parts of popular culture, they thus do so for opposite reasons. To put it roughly but concisely: Marcuse is very much in thrall of the idea of art as beauty, functioning as a symbol providing a glimpse of truth, while Benjamin prefers the allegory, the 'clumsy' device that never pretends to contain the truth towards which it gesticulates. Marcuse tends to affirm art because it offers an anticipatory image of the reconciliation and freedom that would be possible in a better society. When he affirmed popular culture in the 60s, it was because this better world was no longer confined to art, but had started to spread to society itself, encouraging people to think that life might one day become as free, happy and beautiful as in art.

Benjamin's affirmation of popular culture, by contrast, reached its apogee in in the 30s, a period of catastrophes when a better society must have seemed very distant indeed. To him, popular culture pointed to the absence of truth, like the allegory. He affirmed it not so much because it contained anything - such happiness or freedom - that he wanted to realize, so much as because it was destructive of the mythic spell under which he was living. The shock experiences offered by the city crowd or popular art forms relying on mechanical reproduction like film and photography were affirmed since they could trigger a dialectics of awakening that might disrupt this spell.

To be sure, the contrast between Marcuse and Benjamin shouldn't be exaggerated. Marcuse sometimes affirmed the more destructive, shocking or anomic aspects of modernist art. He didn't think that art had to portray happiness or reconciliation directly to have a utopian function. What was crucial was that it should preserve the promise of such happiness, the awareness of difference to the present. Conversely, Benjamin didn't always reject the symbol. It is significative, however, that the only really famous passage in which he approves of the symbol in art is in a passage (in his essay on Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften) when the symbol turns into a "torso" - that is, when it is mutilated. Only then does it release its truth-content, namely the hope that is "given to us only for the sake of the hopeless". Finally, although I have no time to write about it here, another similarity is that they both developed theories celebrating the role of "play". Again, however, we can note that they affirmed play for rather different reasons. To Benjamin, play was an alternative to auratic art, while to Marcuse play was simply part of art itself.

So how about Adorno then?

The discussion so far has shown, I think, that it is misleading to lump together Marcuse and Benjamin as champions of popular culture presenting a united front against the elitist Adorno. In terms of theory, this opposition is superficial. More fruitful is, I think, to focus on the theoretical contrast between Marcuse and Benjamin, and to view Adorno as occupying a middle position between the other two.

Might not Adorno be seen as mediating between the positions of the other two and, in the process, remedying certain one-sidednesses in them? On the one hand we see him defending auratic art against Benjamin's attacks, insisting on the critical potential of the promise of happiness. But on the other, he was always far more suspicious of positivity than Marcuse, insisting on the need to criticize it. To him, affirmative art could never simply be realized in the world, since it was itself a deformation caused by an unredeemed society. At most it could give rise to a sense of the non-identity between subject and object, and thereby help shelter this non-identity from the compulsive attempts by an identity-thinking that had grown dominant in society to obliterate it. Reconciliation or utopia could itself only be built on a preservation of this non-identity, however painful it might be. Neither was it possible to pin one's hopes on insticts or human nature - such a conceptual move would itself amount to a reification that would partake in the general reification of society.

Adorno is rightly accused for his hostility to the protesters of '68 and to popular culture. But I want to believe that this stance didn't derive from his aesthetics or his philosophy of non-identity. If anything, it opens up for the recognition that, while ideology may very well pervade all of culture, there may also be a truth-content to all kinds of cultural phenomena, including popular culture and political movements, that co-exists with the ideological aspects. Recognizing truth-content doesn't have to mean giving up criticizing it. Like Marcuse, he often referred to the promise of happiness preserved in autonomous art, but who can say that there was no such promise in the revolt of the sixties, or jazz for that matter? Happiness that makes you forget about pain is ideological, but isn't there another happiness that consists in lending this pain a voice? Like Benjamin, his own style opened up for a form of political intervention, namely shocks and unexpected juxtapositions that functioned like slaps in the face of identity-thinking. But revolts too are like shocks delivered in the face of the social body. 

Adorno and Hans-Jürgen Krahl


[1] For some personal anectotes, see the recollections by Angela Davis (2004) and Peter Marcuse (2004). See also Kellner's preface to One-dimensional Man. For Marcuse's and Adorno's positions on the student movement, see also their exchange of letters (Adorno & Marcuse 1999).

[2] Wolin (2001) too points to Marcuse's theory of instincts as a crucial difference to Adorno, arguing that this theory reflected the legacy of heideggarian "ontology" in Marcuse's thought. It may well be true that the "affirmative" side in Marcuse has deeper roots than his Freudianism. Already before the war, this affirmative side shows up in his interpretation of Hegel in Reason and Revolution where he embraces the idea that the human desire for freedom can be a historical force from realizing freedom. As is well known, Adorno’s view of Hegel is much more critical: he enjoys twisting around and reversing Hegel quotations, portraying Hegel as a thinker sacrificing the non-identical or devouring otherness etc.

[3] When Doug Kellner asked Marcuse about the abrupt shift in his theory of art from the 60s to the 70s, Marcuse denied that there was any discontinuity in his theory, instead explaining the shift by the fact that the countercultural art was better in the 60s than in the 70s and mentioning Bob Dylan as an example (See Kellner’s introduction to Art and Liberation, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse Vol. 4, London: Routledge, 2007: 54)


Adorno, T. W. & Marcuse, Herbert (1999) “Correspondence on the German Student Movement”, New Left Review I/233 (January/February): 118-136.

Benjamin, Walter (1985) The Origin of German Tragic Drama, London: Verso.

Davis, Angela Y. (2004) “Marcuse’s Legacies”, pp. 43-50, in John Abromeit & W. Mark Cobb (eds.) Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader, London: Routledge.

Habermas, Jürgen (1988) “Psychic Thermidor and the Rebirth of Rebellious Subjectivity”, pp. 3-12, in Robert Pippin & Andrew Feenberg & Charles P. Webel (eds.) Marcuse: Critical Theory & The Promise of Utopia, Houndmills: Macmillan Education.

Marcuse, Herbert (1969) An Essay on Liberation, Boston: Beacon Press

Marcuse, Herbert (1978) The Aesthetic Dimension, Boston: Beacon Press.

Marcuse, Herbert (1999) Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, Amhearst: Humanity Books.

Marcuse, Herbert (2007) “The Affirmative Character of Culture”, pp. 82-112, in Douglas Kellner (ed.) Art and Liberation, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse Vol. 4, London: Routledge.

Marcuse, Peter (2004) “Herbert Marcuse’s ‘Identity’”, pp. 249-252, in John Abromeit & W. Mark Cobb (eds.) Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader, London: Routledge.

Wiggershaus, Rolf (1994) The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Wolin, Richard (2001) Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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