Book Review: “Eros and Civilization: a Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud” (Herbert Marcuse, 1955)

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Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization is, albeit not the first, one of the most significant contributions to the Marxist psychoanalytical canon. However, while one who attempts such a theoretical or philosophical synthesis would typically self-identify with (or at least warrant) the prefix “neo,” be it either neo-Marxist, neo-Freudian, or indeed both, Marcuse appears anxious to disavow such specification, making consistent critical reference to the latter. Indeed, what appears to be central to Marcuse’s thesis is rather that, even though Freud himself affirms what he considers to be the necessity of repression, namely the ego and super-ego’s repression of the id, one may still interpret (in, what Marcuse would seem to insist, is an ultimately traditionalist manner) Freud’s analyses with a liberationist intent.

Throughout the first several chapters of Eros and Civilization, Marcuse illustrates Freud’s fundamental theories about the psychological formation of the subject, and proffers such theories’ application to social theory, although he makes it clear that such social critique is not dependent on an adherence to Freud’s writing as psychoanalysis, but rather as something more akin to philosophy. The main thrust of the argument is as such: civilisation and culture (Marcuse indicates uncritically Freud’s equivocation of the two) constrain the subject’s libidinal urges, countermanding and displacing the pleasure principle with instead the reality principle: the result of the id’s containment in the face of exogenous responsibilities and expectations, to allow for artificial and productive pursuit of satiation: “The reality principle supersedes the pleasure principle: man learns to give up momentary, uncertain, and destructive pleasure for delayed, restrained, but ‘assured’ pleasure.” Thus, although Eros and Civilization is unquestionably founded upon a repressive hypothesis, it is one that not simply allows for some pleasure to be experienced by the subject, but is instead dependent upon it, although what seems to be satiated is by no means a desire for happiness; rather, it is a sense of freedom, albeit with the firm caveat that it is a “freedom in civilization,” (p.19) which Marcuse would – and indeed does – argue constitutes an objective unfreedom.

One significant reason Marcuse gives for the opposition of this “freedom in civilization” to a state of happiness is, in reference to Totem and Taboo, the genealogical (and, indeed, generative) guilt, descendant from the cannibalistic patricide of the “primal crime.” This guilt is a phenomenon upon which Marcuse’s conception of civilization is wholly dependent. Accordingly, “the progress of civilization” is enacted via reproduction and reaffirmation of a reality principle which, through affect of guilt and ideological dispositifs of delayed-gratification sublimates libidinal drives toward a plane of increasing unfreedom.

In the second half of Eros and Civilization, Marcuse naturally notes the hypocrisy in such ideology, certainly inasmuch as the excess of productivity of this system – what the entrepreneur would call profit, and what the Marxist would describe in terms of variable capital and surplus-value – is itself indicative of how much is done that need not be done, and thus is indicative of the manner in which contemporary civilization does indeed operate not through necessity brought about by the “struggle for existence,” but rather operates to prolong this struggle (130-1). Indeed, such an ideology of progress is indicative enough of a foundation of Hegelian positivism (or, indeed, materialism) that wrapped up in the process in “the vision of a higher form of reason which is the very negation of these features” – an aufheben that would itself undo these technologies: from sublimation to sublation. Accordingly, with this excess of productivity already lies an excess of libidinal energy: a repressed to return. Thus, for Marcuse, the solution to the problem lies in the problem. Just as, for traditional Marxism, it is the most alienated who upon whom we can most rely for revolution, it is for Marcuse that which is most displaced (phantasy, the unconscious, the aesthetic, the id), which prefigures organisation upon which we may locate the potential for a non-repressive civilization.

Although Eros and Civilization is compellingly (if repetitiously) written, Marcuse’s assertions are often too emphatically made: he makes various significant departures from classically Freudian thought, including a historically-unwarranted optimism regarding the unconscious, whilst insisting upon a classically Freudian approach, but also undermining this by arguing against its validity for its originally intended purpose. In many ways, Marcuse’s actual placement of “civilization” within his analysis of the psychological parallels of sublimation to it is woolly, whilst his liberationist invocation lacks the prerequisite materialism for a traditionally Marxist theory, and yet remains too dialectical in approach to fit neatly within a poststructuralist or postmodernist tradition. Nevertheless, within Eros and Civilization is a span of ideas that have proven crucial to neo-Marxist, poststructuralist and postmodernist thought, even if only at the stage of embryonic propositions, in the works of Lyotard, Bataille, Foucault and Deleuze & Guattari. There is certainly value to this text, if predominantly as a conceptual milestone in the development of social theory.

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