One Dimensional Man
reviewed by Dwayne Huebner - 1966
In a society where the slogan "the power of positive thinking" almost reflects dogma, the reverse notion, "the power of negative thinking" seems absurd. Yet it is that apparent absurdity, the irrationality of the supposedly rational, that Marcuse develops. His concern for the unfortunate consequences of technical rationality, and his hope for the eventual liberation of man from the "unfreedom" and domination which prevail in this advanced industrial civilization make One-Dimensional Man significant reading for the educator. The form and content make it a difficult book, for Marcuse builds on his earlier works. But patience in reading will pay off, and the added effort of going back to his Reason and Revolution and Eros and Civilization will produce significant dividends in new perspectives for looking at education today.
His argument is that there is today a "flattening out of the antagonisms between culture and social reality through the obliteration of the oppositional, alien, and transcendant elements." In fact, his introductory chapter is entitled "The Paralysis of Criticism: Society without Opposition." This results in a one-dimensional world and a one-dimensional man. One-dimensionality is a consequence of man's technical rationality, his need and desire to master things and to control his material existence; a rationality which transfers automatically to the mastery over and the domination of man himself. Technical rationality has become political rationality, and consequently breaks into and controls all forms of man's existencehis thinking and language, his arts, the mass media, as well as the industrial domain. Marcuse traces this to the development of so-called objective science and the separation of fact from value, of Logos from Eros; for science grows out of man's mastery over and quantification of nature. The domination of and by technical rationality is not simply a misuse of objective, so-called value free science; it is inherent in the world view that produced and now uses science.
By becoming the dominant rationality of Western civilization, all other forms of rationality are encompassed within it. A harmonizing pluralism results in which everything is accepted as part of the world, i.e., as the nature of things. In language such stupidities as the "clean-bomb" and "Luxury Fall-Out Shelters" reflect this harmonizing of conflict and the casual acceptance of discrepancies. He takes the linguistic philosophers to task for valuing current language usage as if it were a reflection of reality, rather than simply a reflection of man's uncritical acceptance of a positivistic rationality. In the life of the individual a "happy consciousness prevails, which is really a false consciousness, for the "organism is . . . being preconditioned for the spontaneous acceptance of what is offered." He is no longer able to detect and respond to the contradictions. Social techniques such as therapy, labor management, and even linguistic analysis adjust the individual to these contradictions and absurdities rather than mobilizing his energies to make more rational the irrationalities of society.
The major problem is the failure to accept the power of negative thinkinga dialectic rationality. The negative elementcritique, contradiction, transcendencewhich is an essential element of the dialectic between subject and object, appearance and reality, truth and untruth, freedom and unfreedom, has been ignored or incorporated by technical rationality under the rubric of progress. Whereas "critical thought strives to define the irrational character of established rationality," the established rationality contains and manipulates these critical and negative forces within the individual and the social system, and hence the repressive unfreedom.
He sees some hope that society might be able to break the bonds of this repressive domination. The technical order itself, by increased productivity and automation, can free man from the domination of labor, thus providing free time (not leisure-time, which is a control mechanism of the prevailing order through entertainment and mass media). With free time man might discover new possibilities of social life. But the freeing of man will not happen automatically through productivity. It will require that science and technology come under the control of a political rationality, rather than vice versa. Values must be turned into needs, and science and technology used to fulfill them. This will require conscious attention to historical truththe ability to see real possibilities within today's material and intellectual culture: possibilities which are perhaps the negation of the current realized possibilities. It will require acceptance that universalstruth, freedom, beauty, manare "primary elements of experience" which comprehend all particulars not yet realized or attained. Finally, it will require that art become a form of rationality which projects existence, defines unrealized possibilities, and liberates man and nature to be what they can be.
Education does not concern Marcuse in this book. But he speaks to educators and about education in almost every page. Are not the schools one of the primary agencies of domination and repression? Do they not accept, uncritically, the prevailing one-dimensional rationality? Are they not governed by technical rationality and do not those in control reject other possible forms of rationality? Are not the schools miniature one-dimensional societies and the students well on their way to becoming one-dimensional men? Where in the field of education does the power of negative thinking, the dialectic between appearance and reality, break through? The thoughtful educator, who perhaps after reading One-Dimensional Man is more consciously a critical and hopefully even a negative educator, will not put the book down and remain the same.