Teaching & Translating Marcuse: Making the Critique of One-Dimensionality Accessible

This is another update on teaching political theory – my Contemporary Political Theory course which includes in-class exercises to translate theoretical concepts and texts to more applied setting. In other words, how can we use political theory in (so-called) “real life”? The course is actually just finished (except for the grading), but this post is on the second of three major texts covered in the course: Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. A subsequent post will talk about teaching Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.

One of the problems confronted with Marcuse’s text is that, despite the claim that it ignited the New Left in the 1960s (“The foremost literary symbol of the New Left” according to the New York Times, as quoted on the book’s back cover), it is still a dense work of political theory. And the central argument about “one-dimensionality” at least suggests that the flattening out of concepts – the “making accessible” (or “dumbing down”) of philosophical content – is a significant part of the problem facing contemporary society. Talking about the “popularization” of great works of the past, Marcuse writes:

“but coming to life as classics, they come to life as other than themselves; they are deprived of their antagonistic force, of the estrangement which was the very dimension of their truth.” (p64)

Maybe these exercises deprive Marcuse’s book of its antagonistic force. I hope not. Or at least no more than the mere act of putting it on the curriculum does.

A couple of the exercises that we did repeated what we did for Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition: In one class, after reading about Marcuse’s philosophy of language, students each wrote a postcard to Marcuse from 2014, and then (in small groups) responded to the postcards as Marcuse. In another class, students drew posters representing Marcuse’s ideas. This one is notable for its subtle (or perhaps unintentional) reference to Pink Floyd.

photo 1

This one I think is Adbusters-worthy.

photo 2

After reading just the first two chapters, students had to pick four relatively recent developments that could be put on a Marcusean Likert scale (something that Marcuse would think is great; pretty good; pretty bad; terrible). Things that were terrible were easy for them to come up with, and some groups struggled (appropriately) finding something contemporary he would think is great. The middle categories sparked the most discussion. Would Marcuse see the collapse of the Soviet Union or the rise of the internet as “pretty good” or “pretty bad”?

Since they didn’t want to perform political theatre again (as much as I liked watching it) I had them come up with a storyboard for a movie about repressive desublimation. Here is one for “Repressive Desublimation: A Day in the Life” (though I think best title award goes to the group that came up with “Michael Bay’s Repressive DesubLEGOmation”).

photo 3

In the last class on Marcuse, students were assigned to come up with a buzzfeed-style quiz on “How one-dimensional are you?” Each group came up with some good questions, but my original plan to have them come up with a scoring mechanism was cleverly usurped when they decided that no matter which answers were chosen, anyone taking the quiz was one dimensional.



One thought on “Teaching & Translating Marcuse: Making the Critique of One-Dimensionality Accessible

  1. Pingback: Frantz Fanon: The Board Games | andrewbiro

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