“All Verbs: ream, spin, veer, span, cross, ram, peel, charge, pitch, verge, switch, shoot, slide, cram, goad, clash, cleave, fetch, clamp, lean, swap, butt, crook, split, jut, hack, break, stroke, stop.“ — Lozano notebook page dated 1964/67.
Sex and Drugs and Rock n’ Roll with a little poetry and art. It had to start somewhere. Herbert Marcuse, whose vouchsafing of play and free love as an escape from repressive societies shaped the hippie movement, and certainly a strong visual and auditif argument for the trickle-down of sexual liberation into art and the counterculture. In One Dimensional Man (1964), his most popular book, he argued for a sexual basis to the social and political repression in contemporary America; the book made him a hero of New Left radicals and provided a rationale for the student revolts of the 1960s in the United States and Europe.
Much like Michel Foucault in a later generation, Marcuse had an enormous influence on theories of sexual liberation, particularly in the early post-Stonewall gay movement and on the left. Many young people in the 1960s adopted Marcuse-like sexual politics as the basis for the counter-culture’s radical transformation of values. By exploring drugs, music and sex, they sought to experience what Marcuse described as an “erotic sense of reality.” Marcuse’s book Eros and Civilization (1955), a synthesis of the thought of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, also played an influential role in the writing of early proponents of gay liberation, such as Dennis Altman and Martin Duberman.
”ll be labeling this historical attitude “Eros,” after the usage of the term by perhaps its most famous exponent, Herbert Marcuse, in his groundbreaking book Eros and Civilization. Importantly, there is no women’s Eros, nor men’s Eros in Marcuse’s demonstration; it’s neither gay nor lesbian nor heterosexual Eros; it’s never so specified or made coterminous with an identity—rather it’s always simply Eros, and proclaimed a universal human capacity. We tend to understand universals, rightly I think, as inherently oppressive constructs meant to shore the status quo, to keep power in the hands of those who already wield it; but importantly this one understood itself as both dissident and liberating. It’s hard to wrap our heads around this vision of Eros because it flies in the face of so much of what we assume to be true: that it is difference and not commonality that constitutes the ground of our identity, that rights are pursued and won on a basis of a minoritizing, not universalizing discourse.” ( Jonathan Katz )
Marcuse operated on a utopian basis , which on a behavioral level, rested and relied on the shaky ground of Freudian psychology to provide a theory of human instincts, which, he asserted, are repressed under capitalism but which, when liberated, can be the basis for a life of sensousness, playfulness, peace, and beauty. This liberation requires a total transformation of present society: technology would be utilized to abolish poverty and provide for abundance; there would be a different relation to nature in which art and production are unified; the sexes and generations would overcome artificial constraints, and a new kind of person with advanced sensibilities would appear.
Marcuse’s optimism for the actual achievement of these transformations was at its lowest in One Dimensional Man (1964); the student rebellions of the 1960s gave him renewed hope. Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972) retreats from advocating revolutionary violence and confrontation and recommends working for change within the system. The Aesthetic Dimension (1978) argues that the sensuous appearance of beauty in the artwork preserves the memory of a liberated way of living and so escapes the domination of the present, repressive order.
The visionary nature of Marcuse’s revolution is not revealed by his politics alone. Marcuse, perhaps more than he suspected, was true to an old tradition of Western revolutionary idealism in his desire to join sexual reform to the demand for social justice. In a tradition that reaches from the pre-Christian Gnostics through the Anabaptists to the social and sexual reformers of free-living Brook Farm in nineteenth-century Aca, Marcuse postulated that man in a justly ordered society would be also sexually free.
His analysis of modern industrial society , and his prescription for sexual reformation, are not an attack on the concepts of puritanism and repression as such. Marcuse in his writings reveals a curiously puritanical streak, that was mainly lost on his legions of admirers, in his sexual idealism. For Marcuse mere sexual license, or sexiness, is not a desirable state of affairs. Indeed, he regarded the proliferation of sexual freedoms of the vulgar sort, in the contemporary world as basically undesirable, as one more mechanism by which One-Dimensional Man is conditioned to accept his misery.
The process by which the permissible areas of sexual activity are broadened at the same time that the individual’s pleasure in the activity declines, is defined by Marcuse as ”sexual desublimation” , by which he means the very reverse of Freud’s principle whereby the mature individual diverts libidinal energy to socially desirable ends by sublimation, a transcendence of the merely sexual.
”But the very discursive success of an identity model has obscured other, competing paradigms of dissidence not premised on the articulation of difference. My point here is to recover in Ginsberg a very particular universalizing vision of Eros as a mechanism of comprehensive social dissent and activist engagement. The term Eros, as defined by Marcuse, suggests a society that no longer represses the pleasure principle, a society no longer organized around the denial of libidinal relationships, but that celebrates the libido in everyone as an end in itself. The payoff—and this is worth underscoring even in advance of the historical argument—is that it was precisely this particular and still understudied notion of a universal Eros that helped make visible the body as potentially dissident and deeply politicized, the first step towards its subsequent establishment in race-, gender- and sexuality-based social movements as the ground for contestation.” ( Jonathan Katz )
Accurately noting the inverse correlation between public ”sexiness” and genuine sexuality today, in a society in which talk and display of sex have to a marked degree displaced action, Marcuse gloomily observed: ”The range of socially permissible and desirable satisfaction is greatly enlarged, but through this satisfaction, the Pleasure Principle is reduced – deprived of the claims which are irreconcilable with the established society. Pleasure, thus adjusted, generates submission.”
That this should be so, asserts Marcuse, is not merely tragic, but unnecessary. Mankind stands on the threshold of a technological era that could reverse one of Freud’s fundamental dicta; namely, that instinctual drives need to be repressed, to some degree at least, in the interests of adjusting to the Reality Principle: the ability to recognize the claims of work , to forego present pleasure for a future good. That is, in the Freudian scheme, the mark of the mature personality.
”According to Marcuse, before things got mapped and sorted out, and human differences particularized, specified, embodied, and made over into newly politicized identities, a single, universal human capacity—the capacity to experience and engender Eros—was elevated not only to defining status, but became the privileged ground of a powerfully articulated politics of social liberation. There is a great paradox in the fact that this universalizing discourse would then engender the now specific social categories—like feminist and gay— that today obscure its formative and foundational role.”