From enjoyment to refusal: Marcuse, psychoanalysis, and the condition of affluent capitalism

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Author: Zachary Tavlin
Date: Oct. 2015
From: The Comparatist(Vol. 39)
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,000 words
Lexile Measure: 1470L

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In this essay, I will attempt to provide a way to read a direct heir of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, with a key member of the Marxian Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse has clearly opened a relation between Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis in Eros and Civilization. I will draw upon Freud's theories of society and culture, as well as his system of subject-formation. Then, after considering Marcuse's corrective on the basis of historical capitalism, as well as his critique of consumer capitalism in One-Dimensional Man, I will apply Lacan's theory of the "two deaths" as a way of pressing the theoretical relevance of Marcuse's critique for affluent capitalism, which relies upon the "injunction to enjoy." I will also draw upon Zizek's reading of Lacan as a way of articulating the political obstacles of (what Zizek calls) postmodern ideology, and the requisite theoretical deadlocks that need to be overcome before one can say anything of practical import. Finally, I will discuss the relevance of the categories of private and public space for the situation of postmodern ideology, as a way to initiate a "proposal without a program" that draws upon the "ethic of refusal" at the heart of the death drive.


Marcuse's move is not to overtly contend with Freud's claim that civilization requires a repression of the drives, but to historicize it, so that we can view late capitalism from the perspective of its work on Eros and Thanatos (libido and death drive) and still develop a theoretical model of a non-repressive economic and cultural system. Freud posits that obedience to the pleasure principle becomes untenable in a reality-space where pleasures themselves (or those things that satisfy our desires, which for Freud must be material and not merely hallucinatory or phantasmatic) are scarce.

For Freud, reality is constructed in the first place by the psyche once the hallucinatory object (primordially, of the mother's breast), continually recalled, inevitably fails to satisfy the quantity of excitation released by the circulating drive. Here, one interprets the pleasure principle alongside the reality principle; the ego responds to reality in order to regulate sustainable pleasures and close the gap between the sexual aim and object. Civilization and society are upper-level reality constructions for the individual, fully analogous to this primordial reality construction. The renunciation of an unrestrained (but ultimately inadequate, since it intends towards repeatable as well as unrepeatable objects) Eros is paid for by a modest though consistent Eros, weakened and made indirect through the extension of desire toward social mediations like friendship (specifically friendships of utility, which in the influential Aristotelian account are degraded forms of friendship).

For Freud, the result is being-with (a term I borrow from Heidegger to mark a difference: for the latter, Mit-sein is not produced but is rather an originary condition for Dasein). But it is, to a certain extent, the source of suffering:

We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A435002459