Read Chapter 9

Douglas Kellner on Herbert Marcuse

CITE AS: Kellner, D. (2016). Douglas Kellner on Herbert Marcuse In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 126 - 137). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Chapter 9

Douglas Kellner on Herbert Marcuse

My approach to media and media literacy was mediated through interaction with multiple grand- and godfathers, including critical theorists like Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas, proponents of a political-economy approach to media like Noam Chomsky and Herbert Schiller, and champions of a cultural-ecology approach like Marshall McLuhan and George Gerbner. I have always maintained that an important part of media literacy is a broad understanding of media and their significant economic, political, cultural, and social effects. Thus, understanding media and promoting media literacy in its contemporary moment led me to engage a variety of media, cultural, and social theorists. I developed a multiperspectival approach with focuses on political economy, media texts, audiences, and analyses of the multiple roles and impacts that make cultivating critical media literacy such an important part of citizenship in today’s world. In this chapter, I provide a personal narrative of my encounter with different contemporary media theorists and theories and of how I came to synthesize their work into my own approach to media, focusing on Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School.
Herbert Marcuse, the Frankfurt School, and Media Critique
In the 1960s, as a graduate student in philosophy at Columbia University, I first became interested in the media and the work of Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School. There was frequent talk at the time of how we were becoming a media society, and the ideas of Marshall McLuhan were in vogue. I devoured Understanding Media (1964), which gave me a broad overview of the many media of communication that were proliferating during the era, and I still periodically teach McLuhan’s groundbreaking work.

One evening at Columbia in May 1969, I attended a lecture given by Marcuse . The next day, during a reception in the philosophy department where none of the philosophy professors showed up, Marcuse asked me and other graduate students to escort him to the West End Bar, where earlier Alan Ginsberg and the Beat poets had hung out, and where at the time my fellow graduate students and I ate, drink, and discussed philosophy, politics, and other issues of the day.

Shortly thereafter, I began a sustained study of Marcuse’s work that led to publication of my book Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism (1984). A philosopher, social theorist, and political activist, Marcuse gained world renown during the 1960s as the “father of the New Left.” Author of many books and articles and a university professor, Marcuse gained notoriety when he was perceived as both an influence on and defender of the New Left in the United States and Europe. His theory of one-dimensional society provided critical perspectives on contemporary capitalist and state communist societies, and his notion of “the great refusal” won him renown as a theorist of revolutionary change and “liberation from the affluent society." Consequently, he became one of the most influential intellectuals in the United States during the 1960s and into the 1970s.

In 1933, Marcuse joined the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) in Frankfurt and soon became deeply involved in its interdisciplinary projects, which included working out a model for radical social theory, developing a theory of the new stage of state and monopoly capitalism, providing a systematic analysis and critique of German fascism, and developing a theory of the new roles of mass culture and communication in modern societies. Marcuse deeply identified with the critical theory of the Institute and throughout his life was close to Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and others in the Institute’s inner circle.

The analyses by members of the Institute for Social Research of the functions of culture, ideology, and mass media in contemporary societies constitute one of its most valuable legacies. The critical theorists excelled as critics of both so-called “high culture” and “mass culture” while producing many important texts in these areas. Their work is distinguished by the close connection between social theory and cultural and media critique and by their ability to contextualize culture within social environments and struggles. In particular, their theory of culture was bound up with analysis of the dialectic of enlightenment (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972). Culture—once a refuge of beauty and truth—was falling prey, they believed, to tendencies toward rationalization, standardization, and conformity, which they saw as a consequence of the triumph of the instrumental rationality that was coming to pervade and structure ever more aspects of life. Thus, while culture once cultivated individuality, it was now promoting conformity and was a crucial part of “the totally administered society” that was producing “the end of the individual” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972).

Marcuse and the critical theorists thus came to see what they called the Culture Industry as a central part of a new configuration of capitalist modernity, which used culture, advertising, mass communication, and new forms of social control to induce consent to and reproduce the new forms of capitalist society. The production and transmission of media spectacles that transmit ideology and consumerism through allegedly popular entertainment and information were, they believed, central mechanisms through which contemporary society came to dominate the individual.

Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) deploys Freudian and Marxian categories to describe the process through which sexual and aggressive instincts are tamed and channeled into socially necessary but unpleasant labor. Following the Institute’s analysis of changes in the nature of socialization, Marcuse notes the decline of the family as the dominant agent of socialization and the rise of the mass media: “The repressive organization of the instincts seems to be collective, and the ego seems to be prematurely socialized by a whole system of extra-familial agents and agencies. As early as the pre-school level, gangs, radio, and television set the pattern for conformity and rebellion; deviations from the pattern are punished not so much in the family as outside and against the family. The experts of the mass media transmit the required values; they offer the perfect training in efficiency, toughness, personality, dream, and romance. With this education, the family can no longer compete” (Marcuse 1955, 97).

In Marcuse’s view, the mass media were becoming dominant agents of socialization, displacing the primacy of the family and removing it from its role in both Freudian and many U.S. social-science theories.The result is the decline of individual autonomy and the manipulation of mind and instincts by mass culture and communications: “With the decline in consciousness, with the control of information, with the absorption of individuals into mass communication, knowledge is administered and confined. The individual does not really know what is going on; the overpowering machine of education and entertainment unites him with all the others in a state of anesthesia from which all detrimental ideas tend to be excluded” (Marcuse 1955, 104). Marcuse continued to stress the manipulative effects of the culture industries in his later works and contributed to the widespread adoption of the so-called “manipulation theory” of the media by the New Left and others in the 1960s.

In One-Dimensional Man (1964), Marcuse claims that the inanities of commercial radio and television confirm his ideas about the decline of the individual and the demise of authentic culture and oppositional thought in “advanced industrial society.” Throughout the book, he assigns an important role to the media as “new forms of social control” that engender the “false needs” and “one-dimensional” thought and behavior necessary for the smooth reproduction of advanced capitalism.{AU: Please add page number(s) for quoted phrases.}

One-Dimensional Man also theorizes about the decline of revolutionary potential in capitalist societies and the development of new forms of social control. Marcuse argued that advanced industrial society created false needs that integrated individuals into the existing system of production and consumption. Mass media and culture, advertising, industrial management, and contemporary modes of thought all reproduced the existing system and attempted to eliminate negativity, critique, and opposition. The result was a one-dimensional universe of thought and behavior in which the very aptitude and ability for critical thinking and oppositional behavior was withering away.

From Marcuse’s writings and lectures, I got the sense that the media were a powerful instrument of the dominant capitalist system and ideology and a great force of reproducing consumer capitalism; Marcuse was developing and concretizing a model of the media that Horkheimer and Adorno had earlier developed in their famous analysis of the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972).

Because he was primarily a philosopher, Marcuse’s work lacks the sustained empirical analysis in some versions of Marxist theory and the emerging critical communication theory. Yet Marcuse constantly shows how science, technology, and the media have a political dimension, which helps produce consumers and citizens who conform to the dictates of existing capitalist societies and causes a decline of critical thinking. Marcuse does not, however, develop theories of media literacy, although he is vitally concerned with education (for more on Marcuse’s contributions to education, see Cho et al. 2009; Kellner, Lewis, and Pierce 2009). In the next section, I accordingly document how I became involved in teaching and writing about critical media literacy and how Marcuse’s work helps provide a critical dimension to this project.
Media Culture, the Public Sphere, and Media Critique
In the mid-1970s, I became involved in Marxist studies groups at the University of Texas at Austin. After going through key Marxian texts, including the Grundrisse and Capital, we decided to study the American political economy and, in particular, television. Our study group began with sustained study and discussion of Horkheimer and Adorno’s model of the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment and Marcuse’s critique of the media within one-dimensional society. We also became involved in alternative media and were given a chance to do a weekly public-access TV show, Alternative Views. Accordingly, from 1978 to the mid-1990s, Frank Morrow, myself, and others taped hourlong interviews combined with documentary programs to produce one show per week for years on end; they were eventually syndicated around the United States and briefly made me a celebrity in New York City, where the program was shown several times per week on the New York public-access channels. This project helped me to become a Deweyan public intellectual and to apply philosophical notions and abilities to issues of public concern in a public forum.

At the time, I was also deeply involved in study of the media and ideology, and in the 1970s I published in the Socialist Review one article on the concept of ideology (Kellner 1979a) and another on television ideology and emancipatory popular culture (1979b). Although I was associated with Herbert Marcuse’s wing of Frankfurt School critical theory after publishing my book Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism (1984), I also liked Habermas’s work on communicative action, theory, and practice and other works and did not posit this as an either-or choice. This distinction was introduced by Habermas’s student Albrecht Wellmer, who came to New York to lecture on Habermas. In a proselytizing mode, he presented Habermas’s work as far superior to Marcuse’s and Horkheimer and Adorno’s. This was the beginning of the development of a Habermasian camp, which would become a global intellectual subdiscipline that continues to this day.

In the 1980s, I had a Big Idea that was to shape my work for the next decades: our culture was a media culture. It was media that were shaping the patterns of everyday life: in our economy (through advertising and promotion); our increasingly mediated politics (Ronald Reagan was president, which made it clear that part of politics was acting, image construction, and spectacle); and our culture, in which all cultural forms were directly constructed or mediated through the media (i.e., description, interpretation, and evaluation of all cultural forms, from opera to popular music or from theater to film and television, were mediated through mass media).

This concept comes part from Marshall McLuhan, who in Understanding Media (1964) argues that with new forms of media, we have new forms of culture, consciousness, and everyday life. This idea also reflected the Frankfurt School’s culture-industry thesis: that capitalism and technology were creating new syntheses that were coming to dominate culture, the economy, politics, and all forms of everyday life. Later I would agree with Antonio Gramsci that culture is a contested terrain rather than an instrument of domination and manipulation, which was a view of the Frankfurt School but also of Louis Althusser and the structuralists and other Marxist theories of media at the time.

Hence, I set out to develop a critical theory of media and technology that would articulate the ways that, following Marcuse, media could be used as instruments of power, domination, and social control and yet how the media could be used as forms of resistance to hegemonic power and for alternative forms of pedagogy, politics, and communication. I also recognized that media were so powerful, so proliferating and omnipresent, that it was impossible to really grasp their complex, singular, and often weird effects (so I also was open to poststructuralist theories of the media).

Having studied during graduate school in both Germany and France, I have long tried to synthesize German and French traditions rather than to oppose them, and this goal animated a book coauthored with Michael Ryan, Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film (1988). The idea was to combine critical theory and poststructuralist methods to interrogate the politics and ideology of Hollywood film. Ryan and I saw film as emerging as an especially powerful form of culture at a time when videocassettes and video-rental stores made it possible to see a tremendous amount of films in one’s home and to make one’s own copies of films to build up a personal film library. I literally bought the first Betamax video recorder in Austin, as I had read about this product previously and knew that it was exactly what I needed to do cinema and media studies. At this time, cable and satellite television was also proliferating, and I remember being one of the first to hook up to cable TV and HBO in Austin —Taxi Driver was the first film I saw on HBO and one of the first that I recorded and could carefully study (as well as take tapes into class and play and discuss scenes with students, making video recorders a transformative teaching tool as well as instrument of research and pleasure). Of course, my Betamax was soon obsolete and replaced by VHS machines, but I followed this trajectory with resignation, changing video recorders yearly, just as I would do during my first years with personal computers.

Working on Camera Politica, Ryan and I saw film as a contested terrain in which political battles over gender, class, race, sexuality, and, more broadly, ideology were transcoded, hence the title of our book Camera Politica. We saw that dominant film genres and auteurs and specific films transcoded the social and political struggles and passions of the day such that their decoding and interpretation could provide insights into the social and political struggles and passions of the day{AU: Is the repetition here intentional?}, as well as into dominant fantasies, fears, hopes, and dreams.

My two books on television during the era of the Reagan and George H. W. Bush presidencies, Television and the Crisis of Democracy (1990) and The Persian Gulf TV War (1992), draw on both German and French traditions but attempt to rethink the problematics of Marcuse and the Frankfurt School critique of the culture industries through a concrete study of American television. Television and the Crisis of Democracy (1990) argues that in the Reagan era, television was used as a powerful instrument of governing and power and that capital and the construction of images and spectacle played increasingly powerful roles in society and politics, creating a crisis of democracy. In writing this book, I employed a structuralist model of economy, state, and the media and argue that corporations were coming to control the state and media. Liberal theories of a democratic society had postulated separation and division of power between the executive, legislative, and judiciary, with the media serving as a “fourth estate,” to provide part of a system of checks and balances that could criticize misuses of power and corruption and provide voices and venues of participation. Of course, by the 1980s in U.S. society, giant corporations controlled the media, especially television, and used media to promote their own corporate interests (through advertising and glamorizing the consumer society in entertainment), as well as to support whatever political party or candidate best served their corporate interests. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, it was the Reagan and Bush administrations that provided tax breaks for the rich, deregulation, and whatever policies their corporate overlords and bagmen would demand (Kellner 1990). To be sure, there might be conflicts between various economic interests, but the Reagan and Bush regimes relentlessly promoted corporate interests overlooking the interests and needs of ordinary people, workers, and the middle class, requiring the sort of critical theory developed by Marcuse to properly conceptualize and critique. 
Philosophy, Critical Theory, and Media Literacy
In all my own writings on media and politics, I use philosophy and critical-social theory to provide weapons of critique and tools of analysis that can be applied to concrete issues and problems. I thus use philosophy not as abstract dogma to be religiously worshipped but as a body of living thought to apply to contemporary problems and issues. The best of continental philosophy is critical and dialogical (Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Marcuse, and the like), and its major thinkers have often drawn on the most productive elements of their predecessors while overcoming those aspects that are no longer useful or relevant. Thus, with Marcuse, I see philosophy as dialectical, assimilating new theories and ideas into its arsenal of theory and critique; making connections between different spheres of social existence, culture, and ideas; laying out dominant conflicts in the worlds of society and ideas; negating certain ideas and critiquing what are discerned to be oppressive social, political, and cultural realities; and providing new syntheses of theory and politics—just like Hegel, Marx, Dewey, Gramsci, Marcuse, and the Frankfurt School in earlier eras. With poststructuralism, philosophy can articulate differences, ambiguities, and complexities of the present moment and would resist any notion of completeness, certitude, or closure to a specific analysis and interpretation, as history is always open, always subject to new interpretations and events, and the times, indeed, are always changing, just as Bob Dylan clearly saw.

I had long been an advocate of media literacy, once receiving a grant, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency in the 1970s, to teach media literacy to teachers in low-income high schools in the Mississippi Delta area. For months, I taught workshops on helping teachers provide curricula that would educate their students to critically read and decode media messages— including representations of gender, class, sexuality, and race—to help students and educators discern racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and other negative representations in the media while also looking for positive images, meanings, role models, and programming.

At the University of Texas in the late 1970s, I devised a Philosophy of Culture and Communication course, which introduced theories of media, cultural studies, and critical media literacy in order to promote knowledge of media ownership and programming, teach textual analysis, and develop theories of media power and alternative progressive uses of media for politics, pedagogy, and social transformation. At UCLA in the mid-1990s, I transformed this course into a seminar, Introduction to Cultural Studies, that uses my book Media Culture (Kellner 1995) and a Blackwell reader, Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (Durham and Kellner 2012) which brings together key texts in contemporary approaches to media culture and communication, ranging from Roland Barthes and Horkheimer and Adorno to recent studies of YouTube, Facebook, and social networking.

These texts apply the insights and methods of philosophy, critical social theory, and cultural analysis and critique to a vast array of cultural phenomena, and Media Culture (Kellner 1995) concretely analyzes the dominant forms of U.S. media culture, ranging from film and television to popular music and the emerging cyberculture. The approach to media literacy in this work follows Marcuse and the Frankfurt School by contextualizing and criticizing media forms within the context of contemporary capitalist society and the ways that cultural texts reproduce the dominant forms of power and ideology. Critical media literacy, using this model, is the ability to read and critique media texts from the standpoint of how they reproduce, contest, or are contradictory and ambiguous in relation to the dominant institutions of forms of power.

My approach to critical media literacy also involves analyzing how media provide representations of class, race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of life, either reproducing oppression and domination or presenting representations that contest or provide alternatives to hegemonic forms. In doing textual analysis of specific media texts like Rambo and Avatar, I apply a range of theories, ranging from Marxism to feminism to critical race theory to queer theory to poststructuralism, to interpretation and critique of cultural and political phenomena and contribute to developing a critical, multicultural, and political media and cultural studies (Kellner 1995, 2010).

By the mid-1990s, it was clear that the media were becoming increasingly powerful instruments of socialization and political indoctrination, as sources of meanings and identities on cable and satellite television mushroomed and talk radio and channels of broadcasting expanded as the Internet absorbed video, audio, and the culture of image and spectacle, and as new media and new technologies continued to proliferate. While at UCLA in the 1990s, it became clear to me that the Internet and new digital technologies were dramatically transforming culture, consciousness, and everyday life, and I organized a seminar at UCLA to explore technology and new media and the new technoliteracies necessary to interpret and critique Internet culture and social networking. Hence, I would now argue that new technologies require new literacies and that being technoliterate does not just involve knowing how to use computers and new technologies, as in some academic forms of technoliteracy, but also involves understanding the multiple functions of new technologies and new media in everyday life, understanding how they transform communication, social interaction, research and scholarship, politics, culture, economics, and our social relations and identities.

This work brings me back to appreciate the work of Marcuse, who, more than any figure of his era, theorized that the conjunction of capital and technology and the ways that development of technology and emergence of new technologies construct new forms of economy, politics, culture, and everyday life, as well as new forms of domination and resistance. Thus, I see critical media literacy as involving understanding new media and technologies as forms of power that have multiple and evolving social effects and uses, and I maintain that critical media literacy includes understanding new media and their impact on all forms of contemporary life.

Whereas much of the dominant literature on new media and technologies tends to be either celebratory or derogatory, I intend to provide a balanced appraisal of the costs and benefits of deploying new technologies. In particular, in debates concerning whether books or computer databases and resources provide the basis for contemporary education, I mediate between these extremes, arguing that education today should be based on a balance between book material and new computer- and multimedia-based material. Likewise, I argue that traditional literacy in print culture and traditional skills of reading and writing are more important than ever today but that we need to teach new literacies to supplement the skills of the past.

Consequently, critical media literacy enables us to appreciate how previous forms of book literacy—reading, analyzing, and criticizing texts—can be applied to new media, but it also helps us understand how the development of new media involves learning how they affect the economy, politics, and social and cultural life, as well as our very identities.
Cho, D., T. Lewis, D. Kellner, and C. Pierce. 2009. Marcuse’s Challenge to Education. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Durham, M. G., and D. Kellner. 2012. {AU: Publication year correct?}Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Horkheimer, M., and T. W. Adorno. 1972. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder.
Kellner, D. 1979a. “Ideology, Marxism, and Advanced Capitalism.” Socialist Review 42:37–65.
———. 1979b. “TV, Ideology and Emancipatory Popular Culture.” Socialist Review 45:13–53.
———. 1984. Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
———. 1990. Television and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder, CO: Westview.
———. 1992. The Persian Gulf TV War. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Kellner, D., T. Lewis, and C. Pierce. 2009. On Marcuse: Critique, Liberation, and Reschooling in the Radical Pedagogy of Herbert Marcuse. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense.
Marcuse, H. 1955. Eros and Civilization. Boston: Beacon Press.
———. 1964. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press.
McLuhan, M. 1964. Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Ryan, M., and D. Kellner. 1998. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


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