B-Flat Eternity: The Restlessness of Modern Progress
Posted on August 4, 2016
This post will attempt to resolve a problem that arises for me when I think about Nietzsche’s statement that “joy desires eternity”: how can desire be eternal without being insatiable? In other words, are temporal limits necessary for avoiding a restless life in which one is never able to enjoy the current moment, being pulled out of it by a future that is always pulling away? I eschew the answers of Heidegger and Nietzsche for the reasons I articulated earlier, but I still need to articulate how joy can desire eternity with proper fidelity to both the already and not yet of eschatology.
In this project I find something promising in the mystical writings of Gregory of Nyssa, whose work I will take in an unorthodox direction by noting how it can be a resource for resolving the contradictions in Marcuse’s utopian eschatology. In Gregory’s account of how God increases the soul’s capacity to desire him with every moment of enjoyment of God, he offers an intriguing and overlooked way of understanding how desire can escalate without exhaustion—and it is this structure of perpetual progress that Marcuse needs to render his utopianism and his immortality consistent, such that Eros’ self-sublimation avoids being a hedonic treadmill of Sisyphean unhappiness.
An important disclaimer and clarification: when Marcuse uses the words Eros or erotic, and when I use them in the course of explaining Marcuse’s thinking, he and I don’t mean what most people mean by it. Most people take erotic to imply crass, disrespectful, objectifying lustful behavior that selfishly uses people to get a certain feeling out of them. Instead, Marcuse uses Eros and its cognates in a technical, neo-Freudian sense of “the pleasure principle,” which certainly includes sexuality but also includes all other sorts of pleasures such as singing, joking, eating, cooking, and any other number of activities that are joyful. In fact, one of Marcuse’s major criticisms of our society is that we restrict Eros to mean only sexuality (and only one part of our bodies), and this limits the range of what we are allowed to enjoy to narrow and preset parameters we receive from the society around us. It follows that we have narrow imaginations about what constitutes pleasure and a happy life, and you can find evidence for this by watching commercials closely. Marcuse and I are also using the word Eros (and its cognates) in the Platonic sense of romantic love and passionate desire, where one seeks deep and personal connection with the beloved that respects them as the irreplaceable free being they are, not shallow and impersonal utilization of an object of desire that disrespects them as interchangeable with other objects of equally vacuous desire.
With this expansive conception of Eros in hand, Marcuse thinks Eros can generate its own principle of self-limitation and thereby sustain cultural order and create works of new mental or spiritual sensitivity (which Freud calls sublimation, because something basic is transforming into something more rarefied). According to Marcuse, Freud is right to think that we have to repress and delay the gratification of Eros to some extent in order to do basic things like hunt or sophisticated things like paint bowls of fruit, but Freud is wrong to think that the degree of our repression is directly proportional to the complexity and viability of our civilization, and furthermore wrong for thinking Eros needs a stern authority from the outside to force it to do the work necessary for civilized complexity. If automation technology could be used to make work less like toil and more like play, and if delaying full satisfaction of one’s drives can be a source for greater and more interesting pleasure later (as we see when we savor a meal instead of wolfing it down), then we can engage in the activities needed for social progress not out of anxiety about averting (usually artificial) catastrophe, but because the activity is pleasant in this higher, more fulfilling manner. Marcuse writes:
The culture-building power of Eros is non-repressive sublimation: sexuality is neither deflected from nor blocked in its objective; rather, in attaining its objective, it transcends it to others, searching for fuller gratification. In the light of the idea of non-repressive sublimation, Freud’s definition of Eros as striving to “form living substance into ever greater unities, so that life may be prolonged and brought to higher development” takes on added significance. The biological drive becomes a cultural drive. The pleasure principle reveals its own dialectic. The erotic aim of sustaining the entire body as subject-object of pleasure calls for the continual refinement of the organism, the intensification of its receptivity, the growth of its sensuousness. The aim generates its own projects of realization: the abolition of toil, the amelioration of the environment, the conquest of disease and decay, the creation of luxury.
It follows that the great degree of progress advanced industrial civilizations enjoy in the current age is technical progress without humanitarian progress; it is pivotal not to equate sophisticated technological mastery with advanced institutions that safeguard and promote the flourishing and peaceful coexistence of all individuals on fair and autonomous terms. Nazi Germany is an intuitive example of how the one kind of progress can exist without the other. Marcuse also warns of “the idea of a totalitarian welfare state” wherein we might call people happy but “then it is the happiness of the administered.” We are not freer simply because we have more disposable income and more elaborate markets to both meet and produce new consumer desires. This “quantitative concept of progress,” wherein we have more of the same, is technical progress; and while some degree of technical progress makes humanitarian progress possible, humanitarian progress will be a qualitatively improved kind of life.
In the modern era, it is hard to imagine qualitative progress without distorting it into quantitative progress, since are in the grip of “the performance principle,” in which our highest value is productivity for productivity’s sake, way past the point of need. When we have free time we feel as though we should be making ourselves useful, and we in turn equate that with working hard, even when it is unnecessary for any rational biological or social or moral purpose. No matter how much surplus our technological marvels allow us to have, we are afraid we don’t have enough; we tend to feel like imposters who don’t do enough, yet we tend to vehemently ostracize anybody who appears not to be busy. We are, in short, neurotic, because we have internalized an antiquated form of patriarchal domination that may have been necessary for prehistoric survival, but is completely unnecessary in an era when technology can make work more like play. By overcoming the social structures that reproduce and ratify surplus-repression, we can overcome our unhealthy, compulsive restlessness:
Particularly characteristic of the modern view of progress is the evaluation of time. Time is understood as a straight line or endlessly rising curve, as a becoming that devalues all mere existence. The present is experienced with regard to a more or less uncertain future. The latter menaces the present from the beginning and is conceived and experienced with anxiety. The past remains behind as what can be neither mastered nor repeated, but in such a way that it continues to determine the present just because it is unmastered. In this linearly experience time, fulfilled time, the duration of gratification, the permanence of individual happiness, and time as peace can be represented only as superhuman or subhuman: as eternal bliss, which is possible and conceivable only after existence here on earth has ceased, or as the idea that the wish for the perpetuation of the happy moment is itself the inhuman or anti-human force that surrenders man to the devil.
According to Caroline Edwards, Marcuse’s critical social thought contains covert traces of a tradition of Jewish messianism, and she sees in the ecological dimensions of Marcuse’s critique “the recalibration of transcendence by the ‘ecocritical turn,’ which in recent years has produced its own discourse of ecoeschatology, uncovering the ‘earthliness’ of immanent and historical hope within the Hebrew Scriptures.” Edwards takes Marcuse to be engaged in an eschatology that is secular and therefore sees the time of the messiah as immanent in history and therefore is ecofriendly. In my preceding posts I have problematized this easy and exclusive transitivity between secularity, divine immanence, and ecological care as potted history. I am all for “the greening of eschatology,” as Edwards is; I simply think that the time of the messiah can have a transcendent dimension without excluding greenness (or what Hildegard of Bingen calls God’s viriditas).
Edwards does have a nice formulation that encapsulates how Marcuse is drawing from the Jewish messianism of the dohakei haketz, “those who hasten the end of time” through exemplary dedication to social justice:
In the context of Jewish utopian messianism, then, the “Great Refusal” of Orpheus-as-liberator (EC 236) can thus be read as enacting a hastening of the end of time through the political tradition of messianic rupture; seizing the historical opportunity to resist capitalism’s reified “Happy Consciousness” and refusing an apathetic acceptance of death as ontological essence. For Marcuse, Orpheus instructs us to realize that death cannot be reduced to any pure negation of being since the end of time is signified by utopia, not death. Unlike Prometheus, who toils beneath the mighty albatross of progress, the legendary heroes Orpheus and Narcissus thus possess a vitally antagonistic relationship with the reality of the performance principle that militates against what Marcuse calls “the temporal dismemberment of pleasure” (EC 47). This mutilation of the time of pleasure must therefore be met with a commitment to the total negation of established society and subsequent instantiation of qualitative change.
If the end of time is signified by utopia, not death, then the transcendence of the established order is not divorced from the prophetic and mythical imagination of a heaven, where the old order of suffering gives way to a new order of joy and justice, virtue and happiness, the highest good (summum bonum).
When Marcuse says that alongside a circular conception of time “all contentless transcendence would come to a close, and freedom would no longer be an eternally failing project,” he falls prey to the rationalization of suffering in Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, which Marcuse appears to take as the only meaningful way to talk about the “perpetuity of pleasure.” However, Marcuse himself champions Eros’ capacity for self-sublimation and perpetually more intense and qualitatively improved forms. Here we notice a tension that recurs throughout Marcuse’s writings: on the one hand, Marcuse is militating for the historically unrecognized right to joyfully play and peacefully rest amidst a harmonious world here and now (let us call this a value-system of immanence)—and on the other hand, Marcuse’s utopianism calls for a better world that does not exist, contrary to entrenched repressive systems whose alternatives are unthinkable for most people (let us call this a value-system of transcendence).
This does not invalidate Marcuse’s project tout court, because he himself often notices the fertility of thinking about the tension between the way the world is and the way the world ought to be (e.g., his praise for dialectic as “the power of negative thinking,” or of “the aesthetic dimension” as “the Great Refusal,” etc.). However, Marcuse’s meager consideration of how Christian eschatology envisions the already and the not yet puts him at odds with himself in calling for immortality. He needs a new way of thinking about heaven, one that is not B-flat eternity where the future only promises more of the same (quantitative progress, not qualitative progress). I will outline this new way tomorrow, in my last post of this series.
Part 1: Free Time for All Time
 For an observant illustration of how we tend to act out the stereotypes and scripts given to us by society, check out John Russon’s Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. 2003. Pp. 108-111.
 Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, pp. 151-152
 Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, pp. 211-212
 Herbert Marcuse, “Progress and Freud’s Theory of Instincts,” Five Lectures, pp. 28-29
 Ibid., p. 29
 Ibid., p. 28
 Ibid., p. 30
 Ibid., pp. 37-38
 Ibid., p. 32
 Caroline Edwards, “From Eros to Eschaton: Herbert Marcuse’s Liberation of Time,” Telos 165 (Winter 2013): 91-114. P. 97
 Ibid., p. 113
 Ibid., p. 110
 Ibid., p. 104.
 Ibid., p. 105
 Marcuse, “Progress and Freud’s Theory of Instincts,” pp. 40-41