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Critical Theory and Dialectical Thought

In his preface to the second edition of Reason and Revolution Herbert Marcuse gives a penetrating analysis into the social consequences of Hegel’s dialectical thought. For starters, established reality is pretty entrenched. It even has a proven track record of repelling or absorbing reasonable alternatives. As Marcuse points out, neither criticism nor change makes itpast the status quo. This precludes dialectic or negative thinking in our technocratic world; acceptance and affirmation are the reign of the day instead.

To summarize Hegel, the struggle of humanity with the situations and conditions of each epoch defines existence. Thought corresponds to the make-up of each of these time periods and, as a result of this reflecting, humanity “progresses” through definitive stages in history, transforming reality in the process. Reality for Hegel is the constant and dynamic renewal of existence throughout the history of humanity. The primary way this history is animated is the dialectic of freedom. At each stage in history humanity recognizes some aspect of the world that is unfree and in turn rejects whatever object is the cause of that bondage. Therefore, the negation of all that threatens or denies freedom is essentially a “negative” task. Oftentimes, however, the object of negation is wrapped up in the established state of affairs. This means for dialectical thought that it usually must oppose the self-assurance and self-contentment of the masses and is seldom popular for doing so.

Although I mentioned that this process is essentially negative, it is only so in appearance. From an idealist perspective the true task of dialectics is merely to aright what has been inverted. For instance, opposing that which denies freedom is clearly a positive act and liberates inherent potentialities to become realized that were previously held back. As Marcuse says, “Reason is the negation of the negative.” A dialectic interpretation of existence, therefore, is to discover truth in that which was made absent by exclusion. This task is often done by shedding light on the inherent contraditions of existence in the anticipation that they will unravel themselves out as a result. Those who would wish to engage in such a project must be warned, however, that they will seem false to the powers that be. But that is only because the police and managers of the status quo are the real ones whose logic and speech is a multilation and contradiction of reality on the whole. To be authentic is to contradict those who contradict, to negate the negative, counterfeit the counterfeiters, and deceive the deceivers. Critical theory, in a nutshell, is the refusal to play games with a loaded dice.

Unfortuantely, Marcusse is well aware that this authentic dialectical contadiction is often poorly imitated in pseudo-oppositions. Even in 1960 he singled out “hipsterism” as a crackpot opposition that was unable to transcend codified patterns of thought and validation. (Look here for a good smashing of hipsters). What Marcusse is really looking for are movements that are able to destory the established state of affairs and provide alternatives beyond the irrationality of the status quo. This does not mean an invention of contents for dialectical thought but a freeing of latent possibilities. According to Marcuse, “Dialectical analysis merely assembles and reactivates [tradition]; it recovers tabooed meanings and thus appears almost as a return, or rather a conscious liberation, of the repressed!”