Margath Walker’s article “Borders, one-dimensionality, and illusion in the war on drugs” appears in issue 1 of volume 33 of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. In it, she interrogates the war and drugs across North and South America by deploying Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse’s concept of one-dimensionality. As a supplement to the article, the following conversation with Arnold L. Farr, a philosopher who has looked to Marcuse to examine issues of race and justice in the United States, explores some of the important theoretical contributions of Marcuse. Walker’s article is now open access for one month.
Margath Walker: I would like to begin with a conversation about Marcuse and the ways in which you have been instrumental in bringing him to the forefront of theoretical discussions both in your own work and through the International Marcuse Society. Why should critical theorists be interested in Herbert Marcuse?
Arnold Farr: So, who is he? Well, of course he is a member of the famous Frankfort School for Social Research that was formed in Germany in the 1920s, all of whom were exiled to the US when Hitler came to power. Their lives were in danger. Walter Benjamin lost his life en route. The others came to the US. After the war, most of them returned although I believe Erich Fromm stayed in Mexico. Marcuse and Leo Lowenthal stayed in the US. They are famous for fusing Marx and Freudian psychoanalysis. They were concerned with the following question: why does it seem to be the case that the people who benefit most from a Marxist revolution and social change are most likely to resist it? It was Freud that helped them understand the way in which capitalism and other forms of economic and social systems can shape one’s psyche so one accepts oppression. In addition, Marcuse was a scholar of Hegel in terms of what we call dialectical thinking. One of his most important essays-“ A Note on Dialectics”- published in the 1960 edition of his second book on Hegel, Reason and Revolution, explains what dialectical thinking is for him. To think dialectically is to look at one’s society at any given moment and see in tandem the development of forces for liberation whereby the possibility of liberation is already there, and the forces for further oppression. And so society is never this static thing that simply has the present structure. There is something always contained within itself which provides possibilities for it being otherwise.
MW: What is compelling to you as a philosopher about Herbert Marcuse?
AF: Well, one of the things that drew me into philosophy was the freedom to think, I felt liberated just reading philosophical texts and learning how to think and to think critically. And I’ve always been concerned with issues of justice and, of course being African American from the South there’s the race issue. I have always been attracted to the kind of philosophy that helps me think about day to day problems and issues. Being one who is concerned with oppression and social justice, the Frankfurt School seems to give me the theoretical lenses for grappling with those issues more than almost any other philosophy that I know of. And Marcuse is particularly interesting because of his very profound critique, a critique that goes so deep that sometimes it sounds pessimistic but it’s not because even as he explains the social mechanisms that are in place to prevent any kind of social change and liberation at the same time he’s quite aware of developing possibilities for liberation. So, he’ll write a book like One-Dimensional Man where he’s describing our society as one-dimensional and there are all these mechanisms for what he’ll call putting subjectivity or thought under erasure. Whereas he’ll then write a book like An Essay on Liberation focused on the mechanisms in our society that are mechanisms for liberation.
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