Thursday, February 17, 2011

Going over Butler's Work with a White Glove

Revision to Blog #2, Political Spheres: Devour or Deteriorate: Link <>

Marcuse has defined the world in which we live in a way that would make a preacher’s fire and brim-stone look like a nursery rhyme (however, if your nursery rhyme is German, it probably makes Marcuse sound like Jane Taylor). “A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technological progress” (Marcuse 1). To think anything differently is simply a symptom of the machine that has been built around us, in spite of us, and through us. To whom the credit should go for its perfection is debatable; did the government start something that had power beyond its original purpose, or did we perpetuate a series of ideas and policies that formed a system capable of becoming all but sentient? Regardless, America is an adapting, expanding, and unstoppable process – mechanized progress.
How is it, then, that such an entity comes to fall? It does not happen because of Butler’s climate deterioration or a plague of drugs and there are few external factors capable of such (i.e. all-out war); as an Italian proverb aptly describes the fall of one of history’s greatest empires, “Wealth conquered Rome after Rome had conquered the world.” Our machine is more advanced than that of Rome; it is all encompassing, complete, and smart enough to make sure not all roads lead here:

“If we attempt to relate the causes of the danger to the way in which society is organized and organizes its members, we are immediately confronted with the fact that advanced industrial society becomes richer, bigger, and better as it perpetuates the danger” (Marcuse ix)

“All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude, and the emergence of this consciousness is always hampered by the predominance of needs and satisfactions which, to a great extent, have become the individual’s own” (Marcuse 7)

“We live and die rationally and productively. We know that destruction is the price of progress as death is the price of life, that reunification and toil are the for gratification and joy, that business must go on, and that the alternatives are Utopian” (Marcuse 145)

Butler’s world can be seen as the apparent fall of what was Marcuse’s machine. Politics have nearly disappeared. Progress is a girl’s idea of what God really is. The sci-fi nature of the story has turned the police into a common street gang and made travel to Mars almost possible. It is clear Butler has dismissed the world’s strongest system in an attempt to satirize a time in American history that was overcome and learned from.

“No. Donner hasn’t got a chance” (Butler 54)

“Even if the cops came today instead of tomorrow, they’d just add to the death toll” (Butler 229)

“I don’t think it’s ever been this bad. Those people, those animals back there…”

(Butler 229)

In the 1960’s both Marcuse and Butler wrote their respective takes on the condition/future of the states. It is ironic then that the two authors had completely opposite outlooks on the events that were taking place. That decade was, without question, one of the worst in American history; the events of which would jar the cogs of our machine – but not destroy them. The most poignant of these were the assassinations of key political and social figures; the shot heard around the world struck down our adored president, John Kennedy and, five years later, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were gunned down not two months apart. The death toll in the fruitless Vietnam War racked up fatalities amassing to almost 60,000 (20,000 of whom were drafted) (Wikipedia-Vietnam War casualties). Earlier and throughout the sixties, America was locked in diplomatic and military woes with Cuba – nearly putting fire to a powder-keg that had been engorging itself on the fears of citizens world-wide since the forties (the Cold War itself was the definition of what Marcuse referred to, Marcuse ix, above) . To add chaos to an already sagging American demeanor, protests and riots riddled the country like bullets – the war of a restless minority searching for equality.
Why all the negativity if Marcuse’s machine cannot fail – because it didn’t. Capitalism willed out. The people took their two-party system and chose the best [available] candidate, while those cheated of opportunities for false needs1 rose up for “freedom from toil” in hopes of toiling along with the rest of the miserable population (Marcuse 129).
Marcuse explains wonderfully the effects of the machine’s politics by using of a number of studies2 as reference. Within one, the basis of contemporary democracy is the battle of two parties, or the “selecting and rejecting [of] candidates” (Competitive Pressure 382). Why so simple? The speed and certainty to which our leaders are chosen and replaced represents a well-oiled system of quelling the people’s needs of representation. The people get to vote, so why would they resent the cycles of parties in power? The cycles; implying inevitable. Sure there was mourning, as there should be at the passing of any beloved members of society, what needs to be looked at (under a Marcusian light) is the fact that replacement parts were at the ready – a mere pit stop to fix up the nation with Johnson, for instance. Marcuse can explain better than I, but it goes without saying that we have accepted our fate as docile sheep; in such a way, politics in America would have a very hard time falling into disarray short of outside domination; we are the hamsters powering a conveyor belt of politicians, one after another.
In a way only the machine could, it turned war and oppression into continued economic growth. “The government of advanced and advancing industrial societies can maintain and secure itself only when it succeeds in mobilizing, organizing, and exploiting the technical, scientific, and mechanical productivity available…” (Marcuse 3). It does not take One-Dimensional Man to see that America defies adversity – her freedom was even won on the victory over the world’s hegemonic power of the time. That being said, Butler’s role of the system in her story could not be more wrong. At what time in her story did the scenario get worse than the real world has already produced? Drugs? The machine has been eliminating drugs from the “higher-culture” since 1914 (the El Paso Ordinance) – the government’s first crusader of such causes was quoted to say “Marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing” (Harry J. Anslinger). It’s almost humorous the amount of “pacifism” and “brainwashing” it took to gain the support needed to pass the first drug laws, and again to wage war against the outbreaks of the sixties.
Butler is way off, in a literal sense, of what could happen to the states. At a point much sooner than the time the story takes place, other nations would have moved in for the kill on a country that has long held the envious, anxious eyes of the globe. Cocky, self-righteous America on its knees by its own hands; the world would have its pickings at the most influential and wasteful nation, a nation that has held the world in a hegemonic grip for the past century. Marcuse’s theory of a perpetuating cause/effect brought on by an attempt to control the dangers that we ourselves create is spot on with the never-ending arms race of economies and missiles we work to stockpile every year. Even if we were capable of destroying all we built, as Butler rests her entire story in, what logic could ever bring her to say that other powers, power that have taken note of our behavior, would not leap at an opportunity to share in the glories of our rich past? There is general fear of this even today; false superstitions about China, a so-called super-power, that will ransack America at her prime, but as pointed out by Joseph Stiglitz, former Senior VP and Chief Economist of the World Bank, “China is not only a developing economy; it is a low-income developing country. Yet the United States insisted that China be treated like a developed country! China went along with the fiction…” When the society is backed so solidly by the drones of a one shallower generation after another, it would take more than force or ‘ro to rip through the machine.
Conversely, should a nation try to use military force, one of Marcuse’s first and most valid arguments for the longevity of the system would become a reality; “The defense structure makes life easier for a greater number [therefore] the political needs of society become individual needs” (Marcuse ix). Fear, as seen in Marcuse ix (above) will shock the members of the system to support and allow the use – or threat – of nuclear warfare to stave off conflict. History is witness to the sheer devastation of what comes from provoking such weapons – hopefully the lesson was learned. This is the system’s “first, military function” (John A. Johns) and it does it well in order to perpetuate the danger” (Marcuse ix).
I think the first argument that affronts mine is an idea that Butler proposes; we have the capacity to rot the Earth and turn our climate against us. While I do not intend to argue the legitimacy of global warming or climate shifts, as the phenomenon has been renamed (in an attempt to include any change in our weather, and thus make its creators infallibly correct), I feel the need to stick up for our intelligence. Though irrational at times, people need the system because, well, the system wants them to need it. We die to support that system every day. “
We know that destruction is the price of progress as death is the price of life, that reunification and toil are the prerequisites for gratification and joy, that business must go on, and that the alternatives are Utopian” (Marcuse 145). Secondly, and hypothetically, if the states were to fall into mass degeneration, there would be little to nothing stopping the global community from coming into America through economic means. Butler’s example of Olivar and the revival of “debt slavery” (Butler 121) was by all means a reality in most of America’s early “company-town[s]” (121). Butler was right to include in her story the still-strong dollar. People were still clinging to a (greatly inflated) monetary system even with the destruction of nearly all else.
Everywhere Butler’s system went wrong, time has told of growth and (enough) learning on the machine’s part to survive and dominant.

John F. Kennedy once said, “The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender, or submission.”
That’s right, John.
Oh, the irony.

1As defined by Marcuse, “‘False’ needs are those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice” (Marcuse 4).

2Marcuse cites “Competitive Pressure and Democratic Consent” by Morris Janowitz and Dwaine Marvick (114) and then Julian L. Woodward’s and Elmo Roper’s “Political Activity of American Citizens” (118) in an attempt to show the gap between actual and perceived politics in America.

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Brooks Edition, 1993.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

Janowitz, Morris; Marvick, Dwaine. “Competitive Pressure and Democratic Consent”. Vol. 19, No. 4. Oxford University Press, 1955.

Vietnam War Casualties. Wikipedia. Feb. 14th 2011.


  1. I apologize that the paragraphs aren't showing indentations. I fought with this thing for awhile trying to get it do so, but couldn't win. Let me know if this poses a problem and I can e-mail the original text to you.

  2. Also, on a irrelevant side-note, my t9word (an auto-complete program on my phone) has Heidegger already in it.. I thought this was ironic.

    "Irony trumps everything"
    -T.C. Foster

  3. I really enjoyed reading your essay. Your use of quotes really enhanced the points you were conveying. I think you could incorporate your oppinions about both Marcuse and Butler's ideas a little more. Another thing that I think you should try to do is tie together the beginning of the paper to the end some more. I feel like there were some issues that were emphasized in the beginning that then were not retouched at the end. Also a way you could expand more on this essay is by answering the questions you bring about throughout it.

  4. Brittanny points out that you could tie the beginning to the end a little more. I agree, but would put it a little differently: given the complexity of your interests, putting a little more work into the structure (beginning, ending, transitions) would have paid off in spades.

    I begin with the concept of difficulty, because the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of this essay aren't really distinct from each other. You've thrown yourself headfirst into Marcuse, mastering him about as well anyone except an advanced student of philosophy could within a few weaks, then put him to work. Your understanding of Marcuse is very good, your use of Marcuse when discussing Butler is very good and very Marcusian, but also oddly insular.

    What I mean is, that you're fundamentally arguing that Marcuse was fully correct in his analysis of the ability of our system to sustain itself through, e.g., climate change (I'll toss in as an aside that I agree - climate change may devastate the world without shaking our system of Domination), and that her underestimation of the American system is an interesting problem in Butler's writing. We are, in other words, in a homestatic, self-stabilizing system, and the thing missing from Butler is a recognition of that homeostasis.

    It's all good work - but it's so ripe for bringing in outside sources. How do we respond to crisis? What historical, economic, or psychological sources could you bring to bear? Your initial analysis of both the role of drugs in our culture and of the Vietnam war were great - I simply thought you dropped them a little quickly and easily, and they were underutilized later on.

    To put it another way: you're very interested in proving that Marcuse's philosophical analysis has proven to be historically correct, and that this reveals a flaw in Butler's understanding of America. You make us work a little too hard to follow your argument (Brittany's point), and your analysis of historical reality, while insightful, is just a beginning.

    Those are two obvious areas to focus upon if you revise this again.