Friday, February 4, 2011

Great Refusal

Marcuse spends many pages speaking to the importance of a two-dimensional society and the role of literature in the dynamic society. Using Marcuse’s rationale, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself exemplifies a piece of literature from a pre-technological world acting as the great refusal.

Song of Myself uses two pre-technological concepts of literature, it features men and nature as greater than instrumentalities and it features disruptive characters. Marcuse insists that the literature of a pre-technological world is one where “man and nature (are) not yet organized as things and instrumentalities” (59). Whitman’s piece obviously strives to attain this goal in section 15. Each person in this list is described by their action, and each of their actions have a sense of equality about them, not in the true definition of their purpose, but in the fact they all have meaning to their existence. For example, the fare-collector of the train and the floorman: neither is better than the other, nor are they the same in their actions. They are both recognized as the individuals they are through their meaning, not as resources for our society. Furthermore, this piece features characters that are “disruptive characters” (59), or characters who serve to negate the established order of the society. The people like the drunkard at the bar and the prostitute draggling her shawl act as opposition to the status quo of the other characters who fit nicely into the current standings of the society. Theses disruptive characters function as the antagonistic force behind this section. They are the part of this piece that calls attention to another way of life and critiques the status quo. Marcuse said that some characters fail to be oppositional because they are portrayed in a way that makes them outcasts, thus affirming the status quo. Whitman accepts the antagonistic characters by writing about them in the same way and in the same place as all the other characters. The acceptance of individual worth and attempts to antagonistically undermine the status quo allows this piece to transcend the societal order.

These aspects of a two-dimensional, pre-technological world permit this piece to act as part of the Great Refusal – “the protest against that which is” (63). Song of Myself was written in an environment that had not bridged “the gap between the arts and the order of the day” (64). It maintained a two-dimensional society that had not been affected by “the advancing technological society” (64). It is because this society is pre-technological that Whitman can refuse the idea of instrumentality. He can refute nature being seen as a resource instead of a living entity. He is able to show that the individual is not an instrument of production. Through Marcuse’s eyes, Whitman is acting as the higher culture to impart truth to ordered society through contradiction.


  1. This is very brief - not just in length, but in finishing what you started out to say. I'm unclear on some pretty basic questions: for instance, do you see Whitman as exemplifying Marcuse's "Great Refusal" because he is pre-industrial (that is, before the final formation of the civilization Marcuse is writing about)? Or do you see him as engaging successfully in the Great Refusal *in spite* of the fact that he belongs to an industrialized culture.

    In other words, is this two-dimensional because of when it was written, or in spite of when it was written?

    Maybe more importantly, I'd like to understand your point of view here. What you actually say about Marcuse and Whitman is quite interesing, and seems founded in a solid understanding of the texts. I like what you're doing fine with Whitman - I just want to better understand both *why* Whitman is able to do two-dimensional work, and what your views or agenda ultimately is. (You're writing this as if from Marcuse's viewpoint - but I *want* to know yours)

  2. This is a good start and I feel it has the option of being expanded. In the beggining of the essay I really liked your use of the texts inter connecting your thoughts. If you maybe expanded some of your ideas you could easily add some interesting and important qualities to the writing. Also, I would want to know what you think about Whitman because we talked about similar topics.