Friday, February 4, 2011

Whitman, the free

"In this society, the productive apparatus tends to become totalitarian to the extent which it determines not only the socially needed occupations, skills, and attitudes, but also individual needs and aspirations" (xlvii). Throughout One Dimensional Man, Marcuse talks of how society is engulfed in industry, so much that they are consumed with being consumers and they have no emotions, thoughts, or needs of their own. He discusses and longs for when society was once two-dimensional and individuals had thoughts, needs and goals that were not imposed upon them from an outside force.

Whitman lives in Marcuse's utopia. This is seen throughout [20] on page 17. Whitman does not trouble himself with worries of industrial needs. Since he doesn't have a full-time job in industry, he has the time to think as well as pursue his own needs and wants. He thinks freely and asks questions regarding life and purpose, "What is man anyhow? What am I? and what are you?". He "listens" to what the world is telling him and finds purpose in everything. People today would not think or behave like Whitman for several reasons including the fact that society is manipulated by industry. No one in today's society has the time to sit and "listen" and find the purpose in every being and aspect of life.

"In the verse and prose of this pre-technological culture is the rhythm of those who wander or ride in carriages, who have the time and the pleasure to think, contemplate, feel and narrate" (59). Whitman accomplishes and lives what Marcuse reminisces. Whitman is free regarding Marcuse's definition; free from society, free from industry, and free from manipulation. Whitman does not allow society to "narrate" his life for him. He goes against society's norms by choosing to be a nonconformist and does as he wishes, "I cock my hat as I please indoors and out". He is also able to think and feel on his own. He is not told what and how to feel by anyone else. For example, industry tells consumers that they need or want certain products. Whitman feels empathy and other emotions for people and nature, not material items.

"Complete automation in the realm of necessity would open the dimension of free time as the one in which man's private and societal existence would constitute itself" (37). Whitman may have embodied Marcuse's utopia in many aspects, but he lived in a two-dimensional society which was before the turn of the century, and therefore the Industrial Revolution. Whitman cannot be considered a role model in the aspect of "beating the system". Although, he does have some qualities that Marcuse would consider stepping stones to escaping the clutches of advanced industrial society's hold. Whitman's devotion to those around him, rather than strictly himself and material possessions, allows him to see "outside of the box". Whitman also identifies himself and is happy through others. People in today's society focus on home to make themselves happy; which can be used by industrial society to manipulate their needs.

The question of whether Whitman would remain free or fall under the spell of society if he grew up in the 20th century is difficult to tell. I think that Whitman would fall a victim to society by a slight degree, but not completely. Whitman is comfortable with himself and is happy with being an individual, "I exist as I am, that is enough, If no other in the world be aware I sit content, And if each and all be aware I sit content". Marcuse believes that "all liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude" (7). Whitman can be stubborn and his individuality could have possibly kept him from the manipulation of society in some aspects. With his love of life and nature, he would still see a purpose in everything. Even in the world that he lived in, he realized how difficult life was, "That life is a suck and sell, and nothing remains at the end but threadbare crape and tears". And yet, he still appreciated and enjoyed it.


  1. There are similarities between your essay and Kaeli's, as well as between yours and Matts - you might want to look at those essays and my comments on them as well as on your own.

    Basically, I think you're arguing that Marcuse is nostalgic for a *past* two-dimensional society, and that Whitman is part of one. As I mentioned on Kaeli's post, I think this is an interesting and legitimate line of criticism of Marcuse, but that the devil is in the details.

    Here's an example. You say that Whitman lives in Marcuse's utopian. Yet, why does Marcuse oppose our existing order? Because it doesn't fulfill vital needs, but manufactures false ones instead (see your own quote), and in the process enslaves us.

    Whitman spends a lot of time and effort writing about the perfectly literal slavery of his own time. Needless to say, Marcuse would find *nothing* utopian about that. Marcuse, remember, is someone who is looking for a new society which might draw on certain aspects of the past, but is hardly a return to any past model. He wants a *new* order, one which takes but transforms technological civilization.

    As a related point - you state, like a fact, that Whitman is writing before the industrial revolution. I've *never* heard of anyone arguing that the industrial revolution hadn't started at this point; part of the standard historical understanding of the civil war (only 5 years after the poem) is that the South couldn't compete with the North's *industrial* base.

    Also, why do you say that Whitman didn't work in industry? He was a *printer*. Maybe Whitman the character doesn't work in industry - but don't confuse the character with the person.

    Overall, I think talking about Marcuse in terms of nostalgia for a past society is worthwhile, and that Whitman can be used for that, but that there are enough problems with your details that it doesn't really work here.

  2. I'm really glad somebody else talked about Marcuse and nostalgia. The concept really intrigues me. I also appreciated your points about Whitman not falling prey to society. The line "he would still see a purpose in everything" really jumped out at me, because while Marcuse is very pointed, at times his criticism makes me wonder if he sees a purpose in life. He seems to spend a lot of time thinking about how the world could be better, and it makes me wonder how much time of his life he really spent living in the world. Whitman, on the other hand, clearly spends most of his life living in the world and just enough time outside of it to write his poetry.

    It feels like this essay should maybe "take a side" and decide whether Marcuse is wishing there were more Whitmans in his world or refusing to believe that Whitman was genuine. Would he criticize Whitman or praise him? However, because of the time difference between the writings of these two men, that is a hard point to make. I just think maybe if we both wrestled with the idea a little more we might get something.