Friday, April 15, 2011

The Brotherhood as a Machine

Herbert Marcuse makes constant reference to “the machine” throughout his novel “One-Dimensional Man.” The machine is Marcuse’s metaphor for the aspects of our society that take away our humanity and turn us into tools such as industry and consumerism. He says that “the brute fact that the machine’s physical (only physical?) power surpasses that of the individual, and of any particular group of individuals, makes the machine the most effective political instrument in any society whose basic organization is that of the machine process.” I believe that the institution of the Brotherhood in “Invisible Man” is example of the machine and its ability to strip its members of their humanity.

The narrator in “Invisible Man” has had the ability to deliver powerful speeches since he was in high school, but he wasn’t able to realize his ability to influence people with his speeches until he witnessed an eviction on the streets of Harlem. He delivered a moving speech that was able to excite a riot; which is the reason that the brotherhood took interest in him; however, the Brotherhood is more interested in using him as a tool than allowing him to flourish as an individual.

After the narrator gives his somewhat impromptu speech at the boxing ring, the Brotherhood criticize him for not using their ideology; although, his speech was motivating and influenced by the narrator’s personal beliefs. In one brother’s opinion, the narrator’s speech was “wile, hysterical, politically irresponsible and dangerous… and worse than that, it was incorrect!” (p.349)

The brother considered his speech incorrect because it didn’t follow the ideology of the Brotherhood. This shows how the Brotherhood adheres to a strong doctrine and disregards the individuality of its members; which is similar to the way that Marcuse describes the behavior of the machine process. “The machine process (as social process) requires obedience to a system of anonymous powers-total secularization and the destruction of values and institutions whose desanctification has hardly begun.”

Although the narrator believes that the Brotherhood has given him a new identity and has made him a more prominent figure in society, he still has nightmares about his past that continue to haunt him. This could give insight to the internal struggle that the narrator is facing, and how he may subconsciously realize how the Brotherhood is using him as a tool.

When a magazine editor requests an interview with the narrator, he tries to persuade the editor to interview Clifton instead. The editor insists that the narrator is a hero and the narrator says “but please… I’m no hero and I’m far from the top; I’m a cog in a machine. We here in the Brotherhood work as a unit.” Here, the narrator specifically states that the Brotherhood is a machine and he and the other brother behave like cogs inside of it. This is nearly the same metaphor the Marcuse uses in “One-Dimensional Man” to describe the culture machine. “It is good that almost everyone can now have the fine arts at his fingertips, by just turning a knob on his set, or by just stepping into his drugstore. In this diffusion, however, they become cogs in a culture-machine which remakes their content.”

Later, the Brotherhood is angry with the narrator for the way that he associated the Brotherhood with the protest of Clifton’s death. Brother jack mentions to the narrator that “…you were not hired to think. Had you forgotten that? If so, listen to me: You were not hired to think… For all of us, the committee does the thinking. For all of us. And you were hired to talk.”

Brother Jack makes it perfectly clear that not only the narrator, but all of the members of the Brotherhood, perhaps even those in managerial positions, are subjected to the rulings of the committee. This is similar to the way Marcuse describes the effects of the machine on those in charge of management and direction. He states that “The capitalist bosses and owners are losing their identity as responsible agents; they are assuming the function of bureaucrats in a corporate machine.”

Within the Brotherhood, individuality is stifled in order to promote the agenda of the Brotherhood, which is concerned only with further advancing itself and its member are stripped of their humanity. I believe that these examples provide a strong example of how the Brotherhood functions like a machine.


  1. This is good work. I want to emphasize that, before I say anything even vaguely critical, because fundamentally, this is good: you are reading two texts well, applying one to the other, and picking out relevant details from both (especially from Ellison, but also certainly from Marcuse). It's a well structured, well supported essay.

    In some ways, this is hard for me to judge, because this is precisely the material which fascinated me about Ellison the first time I read him, and so I've done a lot of work on this exact topic. So let me point out some questions/issues.

    1) Are you sure that the machine is only a metaphor here? Both Marcuse and Ellison are very interested in real machines, *and* in metaphorical machines, *and* in the relationship between the two. Ellison was a gadget freak, and certainly believed that technological progress *ought* to be good - but he also had a lot to say about how, in practice, technology often had a negative impact on minorities. To put it another way: I don't disagree with you, but I also think that a literal (or carnal) understanding of machines in Invisible Man is a worthwhile area of investigation.

    2) Is it good, bad, or indifferent that the brotherhood is a machine? An aside that you might find interesting is that both Soviet Russia and contemporary communist china have/had a massive contingent of engineers in political leadership positions (as opposed to the US, where most leaders are trained a lawyers). In other words, the Brotherhood *wanted* to be machine, at least in a certain cense - and given that the invisible man presents himself as surrounded by machines in the prologue, one wonders if he sees being a machine as entirely a bad thing.

    Obviously Ellison is critical of the brotherhood, and anti-communists (including Ellison and, in a much weirder way, Marcuse, since he was remained a kind of socialist while being strongly anti-Stalin) often portrayed communist societies as being mechanical in a negative way. I just think that Ellison's portrayal of the brotherhood as a machine has some complexity, and that you could do a lot more to think through what his portrayal of the brotherhood as a machine *means*.

    Incidentally, this material could easily be integrated into an essay which would also include Orwell. I just thought I'd better point that out.

  2. I really like the stance. It's obvious there's connections between the Brotherhood and Marcuse's machine.
    I guess the only question I would put to your work is the same one I'm putting to mine: what's the narrator's role in this? Not sure if this is the essay you're revising but it sure is a mental work-out trying to figure such things out. If you asked/analyzed the I.M.'s role in this machine, you may well have a better idea of how the machine is working or not working.