Saturday, April 2, 2011

Revolution as a Cycle

Revision #2, a revision of Autonomy In A Social Context

In Marcuse's introduction, he makes the assumption that “ a given society, specific possibilities exist for the amelioration of human life and specific ways and means of realizing these possibilities.” He also makes “the judgment that human life... can be an ought to be made worth living” (Marcuse xlii-xliii). This raises a question – if human life can be ameliorated and made worth living, how should this amelioration be achieved? The term “human life” implies both a level of individuality and a level of connection to others. In this way, the answer lies in the balance between one's autonomy and their overlying social structure. More specifically, humans are successful when they are made happy on a primarily individual basis; social structure, intended originally to increase this happiness, often seems to contrarily restrict it.

Realistically, some compromise in the balance between individual freedom and social protection might be acceptable by individuals in a population. People do realize that their world is not likely to be utopian. However, according to research done by social psychologists, “...individuals decide to leave a group and form a new sub-group when they conclude that other members have changed sufficiently that they can no longer be viewed as “we” – as falling within the boundaries of their extended self-concept” (Baron 340). In other words, individuals only feel they have autonomy and freedom within a group for as long as the group follows their own individual perception. According to Marcuse, “When the whole is at stake, there is no crime except that of rejecting the whole, or not defending it” (Marcuse 82). There will always be a looming breaking-point of sorts where a social structure infringes on the autonomy of enough of its subjects to cause that social structure to disintegrate. Throughout history, (and continuing in parts of the world,) this breaking point manifests itself as a revolution. “The idea of revolution has a long premodern history, where its meaning is connected less to rupture or break and more to the sense of circular or cyclical meaning or movement. From the Greeks to the Renaissance, revolution is more like its physical or mechanical counterpart, indicating the complete turn of a wheel or a full cycle of the seasons” (Ritzer 642).

America's system of government is to some extent built around avoiding revolution; our individual opinion is expressed through our right to vote, and the state and federal governments take our votes into account and accordingly make changes for the assumed good of the country. Individual votes are all combined into one entity, and the most popularly voted-for decision becomes reality. In elections for government officials, one person is put in power based on a statistic – based on the desire of the highest percentage of society. A new leader is appointed and considered to be responsible for the whole of their society. Of these people, Marcuse says “Those who identify themselves with the whole, who are installed as the leaders and defenders of the whole can make mistakes, but they cannot do wrong – they are not guilty” (Marcuse 83). Because they were elected by a majority, they believe themselves to speak for everyone. However, there is a problem inherent in this assumption; in elections there will always have been a limited amount of choices. There cannot be a candidate appropriate for every voter; decisions cannot realistically be made without some degree of compromise. There is no objective choice; to an individual subject of the government, some part of the social structure will always go against their desired outcome. “The very notion of an objective substance, pitted against the subject, seems to disintegrate” (Marcuse 148). People feel a sense of friction and unrest; their society seems to say it will listen to their individual voice, but it does not seem to do this in reality. In this way, the democratic method avoidance of revolution is really more of a marginalization. We have a small, controlled, purely bureaucratic revolution every 4 years in the election of a new president. This exemplifies Ritzer's concept of the cyclical nature of revolution.

The concept of utopian and dystopian literature very much approaches predictive explanations of revolution. In novels set in dystopian universes, often the narrator is an individual who feels disrespected by his society. These novels often take place at the cusp of a revolution, immediately before it occurs, and either succeeds or fails. In novels set in utopian universes, we are often placed after a revolution; we are either experiencing the joy immediately after the social change or the comfort of a settled social structure resulting from revolution. In these types of literature, the revolution process is assumed to be cyclical; readers know they are being placed at a point in the timeline of an ongoing cycle.

In Octavia Butler's novel Parable of the Sower, the community of Olivar is currently experiencing a failure of its social structure to respect individual freedom. A private institution called Kagimoto, Stamm, Frampton, and Company (KSF) has taken power in Olivar. KSF “intends to dominate farming and the selling of water and wind energy over much of the southwest” (Butler 119). They will give the citizens of Olivar jobs and security in exchange for cheap labor. For a while, Olivar will grow. This growth could even last a very long time; Olivar could become very strong. In this way, KSF is implementing a revolution. They are installing a social structure with the hope that it will improve society through industrial growth. Marcuse remarks on this industrial growth, “...essentially the power of the machine is only the stored-up and projected power of man. To the extent to which the work world is conceived of a machine and mechanized accordingly, it becomes the potential basis of a new freedom for man” (Marcuse 3). Olivar is potentially about to become free through KSF's revolution. However, the people of Olivar will eventually recognize a discordance between their desires and the desires of KSF. They will no longer consider KSF to “fall within the boundaries of their extended self- concept” (Baron 340). Readers, removed from the necessity for growth that the people of Olivar feel, readily recognize this possibility. Lauren explicitly tells us of this danger, stating “Anyone KSF hired would have a hard time living on the salary offered. In not very much time, I think the new hires would be in debt to the company. That's an old company-town trick – get people into debt, hang on to them, and work them harder. Debt slavery” (Butler 121). The people working for KSF originally believe they are becoming independent, but soon realize they are indebted to the corporation. Marcuse says that “The purchase and use of [the people's] physical energy, under sub-human conditions, for the private appropriation of surplus-value entailed the revolting inhuman aspects of exploitation... This is the material, tangible element in wage slavery and alienation – the physiological and biological dimension of classical capitalism” (Marcuse 24). Soon the people of Olivar will feel a tension between their desire to grow and become members of a powerful social group in a dystopian landscape and their autonomic desire to remain outside the influence of the restrictive KSF. They will someday realize that they are subject to wage slavery. Their feelings of friction will result in a desire to, in Marcuse's terms, ameliorate their human condition. The people of Olivar are on the verge of another revolution, this time at their own hands rather than at the hands of KSF.

While Melville's Moby Dick isn't exatly set in a dystopian world, the universe of the Pequod is very much dystopian. Ahab is a captain obsessed with vengeance. He does not have the interest of his crew members in mind; he is solely interested in his own ulterior goals. This is evidenced in several scenarios, including the moment when he refuses to follow an almost guaranteed whale with the hope that he can catch Moby Dick instead. Much of the crew often hates Ahab, and seems to be on the verge of mutiny. It seems that Ahab realizes that the only way they won't revolt is to provide their meager pay; “For even the high lifted and chivalric Crusaders of old times were not content to traverse two thousand miles of land to fight for their holy sepulchre, without committing burglaries, picking pockets, and gaining other pious perquisites by the way. Had they been strictly held to their one final and romantic object—that final and romantic object, too many would have turned from in disgust. I will not strip these men, thought Ahab, of all hopes of cash—aye, cash. They may scorn cash now; but let some months go by, and no perspective promise of it to them, and then this same quiescent cash all at once mutinying in them, this same cash would soon cashier Ahab” (Melville 202).

In Butler's novel, Lauren's thought and discussion of God directly depicts this idea of social structure infringing upon autonomy. Lauren sees the Christian god as a similar figure to powerful government figures; people invest their faith in God hoping that he will ease their pain and give them a purpose in life, but Lauren sees them as inevitably to be disappointed by their God, because he cannot make every life truly happy. She explains, “Maybe God is kind of a big kid, playing with his toys. If he is, what difference does it make if 700 people get killed in a hurricane – or if seven kids go to church and get dipped in a big tank of expensive water” (Butler 16)? This disillusionment to God's apparent uncaring goes back to the phenomenon of becoming disillusioned by a social structure that does not match their extended self-concept. Lauren goes on to say, “But what if all that is wrong? What if God is something else altogether” (Butler 16)? Lauren's Earthseed god is an attempt to encapsulate the entire process of social structure being repeatedly established and dissolved. She labels her God to be equivalent to Change. In this way, Lauren shows that she considers the revolution process to be inevitable and necessary for life. Her Earthseed verse at the opening of Chapter 14 exemplifies this belief. “In order to rise / From its own ashes / A phoenix / first / must / burn.” Lauren recognizes that for an ineffective social structure to become effective, it must first be overturned. She feels that she no longer fits into the group of Christianity, and she creates a God that represents her more clearly. Lauren is, entirely at her own hands, creating a religious revolution.

It is very clear that both Herman Melville and Herbert Marcuse have noted the presence of self-perpetuation, in terms of revolution. Marcuse says, “The ancient idea of a state where Being attains fulfillment, where the tension between 'is' and 'ought' is resolved in the cycle of an eternal return...” (Marcuse 167). What he means by this is that there is an extant ideal of an “ought” society, deemed to be perfect and meant to be a goal. He is stating that this ought society comes into existence through a constant cycle – revolution and social construction. Melville also shows heavily references the cyclical nature of society, although more metaphorically than directly. He spends an entire (although admittedly short) chapter, Chapter 66 – The Shark Massacre, on an image of a wounded and dying shark who frantically consumes his own falling-out intestines “over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound” (Melville 320). This scene so blatantly draws on the concept of life cycles that ignoring the symbol would simply be ignorant. This chapter is also placed directly after an actual philosophical debate regarding the concept of eating a whale's meat by the light of its own oil. Melville almost points a finger at his readers in this debate, saying “Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy paté-de-foie-gras” (Melville 318). Melville believes in the universal cannibalism of the sea, in which creation and destruction are imminent and necessary.

Thus it appears that the “universal cannibalism of the sea,” Lauren's Earthseed beliefs, and Marcuse's social criticism all lend to the concept of cyclical, repetitive revolution. Melville, Marcuse, and Butler were not intentionally working together, but their novels all, for separate reasons, piece together a self-perpetuating picture of society that I will not soon forget.

Works Cited

Baron, Robert A., Donn Erwin. Byrne, and Nyla R. Branscombe. Mastering Social Psychology. Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 2007. Print.

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner, 2000. Print.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1991.

Herman Melville. Moby Dick. New York, NY: Baronet, 1990.

Ritzer, George. Encyclopedia of Social Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005.


  1. This is self-evidently complex, sophisticated, and serious. The structure of an ordinary class - in which I have, say, half an hour to read and respond to a given work - is not exactly friendly to the kind of response that it deserves. I give an initial response, which I will do, and I can nitpick at exceptional and problematic details, which I will also do - but nothing I can do will adequately address it, which is actually a very good thing. You *want* to be doing the kind of work that pushes at the limits of the structure of an ordinary class.

    Your use of research is strong and convincing; your exploration of cycles in Marcuse, Melville, and Butler is also strong and convincing, although your transitions between this works ranges only from the acceptable to the awkward. Even in the most ambitious work, focus is typically rewarded - I don't really think you needed Melville here.

    Despite the many strengths of this work, you talked yourself into some problematic claims. The generalized claim that all utopias understand themselves as taking part in a cyclic revolution is *really* problematic, although also original - most utopias are generally understood as imagining the cessation of change/cycles, and the arrival of a *perpetual* order (see Moore, Plato, and Wells for starters).

    Because you don't understand or acknowledge that your cyclical utopia is, in fact, out of the utopian ordinary, you end up with surprisingly week ending: "their novels all, for separate reasons, piece together a self-perpetuating picture of society that I will not soon forget." This is an almost impossibly weak ending for an essay with a strong and distinctive vision; the problem, I think, is partially that you don't understand yourself as working in a field (utopian studies) and as doing unusual work within it (asserting the dominance or importance of utopias with a cyclical rather than a perpetually static vision).

    Paradoxically, then, this is ambitious and successful, but fails both to be as ambitious as it could be (recognizing that your work actually contradicts the dominant vision of most utopias) and as specific as it could be (by making sometimes dubious claims about your texts - does much of the Pequod's crew really hate Ahab, for instance?).

    This is strong and distinctive work, both in spite of and because of its limitations; it would make a very interesting final project.

  2. My first overall impression is that this is an upper-level essay in terms of your thought process and writing. You present a very dense and complex essay here, which I think could be a good thing. It really made me think a lot.

    I really like the content in the middle. The parts that confuse me a bit are the beginning and the end. In the first paragraph you quote Marcuse about human life and happiness. But then by the end of the second paragraph you are talking about revolution, as per the title of your essay. I guess what I mean is I kind of don't have a clear-cut idea of what your argument is here. I would suggest taking out the first paragraph and then maybe focus on the revolution aspect of it. I think you have a lot of detailed support for Marcuse and Butler on revolution, but the paragraph on Melville alone seems meek in comparison to the other authors'.

    Also, like Professor Johns said the ending doesn't leave me with a "wow" factor or anything. You make a lot of really strong points throughout your essay and I was left wanting a little something more at the very end.