Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Ellison, Marcuse, and the Consciousness of Servitude

The Invisible Man and One-Dimensional Man have a clear relationship in that they deal with the issues of social-domination and the inability to recognize it.  Both Ellison and Marcuse are contending with this topic in slightly different ways.  Marcuse is mainly concerned with the overall power structure that is dominated by the rich, and one that perpetuates the destruction of multidimensional thought.  Ellison, on the other hand, focuses his lens a little more closely on the factors that racial tensions bring into this power structure.
Marcuse asserts, “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). Here, Marcuse is saying that for true freedom to occur, everyone must first realize that they are in fact not free.  This raises a problem: people are generally too preoccupied with attaining basic needs, or are too concerned with achieving success to realize that they are bound to the ultimate form of servitude.  Due to this fact, ultimate liberation may never present itself as a feasible goal.  This quote from Marcuse can be related to The Invisible Man on several occasions throughout the novel. However, the occasion that I would like to investigate appears in Chapter 1, where the narrator’s grandfather speaks his dying words.
“I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction” (Ellison, 16). The preceding quote from the narrator’s grandfather troubled his family greatly.  What exactly did he mean by this statement?   I believe that the grandfather meant that he regretted living a humble life in such a racist environment.  In living this meek life, he felt that he was a traitor to his family and his race.  The grandfather proceeded to tell his family to protect themselves by remaining in the servant character, but do not internally accept this role.  If they do not accept this role, they will not be traitors like him.  All of these words greatly trouble the narrator, as we see in the following quote, “It became a constant puzzle which lay unanswered in the back of my mind. And whenever things went well for me I remembered my grandfather and felt guilty and uncomfortable.  It was as though I was carrying out his advice in spite of myself.  And to make it worse, everyone loved me for it. I was praised by the most lily-white men of the town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct—just as my grandfather had been” (Ellison, 16). In the early stages of the novel, the narrator seems that his is accepting the role that the white power structure wants him to play.  He receives great praise for his behavior and is even given a scholarship to a black college.  The narrator seems to be well on his way to living the humble life his grandfather lived and regretted.
This event directly relates to the previous quote from Marcuse.  The grandfather seemed to live a life that was presumably more concerned with basic needs then actually fighting against a system of white domination.  Throughout his life, the grandfather did not possess, or just refused to acknowledge, the consciousness of servitude that is referred to by Marcuse. However, it seems that the grandfather eventually gained this consciousness of servitude while on his deathbed.  The narrator also seems unable to fully grasp the consciousness early in the novel. He has been distracted by praise and benefits given to him, such as the scholarship. His full obedience to the system flies in the face of his dead grandfather, and this makes the narrator very uncomfortable. Still he continues to be blind to the fact that he is being taken advantage of in several instances like the “battle royal” in which he was made to participate.  All of the praise and gifts act as a cover that the narrator cannot see through.  This is very similar to Marcuse’s comments on the consciousness of servitude and how it is hampered by personal wants and needs.  The narrator does not yet possess this quality. All of the approval and acclaim prevent him from seeing his servitude, and in effect prevents the thought of real liberation from entering his mind.  
“This is the pure form of servitude: to exist as an instrument, as a thing . . . the organizers and administrators themselves become increasingly dependent on the machinery which they organize and administer. And this mutual dependence is no longer the dialectical relationship between Master and Servant, which has been broken in the struggle for mutual recognition, but rather a vicious circle which encloses both the Master and the Servant” (Marcuse, 33).
This quote from Marcuse also connects to Ellison. This quote is asserting that even the so-called masters of the power structure in place fall victim to it. They are bound to it and live their lives perpetuating it. The masters constantly seek more power while at the same time defend against the loss of power.  An instance where this is seen in The Invisible Man is when Bledsoe is admonishing the narrator.  The following quote is from Bledsoe, “This is a power set-up, son, and I’m at the controls.  You think about that. When you buck against me, you’re bucking against power, rich white folks power, the nation’s power—which means government power! (Ellison, 142). This quote illustrates Bledsoe’s view of his position at the college. He sees himself as holding authority over everyone at the college, and he seems pleased by this.  Even though his power in a way perpetuates the system of white control, Bledsoe loves his position. However, he seems to be very nervous and self-conscious about his power; he is very afraid that he might somehow be removed from his position of authority.  Bledsoe’s role in this connects to Marcuse’s comments on the Master and the Servant.  Even though Bledsoe holds power over the narrator, there is no classic master-servant relationship.  This is because both Bledsoe and the narrator are being controlled by the system dominated by whites.  Bledsoe is so concerned with keeping his power that he fails to see that he too is being controlled.  Bledsoe is blind to how he is being manipulated into perpetuating the current system in place.  He does this by being more concerned with keeping influential whites happy and giving them what they want to see, than with helping his race and college community progress against the system of domination.


  1. Jesse,

    I think you are pretty spot on for the most part, and when reading your post, realized that I had posted something very much along the same lines. Which goes to show how much I agree with you. So the best I can do, perhaps, is to give you insight into the sort of things that were perplexing me when I was writing my post.

    The first is the position and relationship between the narrator and his grandfather. I, too, tried to fit them into a sort of dichotomy at first. I first saw the grandfather as someone who would be more aware of Marcuse’s ideas, and the narrator, clearly troubled by the grandfather’s advice, as being less aware. But it seems more complex than that. You quote

    Marcuse as saying “All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude.” Is the narrator not conscious of this servitude? By that I mean, we are constantly told that he is highly troubled by his grandfather’s advice (“whenever things went well for me I remembered my grandfather and felt guilty and uncomfortable”). It seems as though the narrator has anything *but* one-dimensional thought at this point. And we must remember that the grandfather said this on his death bed, as somewhat of an ‘epiphany’ if you will. So would the narrator then not possible be aware of his servitude (to Marcuse’s definition) for a longer and more significant time than his grandfather? It’s not an easy question to answer and neither Marcuse nor Ellison seems willing to help.

    Second is how to treat Dr. Bledsoe. Clearly, Dr. Bledsoe is part of the oppressed class, however, he seems to be doing quite well for himself and is in a position of power. You mention that his power may be somewhat illusory, and that this itself may be a form of control. Indeed, Dr. Bledsoe seems highly concerned with *how* he is using his control, and how it will help or hurt his ascension. Yet he too seems entirely aware of the existence of servitude.

    These are issues that I myself find difficult to grapple with, so I’d love you see you flesh your ideas out.



  2. Excellent opening paragraph - although I think seeing Marcuse as focusing on the rich is probably reading him through *our* time (remember, the rich were much less rich in his time than they are now). The 2nd paragraph is fine too - although I have the expectation that you'll explore the invisible man's needs, both false and true (the paragraph where he envies Bledsoe's possessions is arguably pivotal here).

    I like your general discussion of the Battle Royal, etc, more than I liked some of the specifics of how you deal with the grandfather, simply because I feel like you oversimplify him somewhat. After all, his advice seems to urge some kind of perverse or underhanded humility, rather than no humility at all. "All of the praise and gifts act as a cover that the narrator cannot see through. This is very similar to Marcuse’s comments on the consciousness of servitude and how it is hampered by personal wants and needs. " -- that section was particularly good.

    I think your reading of Bledsoe is a promising start, but I think there's much more from Marcuse that can/should be applied to him to produce a more nuanced reading. The fact that he is affiliated with both black servitude and white power is interesting - you might argue, for instance, the Bledsoe holds *within himself* the full unifications of opposites. In any case, beware of oversimplifying Bledsoe and what he signifies. If I were you (acknowledging, as Dean does, that all of this is complicated, and none of it is easy to resolve), I'd think through some of the Bledsoe material in detail, thinking through how sentences and paragraphs can/should be read through Marcuse.