The Technology of Total Terror: Black Screen, White Noise and Herbert Marcuse’s Aesthetic Dimension

International Herbert Marcuse Society,
Ninth Biennial Conference
Arizona State University, USA
October, 7-10, 2021

I. Introduction

Angela Davis has written that Marcuse’s “negative thinking” of material reality toward a liberatory potential of the imagination—his “reinterpreting Marxism in ways that embrace the liberation struggles of all those marginalized by oppression” (women, Blacks, The Global South)—can be linked to the utopic vision of the Black radical tradition (“Marcuse’s Legacies,” 1998; “Abolition and Refusal,” 2017). Following from this assertion, I study how Marcuse’s aesthetic philosophy functions to ‘free’ ‘the real’ from a “technological rationality” that reproduces an aestheticization of anti-Black embodied violence, which makes impossible a political imaginary inclusive and protective of Black personage. I induct Marcuse’s radical epistemology and dystopic analysis to consider the social and political implications of Gloria Naylor’s last completed work of experimental fiction, 1996—a “fictionalized memoir” that elaborates the personal and political circumstances surrounding her experience as a targeted individual of government sponsored electronic surveillance, mind control, and ‘non-lethal’ invisible torture techniques. Against the generalizable rational standard of medical and legal technology, I address the debilitated Black subject (Jasbir Puar, 2017) captive to those carceral geographies (Ruth Wilson Gilmore, 2007) and contested boundaries of the public/private ‘self’ enacted in constituting what Marcuse refers to as the one-dimensionality of a neoliberal citizenship that has been reinforced by a totalitarianism of surveillance capitalism (One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, 1964).

II. 1996

In 1996 (2005), Gloria Naylor depicts her experiences as a targeted individual (TI) of government sponsored electronic surveillance, psychotronic harassment, mind-control, gang-stalking, and ‘non-lethal’ invisible torture techniques. The “fictionalized memoir,” a term Naylor uses to describe the genre bending account that blurs the line between actuality and reality, situates the fictionalized Naylor at her vacation home on the South Carolina coastal barrier island of St. Helena. In an absurd twist of fate warped by a culture of racist misogyny, Naylor becomes the subject of a federal black ops investigation when her neighbor’s cat dies after eating bait poison an exterminator lays out underneath Naylor’s home to get rid of a tree rat nuisance. The emotionally fragile neighbor’s brother is an Assistant Deputy Director at the NSA (National Security Agency). After a call to her brother and to the local Sheriff’s office in which the unhinged White woman, Eunice, reports “strange noises in the middle of the night,” alluding to illegal activities, the plot is set. By the end of the second chapter, Naylor is profiled as “some kind of radical” Black writer who “wears dreadlocks” and suspected of drug dealing activities to explain how she can afford to purchase a home located on some of the most exclusive real estate on the island (20-21).

Naylor’s disclaimer at the beginning and end of the memoir delineates an apocryphal silence, hidden or unnoticeable (untraceable in Derridean terminology), that might indicate the uncanny or ineffable of racialized subjugated experience inherent to the African American literary tradition (Derrida, Dissemination 152):

“I didn’t want to tell this story. It’s going to take courage. Perhaps more courage than I possess, but they’ve left me no alternatives. I am in a battle for my mind. If I stop now, they’ll have won, and I will lose myself. One of the problems I have is where to begin and how to begin” (1,129).

Similar to Morrison’s Beloved (1987), which “was not a story to pass on,” 1996 is bound to an inexpressible pain made sense through an embodied cognition of rememoration against forgetfulness (274-5; Fuston-White 463). Furthermore, Naylor’s method of autoethnographic narration allows her to speak the apocryphal silences surrounding her “Black feminist self as community” (Vats & Kumar 180).

What I am calling apocryphal silence is a trace of that illegibility or “cryptographic incomprehensibility” shaped by the vestiges of enslavement and echoed in social and economic dispossession as a consequence of semiotic “loss” and “rupture.” Understanding this structuring of the Black lexicon as an “extraliterary form” that she identifies as “spirit writing,” Harryette Mullen challenges Henry Louis Gates’ position “that [B]lack literary traditions privilege orality.” She questions how we might understand the unique ways in which “the Western view of writing as a rational technology,” aimed toward maintaining white hegemony, has been transformed by the ingenuity of African Americans whose acquisition, usage, and interiorization of the language has been driven throughout history more by empowerment and radical imagination than by instrumental capitalist modes of knowledge production (671-72).

Considering Black literacy as an ethicopolitical dilemma, the question then emerges: How does a TI such as Naylor or any Black person (as a member of a group targeted on the basis of appearance circumscribed by commoditized identity) make sense of their existence as an historically situated subject, when, as James Baldwin writes, “for the horrors of the American [Black’s] life there has been almost no language” (Baldwin, FNT/PT 362)? How is self-actualization, let alone legal justice within the law, possible through a language in which one’s own existence (3/5 of a person) constitutes the literal object of terror without internalizing that terror as a form of self-destruction? For Naylor, who in a 1992 interview with Matteo Bellinelli identified herself as a cultural nationalist—meaning she is “very militant about who [she is] as a Black/African American…about [her] being”—African American or Black language is “English language applied to our own specific experience. Our experience is unique and calls for a creative use of the language,” Naylor says (Montgomery 107, 109). Here, Naylor engages in a form of “strategic use of positivist essentialism” intended to bring attention to what she refers to as the “undertones of the blues,” structural inequality tethered to a matrix of domination always operating within black life and culture (110, Spivak 281). She points to how Langston Hughes “plays with the blues and jazz in his poetry” and Ntozake Shange fractures language in her writing, “in order to try to have the language represent what our reality is” (Montgomery 109). Citing W.E.B Du Bois, she asserts, “it is a schizophrenic existence that many Blacks in America are forced to live” (108).

III. The Technics of War

In “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology” (1941), Marcuse distinguishes between “technics”—the instruments, techniques, and devices of the technological apparatus—and technology—the “mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and behavior patterns, an instrument for control and domination.” Marcuse wants to show the ways technology can be used to establish metaphysical limits that naturalize violence and allow for the idealization of psychological and social warfare. He writes, “technics by itself can promote authoritarianism as well as liberty, scarcity as well as abundance, the extension as well as the abolition of toil” (41). Initially pointing to the National Socialism of the Third Reich Nazi regime as an ideology of “technological rationality” utilized to impose a “technocracy” of systematic domination, he goes on to argue that as a normalizing apparatus technology standardizes thought to such a degree that even in liberal societies predicated on individual autonomy conformity can render democracy indistinguishable from fascism. The socializing apparatus of technology screens for any difference that threatens dissension, “absorbs the liberating efforts of thought, and the various functions of reason converge upon the unconditional maintenance of the apparatus.” Under mechanized behavioral regimes “individuals are stripped of their individuality, not by external compulsion but by the very rationality under which they live…individual protest and liberation appear not only as hopeless but as utterly irrational” (47-8).

Film still of Metropolis, 1927 (Dir: Fritz Lang).

As the U.S. military empire reaches the end of a twenty-year long proxy war on terrorism that began a decade earlier as the Gulf War (probably the first full, technologically realized virtual war or simulacra of war as Jean Baudrillard understood it), Marcuse’s concept of rational technology remains relevant. While an accidental political sequencing of authoritarian populism stoked by anti-Black racism, xenophobia, and an indifference for the ‘them’ of ‘us’ seems to have emerged from out of nowhere during the past Trump Administration, the sociopolitical conditioning of this algorithm of personal and cultural alienation is actually legally legitimated fifteen years earlier. It is from the Bush Doctrine’s declaration of ‘special right’ to preemptive war that we get the legislative smuggling in of The USA PATRIOT Act, on October 26, 2001, six weeks after the terrorists attacks on the Twin Towers.

In her study of the neoliberal technosystem she terms “surveillance capitalism,” Shoshana Zuboff explains how through “surveillance exceptionalism” a ‘militarization of the world wide web’ in effect radically alters the embodied social subject. This is made possible because of a state deformation with social consequences related to the political events during the post-9/11 period of legally retooling U.S. sovereignty. Motivated by a war on terrorism requiring ‘total information awareness’ and guided by the “surveillance-based logic of accumulation” espoused by Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Facebook, that rely on data-mining and behavior surplus technologies, personal privacy protections are reduced to risk-based and harm-reduction strategies (e.g., identity theft and database security). The erosion of civil-legal protections dismantles much of the sociopolitical and cultural infrastructure which has long maintained a public-private division for the greater common good (Zuboff 113-5).

Against this background of totalizing terror imposed by a neoliberal totalitarian order, Naylor’s 1996—straddling the genres of memoir, horror/sci-fi, pulp fiction, and conspiracy thriller—emerges as an important work of political art. In “Some Remarks on Aragon: Art and Politics in the Totalitarian Era” (1941), a discussion of how oppositional intimate art might reflect its own alienation as an inversion of terror enacted by totalitarian fascism (and “a great refusal” of the cultural domination, which Adorno and Horkheimer referred to as “the culture industry”), Marcuse argues:

“The artistic form, in the sense of the artistic a priori, is more than the ‘technical’ implementation and arrangement of the work of art: it is the ‘style’ which selects the content and which prevails throughout the work, in setting the central point that determines the relationships among the component parts, the vocabulary, and the rhythm and structure of each sentence” (202-3).

“If all contents are gleichgeschaltet” or gleichschaltung (a Nazification term meaning “coordination” or brought into coordination) with the imposed order, then by freeing the form from its dominant system, making it “the only content” (style as substance), form becomes “the instrument of destruction” (202; Michael & Doerr 28).

CREECH AFB, Nev. A MQ-9 Reaper drone flies above Creech AFB during a local training mission. The 42nd Attack Squadron currently operates the MQ-9. (Photo by Paul Ridgeway)

Invoking Benjaminian “shock-effect” reiterated as the angel of history in Thesis IX, Marcuse insists that by presenting the reality of artistic destruction whereby “the dream is arrested and returns to the past, and the future of freedom appears only as a disappearing light,” art can mediate a reconciliation between the alienated individual and political society (238, 254; Miles 109). This is a transcendental reality that merges the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic in reified form, absolute negativity rendering itself as the negated sign of violent technological progress (Cowling 22-24; Raulet 114; Bowman 54-56). An artificial reality, which, as Douglas Kellner argues, “preserv[es] the possibility of another reality;” while at the same time being the ruin of history, foreclosing any potential future possibility (Kellner 30). The aestheticization of politics, Benjamin warns, in the Epilogue to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” always accompanies fascism and its war machine. Marcuse will argue later, in Aesthetic Dimension (1977), holding up Bertolt Brecht’s poems as an example of “stylization [that] petrifies” terror into a form of countermemory, that the greatest mimetic achievements by works of art are those that capture the horrors of fascism by taking the sublimated form of “political Eros” (64).

In Eros and Civilization (1955) this break with rational form is articulated as an inversion of the Kantian faculty of judgement via the classical idealism of Friedrich Schiller’s (The Aesthetic Letters) “play impulse.” It is through the creative “leaps” of the imagination, the “third dimension” of judgement, which mediates between desire (will) and reason, that an “aesthetic reconciliation” of the cognitive faculties overcomes a reasoned order imposed by the reality principle (173-4, 187-8). By utilizing the “aesthetic function” of Kantian theory to reconcile the “erotogenic” confusion (pleasure and pain) operating at the “inner connection” of the cognitive faculties made sensible through categorical judgement, Marcuse seeks to exploit the sensuous form of the aesthetic schema (“the erotic roots of art”) and liberate judgement from the alienating regulatory techniques of a Freudian defensiveness, the “repressive reality principle,” to affect a praxis of the ‘unreal’ (184,172, 179, 185; Altman 143). It should also be noted, here, as I address elsewhere, that it is Kant’s utilization of the race concept to shape the theoretical underpinnings of geography, natural history, and anthropology that helps to refine and develop the concept within those disciplines and normalize racism and racial terrorism throughout the modern west (Lattimore 350).

IV. Black Medusa & the Aesthetics of Law

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937 (Oil on Canvas)

Moving from the literary to visual mode of poetic history in the conclusion of the Aragon essay, Marcuse points to Picasso’s Guernica, as an example of how: “The artistic presentation of the total terror still remains a work of art; it transforms the terror into another world—a transformation which is almost a transfiguration.” Here, sublation of state terror is reconstituted in its isolated form interrupting the common sense understanding of reality and “create[ing] artificial space and artificial time” (213). Reading from Hegel’s pamphlet on the German state constitution, in Reason and Revolution (1941), Marcuse observes that Hegel shows that the universality of private property is only an abstract legal fiction stabilizing the anarchic condition of private ownership; and, because possession existed prior to the law, German law is private law and political rights are legalized forms of possession, property rights. The struggle to make state power beholden to private interests brings about the destruction of state power, alienating it from community, and reifying law (53).

Naylor’s St. Helena paradise depicts the artificiality of the U.S. nation state (founded on Lockean property rights) as an object of reified legal violence perpetuated against Black persons. Historically, following the Union Army’s defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina (which includes St. Helena) are included in the parcels of land to be redistributed to Black people (free and formerly enslaved) for settlement as forty acres under General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 (January 16, 1865) (Foner 132-3). The St. Helena of 1996 functions as the actual home of the terrorized and tortured, real-life Gloria Naylor; as well as a transhistorical signifier that allows for rememoration of past traumas of enslavement and imagining future emancipatory possibilities (Reid & Bennett). As Erica Edwards writes, “In light of the memoir’s defense of its own truth claims, paranoia comes to function as a heuristic for white supremacy, on the one hand, and as a form of occult knowledge on the other…stored up beyond the range of understanding” (305).* It is through Naylor’s worldmaking within this “cultural territory” (a concept she develops in Mama Day, 1988) that we are able to see beneath the surface and style of Black bourgeois life (Black cool) to the social and political injustice inherent in the promise of membership and recognize the horrors of debility (Puar; Lamothe 159). Considering the possibility that built-in injustice is a feature of membership poses an additional question of obligation: If a social order of privilege is predicative of the normative standard of injustice, then how do we guarantee that laws and regulations constituting that authority do not amount to legal violence?

*In an upcoming conference paper, I engage in a sustained discussion of paranoia as it relates to how modes of thought informed by conspiracy theory and geared toward social justice can contribute to a more expansive social epistemology, one which might result in the kind of epistemological justice required for a decolonized critical theory dealt with by Gurminder K. Bhambra in “Decolonizing Critical Theory?: Epistemological Justice, Progress, Reparations,” Critical Times, 4:1, April 2021.

Selected Works Cited

1. Altman, Matthew C.. A Companion To Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Westview Press, 2008.

2. Baldwin, James. “The Fire Next Time,” in The Price of the Ticket: James Baldwin: Collected Non-Fiction (1948-1985). St. Martin’s Press, 1985, 337-79.

3. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction;” Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt. Schocken Books, 1969, pp. 217-42; 253-64.

4. Brady Bowman. Hegel & The Metaphysics Of Absolute Negativity. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

5. Cowling, Mark. “The Dialectic in Hegel & Marx.” PSA (Political Studies Association) Annual Conference, Brighton, England, March 21-23, 2016.

6. Davis, Angela. “Marcuse’s Legacies,” in Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader, edited by John Abromeit & W. Mark Cobb, Routledge, 2004, pp. 43-50.

–. “Abolition & Refusal,” in The Great Refusal: Herbert Marcuse & Contemporary Social Movements, edited by Andrew T. Lamas, Todd Wolfson, & Peter N. Funke, Temple University Press, 2017, pp. vii-xii.

7. Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination, translated by Barbara Johnson. The Athlone Press, 1981.

8. Edwards, Erica R. The Other Side of Terror: Black Women & the Culture of U.S. Empire. New York University Press, 2021.

9. Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Updated Edition). Harper Perennial, 2014.

10. Fuston-White, Jeanna. “‘From the Seen to the Told’: The Construction of Subjectivity in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” African American Review, Volume 36, Number 3, 2002, pp. 461-73.

11. Lamothe, Daphne. “Gloria Naylor’s ‘Mama Day’: Bridging Roots & Routes.” African American Review, Volume 39, Number 1/2, Summer 2005, pp. 155-69.

12. Lattimore, Mark. “Antinomies of Race: Diversity & Destiny in Kant.” Patterns of Prejudice, Vol, Nos. 4-5, 2008.

13. Marcuse, Herbert. “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology;” “Some Remarks on Aragon: Art & Politics in the Totalitarianism Era,” in Technology, War & Fascism: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, edited by Douglas Kellner. Routledge, 1998, pp. 40-65; 199-214.

–. Eros & Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Second Edition, with New Preface by Author). Beacon Press 1955/1966.

–. The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward A Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Beacon Press, 1977/1978.

–. Reason & Revolution: Hegel & the Rise of Social Theory (Second Edition with Supplementary Chapter). Routledge, 1941/1955.

14. Michael, Michael & Karen Doerr. Nazi Deutsch/Nazi German: An English Lexicon of the Language of the Third Reich. Greenwood Press, 2002.

15. Miles, Malcolm. Herbert Marcuse: An Aesthetics of Liberation. Pluto Press, 2002.

16. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Plume, 1987.

17. Mullen, Harryette. “African Signs and Spirit Writing,” Callaloo, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Summer,1996), pp 670-89.

18. Naylor, Gloria. 1996. Third World Press, 2005.

–. Mama Day. Vintage Books, 1993.

–. Conversations with Gloria Naylor, edited by Maxine Lavon Montgomery. University Press of Mississippi, 2004.

19. Puar, Jasbir. The Right To Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Duke University Press, 2017.

20. Reid, Debra A. & Bennett, Evan P. (editors). Beyond Forty Acres & A Mule: African American Landowning Families Since Reconstruction. University of Press Florida, 2013.

21. Spivak, Gayatari. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (with a new introduction by the author). Routledge, 1998/2006.

22. Wilson Gilmore, Ruth. The Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, & Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press, 2007.

23. Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For A Human Future At The New Frontier of Power. Public Affairs, Hachette Book Group, 2019.

24. Ms. Adishree Vats & Anurag Kumar. “Fiction as Autobiographical Resurgence: A Black Feminist Autoethnographic Analysis of Gloria Naylor’s 1996.” Journal of University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, Volume 22, Issue 11, November 2020, pp. 178-187.

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