Herbert Marcuse: «Liberating Transformation of Nature»


Speaking of Hegel’s concept of freedom Marcuse says: „Hegel’s concept of freedom presupposes consciousness throughout (in Hegel’s terminology: self-conscious). Consequently, the ‘realization’ of Nature is not, and never can be Nature’s own work. But inasmuch as Nature is in itself negative (i.e., wanting in its own existence), the historical transformation of Nature by Man is, as the overcoming of this negativity, the liberation of Nature. Or, in Hegel’s words, Nature is in its essence non-natural – ‘Geist’.“ (28) He continues: „History is the negation of Nature. What is only natural is overcome and recreated by the power of Reason. The metaphysical notion that Nature comes to itself in history points to the unconquered limits of Reason. It claims them as historical limits – as a task yet to be accomplished, or rather yet to be undertaken. If Nature is in itself a rational, legitimate object of science, then it is the legitimate object not only of Reason as power but also of Reason as freedom; not only of domination but also of liberation. With the emergence of man as the animal rationale – capable of transforming Nature in accordance with the faculties of the mind and the capacities of matter – the merely natural, as the sub-rational, assumes negative status. It becomes a realm to be comprehended and organized by Reason.“ (29)  In capitalism the spirit by way of which nature acquires self-conscious is abolished by technique, which does not only have an anti-spiritual (anti-rational) but also an anti-existential character. It is a form in which the powers of nature are instrumentalized in a capitalistic way and have become an anti-natural power. The idea of a «liberating transformation of nature» (30) acquires a concrete historical dimension only in the relation to the process of the destructive capitalist «transformation» of nature. The basic shortcoming of pure nature is not that it is non-rational, but that it cannot prevent the destruction of life on the earth. The «liberating transformation of nature» does not only have a libertarian but, above all, an existential character. The basic condition of human freedom and human survival is not man’s liberation from nature, but man’s liberation from capitalism. To stop the natural forces from being instrumentalized for the sake of the destruction of life (atomic bomb and other numerous means produced in the capitalist laboratories of death; the development of technique which is based on the «destructive productivity» /Marcuse/ and which is reduced to the destruction of nature and man …), and preservation of life on the earth by preserving nature as a life-creating environment through its humanisation – this is the primary task of mankind.

Writing on the domination of «technological rationality» in the «developed industrial society» Marcuse concludes: „Their truth value depended to a large degree on an uncomprehended and unconquered dimension of man and nature, on the narrow limits placed on organization and manipulation, on the ‘insoluble core’ which resisted integration. In the fully developed industrial society, this insoluble core is progressively whittled down by technological rationality. Obviously, when cities and highways and National Parks replace the villages, valleys, and forests; when motorboats race over the lakes and planes cut through the skies – then these areas lose their character as a qualitatively different reality, as areas of contradiction.“ (31) Marcuse’s term «technological rationality», based on the «physical transformation of the world», is but another name for the destructive capitalist irrationality. The destruction of nature includes the destruction of the cultural heritage of mankind created over thousands of years, and based on the organic link between man and nature. Hence the preservation of the cultural heritage based on man’s life-creating unity with nature is of primary importance for the development of man’s life-creating conscious. Marcuse: „All joy and all happiness derive from the ability to transcend Nature – a transcendence in which the mastery of Nature is itself subordinated to liberation and pacification of existence. All tranquillity, all delight is the result of conscious mediation, of autonomy and contradiction. Glorification of the natural is part of the ideology which protects an unnatural society in its struggle against liberation. (…) Civilization produces the means for freeing Nature from its own brutality, its own insufficiency, its own blindness, by virtue of the cognitive and transforming power of Reason. And Reason can fulfil this function only as post-technological rationality, in which technic is itself the instrumentality of pacification, organon of the ‘art of life’. The function of Reason then converges with the function of Art.“ (32) Marcuse overlooks that nature is by itself cultivating. Rousseau speaks of the «skill of living» which a child will learn in nature that «calls him to a human life». (33) The «brutality of nature» has an existential and life-creating character, unlike capitalism which is destructive – and to which the anthropological picture of man corresponds: instead of being a «beast», man becomes a «(self) destructive“ being. In sport, which mirrors the true face of capitalism, nature is not free from its shortcomings and brutality, but becomes the object of exploitation and destruction. In it, the body, which is man’s immediate nature, becomes an opponent which should be beaten and used for the sake of inhuman ends. Sport does not liberate man from his dependence on the body; it «liberates» him from life.

In nature, the struggle for survival is the basis for the survival of the living world: it is life-creating. In capitalism, the struggle for survival is «overcome» by being turned into the destruction of life. It is not based on the struggle for survival between people, but between capitalist concerns, which means that it is not guided by the existential needs of living beings, as is the case in nature, but by inhuman and antiexistential interests of capital. It is not driven by poverty, but by the development of the «consumer society» where the production and acquisition of goods becomes the way of destroying man as a cultural and biological being, as well as of destroying nature. In capitalism, «nature ceases to be the sheer nature» by being deprived of naturalness and reduced to a sheer object of exploitation and destruction. Since capitalism destroys the natural brutality by destroying nature, it is necessary to fight for its naturalization, which means for its liberation from the capitalist destruction. Natural forces should be turned into the means for preserving and humanizing nature. The liberating possibilities of nature lie in its life-creativeness – in the creation of living forms. Man is by his nature a life-creating being and can be cultivated only by respecting his life-creativeness – as the integral part of nature. Only in nature can man experience the fullness of his human being. The humanization becomes the development (overcoming) of the original naturalness, and not its submission to a rational model, the model of the «noble» and the like. Instead of man appearing as a form in which nature acquires the possibility of being overcome by the «spirit», meaning of attaining the notion of itself and of relating to itself, man should overcome his original natural life-creativeness (procreation) through the development of his playing being, which means that it should become the basis for the totalization of the world. It is about the transformation of the procreative into the life-creating principle, and about the transformation of the life-creating into the universal creative principle.

In capitalism, the instrumental and exploitive relation to nature is the basis of the relation to the human body. It is not a harmonious part of the living nature which, as such, should be respected; it is reduced to the object of processing and the means for achieving inhuman ends. Instead of the working, sporting, technical, consumer and destructive body, libertarian play should develop a creative (poetical) body and a variety of movements (skill as a humanized movement) which will enable man to realize his creative personality. It is not only about the fight for preserving the cultural heritage of mankind and man as a cultural being; it is about the fight for the survival of man as a natural and playing being. Libertarian play should enable the preservation and development of the emancipatory achievements of physical culture which are being destroyed by the «technical civilization». Instead of the naturalization of the body, which is reduced to a machine, we should strive for the humanisation of man’s natural being through the development of his playing being, which means through a creative skill by which man is developed as a whole (physical, intellectual, erotic, social) being. It is not about the humanization of technique by way of art; it is about the humanization of man, which means about the development of his universal creative being, which abolishes technique as man’s relation to nature alienated from him, and abolishes art as a separate social sphere. Instead of the relation between social spheres alienated from man, which are the basic way of functioning of the «social life», we should insist on the development of immediate relations between people as emancipated playing beings. The world as an artistic creation – this is the purpose of the fight for the future. By fighting for a new world, the whirl of the human will be created, which will «suck» all that is alienated from man. Instead of Nietzsche’s cosmic energy, life which is alienated from man will start to flow in him again; instead of art being a means for turning the cosmic energy into life, man’s creative energy will become the basis for the creation of a new – human cosmos.

Here, together with Marcuse, we could pose the following question: „In view of what this standard has made of Man and Nature, the question must again be asked whether it is worth the sacrifices and the victims made in its defence.“ (34)

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