W. H. Auden wrote of Sigmund Freud:
He wasn’t clever at all: he merely told
the unhappy Present to recite the Past
like a poetry lesson till sooner
or later it faltered at the line where
long ago the accusations had begun,
and suddenly knew by whom it had been judged
In Telos 165 (Winter 2013), Caroline Edwards’s article “From Eros to Eschaton” considers how Herbert Marcuse — the great popularizer of Frankfurt School critical theory and intellectual patron of the New Left — conceptualized a “struggle over time”:
One example of this approach is the temporal dialectic between alienated labor time and the timelessness of pleasure’s desire for eternity, which underpins Marcuse’s analysis in Eros and Civilization (1956)… I argue that we should read Marcuse’s privileging of the Freudian Eros-Todestrieb dualism as tacitly redefining political struggle through the affirmation of a redemptive model of cyclical time, which responds to a Jewish apocalyptic-utopian tradition. I consider the ways in which Marcuse’s later writings… reveal the liberation of time to be grounded in the uncovering of nature’s “erotic cathexis.” Cyclical time thus offers Marcuse an Orphic recourse with which to confront the linear time of advanced industrial capitalism. In reading Marcuse’s delinearization of time through a reformulated understanding of Judeo-Christian eschatology, I conclude, we are afforded a fuller account of the way in which time underpins Marcuse’s appeals to utopia.
I have fixated recently on Wendy Brown’s insight — drawn from Walter Benjamin — that the project of critical theory is a reconfiguration of time.
Kierkegaard might characterize Marcuse’s option — “pleasure’s desire for eternity” — as the aesthete’s desire for the infinitude that evades death. Patrick Stokes has written an excellent article on the modes of eternity that appear in Kierkegaard’s existence-spheres. The aesthete seeks an immediate relationship to timeless objects — great works of art, for an example — as if in an attempt to cheat death. For Marcuse, the timelessness of pleasure is a way to subvert the temporal regimentation of slave labor.
In her article, Edwards alleges that rational clock time is a continuation of Judeo-Christian linear time. Marcuse’s critique is drawn from Freud; the cyclical “return of the repressed” in history. When this becomes the basis for Jewish messianism — an instinctual “chialistic trust” in the past’s ability to disrupt the present — Marcuse turns psychoanalysis into a “modern humanistic theology” (104).
There is the danger in Marcuse — one he recognizes — where this theory becomes “artistic and spurious”. Freud is no longer “a whole climate of opinion“, as W. H. Auden once wrote. Even in 1955, Marcuse’s foundation in psychoanalysis had to be shored up.
Fortunately, recent work has shown a break between the contemporary “immanent frame” and the sacred, liturgical time of the Middle Ages. Critical theory has been carried to strange havens before. Why not the Kierkegaardian critique of secular time and a retrieval of Christian parousia?