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Irony and Marcuse: Martin Jay delivers sharp first keynote

By Joe Vigil

Section: Front Page, News

October 9, 2014

Students, faculty members and academics of various ages and backgrounds assembled in Rapaporte Treasure Hall on Oct. 1 to hear the keynote address of the first day of “The Many Dimensions of Herbert Marcuse” conference, delivered by Martin Jay. The conference explored the critical theory of Marcuse and coincided with the 50th anniversary of the release of his book “One-Dimensional Man,” which Jay discussed in his address “Irony and Dialectics: One-Dimensional Man at Fifty.”

Marcuse was an influential member of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and is widely regarded as the father of the New Left political movement. He taught classes in philosophy, politics, social science and the history of ideas at Brandeis from 1958 to 1965 and published “One-Dimensional Man” in 1964.

Jay, who is the Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, was introduced by European history major Benjamin Steele ’15. Jay researched and “has had a huge personal and intellectual involvement with many members of the Frankfurt School,” according to Steele.

Jay spoke first about the impact of the book and the theories that were presented by Marcuse. “I remember it as a sort of shocking book,” Jay said. “It was one that jostled you out of a certain notion of American exceptionalism.”

Jay also spoke passingly about Marcuse’s view that people have a total inability to bridge the gap between an ideology and reality. He discussed the role that irony plays in “One-Dimensional Man.” He did this first by speaking about the role of irony in the postwar world and specifically cited the views of Theodor Adorno, another member of the Frankfurt School.

“Adorno concluded that both satire and irony are no longer possible,” Jay said. He contended, however, that Marcuse used irony despite Adorno’s conclusions, and said that “Marcuse’s reliance on irony in fact in the book went beyond the surface rhetoric of his argument.”

Jay then attempted to pinpoint what kind of irony Marcuse used in his book and whether it had criminal or negative implications. He defined three types of irony: cynical irony, paradoxical or unstable irony and dramatic or world historical irony. Jay contended that cynical irony relates to “impotent surrender” and does not imaginatively resist reality but instead provides “unresisting accommodation.” He did not think that this was the form of irony demonstrated in “One-Dimensional Man.”

“Marcuse, I think, did not embrace this kind of ironic or cynical tactic,” said Jay.

Similarly, he concluded that paradoxical irony, which can be represented by a philosopher that strives endlessly to achieve absolute truth that will result in satiation that is just outside of the realm of possibility, is not the kind of irony employed by Marcuse either.

The third kind of irony that Jay discussed, dramatic or world historical irony, is classified as an audience’s knowledge of crucial information at the beginning of a drama that a character lacks until the end of that drama. In historical context, it is classified as the knowledge a historian has of historical figures and both events that happen to them and their intentions before the event takes place. Ultimately Jay concluded that, while “One-Dimensional Man” contained elements of all three ironies, the irony most closely represented is that of dramatic or world historical irony.

“Marcuse was a hopeful historical materialist who still believes the future can somehow against all odds redeem the promises of the past, however much they’re now thwarted,” said Jay.

Overall, Jay argued that Marcuse presented the belief in “One-Dimensional World” that the world is not entirely hopeless and beyond positivity.

After Jay concluded his address, he answered a few questions from the audience regarding things like Freudian irony’s place relative to Marcuse and incestuous political relationships and their place in the reality imagined by Marcuse. The address was followed by a reception in the Mandel Atrium.

The keynote address was preceded by a day of correspondences delivered by people such as University President Fred Lawrence, Marcuse’s son, Patrick of Columbia University and various professors from Brandeis and other universities. There were also debates and reexaminations of Marcuse’s theories, interspersed with refreshment breaks. The second day on Oct. 2 followed a similar pattern, and the keynote address was delivered by Douglas Kellner of UCLA. The event was a function of the International Herbert Marcuse Society.

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