In his early essay on the affirmative character of culture, dating back to 1937, Marcuse states that the whole sphere of material production is generally regarded as being tainted by misery, injustice, and in principle alien to beauty, enjoyment and happiness. In 1922, Dewey had made a similar point in his Human Nature and Conduct, noting that our understanding of work as a synonym for mere labour – something uninteresting and toilsome, which leaves no legitimate room for pleasure – is the result of a regressive habit, connected to an exclusive emphasis on profit.
Setting out from different points of departure, both scholars assert the possibility to enjoy richer forms of life here and now – ones sensuously, emotively and imaginatively more satisfying.
The paper tries to distinguish the different meanings Dewey and Marcuse attribute to the aesthetic aspects of our experiences, by stressing their common assumption that these aspects are one of the basic elements in our interactions with the surrounding world and that they play a decisive role in our lives.
Political emancipation, as defined by Marx, does not cover the sum of human emancipation in all of its complexity, particularly because the more anthropologically oriented meaning of the term also includes the satisfaction of some aesthetic needs which must be taken into account in order to attain “thicker” forms of freedom.
While for both Dewey and Marcuse at the beginning of the 20th century consumption remained the only recognized venue for pleasure, it must be acknowledged that political economy and marketing are now increasingly and pervasively exploiting the “esthetic hunger” of individuals in contemporary post-industrial societies.
Nonetheless, for both Dewey and Marcuse this circumstance neither means that we must pursue a purely negative form of culture and art nor that we have to look for completely rational agents, whose conduct exclusively stems from clear and distinct ideas and arguments, avoiding any aesthetic or qualitative influence on their deliberations. The point is rather to suggest alternative ways of satisfying our aesthetic needs, but also of making subtler distinctions between different forms of consumption, pleasure and enjoyment.