What is the relationship of the university to society? Should students and faculty focus on narrow vocational concerns or do they also have a responsibility to seriously criticize and challenge the society they live in? These questions, and a host of others, will be considered on Sunday, October 5 when Paul Alexander Juutilainen's provocative documentary, Herbert's Hippopotamus--Marcuse and Revolution in Paradise (1996) will be featured at the Twentieth Anniversary Mill Valley Film Festival. The film has won numerous awards and festival prizes while touring the U.S. and focuses on an important period (the late 1960s and early 1970s) in the life of the controversial philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse was widely hailed by the media as "The Philosopher of the New Left" and served as a mentor for several of the more influential activists of the period including Angela Davis (now a Presidential Professor in the History of Consciousness Program at UCSC) and Abbie Hoffman.
As Davis says in a C-SPAN clip included in the film, "Herbert Marcuse taught me that it was possible to be an academic and an activist, a scholar and a revolutionary."
Marcuse was one of a group of influential German thinkers, known collectively as the Frankfurt School, who, being Jewish, Marxist, and antifascist, were forced to emigrate when Hitler came to power in 1933. By the 1940s Marcuse was living in the United States and working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the war effort against the Nazis.
After WWII Marcuse began teaching philosophy in American universities and authored such challenging works as Eros and Civilization (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1964). In these books, Marcuse developed a powerful critique of advanced industrial society and argued that a much more erotic human existence was possible if the forces of domination and repression could be overcome.
The late 1960s found Marcuse teaching at the University of California at San Diego, and Juutilainen's documentary details the reaction of this affluent, conservative, Navy town as it learned that this internationally famous intellectual was in its midst.
Juutilainen (who wrote, directed, and produced the film) had read about Marcuse as a student in Denmark. Currently a graduate student at UCSD in visual arts, Juutilainen moved to San Diego in 1992 and began a personal quest to discover the truth behind the media storm and political battles that surrounded Marcuse's employment at UCSD.
In the course of his research Juutilainen interviewed numerous former colleagues and students of Marcuse's including Davis, Fredric Jameson, and Reinhard Lettau
In watching these interviews, one is struck by the way in which Marcuse's friends light up as they discuss the commitment, passion, and playfulness of this politically and socially engaged philosopher.
In addition to the interviews, Juutilainen uncovered over sixty hours of archival footage from which a significant portion of the 69 minute film is culled. This impressive research effort proves illuminating. It provides a close and revealing look at the odd assortment of characters and forces who fiercely opposed both Marcuse and what they took or mistook for his message.
Marcuse's opposition included the Pope, Pravda, the American Legion, California Governor Ronald Reagan, and Vice-President Spiro Agnew. On one level, this confrontation can be seen as forces of control attacking a voice for freedom. Juutilainen also offers a nuanced, contextual exploration of the pressures and tensions of this turbulent period.
However, it is apparent that the confrontation also involved different visions of what constitutes a free society and what constitutes an educated, free individual.
Marcuse stressed the importance of the critical ability to negate the dominant thrust of consumer society and to imagine and work towards a future of emancipated multidimensional humanity.
His critics saw education and society in chillingly different terms.
Speaking on Robert Dornan's television show, Vice-President Spiro Agnew stated, "we should focus more on training these young people to be productive citizens and not to dissect and examine the whys and wherefores, the motives of human beings."
On a different note, something, should be said about the film's peculiar title. Marcuse, it seems, was fascinated by hippopotami.
He felt these bizarre creatures somehow captured life's absurdity and his office was filled with figurines of these animals. The elaboration of this fascination is one of a surprising number of humorous moments in what is otherwise a very serious film.
As one might infer, Marcuse was deeply educated in the western cultural tradition but was also acutely aware of its problems.
He was also a staunch supporter of both the emerging Third World Studies programs and the women's movement. At one point in the film Davis, laughing, points out that one women's group even named Marcuse "an honorary woman." However, as the film clearly demonstrates, these movements were also bitterly opposed by the same right-wing forces that sought to silence Marcuse. In making this important point, the film helps to historically contextualize the current attacks on affirmative action by the right, one of several instances in which the film demonstrates the relevance of the recent past for our contemporary predicament.
The portrait of Marcuse that Herbert's Hippopotamus presents is a powerful one. There is something irresistibly attractive about a thinker who refuses to let death threats and the prospect of losing a job keep him from speaking out. In this sense, and others, there was a strong Socratic element in Marcuse. But ultimately, for a philosopher, the questions raised will outlast the life lived, however noble. Juutilainen's film does not dodge these difficult questions. What is human freedom? Does the university have a responsibility to promote it? How can one be truly free if poor? Toward the conclusion of the film Juutilainen discusses some of the striking differences between the affluent 1960s and the 1990s when students face escalating tuition and diminishing career prospects. He then poses the following question, "The disgust with affluence has been replaced with the fear of impoverishment, but does this mean there is no more to protest?"
Anyone interested in philosophy, politics, and/or the recent history of the University of California will find much of interest in this thoughtful documentary. The film will be followed by a discussion and Juutilainen will be in attendance. Starting time is 6:30 p.m. at Oddfellows Hall, 142 Throckmorton Avenue, Mill Valley. For ticket availability call (415) 383-1030.