More from Frye on Relevance


Herbert Marcuse

Frye on Zweckwissenschaft:

One main theme of Part Three is: the N-S axis of concern is revolutionary, & the W-E one is liberal, not speculative, but simply broadening & enlarging. Revolutionary characteristics are: the enforced loyalty of a minority group (Jews, early Christians); belief in a unique historical revelation; resistance to “revisionism”; establishment of a rigorous canon of myth; rejection of knowledge for its own sake (demand for relevance or Zweckwissenschaft). Judaism was the only revolutionary monotheism produced in the ancient world, and Christianity inherited the characteristics that made Tacitus scream & Marcus Aurelius talk about their parataxis [sheer obstinacy].

(The “Third Book” Notebooks, Notebook 12, par. 304)

A certain amount of contemporary agitation seems to be beating the track of the “think with your blood” exhortations of the Nazis a generation ago, for whom also “relevance” (Zweckwissenschaft, u.s.w.) was a constant watchword. Such agitation aims, consciously or unconsciously, at a closed myth of concern, which is thought of as already containing all the essential answers, at least potentially, so that it contains the power of veto over scholarship and imagination. Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance,” that concerned issues have a right and a wrong side, and that those who are simply right need not bother tolerating those who are merely wrong, is typical of the kind of hysteria that an age like ours throws up. That age is so precariously balanced, however, that a closed myth can only maintain a static tyranny until it is blown to pieces, either externally in war or internally through the explosion of what it tries to suppress.

(The Critical Path, 155)

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