Summer 2001

On Acronyms

A cunning of reason

Herbert Marcuse

Michael Blum, Revolution, 2001.

Note on abridgement. NATO, SEATO, UN, AFL-CIO, AEC, but also USSR, DDR, etc. Most of these abbreviations are perfectly reasonable and justified by the length of the unabbreviated designata. However, one might venture to see in some of them a “cunning of Reason”—the abbreviation may help to repress undesired questions. NATO does no­t suggest what North Atlantic Treaty Organization says, namely, a treaty among the nations on the North-Atlantic—in which case one might ask questions about the membership of Greece and Turkey. USSR abbreviates Socialism and Soviet; DDR: democratic. UN dispenses with undue emphasis on “united”; SEATO with those Southeast-Asian countries which do not belong to it. AFL-CIO entombs the radical political differences which once separated the two organizations, and AEC is just one administrative agency among others. The abbreviations denote that and only that which is institutionalized in such a way that the transcending connotation is cut off. The meaning is fixed, doctored, loaded. Once it has become an official vocable, constantly repeated in general usage, “sanctioned” by the intellectuals, it has lost all cognitive value and serves merely for recognition of an unquestionable fact.

This style is of overwhelming concreteness. The “thing identified with its function” is more real than the thing distinguished from its function and the linguistic expression of this identification (in the functional noun, and in the many forms of syntactical abridgement) creates a basic vocabulary and syntax which stand in the way of differentiation, separation, and distinction. This language, which constantly imposes images, militates against the development and expression of concepts. In its immediacy and directness it impedes conceptual thinking; thus, it impedes thinking.

Excerpted from One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), p. 94

Herbert Marcuse was born in Berlin. He emigrated to the US in 1934 where he taught philosophy at Columbia, Harvard, Brandeis, and the University of California–San Diego. His books include One-Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization.

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