They say that if the grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence that’s because it’s fertilized with bullshit. In the cultural paddies of late 1960s college campuses, Herbert Marcuse took this metaphor to heart. In his office were hippos. Why? Well, he loved how hippopotamuses could graze across the vast escarpments of Africa while spreading fertile manure wherever they trod.
“Marcuse’s favorite animal was the hippopotamus, and he often visited the hippo enclosure at the San Diego Zoo. He kept many animal figurines in his office, 20 to 30 of which were depictions of hippos. ‘He thought the hippopotamus was a metaphor for all sorts of things,’ says Kellner. ‘He saw it as the wonder in nature, that nature could produce something so extravagant.’ (Fokos & Kellner, online).
Danish filmmaker Paul Alexander Juutilainen adds that, while interviewing Herbert Marcuse, he realized that the latter “would find the university functioning as a research lab for the Department of Defense to be far more offensive than the university functioning like a fat and absurd hippopotamus that would glean knowledge from one arena and take that knowledge and spread it in another.” (Juutilainen, online).
In other words, easy out and easy in beats working for the oppressors or mindlessly resisting them at every turn. One can become a sort of cerebral poop shoot. And we can only be sure who they are with historical hindsight, whatever size our hindquarters might be.
Marcuse himself claims that when colleagues spoke of the San Diego zoo that was what sold him on leaving old world academia for the Best Coast. “I came here just as much for the San Diego Zoo—the biggest in the world—as for anything else. I love animals. While I was considering the move, some of the UCSD faculty kept writing me letters about how wonderful the zoo was. That clinched the deal,” he said (Marcuse, online).
As animals, albeit animals with ideas, we humans may misstep when we imagine our cerebral faculties as so elevated above the dross and mire or more bestial and essential qualities. After all, all things being equal, we humans are best known as creatures who think (Homo sapiens).
Transference and Cesspools of Ideology
For old school psychotherapists, transference invokes the reality that each new relationship involves an expression of hitherto-experienced interaction with others that triggers a basic appeal in regards to family and conjugal archetypes. For Marcuse, however, college education was a shot at directly transferring free-thinking potential to a younger generation of students. Provisionally adopting the aged professor role allowed him to break the mold; his students shortly learned that he was the most incisive and revolutionary person in the room.
Once a Hippo, Always a Hippo
To make his teaching his own or, more crucially, to truly impart valued aspects of his pedagogy to his youthful clientele, Marcuse concluded that his role was to transfer learning from one place to another. From Europe to San Diego, for instance. The essence of his crucial book, titled One-Dimensional Man he summarizes as follows: “The so-called consumer society and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form. The need for possessing, consuming, handling, and constantly renewing the gadgets, devices, instruments, and engines offered to and imposed upon the people, for using these wares even at the danger of one’s own destruction, has become a “biological” need” (Marcuse, online).
We’re all floating in the same cultural stew, steakhouse, and salad bar, consuming and being consumed and swimming to and fro like our life’s actions truly matter. And yet, well, you don’t have to be a free-thinking student of the 60s generation to feel that something is missing on the path to authenticity—especially where post-secondary education is concerned. That realization has made all the difference in our seeking to better ourselves through what used to be termed higher learning. Enlightenment won’t just be handed to us, like a shiny new car or a bunch of likes on social media. That the phrase enlightenment is now used as a pejorative, often accompanied by a noisy hipster coffee shop and stuffy yoga studio, may be a function of precisely the ideological enclosure Marcuse wrote about. The idea of being a hippo as a verb, hippoing if you will, is a reminder that there’s nothing wrong with doing like the old man in the animated film Up, rising above our social surroundings that we may better view and understand, perhaps to alter, at least in our small way, the world that we see. After all, changed minds are an invention without a patent and without dull commercial applications. It’s like building a house from the inside, or just learning to fertilize the landscape.