Repressive Desublimation

neil postman

Repressive desublimation [dih-suhb-luh-mey-shuhn] is a term first coined by philosopher and sociologist Herbert Marcuse in his 1964 work ‘One-Dimensional Man, ‘that refers to the way in which, in advanced capitalism, ‘sexuality is liberated (or rather liberalized) in socially constructive forms’ so as to serve, rather than to challenge, forms of social control.

Instead of acting against the social order (as the repressive hypothesis would suggest), sexual liberation was thus co-opted to support the status quo, through the undoing of sublimations (the conversion of negative impulses into positive behavior) and the release of pleasure in socially approved forms.

By offering instantaneous, rather than mediated gratifications, repressive desublimation was considered by Marcuse to remove the energies otherwise available for a social critique; and thus to function as a conservative force under the guise of liberation. The roots of Marcuse’s concept have been traced to the earlier writings of Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and German sociologist Theodor Adorno, as well as to a shared knowledge of the Freudian idea of the involution of sublimation.

Marcuse’s idea fed into the student activism of the 1960s, as well as being debated at a more formal level by figures such as German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt and American classicist Norman O. Brown. A decade later, Marxist theorist Ernest Mandel took up Marcuse’s theme in his analysis of how dreams of escape through sex (or drugs) were commodified as part of the growing commercialisation of leisure in late capitalism.

Contemporary Raunch culture, which is characterized by the objectification of women, has been usefully linked to the notion of repressive desublimation. But some postmodernist thought – while accepting repressive desublimation as a fairly accurate description of changing social mores, – see the ensuing depthlessness of postmodernism as something to be celebrated, not (as with Marcuse) condemned. Thus the advertisement-based system of mass sexualized commodification of the nineties meshed comfortably with the conservative, post-political ethos of the times, to create a kind of media-friendly and increasingly pervasive superficial sexuality.

Figures like Slovenian Marxist philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek however have taken up Marcuse’s idea in a more critical sense, to explore the postmodern short-circuiting of desire, and effacement of the psychological dimension to sex. Here what has been called the socialization of the unconscious into mass form of pleasure-drills, and the exercise of control through the command to transgress, rather than to repress, appear as practical instances of repressive desublimation pervading global culture.

Marcuse’s idea are criticized for utopianism in seeking to envisage an alternative to the happy consciousness of repressive desublimation that permeates postmodern culture, as well as for modernist elitism in his appeal for critical leverage to an ‘autonomous’ sphere of high culture. French philosopher Michel Foucault expanded the concept into ‘hyper-repressive desublimation,’ and simultaneously criticized it for ignoring the plurality and extent of competing sexual discourses that emerged from the sexual revolution.


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