Repressive desublimation 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. Rather than acting against the social order (as the repressive hypothesis would suggest), sexual liberation was thus co-opted to support the repressive order, through the undoing of sublimations 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.
Origins and influence
The roots of Marcuse's concept have been traced to the earlier writings of Wilhelm Reich and 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 Hannah Arendt and Norman O. Brown. A decade later, 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.
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 sexualised 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 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 socialisation 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 can be criticised 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.
Foucault expanded the concept into 'hyper-repressive desublimation', and simultaneously criticised it for ignoring the plurality and extent of competing sexual discourses that emerged from the sexual revolution.
- Marcuse, in John O'Neill, Sociology as a Skin Trade (1972) p. 51
- Gary Gutting, The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (2003) p. 337-8
- Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (London 2002) p. 75-8
- G. Horowitz, Repression (1977) p. 78
- Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11) p. 97
- Maurice Cranston, 'Neocommunism and the Students' Revolts' Studies in Comparative Communism Vol 1 (1968) p. 49-52
- O'Neill, p. 53-60
- Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism (London 1975) p. 502 and p. 393
- Chloe Avril, The Feminist Utopian novels of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (2008) p. 77
- Marianne DeKoven, Utopia Unlimited (2004) p. 39
- Michael Bracewell, The Nineties: When Surface was Depth (London 2003) p. 20-22
- Slavoj Zizek, The Metastases of Enjoyment (2005) p. 18
- Ken Geller, The Horror Reader (2000) p. 102
- Antonios Vadolas, Perversions of Fascism (2009) p. 25
- M. Hardt/K. Weeks eds., The Jameson Reader (2000) p. 127-8 and p. 363-4
- Robert Miklitsch, From Hegel to Madonna (1998) p. 63
Ben Agger, A Critical Theory of Public Life (1991)
Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (1954) Chap X
Jeremy Shapiro, "From Marcuse to Habermas" Continuum VIII (1970), 65-76