Repressive desublimation  

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"Boris Fraenkel (1992) believes that the "sexual revolution", that the West supposedly experienced in the late 1960s, is a misconception and that sex is not actually enjoyed freely, it is just observed in all the fields of culture; that is a kind of taboo behavior technically called "repressive desublimation". --Sholem Stein

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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 industrial society (capitalism), "the progress of technological rationality is liquidating the oppositional and transcending elements in the “higher culture.” In other words, where art was previously a way to represent "that which is" from "that which is not," capitalist society causes the "flattening out" of art into a commodity incorporated into society itself. As Marcuse put it in One-Dimensional Man, "The music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship."

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.

Subsequent developments

Critical exploration of contemporary Raunch culture 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 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.

See also

Further reading

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

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