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Repressive Desublimation

October 2, 2007

I’m a little confused about repressive desublimation. I’m reading Marcuse and other neo-Marxists right now, and while I think I understand the main points I want to make sure I am totally stable on the concept of repressive desublimation. I thought I had it, then a colleague (a Marcuse specialist) explained it to me differently.

What I thought I knew:
Sublimation is when a natural human drive (i.e. sex) gets transformed into a more socially acceptable form (i.e. music or religion). Desublimation, then, would be when rather than being encouraged to make music or go to church you are urged to give in to your drives and just go have sex. Repressive desublimation would be when this desublimation happens in a form that instead of giving you freedom, restricts it. Yes, go out and indulge your sex drive, but do it by purchasing porn and other consumables.

How it was explained to me:
Sublimation is when you make something sublime. Put it on a pedestal, understand it as special, unique, and precious. Desublimation would be taking it off that pedestal, making it touchable, profane. A New York 9oz steak is a pretty incredible meal – to go to a nice restaurant and sit down with a dish like that is an experience. You savour the meal, enjoy the atmosphere, have an experience not just a feed. If grocery stores started selling New York 9oz steaks in eight packs for $10, everything would change. Everyone could eat it, any time they want. Eating this would no longer be an experience, no more than eating Kraft Dinner is. It would be desublimated, and in this desublimation the emphasis would go off of the quality of the experience and onto the quantity of consumption. This is how it is repressive. Rather than a precious experience, mass consumption changes it into a matter of speed and quantity. We gain the freedom to eat whatever we want whenever we want to, but we lose the meaning.

Both explanations essentially come down to how the material relations of production effect how we live and thing (well, duh. This is Marxism), so I can see how they connect. They are different, though, and I think it matters. Is this a combination of Marxism and Freudianism? Does “sublimation” come from “sublimate” meaning to transform or from “sublime?”

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Dr. Jim permalink
    October 2, 2007 8:05 pm

    My bet is from “transform”. Perhaps you are dealing with two different ideas sharing the same terminology: the steak theory, that depends on the changing availability of something hitherto “sublime”, and the transformation of inner urges theory, that seems a little more at home with Freud than with Marx directly.

    On the other hand, my dissertation supervisor thought that academics do theory when they haven’t got anything sensible to say…

    Best of luck with it!

  2. October 2, 2007 8:09 pm

    At this point I think I agree with your dissertation supervisor. Theory… ack!

  3. Dan smith permalink
    May 7, 2008 3:56 pm

    No, No you have it right! Sublimation (in the psychical sense) and the sublime are completely different things. Repressed-Sublimation in the Marcusian sense is pretty much just as you thought it was. i.e Playboy is like rationing out sexual gratification – a kind of restricted desublimation.

  4. King Mob permalink
    March 14, 2009 3:13 am

    For some time I’ve been interpreting the word “sublime” as an adjective to describe the products of sublimation (discourses, artworks, goals, ambitions). Either that or I’ve been defining the process of sublimation as that Freudian process of libidinal investment which yields a sublime product. I guess I’ve always gone with your first understanding. Your colleague’s explication sounds more like Slavoj Zizek’s logic of the chocolate laxative – ‘you can have as much of anything as you want, but you’re denied its essence.’ We’re living in a decaffeinated, diet-soda society.

  5. Benjamin Eliasz permalink
    February 21, 2010 7:48 pm

    It is indeed a combination of early Marxism and Freudian Theory, a trademark blend of the Frankfurt School from which Marcuse hailed. This definition is from David Macey’s Dictionary of Critical Theory:

    Repressive Desublimation- A process described by Marcuse in his One-Dimensional Man (1964) and related to his notion of ‘repressive tolerance’. Desublimation reverses the process of Sublimation described by Freud, and offers the immediate gratification of instinctual desires rather than their mediated or deferred gratification. Repressive Desublimation is a characteristic feature of advanced industrial-capitalist societies in which individuals are conditioned by the “Culture Industry” and other agencies to accept spontaneously whatever is offered them by society. Wheras sublimation produces true works of art, Repressive Sublimation generates the eroticism and pornography that offer only a hollow semblance of freedom and liberation. The mechanism absorbs the pleasure principle into the reality principle, and sexuality, for example, is ‘liberated’ through forms of sexual activity that promote social cohesion. For Marcuse, unbridled forms of sexuality which should have an anti-authoritarian dimension are actually transformed into a new form of social conformism.

    And to elaborate:

    Repressive Tolerance- According to Marcuse (1965), a form of absolute or pure tolerance characteristic of advanced industrial societies in which Repressive Desublimation, the Culture Industry and the tyranny of public opinion combine to create a mentality in which all values are predetermined to the extent that they are vital to the workings of the economy. It is argued on supposedly democratic grounds that nonsense and sense should both be tolerated on the grounds that no group or individual is in possession of the truth or capable of defining good and evil. In a society which has reached the point of total administration, the exercise of political rights of free speech or assembly is transformed into a confirmation of the existence of a democracy that has in fact lost the real content it once had. By the same criterion, tolerance comes to mean a refusal to take sides which makes it impossible to challenge the machinery of discrimination against minority groups or society’s victims.

    I know this is an old thread but I figured it couldn’t hurt to throw this out into the interwebs for other curious theoreticians looking for insight to some of the cryptic terminology used in the byzantine writings of the Frankfurt School. Having studied Marcuse, Adorno and Walter Benjamin extensively I can heartily recommend David Macey’s Dictionary of Critical Theory:!

    • Annie permalink
      September 27, 2011 8:52 am

      Thank you!

    • Anne Hudd permalink
      May 16, 2012 2:42 pm

      thank you Benjamin!! We just discussed this in class today – 15 mos after your post and 5 years after original question – and I think your answer is spot on. will look up the book…

    • May 19, 2012 6:40 am

      This is perfect. Thank you. Really helped me to understand. I’m going to be writing about repressive desublimation in an exam. This has helped big time!

  6. K.M.Hyblean permalink
    July 3, 2010 8:11 pm

    “sublimation” comes from “sublimate” meaning to transform and from “sublime”, that is, the same latin root, “sublimis” or “uplifted” In psychodynamics, unconscious sex drives would be uplifted to constructive social purposes-art, literature, science, etc. in explaining human creativity. Your understanding that “Repressive desublimation would be when this desublimation happens in a form that instead of giving you freedom, restricts it. Yes, go out and indulge your sex drive, but do it by purchasing porn and other consumables.” is correct for a critical analysis in the sense that Marcuse meant it. “Other consumables” could be loving your shiny new automobile or your fancy riding lawn mower…the system does deliver the goods as Mr. Marcuse points out. Furthermore, the desexualization of the body, restricting the pleasure principle to the genitalia, allows the human being to become a more effective instrument of labor under the repressive “performance principle”, as well as an obsessive-compulsive consumer of the techno-output of the capitalist system–the “new forms of social control”..resulting in the “happy consciousness”..

  7. K.M.Hyblean permalink
    July 3, 2010 9:33 pm

    On the other hand, “in this desublimation the emphasis would go off of the quality of the experience and onto the quantity of consumption. This is how it is repressive. (partially true–the result of the commodity-exchange value–capitalist process, but it is repressive through the psychodynamic performance principle) Rather than a precious experience, (capitalist) mass consumption changes it into a matter of speed and quantity. (the more consumption, the higher the profit) We gain the freedom to eat whatever we want whenever we want to, but we lose the meaning” is true, the result of the flattening out of experience into “one dimension”-a de-sexualized obsessive-compulsive performance, rather than an expansive pleasure–”the emphasis would go off of the quality of the experience and onto the quantity of consumption..” True again! The repressive nature of this social-economic process lies in the repressive performance principle which merges the quality of an experience with the the quantity of exchange value-the commodification of human experience–repressive desublimation. Actually, both explanations are fundamentally the same! The misunderstanding lies in “put it on a pedestal, understand it as special, unique, and precious (and transcendent-extending the limits of experience!!). Desublimation would be taking it off that pedestal, making it touchable, profane” (and repressive-restricting the limits of experience to that of advertising, buying and selling or propaganda..) The replacement of the “pleasure principle” by the repressive “performance principle” underlies both concepts. Also, most importantly, you must always remember that underlying the mass production of New York 9oz steaks, is large scale mass hunger, not only on a global scale, but men, women and children in this country, hungry, making a lie out of “the land of plenty”…

  8. kate permalink
    May 24, 2011 3:55 am

    can someone give the most simple and most basic definition of Repressive Desublimation
    please ?

    • Luke permalink
      March 19, 2012 5:15 pm

      engaging in otherwise unacceptbale behaviours/indulging attitudes that are made temporarily permissable by certain societal/cultural conditions.

      That is not so simple, but that is about as simple as psychoanalysis gets. Enjoy! (ha ha)

  9. November 19, 2011 4:56 am

    I advise look to the word and word roots. Re press ive – to push back, de sub lim ation, de-undo, sub-below, lim-limit or threshold, ation-action. Thus to bring something out from under the limit of consciousness or allowed social behaviour in such a manner as to repress or not allow it to achieve its purpose. To waste its enegy in futility or meaninglessness. Taking someone angy about one issue and picking a fight with them on some other supurious grounds and having them use all their force on that, or saying you’ll represent them and taking their energy and spending it on something else. In military terms, a diversion.

  10. mcmanusaur permalink
    November 19, 2011 12:58 pm

    Without any pretense of a perfect understanding of Marcuse’s philosophy, I think both senses of “repressive desublimation” (Freudian and Marxist) are equally as valid of an argument in the context of contemporary society, and I also believe that the two definitions are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

  11. Luke permalink
    March 19, 2012 5:09 pm

    I would say you are right on the money in both instances. The steak analogy works as repressive desublimation keeping in mind that RS is only ever what is possible in any given social context – a product of the superego, not the id.

  12. Catherine permalink
    September 15, 2012 6:09 pm

    I’m taking social theory this semester. We haven’t gotten to Freud yet, but I’ve spent all weekend cuddling with Habermas (oops, not literally!), and I’m seeing the colonization of lifeworld all over this blog! When the discussion is of quality being sublimated to production, is that not Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action?

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