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Term of the Week – Repressive Desublimation

December 23, 2013

Herbert Marcuse busy sublimating…

This is going to be a new regular feature. Terminology is a crucial part  of our vocabulary when trying to defend and justify our viewpoint. And much terminology is not easily accessed outside of an academic setting. I want to bring some important terms into a more practical setting where they can hopefully become an empowering force in mine and your lives.

I am going to start with a term first used by the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse in his 1964 work, One-Dimensional Man. I read this during my sociology degree study at university, but did not really appreciate its practical significance at the time. The term he coined was Repressive Desublimation.

I don’t think I fully appreciated its significance at the time, as I was still stuck in a paradigm of more classical repression. The term refers primarily to the sexual liberation movement. In which all and any desires were seen as natural and to be expressed without, shame, fear or guilt. In itself this was largely a positive movement. But Marcuse saw more deeply into how this supposed liberation could be used to repress people in a whole new way.

The thing about repression of certain desires is that it can lead to a sublimation of these desires into a creative and focused life passion. We see this with religious zealots, like the apostle Paul. The argument is that modern society, through films, the media, etc… provides people with a quick release of sexual desires, an immediate release, as a way to avert any sublimation. As a result, no focus or passion in life will be formed and pursued, and so the person will hence not be a threat to the current social order and status quo.

Thus, by desublimating peoples sexual desires, in a supposed movement of sexual liberation, it in fact is a way of repressing the formation in them of any desires for social change. It is a very subtle and fascinating concept. And it is quite clear to me we can see that this means of manipulating peoples desires is pursued with great and increasing zeal in our current society. More and more of an immediate gratification is required and expected. Be it for violence in a horror film, or sexual activity in a romance or comedy film.

The purpose of it all is to ensure all desires have gratification as quickly as possible, and that no desires are given time to be sublimated. For a successful sublimation entails a person whose desires can no longer be manipulated into line with your ends, but will subsume occurrences and attempted manipulations in line with their own ends. And so it means a person not so easily controlled who could turn out to be a threat to the social order.

Here is the consequence of repressive desublimation according to Marcuse:

“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, 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.”
― Herbert Marcuse

There you have it. My first term of the week: Repressive Desublimation. Take note of it, let it empower you in your life somehow. Don’t feel pressured to always pursue the short course to gratification. Have some faith in your mind’s ability to sublimate your short-term desires to longer term goals and projects that will give you a more free, autonomous and authentic life-experience.

  1. Great post, Jonathan!
    Thank you so much for sharing and for the wake-up call! I think most of us should read this post and start to be aware of the consequences of immediate fulfillment of desires.

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