Repressive Desublimation and Consumer Culture: Re-Evaluating Herbert Marcuse

By Bowring, Finn | New Formations, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Repressive Desublimation and Consumer Culture: Re-Evaluating Herbert Marcuse


Bowring, Finn, New Formations


MODERNITY IN TRANSITION

The critique of mass society that was advanced by the exiled members of the Frankfurt School has always occupied a marginal position in the field of cultural studies. As British scholars in particular turned more enthusiastically to the study of popular culture, little confidence was extended to the pessimistic and elitist treatment of consumer culture associated with Critical Theory. Ignoring the structural and dialectical premises of the Frankfurt School's analysis of the culture industry, critics detected a misplaced obsession with the primacy of the (male) producer and the cheerless assumption that rising consumption levels had blinded people to irrationality and injustice, producing 'social conformity and political acquiescence'. (1) To the old charge of intellectual snobbery has more recently been added the claim that Critical Theory is out of date, for the openness and dynamism of our own 'reflexive' modernity, it is argued, has little in common with the Weber-inspired nightmare of a totally administered world. The same Zygmunt Bauman who had earlier described the Holocaust as a permanent possibility of a rationalised society, now believes that 'the turn of events in the world under capitalist rule proved to be the exact opposite of what Max Weber anticipated'. This means, in Bauman's view, that 'Marcuse's quandary' over the struggle for freedom 'is outdated since "the individual" has already been granted all the freedom he might have dreamed of and all the freedom he might have reasonably hoped for'. (2) Ulrich Beck, in a similar vein, announced the obsolescence of the Frankfurt School's picture of 'modern society as a technocratic prison of bureaucratic institutions and expert knowledge', documenting instead how 'the cage of modernity opens up' leaving in its wake 'many modernities to be invented and experienced'. (3)

The purpose of this essay is to offer a sympathetic reading of Hebert Marcuse that shows how his thinking is far more relevant to late consumer society than is normally recognised. Marcuse, unlike most of his Frankfurt School colleagues, had a keen interest in the cultural revolution that eventually, if inadvertently, paved the way for the new capitalism. He was, moreover, well aware that the existential protest against mass society might deliver something fatally different to the movement's ethical and political ideals, and because of this he was, perhaps, uniquely positioned to grasp the new contradictions that were emerging from the womb of an older society. Central to my defence of Marcuse is his neglected concept of 'repressive desublimation', a concept that has far more in common with contemporary treatments of consumer culture than most commentators realise. To understand this concept properly, it is first necessary to revisit Freud's original theory of 'sublimation'.

FREUD ON SUBLIMATION

Freud's first published use of the term 'sublimation' is in his 1905 case study of 'Dora', where he refers to sexual dispositions which, 'by being diverted to higher, asexual aims--by being "sublimated"--are destined to provide the energy for a great number of our cultural achievements'. (4) In the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, also published in 1905, Freud showed that he was thinking of these 'cultural achievements' in aesthetic terms. Describing how humans' primitive sexual attraction to the genitals is simultaneously impeded and aroused by the decorative clothing of the body, Freud suggests that the healthiest possible consequence of the libido's frustration is that it is 'diverted ("sublimated") in the direction of art'. In this way the libido's interests are 'shifted away from the genitals on to the shape of the body as a whole', as sexual desire is converted from the pursuit of physical gratification into a contemplative appreciation of form. 'It is usual for most normal people to linger to some extent over the intermediate sexual aim of a looking that has a sexual tinge to it; indeed, this offers them a possibility of directing some proportion of their libido on to higher artistic aims'. …

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