Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

tion ( 1955), Counter-revolution and Revolt ( 1972), and The Aesthetic Dimension ( 1978). It is plain from the titles alone that Marcuse was faithful to the original theoretical interests of critical theory by working in and on the relations among Marxist theory, culture and aesthetics, and psychoanalysis. In the 1960s, Marcuse rOne- Dimensional Man ( 1964), from which the selection is taken, was considered must reading by intellectually serious student radicals. His famous concept repressive desublimation refers to his argument that postwar mass culture, with its profusion of sexual provocations, serves to reinforce political repression. If people are preoccupied with unauthentic sexual stimulation, their political energy will be "desublimated"; instead of acting constructively to change the world, they remain repressed and uncritical. Obviously, Marcuse advanced the prewar thinking of critical theory toward a critical account of the "one-dimensional" nature of bourgeois life in Europe and America. His thinking could, therefore, also be considered an advance of the concerns of earlier liberal critics like David Riesman.


Repressive Desublimation

Herbert Marcuse ( 1964)

Today's novel feature is the flattening out of the antagonism between culture and social reality through the obliteration of the oppositional, alien, and transcendent elements in the higher culture by virtue of which it constituted another dimension of reality. This liquidation of two-dimensional culture takes place not through the denial and rejection of the "culture values," but through their wholesale incorporation into the established order, through their reproduction and display on a massive scale.

In fact, they serve as instruments of social cohesion. The greatness of a free literature and art, the ideals of humanism, the sorrows and joys of the individual, the fulfillment of the personality are important items in the competitive struggle between East and West. They speak heavily against the present forms of communism, and they are daily administered and sold. The fact that they contradict the society which sells them does not count. Just as people know or feel that advertisements and political platforms must not be necessarily true or right, and yet hear and read them and even let themselves be guided by them, so they accept the traditional values and make them part of their mental equipment. If mass communications blend together harmoniously, and often unnoticeably, art, politics, religion, and philosophy with commercials, they bring these realms of culture to their common denominator-- the commodity form. The music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship. Exchange value, not truth value counts. On it centers the rationality of the status quo, and all alien rationality is bent to it.

As the great words of freedom and fulfillment are pronounced by campaigning leaders and politicians, on the screens and radios and stages, they turn into meaningless sounds which obtain meaning only in the context of propaganda, business, discipline, and relaxation. This assimilation of the ideal with reality testifies to the extent to which the ideal has been surpassed. It is brought down from the sublimated realm of the soul or the spirit or the inner man, and translated into opera

____________________
Excerpt from One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society ( Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), pp. 57-58, 71-74. Copyright 1964 by Herbert Marcuse. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press.

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