With the Vietnam war going on, Marcuse tried to tell his white, affluent students at UC San Diego that their surfing, drinking beer and listening to rock and roll, and increasingly promiscuous sexual forays were not "real" freedom. It seems few of those students understood him. Which brings me to "repressive desublimation."
Marcuse thought that society had become so technologically advanced that it could meet basic needs and give its citizenry a feeling (a simulacra?) of democratic participation in the processes of their lives, but this was a ruse.
Why was/is it a "ruse"? In taking Freud's ideas about artists sublimating their erotic impulses and producing High Culture, Marcuse noted that by 1964 technological society/capitalism had evolved by which the owners/Authoritarian class (recently renamed the 1%) could distract the masses that an ever-growing chasm between themselves and workers was underway by allowing free reign for everyone to "desublimate," whether as artists (probably not) or consumers (oh, most definitely this).
Music can not only move the soul, it can sell shoes.
So: I've seen this idea of Marcuse's presented as a sort of very erudite, High Concept conspiracy theory by Wall St. and the Pentagon and other fascists against The People. I find the idea too highfalutin' and would rather consider repressive desublimation along the lines of an idea to think with and not "believe", at other times as fitting under Chomsky's term "intellectual self-defense."
Rather than send out secret police to knock off dissidents, let there be dissidents, to foster the illusion that there's "freedom." (Who actually reads Chomsky anyway? Exactly.) What freedom do we non-One-Percenters have? We can buy stuff! And invest our emotional energies in games, and games played by professional athletes. We can get very involved in shows, especially TV. We can follow the relentless idiocy of corporate non-news (Nuzak) 24-7, which drum-up soap opera stories for all of us to yell and scream at each other about. We should always feel free to "vote" about which story was the best of the week. See? We're participating in the process!
Above all, we need to constantly internalize the values (but where did they come from?) of "personal responsibility" and "individualism." Express yourself! Have an opinion on everything!
Even if you have no real idea of what's going on and haven't read anything of substance about the issue.
Repressive desublimation is a "happy consciousness" in the midst of runaway gangster capitalism and institutions that don't work anymore. You don't identify with love and knowledge and a vision of better worlds for your fellow humans. You identify with what you consume. What you own. What you can display to others about your "self."
But making an effort towards finding out what's really going on? It's not sexy. And worse: acting on what you've found out and trying to do something about it? You're just going to piss off guardians of the One Percent, and they will marginalize your ass. Did you fill out your bracket? Did you see what happened in the Season Finale? Wasn't that just wild?
Happy consciousness: the safe way.
It seems like a brilliant move by the Owners: get everyone free to express themselves sexually, but with no rhetoric about liberation and beauty. Having known about Marcuse's repressive desublimation for years now, I'm a tad surprised They didn't make a move to legalize cannabis sooner.
But there I go again: They. The Owners. The One Percent. I reiterate: I don't think there's a conspiracy here to massively divert attention from a structural understanding of our lives. I think it's extremely complicated. But the irony here is: too much Irony among the quasi-educated. And what were "liberal values" in a dumb-game "Culture War" turned out, in tandem with a default philosophy of Consumerism, to have inscribed the mass consciousness we see in this particular moment, this Epoch.
Or: Well, yes. That's one way to look at it. <cough> (Back to my idiosyncratic interpretation of this high abstraction...)
So: we celebrate our Free Society even while knowing we're under a Panopticon. The Unistat government spends $700 billion a year on "defense" and almost no citizen likes that idea. There's over $1 trillion owed in student loans and no jobs for those graduates, and what jobs there are kinda suck. And escalating technological unemployment seems inevitable. There is almost zero talk about a Basic Income in Unistat, as of the date this blogpost is written. The political process is evermore transparently bought and paid for by the Owners.
And just about everyone knows (most of ) this, while celebrating our Free Society and all our fancy gizmos, which some people camp out in front of the store for, overnight, on pavement. They will do this also to see Part VI of the latest film extravaganza. They will stampede to death each other at 6AM the day after Thanksgiving, at Wal-Mart, in order to get the Best Deals. They will text while driving. (Which reminds me: please watch the best PSA ever, by another filmmaker of German descent.)
Let us consider "repressive desublimation" as a mere model for describing present mass culture. As Marcuse scholar Charles Peitz paraphrased this unwieldy term: "Alienation in the midst of affluence, repression through gratification, and the overstimulation and paralysis of mind."
OR: what the hell: it's one of the greatest high-concept conspiracy theories out there. And I mean "out there."
Finally, when I recently re-read Marcuse on this topic (see here?) I marveled at how intellectually inventive and fecund the idea was, but it gnawed at me for a few days. It struck me (in the shower, as usual), that he was not only fairly accurate but that we may have moved beyond this, to something closer to Mass Cluelessness or Baudrillardian/Philip K Dick-like simulacra. This idea bummed me out, but I found this passage in a book from 1998 (O! The humanity!), by Frankfurt School scholar Martin Jay:
Now ironic reflection, camp parody, and awareness of manipulation have themselves become part of mass culture, which is no longer predominately grounded in seductive immediacy and the deliberate fostering of what Herbert Marcuse ironically dubbed the "happy consciousness" of "repressive desublimation." What seems to prevail today instead is what the German theorist Peter Sloterdijk has called "cynical reason," which he defines as "enlightened false consciousness," a "hard-boiled, shadowy cleverness that has split courage off from itself, holds anything positive to be a fraud, and is intent only on somehow getting through life." - from "Educating the Educators," p.107 in Cultural Semantics: Keywords For Our Time
The preceding quoted passage reminded me of a passage from Woody Allen's "My Speech To The Graduates":
More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
-from Side Effects
Which is to say: whatever is going on, let's try to keep our sense of humor.
Here's a 51 minute documentary on Marcuse and his role in 1960s New Left politics at UC San Diego: