Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Herbert Marcuse and Repressive Desublimation

Also called "institutional desublimation," Marcuse first expounded at length on this idea in his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man. It seems influenced by his Frankfurt School colleague Theodor Adorno and the quasi-Frankfurter, Wilhelm Reich. Though Marcuse studied under Heidegger - who dressed in Nazi regalia and gave the fascist salute at the end of each lecture, making Marcuse wonder WTF had gone wrong with German culture - he still wanted to unite Existentialism with Marxism. Certain events led him to flee Germany, where he worked for the Unistat Government's OSS (forerunner to the CIA) as an expert in explaining fascism to US government officials. Eventually Marcuse taught at UC San Diego.

                                         Herbert Marcuse (say "Mar KOO-zuh")

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:


Eric Wagner said...

Interesting post. As always, you make me think. I think the popularity of "The Daily Show," "Real Time with Bill Maher," and "The Colbert Report" show that many people have an interest in finding out "what's really going on" and find it at least somewhat sexy. Martin Jay might find these shows full of "ironic reflection, camp parody, and awareness of manipulation," but they certainly do not hold "anything positive to be a fraud."

I think tens of millions of Americans like the size of the defense budget. Millions of jobs exist for college graduates, just not enough jobs or good enough jobs. Perhaps I nitpick. I don't claim to have any big answers. I model myself as a mostly unconscious robot in a society of mostly unconscious robots.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Well, now I don't have to read Marcuse.

When are you going to read Piketty so I don't have to read him, either? :)


I'm curious what Marcuse offered (if anything) as an alternative to current culture.

michael said...

@ Eric- Thanks.

Although I tend to agree with your take on those three shows, I also admired Steve Almond for taking Stewart and Colbert on, here:


By far my favorite part of Maher is the "New Rules" bit at the end; the writers are top-notch. But Maher himself seems, to me, far too arrogant and sure of himself about too many things. He's at times embarrassingly ill-informed. He's not exactly nuanced about religion, but I do think, at this time, he's played a big part in at least getting a robust dialogue going about atheism, which will be what he's remembered for, I'm guessing.

Also: the numbers/ratings for those shows seem miniscule to me.

The Gallup poll shows 37% saying we spend too much on military and 26% (or so) not enough. But when it's framed like this: "Do you think $700 billion on defense would be better spent if we cut it in half and fund social programs?" the number's around 80% for yes.

I don't claim to have any big answers either.

Anonymous said...

Now I'm curious. Over the years I've
run across quite a few who wrote
about the deliberate manipulation
of culture. Lippman, Bernays, and
Wylie are a few names that come to
mind immediately.

BF Skinner also while trying to get
a science of people started on a
scientific basis also warned that
if good people didn't study these
things, those with ill-will would
and use the techniques.

Of course Skinner was vilified but
none of his detractors could produce
a single experimental proof of the
objections to his work.

Surrounded by the forest of the
conspiracy if you point it out
they will say it is just a bunch
of individual trees and the forest
is just your imagination.

There are people who actively work
to undermine the efforts of others
in most cases because they do not
like what they hear.

That's why I actively seek out any
dissenting view to use my own
opinion. Sometimes it turns out
to be crap and a waste of time.
Sometimes it turns out to be
partial gold that challenges the
consensus narrative.

One thing I find horrendously
annoying is the idea that changes
will destroy society as we know
it. This is a litany that has
been chanted over every form of
progress to a better day. So far
it has always been wrong but never
acknowledged by the detractors.

RT has recently been called an
organ of propaganda because they
present viewpoints that are not
mirroring the official propaganda
channels of the mediaocrity.

You'd have to be a damnned fool
to believe either side without
taking time to check their lies
against your own knowledge basis.

Chomskys value is in his view of
the official narrative, because
the rest of the world doesn't see
UNiStat actions through the dim
shadow show of the TV networks
here. I can't wait to hear what
he has to say about the Israeli
reaction to Palestinian unification

Sorry for the digressions but it
is a great subject this time, well
worth the wait.

Eric Wagner said...

I didn't finish the Almond piece. He seemed vague to me, and his criticism of Colbert and Stewart reminded me of Bill O'Reilly. Perhaps my "comic standards" seem "impoverished," but I think Colbert's performance at the 2006 Washington Correspondent's Dinner seems daring - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7FTF4Oz4dI . I loved the first time Jon Stewart did his extended Glenn Beck impression. I loved the "War on Purim" bit in February on "The Daily Show."

I do enjoy Bill Maher. I didn't watch "Politically Incorrect" very often, but I've watched at least the monologue and "New Rules" of every episode of "Real Time."

I thought of you yesterday. On Amazon one can read the first few pages of the sixth edition of David Thomson's New Biographical Dictionary of Film. The intro blew away with its insights into our changing media world. I think you might enjoy it. http://www.amazon.com/New-Biographical-Dictionary-Film-Sixth/dp/0375711848/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1398821677&sr=1-6&keywords=david+thomson

michael said...


Thanks for pointing out Lippmann, Bernays, Wylie and Skinner. An open conspiracy to "influence" the mass mind does, it seems to me, continue to keep open the idea of a "conspiracy" to continue to influence - as Lippmann himself called it: the "bewildered herd" - to think that ideas about how politics is really done is too difficult for the average person to understand, so best to pick one of the "two" sides and root for your team. <----Lippmann didn't say the bit about teams, but I just did.

The only political people on TV that make any real sense to me are The Young Turks, and the last time I saw them there was a little green RT box on the screen. But, see, I'm comparing the things they're saying with all my triangulations and quadrangulations gleaned from reading, talking to others, and thinking/meditating on political ideas.

I enjoy every digression you make.

michael said...

@ Eric: Look at paragraphs 6,7, and 8 of Almond: he acknowledges the White House Press Dinner where Colbert stood in front of Shrub and made fun of him (one of the ballsiest things I've ever seen in my life); he give Stewart his props.

I know Almond: he's NOTHING like O'Reilly. If anything he's truly "Left" of Stewart and Colbert. He has an essay in one of his books that's hilarious and maddening about the time he was asked to appear on Faux News. It's in _Not That You Asked: Rants, Exploits and Obsessions_.

michael said...

@ Tom-

I will read Marcuse and Piketty because they make me think.

I don't think anyone can understand the Frankfurt School thinkers and "critical theory" unless they understand the cultural and political circumstances from which these brilliant jews came of age. Germany was the flower of civilization, and look what happened. They were forced out and wanted the US to not fall prey to the same thing.

In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse wrote about liberation in a way that Simon Moon seems to thought about it, when he talked to his parents: via Imagination. Of course, this is also like fellow Frankfurter Erich Fromm, who wrote about To Have Or To Be. There's a long countercultural history of Beauty and Sex and Art and creativity, as you know. Marcuse's ideas about liberation seem influenced by Wilhelm Reich's ideas about "work democracy" (see, for example, Ch.XI of _The Mass Psychology of Fascism_, "Give Responsibility To Vitally Necessary Work!").

I tend to think surfing, drinking beer, listening to rock and roll and fucking on the beach is liberatory, but Marcuse meant he was after bigger fish. I think his writings loosened up a lot of the SDS.

It's funny: when I wrote this blog - on a whim, because I hadn't blogged in a couple weeks - I started writing about Marcuse's idea - one among many - and thought of you. I didn't think you'd like Marcuse, or the way I presented him. Why? Well, here's what I thought: we both really liked Thaddeus Russell's _A Renegade History of the US_. If anyone else has read Thaddeus closely, they'd know where we were coming from.

But for those who haven't read Thaddeus: his Long View of history is that we need the law-and-order types, or just enough so that things don't get horribly ugly. BUT: we have gained so much freedom from the actions of slackers, drunks, whores, drug dealers, even gangsters...and he makes a compelling and wildly readable case. I don't think the way Thaddeus Russell reads history was anywhere near the sort of reading that the Frankfurt School thinkers did. They combined their PhDs in literary theory, musicology, philosophy and psychology and combined Marx with Freud, adding in existentialism, sociology, mythology, Nietzsche, W. Reich, and many other areas in order to provide a critique of culture, some of it about Western European culture, but most of it about America. They were wrong about a lot of stuff. (See Adorno on jazz, for example.)

And Jurgen Habermas is carrying the torch of that tradition.

As wrong as they were (and guys like Erich Fromm liked American culture a lot more than guys like Horkheimer and Adorno), they did wonder about an overall vision for the capital game: to what end? They put it: we have techne without telos. I think this is still a huge deal.

Leary and Wilson and Bucky Fuller and other American-born thinkers of the counterculture - some influenced by the Frankfurt School - tried to come up with telos ideas: space exploration and L-5 space communities, smart drugs, legalization of victimless crimes, research into longevity/immortality, getting off fossil fuels and doign more with less (Fuller's "omniephemeralization"), a guaranteed minimum income, no nuclear weapons, etc.

Eric Wagner said...

Steve Almond's self-righteous tone does remind me of Bill O'Reilly, although I suspect I would enjoy Mr. Almond's company more than that of Mr. O'Reilly.

Occasionally I wish Stewart, Colbert, and/or Maher would ask harder questions of some of their guests, but I can see the value of civil discourse. Almond wants to model some human behavior as "concerted evil," and he faults Colbert and Stewart for treating these behaviors as "matters of folly." He doesn't give any specific details in those three paragraphs. I think of Bob Wilson's discussion of how people sometimes see "typical primate behavior" as "evil." I might prefer to model those primate behaviors as "folly."

Anonymous said...

Now that I've read the Marcuse snip.

I think he's on the same page with
Hakim Bey, whose mad struggle art
against commodification is because
he feels what Marcuse sees. If we
buy into the monolithic culture it
will dumb everything down into a
basic worthlessness.

By that I mean loss of contrast.
In Erisian terms, the curse of
Greyface. The true horror as it
is presented by Marcuse is that
by framing all dissent as a mental
aberration which requires a cure
for the individual, society can
pound people like metal on the
anvil of their ideology (McKenna).

So is our salvation from single
dimensionality in live performance
in the TAZ, or is it found on the
barricades of the increasing set
of protests in the world ?

I don't have the answers but I can
see the conditions for a new rise
of fascists. Not the old names
but the new movements who don't
attempt to recreate the imagined

The danger is because of the
hard edged agenda which has the
answers about what to do, active
and promising all the religious
fervor to true believers that is
craved by the ordinary. Woe to
those who are the targetted foes.

This is the real danger of multi-
cultural bias, bland ideations
that all ideologies are equal is
a guarantee that some will end up
behind a barbed wire fence.

Just like last time the 1% will
avoid the mess they created as
the rest suffer. So the second
question is how do we create a
different path or a second
Marcusian dimension ?

Probably worth thinking about.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I don't know that I "like" Marcuse, but I learn about a lot of important thinkers reading your blog, because you are so well read, and you write about many folks who I will never have time to read.

michael said...


TAZs: they seem the best way to go at this point, seems to me, but it seems a lot of 'em need creativity coupled with teamwork to..."build"?

The Democrats are hopeless, but I see the Republicans have finally come up with an idea: impeach the Prez over Benghazi. (Thanks for mentioning fascism, btw. It's not our fault SDS and the 1960s hippies overused the term.)

And thanks for having an open mind about Marcuse.

@ Eric: I actually really like Stewart and Colbert. A lot. BUT: I thought Almond was daring, said something that hadn't been said from somewhere near my own politics, and it resonated with my experience of being in NY and seeing live both Colbert and Stewart: there are definitely some smug young white, well-educated types who seem happy to root on themselves for "getting" both guys...and they love the Democratic Party. Oy! I just admired Almond for writing something that would be so alienating. (When HuffPo picked up the piece I read about 400 of the comments: no one knew who he was and about 40% made fun of his name and implied he was "bitter." I think HuffPo is another perfect place for smug half-smarts who pat themselves on the back for "getting" Colbert and Stewart.)

@Tom- You do the same for me, man! Thanks!

Eric Wagner said...

Thanks for your response. I loved Colbert's running joke responding to waiting for new of the missing Malaysian plane with passages from "Waiting for Godot." I remember Dennis Miller making jokes about Godot back in the 1980's.

One of my community college classes started reading "Uncle Vanya" tonight, and they like it. I feel like that Life cereal commercial, "They like it! They like it!"