Repressing repressive desublimation

Today I must combine work to be done with writing my weekly blogpost – and I do so with pleasure – reading Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man once more while preparing for my paper presentation next week on the ‘unsustainable society’. An ethical paper it shall be. I am grappling with the richness of thought in this book still. A book that for a long time has been considered outdated, as it inscribed itself in the Cold War debate on ‘communist’ versus ‘capitalist’ answers to the post-fascist era. I write ‘communist’ and ‘capitalist’ in question marks for I doubt the very opposition of concepts. And in fact, although Marcuse’s work shows an attempt to rise beyond it too. The core of his undertaking is to try to see the truth about the world he lived in, a world which is in our day, although ‘post-cold-war’ now, in many aspects still the same.

Many people think Marcuse’s work has nothing to do with ethics, since that discipline considers human individuals and the rightness/wrongness of their acts, whereas One Dimensional Man would only consider social reality. A judgment that is wrong. As Marcuse has shown a person cannot have freedom of thought when he/she is caught up in what he calls ‘repressive desublimation’. This funny reversal of Freud’s idea that sublimation helps people to grasp with unpleasant or injust realities goes to the insight that in post second world war society it is desublimation – the actual and gradual dissapearance of unpleasantness and injustice that makes us loose sight of reality. As wealth grows, working hours are legislated, pensions and unemployment support are regulated, people in the richer parts of the world loose the ability to see their unfreedom. This process is, according to Marcuse, sustained by a continuous and aggressive marketing of goods, ideas, desires. ‘To take an (unfortunately fantastic) example: the mere absence of all advertising and of all indoctrinating media of information and entertainment would plunge the individual into a traumatic void where he would have the chance to wonder and to think, to know himself (or rather the negative of himself) and his society.’ Repressing repressive desublimation therefore means: denying ourselves to be constantly immersed in this continuous stream that fills the negative void that would have been our freedom.

Without freedom there is no moral agent, and no ethics, so Marcuse has shown that one cannot start to reflect on morality without repressing the repressive physical and psychological obesity of which all people in the richer parts of the world (and I would say also in those attaining to become rich) suffer. As a refugee of the nazi regime Marcuse is of the opinion that fascism has not dissapeared in the aftermath of the allied victory in 1945. And he doesn’t refer to the odd neonazi group which would want to destabilize society. He refers to the ‘advertising and indoctrination’ which were, combined with terror, after all also the ground upon which the nazi regime built its continued acceptance among German citizens while they led their country into the abyss.

A second step that Marcuse takes, after having shown that analysis of society is the groundwork for doing ethics, is showing that philosophy therefore has to be political, and not just academic: ‘the therapeutic task of philosophy would be a political task, since the established universe of ordinary language tends to coagulate into a totally manipulated and indoctrinated universe. Then politics would appear in philosophy, not as a special discipline or object of analysis, nor as a special political philosophy, but as the intent of its concepts to comprehend the unmutilated reality.’ So to critically reflect on reality, to speak truth, philosophy has to avoid to ‘escape into the non-controversial, the unreal, into that which is only academically controversial.’ And what is that reality one should to try to see? It is precisely the unsustainability of a society in which the mass of people are being lulled into believing that wealth and justice is coming into reach for more and more people when one only trusts the workings of the market economy and the pluralist democracy that protects it.

His conclusion is not that we should abolish democracy, hell no, not even if it were only the best of several problematic alternatives. What should be done, and can only be done if one removes part of the repressive blanket, is to see democracy in it’s present state for what it is: a protection of a herd against those which are outside: ‘the substratum of the outcasts and the outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process […] their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system; it is an elementary force which violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals it as a rigged game.’ Declining the seduction to prophecy, Marcuse does not see a positive solution, his work remains critical. The only positive thing he deems possible is seen by him as a chance: that the most advanced consciousness and its most exploited force meet. Ironically this happens here and there in our times through one of the very ‘repressive’ gadgets the rich world has produced: the internet. It already creates changes, revolutions even – but our only chance at a humane outcome lies in trying our best to scrutinize the process constantly – preventing that it will reproduce the very repression which it is aiming at to repress.

I cited from Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man in the Routledge edition of 1991. The original work was published in 1964. The book bears the subtitle: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society.

  1. I fully agree with Angela’s assessment of Marcuse’s continuing significance. Also today, his social-critical philosophy is a much-needed antidote to the prevailing myth of the neutrality of purely academic philosophy. I especially liked Marcuse’s emphasis on the critical potential of general concepts, including ethical concepts, such as the notion of justice. For another recent defense of Marcuse’s significance, see Andrew Feenberg’s recent review:

    • Thanks, Hans, for your comment and the reading suggestion. One would want to read more on Feenbergs appreciation of Marcuses position on technology. Alas, I am now in a hurry to combine Marcuse and Derrida in my powerpoint presentation…

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