The term ” Repressive desublimation” has been coined by Herbert Marcuse to refer to the process whereby art is rendered banal and powerless. In his famous book, One-Dimensional Man (1964) about late capitalism, Marcuse argues that the real problem posed by the culture industry for critical theory and hence society itself is not its blurring of the distinction between high culture and low culture, but rather its blurring of the distinction between art and reality. Following the Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno and mostly Walter Benjamin’s account of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, Marcuse argues that the mass production and distribution of art and its concomitant permeation of almost every aspect of daily life has destroyed what was most potent in art, to begin with, namely its antagonism toward the ordinary (Benjamin’s word for this is aura). This antagonism is achieved via the process Sigmund Freud called sublimation, which according to psychoanalysis is what happens when the libido is brought under the control of the reality principle: gratification of sexual desire is delayed and transformed into an aesthetic achievement or what Marcuse refers to as Eros. Under such conditions, Marcuse argues, the artistic realm is an ‘other’ dimension, radically distinct from and intrinsically antagonistic to everyday life, and society can therefore be said to be two-dimensional at least. It is the loss of this dimension through the process of desublimation whereby Eros is reduced to sexuality that results in society becoming one-dimensional and therefore unable to resist the transformations imposed upon it by the changes in the mode of production. Where before in art and literature representations of artists, prostitutes, adulterers, and so forth testified to an other, perhaps utopian, life, now they are simply an affirmation of the existing order and carry no power of negation. Desublimation is in this sense repressive. So-called sexual liberation, Marcuse argues, comes at the price of the destruction of Eros, which leaves us with an intensified sexual existence but no resistance to the present, no space that can be considered ‘other’. Marcuse’s idea has been criticized for utopianism in seeking to envisage an alternative to the happy consciousness of repressive desublimation that permeates the postmodern culture, as well as for modernist elitism in his appeal for critical leverage to an ‘autonomous’ sphere of high culture.
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