Repressive desublimation and consumer culture: re-evaluating Herbert Marcuse

Winter 2011

As mass society has given way to risk society in the popular sociological imagination, the work of the Frankfurt School has lost much of the purchase it might previously have had on academic understandings of consumer culture. In this article I return to Marcuse’s concept of repressive desublimation, arguing that it still provides a useful intellectual tool for thinking through the tensions and dilemmas of contemporary consumer societies, and one which is surprisingly compatible with the post-Weberian sociology of recent years. I begin by summarising Freud’s writings on sublimation, then explain Marcuse’s companion concepts of ‘repressive sublimation’ and ‘repressive desublimation’. I show that Marcuse’s insights into the alienating nature of consumer capitalism usefully complement more fashionable theoretical approaches to the same subject. I conclude by drawing on Hannah Arendt’s argument that judgements of taste are ultimately political judgements, suggesting that this is a fruitful way of understanding the responsibilities of the citizen-consumer.

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NF 75 Love, Loss and Revolution