On the Aesthetic Structure of Sublimation: Re-reading Marcuse v. Brown through The Birth of Tragedy
by Christopher Holman
January 1, 2007
This essay will reread the debate between Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown in terms of each author’s conceptualization of the aesthetic structure of the psychoanalytic process of sublimation, using as a starting point Brown's association of sublimation with the figure of Apollo and his consequent embrace of Nietzsche's Dionysus. Brown will criticize the theory of sublimation for separating the individual’s mind from her body through the transformation of sexual into soulful energy. As a consequence of the creation of this repressive boundary between soul and body Brown will associate sublimation with Apollo. In contrast to Brown, Marcuse sees in the reactivation of narcissistic libido in sublimation the potential for a new and liberatory mode of activity in which sexual energy is neither deflected nor blocked from its objective: not Apollo, but a dialectical fusion of Apollo and Dionysus.
Nietzsche points out again and again in The Birth of Tragedy that neither the Apollonian nor the Dionysian world is capable of fulfilling itself independently of its opposite, each relying on the existence of the other for the actualization of itself. The Dionysian when left to itself becomes completely self-destructive, as all particulars are dissolved in a formless primordial unity, while the Apollonian, when left to its own devices, becomes a type of empty representation, bland and sterile reflection. The Dionysian needs the Apollonian world of appearance and subjectivity in order to provide the boundaries by which to distinguish particularity and prevent collapse into nothingness, while the Apollonian needs the Dionysian world of intoxication and drunkenness in order to infuse itself with the passionate and prevent itself from becoming a mere disengaged representation of static appearances. In the final analysis it is impossible to even say the word Dionysus without at the same time saying Apollo: while it is true that against Apollo Dionysus must necessarily appear as multiplicity, plurality, flux, it is just as true that without Apollo Dionysus would be incapable of appearing at all. As Nietzsche says, “the difficult relation between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in tragedy should really be symbolized through a fraternal bond between both deities: Dionysus speaks the language of Apollo, and Apollo finally speaks the language of Dionysus, and so the highest goal of tragedy and of art itself is achieved” (Nietzsche, 2000, 117).
It is often claimed that Nietzsche’s account of the structure of the relationship between the Apollonian and the Dionysian undergoes a decisive shift in his later writings, Nietzsche abandoning this somewhat dialectical interpretation in favour of a more pure Dionysianism. This claim, however, is somewhat misleading. There is indeed a change in the post-Birth of Tragedy works, but this is a terminological shift, one which in no way alters the form of the association between these two primary drives. The Dionysian of the later writings in not the uncontrolled and formless Dionysian of The Birth of Tragedy, but rather a synthesis of the early Dionysian and the Apollonian; after The Birth of Tragedy the term Dionysian is used to describe a fusion of the two forces. Walter Kaufmann explains the transformation as follows:
In his early work, Nietzsche tended toward a dualistic metaphysics, and the Dionysian was conceived as a flood of passion to which the Apollonian principle of individuation might give form. In the ‘dithyrambs’ of Zarathustra this opposition of the two gods was repudiated and the will to power was proclaimed as the one and only form of the universe. This fundamental principle, which Nietzsche still calls Dionysian, is actually a union of Dionysus and Apollo: a creative striving that gives form to itself. (Kaufmann, 1974, 281-282)
The later Dionysian represents not free and unbridled passion, but passion controlled, passion mediated by the regulatory and individualizing tendencies of the Apollonian. The later Nietzsche therefore does not abandon the Apollonian, but incorporates it internally into the newly defined Dionysian, this incorporation further testifying to the legitimacy of the claim that neither of the two spheres is capable of realizing itself independently of its other.
How is this account of the relationship between the Apollonian and the Dionysian to be related to our concern with sublimation, the latter referring to the desexualization and socialization of an originally sexual instinct, a shift in both the aim and object of an instinct in such a way so as to allow for the diversion of sexual energy to an end which, post-sublimation, is no longer sexually, but rather socially, useful? The answer is provided by Norman O. Brown and his critique of sublimation. Brown begins his interpretation of sublimation with a return to Freud’s late theory in The Ego and the Id, in particular Freud’s question as to “whether all sublimation does not take place through the mediation of the ego, which begins by changing sexual object-libido into narcissistic libido and then, perhaps, goes on to give it another aim” (Freud, 1984a, 369).
Sublimation is a mode of relating and structuring the two main processes of the personality system: the id, which represents the passions and deals with drive discharge, and the ego, which represents reason and sanity, and deals with drive control. Drive gratification is differentiated between the primary and secondary processes. Within the functioning of the primary process, which is equated with the id, the drive expresses itself independently of any form of restraint, either external or internal. Not only is there no internal or external restraint, but there is at this level not even a distinction to be made between internal and external, self and other. Within the functioning of the secondary process the drive expresses itself under the control of the ego. Operating by itself the primary process is incapable of achieving any form of concrete gratification – it must settle for hallucinatory and unrealistic wish fulfilment. It is the secondary process that transforms the id’s free and mobile energy into the bounded energy of the ego. The ego serves as a transparent medium operating between the id and the environment. The ego, however, is not strong enough to accept the reality of death/separation/object-loss (inevitable by-products of the smooth functioning of the secondary process), and in light of this inability can perform its mediating function only by developing a screen protecting the organism from reality – the organism protects itself from reality through negation. According to Brown, Freud recognized perfectly well the dialectical nature of negation, that negation always contains within its own movement a distorted affirmation of that which is negated. Through negation life and death are denied in order to make them bearable. Sublimations then are not properly speaking deflections of sexual energies, but repressions/negations of energy (Brown, 1985, 161). The association of these negations with the lower bodily activities is what constitutes their distorted affirmation, their dialectical affirmation through negation.
When Brown speaks of the ego’s inability to accept death, he is speaking more precisely of the refusal of object-loss (Brown, 1985, 160). The loss of the loved object is not acknowledged by the ego, which, in its attempt to reinstate the object, modifies the latter in such a way so as to reconfigure it within the structure of itself. The object is thus not strictly-speaking “lost”, but negated, and post-negation affirmed in a distorted form through identification (Brown, 1985, 161). The ego tricks the libido by maintaining that the ego itself is identical to the lost object; the ego attempts to force itself upon the id in an attempt to lessen the effects of the loss (Freud, 1984a, 369). Identification replaces object-love, and object-libido is transformed into narcissistic libido: “Thus, as a result of object-loss not accepted, the natural self-love of the organism is transformed into the vain project of being both Self and Other, and this project supplies the human ego with its essential energy” (Brown, 1985, 161).
It is thus pre-altered narcissistic libido that serves as the desexualized energy that is redirected through sublimation. It is in this sense that Brown maintains, invoking Plato, that culture, the product of sublimation, is an imitation of an imitation: in sublimation we witness not a desexualization of a polymorphous infantile sexuality, but rather a desexualization of an already desexualized fantasy (Brown, 1985, 165). The original (pre-sublimation) desexualization is the result of “substituting for bodily erotic union with the world the vain shadowy project of having the world within the self”; thus conceived, the soul, the subject of sublimation, becomes a substitute for actually gratifying libidinal relations with others (Brown, 1985, 162). The separation from lost objects, which are past objects, is denied through the reactivation of the past bond in fantasy. Through fantasy, “the active attempt to alter reality”, the past is substituted for the present and individuals are alienated from their worldly lives: “Altogether, therefore, the world of fantasy is that opaque shield with which the ego protects himself from reality and through which the ego sees reality; it is by living in a world of fantasy that we lead a desexualized life” (Brown, 1985, 163-165).
When infantile sexuality comes to an end in the castration complex the individual is forced to give up her body, but not her fantasies. Non-bodily sublimations replace the body as the source of fantastic “satisfactions”: “The original fantasies are negations; sublimations are negations of negations” (Brown, 1985, 168). Sublimation, the second and higher order of desexualization or negation, produces within us a soul independent from our body. Whereas the infant loses her object, and thus attempts to make an object out of the whole of her body, the adult actually loses her body. Gratification is no longer possible through the materiality of the corporeal self, but is banished to the otherworldly realm of the soul. In Brown’s view, sublimation always functions to reproduce the antagonism that develops between mind and body under the logic of Western rationality. Because sexual energy is always bodily energy, the desexualization that occurs through sublimation must always present itself as a disembodiment: sexual energy is transformed into ‘soulful’ energy. It is in this sense that sublimation rests on a certain mind-body dualism: it is “the use made of bodily energy by a soul which sets itself apart from the body”, a soul which is attempting to make itself more than the embodied individual, a soul striving for immortality (Brown, 1985, 157).
Brown explicitly associates this process of sublimation with the figure of Apollo, contrasting the latter with Dionysus, who is said to correspond to the primordial instinctual reality (Brown, 1985, 175). Apollo is above all connected with the “good bourgeois principle of self-preservation” (Brown, 1991, 182). We have seen how Apollo’s work is that of forming boundaries, of producing limits that may function to differentiate between bodies within finite spaces, thereby preventing multiple objects from collapsing in on each other and producing chaos, defined merely as organizational confusion. Western rationality, of course, is predicated on the legitimacy of the work of Apollo, on rational classification and categorization. Apollo is concerned with the construction and the maintenance of the ontologically intact individual and those limits and borders that define her. The autonomous individual’s capacity for rationality – now enshrined in modern liberal theory – is her ability to hold her desire in check, lest she slip into that semi-Dionysian state of bellum omnium in omnes: “Apollo, as an ethical deity, demands of his disciples moderation and in order to maintain it, self-knowledge. And so in parallel with the aesthetic necessity of beauty, runs the imperative of the ‘know thyself’ and the ‘nothing to excess’!” (Nietzsche, 2000, 31). Apollonian individuation “knows only one law, the individual, moderation in the Hellenic sense” (Nietzsche, 2000, 31).
Against this purely Apollonian rationality Brown posits a new type of epistemology, a “Dionysian epistemology” centred around one of Adorno’s maxim: “In psycho-analysis nothing is true except the exaggerations” (Brown, 1991, 179; Adorno, 1974, 49). Only the exaggerations can break through the stultifying normalcy of Western reason, only the exaggerations can give a ‘form’ and a voice to the drunken totality that is the utopian promise of a better future to come. Dionysus is superior to both Marx and Freud, for it is only he who can fully claim to represent the “massive breakdown of traditional categories of rationality” (Brown, 1991, 180). Marx and Freud, it is said, are still constrained by the Apollonian desire to situate theory within the confines of some form of rational scientific objectivity. The critique of rationality is not final, Brown tells us, until we are willing to accept Dionysus: “That Copernican revolution which Freud thought he was inaugurating, by showing that the human ego is not even master in its own house, is not complete until the human ego is forced to admit another master, the Dionysian principle of excess; Nietzsche called it drunkenness” (Brown, 1991, 183).
Brown and Marcuse are in agreement in their recognition of the need to criticize the fundamental categories of Western rationality – non-contradiction, autonomy, fixity, and so on. The disagreement arises over the precise nature of their diagnoses and the form of being which each proposes as an alternative. Brown’s critique is a total critique, but a total critique which, according to Marcuse, is both reactionary and uncritical, taking the form of something like the following: reality is Apollonian; Apollo is repressive in its exclusion of the Dionysian; the affirmation of Dionysus requires the abolition of repression; the abolition of repression requires the abolition of Apollo; the abolition of Apollo requires the abolition of reality. Brown’s analysis rests, however, on a fundamental misreading: his refusal to recognize the mutual complementarity of Apollo and Dionysus leads him to misinterpret Nietzsche’s critique of rationality as a rejection of the Apollonian.
Let us briefly go back to The Birth of Tragedy. The beginning of the demise of Attic tragedy – that form of art that successfully synthesizes Apollonian and Dionysian elements – is heralded by the arrival of the work of Euripides. It was Euripides who turned drama towards realism, in this movement succeeding in negating drama’s potentially transcendent and critical elements. The subject of art became, not only the viewer of the art, but the viewer as she existed at the precise historical moment of her viewing: “the spectator now saw and heard his double on the Euripidean stage and rejoiced that the latter could express himself so well” (Nietzsche, 2000, 63). Drama erected its walls upon the “mediocrity of the citizen” (Nietzsche, 2000, 64). Euripides initiated the deification of the actually existing present, the turning away from the possibility of valuing anything either past or future. The death of tragedy through the rise of Euripidean drama ends up effacing the individual’s spirit of transcendence: she relinquished “belief in immortality, not only the belief in an ideal past, but also the belief in an ideal future” (Nietzsche, 2000, 64).
Although Euripides excises the Dionysian element from art, it would nevertheless be mistaken to maintain that he is commanded by Apollo: “Even Euripides was in a certain sense only a mask: the deity which talked through him was neither Dionysus nor Apollo but a newly formed daemon called Socrates” (Nietzsche, 2000, 68). The new opposition is thus that between the Dionysian and the Socratic, Euripides presenting himself as the poet of aesthetic Socratism, appropriately altering the Socratic maxim, “‘In order to be good, everything must be conscious’, to read, ‘In order to be beautiful everything must be conscious’” (Nietzsche, 2000, 72). For the post-tragic Greek, the victory of the Socratic through the rise of Euripides succeeds in destroying any sense of potentiality that may lay latent in her. To the Nietzsche of The Birth of the Tragedy, it is not Apollo who is opposed to life, but Socrates. It is Socrates who wants to declare war on desire, to do battle with the untimely and mysterious forces which constitute the Dionysian, through the establishment of the supremacy of rational thought, as Nietzsche directly indicates in a late work: “Reason = virtue = happiness means simply: we must imitate Socrates and establish permanent daylight to combat the dark desires – the daylight of reason. We must be clever, clear, bright at all costs: any yielding to the instincts, to the unconscious, leads downwards” (Nietzsche, 1998, 15). Apollo always realizes himself in relation to the Dionysian, and although Socrates presses certain Apollonian qualities to their extremes, Nietzsche is quite clear that they cease to be properly-speaking Apollonian inasmuch as Socrates cuts them off from the Dionysian. “The Apollonian tendency has disguised itself in logical schematism” (Nietzsche, 2000, 78); or better, logical schematism has succeeded in disguising itself as the Apollonian, allowing for critics such as Brown to make a fundamental misdiagnosis: Brown means to reject the Socratic so as to allow for the affirmation of the Dionysian, but his conflation of Socrates with Apollo leads him to dismiss outright the Apollonian, a judgement which assures the impossibility of affirming Dionysus, an affirmation which was, after all, the original purpose of the critique.
Against Brown, Marcuse in Eros and Civilization produces an implicit reading of the Dionysian that remains faithful to Nietzsche’s characterization. While Marcuse devotes an entire chapter of Eros and Civilization to the mythic figures of Orpheus and Narcissus, it can be argued that Dionysus as well is an important interlocutor in the discussion, perhaps even the ascendant figure. Orpheus, Narcissus, and Dionysus are contrasted with Prometheus, the latter being that culture-hero who corresponds to the performance principle: Prometheus “creates culture at the price of perpetual pain” and “symbolizes productiveness, the unceasing effort to master life” (Marcuse, 1966a, 161). Against Prometheus, “Orpheus and Narcissus (like Dionysus to whom they are akin: the antagonist of the god who sanctions the logic of domination, the realm of reason) stand for a very different reality” (Marcuse, 1966a, 161-162). Dionysus presents a direct challenge to the god who represents the Logos of domination, affirming instead, along with Orpheus and Narcissus, an “image of joy and fulfillment” (Marcuse, 1966a, 162). It is thus that we might speculate that Dionysus is that god which represents the Logos of gratification. This Dionysus, of course, is the mediated Dionysus of Nietzsche – not that Dionysus championed by Brown – a Dionysus who though antagonistic to the Logos of domination, has enough of an Apollonian element to nevertheless affirm a form of the Logos.
Brown maintains that against the separation wrought by Apollo he wants the unity of Dionysus. For Brown, however, this is a pure undifferentiated unity, a unity unmediated by the limits of Apollo. As a model for this new whole, Brown goes back to the original whole, the whole of otherworldly myth, which through its illusory synthesizing capacity is able to resolve unequivocally all of the contradictions of this world. Brown is quite explicit on this point: the end of mystification and idolatry “is not the abolition of the temple, but the discovery of the true temple: Love’s Body” (Brown, 1988, 244). It is no longer the case that all critique must begin with religious critique (Marx, 2000, 71): all critique now must begin with an affirmation of the religious, an infusion of life with the unifying power of the mythic. Literalism necessarily leads to reification – it “makes out of everything things, these table and chairs, commodities” (Brown, 1988, 244). The only alternative to reification is a move away from literalism, from any theoretical orientation that maintains that it is potentially possible to call things by their right names. For Brown reification has to be denied and mystery affirmed: “Literalism is idolatry of words; the alternative to idolatry is mystery” (Brown, 1988, 244). Literalism is idolatry, a worship of false images. To counter this idolatry, however, Brown turns from literalism to a symbolism capable of evoking the new mystery of Love’s Body.
Brown’s move, however, seems to be a betrayal of his own project, for any attempt at symbolism is necessarily dependent on the utilization of the Apollonian, and is consequently a retreat from the pure Dionysianism which Brown champions. Brown’s use of symbolism displays the impossibility of a pure affirmation of the Dionysian, the latter being by its nature non-symbolic and unrepresentable. Brown wants to affirm Dionysus, but is capable of doing so only through a practice (writing, theorizing) that in itself is dependent on Apollo. Brown’s whole project thus demonstrates the impossibility of affirming the Dionysian independent of the Apollonian.
By advocating the replacement of one form of symbolism with another, Brown reproduces somewhat the structure of his own model of repressive sublimation: symbolism to the second power, imitation of imitation. To Marcuse, however, replacing symbolism with symbolism is not enough. Symbolism must in some sense recapture that which it is attempting to symbolize, it must become injected with a certain historical sensibility: “Unless the analysis takes the road of return from the symbolic to the literal, from the illusion to the reality of the illusion, it remains ideological, replacing one mystification by another” (Marcuse, 1988, 235). The one-sided partiality of reality may indeed constitute its falseness, but it is a falseness that nevertheless produces real effects on the individuals that dwell within it. The task of a critical theory is not an outright rejection of the artefacts of the distorted life and a flight into a new irreality, but a careful and nuanced interpretation of these artefacts and their potential to contribute to the construction of a future reality. Brown’s mistake lay in his total elimination of the “decisive difference between real and artificial, natural and political, fulfilling and repressive boundaries and divisions” (Marcuse, 1988, 237). Freedom can be actualized only in this life, a life that can never be above contradiction, a life that will always be in some sense mapped by division and boundary. There is such an entity as the self, if not actually then potentially, and this self can only be realised as an embodied particular within the movement of the universal. One cannot merely kill the self for the sake of the universal, for one would succeed only in killing both the particular and the universal at the same time. The quest for fulfilment through these means can only result in a radical non-fulfilment: “Fulfilment becomes meaningless if everything is one, and one is everything” (Marcuse, 1988, 237). In Love’s Body Brown claims to be a dialectician (Brown, 1966, 154), though his thinking has not progressed past the recognition that in dialectical logic only the whole is the true. This is certainly the case, but the whole is truly the true only to the extent that it is a whole which recognises the existence of the particular, a whole in which all individual parts have their place and function. The recognition of these parts is the work of Apollo. Against this conception of the dialectical “Brown envisions an Absolute, a Totality, a Whole which swallows up all parts and divisions, all tensions and all needs, that is to say, all life” (Marcuse, 1988, 241). It is in this sense that the whole is also the false. The fight for the true whole, the differentiated whole, is, Marcuse tells us, the work of the political. It is politics that attempts to analyse and comprehend the content of the actual, concrete, historical, and antagonistic totality within which we are all situated, without appealing to a higher unity capable of resolving all separation (Marcuse, 1988, 243).
Given Brown’s disdain for contradiction it should be no surprise that he rejects politics out of hand. It is not politics which will save us, but poetry. In his words: “The next generation needs to be told that the real fight is not the political fight, but to put an end to politics. From politics to metapolitics” (Brown, 1988, 246). Brown realizes perfectly well that politics is incapable of abolishing repression, hence his flight from it. Unlike Brown, Marcuse does not, strictly speaking, mean to suggest the historical possibility of abolishing all repression – whether by political or any other means. This is the point of his distinction between basic and surplus repression. Before we proceed any further it is thus important that we briefly examine Marcuse’s concept of repression and its relation to Freud’s basic formulations on the same subject.
According to Freud, the fundamental phenomenon that defines civilization is repression, defined merely as “turning something away, and keeping it at a distance from consciousness” (Freud, 1984c, 147). To say that instinctual desire is turned away is another way of saying that it is forgotten. The problem of repression is fundamentally a problem of memory. Freud maintains that the total libidinal gratification of humanity’s instinctual demands is incompatible with the requirements of culture. The individual must sacrifice a significant portion of her direct instinctual satisfaction for a more ‘assured’ pleasure: the reality principle comes to modify the pleasure principle. Happiness, understood as the satisfaction of libidinal impulse, must be subordinated to that activity which allows for the reproduction of civilization: work. Because of the need to work, what makes us happy must be forsaken and forgotten: repression therefore produces unhappiness even as it makes us forget. It is in this sense that the assemblage of worldly objects that constitutes culture is to be considered as the historical accumulation of instinctual renunciations. The balance of the instinctual structure is altered by sublimation through the latter’s redirection and neutralization of libidinal energy. Every sublimation necessarily implies a forced desexualization – or repression – of the instinct, resulting in unhappiness.
Marcuse’s innovation lay in the distinction he develops between “basic-repression” and “surplus-repression”. He defines surplus-repression as “the restrictions necessitated by social domination. This is distinguished from (basic) repression: the ‘modifications’ of the instincts necessary for the perpetuation of the human race in civilization” (Marcuse, 1966a, 35). Under conditions of surplus-repression the social institutions that serve the interests of domination produce controls over and above what is actually necessary to guarantee human association. Unlike the rational exercise of authority (which corresponds to basic-repression), domination “is exercised by a particular group or individual in order to sustain and enhance itself in a privileged position” (Marcuse, 1966a, 36). The performance principle (the historical form of the reality principle which characterizes late capitalism) claims that it is driven by scarcity, that if it did not exist in its current incarnation the material production of goods would be inadequate to guarantee the survival of the species: the world is too barren to satisfy even the most base and fundamental human need without restraint, hence any satisfaction requires work, “more or less painful arrangements and undertakings for the procurement of the means for satisfying needs” (Marcuse, 1966a, 35). Marcuse argues, however, that the alleged natural fact of scarcity is in actuality the result of a specific form of production and a deliberate organization of scarcity – the calculated distribution of scarcity designed to serve the interests of domination. The difference between basic and surplus repression, though, is always historical. When technological development reaches a certain nodal point quantity turns into quality, basic repression becomes surplus: “The same and even a reduced scope of instinctual regimentation would constitute a higher degree of repression at a mature stage of civilization, when the need for renunciation is greatly reduced by material and intellectual progress – when civilization could actually afford a considerable release of instinctual energy expended for domination and toil” (Marcuse, 1966a, 35). Repression is thus always relational, defined relative to the historical possibility of freedom. What constitutes the repression of the performance principle, when evaluated in light of current states of “material and intellectual” knowledge, can only be seen to be surplus, repression beyond that required to guarantee the individual a ‘good human life’.
We must at this point ask ourselves, however, if Marcuse is justified in broadening what is essentially an individual psychological phenomenon so as to incorporate and include large-scale social and historical phenomena? For his part, Erich Fromm has answered this question with an enthusiastic no. According to Fromm, Marcuse’s problem can be traced to an unwillingness on his part to deal with what remains the source of all psychoanalytic theory. Marcuse, and those similar-minded individuals who wish to deal with the “philosophy of psychoanalysis”, are irreparably crippled in their theoretical endeavours to the extent that they are either unwilling or unable to deal with the clinical basis which supports all metapsychological speculations (Fromm, 1970, 25). Fromm, pointing out that Marcuse freely admits that he is not concerned with the technical or therapeutic aspects of psychoanalysis, insists that it is precisely these aspects that provide the preliminary content of the philosophy of psychoanalysis. Metapsychology does not come first: the theory of psychoanalysis is based on clinical observations, not vice versa. Clinical observation is not employed in order to validate a pre-existing theoretical structure, but rather the theoretical structure is produced through a synthesis of the data of clinical observation.
Marcuse’s engagement with the psychoanalytic concepts, Fromm maintains, takes the form of a type of free association. Marcuse’s detachment of concepts from their clinical basis opens them up to an infinite field of potential interpretations, interpretations that need not necessarily be related to Freud’s intentions. It is the lack of concern with the technical aspect of psychoanalysis which renders the modified concepts immune to criticism: the “philosophers” are “‘free’ to make fantastic constructions precisely because they have no empirical knowledge against which to check their speculations” (Fromm, 1970, 27). According to Fromm, Marcuse distorts the concept of repression because of this. Marcuse loses the significance of the concept by transmuting it into a dynamic phenomenon that covers both unconscious and conscious processes. To Freud, repression refers simply to a process by which something is lost or removed from consciousness. Repression, thus understood, cannot be equated with Marcuse’s social definition of repression as oppression or domination. Marcuse “plays on the double meaning of the word ‘repression’, making it appear as if the two meanings were one, and in this process the meaning of repression in the psychoanalytic sense is lost – although a nice formula is found which unifies a political and psychological category by the ambiguity of the word” (Fromm, 1970, 28).
How are we to assess Fromm’s critique? He is certainly correct on a least one count: Marcuse himself maintains that he has no interest in contributing to the further explication of Freudian concepts, but is concerned more with delineating their philosophical and sociological implications (Marcuse, 1966a, 7). Fromm, however, is attempting to evaluate Marcuse’s appropriation of Freud in narrow terms, unconnected to the larger philosophical and political project of which it forms a part. As Marcuse well understood, his analysis would be a failure if evaluated according to the standards of conventional Freudian theory. We must recall, however, a fundamental principle underlying immanent critique: any theoretical orientation that believes that access to truth is established through its internal processes alone is bound to develop into an ideology (Horkheimer, 1974, 184). For Marcuse, Fromm and the neo-Freudian revisionists perfectly represent this degradation. By neglecting the problem of domination and holding to the belief that therapy alone can free individuals, they strengthen the system of social relations that produces unhappiness. Their technique, according to Marcuse, is reducible to a promotion of a “Power of Positive Thinking” which “has the connotation of that unconditional freedom which can be practiced even in chains” (Marcuse, 1966a, 262). In their naïve belief that individuals can be made healthy through their participation in the therapeutic process, Fromm and the revisionists erase the connection between repression and social power. Repression is a forgetting, but it is a special kind of forgetting. The fact that that which is repressed attempts to return in so many different ways demonstrates that what is being forgotten is something that demands to be remembered. The forgetting of repression must therefore be a forced repression, and it is here that repression meets domination: what forces the individual to forget are the social powers shaping the reality principle that prevails in a particular historical period. Individuals are compelled to forget, and it is because of this that psychological categories need to be considered political ones (Marcuse, 1966a, xi).
In Eros and Civilization Marcuse produces an immanent critique of Freud that seeks to thoroughly disrupt the surface of the Freudian text by deliberately producing contradiction. The most important contradiction deployed by Marcuse is the oxymoron non-repressive sublimation. From a strictly Freudian standpoint, of course, the notion of a sublimation without repression is a conceptual impossibility. Sublimation always involves a displacement (a moving away) of drive energy. If energy is to be utilized for cultural tasks that deny satisfaction, then gratification must be potentially delayable and renouncable. In Gad Horowitz’s words, “Man is the animal that neutralizes drive energy, i.e. transforms it from id energy into ego energy. All concern for the other and all cultural activity (indeed all human sexual activity) are based on sublimation in the sense that they depend on drive energy which has been diverted from its original aim (total and immediate bodily gratification)” (Horowitz, 1977, 145). All sublimation must contain a repressive element to the extent that “it is based on repressions which are essential for the construction of an integrated ego able to test and master reality, successfully to defend itself against desires which must be renounced no matter what the social conditions, to construct permanent and affectionate object relations, and advance infantile to mature gratifications” (Horowitz, 1977, 52). Marcuse’s use of the term non-repressive sublimation is not meant to deny that all sublimation contains this basic repressive aspect. His deployment of the term is meant to counter a particular utilization of the concept of repression, specifically Freud’s belief that all repression, basic and surplus, must be experienced by the individual as unhappiness. By showing that sublimation can be “non-repressive”, Marcuse undermines Freud’s social nihilism and sets the groundwork for a political theory that is capable of affirming rather than denying a happy state of existence.
How, though, would one go about conceptualizing a non-repressive sublimation? Marcuse begins with Freud’s observation that there is one form of mental activity that remains relatively free of the rule of the reality principle (Marcuse, 1966a, 140). The establishment of the reality principle produces a split in the mental structure of the organism. The main portion is channelled into the realm of the reality principle and assumes responsibility for the structuring and ordering of the world. The other portion, however, remains free from the reality principle, but as a consequence of this freedom is rendered impotent. This latter portion is phantasy or imagination. Phantasy is associated with the aesthetic dimension: it provides us with a linkage between the deep structures of the unconscious and the highest products of culture. Imagination is actualized when it takes on an objective form, when it presents itself to us as art. Behind the artistic form, according to Marcuse, lies the “repressed harmony of sensuousness and reason – the eternal protest against the organization of life by the logic of domination, the critique of the performance principle” (Marcuse, 1966a, 144).
All authentic art is infused with the power of the negative, this negativity laying in the work of art’s breaking of the prevailing positivity, its imagining of another reality “repelled by the existing one and yet alive in memory and anticipation” (Marcuse, 1972, 92). Every work of art creates something original: “In this universe, every word, every colour, every sound is ‘new’, different – breaking the familiar context of perception and understanding, of sense certainty and reason in which men and nature are enclosed” (Marcuse, 1972, 98). The problem, however, is that the congealing of the imaginative protest into a style or form prevents its transference into the spatio-temporal realm: “People can elevate themselves with the classics: they read and see and hear their own archetypes rebel, triumph, give up, or perish. And since this is aesthetically formed, they can enjoy it and forget it” (Marcuse, 1966a, 144). The aesthetic element is not sufficient in itself to objectively liberate large groups of individuals, although it must remain a component of this potential liberation, inasmuch as it is based on phantasy, whose truth-value lies in its unwillingness to accept as final or eternal the constraints put on pleasure and happiness by the reality principle. “Art cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world” (Marcuse, 1977, 32). Because phantasy functions independently of the reality principle, it is capable of looking beyond world and positing alternate modes of existence which contradict established organizational structures.
A fundamental characteristic of aesthetics is its ability to decipher the instinctual and sensuous character of life. Even if reason maintains that a particular representation is untrue or impossible, the aesthetic has the potential of affirming this sensuous truth through its own unique mode of representation. Following Baumgarten, Marcuse proclaims that the truths of sensuousness provide the content of aesthetics (Marcuse, 1966a, 182). The senses are erotogenic and governed by the pleasure principle: “From this fusion of the appetitive functions derives the confused, inferior, passive character of sense-cognition which makes it unsuitable for the reality principle unless subjected to and formed by the conceptual activity of the intellect, of reason” (Marcuse, 1966a, 184). If philosophy is to align itself with the reality principle alone, which it has historically done with few exceptions, then sensuousness has no place in philosophy and must seek out refuge in the world of art. Because the instincts find a home in the aesthetic, art challenges the reality principle to the extent that it proclaims the legitimacy of the Logos of gratification against the Logos of domination: “Behind the sublimated aesthetic form, the unsublimated content shows forth: the commitment of art to the pleasure principle” (Marcuse, 1966a, 185).
Freud himself recognized the instinctual nature of the production and enjoyment of the aesthetic, speculating that beauty has its origin is sexual feeling: “The love of beauty seems a perfect example of an impulse inhibited in its aim. ‘Beauty’ and ‘attraction’ are originally attributes of the sexual object” (Freud, 1989, 34). Marcuse goes farther than Freud, explicitly suggesting that in the aesthetic perception of the beautiful a link with our forgotten instinctual life is produced. In this sense art is a “rational, cognitive force, revealing a dimension of man and nature which was repressed and repelled in reality” (Marcuse, 1966b, 64). The revealing of this repressed nature is its fracturing of the unity of the immediately given world. Beauty thus appears as disruption or jolt: “It is experienced almost as a shock, perhaps due to the contrast-character of beauty, which breaks the circle of everyday experience and opens (for a short moment) another reality (of which fright may be an integral element)” (Marcuse, 1966b, 210). The potential for the beautiful to disrupt and open up such a space for autonomy thus leads Marcuse to define beauty as “the sensuous appearance of the idea of freedom” (Marcuse, 1972, 117). In An Essay On Liberation Marcuse quotes Nietzsche on attaining the token of freedom through no longer being ashamed of ourselves (Marcuse, 1969, 21). What we are ashamed of are those repressed desires that manifest themselves in disguised form through dream and phantasy. We are ashamed of our instinctual desire. We may speak of the beautiful as freedom to the extent that those infantile wishes and yearnings denied expression in the ‘real world’ take on an objective and sensuous form in the work of art.
The affirmation of the importance of sensuousness, of the need to return to the primary and erotogenic structure of the senses, corresponds to the affirmation of the liberating potential of remembering the pattern of infantile sexuality, infantile sexuality thereby being linked to the Logos of gratification. The pattern of normal adult sexuality that we observe in the present day is neither purely natural nor biological, but is rather a culturally shaped phenomenon, “a particular organization of certain possibilities given in the human organism” (Brown, 1985, 24). The broad category of infantile sexuality is to be thoroughly marked off from those activities and organizations associated with normal adult sexuality, a sexuality whose centres are restricted to the genital zones and which is undertaken primarily for the purpose of reproduction: “The final outcome of sexual development lies in what is known as the normal sexual life of the adult, in which the pursuit of pleasure comes under the sway of the reproductive function and in which the component instincts, under the primacy of a single erotogenic zone, form a firm organization directed towards a sexual aim attached to some extraneous sexual object” (Freud, 1970, 63).
Adult sexuality has been narrowed in range and concentrated in one particular region, suppressing and tyrannizing all other components. One section of the multiplicity has been abstracted from the whole, isolated from the ‘competing’ elements, and reintroduced as the sole totality. Infantile sexuality, by contrast, is ‘polymorphously perverse’ in that it seeks gratification in all parts of the body (Freud, 1966, 209). To say sexual is not to say genital: “The former is the wider concept and includes many activities that have nothing to do with the genitals” (Freud, 1964, 152). Infantile sexuality takes itself as its own object; it resides in its own enjoyment, not simply the singular pleasure derived from the genitals or other typical erogenous zones. The source of infantile sexual pleasure is the excitation of any part of the body susceptible to stimuli; this includes not only the typical erogenous zones, but all sensory surfaces contained within the body, including the skin and, potentially, certain internal organs (Freud, 1952, 44; Brown, 1985, 26). Infantile sexuality, therefore, shows that “the ultimate essence of our desires and our being is nothing more or less than delight in the active life of all the human body” (Brown, 1985, 30). Infants are in love with themselves to the extent that they are naturally and sensuously absorbed in the functioning of their own bodies: they are, in this sense, narcissistic.
We earlier saw how Freud had speculated that all sublimation was based upon a transformation of object libido into narcissistic libido. Against Brown, Marcuse sees in the reactivation of narcissistic libido in sublimation the potential for a liberatory mode of activity, Freud’s theory providing us with concrete hints as to the possibility of a non-repressive form of sublimation, a form of sublimation in which “sexuality is neither deflected from nor blocked in its objective; rather, in attaining its objective, it transcends it to others, searching for fuller gratification” (Marcuse, 1966a, 211). The return to narcissism is a key to non-repressive sublimation. It must be made clear that when Marcuse is encouraging the return to narcissism he is not advocating neurosis. Freud distinguishes between primary (normal) and secondary (abnormal) narcissism, the former being “the libidinal complement to the egoism of self-preservation” (Freud, 1984b, 66). Secondary narcissism, by contrast, is characterized by a severe depletion of object-libido. The consequence is megalomania and an inability of libido to attach itself to the objects of the world.
Freud tells us that the fundamental original experiences of the child are of “limitlessness and of a bond with the universe” (Freud, 1989, 13), the perceived unity of subject and object, internal and external: “An infant at the breast does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him” (Freud, 1989, 15). One of the functions of primary narcissism is the uniting of the narcissistic individual with the external objective world – not a mere retreat from the objects of the world but the establishment of a certain type of harmony with them: “originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself. Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive – indeed, an all-embracing – feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it” (Freud, 1989, 15). Narcissism, in Marcuse’s view, thus contains within itself a certain relation to reality which has the potential to function as a model for the construction of a new reality principle – to which would correspond a new mode of sublimation –, a reality principle that seeks to maximize the libidinal gratification of the individual: “the libidinal cathexis of the ego (one’s own body) may become the source and reservoir for a new libidinal cathexis of the objective world – transforming this world into a new mode of being” (Marcuse, 1966a, 169). When Narcissus looks into the water he sees himself, it is true, but he is unaware that the reflection he desires is his own. It is in loving the other that Narcissus loves himself, the narcissistic image showing forth as a love of oneself that refuses to accept separation from the libidinous object.
Marcuse points out that the repressive modification of the pleasure principle occurs before sublimation: sublimation therefore “works with the thus preconditioned libido and its possessive, exploitative, aggressive force” (Marcuse, 1966a, 206). The process of sublimation itself does not significantly alter the nature of the instinct. If this is the case, if libido is desexualized prior to the process of sublimation, then it would be possible for individuals to sublimate a non-repressed sexuality and to create complex human relations which remain unsubjected to that repressive organization of the instinctual economy which the given reality principle demands. Such sublimation, however, would also involve change in the reality principle. To return to the primary structure of sexuality, to move away from the genitals, is to initiate the preliminary steps required for the development of a non-repressive sublimation. With a non-repressive sublimation unnecessary desexualization would not occur: the instinct would not be redirected away from its aim, but would be satisfied directly in its activity: “The instinct is not ‘deflected’ from its aim; it is gratified in activities and relations that are not sexual in the sense of ‘organized’ genital sexuality and yet are libidinal and erotic” (Marcuse, 1966a, 208). The erotic character of the instinct is not lost in such a process, and it is in this sense that sublimation works for the individual. In contrast to repressive sublimation, non-repressive sublimation is not carried out in the name of performance and productivity, but in the name of gratification.
This satisfaction would never be a purely individual phenomenon. Such a change in the mode of sublimation requires the institution of a new reality principle, which itself would produce a new culture. The issue is not one of individual therapy or consciousness-raising, as it is for Fromm and the neo-Freudian revisionists, but of transforming civilization: “Libido can take the road of self-sublimation only as a social phenomenon: as an unrepressed force, it can promote the formation of culture only under conditions which relate associated individuals to each other in the cultivation of the environment for their developing needs and faculties” (Marcuse, 1966a, 209-210). A non-repressive order is only possible if the liberated sexual instincts are capable of creating lasting erotic relationships among and between individuals. It is not enough for a non-repressive order to reconcile conflicts within the single organism: it must reconcile conflicts among organisms.
The activation of narcissism is only liberatory when it appears as a social phenomenon, which it always must when it appears as sublimation. Géza Róheim points out that the difference between a neurosis and a sublimation lay in the latter’s social aspect: “In a sublimation something new is created –a house, or a community, or a tool – and it is created in a group or for the use of a group” (Róheim, 1971, 96; my emphasis). In light of a social non-repressive sublimation, Freud’s formulation regarding the nature of Eros as a fundamental striving to produce ever increasing unities takes on a new meaning, as the resexualization of the body and the abolition of toil at the same time create more complex and pluralistic associations of people. In Marcuse’s words, “The culture-building power of Eros is non-repressive sublimation: sexuality is neither deflected from nor blocked in its objective: rather, in attaining its objective, it transcends it to others, searching for fuller gratification” (Marcuse, 1966a, 211). Under liberated conditions sexuality turns into Eros; it becomes a form of self-sublimation manifested in lasting and expanding group relations that are capable of satisfying the demands of the pleasure principle. To say that sexuality is transformed into Eros is merely to bring attention to the extension of the concept of sexuality: “Eros signifies a quantitative and qualitative aggrandizement of the sexuality” (Marcuse, 1966a, 205). The instinct is no longer channelled into a specialized and partial function (genital sexuality) but takes as its object the body in its totality. The resexualization of the body is achieved through a return to the polymorphously perverse sexuality of the pre-latent child and a turn away from that which defines normal adult sexuality. Through this shift “The body in its entirety would become an object of cathexis, a thing to be enjoyed – an instrument of pleasure” (Marcuse, 1966a, 201). This transformative process would not just be an arbitrary and undirected release of libido, but a transmutation of it, “a spread rather than an explosion of libido” (Marcuse, 1966a, 201).
The transformation of libido would be the result of a social transformation that allowed for the free expression of human needs and potentialities, needs and potentialities that have little to do with the values and goals of the performance principle. Freud knew very well that the reason the accumulation of wealth brings us so little happiness is that the desire for it was never a childhood wish (Marcuse, 1966a, 203). Thus the fact that the institution of a non-repressive order would necessarily entail a reduction in the current standard of living is of little consequence; “the reactivation of prehistoric and childhood wishes and attitudes is not necessarily regression; it may well be the opposite – proximity to a happiness that has always been the repressed promise of a better future” (Marcuse, 1966a, 203). We here again see the connection between repression and memory. For Marcuse memory has a revolutionary potential, the remembrance of past pleasurable experiences operating as a challenge to the prevailing logic of domination. Memory’s “truth value lies in the specific function of memory to preserve promises and potentialities which are betrayed and even outlawed by the mature, civilized individual, but which had once been fulfilled in his dim past and which are never entirely forgotten” (Marcuse, 1966a, 18-19).
A liberatory practice would be one which seeks not to repress, but rather to release memory: the goal is not to get over or move away from erupting fragments of the past, but – through the imaginative synthesis of the material of dream and phantasy – to remember what one has been made to forget. To counter forced forgetting through the active utilization of remembrance is “one of the noblest tasks of thought” (Marcuse, 1966a, 19). Marcuse’s emphasis on the role that imagination plays in the project of recuperation is what clearly distinguishes his emphasis on memory from romanticism (Kellner, 2004, 85). Remembrance is a tool used to recollect past experiences of joy and happiness – not to return in some way to the conditions of the past, but to use these experiences in a condemnation of present conditions of domination, this condemnation serving as a stimulant to a future-oriented practice with gratification as its goal: “The rediscovered past,” says Marcuse, “yields critical standards which are tabooed by the present.” “The liberation of the past,” however, “does not end in its reconciliation with the present. Against the self-imposed restraint of the discoverer, the orientation on the past tends toward an orientation on the future” (Marcuse, 1966a, 232). Memory therefore looks not only to the past, but to the future as well, using recollection as a means to creation.
According to Marcuse, a non-repressive sublimation is unthinkable if we are denied the ability to remember that which has been historically repressed (forcefully forgotten) (Marcuse, 1966a, 232). To say that sublimation is non-repressive is just to point out that what is being sublimated is not forgotten. In non-repressive sublimation we consciously realize that through our activity we are externalizing our libidinal energy. We realize that the world is one of our own creation and we rejoice in the affirmation of ourselves and the actualization of our potentiality, thus asserting the Logos of gratification. Non-repressive sublimation in the above sense can thus be considered a form of remembrance in which essence (spontaneous creation) is allowed to manifest itself. It is an imaginative, creative, and sensuous activity in which groups of individuals consciously and willingly work together to cultivate their world. It was Freud’s failure to distinguish between alienated and non-alienated modes of labour that prevented him from realizing that in modern society work could function as such an activity, despite his concession that certain types of work are capable of “displacing a large amount of libidinal components, whether narcissistic, aggressive, even erotic” (Freud, 1989, 30n).
According to Marcuse, originally all labour was of necessity essentially libidinal:
The work that has contributed so essentially to the development of man from animal is originally libidinous. Freud states expressly that sexual as well as sublimated love is ‘connected to communal labour.’ Man begins working because he finds pleasure in work, not only after work, pleasure in the play of his faculties and the fulfillment of his life needs, not as a means of life but as life itself. Man begins the cultivation of nature and of himself, cooperation, in order to secure and perpetuate the gaining of pleasure. (Marcuse, 1970, 20)
Freud, however, was unwilling to follow such observations to their most radical conclusion. Civilization required alienated labour in order to reproduce itself; libidinous energy thus had to be altered prior to sublimation in order to allow the body to be transformed into an instrument of work, into a “subject-object of socially useful performances” (Marcuse, 1966a, 199). For Marcuse, of course, such repression is not carried out to preserve the existence of the species, but rather to preserve domination. To restructure the relationship between the reality and pleasure principles through an activation of the aesthetic imagination would provide the preconditions for the development of a mode of activity that could be properly called both non-repressive sublimation and non-alienated labour.
It is Marcuse’s contention that, despite Freud’s failure to explicitly elaborate it, there is contained within orthodox psychoanalytic theory hints which may assist us in developing a concept of repression which includes both basic and surplus dimensions. Although not mentioned by Marcuse, perhaps the most explicit hint Freud provides us is to be found in his essay “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness”, which seemingly develops a preliminary theory of surplus repression. Freud maintains that if we trace the development of the sexual instinct we can conceptually distinguish three different stages of civilization:
a first one, in which the sexual instinct may be freely exercised without regard to the aims of reproduction; a second, in which all of the sexual instinct is suppressed except what serves the aims of reproduction; and a third, in which only legitimate reproduction is allowed as a sexual aim. This third stage is reflected in our present-day ‘civilized’ sexual morality. (Freud, 1959, 181)
While the first historical mode corresponds to the instinctual stage of auto-eroticism and the attempt to narcissistically derive pleasure from multiple erotogenic zones of the body, the second corresponds to the stage of object-love and the subordination of the erotogenic zones to the genitals in the service of reproduction – sexuality made socially useful. The third stage, however, which Freud criticizes as being characterized by unnecessary instinctual renunciation, is defined by what Freud calls ‘civilized’ sexual morality or legitimate reproduction, reproduction between individuals bonded by marriage in a monogamous relationship. It would appear, therefore, that the shift to this third stage of civilization could be classified as the development of a form of surplus repression, a type of instinctual renunciation that goes beyond what is necessary to preserve collective cultural life.
Although Freud here seemingly constructs a theory of surplus repression, it must be nevertheless distinguished from Marcuse’s theory in a fundamental way: that concerning the nature of the experience of basic repression, and this experience’s relation to the surplus component of repression. To Freud, any type of repression must be experienced as unhappiness. The only benefit of successful psychoanalytic treatment is the elimination of unnecessary suffering - the normalization of suffering: “Normal suffering represents the success of adaptation: the repressed desires are truly renounced, which means that the individual is free of neurotic anxiety, but having given up the claim to happiness is therefore barren of joys” (Horowitz, 1977, 26). It is in this sense that Freud states that the goal of psychoanalysis cannot be considered the absolute reconciliation of psychic conflict and the achievement of a happy state of existence (and here Freud is much more realistic than the neo-Freudian revisionists). On the contrary, “Analysis transforms neurotic suffering into everyday misery” (quoted in Horowitz, 1977, 26). For Freud, basic repression itself imposes such a burden on the individual as to always be experienced as pain and misery; surplus repression merely intensifies this general and universal suffering.
For Freud, then, sublimation, as a process arising from repression, can offer only partial, substitute gratification in place of the instinctual fulfillment that is renounced. Discontent always remains. It is this formulation that Marcuse wants to reverse. Once again, there are hints within Freud and the Freudian literature that point the way to a theory of a non-repressive sublimation (Marcuse, 1966a, 207-208), but these hints alone are not sufficient to draw out fully the concept. Brown was too much of an orthodox Freudian to recognize the potential which Marcuse is affirming. Marcuse’s concept of non-repressive sublimation breaks the necessary link to repression and thereby reverses the previous significance of sublimation: it produces not discontent and unhappiness, but gratification and joy. A non-repressive sublimation is one in which the human being becomes happier than she ever could be without that form of sublimation.
While Freud seems to recognize a distinction between basic and surplus repression, Marcuse goes beyond Freud in observing that not only is basic repression not necessarily or inherently painful, but that it functions as the necessary prerequisite for the opposite experiences of joy and freedom. Marcuse maintains that a society characterized by the expression of non-repressive sublimation and the elimination of surplus repression would nevertheless need to preserve processes of basic repression. This is certainly true. What is made less explicit by Marcuse, however, is that in this process the individual’s feeling of basic repression is altered. The categories of basic and surplus repression are not absolute ones. We have already seen that depending on certain historical factors, for example a given society’s general level of technical or productive expertise, what was once properly considered a basic repression in the past may in a future historical epoch be considered a surplus repression. A basic repression, furthermore, is experienced by individuals differently depending on the specific combination of social forces and relations prevalent at any historical juncture. What is important to grasp is that Marcuse wants not to treat basic and surplus repression as absolute and static categories whose content remains invariable throughout the flux of history. These concepts must be treated dialectically, and not just in terms of their internal movements, but with respect to their relations with each other as well.
Horowitz points out that basic and surplus repression are not mutually exclusive spheres, but exist in a dialectical relationship in which they are constantly interacting with and interpenetrating each other (Horowitz, 1977, 213). Because of such interpenetration, any attempt to alter the nature of one – in for example Marcuse’s attempt to eliminate surplus repression – must alter the other in some important and meaningful way:
The pressure of basic repression – the meaning, the quality, of our experience of alienation from mere nature – is a function of the pressure of surplus repression. The two “tensions” – that which is inseparable from human existence and that which is the result of “a particular historical contingency” – interpenetrate; they do not simply co-exist as in watertight compartments. If the latter is eliminated, the former must in some way be radically transformed – it must become other than what it is. (Horowitz, 1977, 213)
By eliminating surplus repression basic repression is overcome, overcome in the sense that it is felt by individuals not as pain and suffering, but as the means to a more lasting and assured gratification. While basic repression remains, its function has been radically altered: rather than serving the interests of domination, it serves the interests of gratification.
Although Marcuse does not hesitate to associate the elimination of desexualization with a non-repressive sublimation, it is clear that such a formulation is a polemical one only. A sublimation, just by the fact of being a sublimation, requires a desexualization: “Any human activity, that is, any activity which is an expression of the desire of the conscious subject rather than the unintegrated drives of the id, involves neutralization of energy and changes of aim” (Horowitz, 1977, 192). At its most fundamental level basic repression is the repression of the ‘oceanic feeling’, of the sense of limitlessness that comes before the formation of the stable ego. In other words, what is repressed is a pure Dionysianism. The Apollonian is needed to curb the Dionysian. To reject Apollo in the name of avoiding all repression, as Brown would like to do, is to reject all practical activity in the world. To the extent that a non-repressive sublimation is always a creative expression of an historically determined will, a will situated in the concrete and still-contradictory world of individuals, it will always require the work of Apollo: a non- repressive sublimation requires the work of both the Apollonian and the Dionysian. To reject Apollo in the name of non-repression, as Brown does, is to reject life itself. In this view, “The solution, the end of the drama of history is the restoration of original and total unity: unity of male and female, father and mother, subject and object, body and soul – abolition of the self, of mine and thine, abolition of the reality principle, of all boundaries …” (Marcuse, 1988, 234). What Marcuse and the Nietzsche of The Birth of Tragedy want, however, is not the abolition of all repression, of all reality, of all life, but rather the construction of a new repression, a new reality, and a new life – and for this Apollo – basic repression – is always needed.
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Received: January 1, 2007, Published: January 1, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Christopher Holman