Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt school analysed contemporary society using key elements of Sigmund Freud’s theories filtered through the classical social theory of Karl Marx as a jumping off point. However, he turned that on its head into three areas: the decline of the individual, the deranged logic of capitalism, and a promise of liberation. While elements of his though is at times cynical of society as most of the other members of the Frankfurt School, he was also hopeful that society could and would releases itself from these restraining and repressive bonds.
Marcuse’s analysis of the decline of the individual manifests itself into the dynamics of mass communication, popular culture, racism, and other forms of authoritarianism. And while somewhat cynical, he was realistic in several ways. Marxism practiced by Leninists repressed any individual expression in favour of mass control of society. And in Western Europe and the United States, rather than being overtly authoritarian, a perverted form of capitalist control utilized mass communication in the form of advertising, marketing, and entertainment, not in the hands of the state but certainly influenced by the state to collectively, repetitively, and repressively control the masses and what they collectively feel and think. Marcuse calls this “repressive desublimation”. (Elliott 2009: 36). This is propaganda refashioned as “popular” culture.
This deranged logic of capitalism is utilized to sell sexuality stripped of eroticism, to sell products that become alienation of the human body into objectification. This objectification is aided by the dispassionate forces of inevitable capitalist technique that forces individuals into a mass of oppressed and dull labourers. Marcuse distinguishes this “technological rationality” with “individualistic rationality” where the individual is at liberty to oppose all that that is established and entrenched by the controlling powers of stated and media control in order to understand his/her world critically. However, according to Marcuse, this has all but disappeared due to the transition from liberal capitalism to industrial capitalism. (Applerouth 2008: 405) This is a cynical but realistic assessment, however it does not account for various small groups that attempt to oppose the status quo in small but influential ways (e.g. Anarchist collectives, individual body modification).
But through this authoritarian repression and objectified alienation there lies a promise of liberation, according to McLuhan, but only a promise. His hope was to see the affluence that industrialization and technological science had given us would open a way to disable our sexual repression that Marcuse called libidinal rationality that would involve an abrupt reversal of surplus repression that would give us a general eroticism of the body, of nature, of cultural organization into a transformed social institutional life that incorporated sexuality and love.
On a smaller scale, this liberation has happened where technique has caused some to rediscover their primal skills and desires that this same technique has progressively tried to destroy in order to control. In some ways, in repression lies liberation. But overall, society is still suffering from the oppression of capitalist technique due to the repressive desublimation that Marcuse described.
Elliott, A. (2009). Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. (p. 55). New York: Routledge.
Applerouth, S., & Edles, L. D. (2008). Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory: Text and Readings. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.