Friday, February 18, 2011

Desublimation redux

revision to response 3

Marcuse makes the argument that the progress of technological rationality is causing a process of desublimation of high culture. He argues that as culture becomes more socially integrated it loses its purpose.

“The music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship.”(Marcuse 57)

Whitman, in his exhibition into the woods, seems to reject this notion and believe in a democratizing of culture

Marcuse says that the past culture illustrated nature more in its literature. It is possible that the past culture he is referring to is that of Walt Whitman’s era.

“Artistic alienation is the conscious transcendence of the alienated existence—a ‘higher level’ or medicated alienation. The conflict with the world of progress, the negation of the order of business, the anti-bourgeois elements in bourgeois literature and art neither due to the aesthetic lowliness of this order nor to romantic reaction,”(Marcuse 60)

In Song of Myself 10 Whitman describes being amazed in the woods “at my own lightness and glee.” For Marcuse, Whitman’s expedition into the woods was an example of the artistic alienation. Marcuse argues that as a result of technological integration, an expedition like Whitman’s is impossible.

“The absorbent power of society depletes the artistic dimension by assimilating its antagonistic contents.” (Marcuse 61)

In “Song of Myself” Whitman makes a statement about slavery, Marcuse argues that repressive desublimation results in the dilution of the antagonistic statements in literature and the arts.

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and fill'd a tub for his sweated body and bruis'd
feet,” (Whitman 10)

Whitman shows a runaway slave compassion which is, in many ways, a critique of the society at the time. Marcuse argues that the type of socially antagonistic writing Whitman exhibits is impossible in the technologically integrated society.

Marcuse argues that the arts should remain “high class” he believes that as the classics become more integrated into society, their antagonistic nature is deprived.

“…but coming to life of the classics as other than themselves; they are deprived of their antagonistic force, of the estrangement which was the very dimension of their truth.”(Marcuse 64)

Marcuse continues to say that culture shouldn’t be as easily accessible, the paperback, while it brings the classics to the masses, diminishes the power of the literature within its pages.

Marcuse also makes the argument that as the language of the masses has succumbed to operationalism. In this sense Marcuse is making a similar assessment of language as linguist Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent who asserted that the media goes through a filter of sorts to reach the masses.

The major agenda-setting media -- after all, what are they? As institutions in the society, what are they? Well, in the first place they are major corporations, in fact huge corporations. Furthermore, they are integrated with and sometimes owned by even larger corporations, conglomerates -- so, for example, by Westinghouse and G.E. and so on.” (Chomsky)

On the surface, Marcuse’s assessment applies to Whitman’s work. Whitman was uncorrupted from societal influences and was markedly opposed to many societal norms.

Whitman’s entire work is “sublimation” it creates the images of conditions which are “irreconcilable with the established reality principle,” (Marcuse 72). In “song of myself” Whitman creates long elaborate passages describing the world around him, he creates images that are separated from social reality.

It was discussed in class how overtly sexual “song of myself” was. Whitman expresses life through a sexual scope throughout the text and views life as inherently sexual. Marcuse argues that technological progression has de-eroticized the environment. In “song of myself” Whitman describes riding a horse in ostensibly sexual terms:

A gigantic beauty of a stallion, fresh and responsive to my
caresses, Head high in the forehead, wide between the ears,
Limbs glossy and supple, tail dusting the ground,
Eyes full of sparkling wickedness, ears finely cut, flexibly moving.”(Whitman 32)

The technological integration of society, according to Marcuse, has diminished this inherent sexual nature of existence. The operation of a greater deal of sexual freedom has confined sex into “operationalist” terms, in stark contrast to Whitman who sees sexuality as truth.

However, Whitman, in his exhibition into the woods, seems to reject this notion and believe in a democratizing of culture. Whitman doesn’t see his work as “sublimation,” he would have wanted more people to read “song of myself”.

“I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Marcuse 1)

Whitman’s idea of democracy applied to the arts as well. While Marcuse saw the integration of arts in society as an inherently negative quality, Whitman would believe the contrary.

This divergence can be attributed mostly to the differences between Marcuse and Whitman on the subject of freedom. Marcuse believes that society is free when man is free from the. Whitman however sees America in its state as a beacon of democracy, where Marcuse shows critique Whitman writes in adulation of the system that Marcuse describes as operationalist.

Chomsky, Noam. "Excerpts from Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky Interviewed by Various Interviewers." : The Noam Chomsky Website. 1992. Web. 18 Feb. 2011. .

Marcuse, Herbert. "The Conquest of the Unhappy Consciousness: repressive Desublimation." One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. 56-73. Print.

Bloom, Harold. Walt Whitman's Song of Myself. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. Print.


  1. I honestly don't have much to say about this one - in fact, I could pretty much cut and paste in my comment to the first draft. That isn't to say that I hate it - in fact, I think your reading of Whitman and Marcuse, and your elaboration of ways in which Whitman could represent art prior to mass culture, is pretty good. I also think that Chomsky provides a worthwhile addition to your argument, even if that portion is somewhat underdeveloped.

    I am somewhat concerned that you are oversimplifying what Marcuse is doing with "Sublimation" and "Desublimation", and that you're turning "the sublime" into simply an antonym of mass culture. That's what you seem to be doing in this line: "Whitman doesn’t see his work as “sublimation,” he would have wanted more people to read “song of myself”." That bothers me, because Marcuse isn't necessarily opposed to mass audiences, but to mass *culture* (although his explanation is a little fuzzy, to be fair) - and just because Whitman wanted a big readership, doesn't necessarily mean he'd like mass culture either (you don't need to use much Chomsky to unpack the difference).

    All of that is just an aside, though, to my repetition of my real critique from the first draft: what are you doing here? What is this for? "Whitman however sees America in its state as a beacon of democracy, where Marcuse shows critique Whitman writes in adulation of the system that Marcuse describes as operationalist." -- this is a fine way of discussing the two authors in relationship with one another - but why do you want to do it in the first place? What do you want to show or prove? Why do you care, and why should we care? You're doing a good comparison, but I have no idea what *you* think, which is definitely not where I want to be after a revision.

  2. I think that your contrast between the view of Marcuse and Whitman is a strong point. I clearly see the difference between how each of the authors views art and how it should be used. Most of the examples you used worked really well as contextual evidence for your argument but at times I got a little bit overwhelmed with those that involved broad terms like "democracy" (I think there's a lot to say about their views on these topics and it's a bit unfair to just briefly bring them up, especially at the end).

    I would agree with the notion that Marcuse doesn't necessarily feel that readership or viewing of art is in itself a bad thing, I think it's the production of it that he finds flawed.

    Overall I can really sense what you're going for with your argument on the authors and art but at the same time I feel like you have a LOT to say but didn't have the room to do it. I think the best revision here might just be cutting out a some of the examples and elaborating on a choice few that you feel really passionately about.