Repressive Desublimation: The Matrix

Herbert Marcuse looked to the work of Freud in developing his theory of “Repressive Desublimation,” to explain the way in which social manipulation can operate not only by direct policing of laws but also by manipulation of desire. 

In Freudian psychology, 

Sublimation is a defense mechanism by which the individual satisfies a socially prohibited instinctive drive (usually sexual or aggressive) through the substitution of socially acceptable behavior. 

Our desires and aggressions are deflected from their instinctual expression toward some other form of expression or satisfaction that is more appropriate, positive or socially acceptable.

The natural process of sublimation may however be manipulated in a repressive way for means of social control. 

Desublimation,” then, refers to the social manipulation of the individual’s natural and inner-directed process of sublimation, to direct this energy toward goals that may not be truly in the individual’s own interest but more for the benefit and convenience of political or economic forces. Therefore it is effectively repressive of the individual’s free will. 

Marcuse specifically referred to the role of advertising and propaganda in manipulating societal consensus.

When the healthy Ego is in the driving seat, a person operates on the Reality Principle, which is the delay of immediate gratification in recognition of more appropriate actions toward higher needs. 

When the Id is in the driving seat, a person operates on the Pleasure Principle. The Id containing our basic instinctual drives wants immediate gratification. Repressive Desublimation works by putting the Id in the driving seat and reducing Ego defenses. 

This is done in such a way as to loosen Superego control by giving a person immediate gratification in one way, thus easily satisfying the person’s need, whilst at the same time manipulating him into a purchase or desired behavior. 

This is done in a subtle enough manner through enculturation from cradle to grave, and through clever marketing of products and information, such that the person does not question the repressive aspects of the society in which he lives. High prices, high taxes, invasion of privacy, etc are tolerated. 

*Enculturation: The gradual acquisition of the characteristics and norms of a culture by a person or another group.

Roman Emperors would say, if you wish to control the population give them bread and circuses.

Desublimation is so powerful that even a small dose can succeed in capturing us. 

*Once you lick the Lollipop of Mediocrity, you’ll always Suck! –Brian Wilson

We will return repetitively to satisfy ourselves even in small ways. 

When one looks at the Western society of the 60’s, it becomes clear that sexuality was being desublimated in a variety of ways, so long as people were ready to consume the right things. 

Thus, people were actually being repressed anew to the specific advantage of manufacturers. 

Looking at our society, today, little has changed, we have become progressively more narrow (repressed) in our satisfaction of even recreation! 

Being convinced that we can buy it in the form of ever-more-expensive mountain clothing or recreational vehicles. 

Meanwhile, most people who buy mountain clothing and four-wheel-drive vehicles never go to the mountains. 

We have become implicitly convinced (and victimized), believing that recreation is achieved in the purchase and ownership itself. 

This after all is what capitalism requires – a never ending will to consume products.

A common tool used to produce Repressive Desublimation is to present a person with pseudo-choices, for example she has the choice of several colors of nail varnish, but she is made blind to the one real choice, which is to decide not to use nail varnish. 

The theory of advertising maintains, that the consumer is a nonrational, suggestible creature under the hypnotic influence of the advertising copywriter. *Unfortunately, they’re usually right!

The more a person absorbs information that agrees with what they already believe, contrary evidence holds less and less value. 

This is why a person can be persuaded, through years of advertising stimuli, into a hypnotic belief system that is contrary to the real world.

In a society ruled by Repressive Desublimation the Ego is weakened and 

the Superego – ideals and values that accord to parental and social standards – is taken over by the culture. 

*The healthy Superego is ones own conscious internalized center of Morality.

The desublimation of true needs leads to disenchantment and demoralization, when the person realizes that possessions and conformity are not really fulfilling. 

A person’s life becomes directed by others and the higher need for a process of inner-directed self-actualization is neglected, leading to a lack of fulfillment and unhappiness.

One of the long term effects of Repressive Desublimation is to produce various forms of neurosis, because the person in question cannot deal effectively with reality. 

The primary drives are frustrated and outcomes are felt to be beyond a person’s control. 

Prolonged anxiety leads ultimately to depression, as the person becomes more and more frustrated and gives up hoping for positive outcomes.

The current work of George P. Lakoff (1941-), a professor of linguistics, provides further reinforcement of the hypotheses of Bertalanffy and Marcuse. According to Lakoff, 

Hypocognition is our inability to see things that we’re not conditioned to see or to comprehend ideas for which we have no framework. 

We have a lack of ideas or metaphors to adequately describe and explain the world of complex ideas and circumstances, often leading to a state of Rose Tinted Spectacles in the person suffering with Hypocognition.

Politicians and corporations often use terms that we think we understand and which sound good but if asked to define them we would be grasping at straws. 

For example, hypocognition makes it hard for the public to believe there can be anything wrong with “globalism” or “free trade,” which sound like positive concepts and we readily accept policies based on them. 

It is easy for the media to portray those who protest against “free trade” as fringe lunatics.

The three major consequences of Repressive Desublimation:

Repressive Desublimation weakens Ego defenses including the ways we would naturally sublimate our basic desires into productive channels that serve ourselves. 

Instead the Id is desublimated in ways that repress our true desires, so the disposition to Neurosis is increased. 

There is a switch to desublimated Primary Process thinking (characteristic of unconscious mental activity) in place of rational and inner-directed Secondary Process thinking.


Operating on the Pleasure Principle (seeking immediate gratification) shortens the attention span, so less in-depth information is sought and books of a serious nature are ignored, hence Hypocognition. 

Today, most of the public rely on the 30 second sound bite to get their information about the world, so their fund of information is shallow. Most people want things the easy way.


Because a particular socio-economic system offers many avenues of immediate gratification, and as a consequence of Hypocognition, most of the public are trapped within the system. 

By giving them bread, circuses and pornography, and by keeping them ill informed, most of the public ignore, or are unaware of, many other dimensions of society that are have them trapped and completely unaware.

The main function of behaviorism abused in this way is to maintain compliant workers and consumers; certainly not to enlighten them.

Hypocognition is a generalized condition in our culture. We all have Hypocognitive deficits in many areas, but most people have little awareness of these deficits. 

An individual attempting to work creatively will become aware of Hypocognition when he is thinking outside the box of his enculturation, so he needs to acquire an adequate vocabulary to describe the concepts that become apparent and are new to him. 

Creative work offers the opportunity of becoming free from Hypocognition in important areas of life, and the beginning of the ability to function Hypercognitively.

Such opportunities may be termed a “near-life experience.” We all have these at some time in our lives. A near-life experience is a critical decision point — an opportunity to live the life you want. A near-life experience is an opportunity to take that first step on a pathway leading to a more productive, influential and satisfying life.

Unfortunately, too many people don’t seize that opportunity and then something inside them dies. Too many people live lives never experiencing life to its fullest, because of their fear of the unknown, family responsibilities, economic uncertainty, inadequate self-awareness, poor self-confidence and so on.

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