The Sublime Object of Ideology - On Social Theory and with Žižek

Psy-Complex in Question: Critical Review In Psychology, Psychoanalysis And Social Theory - Ian Parker 2018

The Sublime Object of Ideology
On Social Theory and with Žižek

Žižek, S. (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.

Slavoj Žižek’s first book in English is still one of his best, and it rehearses many of the arguments that his recent work revolves around. There have been some dramatic shifts of focus over the last twenty years, most of which are a result of changes in the political and intellectual climate since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but here is a fantastic intervention from one of the leaders of the ’Slovenian school’ that combines innovative readings of Marx, Lacan and Hegel and that stands the test of time. It would seem from the title as if there is one sublime object, the sublime object of ideology, but we discover from the book that there are least five facets of ideology today, and there are lessons from the analysis for how we should understand our attempts to conduct ideology-critique in psychology.

First, there is a refusal of our sense that there is a substantial individual subject under the surface that can be recognised and released from bondage. Instead, Žižek’s return to Hegel retrieves the negative moment in dialectics, of transformations in subjectivity that are never closed over in a finished totalising ’synthesis’. That negative moment is to be discovered and catalysed in times where there is an ’act’ which disturbs taken-for-granted symbolic coordinates of life under capitalism. This critique of the ideological appeal to each individual’s nascent self runs counter to simple humanist psychology, and it shows how that humanist psychology itself offers a consolation for our suffering which locks us all the more tightly into what we are trying to escape.

Second, there is a refusal of the lure of freedom to enjoy that pits itself against social mechanisms that seem to constrain us. Instead, Žižek’s mobilisation of Lacan’s grim account of the superego uncovers the way it works not merely as an agency which forbids but also as that which operates as the obscene underside of the law, as that which incites us to pleasure, to please ourselves. This critique of the ideological motif of the welling up of libidinal energies from the nasty repression that locks them in place shows us that some forms of radical psychoanalytic liberation are as much a problem as the solution.

Third, there is a refusal of the idea that we would be happy if we embedded ourselves once again in an authentic substantial community. Instead Žižek’s attention to the way we are pulled into action by a cause of desire that is always already a lost object that never actually existed, that we never actually possessed, provides an account of the fantasy that others have stolen our enjoyment, that they have this object. This critique of any authentic or balanced psychological need shows us how the retroactively constituted sense of community is organised by our attachment to an object that we will only be free of when we let it go.

Fourth, there is a refusal of the lure of underlying meaning or value hidden under the surface, and Žižek explores the homology between Freud’s interpretation of dreams and Marx’s analysis of commodities to show that what each prioritises is the concealment of something or the mystification of relations. This critique of contents that are there waiting to be unearthed sets itself against all forms of depth psychology and against the fiction that the correct interpretation will be the one that unlocks the true meaning.

Fifth, there is also refusal of the recent turn from a search for things underneath language to free play of narrative, of language games that trace the ideological horizons of surface reality, the limited reality of life under capitalism. Žižek’s critique here is of deconstructive and postmodern academic and therapeutic trivial pursuits bewitched by the social construction of narrative. He is concerned with the way ideology is meshed into the real nature of a particular political-economic system and the way the truth about capitalism must entail a historic break with it.

These five facets of ideology are interwoven, as are the theoretical elements from Marxist politics, Lacanian psychoanalysis and Hegelian philosophy, and each facet needs to be mapped in relation to the others. This makes the book difficult at times, even though it is leavened with jokes about life under old bureaucratic ’socialism’ and consumer culture and is often also very enjoyable. So, here in this ground-breaking study we have an amazing critique at one and the same time of the illusion that there is, under the surface or even in the play of narrative on the surface, a meaningful self yearning to enjoy freedom in community with others; and one point that emerges from Žižek’s repetitive circling around these themes is that one of the most potent sublime objects of ideology now is psychology itself.