Book Review: The Sublime Object of Ideology

Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology is arguably his most notorious book in an expansive catalogue. His overarching goal in it is to read Lacan against Hegel, and Hegel against Lacan, in an effort to redeem them both as well as present the valuable contribution that the philosophical basis of Lacanian psychoanalysis can add to contemporary understanding of political struggle (2008: viii). Zizek’s book offers critical insight into post-structuralist theory, as well as practical approaches to conceptualizing both ideology and subjectivation, valuable to an anthropology of design.

For Zizek, ideology is “a crucial paradox” (2008: 15) which is the ‘default’ of human cognizance, a kind of fundamental ontological modus operandi. It is a crucial paradox because language, or rather thought, in so far as it possesses a form of language in the Lacanian sense (2008: xi), is both necessary to interpreting the phenomenological reality and, coincidentally, obscures the logic of that reality (2008: 16). That is to say we necessarily interpret our phenomenological existence in terms of structures of signification which hide reality from us, but by which reality is nonetheless dependent on for its very existence.

This is the fundamental dimension of ideology which Zizek argues is not a false consciousness (a veil of representation over some true reality), but rather “the reality in itself which is already to be conceived as ideological” (2008: 16). In other words, ideology is not a dream-like illusion that we build to escape reality, but rather it is a fantasy construction which serves as a support for our ‘reality’ itself: an ‘illusion’ which structures our effective, social relations by masking some insupportable, real, impossible kernel (2008: 45). These kernels of reality are the things not present in the symbolic structure; they represent a lack in the structure. In a Lacanian sense, whenever we have a symbolic structure, it is structured around a certain void, it implies the foreclosure of a certain signifier (2008: 78). The thing which is foreclosed, returns as a signifier, as a symptom of the Other (2008: 81).

The symptom, for Zizek (and Lacan) is enjoyment (jouissance) and desire. It is a kernel of the real which is incompatible with the truth of its logic as represented in the semiotics of thought, fundamentally misrecognized as a positive presence rather than a negative presence (a simple lack in the symbolic structure). As Zizek puts it: “what is at stake in ideology is its form” (2008: 92); the goal of an ideology is to justify its means, to cover its symptoms, which appear as inconsistencies or paradoxes and remain in it as an element which subverts its own universal foundation (2008: 92). Zizek uses the example of freedom in the context of a capitalist ideology: freedom of press, of consciousness, of commerce, of political action, etc. are all subverted by a specific freedom, that of the worker to freely sell his labour on the market – for which the worker must sacrifice his own freedom from the mechanisms of the market (2008: 17). It is by discovering this kernel which reveals the enjoyment of ideology that it is in some sense “destroyed”. The subversion of ideology is by no means easy despite sounding straightforward, as every subject within it is consistently at a juncture of misrecognition within the symbolic structure.

For Zizek, every ideology presents to its subjects, objects possessing an apparently surplus quality: these are sublime objects. The sublime object is the materialization of the impossible thing, that kernel of the real as a constituent of another ordinary object, which is positioned in a correct perspective (the Zizek’s Hegelian dialectic) reveals itself to be a symptom. In chapter one, Zizek highlights the role of the commodity as the sublime object of capitalism as the “indestructible and immutable body which persists beyond the corruption of the body physical” (2008: 12). This surplus quality, an excess, is something unattainable, impossible, but yet visible in a kind of inversion of the ideological interpellation of the object (2008: 107).

The ideological interpellation of the sublime object makes its surplus quality, its excess, appear as positive attribute in the context of the ideological structure in it which is quilted into place: as Zizek puts it: “The multitude of floating signifiers, of proto-ideological elements, is structured into a unified field through the intervention of a certain ‘nodal point’ (the Lacanian point de caption) which quilts them, stops them from sliding and fixes their meaning” (2008: 95). The sublime object is not the “Real object” in the sense of Kant’s the thing-in-itself, which might guarantee a point of reference for an ideological experience, it is rather the reference of the object’s descriptive characteristics which appear to posit a positive “pure” signifier which gives “unity and identity to our experience of historical reality itself” (2008: 108). It is this point of reference, the excess not intrinsic to the descriptive components of the named thing, but an implicit impossible object which represents “the agency of the signifier within the field of the signified – pure difference” (2008: 109).

The sublime object has tantalizing applications for the anthropology of design, and of the designed world: Zizek forces us to acknowledge the role of objects in acting as not just carriers of free-floating semiotic meaning, but of ideologically powerful negativity. Design anthropology has frequently approached designed objects as constituted by semiotically-charged forms (Murphy 2015; Luvaas 2012; Yalavich & Adams 2014; Dow Schüll 2012; Milestone 2007; Nicewonger 2015), however, an analysis which positions the designed object in the context of ideological perceptions concerning the object’s negative metaphysical aspects is intriguing. In this capacity, it might be pertinent to explore how design can be included as a site of inquiry for both of Zizek’s “procedures of the criticism of ideology” (2008: 140): a discoursive symptomal reading of the objects (i.e. as a constituent of an ideological field), and; as a kernel of enjoyment (i.e. the designed object as a sublime object, a kernel of the real).

In The Sublime Object, every subject is interpellated by the ideological structure. The subject necessarily constructs a fantasy for itself in the misrecognition of his own place within the structure, a product of what Zizek and Lacan call the che vuoi?. This che vuoi? is an introspective question posed by the subject, who sees in the structure a place for himself through the positing of his own action. Fantasy is coincidentally a misrecognition of the lack in the Other (the void, the kernel, the thing hidden by ideology, e.g. the Other wants to recognize me, so that I am constituent within its symbolic network), and the co-ordinates of his own desire which is contained by the very ideological frame enabling him to desire something (2008: 123-126). The fantasy/illusion hides the fact that the real enjoyment does not exist; that desire is always out of reach, and the subject is struggling to address the impossible, the excess, the kernel of the real.

Lacan, again in contrast to other post-structuralists, presents a subject who is not subjectivated, rather their subjectivation simply masks the way in which the subject misrecognizes him/her-self as a lack in the structure (2008:197). Per Zizek: “the subject cannot find a signifier in the structure which would be his own (he is always saying too little or too much, he never finds his desire, etc.)” (2008: 198). The subject misrecognizes himself as an answer of the real (of the object, of the kernel) to the question of the big Other. According to Zizek, the impossible question produces in him a shame or guilt, it divides him, and this hystericization is the constitution of the subject (2008: 204). The process of interpellation-subjectivation is an attempt to evade this “traumatic kernel” through identification; “in assuming unto himself the symbolic mandate, recognizing himself in the interpellation” the subject avoids inducing in him a kind of existential paranoia or hysteria (2008: 205).

What Zizek calls subjectivation, essentially the creation of subjectivities, is an intriguing aspect for the anthropology of design. Discourse, as an inescapable element of semiotics and of representation, constructs both the reader (the Self) and the text (the Other). Recognition and interpellation are key to the production of the self and the other in this context. The designed world, as composed of, and constituent of, systems of signification (and therefore of discourse), has the kind of creative power to produce subjectivity much like written language (Foucault 2005 [1966]); the designed world is composed of both reader (in the form of a user) and text (the object itself). It remains unclear, however, as to whether Zizek’s approach to subjectivity, would produce a radically different perspective: i.e. to an external observer, does it matter (or can it be discerned) whether the subject is conceived as product of discursive forces compared to the scenario in which this conception of the subject is simply a mask for the subject’s own metaphysical misrecognition of his desire?

Fundamentally, in Zizek’s final chapter, he addresses that there is nothing intrinsically sublime about the sublime object, “it is an ordinary object” which by chance, finds itself occupying the place of what Zizek refers to as the impossible-real object of desire; it occupies the place of jouissance and then becomes impossible to attain. Its discernment is a matter of perspective, which is the hybrid dialectic approach Zizek develops in the fusion of Lacan and Hegel (2008: xviii). The sublime object masks the lack in the symbolic structure; it hides literally nothing but the negative space of itself. Yet this ontological action is integral to the formation of the structure itself. For Zizek, the subject must cognize that his misrecognition of the object’s surplus characteristic as positive rather than negative is the act which brings the symbolic structure into being, and coincidentally constitutes himself as a subject (2008: 262). For Zizek, the subject’s freedom lies in knowing that there is no big Other outside of that social-symbolic place which is only an identification of ourselves with an illusion by which we posit a place for our own activities, created by the very means by which we look for it. What this freedom means in a practical sense, however, remains to be discovered.

Works Cited

Dow Schüll, N. 2012. Addiction by Design. New Jersey: Princeton University Press [ebook version]

Foucault, M. 2005. Words and Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York, USA: Routledge. (Original work, Les mots et les choses, published 1966)

Luvaas B. 2012. DIY Style: Fashion, Music, and Global Digital Cultures. London: Bloomsbury [ebook version]

Milestone J. 2007. Design as power: Paul Virilio and the governmentality of design expertise. Cult. Theory Crit. 48(2):175–98

Murphy, K. 2015. Swedish Design: An Ethnography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press [ebook version]

Nicewonger TE. 2015. Boundary objects revisited: a comparative analysis of world making in avant-garde fashion design and animal husbandry. Mind Cult. Act. 22(2):152–67)

Zizek, S. 2008. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso

Yalavich, S. and B. Adams (Eds.). 2014. Design as Future Making. New York: Bloomsbury Academic

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