I am trying to wrap my mind around the abstraction that is the content of Slavoj Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology. It’s a seriously challenging read, yet I am getting so much out of it! I am putting all of my poetry explicating skills to use, as I perform a close reading of the text to extrapolate some semblance of internal understanding.
I am going to attempt to summarize what I have gleaned from the first chapter, called “How did Marx Invent the Symptom?” I am probably only a third of the way through the chapter, but I need to stop for the sake of processing what I have read, thus far.
Leading into the dissection of this “symptom” embedded within ideology, Zizek presents an analogy between Freud’s position on the value of dreams and Marx’s position on the value of commodities. For Freud, the significance of a dream did not rest in the “latent thought,” or the content of the dream, but in an unconscious, repressed desire, which affixes itself to the latent thought, in order to express itself through the form of a dream. For example, let’s say you have a dream about returning to a job you held years ago. You sometimes–in a conscious, waking state–reflect on the simplicity of that job, and this reflection is shrouded in nostalgia. The dream is a vehicle carrying the content of these thoughts, ideas, reflections you sometimes experience in a conscious state. The significance of the dream, however, has little to do with a desire to return to that particular job. On the contrary, Freud, and therefore Zizek, argues that a repressed desire has inserted itself into the content of the dream, as though the thought of the old job is transporting this unknown desire, in order for that desire to express itself. Don’t ask me what that desire is or how to determine its meaning. Zizek doesn’t seem to care at all about that, as he argues that the work that occurs through the process of dreaming is far more significant. Could it be for the reason that a repressed desire actually has an outlet through the mechanism of the dream?
From there, Zizek examines the form of commodity. The content of a commodity is its value as expressed through labor, time, intellect, and physicality. Yet the value of the commodity is itself an abstraction, based on principles existing within the system of exchange. He uses the example of money. Coins, dollars, checks–these things are physical, tangible things which can be corrupted by time and use. Nevertheless, in an economy of exchange, we (society) treat these things as though they have magical qualities that cannot be damaged or destroyed. Thus, the value of a commodity rests in the vehicle of the exchange. Two parties unknowingly ascribe arbitrary value to an object or service which only exists by way of the process of the exchange. Zizek says that were the parties to acknowledge the tangible, corruptible nature of money, the exchange would lose all value–the commodity would lose its value.
Finally, Zizek relates this conceptualization of money to the symptom in ideology.
“‘Ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence.”Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology
The value of money rests in the process of the exchange. The power of an ideology rests in the blind adherence to its tenants. Likewise, a symptom, akin to the unconscious desire embedded in the form of a dream, is an unconscious construct embedded in the form of ideology. So, culturally, we disavow our symptoms, and in so doing, ideology prevails. Is ideology inherently bad? What are our symptoms communicating to us about the arbitrary nature of the ideologies into which we are born? I say, bring the shizz! I want to see the symptoms. I want to break down ideology and in so doing dissolve its power! This, to me, is what I have undergone via religious deconstruction. I am ready to do it in other areas of my psyche as well. Who’s coming with?!
Note: I am participating in a group study of The Sublime Object of Ideology under the guidance of philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins. Click the link for more information.