I love the way Žižek uses currency as an exemplar for the sublime. Currency has a corporal body subject to decay, like any other corporal body. However, because an external authority deems it to be, currency retains its market value, regardless of its wear and tear. Unlike a car, which loses value as soon as it’s driven off the dealership lot, currency possesses its full market value as long as it remains in circulation. In this manner, due to the intervention of authority, money, as a thing, transcends decay, because regardless of its condition, it always possesses the fullness of its value. Žižek says it this way:

“The indestructible ‘body-within-the-body’ exempted from the effects of wear and tear is always sustained by the guarantee of some symbolic authority.”

Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology

Žižek uses the transcendent nature of the value of currency to illustrate both the sublime (as an object of desire) and the structure of the unconscious. An object becomes sublime when it carries within it superfluent value, exceeding market value or use value, as a result of our perceived relationship to the thing. It becomes sublime when we fantasize some transcendent worth, external to its tangible form. It’s as though the thing is itself a container of some immutable, yet invisible treasure. The container might decay, but the treasure within sees no corruption.

An example of the sublime, as it functions in my psyche, would be social media performance indicators. On the surface, they appear quantifiable, but to me, they carry within a fantasized possibility of transcendence. Once I reach a certain milestone, I will magically feel empowered and confident. However, the sublime quality within any thing is actually a moving goalpost because we can never actually touch or reach the sublime. It’s always just ahead. Thus, what makes a thing sublime is the power (we fantasize) embodied by the thing, in addition to its guarantee by some arbitrary authority (real or imagined).

In the same manner, Žižek relates the unconscious to the sublime. The unconscious, too, functions like a container for thought–as though thought’s phantom resides there until it is brought to awareness. Žižek defines the unconscious as “the form of thought whose ontological status is not that of thought, that is to say, the form of thought external to the thought itself.”

As you can see, the unconscious bears within it the full value of thought, but we can never fully access its import, as it remains external to our awareness. In the same manner, the sublime bears infinite value, yet such value is always inaccessible to the desiring subject because it remains, always, external to the object itself.

I find this all enlightening, to be fair, because it enables me to fathom the role desire plays in my subjectivity. Because fantasy and desire imbue lacking things (objects, goals, dreams) with imaginary value, I strive compulsively after moving targets. I become a hamster on a wheel, going nowhere fast. This recognition, however, holds the power of liberation, if only in part. When I realize I’ve boarded the wheel, I am better able to disembark and access something like inner peace, knowing that the drive to access the sublime is futile. This doesn’t mean I will stop; it simply affords me a little more space to manage my desire and compulsions. It affords a little respite, and it affords moments of peace in between all the striving.

Source: “Chapter 1: How Did Marx Invent the Symptom?” The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek

About Author

Standing ground for desire through self-study of philosophy and psychoanalysis, self-reflection, and creative sublimation through the work of literary fiction.

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