Slavoj Žižek and the Sublime Object

Slavoj Žižek is a uniquely entertaining and engaging philosopher with an animated oratorical style. But this can often make it difficult to follow his train of thought and pick out key ideas from it. This episode gives an overview of his most important book, The Sublime Object of Ideology, which presents many of the ideas persisting in all his work. In particular, this overview focuses on Žižek’s theory of the Sublime. Žižek’s ideas bring him into close contact with the German philosophers Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel.

If we were to put philosophers on a scale from dry, boring presentation styles on one end to engaging, entertaining presentation styles on the other, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek would be off the chart with his exuberant and oratorical approach. Half of his philosophy seems to consist of jokes. He has a charming (or maybe frustrating) tendency to evade direct argument and debate, opting instead for a kind of friendly banter that opens up a space for people to make up their own minds. For all that, it can be difficult to follow his train of thought or identify some kind of thesis from it all. That difficulty would certainly not be unique among philosophers, especially those philosophers with whom Žižek tends to engage. For example, most of Žižek’s philosophy is a kind of interpretation of G.W.F. Hegel through the ideas of Jacque Lacan. Hegel and Lacan may be two of the most difficult philosophers in the entire tradition of European Continental philosophy. So it’s not surprising that Žižek would be somewhat difficult to follow as well. Be that as it may, Žižek does have some core ideas that recur in his books and talks. Many of these core ideas are present in what has been called his magnum opus, his 1989 book, The Sublime Object of Ideology.

I haven’t found much out there by way of detailed summaries for this book, so after I read it I thought I’d make one myself. I won’t give a summary of all the ideas in the book. There are a lot of them. Instead I’d like to focus on the subject I found most interesting. And that is Žižek’s theory of the Sublime. Žižek is perhaps best known for his purported and self-attributed communism. A provocative claim, to be sure. And that provocation might even be its most significant aspect. Žižek’s communism and leftist politics are interesting features of his thought but for the purposes of this summary I’m not going to focus as much on the political aspects of the book, in spite of the word “ideology” being right there in the title. Instead I want to focus on the concept of the Sublime and look at how Žižek fits into the history of the philosophical treatment of the Sublime.

I’ll introduce his basic position here first and then fill in the details and background information to explain it. Žižek says that there are certain objects that we elevate and believe have or act as if they had greater qualities behind their surface level. But, there is actually nothing greater behind this surface level. Nevertheless, for Žižek there is a real experience of sublimity. It is not of some greater thing, in or behind the object. Rather we experience the Sublime in the very process of discovering that there is nothing, no greater thing behind the object. This realization is Žižek’s sublime object, the realization that there is nothing being concealed.

This will all require some explanation and background. First let’s look at the concept of the Sublime and its philosophical history.

Žižek’s theory of the Sublime is in dialogue with the aesthetic theory of Immanuel Kant. In Kant’s thought aesthetic responses include the Beautiful and the Sublime. The Beautiful is well-ordered and harmonious. The Sublime is awesome and even frightening. The Sublime is found in those things that transcend our ability to grasp them; powers of nature like thunder and lightning. Žižek’s underlying theory of the Sublime is quite different from Kant’s but it also has a quality of not being directly approachable. He says in The Sublime Object of Ideology, that “The sublime object is an object which cannot be approached too closely”. But for Žižek the reason for this is very different from Kant’s. For Žižek, “if we get too near it, it loses its sublime features and becomes an ordinary vulgar object”. Kant’s sublime object would not be something that loses its sublimity. But for Žižek the object of the Sublime is not anything special in itself. And this is an important difference. For Žižek it’s not the object itself that is special. The object is elevated to a special position through a formal fiction. And the sublimity is found in the very process of recognizing that there is nothing greater behind the ordinary, vulgar object.

What are some examples of this kind of formal fiction? Žižek finds theoretical similarities of this process in the work of Marx and Freud. Both Marx and Freud theorize that certain formal processes endow ordinary objects with fictionally extraordinary qualities. This is also called a fetishization. For Marx this happens with the commodity and for Freud this happens with dreams. In both cases people act as if the commodity or the dream have some greater significance. They don’t. But the process of acting as if they did still has real effects in the social structures of which they are a part. Fiat currency is a pretty clear case of this. Money only has value because people act as if it did. And so, in a way, it does. Žižek says:

“There is a fundamental homology between the interpretative procedure of Marx and Freud – more precisely, between their analysis of commodity and of dreams. In both cases the point is to avoid the properly fetishistic fascination of the ‘content’ supposedly hidden behind the form: the ‘secret’ to be unveiled through analysis is not the content hidden by the form (the form of commodities, the form of dreams) but, on the contrary, the ‘secret’ of this form itself.”

Žižek says the key is not the content, like what a dream means for instance. The key is that there is a formal process of apparent concealment in the first place. We come to understand this process not by figuring out what is being concealed but by realizing that the only thing being concealed is that nothing is concealed. There’s a pattern that will recur here, the kind of pattern to which Žižek will apply this sort of deflation. There’s an object and a presumed concealed object behind it. For all such patterns Žižek will locate the Sublime in the process of dispelling the notion of concealment to reveal that there is nothing being concealed. 

Another example where Žižek applies this pattern is to Kant’s philosophy of phenomena and noumena. That is (1) things as we conceive of them and (2) what we posit to be the inaccessible things in themselves. In Kant’s philosophy we understand the world around us using mental structures called categories that organize the raw perceptions of our senses. We take raw sense data and impose our categories onto them like unity, plurality, causality, dependence, necessity, contingency, etc. We use these categories to order our sense perceptions and make them intelligible. But what’s crucial for Kant is that the product of any such mental construction is just that: a construction. It is not the thing in itself. This is the Kantian distinction between noumena and phenomena. A noumenon is the “thing in itself” as it is, independent of our conception of it. A phenomenon is the thing as it is to us after it has passed through our mental processing. For Kant the phenomenon is not the same thing as the noumenon. In fact, the noumenon, the thing in itself, is forever inaccessible to us.

Žižek compares this to there being something hidden behind a curtain. Sort of like in the Wizard of Oz. The phenomenon is what we see, but we imagine that there’s something deeper. Something behind the curtain. Žižek calls this “the Kantian gap dividing forever the Thing from the world of phenomena”. And naturally, Žižek is going to challenge this idea. For Žižek the Sublime arises in the realization that there is nothing behind the curtain: “The illusion that there is something hidden behind the curtain is thus a reflexive one: what is hidden behind the appearance is the possibility of this very illusion – behind the curtain is the fact that the subject thinks something must be behind it.” What the Kantian gap conceals is “a foreboding that perhaps this Thing is itself nothing but a lack”. For Žižek this introduces a paradox. For Kant the noumenon is forever inaccessible. But for Žižek (and for Hegel) it’s this very failure that enables us to access – not the thing in itself, since that’s a fiction – but the Sublime: “The paradox of the Sublime is as follows: in principle, the gap separating phenomenal, empirical objects of experience from the Thing-in-itself is insurmountable – that is, no empirical object, no representation (Vorstellung) of it can adequately present (darstellen) the Thing (the suprasensible Idea); but the Sublime is an object in which we can experience this very impossibility, this permanent failure of the representation to reach after the Thing.”

Žižek traces this insight back to Hegel and sees it as a Hegelian corrective to Kant. A few illustrative quotes on this point:

“Hegel’s reproach to Kant… is… that it is Kant himself who still remains a prisoner of the field of representation… Kant still presupposes that the Thing-in-itself exists as something positively given beyond the field of representation, of phenomenality… Hegel’s position is, in contrast, that there is nothing beyond phenomenality, beyond the field of representation.”

One of the most important ideas in the interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy is of the dialectic. A dialectic is, in its most basic form, a dialogue, a conversation in which ideas are exchanged. Often the ideas being exchanged are in tension and the hope is that in this interchange of competing ideas there can be some kind of productive insight, that this dialectic will be philosophically generative. This was an idea going around among German philosophers at the time. We also see this in Johann Fichte. The pattern is sometimes expressed as a triad of a thesis, a competing antithesis, and a resulting synthesis. We also find a materialist, economic version of this in Marx.

Žižek has a somewhat different and interesting perspective on the Hegelian dialectic, one that he understands to be more true to Hegel’s own. For Žižek the result of the dialectic is fundamentally a change in perspective that reveals the Nothingness, that dispels the illusion of concealment. It’s the pattern we’ve been seeing where there’s an object, a supposed concealed object, and then a revelation that there’s nothing being concealed. Žižek also sees this in the Hegelian dialectic.

“The only philosophical counterpart here is Hegelian dialectics: at the very beginning of his Logic, Being and Nothingness are not complementary, neither is Hegel’s point that each of them obtains its identity through its difference from the other. The point is that Being in itself, when we try to grasp it “as it is’, in its pure abstraction and indeterminacy, without further specification, reveals itself to be Nothingness.”

I’ve gone far too long talking about Žižek without sharing any of his jokes so I’ll share one here that he uses to highlight this idea:

“Here we have a kind of dialogic economy: we articulate a proposition denying the subject, our attempt fails, we experience the absolute contradiction, the extreme negative relationship between the subject and the predicate – and this absolute discordance is the subject as absolute negativity. It is like a well-known Soviet joke about Rabinovitch, a Jew who wants to emigrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why; Rabinovitch answers: ‘There are two reasons why. The first is that I’m afraid that in the Soviet Union the Communists will lose power, there will be a counter-revolution and the new power will put all the blame for the Communist crimes on us, Jews – there will again be anti­-Jewish pogroms… ‘But’, interrupts the bureaucrat, ‘this is pure nonsense, nothing can change in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists will last forever!’ ‘Well,’ responds Rabinovitch calmly, ‘that’s my second reason’. The logic is the same here as in the Hegelian proposition ‘the spirit is a bone’: the very failure of the first reading gives us the true meaning… The Rabinovitch joke also exemplifies the logic of the ill-famed Hegelian triad: if the first reason for emigrating is the ‘thesis’ and the bureaucrat’s objection the ‘anti-thesis’, then the ‘synthesis’ is not any kind of return to the thesis, some kind of healing of the wound made by the anti-thesis – the ‘synthesis’ is exactly the same as the ‘anti-thesis’, the only difference lies in a certain change of perspective.”

So is the problem that the Communists will lose power or that they won’t? That, for Rabinovitch, is precisely the problem. It doesn’t matter. It’s bad either way. This is a humorous, sort of parabolic illustration of the kind of dialectic where Žižek sees discord as fundamental; “absolute discordance” as he calls it. Early in the book Žižek proposes that Hegelian dialectics don’t magically resolve antagonisms. Instead, Žižek asks: “What if, for Hegel, the point, precisely, is to not ‘resolve’ antagonisms ‘in reality’, but simply to enact a parallax shift by means of which antagonisms are recognized ‘as such’ and thereby perceived in their ‘positive’ role?”

This kind of recognition of the fundamentality of discordance is instrumental in Hegel’s system for how the mind progresses to higher levels of knowledge. Arriving at such discordance is not a failure but a successful insight into the nature of things. “We pass from Understanding to Reason not when this analysis, or tearing apart, is overcome in a synthesis that brings us back to the wealth of reality, but when this power of ‘tearing apart’ is displaced from being ‘merely in our mind’ into things themselves, as their inherent power of negativity.” This “tearing apart” is intrinsic to the nature of things. Later in the book Žižek says in a gesture of “decisive emphasis” that “it is not only that the appearance, the fissure between appearance and essence, is a fissure internal to the essence itself; the crucial point is that, inversely, ‘essence’ itself is nothing but the self rupture, the self fissure of the appearance.” Contradiction is “an internal condition of every identity.”

What’s crucial is that in this realization of negativity, negativity itself takes on a positive role. When an illusion is dispelled and we realize that there’s nothing behind it this is a negativity. But it’s not just a negativity. There’s a positive aspect to it in the realization of the negativity, in seeing the negativity as such, where before it was unrealized and unnoticed. 

“So ‘we’ (who have already ‘gone through the fantasy’) can see that there is nothing where the

consciousness thought that it saw something, but our knowledge is already mediated by this ‘illusion’ in so far as it aims at the empty space which makes the illusion possible. In other words, if we subtract from the illusion the illusion itself (its positive content) what remains is not simply nothing but a determinate nothing, the void in the structure which opened the space for the ‘illusion’. To ‘unmask the illusion’ does not mean that ‘there is nothing to see behind it’: what we must be able to see is precisely this nothing as such – beyond the phenomena, there is nothing but this nothing itself, ‘nothing’ which is the subject.”

This idea of a “determinate nothing” is interesting. It reminds me of another joke that Žižek often tells, not in this book but elsewhere. “‘Waiter! A cup of coffee without cream, please!’ ‘I’m sorry, sir, we have no cream, only milk, so can it be a coffee without milk?’” There’s a difference to us between just simply nothing and a determinate nothing. The determinate nothing is the nothing where before, because of the illusion, there was thought to be something.

Žižek believes that this kind of stripping away toward Nothingness is instrumental for Hegel. Hegel’s most famous and arguably most important book was his Phenomenology of Mind. The Phenomenology is a challenging and intimidating book, but I might summarize it as a philosophy of the way that the mind comes to understand things. This is basically the project Hegel outlines in his Preface to the book. Process is fundamental for all of this. Hegel outlines how the mind progresses along successive stages toward fuller understanding.

Žižek challenges one interpretation of Hegel in which he is understood to say that the process of progressive understanding is one of continual accretion, constantly taking on more and more information. “Is not the Hegelian Idea effectively a voracious devourer which ‘swallows up’ every object it comes upon?” Žižek says No! That this is not a correct understanding of Hegel. “The standard reading constructs the Hegelian absolute Substance-Subject as thoroughly constipated [classic Žižek right there] – retaining within itself the swallowed content.” Continuing with the digestive metaphor Žižek says the Hegelian system is a much more healthy process of the usual consumption and excretion, integrating and using conceptual nutrients for sustenance and development, then discarding what’s left over. He calls this process one of “notional deployment”. The idea is not just to accumulate and retain everything, but rather to process and use. “The Idea, in its resolve/decision, ‘freely releases itself’ into Nature, lets Nature go, leaves it off, discards it, pushes it away from itself, and thus liberates it.”

Thus for Žižek abstraction, which is a crucial process of understanding, is also a process of subtraction. “For Hegel the true problem is… the fact that, when we observe a thing, we see too much in it, we fall under the spell of the wealth of empirical detail which prevents us from clearly perceiving the notional determination which forms the core of the thing.” We might think of the difference between someone enjoying nature while out on a hike and a biologist seeking to identify some property of a particular species in that setting. The hiker wants to experience the totality without reduction. But the biologist can’t do that. The biologist needs to isolate, dissect, and analyze.

What is the endpoint of the process of abstraction and subtraction? Žižek says: “If we make an abstraction, if we subtract all the richness of the different modes of subjectivation, all the fullness of experience present in the way the individuals are ‘living’ their subject-positions, what remains is an empty place which was filled out with this richness; this original void, this lack of symbolic structure, is the subject, the subject of the signifier. The subject is therefore to be strictly opposed to the effect of subjectivation: what the subjectivation masks is not a pre- or trans-subjective process of writing but a lack in the structure, a lack which is the subject.”

So here again we see Nothingness behind objects. The idea being that this would be the eventual result of repeated abstraction. But this idea that the end point of the process of abstraction is a void is not nihilistic. At least I don’t understand it to be nihilistic. We’re often interested in more general principles than in the particulars to which they refer. Scientists use data sets to find general patterns. The patterns, as in the form of equations, strip away many of the particulars and abstract from them. If there is some Theory of Everything it will certainly be highly abstract and several levels removed from almost all the particulars that populate our immediate reality. This is just a consequence of the kind of process that abstraction is.

That being said however, non-abstracted, un-subtracted particulars are also useful. What are we to do with the Sublime object in those settings where we have grasped the negativity behind the illusion? Interestingly enough, Žižek says we ought to “come to terms with it”.

“The point is not just that we must unmask the structural mechanism which is producing the effect of subject as ideological misrecognition, but that we must at the same time fully acknowledge this misrecognition as unavoidable – that is, we must accept a certain delusion as a condition of our historical activity, of assuming a role as agent of the historical process… There is no solution, no escape from it; the thing to do is not to ‘overcome’, to ‘abolish’ it, but to come to terms with it, to learn to recognize it in its terrifying dimension and then, on the basis of this fundamental recognition, to try to articulate a modus vivendi with it.”

Why is that? Why find some way to come to terms with the fundamental discordance? The reason is that the alternative is unacceptable. And here we see some of political implications of Žižek’s ideas:

“All ‘culture’ is in a way a reaction-formation, an attempt to limit, canalize – to cultivate this imbalance, this traumatic kernel, this radical antagonism through which man cuts his umbilical cord with nature, with animal homeostasis. It is not only that the aim is no longer to abolish this drive antagonism, but the aspiration to abolish it is precisely the source of totalitarian temptation: the greatest mass murders and holocausts have always been perpetrated in the name of man as harmonious being, of a New Man without antagonistic tension…”

“We have the same logic with democracy: it is – to use the worn-out phrase attributed to Churchill – the worst of all possible systems; the only problem is that there is no other which would be better. That is to say, democracy always entails the possibility of corruption, of the rule of dull mediocrity, the only problem is that every attempt to elude this inherent risk and to restore ‘real’ democracy necessarily brings about its opposite – it ends in the abolition of democracy itself.”

There’s a bit of similarity here to Richard Rorty’s liberal ironism. One of Žižek’s favorite phrases is: “They know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.” Whether it’s in the canalizing aspects of culture or in a reverence for democracy we persist in acting out our cultural and democratic roles as if the ideologies underlying them were not discordant and illusory. Far worse would be to try to iron out the wrinkles, as totalitarian regimes strive to do.

I’ll wrap all this up with two parting thoughts. Or rather, two parting questions. First is: How accurate is Žižek’s interpretation of Hegel? I guess that presumes that there are accurate and inaccurate interpretations of Hegel, something that the logical positivists might have taken issue with. But whatever. Hegel is one of those philosophers who has so many commentators he almost lives entirely through them. The Hegel of Alexandre Kojève, for example, being one very significant incarnation of Hegel. The second question is what to make of Žižek’s ideas as such. In particular the idea we experience the Sublime in the very process of discovering that there is nothing, no greater thing behind the object; the realization that there is nothing being concealed. In how many domains does this idea apply? Are all apparent concealments false concealments? Are there any true “things in themselves” that exist in reality, even if beyond our reach? I’m inclined to think that there are.

So, if for whatever reason you found yourself interested in Žižek and wondering what some of his ideas were about I hope this was useful to you and not too far off base. Thanks for listening.

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