Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

51: Slavoj Žižek part I:
The Undergrowth of Enjoyment, The Obscene Object of Postmodernity, The Spectre of Ideology

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         In his essay “The Undergrowth of Enjoyment,” Slavoj Žižek presents us with a summary of some of Jacques Lacan's concepts, their evolution through his career and their usefulness in explaining some psychological phenomena that is presented in popular culture.
         The Real for Lacan is the trauma in our lives for which we do not have a word. Most of our waking time is spent trying to hide from, avoid contact with, or tame (by symbolizing) any contact with the Real. A psychological symptom is any action that facilitates this hiding, avoiding and symbolizing.
         The Sinthome is the enjoyable fragment of a symptom that resists change (Q1); that maintains a consistency in the subject (Q2), and that inevitably becomes subversive(Q3).
         In his essay “The Obscene Object of Postmodernity,” Žižek asks and answers the question: what is the difference between modernity and postmodernity? But, first a false distinction: others have claimed that modernity uses reason on the world and everything in it but that postmodernity deals with unmasking the secret power agenda of the forces of reason. Žižek claims that this is a false distinction because reason uses reason in its unmasking of itself – thus making, what is falsely called, “postmodernity” actually the last movement of modernity (Q4). The modernist project is utopian: it seeks a better world by unmasking evil everywhere; by seeking to identify and correct injustice; by reducing alienation and the malaises of modernity. However, postmodernism rejects this utopian project as being ideological. Evil is evil relative to an ideological good; injustice for one is justice for an other; and a certain alienation is necessary for freedom (Q5). “The lesson of modernism is that the structure, the intersubjective machine, works as well if the Thing is lacking, if the machine revolves around an emptiness; the postmodernist reversal shows the Thing as the incarnated materialized emptiness.” [The Thing = the incestuous maternal object]. In other words modernism hides the Thing and postmodernism shows the Thing (which is always traumatic)(Q6).
         In his essay “The Spectre of Ideology,” Žižek critiques and expands on the sociology of ideology. Ideology had commonly been divided into three aspects 1) the beliefs and dogmas; 2) the institutions and rituals and 3) the personal and social psychological experience of the adherents. This scientific discourse has traditionally claimed to speak from an objective perspective however Žižek claims that all knowledge is ideological and that there is no such thing as an ideologically free position (Q7). In the history of the world, Žižek believes that the most successful ideologies have been the ones that failed to make these two distinction: the ones who believed they were more certain than others were successful but the most successful were the ideologies that believed they were not ideologies (Q8).
         Competing ideologies provide a psychological and social benefit. Psychologically an ideology contributes to the efforts at destroying the Real by symbolizing it with many ready-made bromides. This allows us to quickly hide, avoid, or tame the trauma of the Real. Ideology attempts to cover the gap between the Real and the Symbolic (Q9). Socially, the Real returns as an antagonism that challenges attempts to unify a society. Social movements (such as class warfare, or the civil rights movement) are ideologies that try to cover some part of the Real that has not been sufficiently symbolized. The social struggle is merely a struggle to find the more powerful symbolization: to find the ideology that better covers the Real of the current generation at that time – there is never a guarantee that the winning ideological “solution” will last (Q10). All struggle is an attempt to hide from, avoid or tame the Real. Does this devalue all struggle?
         Q1 Sinthome: the secret fantasy we do not admit and which we fight for/against but that can destroy us. In a boy meets girl story: the boy has a secret desire which he initially fights for (Romeo & Juliet) or against (The English Patient) and sometimes destroys him sometimes not but it always changes him. When we read a story that turns out to be a dream, the dream is the Sinthome. Both Lacan and Žižek claim that the Sinthome is part of the Real and that we all share (in varying degrees) a limited number of fantasies – the evidence is the repetitive nature of most great literature and themes. Do you believe that the popularity of the diversity of various forms of conflict in various genres can be an indication human Sinthome? If so, why are zombie, vampire and monster movies so popular?
         Q2 Lacan claimed that we do not usually really want to live our fantasies. Žižek seems to say that we do want to live our fantasies but choose not to because we desire the deeper fantasy of consistency more. A constant struggle with ourselves; continually being ambivalent and conflicted is actually easier and more consistent than to live with a consistent single minded determination. Most of us (those 95% of us that are neurotic) actually find a certain happiness (sinthome) in our unhappy, unfulfilled, conflicted selves. The enjoyment of popular culture is an opportunity to live another fantasy. Do you agree or disagree?
         Q3 The fatal flaw in a hero; the inability to adapt or change to fit the situation; the stubborn insistence on keeping one's symptoms in spite of their harmful consequences is the sinthome in full subversive mode. When a character says “death before dishonor;” “give me liberty or give me death,” or “I would rather die” they are taking pleasure in their stubborn insistence on hiding from or avoiding the Real. Assuming life would not really be so bad (from an objective point of view: that is if someone else would be willing to continue living your life), is it ever really better to die than to submit to the trauma of the Real?
         Q4 If we accept Žižek's notion that in the last moment of modernity reason is applied to itself in order to expose its own political agenda then traditional postmodern thinkers like Foucault and Derrida were actually modern thinkers. If you seek to find the true reason behind any action then you are modernist. Do you believe there is an ultimate reason for people's and nation's actions? What if there were none?
         Q5 Do you believe that the modernist project is utopian in nature? If it is, do you think it should be abandoned? Can evil be reduced and justice increased for everyone or do you believe that it is relative depending on who you are?
         Q6 The first Thing for Lacan was your mother whom you loved in a forbidden pleasurably sexual way (everyone's first fantasy) as we get older we learn that we cannot have our mother that way – we thus repress, hide and try to forget our first incestuous maternal feelings. This pattern continues for all the things we feel but are not supposed to feel: such as some fearful, some anxious, all murderous, all covetous and most lustful feelings. Modernist art hides the monster within us; postmodernist art shows us the monster. This monster is the Lacanian Thing: the obscene object of postmodernity. How do you feel about this distinction between modernism and postmodernism?
         Q7 Do you believe that there is anything that is ever always objective? Does 1+2=3? this is based on the ideological belief that physical counting is superior to authority. Yet most Christians feel equally certain that 1=3 (as in the Trinity) due to the authority of the Church. Žižek claims that the science of ideology is an ideology as is all knowledge. Do you agree or disagree? What does this mean for science, religion, your life and our society?
         Q8 Catholicism once believed it had a monopoly on truth (some Catholics still do); is it a coincidence that Catholicism as a percentage of world population started decreasing at the same time that Catholicism lost its position as 'the one true faith' and became 'just one among many religions?' Does Islam's claim that it is 'the last and final revelation of God' bode well in this theory? Shouldn't atheism be doing better since it claims not to be a religion and at the same time claims to be able to look at them objectively?
         Q9 When people believe in an ideology they are happy because it provides comfort from the trauma of the Real. But, according to Kurt Godel's incompleteness theorem all systems (including math) are either incomplete or unverifiable.So all ideologies will miss something or have an internal contradiction (or both). Do your beliefs give you comfort? What if they are all wrong? Žižek seems to be saying that your beliefs are arbitrary and are only there to mask the discomfort of the real. How does this strike you?
         Q10 The winning ideological solution to the problem of the discomfort of the Real is always the best one at that time. This seems to be a determinist position. Did the civil rights movement of the 1960s win because it was the best solution to the collective trauma of the people in the 1960s. Did John Brown's abolitionist movement of the 1860s fail because it did not adequately cover the trauma of the Real at that time?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren