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Slavoj Žižek's 'The Sublime Object of Ideology': Decoding the Relationship Between Ideology and the Real
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Slavoj Žižek is one of the most influential philosophers of our time, at least on my perspective. However, his philosophy can be quite complex, this is due to his psychoanalytic approach to philosophy; mixing Lacan’s psychoanalytic concepts, Hegel’s dialectics and Marxism, to delve deep into our social and political systems.
In order to understand this book, we might need to understand the previously mentioned authors, but don’t be intimidated! I wasn’t familiarized with Lacan the first time I read it, for example; and until now, I am not an expert at all.
The basic idea of ideology is that it is a language that is used to be able to function as social beings. Ideology is basically symbols, that make us up, and make our lives functional; it is a mode of communication; if not, we would be on a “white canvas,” unable to respond and interact with one another. The “white canvas” is the Real for Žižek; the part of reality that is not symbolized, and that forms part of Lacan’s concepts, the Real, the imaginary and the symbolic.
Ideology is something we cannot escape from, because trying to, just creates more ideologies. The thing with ideologies, and the reason Žižek tries to point us out to them, is that they are falsehood; they are stories that we tell ourselves, stories that live on our subconscious, and that sometimes, even if we are aware of them, we still pretend they are real; and that the objects in those stories are important.
“We know very well what we are doing, but still, we are doing it” - Slavoj Zizek
A sublime object of ideology then is an object that needs to be there in order for the ideology to function, just as commodities need to exist in order for capitalism to continue existing, a lot of other bigger things can be considered sublime objects of ideology, even a monetary system, because it sets the framework of a system, and the parameters in which everyone directs themselves within that system. All these sublime objects make a system work, solve problems and create problems as well.
The mix of psychoanalysis in Žižek’s work can be seen when he begins to ask these questions:
Instead of trying to understand the sublime objects of ideology in their context, just as we try to understand commodities in an economy, we should ask why we do have those commodities? Why did we create all those objects and systems? What do they signify? How are these symbols shaping our reality? How was it that labor came to take the form of a commodity in the first place?
On psychoanalysis whenever we get a traumatic episode, we get into contact with the Real. Symptoms on traumatic events show us the space to understand the Real, or the repressed, and the symbolic order, or “reality.” Žižek claims that the same happens in ideology and in our systems. The Real appears via symptoms in “reality.” The Real manifests itself on a contradiction, and this is when Hegel comes into play with his dialectics.
Žižek likes to remind us that it would be an error to say that we live now on a post-ideological world, and in fact with our current neoliberalism, we aren’t aware of our freedom limitations. It is like saying “You are free to do and choose what you want, but within my choices and conditions,” hence you are “free” to sell yourself in the market; in that sense you aren’t really doing what you want, and you aren’t free, you are just making a choice. Ideologies make exceptions, create problems and then when they try to solve their problems, they mystify them. An example would be populism complaining of immigration, when immigration is in reality a product of capitalism, and even populism is a product of the same system. With this again, we can see Hegel’s dialectical process, contradictions emerge in the shape of symptoms and the Real then unfolds itself with them.
“We not only live in a world of symptoms interpreted by a prevailing ideology, but also in an ideological fantasy. We internalize ideology through the following stages: we accept certain ideological ideas which are reinforced by Ideological State Apparatuses (government, policy, etc.) and then we act out the ideology.” - Slavoj Žižek
I am a big fan of Hegel, and consider my Hegel’s journey as one of the most difficult intellectual challenges I had to do in my life, and up to now, I am still discovering and understanding new things about his philosophy every time I get back to it; this is the reason I was driven to Žižek and in specific to this book, which I wish could be read and understood by everyone. It is a book that opens your eyes to what our “reality” is; once you understand it, it just feels as if you have left the Matrix.
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