The Enmeshed Self
April 12, 2011
I’ve often thought that the history of continental philosophy since Kant can be thought of as a fight between the Master and his Germanic successors, with occasional interventions from their European cousins. I’ve been reminded of this view after finally finishing Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, which has taken me quite a while to plough through.
It’s taken so long because I’ve had to read every paragraph twice, once to think to myself, ‘This is nonsense’, and a second time to confirm that it was, indeed, nonsense. Zizek is the intellectual equivalent of those business ‘gurus’ who churn out book after book on the one business idea they’ve ever had; typically, this idea is plausible in its original context but stretches to breaking point when applied elsewhere. This is certainly true of Zizek’s pet theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, which works in a limited number of cases (helpfully, all the ones that Zizek chooses to mention) but when pushed beyond its comfort zone generates the impression of philosophical cogs grinding out of synch in a desperate effort to insert a square peg into a round hole. I’m sure Zizek would have a lot to say about that metaphor, probably involving willies.
The book’s ostensible object is to provide a psychoanalytic theory of how ideologies can be understood and how it comes about that they change. ‘Ideology’ in this sense is a explanation of the world with accompanying prescriptive force that coalesces around a particular word, like ‘communism’. Implicit in this approach is the necessity of a person possessing an ideology that allows them to interpret the world, and that such a thing can only be damaged by a traumatic experience. This is so obviously stupid that I wouldn’t blame you for stopping reading now, but thankfully the main point of this piece has nothing to do with this. It is, however, a salutary lesson on trying to learn anything about the human condition from extremes of trauma, equivalent to trying to learn how a car works after it’s been wrapped around a lamppost.
What is interesting, however, is the way in which this ideological approach to human behaviour cashes out. It consists of the system of signifiers that Zizek would claim constitutes an individual’s relationship to society, signifiers which possess a prescriptive force. The best example is money. Money does not contain, as an essence, the value which it bears – a fiver does not contain five pounds in some essential sense, but we act as though it does, when it reality we know it doesn’t. It is part of our relationship to society; one could follow Hegel by saying that you are your money if you wanted to be pointlessly Hegelian about it (cf. Zizek).
We know that money isn’t in reality value – it’s merely its representative, its bearer. Value is something we determine ourselves. Not so, says Zizek: money is a real social relationship, because we act as though it were value itself. We’re back in obviously stupid territory, but the point I wish to bring out is that under this approach any social judgement or decision you make can be cashed out as referring to something real in which one is enmeshed as a consequence of one’s ideology. It is not enough to simply accept that money does not bear value as a real thing; by acting as though it did we remain bourgeois capitalist pigs or something similarly inflammatory.
You are bound to your ideology, regardless of what you think about it. Zizek’s main philosophical move to try to justify this is to claim that Kant’s transcendental self (the collection of categories that determine how we encounter the world) is necessarily historically situated in the midst of a network of social signifiers like ‘money’, and Kant’s discovery of the transcendental categories should be seen from this perspective. The ‘obviously stupid’ continues, with lashings of ‘obviously circular’.
However, Zizek has lots of fans on the left, and I’d like to highlight what this approach would mean for any particular theory of judgements – in other words, how a Zizekian would describe the process of bringing a particular item under the heading of a broader concept or principle, as we do when we’re making decisions. I’d like to distinguish between moral and pragmatic judgements – the latter carrying a prescriptive force not based upon one’s own determination of the best possible outcome of one’s decision-making.
If a judgement is necessarily social – as it would be for the Zizekian, being bound up in a web of social signifiers and having no place for individual action outwith that web – then it is necessarily moral. Acting in accordance with a particular ‘ideology’ implies accepting all of its moral tenets; a ‘liberal bourgeois’ act like, say, appreciating classical art makes you complicit in the exploitation of the proletariat. In contrast, a right-wing libertarian would distinguish between moral and pragmatic judgements; moral judgements are those which relate to the property of other people, while pragmatic judgements concern one’s own property. Acting pragmatically towards the property of others – say, appropriating their property if you judge your need to be greater than theirs – is forbidden.
On the latter viewpoint, the world is divided into people and things; to the Zizekian, there is no such division – everything has implications for people, and so is necessarily concerned with ‘ideology’. It’s worth noting at this point that to the sections of the left that hold this or a similar view, the cuts made by the Coalition Government are necessarily ideological; indeed, they cannot be otherwise. They are undertaken from a particular pattern of signifiers that determines their moral content. Therefore, this objection to the cuts is both accurate and trivial.
Finally, I’d like to sketch out the distinction between the brand of liberalism I advocate and the two positions outlined above. To me, there is no distinction between moral and pragmatic judgements, because all judgements are necessarily pragmatic. Please do not misunderstand this position – there is an implication of callousness in the word ‘pragmatic’ that fails to encapsulate my meaning. Your goals – whether they be to aid or hinder others – are determined by the relationship between your desires and the process of reflecting upon your judgements that leads to concept formation. The achievement of those goals is where the field of pragmatic judgements lies; one must be pragmatic inasmuch as one is deducing the best method for achieving what one considers to be the good.