The Sublime Object of Ideology

The Sublime Object of Ideology
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The Idea’s Constipation?

When a discipline is in crisis, attempts are made to change or supplement its theses within the terms of its basic framework – a procedure one might call ‘Ptolemization’ (since when data poured in which clashed with Ptolemy’s earth-centred astronomy, his partisans introduced additional complications to account for the anomalies). But the true ‘Copernican’ revolution takes place when, instead of just adding complications and changing minor premises, the basic framework itself undergoes a transformation. So, when we are dealing with a self-professed ‘scientific revolution’, the question to ask is always: is this truly a Copernican revolution, or merely a Ptolemization of the old paradigm?

Two examples of Ptolemization: there are good reasons to claim that ‘string theory’, which claims to provide the foundations for a unified theory (a single theoretical framework describing the four fundamental interactions between subatomic particles that were previously explained separately by relativity theory or quantum physics), remains an attempt at Ptolemization, and that we are still waiting for a new beginning which will require an even more radical change in the basic presuppositions (something like abandoning time or space as the basic constituent of reality).15 Likewise, in social theory, there are good reasons to claim that all the ‘new paradigm’ proposals about the nature of the contemporary world (that we are entering a post-industrial society, a postmodern society, a risk society, an informational society . . . ) remain so many Ptolemizations of the ‘old paradigm’ of classic sociological models.

The question is then: how do things stand with psychoanalysis? Although Freud presented his discovery as a Copernican revolution, the fundamental premise of the cognitive sciences is that psychoanalysis remains a ‘Ptolemization’ of classical psychology, failing to abandon its most basic premises. (Post-classical economists, incidentally, make the same claim about Marx: his critique of Smith and Ricardo amounts to a Ptolemization.) The Sublime Object of Ideology tries to answer this question by way of rehabilitating psychoanalysis in its philosophical core – as a theory indebted to Hegel’s dialectics and readable only against this background. This cannot but appear, perhaps, as the worst possible move to have made: trying to save psychoanalysis, a discredited theory (and practice), by reference to an even more discredited theory, the worst kind of speculative philosophy rendered irrelevant by the progress of modern science.

However, as Lacan taught us, when we are confronted with an apparently clear choice, sometimes the correct thing to do is choose the worst option. Thus my wager was (and is) that, through their interaction (reading Hegel through Lacan and vice versa), psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics may simultaneously redeem themselves, shedding their old skins and emerging in a new unexpected shape.

Let us take Hegel’s dialectics at its most ‘idealist’ – with the notion of the sublation [Aufhebung] of all immediate-material reality. The fundamental operation of Aufhebung is reduction: the sublated thing survives, but in an ‘abridged’ edition, as it were, torn out of its life-world context, stripped down to its essential features, all the movement and wealth of its life reduced to a fixed mark. It is not that, after the abstraction of Reason has done its mortifying job with its fixed categories or notional determinations, speculative ‘concrete universality’ somehow returns us to the fresh greenness of Life; rather, once we pass from empirical reality to its notional Aufhebung, the immediacy of Life is lost forever. There is nothing more foreign to Hegel than a lamentation for the richness of reality that gets lost when we proceed to its conceptual grasp. Recall Hegel’s unambiguous celebration of the absolute power of Understanding from his Foreword to the Phenomenology: ‘The action of separating the elements is the exercise of the force of Understanding, the most astonishing and greatest of all powers, or rather the absolute power.’ This celebration is in no way qualified; that is, Hegel’s point is not that this power is nonetheless later ‘sublated’ into a subordinate moment of the unifying totality of Reason. The problem with Understanding is, rather, that it does not unleash this power to the end, that it takes it as external to the thing itself – hence the standard notion that it is merely our Understanding (‘mind’) that separates in its imagination what in ‘reality’ belongs together, so that the Understanding’s ‘absolute power’ is merely the power of our imagination, which in no way concerns the reality of the thing so analysed. 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.

Back in the 1960s, one ‘progressive’ theorist of education touched a chord when he published the results of a simple experiment: he asked a group of five-year-olds to draw an image of themselves playing at home; then, he asked the same group to do it again two years later, after they had been through a year and a half of primary school. The difference was striking: the self-portraits of the five-year-olds were exuberant, lively, full of colours, surrealistically playful; two years later, the portraits were much more rigid and subdued, with a large majority of the children spontaneously choosing only the grey of the ordinary pencil, although other colours were at their disposal. Quite predictably, this experiment was taken as proof of the ‘oppressiveness’ of the school apparatus, of how the drill and discipline of school squash children’s spontaneous creativity, and so on and so forth. From a Hegelian standpoint, however, one should, on the contrary, celebrate this shift as an indication of crucial spiritual progress: nothing is lost in this reduction of lively colourfulness to grey discipline; in fact, everything is gained – the power of the spirit is precisely to progress from the ‘green’ immediacy of life to its ‘grey’ conceptual structure, and to reproduce in this reduced medium the essential determinations to which our immediate experience blinds us.


  1. See Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company 2006.
  2. G. W, F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 455.
  3. G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic, London and New York: Humanities Press, 1976, p. 611.
  4. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 17.
  5. G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion III, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987, p. 127.
  6. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, New York: Continuum, 1973, p. 34.
  7. Hegel, Science of Logic, p. 841.
  8. Ibid., p. 843.
  9. G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, Para. 381, p. 14.
  10. Catherine Malabou, The Future of Hegel, London: Routledge, 2005. p. 156.
  11. G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences, Part I: Logic, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1892, Par. 24.
  12. Hegel, The Science of Logic, p. 843
  13. Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, Par. 57.
  14. See Alain Badiou, L’être et l’événement, Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1989.
  15. See Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company 2006.

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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