I want to begin with Coca-cola. It’s no surprise that Coca-cola was first introduced as a medicine. Its strange taste seems to provide no particular satisfaction. It is not directly pleasing, however, it is as such, as transcending any use-value, like water, beer or wine, which definitely do quench our thirst, that Coke functions as the direct embodiment of “IT”, the pure surplus of enjoyment over standard satisfactions. It is the mysterious and elusive X we are all after in our compulsive consumption. The unexpected result of this is not that, since Coke doesn’t satisfy any concrete need we drink it only as supplement, after some other drink has satisfied our substantial need — it is rather this very superfluous character that makes our thirst for Coke all the more insatiable. Coke has the paradoxical quality that the more you drink it, the more you get thirsty. So, when the slogan for Coke was “Coke is it!”, we should see in it some ambiguity — it’s “it” precisely insofar as it’s never IT, precisely insofar as every consumption opens up the desire for more.

The paradox is thus that Coke is not an ordinary commodity, but a commodity whose very peculiar use-value itself is already a direct embodiment of the auratic [?], ineffable surplus. This process is brought to its conclusion in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke. We drink a drink for two reasons: for its nutritional value and for its taste. In the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, its nutritional value is suspended and the caffeine as the key ingredient of its taste is also taken away. All that remains is pure semblance, an artificial promise of a substance which never materialized. Is it not that in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke that we almost literally drink nothing in the guise of something?

What I am referring to, of course, is Nietzsche’s opposition between “wanting nothing”, in the sense of “I do not want anything”, and the nihilistic stance of actively wanting the Nothingness itself. Following Nietzsche, Lacan emphasized how, in anorexia, the subject doesn’t simply not eat anything, he rather actively wants to eat the Nothingness itself. The same goes for the famous patient who felt guilty of stealing, although he didn’t effectively steal anything — what he did steal was, again, Nothingness itself. Along the same lines, in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, we drink Nothingness itself, the pure semblance of a property.

Marxist surplus-value, Lacan’s objet petit a, and the paradox of the superego

This example makes palpable the link between three notions: that of Marxist surplus-value, that of Lacan’s objet petit a as surplus enjoyment, a concept which Lacan elaborated with direct reference to Marxist surplus value, and the paradox of the superego, long ago perceived by Freud. The more profit you have, the more you want, the more you drink Coke, the more you are thirsty, the more you obey the superego command, the more you are guilty. In all three cases, the logic of balanced exchange is disturbed in favor of an excessive logic of “the more you give the more you owe”, or the “more you possess what you are longing for, the more you are missing and thus the greater your craving”, or the consumerist version, “the more you buy the more you must spend”. This paradox is the very opposite of the paradox of love where, as Juliet put it to Romeo, “the more I give, the more I have.”

This superego-paradox also allows us to throw new light onto the functioning of today’s art scene. Its basic feature is not only the much deplored commodification of the culture, but also the less noted, perhaps even more crucial opposite movement: the growing culturalization of the market economy itself. Culture is less and less a specific sphere exempt from the market and more and more its central component. What this short circuit between market and culture entails is the disappearance of the old modernist avant-garde logic of provocation, of shocking the establishment. Today, more and more, the cultural economic apparatus itself, in order to reproduce itself, has not only to tolerate but to directly incite stronger and stronger shocking effects and products. Let us recall recent trends in visual arts: gone are the days when we had simple statues or unframed paintings — what we get now are expositions of frames themselves without paintings, expositions of dead cows and their excrement, videos of the inside of the human body, inclusion of smell in the exhibition, and so on. Here, again, as in the domain of sexuality, perversion is no longer subversive: the shocking excesses of part of the system itself. The system feeds on them in order to reproduce itself. Perhaps this is one of the possible definitions of postmodern art as opposed to modern art.

So what then is superego, what is this superego injunction which is replacing more and more the old symbolic law of prohibition? Superego is the reversal of the permissive “You May!” into the prescriptive “You Must!”, the point in which permitted enjoyment turns into ordained enjoyment. We all know the formula of Kant s unconditional imperative: “Du kannst, denn du sollst”. You can do your duty, because you must do it. Superego turns this around into “You must, because you can.” Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Viagra, the potency pill that promises to restore the capacity of male erection in a purely biochemical way, bypassing all problems of psychological inhibitions and so on. Now Viagra takes care of the erection, there is no excuse, you can enjoy sex so you should enjoy it, otherwise you are guilty.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the New Age wisdom of recovering the spontaneity of your true self seems to offer a way out of this superego predicament. However, what do we get effectively? Is this attitude not secretly sustained by the superego imperative? You must do your duty of achieving full self-realization and self-fulfillment because you can. This is the reason why we feel, at least I do, a kind of terrorist pressure beneath the compliant tolerance of New Age preachers. They seem to preach peace and letting go and so on but there is an implicit terrorist dimension in it.

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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