Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Sublime Object of Ideology - Preface

One thing I like to do in my free time is read philosophy. I've started reading a book called The Sublime Object of Ideology by Slavoj Zizek. I read another one of Zizek's books a few weeks ago and if Sublime Object is anything like that book, this is going to be a tough read. So I thought it would be an interesting project to try and summarize the book while I'm reading it. This will help me understand it better and maybe help others too. I will start with the Preface:

Zizek begins by outlining two different kinds of revolutions. The first he calls Ptolemization (named after Ptolemy who invented earth-centered astronomy). This is when a theory is modified due to newly discovered facts, but its basic premise stays the same. He says string theory is a Ptolemization because it still relies on basic ideas of physics like the existence time and space. Terms like "post-industrial society" and "informational society" are Ptolemizations too because he says they still rely on the "'old paradigm' of classic sociological models".

The second revolution (the cool one!) he calls Copernican revolution (named after Copernicus who discovered that the Earth is actually *not* at the center of the universe).
This is when the basic fundamental framework of a theory undergoes a radical change and turns into something completely new. When something you've always taken for granite is turned upside down. Like if we discovered one day that the Earth was just one giant reality TV show watched by aliens all over the universe (like in that South Park episode).

The goal of the book, he says, is to prove that psychoanalysis (Zizek's field of study) is not a mere Ptolemization of psychology, but a philosophical Copernican revolution. He says that this attempt may seem destined for failure, but "as Lacan taught us [(Zizek is a devout follower of Lacan, a French psychoanalyst)], when we are confronted with an apparently clear choice, sometimes the correct thing to do is choose the worst option." I think this means that in order learn or discover something new, you sometimes have to take the road less traveled.

He then explains Hegel's (Zizek talks about Hegel, a German philosopher, a lot too) notion of "sublation", or Aufhebung. This is when you take a particular thing and create an abstract idea of it by picking out its most important characteristics and throwing away the rest. For example, when you think of an apple, you might think "sweet fruit", but you never think "falls to the floor when dropped". By doing this, the richness and fullness and infinite complexity of life is lost, but Hegel says this is not a bad thing.

Hegel says that Understanding is when you have these abstract ideas in your head, but are also aware that this infinite reality exists. He contrasts this with what he calls Reason which is when you actually replace the infinite reality with the abstract understanding (an apple becomes simply a "sweet fruit" and nothing else).

Zizek then describes an experiment conducted in the 1960s. In the experiment, a group of five year olds were asked to draw a picture of themselves playing at home. After the group had been through a year and a half of primary school, they were asked to do it again. The pictures the five year olds drew were colorful and lively, but the pictures they drew later were more rigid and subdued, with many students choosing to use only a gray pencil instead of other colors. These results were interpreted as proof that schooling oppresses the happiness and creativity of children. But Zizek says that Hegel would have disagreed with this conclusion. Hegel would have said that this movement from the "'green' immediacy of life to its 'grey' conceptual structure" is a sign of spiritual progress. Hegel says that a "rigidity of being" allows for a strong sprit to develop. The fact that the children are using grey pencils is in fact a sign of their positive spiritual development, not oppression.

Further explaining Aufhebung, Zizek brings up the idea of "potentiality". When choosing which properties of a thing to abstract it by, one ought to choose the ones which best highlight its inner potential. When you call something a "cup", for example, you are saying that you intend on using it for drinking water. Calling it a "chalice", however, means you intend on using it for drinking holy wine.

He then suggests that Aufhebung is a lot like digestion. By eating something, your body digests it and extracts only the parts it wants. However, Zizek says that a common criticism of this idea is that in reality, the system is "constipated" (gotta love this metaphor). You digest something, but the whole, that infinite reality, Zizek says, is actually still there (it doesn't get discarded or...ahem...excreted). Zizek takes a jab at Christianity by saying that it's not a surprise that Hegel was a Christian--the act of eating communion wafers, which are "bread transubstantiated into Christ's flesh" (in the Catholic faith anyway), implies that the Christian arrogantly believes he can "digest God himself without remainder."

Zizek then talks about this idea of how, when a particular idea reaches maturity, it "freely releases itself into nature" and by doing this, is actually doing the opposite--liberating itself from nature. He gives the example of Jesus Christ who God freely released into our world and later rose into Heaven. He also says that modern art fits into this mold as well. Traditional art focuses on reproducing reality as accurately as possible (landscapes, portraits, etc). But modern art, being a sort of "matured" art, he says, no longer needs to constrain itself to reality (Cubism is one example of a modern art form).

Then, going back to the digestive metaphor (yay!), Zizek concedes that "shitting" is a necessary part of Aufhebung. Without it, we would be overwhelmed with the infinity of which we swallowed (and have an awful stomach ache). Taking the metaphor further (more poop talk!), he says that the excrement can serve as "manure" from which further ideas can grow. I think this means that you shouldn't let bad ideas discourage you--you will have many bad ideas before you have a good one.

Zizek also talks about various philosophers' opinions on God. Kant says that just because you can imagine something, doesn't make it real. I can have an idea of what it's like to have $1,000 in my pocket without ever having that much money. It's the same way with God, Kant says--I can have an idea of what God is like, but he still may not exist. Zizek questions the strength of this metaphor because the idea of money is not objective--its value depends on inflation, etc. It's possible that $1,000 in a few years may buy you nothing more than a meal at McDonald's. Money depends on people believing that is has value--after all, it's only metal and paper.

Hegel, Zizek says, disagrees with this by saying the "money in your pocket" metaphor does not work for non-material entities like God. Because of this, Hegel doubts that Kant possesses a fully developed concept of what God "really" is.

Anselm, another philosopher, says that God is simply so alien, so other-worldly, so beyond our comprehension, that it's impossible for our puny little human brains to truly understand Him. Hegel does not like this explanation because it's not an explanation at all. Anselm doesn't make any attempt to actually define God--he defines God as being undefinable.

Zizek then says that things exist materially only when they fail to meet certain requirements. So this means that the existence of material reality is a sign of imperfection. Maybe Zizek is saying here that God, the creator of this material reality, is imperfect or that this world was an accident?

Zizek says Hegel can be applied to the ecological movement we're seeing take shape ("green" this, "green" that). Hegel says that the desire man feels to control and dominate nature is a sign of man's finitude. Man sees nature as an "external object, an opposing force to be dominated." By bringing this up, I think Zizek is saying that in order to avert an ecological catastrophe (like global warming altering the climate enough to threaten human survival), we must work with nature, not against it.

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