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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The System of Seduction

I enjoyed a wonderful time in northern Michigan these last several days. I was able to spend five days and five nights of solitary camping amongst the Michigan dunes along Lake Michigan. It was a refreshing experience. (Refreshing, as in, imagine me in a commercial, hot and thirsty, guzzling down a Coke. I exhale, deeply satisfied. Aaaaaaahhhhh. Can’t beat the real thing.)

In any event.

I read Slavoj Zizek’s The Fragile Absolute while I was enjoying the sun, wind, and air of the great outdoors. In this book, Zizek makes several interesting remarks that intersect with some of our recent discussions on The System. In these posts, we have been considering the intersection between economics, politics, spirituality, culture, and the general health of humanity.

Zizek has much to say on such issues.

For those not familiar with Zizek, his interests are philosophy, psychoanalysis, Marxism, culture, and film….amongst other things…..he is intimately familiar with the works of Jacques Lacan, an important but difficult philosophy and psychoanalytical theorist.

So, by analyzing Zizek, we are introducing a bit of psychoanalytic theory to our critique of The System.

One of the things that we have discussed is that The System exists to create discontentment. I am speaking here as an American: we have all of our basic needs provided for us (e.g., we actually waste/throw away about half of our food), so in order for our economy to continue to expand, we must be always buying. As such, advertising keeps us in a constant state of discontent: we (the consumers) must always be “needing” something new. There is a need to not just provide a needed good or service, but our economy is now invested in creating the need itself for that good or service.

Although a Marxist, Zizek says, “‘Actually existing Socialism’ failed because it was ultimately a subspecies of capitalism, an ideological attempt to ‘have one’s cake and eat it’, to break out of capitalism while retaining its key ingredient.” (p. 19)

This particular brand of socialism failed because it was actually a “subspecies” of capitalism, but left out the “key ingredient” of capitalism. What is this “key ingredient”? It is the gap between the object of desire itself and its cause.

“There is always a gap between the object of desire itself and its cause.” (21) This is a Lacanian move. Zizek gives an example.

“Henry Krips evokes the lovely example of the chaperone in seduction: the chaperone is an ugly elderly lady who is officially the obstacle to the direct goal-object (the woman the suitor is courting); but precisely as such, she is the key intermediary moment that effectively makes the beloved woman desirable—without her, the whole economy of seduction would collapse.” (20)

There is a gap between the object of desire (the woman) and the cause, the chaperone (the obstacle). This is the gap in which the motivation for seduction operates. The fact that the object of desire is blocked fuels the desire to possess/seduce the object. It is because the object is blocked that seduction can take place. Seduction operates in this gap.

Think Eve.

Think forbidden fruit.

The serpent’s “seduction” took place in the gap between the prohibition (“do not eat of the fruit”) and the desire to eat of it. Without the prohibition there is no seduction.

Without the chaperone there is no seduction, there is no gap.

In contrast to seduction is true love: “In love, the object is not deprived of its cause; it is, rather, that the very distance between object and cause collapses. This, precisely, is what distinguishes love from desire: in desire, as we have just seen, cause is distinct from object; while in love, the two inexplicably coincide--I magically love the beloved on for itself, finding in it the very point from which I find it worthy of love.” (21)

Zizek then immediately relates this back to Marx.

“What if his [Marx] mistake was also to assume that the object of desire (unconstrained expanding productivity) would remain even when it was deprived of the cause that propels it (surplus-value)?” (21)

What is “surplus-value”?

Simply put, for Marx, surplus-value is profit, interest, or rent income. Capitalism (again, simplifying) depends on the motive of profit as the cause of “unconstrained expanding productivity.”

Who was it that, when asked how much money was enough answered, “just another dollar more”? Rockefeller?

This quote, interestingly enough, is really not about greed, per se. It is a brilliantly succinct expression of what motivates capitalism: the desire for surplus-value, i.e., profit.

Zizek talks about the objet petit a (a Lacan term). The objet petit a is the unattainable object of desire. As unattainable, it keeps us in a state of something like eternal desire. It is perpetual discontentedness. “The nearer you get to it, the more it eludes your grasp (or the more you possess it, the greater the lack).” (24)

Zizek next turns his attention to Coca-cola to demonstrate objet petit a. Coke, “the mysterious and elusive X we are all after in our compulsive consumption of merchandise.” (22)

In the next post, we will continue our discussion of the system of seduction by looking further at Zizek’s analysis of how Coca-cola relates to the objet petit a (and to The System as a whole).

In the meantime, “have a Coke!”


amy said...

We're workin' our jobs,
Collectin' our pay,
Believe we're gliding down the highway when in fact we're slip-slidin' away . . .

You know, the nearer your destination, the more you slip-slidin' away.

john doyle said...

I look forward to your interpretation of Zizek. There's considerable debate among leftists about whether he is a "really existing Marxist" or a disguised apologist for global capitalism. So, e.g., you note his contention that socialist economies failed because they ignored the cause of desire. Presumably the cause is the obstacle standing between the desirer and the object desired. In economic terms the obstacle is the price of buying the object. I.e., you wouldn't really want that Coke if it was free, or even if it was made available at the cost of production. So Zizek is going to contend, I think, that a vibrant economy can't work unless there's this excess price causing desire. This excess price = profi, which goes to the owners/investors of Coca-Cola Inc. It seems like a convoluted justification for a profit-based = capitalistic economy.

Jonathan Erdman said...


And conversely, I've looked forward much more to your interpretation of Zizek/Lacan than to my own!

It seems to me that we have to separate the corporate entity and the consumer, don't you think? In this post (and the quotations of Zizek presented), the concern is the motivation of the corporate entity: "What if his [Marx] mistake was also to assume that the object of desire (unconstrained expanding productivity) would remain even when it was deprived of the cause that propels it (surplus-value)?"

So, the profit motive is what "propels" the corporate entities to engage in "unconstrained expanding productivity." This seems to me to be arguing on the side of supply-side economic theory. [From Wikipedia: Supply-side economics is a school of macroeconomic thought that argues that economic growth can be most effectively created using incentives for people to produce (supply) goods and services, such as adjusting income tax and capital gains tax rates, and by allowing greater flexibility by reducing regulation. Consumers will then benefit from a greater supply of goods and services at lower prices.]

When Zizek shifts into his discussion on Coke as objet petit a, then it seems as though he is commenting on the capitalistic/consumeristic mechanism that enchants the consumer and causes him to purchase a Coca-Cola drink that neither tastes all that good (in and of itself) nor satisfies his thirst (i.e., soft drinks actually tend to make a human being more thirsty).

But it doesn't occur to me until just now that there are two desire mechanisms at work: (1) the profit desire that keeps the corporate entity eternally striving for greater economic productivity and (2) the desire of the consumer to have and consume the goods and services that the corporations produce.

But the same mechanism (from Zizek's Lacanian perspective) is at work: “There is always a gap between the object of desire itself and its cause.” This is the economic "seduction" that is at work both on the corporate entity and on the consumer side.

Presumably, the beauty of the capitalist system in its pure form (and I think there is a certain beauty to it) is to use the invisible hand of the market to bring these two desires (the corporate and the consumer) into a grand equilibrium.

On the other "hand"(!), there is Noam Chomsky's point (well taken, I think):
Throughout history, Adam Smith observed, we find the workings of "the vile maxim of the masters of mankind": "All for ourselves, and nothing for other People." He had few illusions about the consequences. The invisible hand, he wrote, will destroy the possibility of a decent human existence "unless government takes pains to prevent" this outcome, as must be assured in "every improved and civilized society." It will destroy community, the environment and human values generally – and even the masters themselves, which is why the business classes have regularly called for state intervention to protect them from market forces. (from the above cited Wikipedia "Invisible Hand" article)

Adam Smith, himself, seemed to recognize some of the possible negative consequences of unchecked capitalism.

Jonathan Erdman said...

At its best, capitalism can promote excellence by creating a market place where the most excellent products and services can be rewarded because they are purchased by discerning customers who are concerned with only purchasing the most excellent products and services.

However, if excellence is lost sight of, then everything free falls into a mad marketing scramble: it isn't the product or service that matters, it's how we sell it. Even consumers in the current American hyper-disposable seem as though they would rather be hyped up and excited by their purchase, rather than to purchase a product/service that is excellent. We are all engrossed in the process of purchasing for the sake of purchasing.

I think this is where Zizek (via Lacan) has so much to say. What is driving people in this advertising-obsessed hyper-consumerism? From Zizek's perspective, it seems to be the maintenance of the gap between the object of desire and its cause.....I think this is fertile ground for more thinking and commentary.......

john doyle said...

I've not read The Fragile Absolute. My thoughts are based on a Zizek essay on capitalism and on some blog discussion threads that pop up from time to time.

As we've discussed previously in Lacanian and Pauline terms, prohibition seems to exacerbate desire. If that's true, then limited access to consumer goods would increase consumers' desire to acquire them. I.e., artificial shortage of supply and artificially high price tags would stimulate desire/demand, regardless of the quality or usefulness of the goods in question.

Profit = what Marx called "fetish value": the desire to possess that exceeds use and exchange value. Fetish value is what gives the Lacanian "petit objet a" its allure: it's the irrational attraction to a commodity that presumably the consumer has been missing and that promises to make him/her complete. The surplus price above a commodity's use/exchange value is what it costs me to gain access to this fetish that bestows personal plenitude.

The petit objet a, the fetish, belongs to someone else who is already whole -- the Big Other. So if I can get my hands on the objet I become like the Big Other myself. But plenitude is perpetually elusive: it always slips off the desired thing and floats onto some other thing. Hence we get the perpetual consumerist demand which fuels perpetually expanding production. And where does this elusive plenitude go when it slips off the latest consumer good? It goes back to the Big Other, further expanding his/her/its plenitude, further increasing the gap between me and the Big Other. In capitalism the Big Other is the one who absorbs the fetish value of the commodity, which is the profit. I.e., the capitalist Big Other is the investors who produce and distribute, who accumulate profit "earned" on fetish-desire, who continue distancing themselves from the consumers through ever-increasing discrepancy of wealth.

So the question is this about Zizek: He seems to think that continually expanding production is a good thing, raising standards of living across the board. He also seems to believe the Lacanian theory of desire/lack/prohibition. That seems to mean that he believes the capitalist mechanism is the best means of achieving continual economic expansion. This in turn seems to suggest that Zizek isn't a Marxist at all, but rather a capitalist with an alternative theory about why it works and why it's good. Now if Zizek were to say that an expanding economy isn't necessarily a good thing, or if he were to disavow the Lacanian theory of prohibition stimulating desire rather than blocking its fulfillment, then his claims to Marxism might be stronger.

I hope some of this is coherent. I've rambled on at some length here, but I get the sense it's probably too densely packed.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes. What you say makes sense. And is very helpful.

First, in The Fragile Absolute, Zizek criticizes Marx for "not going far enough." Or, for not being radical enough. From reading that, I assumed that what Zizek is wanting to push Marxism farther than Marx was willing to go. That is, Zizek criticizes Marx for competing on the same playing field as capitalism: "What if his [Marx] mistake was also to assume that the object of desire (unconstrained expanding productivity) would remain even when it was deprived of the cause that propels it (surplus-value)?"

So, Marx tried to retain the end goal of capitalism (unconstrained expanding productivity) without the mechanism that pushes it forward.

My take is that Zizek wants a Marxism that completely rewrites the rules: no surplus-value (fetish-desire) and also no unconstrained expanding productivity. What such a more radical Marxism would look like, though, is hard for me to envision, offhand.

So much of the solution for contemporary models seems to want to blend elements of socialism and capitalism into hybrid economies that socialize certain sectors of the economy while still encouraging the free market to operate in other sectors. This strikes me as something of a "constrained" expanding productivity, which seems to try to then taper the mad freefall that fetish-desire can produce if left unchecked.

john doyle said...

This is an intriguing aspect of Zizek: with all his "what-ifs" and his negating the negation it's hard to know quite what he's actually asserting. So if Marxism is the negation of capitalism, and Zizek wants to negate Marxism, where does that take him? Is it beyond both -- you cite him as calling for a still more radical position -- or back around the circle to the starting point? Either way, I suspect he'd reject the Marxist label as being positioned on the original capitalist-Marxist dialectic, whereas he wants to get out of that contrast altogether.

It's part of his Lacanian thing: negate the negation and maybe the Real has a chance to erupt through the gap. It's probably what he'd do with the theist/atheist dichotomy as well: neither the one nor the other but some other unspecified gap where the Real might come through. I'm not sure he can state a positive position, or even if he wants to. It's like a therapeutic procedure he's putting forward for breaking out of various dualisms, not through compromise but by probing some other dimension. Or something like that...

samlcarr said...

The evolutionary paradigm has also come in very useful for modern and PoMo marketing. There is a strong, yet subliminal, implication that somehow that which is most difficult to achieve, e.g. the creation and enjoyment of real wealth, conveys a survival benefit. It is the norm that the lower minions have to compete on a somewhat unlevel playing field, but all such restrictions cease to apply to the very rich...

Imitation then becomes the next best thing, and that which may just give one that lottery ticket shot at 'making it'.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Or it is the virtue of capitalism, the American Dream: any slug can make it if they work hard enough.

So when the powerful and wealthy in the system are confronted with inequality, they can cry a few crocodile tears and point out that there are many in America who worked hard to get their slice of the American pie.

It is also a mechanism (as you say) that can keep the working class going, deferring their opportunity to seize the here and now by building up for their retirement or their children's prosperity.

I'm not saying that any of this doesn't have some legitimate angle.....but it is certainly a control mechanism to protect the status quo and fend off any accusations of inequality.

Ignatius Gallaher said...

Your getting the object small a wrong: the object small a IS the cause of desire. Object small a is not the object which forever eludes, but it is the cause which forever causes me "miss" the object; circling around it in endless repetition. The object small a is unconscious. A good analogy is that of perception: I have conscious access to all the objects of my awareness, but I do not have access to all the unconscious neural/chemical mechanisms which cause my perception.

Furthermore, in an analogous way, I can become aware, through analysis, of what causes my desire: my object small a. I learn the truth after the fact, or retroactively. I can also become aware of what causes my perception through the study of neuroscience, psychophysics, and biology, but as with the previous example this uncovering of knowledge is always after the fact: I do not have immediate conscious awareness of all the cellular processes which cause my perception - it takes time to learn, and is always after the fact.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Thanks so much for commenting. From the looks of your blog, it appears as though you are familiar with the Lacanese of this discussion.

The Fragile Absolute is the only of Zizek's works that I have read, so by no means am I an expert, but he seems to suggest that the objet petit a is actually the object we desire. But, of course, this may not have been Zizek's intent.

I would be interested in how you would interpret my next post on this: Coke is It!. Zizek specifies that Coke is objet petit a. In the case of Coke, then, Coke itself would be that which is blocking the satisfaction of thirst, thus opening up the gap in which desire can operate.

Thank you for your insight. This point wasn't entirely clear to me. I'll have to re-read this section.

tamie said...

I direct your attention(s), my fine friends, to this article I read last week. It's called "Why Capitalism Should Not Be Saved" by John Sanbonmatsu, in Tikkun Magazine. (A rocking magazine, btw.)