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Monday, July 06, 2009

Coke is It!

The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.

To shed a bit more light on the system of consumerism and the psychological consequences, we have been looking at a few thoughts from Slovaj Zizek’s The Fragile Absolute. Zizek is some combination of philosopher, psychoanalyst, and cultural critic.

“It is no surprise that Coke was first introduced as a medicine—its strange taste does not seem to provide any particular satisfaction; it is not directly pleasing and endearing; however, it is precisely as such, as transcending any immediate use-value (unlike water, beer or wine, which definitely do quench our thirst or produce the desired effect of satisfied calm), that Coke functions as the direct embodiment of ‘it’: of the pure surplus of enjoyment over standard satisfactions, of the mysterious and elusive X we are all after in our compulsive consumption of merchandise.” (p. 22)

In the prior post, we discussed Zizek's objet petit a: “The nearer you get to it, the more it eludes your grasp (or the more you possess it, the greater the lack).” (24)

In this post, we will look at Coke, as an example of objet petit a and explore Zizek’s psychology: what is the psychology behind possessing more but simultaneously experiencing greater lack. This is a psychological paradox, but one which helps us explore the spirituality of the system of consumerism in our disposable society.

Coke is “the mysterious and elusive X we are all after in our compulsive consumption of merchandise.” (22)

And yet Coke has nothing in itself that makes it desirable. The desire for Coke comes from something else. Zizek suggests that it is (in part at least) Coke’s inherent undesirability that makes it desirable.

“It is this very superfluous character that makes our thirst for Coke all the more insatiable: as Jacques-Alain Miller put it so succinctly, Coke has the paradoxical property that the more you drink the thirstier you get, the greater your need to drink more—with that strange, bitter-sweet taste, our thirst is never effectively quenched.” (22)

So, although being thirsty leads us to drink Coke, the physiological reality is that Coke does not quench our thirst, ironically, it makes us even more thirsty.

What this seems to illustrate is that what we are after when we drink Coke is something more than a drink. There is something deeper. We think to ourselves consciously that we reach for Coke to quench our thirst. But biologically, Coke has the opposite effect. So, what is that we desire when we desire Coke?

Coke, of course, claims that it is precisely because of the product that we want more. I recently watched a documentary on the Coke company, and the executives and marketing strategists showed how the unique mixture of Coca-cola itself is what people desire. And, of course, they all believe it. We all believe it. We all believe it is the product itself. Coke is the stuff of legends, of American legends. As such, there is no conspiracy to sell us something that we don’t want. It’s just that most of us do not understand what it is that is motivating our desire to drink Coke. The motivation isn't the product itself.

There is nothing in the drink itself. The drink itself gives us nothing that a drink should give us.

Where does the desire come from?

Zizek’s point is that what we desire from Coke is precisely its ability not to quench our thirst. In a consumeristic society, what we desire from Coke is “the ineffable spiritual surplus.” (22) We actually desire to desire more. We desire desire itself, and all the while we consciously operate as though we are satisfying real needs and actual “legitimate” desires. But in a hyper-consumeristic culture, it is consuming itself that becomes the prime motivating factor.

“The ineffable spiritual surplus.”

Zizek summarizes: “So, when some years ago, the advertising slogan for Coke was ‘Coke is it!’, we should note its thorough ambituity: ‘that’s it’ precisely in so far as that’s never actually it, precisely in so far as every satisfaction opens up a gap of ‘I want more!’.” (22)

But there is more.

It gets better.

There isn’t just “Coke,” there is caffeine-free diet Coke.

With caffeine-free diet Coke, “all that remains is a pure semblance, an artificial promise of a substance which never materialized.” (23)

There isn’t even any caffeine left, for god’s sake!

Zizek sees in this Nietzsche’s classic opposition between “wanting nothing” and the nihilistic stance of actively wanting Nothingness itself. For example, Zizek notes Lacan’s idea that the anorexic does not desire to eat nothing, rather, the desire is for Nothingness itself, the Void. “Along the same lines, in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, we drink the Nothingness itself, the pure semblance of a property that is in effect merely an envelope of a void.” (23)

So, the move from Coke to caffeine-free diet Coke is a move from endless consumption and eternal dissatisfaction (wanting to drink something that will not quench your thirst and keep you wanting more—“the ineffable spiritual surplus”) to desiring the Nothingness and Void.

Zizek further explores this in terms of Freud’s super ego paradox: “the more Coke you drink, the thirstier you are; the more profit you make, the more you want; the more you obey the superego command, the guiltier you are….or the more you have what you long for, the more you lack, the greater your craving; or—the consumerist version—‘the more you buy, the more you have to spend….that is to say, of the paradox which is the very opposite of the paradox of love where, as Juliet put it in her immortal words to Romeo, ‘the more I give, the more I have.’”

This paradox is difficult to define. Easier to illustrate, more difficult to define.

What seems to be in play is that the fulfillment of desire somehow opens up the space for more desire. Or, perhaps it is that chasing desire itself is an eternal quest. The more we pursue desire, the more that desire grows. Desire breeds desire.

“The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8)

Desire exists for desire’s own sake, as in the illustration of Coke. Or, in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, desire opens up the desire for the Nothingness, the Void.

For Zizek, the key is the object petit a, “which exists (or, rather, persists) in a kind of curved space—the nearer you get to it, the more it eludes your grasp (or the more you possess it, the greater the lack.” (24)

The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.

This is the psychological and spiritual element of the consumeristic desire for desire itself.

The result of this hyper-consumerism within which we move and breath and have our being is that we live in a disposable society. Our legacy becomes waste.



“So, on the one hand, instead of stable products destined to last for generations, capitalism introduces a breathtaking dynamics of obsolescence: we are bombarded by new and newer products which are sometimes obsolete even before they come fully into use—PCs have to be replaced every year if one is to keep up with the Joneses; long-playing records were followed by CDs, and now by DVDs. The aftermath of this constant innovation is, of course, the permanent production of piles of discarded waste.” (40)

Zizek then cites Jacques-Alain Miller: The main production of the modern and postmodern capitalist industry is precisely waste. We are post modern beings because we realize that all our aesthetically appealing consumption artifacts will eventually end as leftover, to the point that it will transform the earth into a vast waste land. You lose the sense of tragedy, you perceive progress as derisive. (40-41)

Interesting to think of the postmodern legacy being one of waste.

“The obverse of the incessant capitalist drive to produce new and newer objects is therefore the growing pile of useless waste, mountains of used cars, computers, and so on.” (41)

The waste that hyper-consumerism produces is the visible testimony to a deeper psychological and spiritual phenomenon, an invisible force that keeps us locked into the endless pursuit of goods and services. The desire opens up the spiritual spaces within us for more desire to grow. The joy we find in the newest and latest purchase becomes the springboard for more pursuits. We work harder and longer for more.

This is the intersection of economics and psychology, the crossroads of spiritual longing and the American capitalist system that has transformed itself into desire for the sake of desire, or in its more extreme form, the desire for the Nothingness, the Void.


Jonathan Erdman said...

The last video montage was brought to you by Coke Art, a short-lived blog, but a blog with a nice history of Coke art. If you go back to the earlier posts, they track some of the early Coke art. Very interesting.

Melody said...

What if Zizek just doesn't like Coke?

He think it's gross, therefore the only reason anyone drinks it is because they have been duped by clever advertising!

I can see that, sometimes people border on cultist with their beverage of choice. Just tell someone you hate Coke (I do, I loathe it, Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, Mt. Dew...vile) and watch their face - you could easily believe you just offended their religion or their mother!

But, mostly, mostly I think people like the flavor. They enjoy it, so, that's not nothing.

Jonathan Erdman said...


One might also speculate that Zizek was once addicted to Coca-cola, and as such attacking the wretched soft drink with a vengeance, for stealing fifteen years of his life!

I think that people do desire the flavor, actually, but I still agree with Zizek that there are deeper psychological forces at work. I also think Zizek would agree that most people who now drink Coke really do find it tasty. They even find it refreshing. But his analysis is psychoanalytic: what's the real force that is turning an otherwise bitter and non-thirst-quenching drink into something that so many people find both tasty, satisfying, and refreshing?

So, the refreshment that people find when they drink Coke really is real. But Zizek's point (and I tend to agree with him) is that the ultimate cause/reason they find it refreshing has nothing to do with the drink itself, it is a psychological factor.

Even more important is that even if everyone's love of Coca-cola is purely for the taste of the stuff (that is, you and I just don't get it: the stuff really isn't bitter and it really does quench the thirst, despite all biological evidence to the contrary), even so, I still think it is helpful/legit for Zizek to use Coke to illustrate psychological forces at work in our hyper-consumeristic society.

john doyle said...

Maybe sometimes a Coke is just a Coke. It's funny, but caffeine-free diet is my personal favorite Coke mutation. I like the taste, the fizz, the calorie-freeness. I just think it's a ripoff price-wise, since the ingredients probably cost less than the can. Get rid of the advertisements telling me how great it is, convert the money paid to ad people into price reductions, then as an occasional Coke-drinker I'd enjoy the product even more. Still, on most days I'd prefer a beer or a glass of wine...

Jonathan Erdman said...

But John,

Without the advertisement, do you really think you'd drink the stuff???

If Coke could cut advertisement and still have the same amount of people drinking its product, I think it would do so.

It probably would not cut the price though!

Melody said...

No one advertises Faygo. Or Dr. Thunder. I only see the occasional spot for Fanta (and by I occasional, I mean: I think I saw one once) but that stuff is globally adored.

Coke doesn't advertise because they have a product so icky that they can only sell it if they make drinking toxic acids and corn syrup a life-style choice. They advertise to assure you that they sell the best toxic acids with corn syrup and to secure a stigma to Sam's Club Cola drinkers everywhere. Cheapskates, they didn't buy the real thing (which is just, by the way, an incredibly clever tag line).

And they have to make sure people remember them and remember how much they love Coke specifically. If they didn't advertise their customers would keep drinking Cola, but they might be more easily swayed by the next upstart cola company with a clever jingle (like Pepsi, lesson learned).

tamie said...

Fantastic post, Jon. Great stuff, and lots of it.

There's so much that bears addressing, but I'll try to stick with the line of comments already started here. Yeah, as John and Melody pointed out, people do develop a taste for Coke and their bodies genuinely desire Coke specifically, and will accept no substitutes.

So but then, the question is: what factors are at work that make us desire what is bad for us, what is counter-productive to our bodies and souls, etc., etc.?

Which is what your post was addressing. Coke is just one example, though a particularly potent example, since it's so goddamn prevalent and such a cultural definer.

I would ask you to step even further back and address (maybe in an upcoming post)--what is it inside of us that is so suseptible to this whole desiring desire, desiring Nothingness, etc.? What the heck is going on here? What would inspire anyone to desire Nothingness? It's my understanding that anorexia is a rather contemporary illness. So, what happened biologically or ecologically or culturally to produce such a disease (I'm using anorexia as an example of the desire for Nothingness, as you did)?

Melody said...

Anorexia is probably a bad example for desiring nothingness...since it's almost always about control.


Also, a lot of people who are anorexic have a chemical deficiency and when they starve themselves their brain makes more of the chemical (serotonin - I think) and they get a high (yeah, like drugs) so that probably helps keep them anorexic.

That's also true of kids/young adults that self injure. The chemical imbalance thing. Not the perfectionism. Kids who SI generally use it as a coping mechanism for...well anything eventually, but starting off it's for stress, anger, sadness. They're usually bad at identifying/expressing emotions.

That's even more recent than anorexia and goodness knows who first stumbled across injuries as anti-depressant, but it's become pretty wide spread in the last 10-15 years.

End Lecture.

Anyhow, people want what's bad for them because they think it will be good.

That simple.

Even take something weird like...worrying. Worrying sucks. It's never good. But people people feel like they're being proactive when they worry. And proactive is good. So they worry.

Ok. Done. Really.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Are you suggesting that people go through a rational or cognitive thought process with these things? Like the guy who worries things to himself that his worrying will help him?

Melody said...

I don't know if everyone out there is consciously weighing the pros and cons of worrying versus remaining calm, but on some level they believe there's a benefit to it or they wouldn't do it.

Personally, yeah, I do that. I figure out if worrying will be productive and if the pro of productivity out-weighs the con of the stress. And then I decide.

But I'm not everyone.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I think you have something here. Personally, I sometimes get irritated or anxious, believing that the energy of being anxious will help me solve my problem. But this is not at all at the conscious level. When I look at it at the conscious level I usually come to the conclusion that worry only drains my energy all the more, that anxiety is self-defeating.

So, what is it that is at work in the non conscious level?

I'm thinking that there may be other options. A range of possibilities.

What if anxiety is just some people's defense mechanism?

Or, perhaps it is just the grounding response that people have used to cope with life? Kind of like a familiar coping mechanism.

Or, for some people, anxiety reaches a level where it is a purely physical phenomenon. Like when people have "panic attacks": their breath shortens, they feel like they are going to suffocate, etc. In this case, it seems like treating the physical symptoms is important. Then one can talk about the psychology and spirituality that is leading someone into such intense anxiety....which, again, will probably take us into non conscious levels of thought.

Melody said...

Yeah, I think a lot of people react that way. Or we feel guilty if we're not worrying because maybe that means we don't care about the bad thing we couldn't have prevented anyway.

And people think you should worry. If you don't worry people (guys) think you're heartless or apathetic (girls wish that they had your confidence - utterly absurd, but a lot more pleasant).

But on the unconscious level...well worry starts out like an alert.

Example: Last night Robin and I were walking home when she realized she'd left the stove lit.

Well, that was worry. Unattended stove equals bad.

But after that gut reaction she had choices.

1. Freak out. Talk whole way home about how horrible burning houses are, imagine the dog as barbecue, cry.

2. Run! Run, run, run! Maybe we can get home in time to salvage part of our home!

3. (our choice) Keep walking. The stove's not gunna turn itself off (actually, neither did we, we made dinner).

Now, for some people I think what happens is that worrying becomes such a habit that they've stopped considering their options.

Example (I like examples): As a kid I was a serious nail biter. I bit them in my sleep I was so bad and half the time when I was awake I didn't even notice that I was doing it. I didn't think about it. I didn't weigh my options, I just did it.

Later in life my grandmother bought me a manicure set and I realized that those work much better when one has fingernails. But just as I chose then to stop, somewhere along the line I chose to start, it was a conscious thought.

I don't know a lot about panic attacks, but from what I've read they stem from a person's (usually unstated) belief that whatever panics them is worse than anything. Throwing-up, unconsciousness, death - anything. And they react with actions that will prevent them from facing it...so strongly that their entire body is involved.

And while, yeah, you have to deal with the physical problem immediately (hard fixing the emotional if they're on the ground dry-heaving), that problem isn't going to go away entirely until the other is dealt with.

Jonathan Erdman said...

We just all need psychotherapy.

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