divine curation

Žižek on Marx's Symptoms

August 29, 2021

A few extracts from the first chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology (Žižek, 2008), entitled ‘How Did Marx Invent the Symptom?’

(In the previous post I mentioned that Žižek had claimed elsewhere that the ideological operation is essentially unconscious—i.e. it can’t work unless we’re not aware of it. This point is taken up in these extracts.)

[T]here is a fundamental homology between the interpretive procedure of Marx and Freud—more precisely, between their analysis of commodity and of dreams. In both cases the point is to avoid the properly fetishistic fascination of the ‘content’ supposedly hidden behind the form: the ‘secret’ to be unveiled through analysis is not the content hidden by the form (the form of commodities, the form of dreams) but, on the contrary, the ‘secret’ of this form itself. The theoretical intelligence of the form of dreams does not consist in penetrating from the manifest content to its ‘hidden kernel’, to the latent dream-thoughts; it consists in the answer to the question: why have the latent dream-thoughts assumed such a form, why were they transposed into the form of a dream? It is the same with commodities: the real problem is not to penetrate to the ‘hidden kernel’ of the commodity—the determination of its value by the quantity of the work consumed in its production—but to explain why work assumed the form of the value of a commodity, why it can affirm its social character only in the commodity-form of its product. (Žižek, 2008, pp. 3–4)

Analysing the ‘latent dream-thoughts’ is similar to obsessing over the ‘subliminal messaging’ in advertising—this content is typically glaringly obvious, so to ‘interpret’ it is to be hardly interpreting anything at all (as we know: advertising wants you to decode its subliminal-not-subliminal messaging, often self-mocking in its feigned performance of ‘hiding’ it). In this case, the true interpretive procedure is not to decode the subliminal messages in advertising, which are barely below the surface, but rather to discover how advertising qua form is able to drive behaviours despite the fact that no-one takes it messaging seriously, subliminal or otherwise.

In relation to the analysis of commodities, Žižek is here criticising interpretations that place heavy emphasis on the passages in Marx that describe the substance of value as ‘socially-necessary labour time’. Like the latent dream-thought, the substance of value is ultimately unimportant, almost arbitrary—the true secret of the commodity lies rather in the form of value, defined by the process of ‘real abstraction’ implicit in the act of exchange under a universal equivalence.

If, then, the ‘real abstraction’ has nothing to do with the level of ‘reality’, of the effective properties, of an object, it would be wrong for that reason to conceive of it as a ‘thought-abstraction’, as a process taking place in the ‘interior’ of the thinking subject: in relation to this ‘interior’, the abstraction appertaining to the act of exchange is in an irreducible way external, decentred—or, to quote Sohn-Rethel’s concise formulation: ‘The exchange abstraction is not thought, but it has the form of thought.’ (Žižek, 2008, p. 13)

This insight dovetails with the Lacanian conception of the unconscious.

Here we have one of the possible definitions of the unconscious: the form of thought whose ontological status is not that of thought, that is to say, the form of thought external to the thought itself—in short, some Other Scene external to the thought whereby the form of thought is already articulated in advance. (Žižek, 2008, p. 13)

This reading socialises and de-essentialises the unconsious—rather than being conceived as some inner repository (pop Freud), or some ancient hardwiring (Jung), the Lacanian unconscious is identified with those operations of the symbolic field which are not explicitly represented, or as Brandom puts it (via Habermas), “those aspects of the language one speaks of which one is unaware.” (Brandom, 2015)

This misrecognition brings about the fissure of the consciousness into ‘practical’ and ‘theoretical’: the proprietor partaking in the act of exchange proceeds as a ‘practical solipsist’: he overlooks the universal, social-synthetic dimension of his act, reducing it to a casual encounter of atomized individuals in the market. This ‘repressed’ social dimension of his act emerges thereupon in the form of its contrary—as universal Reason turned towards the observation of nature[.] (Žižek, 2008, p. 15)

This point needs more elaboration, but Žižek is here suggesting that the repression of the social-synthetic dimension of exchange is directly correlative with the epistemic displacement of the bourgeois subject to a view-from-nowhere.

The crucial paradox of this relationship between the social effectivity of the commodity exchange and the ‘consciousness’ of it is that—to use again a concise formulation by Sohn-Rethel—‘this non-knowledge of the reality is part of its very essence’: the social effectivity of the exchange process is a kind of reality which is possible only on condition that the individuals partaking in it are not aware of its proper logic; that is, a kind of reality whose very ontological consistency implies a certain non-knowledge of its participants—if we come to ‘know too much’, to pierce the true functioning of social reality, this reality would dissolve itself. (Žižek, 2008, p. 15)

Here is the claim that the social-synthetic dimension of act of exchange is necessarily repressed. Elaborating this thought, Žižek turns to a parallel form of ‘fetishism’ found in pre-capitalist society: the divine right of kings.

‘Being-a-king’ is an effect of the network of social relations between a ‘king’ and his ‘subjects’; but—and here is the fetishistic misrecognition—to the participants of this social bond, the relationship appears necessarily in an inverse form: they think that they are subjects giving the king royal treatment because the king is already in himself, outside the relationship to his subjects, a king: as if the determination of ‘being-a-king’ were a ‘natural’ property of the person of a king. (Žižek, 2008, p. 20)

The actual, socially effective authority of the king is based purely on the fact that his subjects grant him this authority—but if they were aware of this the authority would be destabilised, since they could then choose to retract it. In this sense it is the very fact that the subjects misrepresent the relation—treating the authority of the king as if it belonged to him as a natural property, like the colour of his hair—is a condition of its existence.

(I think this could perhaps be made more precise. Attributing authority is a coordination problem, and so the king’s power really depends on establishing its divine right as an item of common knowledge, which doesn’t necessarily depend on people believing in it in the first-order sense. We could imagine a situation in which no one really believes in the king’s divine authority, but everyone still goes along with it because they can’t be sure whether or not others are equally incredulous and it seems too dangerous to ask. What would undermine the king’s power is if his subjects were to gain common awareness—an awareness that includes an awareness of each others awareness—that his authority depended on them granting it to him.)

With Sohn-Rethel, Žižek believes the social-synthetic function of commodity exchange is possible only when it is unconscious, falsely displaced onto a natural property, like the authority of the king. But it is not quite the same situation—in the passage from feudalism to capitalism something important was reversed. Unlike with the king, the fetishistic displacement no longer occurs at the level of social relations between people:

Precisely the opposite is true: commodity fetishism occurs in capitalist societies, but in capitalism relations between men are definitely not ‘fetishized’; what we have here are relations between ‘free’ people, each following his or her proper egoistic interest. The predominant and determining form of their interrelations is not domination and servitude but a contract between free people who are equal in the eyes of the law. Its model is the market exchange: here, two subjects meet, their relation is free of all the lumber of veneration of the Master, of the Master’s patronage and care for his subjects; they meet as two persons whose activity is thoroughly determined by their egoistic interest, every one of them proceeds as a good utilitarian; the other person is for him wholly delivered of any mystical aura[.] (Žižek, 2008, p. 21)

The two forms of fetishism are thus incompatible: in societies in which commodity fetishism reigns, the ‘relations between men’ are totally defetishized, while in societies in which there is fetishism in ‘relations between men’—in pre-capitalist societies—commodity fetishism is not yet developed, because it is ‘natural’ production, not production for the market, which predominates. This fetishism in relations between men has to be called by its proper name: what we have here are, as Marx points out, ‘relations if domination and servitude’—that is to say, precisely the relation of Lordship and Bondage in a Hegelian sense; and it is as if the retreat of the Master in capitalism was only a displacement: as if the defetishization in the ‘relations between men’ was paid for by the emergence of fetishism in the ‘relations between things’—by commodity fetishism.


  1. Brandom, R. (2015). Towards Reconciling Two Heroes: Habermas and Hegel. Argumenta, 1(1), 29–42. [PDF]
  2. Žižek, S. (2008). The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso. [PDF]
Žižek on Marx's Symptoms - August 29, 2021 - Divine Curation