ZIZEK, NORMAN O. BROWN, AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CULTURE
By Richard Koenigsberg
According to Slavoj Zizek, the fundamental level of ideology is that of an "(unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality." Ideology is not a "dreamlike illusion," rather is a "fantasy-construction which serves as a support for our ‘reality’ itself." Matthew Sharpe notes that just as an individual subject’s discursive universe will "only ever be unified through recourse to a fantasy," so too the public ideological frame wherein political subjects take their bearings can only function through the vehicle of what Zizek calls "ideological fantasies."
Norman O. Brown's writings on culture and fantasy in Life against Death: the Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (1959) allow us to expand upon Zizek's theory of ideology. Freud believed that anything arising from within that seeks to become conscious must try to "transform itself into external perceptions." Since there is no direct channel of communication between consciousness and the unconscious, therefore repressed unconscious energies Brown says must "go out into external reality before they can be perceived by consciousness." Repressed impulses must first "find real objects in the external world and attach themselves to real objects before their nature can become manifest to the subject."
Brown proposes, in short, a method that allows us to study unconscious fantasy by observing how fantasies attach themselves to objects in the external world. Traditionally, psychoanalysis studies and treats individuals within the clinical situation. Brown proposes another method for studying and treating the subject based on looking outward to observe how desires, conflicts and fantasies are projected into cultural objects. Ideologies from this perspective constitute "containers" for shared fantasies; cognitive structures that allow members of society to project their fantasies into reality.
In contemporary theory, concepts such as culture, ideology, discourse and narrative are taken as "givens." These concepts are used to "explain" the mind, but are not themselves considered to be subject to explanation. However, one may pose questions such as: Why do particular discourses become dominant within a given society? Why do some narratives replicate whereas others do not? How may we account for the structure and shape of particular ideologies, and the passion with which they are embraced?
Whereas Lacanian theorists view the mind as a product of the symbolic order, Brown seeks to explain the nature and shape of the symbolic order itself. Brown states that culture represents a set of "projections of the repressed unconscious." Symbolic objects in culture, according to Brown, exist to the extent that they perform psychological functions for the subject. Culture, Brown declares, exists in order to allow human beings to "project the infantile complexes into concrete reality, where they can be seen and mastered."
The concept of transference grows out of the clinical situation. According to psychoanalyst Herman Nunberg, "Transference is a projection." The patient's inner and unconscious relations with his first libidinal objects, Nunberg says, are externalized. The patient displaces emotions belonging to an unconscious representation of a repressed object to a "mental representation of an object in the external world."
Nunberg observes that the tendency to transfer infantile experiences into reality and to act them out can be observed "not only in the transference situation but also independently of it." In a broad sense, then, transference may be understood as a mechanism allowing energies and affects that had been bound to inner objects to become attached to objects in the external world. Nunberg speaks of the urge to "establish identity of perception through repetition of past experience."
Why should one assume that transference happens only in the clinical situation? I propose that the mechanism of transference is operative at all times and all places. The subject constantly seeks to push inner mental contents outward; to separate and to become released from internal objects; to draw energy away from infantile objects in order to make this energy available for action in the external world. Human beings constantly are projecting fantasies into social reality.
Brown states that culture—like the transference—is created by the repetition compulsion and constantly produces "new editions of the infantile conflicts." Culture thus may be viewed as "one vast arena in which the logic of the transference works itself out." The infantile fantasies that create the human neurosis, Brown says, cannot be directly apprehended or mastered, "but their derivatives in human culture can."
Culture may be viewed as a symbolic medium that allows desire and fantasies to become externalized and articulated as social reality. Culture represents a screen for the projection of mental contents. Symbolic objects in society constitute objectifications; containers for our fantasies permitting us to "perceive" them. Culture therefore, according to Brown, "does for all mankind what the transference was supposed to do for the individual."
We need no longer be content, therefore, with tautological concepts such as "discourse" and "narrative." Brown's account of the relationship between the subject and culture suggests that it is possible to explain or account for a culture's discourses and narratives. Ideologies exist within societies as modus operandi allowing members of society to express and articulate their shared fantasies. To explain a specific ideology, therefore, we seek to identify the nature of the shared desires and fantasies that are its source.
Central to Zizek's theory according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is his belief that successful political ideologies necessarily "refer to and turn around sublime objects." These sublime objects are what political subjects take it that their regime's ideologies mean, extraordinary things like God, the Führer, the King, in whose name they will (if necessary) "transgress ordinary moral laws and lay down their lives." Political ideologies provide subjects with a way of seeing the world organized around "Great" or Transcendent objects such as the nation, God, Freedom, etc., objects that surely are "far above the ordinary or profane things of the world."
In Zizek's Lacanian terms, these objects are "Real Things" precisely insofar as they "stand out from the reality of ordinary things and events." Matthew Sharpe suggests that these sublime objects intimate to subjects a "beyond." "Master signifiers" such as "God" or "the people" or "the Jews" or "the bourgeois" are precisely objects that no subject can ever quite "place in the fabric of his/her usual phenomenological self-experience," yet which are "taken by them to be what gives meaning and unity to the entire field."
What Zizek calls "sublime objects" I call "omnipotent objects." These are cultural ideas into which the subject's fantasy that omnipotence exists on the face of the earth has been projected. Omnipotent objects constitute the central "terms" of an ideology: those fantasy objects around which everything else revolves. Hitler's ideology, for example, derived from two principle terms or omnipotent objects: "Germany" and "the Jew." Hitler built a political movement—in fact an entire culture—based on fantasies that he and the German people projected into these words.
Based on analysis of images and metaphors contained within Hitler's writings and speeches, my book Hitler's Ideology reconstructs the fantasy that was the source of Nazism. Nazi ideology revolved around the idea of Germany as a gigantic body politic consisting of people as "cells" of this body. Jews were conceived as "bacteria" whose continued presence within the body politic would lead to its demise. Genocide represented the acting out of the fantasy contained within the ideology. The Final Solution was undertaken in order to destroy the source of the nation's disease and thereby to "save the life" of Germany.
Hitler's ideology represented a societally defined structure of thought that allowed Hitler and the German people to project their fantasies into reality. Nazi ideology was the vehicle through which the shared unconscious fantasies of Hitler and other Germans made their way into the external world. Hitler sought to create "history" as the means for acting out fantasies contained within his ideology.
Ideology (as a form of culture) represents a modus operandi permitting human beings to express and articulate their fantasies in the external world. By virtue of their capacity to act as containers for shared fantasies, ideologies perform psychological work. Ideologies act as a centrifugal force, drawing fantasies away from infantile objects; allowing psychic energy to become available for action in social reality.
Ideologies allow unconscious fantasies to become "transformed into external perceptions." They represent manifest content expressing a latent meaning. We may study an ideology, therefore, in order to discern the nature and shape of the fantasy that has been projected into and is contained within the ideology. We observe the workings of the mind by studying the symbolic objects into which fantasies have been projected.
Lee Harris writes about "Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology." He observes that when an individual is caught up in his own, idiosyncratic fantasy, rarely does this fantasy impact upon reality. But what happens, Harris asks, when it is not an individual who is caught up in his fantasy but an "entire group, or a people, or even a nation." That such a thing can happen is "obvious from a glance at history." For most of history, Harris notes, "such large-scale collective fantasies appear on the world stage under the guise of religion."
But this changed, Harris suggests, with the French Revolution. From this event onward, there would be eruptions of a "new kind of collective fantasy," one in which political ideology replaced religious mythology as the source of fantasy's symbols and rituals. Political ideologies provided a "new, and quite dangerous, outlet for the fantasy needs of large groups of men and women." Collective fantasies generate history through the vehicle of ideology. A group fantasy makes no sense, Harris observes, "outside of the ideological corpus in terms of which the fantasy has been constructed."
Ideologies may be understood, then, as societally defined structures of thought that human beings have invented in order to perform psychological work. Ideologies allow human beings to project their fantasies into the external world, where they may be "seen" and manipulated. Energies that had been attached to infantile objects are "released" by virtue of the capacity for "sublime objects of ideology" to substitute for infantile objects.