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Zizek, Norman O. Brown and Richard Koenigsberg:
The Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Culture
Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History

Norman O. Brown

The Psychoanalysis of Racism, Revolution and Nationalism

Richard A. Koenigsberg

The Sublime Object of Ideology

Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek states (2009) that 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 observes 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.”

Central to Zizek’s theory 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 and experiencing the world. Reality comes to be 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.” 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.”

Norman O. Brown

According to Norman O. Brown (1959), Freud believed that anything arising from within seeking 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 must “go out into external reality before they can be perceived by consciousness.” Repressed impulses, Brown says, must first “find real objects in the external world and attach themselves to real objects before their nature can become manifest to the subject.”

One may study the unconscious, in short, by looking outward to observe how fantasies become bound to objects in the external world. Psychoanalytic data, traditionally, derived from the clinical situation. Brown proposes another methodology: We may know the mind by studying ideas and objects in the external world, observing how fantasies, desires and conflicts become bound to these objects.

For many years, concepts such as “discourse” and “narrative” dominated social theory. According to these perspectives, culture is the independent variable and mind the dependent variable (for example, theorists state that “discourses shape the body”). Discourses and narratives are viewed as if that structures that exist as dimensions of reality that shape  thought and behavior. As one theorist put it, the mind is created as human beings are “pushed and pulled by discourses.”

Whereas Lacanians view the “symbolic order” as a given—a thing unto itself—Brown aspires to explain the symbolic order. Human culture, Brown says, exists “in order to project the infantile complexes into concrete reality, where they can be seen and mastered.”

The phrase “in order to” presents a challenge to conventional social theory. It is not sufficient to state that culture shapes the mind. Rather, we must seek to understand how the mind shapes culture. We are the source. Cultural forms and ideological structures exists because we have created them.

We attach to ideologies and cultural objects because of what these ideas and objects do for us. Ideas and institutions, one may hypothesize, exist and are perpetuated precisely because they function to assist human beings as they struggle to resolve fundamental psychic dilemmas.

The concept of transference grows out of the clinical situation. According to Herman Nunberg (1990), “Transference is a projection.” The patient’s inner and unconscious relations with his first libidinal objects 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.” 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 would imagine one imagine that transference occurs only in the clinical situation? The mechanism of transference is operative, it would appear, at all times and all places—as human beings push inner mental contents outward; as we project fantasies into the external world. Indeed, the “external” world may be viewed as a place where unconscious fantasies are made manifest.

Brown states that culture—like the transference—is created by the repetition compulsion, constantly producing “new editions of the infantile conflicts.” Culture may be viewed as “one vast arena in which the logic of the transference works itself out.” The fantasies that create the human neurosis cannot directly be apprehended or mastered, but “their derivatives in human culture can.” Culture, Brown asserts, “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, one seeks to identify the nature of the shared desires and fantasies that are its source.

Richard Koenigsberg

What Zizek calls “sublime objects,” Koenigsberg calls “omnipotent objects.” More precisely, certain ideas allow human beings to project the fantasy of omnipotence into the external world.

Koenigsberg suggests that one of the most powerful human desires is the wish to believe that omnipotence exists on the face of the earth. Not content to be “human all too human,” we seek to be more than human—by creating and relating to cultural entities that seem all-powerful.

Each ideology revolves around a distinctive idea or object within a society—conceived to contain the principle of omnipotence. We give them names such as “freedom” or “communism” or “Allah” or “Germany.” These ideas or entities lie at the heart of their respective societies.

Hitler’s ideology, for example, revolved around two objects conceived as omnipotent. On the one hand was “Germany,” the good omnipotent object. On the other hand, was “the Jew”, an omnipotent object imagined to be working to destroy Germany’s omnipotence. Nazism may be understood—simply but precisely—as a struggle between two competing fantasies.

Hitler’s ideology represented a societally defined structure of thought that allowed the German people to project their fantasies into reality. Nazism constituted a shared fantasy. The history of Germany during the Nazi period represented the enactment of these shared fantasies.

Ideology (a form of culture), according to Koenigsberg, represents a vehicle that allows human beings to express and articulate their fantasies upon the stage of the external world. Ideologies—cultural containers—draw fantasies away from infantile objects and situations. Acting as a centrifugal force, they allow psychic energy to become available for social action.

We may study any specific ideology in order to discern the shape of the fantasy that is contained within this ideology. It is possible to perceive the nature and structure of the human mind by studying those symbolic objects into which the mind has been projected.