The Utopia of the Commodity– Revolution by Proxy Posted by larvalsubjects under Abstraction , Appearance , Ideology , Politics , Rhetoric , Zizek , labor September 26, 2007
In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek argues that ideology should not be sought in the conscious thoughts and intentions of a person, but rather ideology is to be found in the objects themselves. It is not persons who have ideological beliefs, but rather objects behave in our stead. Zizek is, of course, being cute and dramatic in this claim; however, his point is that the ordinary bourgeois knows very well that, for instance, there is nothing magical about money, that it is simply a sign representing a value, and that it has no worth. However, despite the bourgeois’ sound, nominalistic reasoning, the bourgeois nonetheless behaves towards money as if it were something magical, as if it contained value in and of itself. Zizek provides a number of examples to illustrate this point. Thus, for example, the Tibetan prayer wheel prays on our behalf, relieving us of the need to pray for ourselves. We simply attach our prayer to the wheel, and the wheel does the work for us, leaving us free to go about our business. The television laugh track experiences the show for us, relieving us of the exhausting activity of having to laugh while watching the show or feel sorrow when witnessing certain terrible events. When I watch a comedy with a friend I might very well laugh out loud, but when alone the show does the work for me. Nonetheless, I speak of the show the following day to my colleagues, talking about how amusing I found it. According to Zizek there are even people who hire professional grievers to wail at funerals of loved ones. A friend and I used to joke that online dating follows this model. You place your romantic ad on a website and it is the ad itself that enjoys in your place by virtue of the number of views it gets. In this way you’re relieved of the irritation of dating and can go about your ordinary business.
In citing these examples Zizek is, of course, expanding Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism. According to Marx, commodity fetishism is that feature of capitalism such that social relations come to appear not as relations among people, but rather as relations among things. Our social relations, as it were, come to be embodied in things rather than as relations between people. All of this begs the question of what it is that we’re really consuming when we’re consuming commodities. Take the Hummer. The reality of the Hummer is certainly very different than what I see advertised on television. I cannot drive my Hummer off a cliff into the ocean and drive under water like a submarine, nor do I generally conquer the world and nature with my muscular vehicle. Rather, it is likely that I use this massive truck to drive back and forth between the office and home. I remain locked in traffic just as I was before. Indeed, far from decreasing my level of stress, it is likely that the Hummer increases my stress as it is a large car that takes up most of the lane, thereby perpetually generating the worry that someone else will run into me.
The case is similar with the iPhone. The iPhone commercials present a world where technology finally overcomes all its limitations, becomes rational, and where the various functions of technology are localized in one convenient, aesthetically appealing device. The well manicured hand that touches the buttons in the commercial, coupled with the timber of the man’s voice, evoke images of hip regions of the country such as San Francisco, Seattle, or Greenwich Village, where people wear corduroy pants and J. Crew sweaters, have leftist political orientations, are interested in interesting things, and are kind to one another. The whimsical music in the background evokes images of a sunny day in a happy world, where everything is amusing and everything is done for the sake of amusement. In short, the commercials evoke a world that is entertaining and characterized by rich friendships, not a world of labor or work. Yet it is likely that the reality of the iPhone is a reality where the phone is used for work and labor, where most of the functions are never used, and where the phone is an integral part of the daily drudgery that characterizes life.
It would seem that what we are consuming when we consume the commodity, is not so much the commodity itself, it’s “use-value”, but rather its symbolic-value. Part of this symbolic-value is, of course, the prestige that it confers. But another part of this symbolic-value is not the commodity as a sign of status, but rather the commodity as a proxy for utopia. It is sometimes suggested that images of the future, images of utopia, have disappeared from the world. We are said to live in an age that is pervaded by cynicism, where the great political imaginaries of the 19th century and early 20th century, have departed from the world such that they are obtrusive in their absence.
However, precisely the opposite is true. The world in which we live is a world pervaded by utopian imaginaries. In and through advertising– and examples from other areas could be evoked –we live in a world that is literally saturated by utopian imaginaries and visions: Utopian images of sexual and romantic relations that surmount the impossibility of the sexual relation, where an Herbal Essence shampoo or Axe body spray can prove more satisfying than the most intense amorous encounter; imaginaries of technological utopia where the frustrations that characterize our current techno-sphere are surmounted and all the irritations that populate are mundane dailiness are solved; social utopias where people are kind to one another and needs and desires are filled, and where we have winding empty, scenic, roads where we can drive for hours (perhaps utopia in this imaginary shouldn’t be thought as “nowhere”, but rather as noone… But of course, me).
In consuming the product we also give voice to our utopian yearnings by proxy, in absentia, as a supplement or remainder… But in such a way as to not change this present, this world, but in the fullest sense of a supplement: as something that intervenes in this world to render it tolerable without risking the disappointed of failed attempts to change this world. Perhaps when Zizek or Jodi Dean evokes the values of sacrifice to revolutionary politics, this sacrifice should not be thought as a necessary sacrifice to throw a wrench into the mechanisms of capitalist production, but rather the sacrifice of a desire based on supplementarity, where the future is always deferred, and desire desires through the surrogate.