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Art, Consumption & the

[Unconditional] Superego in
the Twenty-First Century.
The reason why the superego is stronger
in men than in women is that it is men and
not women who are intensely related to the
excess of the surplus enjoyment over the
pacifying function of the symbolic law.1
The preceding quotation from Slavoj
Zizeks The Fragile Absolute, is an insight
into how the male superego is correlated to
materialist consumption and enjoyment in
the Western Capitalist economic order. In
what follows, it is to be considered that the
human desire for surplus-enjoyment is a
hand in glove match with the surplus value
dynamic of Capitalism.2 The myriad of
commodities produced, over an array of
industries, provide a surplus-enjoyment
that can be characterized as temporarythat is, individuals find themselves in a
perpetual cycle consumption and temporary
satisfaction. A key characteristic of
Capitalism is the ambush of lesser objects
of desire, or simply, imitations- for Lacan,
objet petit a. An aspect that has led Zizek

to infer that commodities, function as

the direct embodiment of it: of the pure
surplus enjoyment over standard
satisfactions, of the mysterious and elusive
X we are all after in our compulsive
consumption of merchandise.3 This
elusive X Zizek mentions alludes that we
are all after some ultimate good, a fantasy,
that will wholly satisfy our levels of
enjoyment and in order to get it, we blindly
consume objects of a lesser representation
as a means of temporary satisfaction.
Using Coca-Cola as the epitome of
all Capitalist commodities, Zizek highlights
the paradox in which one consumes false
representation, or objet petit a- that is, the
more one consumes, the thirstier one is.
This Coca-Cola paradox serves as a model
of cyclical consumption- for the more one
consumes, one actually experiences a lack
and continues to expend to fill this lack
insatiably. In other words, a misrecognition
of fullness. And so the compulsive
consumption of merchandise creates a
situation whereby every attainment of
pleasure leads one to desire increased
quantities of a commodity.4
This cycle is often as equated as
neurosis, one that is sustained as
Capitalism excels at making empty

Zizek, Slavoj, The Fragile Absolute, (London:

Verso, 2000), p. 24.
Zizek, p. 22.


Ibid, p. 22.
Ibid, p. 22.

promises to satisfy a consumers desires, or

drives- essentially promises that are never
fully realized.
In light of this neurosis of consumption,
ones curiosity may peak as to where this
neurosis originated and why it appears
stronger in males. This mechanism within
the male psyche can be understood by
taking an observation of a mythical tale by
Sigmund Freud, The Myth of the Primordial
Horde- a myth characterized by a primal
father, or king, of a primordial tribe who, by
his position of power in the tribe, is allowed
unrestricted enjoyment and possession of
all women in the tribe; a privilege that
effectively instigates the resentment and
jealousy of all the other men in the horde,
in particular, the kings sons.
The fathers role as a legislative and
prohibitive agent arouses an envy that leads
the progeny from temptation, to neurotic
fantasy to the eventual act of parricide in
order to remove their principal obstacle to
enjoyment. One can see that the fantasy of
a powerful position, with little or no
restraint, is an essential element in
understanding why objectification and the
submissiveness of [multiple] female
partners illustrate a male fantasy and not a
feminine one.
For Lacan, this primordial story is a proper
example of how desire is constructed
through fantasies rooted in cultural

ideology of the symbolic order, whether

those be laws or projections of idealism,
stigma or social convention- through
fantasy, we learn how to desire.5 After
examining this mythical tale, one can
deduce that it is males who are more able
to endure their integration into the
symbolic order, our linguistic structure,
when this incorporation is sustained by
some hidden reference to the fantasy of
unrestrained and uninhibited enjoyment- it
is excessive. And with this primordial and
instinctual ingrained chimera of unchecked
satisfaction, the male psyche is entertained
with the constant fantasy of an
unconditional superego injunction to
enjoy, to go to the extreme, to transgress
and constantly force the limits of
For Freud, the superego paradoxically and
constantly desires more and more as a
means to overwhelmingly satisfy the lack
created by consumption, to regulate it- or
in other words, the more profit is earned
the more that higher levels of profit are
desired. In further wanting or lusting, the
male kneels to obey his unconditional
superego and in the form of an after

Zizek Slavoj, Looking Awry: An Introduction to

Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture,
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), p. 6.
Zizek, p.24.

thought, feels a sense of guilt in

consequence for testing such limits, a key
characteristic of the superego. With this
temporary transgression of social limits and
the satisfaction of drives, one can feel that
they lack even more than before (and this
directly translates as drive), which only
increases the craving and cyclically leads to
increased levels of the desire to satisfy and
therefore, to consume.
To transpose this logic onto an individual
living and working in the Capitalist system:
the more one spends and consumes, the
more one feels they have to spend.7 With
the superego propelled by this lack from
the guilt of unchecked consumption
together with an indebted desire to
consume at higher levels, one can observe,
as it is the focus of this composition, that
these two mechanisms work cyclically and
at the same time, effectively endangering
the structure, role and process of sacred
things, namely art, religion or culture, in
our symbolic order.
In obeying the superego and desiring
to transgress social limits which restrain,
males have, over history, formulated the
symbolic order through their physical and
social dominance in order to benefit
themselves, or to satisfy their drives. This
implies the exclusion of women from the

Ibid, p. 24.

symbolic order while men have the power

of the gaze (e.g. voyeurism), a power that is
exercised in several linguistic and social
senses. The male gaze, the way the male
views a presented female or object, which
has constructed the coherence of the
symbolic order, has assigned the
[sexualized] female body as the ultimate
unattainable object of the male object of
desire. A notion most exemplified in
Gustave Courbets Lorigine du Monde,8 a
French impressionist painting which has
often been noted as the death of
traditionalist painting as it considerably
exposes the female body.
In the strides of traditionalist art,
the (exposed) female body is the
impossible object which, precisely because
it is unrepresentable, functions as the
ultimate horizon of representation whose
disclosure is forever postponed.9 To cite a
more modern example, it is commonplace
to refer to pornography as the genre that is
supposed to reveal all there is to reveal,
and hide nothing while offering all for our
view to register.10 Thus, the male gaze
endeavors to fill the Void of the Thing11

Zizek, p. 36.
Zizek, p. 37.
Zizek, p. 109.
Also known as (Lacanian) Das Ding or the Real
- Symbolized as the symbiotic harmony (of a

with sublimated images of beauty and not

the entirely exposed female form, working
to entertain and temporarily satisfy the
drive. And for Zizek, the crucial point of
traditionalist painting is that the true
incestuous naked body is none the less
waiting there to be discovered- in short,
the illusion of traditional realism does not
lie in the faithful rendering of the depicted
objects; rather it lies in the belief that
behind the directly rendered objects is the
absolute Thing which could be possessed if
only we were able to discard the obstacles
or prohibitions that prevent access to it.12
Thus, the Thing is itself the elusive ultimate
object cause of desire, waiting to be
discovered behind imitative false desires, or
objet petit a. While objet petit a is a way
for us to establish coordinates for our own
varying desires, coming too close to the
true Thing we ultimately desire threatens to
uncover the lack that, in fact, our desire
relies on to persist.
Furthermore, it is the patriarchaloriented symbolic order concurring with the
Capitalist system that has striven to meet
this void of male fantasy. For example,
male (sexual) fantasies such as multiple sex
baby) in the womb- it is pre-existent and
unperceivable to an individual at a conscious
Ibid, p. 37.

partners, the veneration of female (and

male) pornographers, or programmed
cyborgs tend to pervade the symbolic order
more so than female ones. In addition, one
can see why the most stimulating, shocking
and provocative art such as the
objectification of scantily clad women in
product marketing, the increasing limits of
PG-13 cinema as well as the graphic images
favored by the media is continue to push
the envelope in the business realm.
To surmise a connection between the
unconditional superego and the Capitalist
consumption of commodified objet petit a,
one may relate this understanding of the
superego and Capitalism and make a bridge
to modern art to see its pervasive effects. It
is the Capitalist tendency to homogenize
via mass production and distribution that
has had modern decades witness the
commodification and sale as well as
distribution of culture, and varying fusions
of cultures on a mass scale. What this has
done, many feel, is degraded the beauty,
uniqueness and power of the sublimation of
the Beautiful- things that were once sacred
have lost their awe and power to inspire. It
is no longer unique, but rather, mass
commodified- discounted. Zizek has
remarked that culture has become the
central component of the market economy
which consequently brings forth the
waning of the old modernist avant-garde

logic of provocation, of shocking the

In order for Capitalism to reproduce itself
and spread to every corner of the globe,
this institutionalized economic system must
increasingly tolerate racier and extrashocking products and ideas. The foremost
Capitalist social order, the United States,
must not only tolerate these provocations,
but rather to provoke stronger and more
shocking effects and products; in the end,
creating new markets. As Karl Marx has
iterated, Capitalism dissolves all stable
links and traditions of a culture- in
example form, the use of excrement in art
or the sale of Jesus action figures or
fashionable Che Guevara accoutrements.14
However, once the shock has subsided and
been accepted by the fringes of the status
quo, the status quo in effect incorporates it
into a free and competitive market. Thus,
provocations are integrated into the
establishment and the system feeds on the
inherent shocking excesses. Thus, for
Zizek, another criteria for postmodern art is
the loss of its shock value and integrations
into the commodified/homogenized art


Zizek, p. 25.
Zizek, p. 40.
Zizek, p. 25.

Zizek continues to emphasize that, the gap

that separates the sacred space of the
sublime beauty from the excremental space
of trash (leftover) is gradually narrowing, up
to the paradoxical identity of opposites: are
not modern art objects more and more
excremental objects, trash (often in a quite
literal sense: feces, rotting corpses)
displayed in or made to occupy or to fill inthe sacred place of the Thing?16 Moreover,
as it is art, is not this identity in a way
the hidden truth of the entire movement?
Is not every element that claims the right to
occupy the sacred place of the Thing by
definition an excremental object? A piece
of trash that can never be up to its task?
the sublimated truth, or as Zizek refers to
it, the Grail,17 will reveal to be nothing but a
piece of shit- inscribed in the very kernel
of the Lacanian objet petit a.18 Thus the
inadequacy of objet petit a may be equated
as nothing but an inadequate and useless
piece of shit, but not to be degraded as

Lacanian Das Ding, or the ultimate cause of

desire. Zizek, p. 26.
The Holy cup or dish supposed to have been
used by Christ at the Last Supper, in which one
of his followers received the last drops of blood
from Christs body on the cross (Thorndike &
Barnhart Dictionary). Equated by Zizek as that
which is most sacred, or the ultimate cause of
desire, namely the Lacanian Thing.
Zizek, p. 26.

where there is a shadow, there is a light of

What is of worry here is that the
excremental objects in place of the Thing,
are equated as variably inadequate and are
elevated to the dignity of the Thing.19
Consequently, the sacredness of the Thing
is threatened as what is under threat is
the very gap between the Real and the
(positive) element filling it in. Zizek
further remarks that, If traditional art
sought to sublime the Void of the Thing
with an adequately beautiful object, such
as the female form, then the problem with
modern art is, in a way, the opposite
(and much more desperate) one: one can no
longer count on the Void of the (Sacred)
Place being there, offering itself to be
occupied by human artifacts, so the task is
to sustain the Place as such, to make sure
that this Place itself will take place.20
Thus, the reversal has developed into a
desperate mechanism of no longer
attempting to fill the Void but rather
wrestling with the problem of creating the
Void. That is what is creating new freely
competitive markets to search for and
inevitably and inadequately represent the
elusive Thing. This creates only another
onslaught of objet petit a- a task that

Capitalism excels at [inadequately]

fulfilling. The acknowledgement of an
empty space in the structure, will sustain
fantasies, in the form of commodities.
Paradoxically, Zizek infers that only an
element which is thoroughly out of place
(and excremental object, a piece of trash
or leftover) can sustain the void of an
empty place.21 However, Zizek is cautious
to recall that, What makes an object a work
of art is not simply its direct material
properties, but the place it occupies, the
(Sacred) Place of the Void of the Thing.22
Thus anything, even feces, may be an
artistic work if it finds itself in the right
In light of fecal matter art, Zizek
pens that, the first reaction to seeing feces
in the sublime Place is to ask indignantly:
Is this art?- but it is precisely this negative
reaction, this experience of the radical
incongruity between the object and the
Place it occupies, that makes us aware of
the specificity of this Place. Zizek
continues by noting that, the reason why
excrements are elevated into a work of art,
used to fill in the Void of the Thing, is not
simply to demonstrate that anything goes,
that the object is ultimately irrelevant, since
any object can be elevated into and occupy




Lacanian definition of sublimation. Ibid, p. 26.

Zizek, p. 27.


Ibid, p. 27.
Zizek, p. 33.

the Place of the Thing; this recourse to

excrement, rather, bears witness to a
desperate strategy to ascertain that the
Sacred Place is still there its so not sacred
anymore that anything can take its place
and be sold, even a piece of shit.23
Again, what Zizek feels is of concern is that,
with the commodification of aesthetics, an
aesthetically pleasing or beautiful object is
less and less able to sustain the Void of the
Thing- so it is as if, paradoxically, the only
way to sustain the (Sacred) Place is to fill it
up with trash, with an excremental object.24
What is comforting is Zizeks comment that
it is todays artists who display excremental
objects of art who, far from undermining
the logic of sublimation are desperately
striving to save Das Ding. What is at stake
in this human endeavor is that the
consequences of the collapse of the
element into the Void of the Place itself are
potentially catastrophic: without the
minimal gap between the element and its
Place, there simply is no symbolic order.25
It is the commodification of aesthetics that
is the draining away of the very capacity to
sublimate, that changes every encounter
with the Thing into a disruptive global
catastrophe, the end of the world.

Zizek, p. 30-31.
Zizek, p. 32.
Ibid, p. 32.

Because the sublimation of the Void of the

Thing is focused on the excesses of objet
petit a, Capitalism is no longer the domain
of the discourse of the Master.26 To return
to what Marx theorized, all that is solid
does melt into air- and not only material
commodities, but also the stability of the
symbolic order. In observing The Thing,
one must not forget that the Place is an a
priori utopian state of mind that can never
be realized in the present tense.27 The fuel
of the superego, the lack from the guilt of
unrestrained consumption, and the
neurosis of desiring to consume more,
work cyclically to endanger Art- its process
and role in the symbolic order.
Further, a complete disregard for the
environment and century-old traditions will
no longer be historicized in a postmodern
vain but rather discarded and eliminated.
Capitalism, driven by the superego longing
to return to the Real as well as the Real of
Capital, has come to commodify shock
value and integrated it into the market
economy. In effect, degrading the beauty,
uniqueness and power of the sublimation of
the Beautiful. In understanding the male
superego one can make steps to resist and
deconstruct the power structures of the
Western order- patriarchal, political,

Zizek, p. 39-40.
Zizek, p. 31.

economic as well as clerical as Zizek

compellingly and optimistically feels that
one must because one can.

Zizek, Slavoj, The Fragile Absolute,
(London: Verso, 2000).
Zizek, Slavoj, Looking Awry: An
Introduction to Jacques Lacan through
Popular Culture, (Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 1991).