Term Crossing:


Zizek and Commodity-Form

The first chapter of Slavoj Zizek's book, The Sublime Object of Ideology, opens with an examination of Lacans claim that Karl Marx invented the notion of “symptom” (11) – a critical concept employed by both Marx and Freud in their respective disciplines.  While novice theorists may initially balk at the thought of trying to integrate psychoanalysis and Marxism, the answer to this initial, seemingly bland query is well-worth the wait.  Zizek skillfully elaborates the parallels existing between Marx’s analysis of the world of commodities and Freud’s – followed by Lacan’s – analysis of the world of the unconscious.  While he highlights the “fundamental homology” (11) between their respective interpretative procedures, he simultaneously moves to guide his readers’ attention to the emphasis on “form” central to both schools.

Boldly maintaining that the “secret” to be revealed through analysis is not the content but, instead, the “secret” of the enigmatic form itself (the form both of commodities and of dreams), Zizek admonishes his reader to “avoid the properly fetishistic fascination of the ‘content’ supposedly hidden behind the form” (11).  He posits, in other words, that inquiry in this area should not remain centered exclusively, as it has in the past, on the typical quest to reveal disguised significance/meaning: We should abandon “the fascination in this kernel of signification”(14) lurking behind what is manifestly expressed in a dream.  Instead, the paramount concern should be to discover the nature of the “dream-work” (13) itself – to investigate the question of why thoughts/desires, via such mechanisms as displacement and condensation (12), take on the form of “dream” in the first place.

Similar tensions between content and form exist, as Zizek pointed out earlier, in the realm of commodities, where:

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. (Zizek 11)

His consistent use of the term “commodity-form” throughout the text serves, obviously enough, to reemphasize the author’s initial preoccupation with questions of structure, form, and configuration. Zizek explores a Marxian analysis of this problem in relation to both feudal and capitalist societies in an effort to reveal the “secret” of the commodity-form, but sometimes his search seems to raise nearly as many questions as answers.  Apparently classical political economy -- its attention “captivated by labour as the true source of wealth” -- must also struggle (as mentioned in relation to dream) with a “fascination in the secret hidden behind” the commodity-form and an interest “only in contents concealed” behind this form (15).

 Zizek credits Marx’s analysis of the commodity-form with exerting a substantial amount of influence on many different disciplines (16) and then moves to address the question of why it has remained so pervasively compelling.  He posits that it “offers a kind of matrix enabling us to generate all other forms of the ‘fetishistic inversion’: it is as if the dialectics of the commodity-form presents us with a pure . . . version of a mechanism offering us a key to the theoretical understanding of phenomena” (16).  Pulling in the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, “the theoretician who has gone furthest in unfolding the universal reach of the commodity-form,” Zizek even suggests the radical possibility of discovering the Kantian “transcendental subject” by examining the structure of the commodity-form (16).  He builds on the thesis that “the formal analysis of the commodity” was essential not only to the critique of political economy, but also to “the historical explanation of the abstract conceptual mode of thinking” (Sohn-Rethel qtd. in Zizek 16).   Zizek posits that the act of abstraction achieved in the “very effective process of the exchange of commodities” -- what Sohn-Rethel refers to as the “real abstraction” – is, in actuality, “the unconscious of the transcendental subject, the support of objective-universal scientific knowledge” (18).

Works Cited

Zizek, Slavoj.  The Sublime Object of Ideology.  London:  Verso, 1989.

Contact the author  Mollie K. Clemons



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