Our current era of modernity, Joan Copjec informs us,1 began at the advent of (post-Grecian) democracy—specifically, after the monarch was replaced with, as Claude Lefort once aptly put it, the “indetermination that was born from the loss of the substance of the body politic.”2 In other words, the locus of power once embodied by the monarch, upon the advent of modern democracy, “becomes an empty place…”
This is precisely why, now that the “throne is empty”—after democracy usurped the place of the throne—modern power, to use a Foucauldian expression (as Copjec puts it), is wielded by no one in particular though we are all subject to it.
What has insinuated its way into this Throne of Power these days, however, is a certain form of knowledge itself, that of ‘intellectual objectivity’—of which the external point of reference is Big Data, as some like put it; a bricolage of facts assembled by the objective intellects of today’s expert specialists and technocrats.
This is, to evoke the work of Georg Lukács, the result of modern-day capitalism.
The problem with this, of course, is that facts and data always conform to some determination that has its basis in interpretation; our approach to objective reality is supported by certain a priori assumptions we have about the world, whether we’re conscious of these assumptions or not.
To put it differently, objective facts about the world and our place in it are not exempt from ideology, the latter being the underlying fantasies that regulate our relation to objective reality itself.
Scientific objectivity, then, its explanatory approach to facts and data, cannot be fully sundered from language; and thus scientific facts and data cannot eschew being shaped and informed by ideology in some way or another. Which is just another way of saying that there is no fact or piece of data that we do not try to understand by making sense of.
Now, for example, post-Enlightenment capitalism, to paraphrase Lukács, presents us with a social structure that both stimulates and endorses the view that objective facts are invariable (to the point that they can be verified anytime by anyone, insofar as what’s objectively true is a statement whose external referent is endowed with a literal and ultimate sense; the belief that our language can adequately describe the thing in-itself); that objective facts are able to be wrested from their “living context” (without considerable repercussions) and applied to the theories endorsed by the ruling ideology of capitalism (without considerable repercussions)—an ideology that promotes the view that objective phenomena can be inspected in isolation, a view which fails to take into account the presence of the big Other, which often presides over our interpretative procedures; a view which fails to notice how “objective” facts are founded on the protean historical/conventional character of the very social structure on which they’re based.3
But already, I may be jumping ahead of myself here.
It is no less important to note, that if we do want to be thoroughly objective in the sciences we should recognize that it’s utterly impossible to remove the stain of subjectivity that leaves its smudge on all empirical experiments and observations. As Lacan tells us in Book X, and as I alluded to above, no matter what it is that is under our examination, “the dimension of the Other is present in the experiment”; one’s own presence, “as a human figure, handling a certain number of things around the [object under examination], has to be counted at any one moment as part of the experiment.”4
Objectivity per se is the most elementary ideological operation, for it symbolizes our immediate raw reality, transforming an unrefined reality as such into a formal, symbolic totality. Looked at somewhat differently, objectivity can also be referred to as the result of social (inter-subjective) forces, the result of a sort of “Group Think” operating over time—its sole function to provide and maintain, by means of “universal verification,” the internal consistency that holds together its subjects’ ‘reality principles’, which are always-already ideologically mediated by objectivity, an elemental ideology that reveals itself as empirical fact or necessity.
Suffice it to mention that Hegel already noticed this form of ideology creeping up in his day; as he put it in the preface of his Philosophy of Right, with regard to science’s emphasis on empiricism, “The unsophisticated heart takes [this] simple line of adhering with trustful conviction to what is publicly accepted as true”;5 and the problem with this “trustful conviction” lies in the fact that our systems of knowledge are essentially groundless. That there is no absolute authority, no external guarantee that our growing knowledge of the world and ourselves is without error, simply means that nothing is exempt from ideology, and, for that reason, philosophical criticism.
In other words, to return to Hegel just one more time, “the quintessence of shallow thinking,” is “to base [objective facts] not on the development of thought and the concept but on immediate sense-perception [empiricism] and the play of fancy.”6 Which is just another way of saying that such a reliance on a strict empiricism, which is none other than an embellished form of superficiality, may be accommodating with regard to the social order and its approach to understanding the world by which it’s circumscribed, but if we fail to “touch or even guess at the substance of things,” we are merely engaging in weak thinking.
There is, of course, a common refutation to this, a counterpoint that posits the claim that all of which has been mentioned thus far is merely a feint of sophistry. This claim is supported on the sole grounds that, “objectively” speaking, the mathematization of the object allows us to adequately know those inseparable primary qualities of the thing itself, those properties of the object which, in the absence of the thinking subject, still belong to the object itself without me (e.g., chemical composition, length, width, depth, size, movement, etc & c.). But, contrary to this opinion, is it not the case that, to think that mathematical terms can be conceived as properties intrinsic to the object itself is only to slip back into a dogmatic metaphysics? The problem is not with the axiomatic formulas, but with the great deal of lack when one goes searching for an underlying necessitating reason for such “ineliminable” laws. Because Kant went searching for an underlying reason for causality and found the noumena, we should know better by now, that there is nothing there.
The real bugger is this: thought cannot get outside itself; and to mathematize an object is to tie the object to a thinking subject nonetheless. In other words, we cannot think an object ‘in itself’ without it being an object ‘for us’. We cannot “creep up” on the world “from behind,” as Hegel amusingly put it; and thus there is no knowledge of the world that exists outside our subjective relation to it. We would perhaps fare well to give more attention to that which is lacking in the objective sciences: the subject.
As Žižek amply puts it, something is lost in this “transcendental dilemma” of ours: something that is constitutive of the subject itself: the “twisting configuration” that is brought about by a radical asymmetry, the non-correlation between the subject and reality; “in order for the subject to emerge,” Žižek writes, “the impossible object-that-is-subject must be excluded from reality, since it is its very exclusion that opens up the space for the subject.”7 That is to say, the thinking subject qua void is a rip in the positive field of reality itself, a nothing that gapes open towards the world at large, ready to receive the substantial content that will come to symbolize and thus constitute the inscription of the subject in this blank space. For those philosophers who insist on thinking reality in itself, outside the transcendental correlation, independent of the subject, the problem that awaits them is the real that insists in the subject itself, “the hard core of the real in the very heart of the subject.”8 This hits precisely upon what Lacan meant when he wrote: “That which is most concealed passes over to the outside.”9
In any case, to emphatically believe that objectivity delivers us to pure truth, to believe that it successfully closes the gaps between what is imaginary-symbolic and real, is none other than the fetishization of truth-values. It’s ideology tout court. And ideology is, in a nutshell, the prohibition of impossibility. However, suffice it to recall the Freudian concept of the death-drive, which tells us that the impossible is attainable—hence our enjoyment, it comes from a moment of pure excession, transgression, the challenging of the ideological “closure”….
Well, we’ve digressed a bit. The point to take away here is that, in capitalism, things work a bit differently than they had before in past forms of ideological closure. Here, in the ideological space of capital, individuals seek their enjoyment in objects and factual knowledge that are interned within the very ideological system that produces them. Therefore one’s enjoyment remains rigidly confined within the very thing one should be attempting to transgress. Or rather, one’s enjoyment is, paradoxically, rigidly confined in an extremely polymeric ideology: capitalism gains strength, its interpellative agency becomes more potent, its very structure bends and swells and thrives with every transgression. Why? Because with capitalism, in capitalism, everything is reduced to a brutal economic reality (including science itself; for the latter’s discoveries end up serving only the networks of capital), and in such a space capital’s objectivism becomes our only reality, and thus literally everything, prohibited or not, eventually becomes absorbed into the world of capital. That is to say, the logic of pure capitalism overlaps with the logic of pure objectivism, a Logic of the superficiality of the Object that results in a proto-psychotic fantasy in which subjectivity, or rather, self-relating subjective truth, moves towards obsolescence. Here, the gap between what is symbolic and real closes in on itself. The predominant belief is that science can integrate all former meaning into its own field of explanation, though we seldom notice how little room there is in this field to accommodate both belief and scientific explanation. Anyway, as Paul Ricouer put it so well in his essay, “Consciousness and the Unconscious,” in capitalism man lives this ideology of “economic objectivity as a … modality of subjectivity,” which gives rise to its very own representations, instincts, affects, and effects, and so on. And being at the very heart of this logic affects our being-in-the-world.10 It stages for us, by means of symbolic mediation, our relation to the immediate reality.
As a necessary tangent, if only to broach the origin of today’s intellectual objectivity, let us recall that the Enlightenment began so many centuries ago with an intellectual commitment to achieving a universal concordance between peace and justice, a struggle towards intellectual and spiritual freedom. As Jürgen Habermas reminds us, according to the Baron d’Holbach (the emblematic figure of the Enlightenment), “man is unhappy because he has an erroneous view of nature.”11 Accordingly, d’Holbach and his followers felt it important, if not imperative, to attain an understanding of reality through a rigorously detached, objective perspective of things in the world. Hence the conviction of the Enlightenment, the source of today’s injunction to be objective—the belief that objective knowledge of the laws of nature will reveal to us in empirical, sensual form essential truths, specifically those truths concerning how we ought to live.
It is interesting to reflect on and bear witness, however, to how this ideology gave rise to its own contradiction, how this promotion of objectivity contains within its own field an opposing element that ruptures its inner consistency. For what was, at its inception, scientific objectivity’s vision of delivering peace, justice, and happiness as a means to overcome the more insular, parochial perspectives that supported earlier misapprehensions of the world, soon became entrenched in its own insularity of sorts: the mechanistic, vulgar-materialist, rationalistic objectivist view that broke the world down into a container of objects, bereft of any relation to the observing subject; a world impoverished of Spirit, impoverished of the free thinking mind behind the entire system of science and the logic that drives its methodology; thus proffering a paradigm by which the world appears as an aggregate of senseless and meaningless things secured within an inflexible cause-and-effect relationship, “present-at-hand” for their manipulation by the morally superior objective specialists.
But what we should focus all our attention on right now is this “God’s-eye view” of the world, the “view from nowhere” that the Enlightenment dreamed up. This way of seeing things sub specie aeternitatis, a perspective believed to be located, fixed, outside the parameters of subjectivism, outside the deadlock of relativism, does not refer to any mastery, but to an alienation, the alienation of the subject from itself, and thus from the reality it disrupts . And that is both the crux and focus of our analysis: the unwitting construction of a big Other, in which all “knowledge wanders about” in the field of the Other, the “Other supposed to know”: God, the big Other as such.
Those secular humanists, those idealists of the Enlightenment, they had no idea that, unbeknownst to them, they had evoked the roar of God, reintroducing His presence in the guise of objectivity.
This carries with it a formidable threat, that of which has been bound to the social field itself for a very long time: that of off-loading responsibility for the repercussions of group behavior onto some form of an Absolute qua “scared Cause,” a perverted version of what Kierkegaard called the “religious suspension of the ethical.” And to push this implication to the brink of a sobering extreme, one should consider the percipient observation that, by dint of such a prevailing mechanistic, instrumentalist, objective view of the world, civil society, in its state of ((post-)industrial) modernity has become, and continues to be, increasingly organized like a concentration camp. It is tailored almost exclusively around production, overly rationalized and virtually heedless of the concerns of the individual, having no encouraging consideration for its “exceptions,” and thus driven to slowly but surely eradicate, if not suppress, all that exceeds the whole for the sake of attaining Utopia. Lacan himself arrived at this realization, as did Heidegger (evidenced by his later lectures that led up to his “The Question Concerning Technology“), and so did historian Lewis Mumford in his two-volume work The Myth of the Machine, as well as Zygmunt Bauman (Modernity and the Holocaust) and Giorgio Agamben (Homo Sacer).
In these times the master qua Absolute is none other than Big Data, for which today’s experts and specialists serve with unquestioning obedience. To borrow a fitting quote from Lacan, “information addresses and captures impotent crowds to whom it pours forth like a liquor that leaves them dazed as they move toward the slaughter house.”12
To get close to wrapping things up, let me state that what we are dealing with here is the Lacanian concept of ‘university discourse’. For Lacan, a discourse is not simply a mode of relating through language, but rather, a discourse is the very ground upon which social links are founded and maintained. The university discourse, according to Lacan, replaces the ‘master’s discourse’: it has taken the place of that which, historically, under the rule of a monarch, provided the basis for the organization of the state. But with the removal of the monarch, and upon the emergence of democracy, the paradigmatic network of knowledge, the university discourse as such, replaces the monarch’s throne. As Todd McGowan puts it:
The rise of the university discourse […] as a social link has the effect of installing the master in a position of near invulnerability […] By facilitating this change in position, the expert […] works in service of the master. Scientists, diet gurus, and world-renowned economists may appear to be calling the shots today, but they function as stand-ins for the concealed master.13
In other words, in university discourse the Master Signifier, that element of capitonnage that secures the ordered contexture of an entire social domain, takes the place of truth; that is to say, the expert, the intellectual objectivist, works in the service of mastery.
So, if ambition, intrigue, submission, and responsibility are, as Ricoeur put it, the apposite “human feelings that are organized around” the [lack of the] object that is “power,” then capitalism’s appropriation of objectivity as such confers upon itself a seemingly insurmountable control over its subjects.
And let us not forget that human subjectivity is that which is constantly attempting to overcome a lack—that is why capitalism exists in the first place: it sinisterly dons the visage that it completes this lack, despite never really doing so, so we continue to buy the commodities we produce and fetishize, 24/7/365. And no less important to note, ideology (and thus today’s ideology of “intellectual objectivity”) serves to supplement an immutable lack in our network of knowledge of the world and of our selves. This is precisely why capitalism is self-engendering; we allow commodities and the fetishization of objective facts to supplement our lacks, and this covers up our lacks. Or rather: commodity fetishism, and intellectual objectivism, the commodification and privatization of the general intellect, serves to cover up the fact that we’re covering up a lack.
In effect, objectivity is an articulation of our subjective position in the socio-symbolic order in which we are inscribed. When we’re being objective we are merely thinking through objects, with the aid of symbolic mediation. It is precisely in this sense that objective truth cannot exist fully external to subjectivity. The belief that it does is mere fantasy.
Here we should turn to Mao’s insistence on dispensing with the subjective position, whereby, according to him, one can arrive at an authentic objective vantage point. We’ll see that he unwittingly presents us with an exemplification of the very fantasy structure of which intellectual objectivity is a gesture, one that effectively conceals the subjective act behind it.
When writing about the universality of contradiction, Mao had made the following claim: that when studying a problem “we must shun subjectivity”; that, “to be subjective means not to look at problems objectively … not to look at problems all-sidedly … not to understand the characteristics of both aspects of a contradiction.” The resolve to this seemingly superficial deadlock of subjectivity, claimed Mao, and God bless him nonetheless, is to be found in objectivity: the “removal” of the subjectivist position in an act of “looking from afar” to resolve a contradiction. Here, however, Mao glosses over the irremediable and essential aspect of objectivity: the way in which objectivity, as such, is hinged on one’s subjective position. Mao mistakenly conflates subjectivity with both the denial of the necessity of probing deeply into something and assiduously studying the multifaceted characteristics of its contradiction. For is it not the case that subjectivity “is” this very bundle of many non-coinciding sides, a contradiction par excellence?
To be objective, then, in the only true sense that we can be, is to look deep within our own subjective positions. It is there that we’ll get a full, and dizzying, view of the contradiction at hand: that which subjectivity has its basis in, and from which objectivity emerges: for objectivity is none other than our attempts to reconcile the fundamental antagonisms and contradictions that persist at the very heart of our subjectivity.
Mao’s formulation of objectivity—the “removal” of the subjectivist position in an act of “looking from afar” to resolve a contradiction—aptly fits the definition of fantasy: the (abstract) “removal” of the subject from the very reality being observed. What Mao should’ve considered, then, is that objectivity is perhaps a subjective gesture par excellence: that the universal of objectivity is none other than the subjective struggle of leading from one formulation to another, from one understanding to another, from one revolution to another, and so on.
The point here is that it’s important not to erase the thinking subject from the big picture, for the subject is always-already inscribed in the very (objective) world he observes, in the strict sense that the subject’s (objective) worldview is both constitutive of, and constituted by, the subject itself. Thus the orthodox Marxist notion that truth resides in some sort of subject-less objectivity is fantasy through and through
What I’m essentially getting at is this: Objectivity does not help us find our place in the world; on the contrary, objectivity has already found our place for us; for it is that which creates for us the very “world” in which we live. Objectivity may serve to represent reality in symbolic form, but the only reality we know is that which is symbolically mediated. And no matter what we learn, whether about ourselves, about others, or about the world, or all of reality, and so on, there always persists a field about which we know nothing, an entire field which does not cease not to be inscribed in our growing sphere of knowledge: we can designate this as Real-objectivity, which refers to an immutable lack, to the non-existence of the thing-in-itself, which is always-already included in the appearance of the thing itself:
The supersensible is the sensuous and the perceived posited as it is in truth; but the truth of the sensuous and the perceived is to be appearance. The supersensible [i.e., the Real, that which pertains to Real-objectivity] is therefore appearance qua appearance.14
What Hegel is getting at here is that appearance implies that there is an essence intrinsic to the thing that appears, that there is something in the object itself that appears through the appearance of the object, and that, as such, we are led to believe that appearance conceals this inner integrity, this presupposed essence that belongs to the object in-itself. Hence today’s fetishization of objectivity: the ideal that leads one to believe that access to the intimate nature of an object-in-itself can be granted. But one should acknowledge that, what is in fact being “hidden behind the phenomenal appearance” is “precisely the fact that there is nothing to hide.”15 And it is precisely this duplicity that should not be subtracted from the object, for it is nonetheless this very antagonism that is constitutive of the very phenomena we strive to represent objectively.
In fine, the notion of Real-objectivity, that which conceals nothing, does not have anything to do with the great outdoors insofar as it has far more to do with what lurks behind the cellar door.
1. Joan Copjec, “The Subject Defined by Suffrage,” http://www.lacan.com/frameVII4.htm.
2. Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.
3. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971, 5-6.
4. Jacques Lacan, Book X: Anxiety, Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2014, 58.
5. G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, New York: Oxford University Press, 1967, 3.
6. Ibid., 6.
7. Slavoj Žižek, “Hegel versus Heidegger,” e-flux, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/hegel-versus-heidegger/.
9. Lacan, Book X, 165.
10. Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974, 110-11.
11. Jürgen Habermas, Theory and Practice, Boston: Beacon, 1973, 256.
12. Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992, 231.
13. Todd McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2013, 181.
14. Hegel, Phenomenology, 89.
15. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, New York: Verso, 2008, 219.
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