Capital and the Sublime Object

November 15, 2008

“BTW. How is the commodity form the object-cause of capitalism. Is not capital (surplus value) the object-cause of capitalism?”

“My qestion is if the “sublime object” of ideology is Money, is it not also the objet a?”

No!  I would argue that capital, not money, is the sublime object of ideology and the objet petit a.

Capital is the appropriation of more wealth in the abstract.  But in order for its value to be understood in concrete terms it’s value must take the form of a commodity, i.e., it must be converted back into money or some other commodity (the original amount advanced, plus the surplus/profit).

The definition of sublimation is the elevation of the object to the dignity of the Thing – if we lose the surplus-enjoyment, we lose the Thing (of enjoyment) – if we lose the surplus-value, we lose capital all together.

There’s no surplus in simple money/exchange.  You can still use money outside of capitalism.  And commodities (use value/exchange value) can still exist outside of capitalism (C-M-C is not yet capitalism).  Capital is the formal transformation into M-C-M1, not selling in order to buy, buying in order to sell (like buying labour in order to sell (the products of) it).   What is important is eliminating the exploitation of labourers who are alienated from the products of their own labour.  That is why the definition of the proletariat is a substance-less subject ($).  They have been robbed of their ‘a’.  They have not been robbed of their money (they get paid for their labour, which is why it appears as though there is a free and equal exchange); they have been robbed of what they produce for the capitalist.  That is why capital, not money, is the sublime object of ideology.  Capital is the ‘sublime material’ of money.

Since money has been lifted from the gold standard, capital is more sublime than ever.  It is more and more the appropriation of wealth in the abstract.


19 Responses to “Capital and the Sublime Object”

  1. The Universal Singular said

    One small thing to add: money follows the logic of S1, the master-signifier. But that is exactly the logic of commodity fetishism. S1 is the fetish; it is the particular commodity that formulates the ‘set’ of commodity relations (S2): the social relation between objects: “They do this without being aware of it” (Capital Volume I, Penguin Classics Edition, pp. 166-167).

    That being said, I feel that it is more important to apply psychoanalytic logic to the critique of politics, not the economic; to focus on the political at the heart of the economic. That is, to focus on how ideology displaces the Real of class struggle. The economic is simply the flip side of the political. The capitalist economy is simply a means of appropriating wealth for the ruling political-cultural class. The aim of criticism should be the political-cultural ideology of the ruling class. It is far more difficult to penetrate the social-economic practices of the ruling means of appropriating wealth. That’s why I feel that the critique of political economy can only be taken so far. What is truly emancipatory is the breakdown of the ruling political-cultural ideology! Therefore, I feel that the focus should be on class struggle/class antagonism rather than just the capitalist political economy (which of course is important for the critique of ideology, but does not go far enough).

    That is why I feel that Zizek’s writing on politics and the displacement of class struggle (such as the displacement of class struggle in Nazi Germany onto the antisemitic figure of the Jew, or the displacement of class struggle in Israel/Palestine onto the ‘Jew of the Jews’, the Palestinian ‘terrorist’) is much more pertinent than his stuff on capital.

    That is also why something like Lenin’s conception of class state is also useful for studying how class antagonism is conciliated and displaced in order for society to appear possible.

  2. The Universal Singular said

    And while we’re not really on the topic of the unconscious, it is important to remember that the unconscious is not necessarily just the big Other, the symbolic order, the unconscious structured like a language: the unconscious is the unknown knowns: the things we don’t know that we know… in other words, the things that we know, but that the big Other does not know.

    Examples to point this out: Emperor’s new clothes – no one wants to say that the emperor is not wearing any clothes, to keep this fact hidden from the big Other; ignorance of chicken – “I know that I’m not a grain, but does the chicken know?” – the non-knowledge of the chicken/big Other is the non-knowledge of the unconscious.

    This is why ideological critique has to focus on fetishism disavowal: I know, but nevertheless… This knowledge is kept hidden in order to fool the big Other, the symbolic order.

    It’s only when knowledge is brought to the attention of the big Other that the symbolic order gets disrupted. This allows us to leap through the fetish to get at the symptom.

  3. sonnyburnett said

    I guess that is why Lacan focuses things not on the unconscious as the ‘ultimate’ of psychoanalysis, but rather on the SUBJECT OF THE unconscious.

    It is the empty place from which we choose our unconscious that is critical in ‘liberating’ the subject from his fantasy space.

    Zizek gives a great example of this in the chpt we are reading now – the indecisive, uncertain subjectivity of an obsessive neurotic. The way for him to break out of this subjective space is for him to experience that he IS, in a sense, this uncertain subject. Not for him to know he is predisposed to uncertainty. Not for him to know he has an epistemological gap. But rather that he CHOSE this subjective position of uncertainty.

    In a word, he has to identify with that object that embodies his very distance from it. Only then can he freely choose his subjective position.

    On the political level, that goes as well. If we are enraged with capitalist exploitation, the ONLY guarantee to the Truth of this subjective position is the contingency of our enunciating this position, which must be done freely. Which futher means that we must identify with the jouissance that provides the support for our relation with capitalist exploitation.

    We’ve all met the irrational babbling anachist idiot leafleting downtown, working himself up in an angry lather when we finaly gets some yuppie suit to argue with him, about how the world is inverted, how we must all stop working & bring the whole capitalist house of cards down.

    And we have all further sensed that this is obviously the worst thing that could happen to this poor soul – his subjectivity would completely vanish. Poof! So our suspicious that all this talk is a smoke screen is correct, designed to ensure that nothing of the sort of what he is talking about does happen so he can continue getting all worked up about the state of the world as he sees it. A beauty of a soul if there ever was one!

    If you want to identify with our unconscious, you have to experience how it was chosen from an empty $ voided place. Which is an experience of subjective destitution. Which on a macro level is identifying with the point that embodies the entire State, in the form of its opposite.

    We’ve also met leftists that have made an identification with their source of jouissance, and for that very reason still chose a leftist position as it is the very source of that jouissance in the first place.

    Zizek is one.

  4. battleofthegiants said

    Wrong wrong wrong!

    “What is important is eliminating the exploitation of labourers who are alienated from the products of their own labour.” How does this alientation occur, and what is the way one would eliminate this alienation? Through the commodity form and the destruction of the commodity form!

    It’s the commodification of Labour and the obfuscation of labour POWER by this form that makes exploitation possible. No commodity form, no exploitation, no Captial! Likewise, no objet a, no surplus enjoyment, no Thing!

    So yes, of course money and commodites exist before capitalism. They are the preconditons and CAUSE of captial, but retroactively. When you read the section of the Grundrisse that Zizek refers to in FTKN, and which he calls “Marx at his most Hegelian”, you find that Marx says captial exists only on its SECOND iteration, that is, once the commodity form has enabled “the son to beget the father” (Marx in Ch4 of Captial, and Lacan in Other Side…), only after the form actually made a surplus value!

    That is, captial “posits its presuppositions” in its second iteration – that’s why Z says it’s Marx at his most Hegelian.

    Interestingly enough, this second moment which creates the beginning retroactively is precisely the thought process that Marx goes through in the Grundrisse. That is, he had to go through a full description of what capitalism is before he realized that the commodity form was what made it all possible. The fragment (it’s even a partial object – part of the manuscript was lost!) on the commodity form is the LAST THING that Marx writes about in the Grundrisse, and it becomes the foundation of his entire theory of Capitalism in Captial vol. 1, taking its place at the beginning of the book.

    And Marx’s thought was fully conditioned by the political environment in which he was active. The Grundrisse is rife with references to revolutionary actions and potentials, which he later eliminated from the published versions that became Capital because they would never have made it past censors – that is, Marx would not have been able to publish his book because the Prussian Government knew he was political, and so he had to disguise the fact. It was only because of his engagement in politics that his thought came about; it was only the concrete situation that made it possible; it was the foundation of his thought.


  5. battleofthegiants said

    Which also answers the question put forward in one of our other threads: can you have capital without capitalism? – no. No commodity form, no capital, no capitalism.

  6. The Universal Singular said

    “How does this alientation occur, and what is the way one would eliminate this alienation? Through the commodity form and the destruction of the commodity form!”

    Alienation occurs through the commodification of labour. If someone produces and then sells the products of her own labour, she receives an exchange equal to that which she produced. There is no alienation here. The destruction of the commodity form does not mean the destruction of alienated labour.

    However, as you mentioned at our last meeting, it was Marx’s analysis of the commodity form that helped us to understand the kind of alienation that is involved in producing for the subsistence of another. That’s where the analysis of the commodity form gains its importance. But the commodity, money, is still symbolic. It functions like the Law; whereas capital is imaginary Real, like the objet petit a.

    There is still exploitation outside the commodity form. You don’t need the commodification of labour to exploit the labour of someone else. It’s only that in capitalism the formal exchange of money for labour makes it appear as though there is no exploitation: that it is a free and equal exhange; however, this purely formal level of free and equal exchange conceals the exploitation at the heart of producing capital (surplus value), which is extracted from the labour of the producer. Getting rid of the commodity form will not end exploitation. But getting rid of capital (surplus value) will!

    That is why it is important to fight for increased wages, getting a bigger and bigger piece of the pie of production, so that eventually the producer will be receiving the full amount of compensation for her work, not just what the working contract has said is a free and equal exchange of labour for money. You also can’t redistribute wealth until the wealth is actually in the hands of the producer/labourer (and not in the hands of the bourgeois state and/or capitalist).

    Exchange value is not in itself exploitative. That is why it appears as a free and equal exchange when labour is exchanged for wages. It is the surplus that is extracted from the labourer that makes this relation exploitative.

    And, yes, capital is only possible following the commodity form, but it is the capitalist mode of production that is the object-cause of capitalism itself. That’s why the limit of capital is homologous to the limit of desire. Both capital and desire are imaginary Real.

    Capital DOES posit the presuppositions, but positing the presuppositions is a retroactive effect, as you mention. But that means that it is retroactive from the perspective of a fully realized system of capital. That is how Marx’s discovery of the dual value in the commodity was made possible. In other words, he could only analyze the two factors of the commodity from the position of a fully realized system of capital. Don’t forget that this was something that was well surveyed by liberal economists before Marx. Marx’s main theoretical contribution in Capital was his analysis of surplus value (that’s why the book is called Capital). The question that Zizek looks at is: How did labour assume the form of the commodity? This is a question about fetishism: breaking through the symbolic to locate the symptom: the exploitation of labour. Capital (surplus value) is exactly the exploitation of labour, not the commodity. The commodity masks this exploitation.

    But with Marx, you have to first understand the dual nature of the commodity, with money, its symbolic value in exchange (the commodity fetish) in order to understand how surplus value is extracted from the labour of the producer.

    [And, finally, as I said when we first met in September when we started on FTKNWTD, kindly disregard all of my previous posts from last year about Capital and capitalism… those ideas were not fully formed and I find error in a lot of what I had said previously.]

  7. sonnyburnett said

    US, I like the way you write ‘Capital’ and immediately follow it with a parenthetical ‘(surplus value)’, as if to say these two are equivalent in some speculative sense.

    On the one hand, we have Vampiric Capital, this Thing, this pure presupposition of marxists & non-marxists alike.

    On the other hand, we have Surplus Capital, that notion Lacan modelled his objet (a) on, the purely posited, transcendental object.

    And as we know, Zizek says the Thing is objet (a), in a Hegelian speculative identity.

    Thus, Capital is Surplus Capital in a speculative sense.

    I’m sure you didn’t intend this, but I can’t help leveraging off your text to put this forward, something I came to recently.

    This was something I was taught long ago actually, when I was learning an Althusserian way of looking at Capitalism. Even with Baran & Sweezy’s “Monopoly Capital”, it seems implicit, though they would not say it as such.

    They add up all the Surplus Capital out there – Govt expenditure, advertisements, military & police force, religious capital etc – all this wasted capital expenditure that is just there designed to keep us working (by creating desire in ads, by the religious opiate effect, by physical force if necessary, etc). They would say that it’s just a waste of capital, we can do without it.

    What they overlook and what Althusser argues is the simple fact that without the Surplus Capital, there would be no Capital in the first place, at least not in the form it is now.

    I’m saying this all this with broad strokes, but isn’t this speculative identity, this logic right out of Z’s logic? That there is no Capital (Thing, jouissance) without Surplus Capital (immediate object, objet a)?

    Ultimately, the Capital-thing is a phantasm that fills out the empty form of Surplus Capital.

  8. The Universal Singular said

    “The question that Zizek looks at is: How did labour assume the form of the commodity?”

    I mean when he compares the form of the dream and the form of the commodity. What is concealed in the form of the dream is the Real of desire, just as what is concealed in the form of the commodity is the labour which produced it: of which surplus value is the measure of its exploitation.

    The fact that labour is inscribed into the value of a commodity is not in itself exploitative.

    Commodity fetishism (money) is ideology (it is symbolic), but capital is the ‘sublime’ (imaginary Real) object of ideology.

  9. sonnyburnett said

    How is it that the last two responses above were posted at exactly the same time. Odd. I still think something is wrong with the way this blog posts times.

  10. The Universal Singular said

    Lets see if I fixed the time…

  11. The Universal Singular said

    okay… It worked, but your post is still off… maybe it will work with your next post…

    BTW… Lacan modeled objet a on ‘surplus value’, not ‘surplus capital’. And ‘surplus value’ and capital ARE the same thing.

    I would say that the relation between surplus value and surplus capital is analogous to the relation between formal and real subsumption (but I have to re-read those sections in the Grundrisse and Capital Vol. I; I know surplus capital comes up in vol. III).

    Also, I’m still convinced that the Thing and objet a are NOT the same.

    And the relation between them is analogous to the choice of being in Lacan’s two modes of cogito, which we discussed last week.

  12. veiledphallus said

    Yes, the Thing and objet a are definitely dissimilar.

  13. sonnyburnett said

    I get my marxian conceptualizaions mostly from Baran & Sweezy’s work. They definately have a different take many terms, basically because they ‘married’ marx & keynes in their ‘Monopoly Capital.’

    It was, however, 18-20 years ago that I studied it! Though I have their worked-out ‘Keynesian’ model buried somewhere in a box in someone’s basement….


    “the Thing and objet a are NOT the same”

    We are all in agreement here. I definately took great care in making sure I wrote that these two elements are in a SPECULATIVE IDENTITY.

    Which simply means that, ok, in an external (masc) reflection, the Thing and the object appear on different sides of some gap.

    But in the final, determinate reflection, in the experience of ‘absolute reflection’, we experience them to be in a speculative identity.

    This is crucial. More than crucial – if this isn’t grasped, Zizek’s topology is meaningless in the sense that he is saying nothing that hasn’t already been said by Kantian & Hegelian commentators.

  14. sonnyburnett said

    You did fix the time. Many thanks, it was drivin’ me nuts.

  15. The Universal Singular said

    Werd up on ‘speculative identity’!

  16. The Universal Singular said

    I’ve decided! The sublime object of ideology is simply the objet petit a. There’s no correlate in the economy! Not money! Not capital!

    But money does function like the master-signifier!

    And capital is the Real of today (Ticklish Subject).

  17. sonnyburnett said

    No correlate in the economy? Why is that?

  18. The Universal Singular said

    I mean that the sublime object of ideology is just the objet petit a; we can’t say that the sublime object of ideology is money, or capital, etc.

  19. The Universal Singular said

    I would also argue that ‘Capital is the Real of our time’ because it is the expression of the class struggle (class antagonism) of our time in the form of the economic (or the socio-economic). Class struggle, however, is political-cultural level of antagonism. And, as I’ve argued before, in opposition to the base/superstructure model, I see the socio-economic (capitalist) and the political-cultural (bourgeoisie) as ‘two sides of the same coin’. Both are Real, as expressions of the same antagonism:

    “To put it in terms of the good old Marxist couple infrastructure/superstructure: we should take into account the irreducible duality of, on the one hand, the ‘objective’ material socioeconomic processes taking place in reality as well as, on the other hand, the politico-ideological process proper. What if the domain of politics is inherently ‘sterile’, a theatre of shadows, but nonetheless crucial in transforming reality? So, although economy is the real site and politics is a theatre of shadows, the main fight is to be fought in politics and ideology” (Parallax View, p. 315).

    There seems to be a parallax gap between the economy and politics (and just to refresh everyone’s memory, a parallax gap is the confrontation of two closely related perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible (Parallax View, p. 4)). Objet petit a is the very (absent) cause of the parallax gap (P.V., p. 18). It is the object of pure difference (as opposed to the difference between two positively existing objects): a minimal difference that divides one and the same object from itself (Ibid).

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