How Objectivity Can Fool Us

Money, elections, or lack of toilet paper – certain social mechanisms seem to function despite of the individual objections formulated by many participants of such systems. But how do these mechanisms work? The newly published anthology Objective Fictions. Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, Marxism discusses a wide range of every-day life which is worth reading.

von Dennis

When it comes to fictions and ideology, nobody would consciously admit her own being enmeshed in ‘false consciousness’, as Karl Marx shortly defined the term ‘ideology’. The problem here is of course: What can be defined as ‘fiction’ or ‘ideology’? Is it a matter of conscious choice? No, certainly not. Is it a matter of bequeathed beliefs? Maybe, but this would not explain the fact that true ideologues cannot be convinced by reasonable arguments. What one gets to know in long-winded conversations with ideologues, is what psychoanalysis calls ‘defence mechanisms’. Thus, ideology can be situated at the level of the Freudian unconscious. And apropos of said long-winded conversations: Did you, too, have the experience that, the longer the discussion is, the more it gets clear that the discussants have completely different perspectives on what one previously considered undeniably objective? During the Covid-19 pandemic, most of us had to go through such experiences. The recently published anthology Objective Fictions. Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, Marxism edited by Adrian Johnston, Boštjan Nedoh and Alenka Zupančič offers a literally mind-altering perspective on what our common sense takes for factual truth. With the help of philosophers, like Jeremy Bentham, Georg W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx, and psychoanalysts, like Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, the authors not only unravel marginal phenomena as conspiracy theories seem to be, but also fictions of our everyday life, i.e. fictions produced by our material reality.

This holds for any sort of reality, be it capitalist or communist. Every politico-economic system or institution produces social and thus psychic conditions perpetuating its ideological foundations. Let’s take an example for capitalism: the concept of real abstraction suggested by the Marxist economist Alfred Sohn-Rethel. In capitalism, trivial human activities as eating, drinking etc. become reduced to animal activities, as Marx puts it in his manuscripts. But isn’t this a senseless statement? How can one differ human eating from animal eating? It all depends on the context: human eating never takes place per se, it always needs a cultural or even political over-determination which allows the enjoyment of such trivialities. The capitalist naive-economic theory on the other side produces an abstraction of both the human context and concrete human activities since it separates them from each other, thereby naturalising and essentialising the concrete. Eating and drinking, after being abstracted from their context, begin to seem as ‘naturally’ given whereby the human, because of the widened abstraction processes, gets step by step de-humanised. Mind you, this de-humanisation is a product of a particular and particularist point of view that looks at the capitalist world in a naive way, i.e. that ignores the structure of the capitalist working regime. And this ‘objective fiction’ has real effects: did you, for example, have ever heard someone say, ‘I don’t mind the moral consequences of watching trash TV shows, I just want to have fun as every human being longs for it!’? This is a classic naturalization of an abstract(ed) activity and, as this example makes obvious, delivers a satisfactory argumentation in order to stay where one has always been. But what if this objective fiction disintegrates?

Let’s look at an example from 20th century’s communism. When, in his 1956 speech, Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, denounced Stalin’s crimes publicly, the consequences were devastating. Khrushchev believed that, by showing (limited) honesty towards the own past, clear words could lead to a revival of the enthusiasm for the communist idea. It worked for a while which is why one speaks of his era as of ‘Khrushchev Thaw’. But both immediate reactions to his speech and indirect consequences for the Soviet Union in general indicated another effect. During the speech, several delegates suffered mental breakdowns; Bolesław Bierut, the Polish General Secretary of the Communist Party, known as a hard-liner, died of a heart attack a few days later; the speech even triggered suicides as the case of the Stalinist literary functionary Alexander Fadeyev shows. Why did all of them react so badly? Certainly not because of a fit of paranoia. These hard-liners knew all the time that their relation to Communism is a distant, manipulative one, i.e. none of them was indulged with subjective illusions about what was going on. What declined was rather an objective fiction that secured their pursuing a ruthless goal. What these hard-liners lost, is a virtual background onto which they could project a specific, unconscious belief.

These objective fictions are produced by our material reality, not because of obscure secret societies which want to deceive us, ‘normal’ people, constantly, but rather because these fictions are necessary so that any system can work smoothly. In the case of capitalism, there is an easily comprehensible epistemological basis to it: modern positivism and empiricism historically evolved alongside the emergence of capitalism. Positivism says that, if objective knowledge is supposed to exist, only hard facts count. Well, the next question surely will be: but what can be defined as ‘fact’? Thereupon, empiricism has an answer: a fact is what comes to light by way of experience. Positivism and empiricism represent the foundations of our modern understanding of what truth must look like. When we, as modern subjects, observe our economic, social, political and even psychic conditions, we tend to assume that said conditions are not interconnected just because there is no empirical evidence. Indeed, sociology and psychology today explore more and more correlations, but mostly are unaware of causalities. The objective fictions I described make us believe that our society is so extremely atomised that no thinking of causalities seems to be appropriate. It is this atomisation that blinds us, collectively, to the structural links between the way we organise work and climate warming, between social isolation and conspiracy theories, and many related matters more which are discussed in Objective Fictions. I therefore strongly recommend Objective Fictions. Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, Marxism not only to advanced students of the humanities, but also to those who appreciate complex critiques, unexpectedly rewarding detours and argumentations which entail a cognitive mapping.

Publisher: Edinburgh University Press

Hardcover: 272 pages

ISBN: 978-1474489324

Editors: Adrian Johnston, Boštjan Nedoh & Alenka Zupančič.


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