DESIGN AS AN IDEOLOGICAL STATE-APPARATUS

13 November 2006
Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek

The term 'design' oscillates between these two extremes: between design in the sense of 'mere design,' of designing the aesthetic form of a product, and design in the sense of constructing the very inner core, the genetic formula, of an organism. Perhaps, the ultimate lesson is that these two poles are inherently linked, and this link bears witness to the great power of design, but also to its great ethical responsibility: much more is at stake in design than it may appear.

And this responsibility concerns above all ideology: in today's epoch which presents itself as 'post-ideological,' the disavowed ideological dimension is inscribed precisely in what may appear as a 'mere design.' This externality, which directly materializes ideology, is also occluded as 'utility.' In everyday life, ideology is at work especially in the apparently innocent reference to pure utility - one should never forget that, in the symbolic universe, 'utility' functions as a reflective notion, i.e. it always involves the assertion of utility as meaning (for example, a man who lives in a large city and owns a land-rover, doesn't simply lead a no-nonsense, 'down to earth' life; rather, he owns such a car in order to signal that he leads his life under the sign of a no-nonsense, 'down to earth' attitude).

The unsurpassed master of such analysis, of course, was Claude Levi-Strauss whose semiotic triangle of preparing food (raw, baked, boiled) demonstrated how food also serves as 'food for thought.' We probably all remember the scene from Bunuel's Fantom of Freedom in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at their toilets around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper "Where is that place, you know?" and sneak away to a small room in the back. So, as a supplement to Levi-Strauss, one is tempted to propose that shit can also serve as a matiere-a-penser: do the three basic types of toilets not form a kind of excremental correlative-counterpoint to the Levi-Straussian triangle of cooking? In a traditional German toilet, the hole in which shit disappears after we flush water, is way in front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff at and inspect it for traces of some illness; in the typical French toilet, on the contrary, the hole is in the back, i.e. shit is supposed to disappear as soon as possible; finally, the American toilet presents a kind of synthesis, a mediation between these two opposed poles - the toilet basin is full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected... No wonder that, in the famous discussion of different European toilets at the beginning of her half-forgotten Fear of Flying, Erica Jong mockingly claims that "German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything." It is clear that none of these versions can be accounted for in purely utilitarian terms: a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to the unpleasant excrement which comes from within our body, is clearly discernible in it - again, for the third time, "the truth is out there." Hegel was among the first to interpret the geographic triad of Germany-France-England as expressing three different existential attitudes: German reflective thoroughness, French revolutionary hastiness, English moderate utilitarian pragmatism; in terms of political stance, this triad can be read as German conservatism, French revolutionary radicalism and English moderate liberalism; in terms of the predominance of one of the spheres of social life, it is German metaphysics and poetry versus French politics and English economy. The reference to toilets enables us not only to discern the same triad in the most intimate domain of performing the excremental function, but also to generate the underlying mechanism of this triad in the three different attitudes towards excremental excess: ambiguous contemplative fascination; the hasty attempt to get rid of the unpleasant excess as fast as possible; the pragmatic approach to treat the excess as an ordinary object to be disposed of in an appropriate way. So, it is easy for an academic to claim at a round table that we live in a post-ideological universe - the moment he visits the restroom after the heated discussion, he is again deep-knee in ideology... The ideological investment of such references to utility is attested by their dialogical character: the American toilet acquires its meaning only through its differential relation to French and German toilets. We have such a multutide of the toilet types because there is a traumatic excess which each of them tries to accommodate - according to Lacan, one of the features which distinguishes man from animals is precisely that, with humans, the disposal of shit becomes a problem... And, to reach in an even more intimate domain, do we not encounter the same semiotic triangle in the three main hair-styles of the feminine sex organ's pubic hair? The wildly grown, unkept pubic hair indexes the hippy attitude of natural spontaneity; yuppies prefer the disciplinatory procedure of a French garden (one shaves the hair on both sides close to the legs, so that all that remains is a narrow band in the middle with a clear-cut shave line); in the punk attitude, the vagina is wholly shaved and furnished with rings (usually attached to a perforated clitoris) - is this not yet another version of the Levi-Straussian semiotic triangle of 'raw' wild hair, well-kept 'baked' hair and shaved 'boiled' hair? One can see how even the most intimate attitude towards one's body is used to make an ideological statement.

This is what design is truly about: designers articulate the meaning above and beyond the mere functionality of a product. And even when they try to design a purely functional product, there is already a reflexivity of meaning at work, i.e., the product displays functionality as its meaning it is not simply functional, it presents itself as such, often at the expense of its real functionality, like the stoned jeans which are less practical to wear due to their very effort to signal an attitude of functional use...

In March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don t know we don't know." What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the 'unknown knowns,' things we don't know that we know which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the "knowledge which doesn t know itself," as Lacan used to say. If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq are the 'unknown unknowns,' the threats from Saddam about which we do not even suspect what they may be, what we should reply is that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the 'unknown knowns,' the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves. It is with these 'unknown knowns' that design deals.

This level of the 'unknown knowns' not only articulates the key message it can also do it in contrast to the explicit content of an ideological edifice, telling more than this edifice is explicitly ready to state, its 'repressed truth.' When, a couple of years ago, the disclosure of Michael Jackson's alleged 'immoral' private behaviour (his sexual games with boys under age) dealt a blow to his innocent Peter Pan image elevated beyond sexual and race differences, some penetrating commentators asked the obvious question: what's all the fuss about? Wasn't this so-called 'dark side of Michael Jackson' always here for all of us to see, in the video spots which accompanied his musical releases, and which were saturated with ritualized violence and obscene sexualized gestures (exemplarily in the case of Thriller and Bad)? The Unconscious is outside, not hidden in any unfathomable depths - or, to quote the X Files motto: "The truth is out there."

Such a focusing on material externality proves very fruitful in the analysis of how fantasy relates to the inherent antagonisms of an ideological edifice. The two opposed architectural designs of Casa del Fascio (the local headquarters of the Fascist party), Adolfo Coppede's neo-Imperial pastiche from 1928 and Giuseppe Teragni's highly modernist transparent glass-house from 1934-36, do they not, in their simple juxtaposition, reveal the inherent contradiction of the Fascist ideological project which simultaneously advocates a return to pre-modern organicist corporatism and the unheard-of mobilization of all social forces in the service of rapid modernization? An even better example is provided by the great projects of public buildings in the Soviet Union of the 30s, which put on the top of a flat multi-story office building a gigantic statue of the idealized New Man or a couple: in the span of a couple of years, the tendency to flatten more and more the office building (the actual working place for the living people) became clearly discernible, so that it changed more and more into a mere pedestal for the larger-than-life statue - does this external, material feature of architectural design not render visible the 'truth' of the Stalinist ideology in which actual, living people are reduced to instruments, sacrificed as the pedestal for the specter of the future New Man, an ideological monster which crushes under his feet actual living men? The paradox is that were anyone in the Soviet Union of the 30s to say openly that the vision of the Socialist New Man was an ideological monster squashing actual people, they would have been immediately arrested - it was, however, allowed, encouraged even, to make this point via architectural design ... again, "the truth is out there." It is not simply that ideology also permeates the alleged extra-ideological strata of everyday life: this materialization of ideology in external materiality renders visible inherent antagonisms which the explicit formulation of ideology cannot afford to acknowledge - it is as if an ideological edifice, if it is to function 'normally,' must obey a kind of 'imp of perversity,' and articulate its inherent antagonism in the externality of its material existence.

One can also put all this in Freudian terms: the design of a product can stage the unconscious FANTASY that seduces us into buying this product. The first thing to note is that fantasy does not simply realize a desire in a hallucinatory way: rather, its function is similar to that of Kantian 'transcendental schematism' - a fantasy constitutes our desire, provides its coordinates, i.e. it literally 'teaches us how to desire.' The role of fantasy is thus in a way homologous to that of the ill-fated pineal gland in Descartes' philosophy, this mediator between res cogitans and res extensa: fantasy mediates between the formal symbolic structure and the positivity of the objects we encounter in reality, i.e. it provides a 'scheme' according to which certain positive objects in reality can function as objects of desire, filling in the empty places opened up by the formal symbolic structure. To put it in somewhat simplified terms: fantasy does not mean that, when I desire a strawberry cake and cannot get it in reality, I fantasize about eating it; the problem is rather, how do I know that I desire a strawberry cake in the first place? This is what fantasy tells me. This role of fantasy hinges on the fact that "there is no sexual relationship," no universal formula or matrix guaranteeing a harmonious sexual relationship with one's partner: on account of the lack of this universal formula, every subject has to invent a fantasy of his own, a 'private' formula for the sexual relationship - for a man, the relationship with a woman is possible only inasmuch as she fits his formula. Recently, Slovene feminists reacted with a great outcry at the publicity poster of a large cosmetics factory for sun lotion, depicting a series of well-tanned women's behinds in tight bathing suites, accompanied with the logo "Each has her own factor." Of course, this publicity is based on a rather vulgar double-entendre: the logo ostensibly refers to the sun lotion, which is offered to customers with different sun factors so as to fit different skin types; however, its entire effect is based on its obvious male-chauvinist reading: "Each woman can be had, if only the man knows her factor, her specific catalyst, what arouses her!" The Freudian point regarding fundamental fantasy would be that each subject, female or male, possesses such a 'factor' which regulates her or his desire: "a woman, viewed from behind, on her hands and knees" was the Wolfman's factor; a statue-like woman without pubic hair was Ruskin's factor; etc.etc. There is nothing uplifting about our awareness of this 'factor': this awareness can never be subjectivicized, it is uncanny, horrifying even, since it somehow 'depossesses' the subject, reducing her or him to a puppet-like level 'beyond dignity and freedom.' And design has to allude to this 'factor,' unknown to the subject.

Already for decades, a classic joke is circulating among Lacanian psychoanalysts: a man who believes himself to be a grain of seed is taken to the mental institution where the doctors do their best to finally convince him that he is not a grain but a man; however, when he is cured (convinced that he is not a grain of seed but a man) and allowed to leave the hospital, he immediately comes back very trembling of scare - there is a chicken outside the door and that he is afraid that it would eat him. "Dear fellow," says his doctor, "you know very well that you are not a grain of seed but a man." Of course I know that," replies the patient, "but does the chicken know it?" Therein resides the true stake of psychoanalytic treatment: it is not enough to convince the patient about the unconscious truth of his symptoms, the Unconscious itself must be brought to assume this truth. It is here that Hannibal Lecter himself, this proto-Lacanian, was wrong: not the silence of the lambs, the ignorance of chickens is the subject's true traumatic core... Does exactly the same not hold for the Marxian commodity fetishism? Here is the very beginning of the famous subdivision 4 of the Chapter 1 of Capital, on 'The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret':

"A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties."

These lines should surprise us, since they turn around the standard procedure of demystifying a theological myth, of reducing it to its terrestrial base: Marx does not claim, in the usual way of Enlightenment critique, that the critical analysis should demonstrate how what appears a mysterious theological entity emerged out of the 'ordinary' real-life process; he claims, on the contrary, that the task of the critical analysis is to unearth the 'metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties' in what appears at first sight just an ordinary object. In other words, when a critical Marxist encounters a bourgeois subject immersed in commodity fetishism, the Marxist's reproach to him is not "The commodity may seem to you to be a magical object endowed with special powers, but it really is just a reified expression of relations between people." The actual Marxist's reproach is, rather, "You may think that the commodity appears to you as a simple embodiment of social relations (that, for example, money is just a kind of voucher entitling you to a part of the social product), but this is not how things really seem to you - in your social reality, by means of your participation in social exchange, you bear witness to the uncanny fact that a commodity really appears to you as a magical object endowed with special powers." In other words, we can imagine a bourgeois subject visiting a course of Marxism where he is taught about commodity fetishism; however, after the finished course, he comes back to his teacher, complaining that he is still the victim of commodity fetishism. The teacher tells him "But you know now how things stand, that commodities are only expressions of social relations, that there is nothing magic about them!", to what the pupil replies: "Of course I know all that, but the commodities I am dealing with seem not to know it!" This situation is literally evoked by Marx in his famous fiction of commodities that start to speak to each other:

"If commodities could speak, they would say this: our use-value may interest men, but it does not belong to us as objects. What does belong to us as objects, however, is our value. Our own intercourse as commodities proves it. We relate to each other merely as exchange-values."

So, again, the true task is not to convince the subject, but the chicken-commodities: not to change the way we speak about commodities, but to change the way commodities speak among themselves... Alenka Zupancic goes here to the end and imagines a brilliant example that refers to God himself:

"In the enlightened society of, say, revolutionary terror, a man is put in prison because he believes in God. With different measures, but above by means of an enlightened explanation, he is brought to the knowledge that God does not exist. When dismissed, the man comes running back, and explains how scared he is of being punished by God. Of course he knows that God does not exist, but does God also know that?"

It is in this precise sense that today's era is perhaps less atheist than any prior one: we are all ready to indulge in utter scepticism, cynical distance, exploitation of others 'without any illusions,' violations of all ethical constraints, extreme sexual practices, etc.etc. protected by the silent awareness that the big Other is ignorant about it: "the subject is ready to do quite a lot, change radically, if only she can remain unchanged in the Other (in the symbolic as the external world in which, to put it in Hegel's terms, the subject's consciousness of himself is embodied, materialized as something that sill does not now itself as consciousness). In this case, the belief in the Other (in the modern form of believing that the Other does not know) is precisely what helps to maintain the same state of things, regardless of all subjective mutations and permutations. The subject's universe would really change only at the moment when she were to arrive at the knowledge that the Other knows (that it doesn t exist)."

Of course, an obvious counter-argument imposes itself here: but the Other effectively doesn't exist, all that exists is our activity or, in more direct and simple way: commodities do not talk among themselves, it is only we who impute them this magic property; God doesn't exist and, consequently, cannot know or not know that he is dead... True, but therein resides the point: as Hegel would have put it, the big Other (the social-spiritual Substance) has no existence in itself, it only exists as a point of reference animated by the chaotic activity and interaction of numerous individuals. Which is why the split we are taking about the split between the subject's knowledge and the Other's knowledge is inherent to the subject itself: it is the split between what the subject knows and what the subject presupposed/imputes to the Other to know (which is why it has such a shattering impact on the subject when he learns that the Other knows what it was supposed not to know). Niels Bohr, who gave the right answer to Einstein's "God doesn't play dice" ("Don't tell God what to do!"), also provided the perfect example of how a fetishist disavowal of belief works in ideology: seeing a horse-shoe on his door, the surprised visitor said that he doesn t believe in the superstition that it brings luck, to what Bohr snapped back: "I also do not believe in it; I have it there because I was told that it works also if one does not believe in it!" What this paradox renders clear is the way a belief is a reflexive attitude: it is never a case of simply believing one has to believe in belief itself. Which is why Kierkegaard was right to claim that we do not really believe (in Christ), we just believe to believe and Bohr just confronts us with the logical negative of this reflexivity (one can also NOT believe one's beliefs...).

It is with these disavowed beliefs that design interacts: it materializes them in the external form of a product, so that we can 'have our cake and eat it,' enjoy in our secret obscene beliefs without explicitly committing ourselves to them. When, today, one directly asks an intellectual: "OK, let's cut the crap and go to the basic fact: do you believe in some form of the divine or not?", the first answer is an embarrassed withdrawal, as if the question is too intimate, too probing; this withdrawal is then usually explicated in more 'theoretical' terms: "It is the wrong question to ask! It is not simply a matter of believing or not, but, rather, a matter of certain radical experience, of the ability to open oneself to certain unheard-of dimension, of the way our openness to the radical Otherness allows us to adopt a specific ethical stance, to experience a shattering form of enjoyment..." What we are getting today is a kind of 'suspended' belief, a belief which can thrive only as not fully (publicly) admitted, as a private obscene secret.

However, was there anywhere in the past an era when people directly 'really believed'? As Robert Pfaller demonstrated in his Illusionen der Anderen, the direct belief in a truth which is subjectively fully assumed ("Here I stand!") is a modern phenomenon, in contrast to traditional beliefs-through-distance, like politeness or rituals. Premodern societies did not belief directly, but through distance, and this is the misreading of, say, Enlightenment critique of 'primitive' myths the critics first take the notion that a tribe originated from a fish or a bird as a literal direct belief, and then they reject it as stupid, 'fetishist,' na ve. They thereby impose their own notion on belief on the 'primitivized' Other. (Is this also the paradox of Warton's The Age of Innocence? Newton's wife was not a na ve ('innocent') believer in her husband's fidelity she knew well of his passionate love for Count Olenska, she just politely ignored it and staged the belief in his fidelity...) Pfaller is right to emphasize how today, we believe more than ever: the most sceptical attitude, that of deconstruction, relies on the figure of an Other who 'really believes'; the postmodern need for the permanent use of the devices of ironic distantiation (quotation marks, etc.) betrays the underlying fear that, without these devices, believe would be direct and immediate as if, if I were to say "I love you" instead of the ironic "As the poets would have put it, I love you," this would entail a directly assumed belief that I love you, i.e., as if a distance is not operative already in the direct statement "I love you"...

And, perhaps, therein resides the stake of today s reference to 'culture,' of 'culture' emerging as the central life-world category. Say, with regard to religion, we today no longer 'really believe,' we just follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores as part of the respect for the 'life-style' of the community to which we belong (non-believing Jews obeying kosher rules 'out of respect for tradition,' etc.). "I do not really believe in it, it is just part of my culture" effectively seems to be the predominant mode of the disavowed/displaced belief characteristic of our times. What is a cultural life-style, if not the fact that, although we do not believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house and even in public places every December? Perhaps, then, the 'non-fundamentalist' notion of 'culture' as distinguished from 'real' religion, art, etc., IS in its very core the name for the field of disowned/impersonal beliefs 'culture' is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without 'taking them seriously.' Is this not also the reason why science is not part of this notion of culture it is all too real? And is this also not why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as 'barbarians,' as anti-cultural, as a threat to culture they dare to take seriously their beliefs? Today, we ultimately perceive as a threat to culture those who immediately live their culture, those who lack a distance towards it. Recall the outrage when, two years ago, the Taliban forces in Afghanistan destroyed the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan: although none of us, enlightened Westerners, believed in the divinity of Buddha, we were so outraged because the Taliban Muslims did not show the appropriate respect for the 'cultural heritage' of their own country and the entire humanity. Instead of believing through the other like all people of culture, they really believed in their own religion and thus had no great sensitivity for the cultural value of the monuments of other religions for them, the Buddha statues were just fake idols, not 'cultural treasures.'

Along these line, politics itself is more and more perceived as a question of design, of providing a proper package for ideas. In 2004, George Lakoff, a post-Chomskyian philosopher of language previously known mostly as a 'metaphor analyst,' all of a sudden exploded into popularity in the US Democratic Party by offering an elementary, 'easy-to-use,' account of what was wrong with the Democratic politics and how should this politics be redressed to resuscitate its mobilizing force. The interest of his project for us resides in the fact that it shares as series of superficial features with 'postmodern' thought: the move from political struggle as a conflict of agents who follow rational calculations about their self-interests, to a more 'open' vision of political struggle as a conflict of passions sustained by an irreducibly metaphorical rhetoric.

One should remember here that Lakoff is a true anti-Chomsky who believes in telling all the facts and in the power of clear reasoning (no wonder there is professional and personal animosity between him and Chomsky, his ex-teacher). Lakoff opts for a strangely anti-Enlightenment vision which turns around the so-called "rationalist-materialist paradigm" (RAM for short): people don't follow rational calculations about their self-interests, they think in subconscious narrative 'frames' organized around central metaphors; their beliefs are sustained by such frames, not by rational argumentation... we are back at the old opposition of myth versus logos, rhetoric versus reasoning, metaphor versus strict conceptual meaning. Lakoff's concrete analyses oscillate between amusing apercus on how everyday rhetorical phrases are bundled with unspoken assumptions (say, in the 2004 elections, the media as a rule referred to Kerry's home building as his 'estate,' and to Bush's building as 'ranch') and rather primitive pseudo-Freudian decipherings say, apropos 9/11, he wrote: "Towers are symbols of phallic power, and their collapse reinforces the idea of loss of power. /.../ The planes penetrating the towers with a plume of heat, and the Pentagon, a vaginal image from the air, penetrated by the plane as missile." In view of this na ve Freudism, it should not surprise us that, for Lakoff, the central organizing metaphors go back to warring visions of 'idealized family structure': conservatives see the nation as a family based on the 'strict father model,' in which the head of the household orders his wife around and beats his children, with the goal of fashioning them into disciplined and self-reliant adults, while progressives prefer a 'nurturing parents model,' in which two mutually supportive parents nurture their children. (As it was already noted, both the 'strict father' and the 'nurturing parents' model are family models, as if it is impossible to detach politics from its familial fantasmatic libidinal roots.)

Lakoff's conclusion is that, instead of abhorring the passionate metaphoric language on behalf of the couple of rational argumentation and abstract moralizing, the Left should accept the battle at this terrain and learn to offer more seductive frames. Near the end of his Don't Think of an Elephant!, Lakoff writes that conservatives "have figured out their own values, principles, and directions, and have gotten them out in the public mind so effectively over the past thirty years that they can evoke them all in a ten-word philosophy: Strong Defense, Free Markets, Lower Taxes, Smaller Government, Family Values." He proposes a similar ten-word philosophy for liberals: "Stronger America, Broad Prosperity, Better Future, Effective Government, Mutual Responsibility." The weakness of this alternative was also already noted: while the conservative formula presents what appears as clear choices that demand from us adopting strong and divisive positions (strong defense against the proponents of disarmament; free markets against state regulation; lower taxes against tax-and-spend social programs...), the liberal formula consists of general feel-good phrases nobody is against (who IS against prosperity, better future, effective government?) - what only happens is that violent-passionate engaging rhetorics is replaced by shallow sentimental rhetorics. What is so strange here is that Lakoff, a refined linguist, specialist in semantics, can miss this obvious weakness of his positive formula, the weakness which can be precisely formulated in Laclau s terms: it lacks the antagonistic charge of designating a clear enemy, which is the sine qua non of every effective mobilizing political formula.

According to Senator Durbin, one of Lakoff's supporters in the Democratic nomenklatura, he "doesn't ask us to change our views or change our philosophy. He tells us that we have to recommunicate." The Republicans have triumphed "by repackaging old ideas in all new wrapping." The struggle is thus reduced to 'mere rhetorics': the ideas (and the 'real' politics) remain the same as they were, it is only a question of how to package and sell one's ideas (or, to put it in more 'human' terms, of establishing better communication). Insofar as he endorses such a reading of his thesis, Lakoff doesn't take seriously enough HIS OWN emphasis on the force of metaphoric frame, reducing it to secondary packaging...

And one should go to the end along these lines: to the very birth of humanity out of design. Geoffrey Miller recently argued that the ultimate impetus for the breathtaking explosion of human intelligence was not directly the issue of survival (with all its usual suspects: struggle for food, defense against the enemies, collaboration in the work process, etc.), but, more indirectly, the competition in sexual choice, i.e., the effort to convince the mate to select me as a sexual partner. The features which bring me advantage in sexual competition are not directly my properties which signal my priority over the others, but INDICATORS of such properties the so-called 'fitness indicators':

"A fitness indicator is a biological trait that evolved specifically to advertise an animal's fitness. /.../ This is not a function like hunting, tool-making, or socializing that contributes directly to fitness by promoting survival and reproduction. Instead, fitness indicators serve as a sort of meta-function. They sit on top of other adaptations, proclaiming their virtues. /.../ They live in the semiotic space of symbolism and strategic deal-making, not in the gritty world of factory production."(103-105)

The first question that arises here is, of course: since fitness indicators are signs, why should an animal not cheat (lie) by way of producing signs which present it as stronger, etc., than it really is? How can the prospective partner discern the truth? The answer is the so-called 'handicap principle' which:

"suggests that prodigious waste is a necessary feature of sexual courtship. Peacocks as a species would be much better if they didn't have to waste so much energy growing big tails. But as individual males and females, they have irresistible incentives to grow the biggest tails they can afford, or to choose sexual partners with the biggest tails they can attract. In nature, showy waste is the only guarantee of truth in advertising."(125)

It is the same in human seduction: if a girl gets a big diamond ring from her lover, this is not just a signal of his wealth but, simultaneously, a proof of it he has to be rich in order to be able to afford it... No wonder that Miller cannot resist formulating the shift he proposes in the fashionable anti-productivist terms: "I am proposing a kind of marketing revolution in biology. Survival is like production, and courtship is like marketing. Organisms are like products, and the sexual preferences of the opposite sex are like consumer preferences."(174) And, according to Miller, mental abilities unique to humans are primarily fitness psychological indicators:

"This is where we find puzzling abilities like creative intelligence and complex language that show these great individual differences, these ridiculously high heritabilities, and these absurd wastes of time, energy, and effort. /.../ If we view the human brain as a set of sexually selected fitness indicators, its high costs are no accident. They are the whole point. The brain's costs are what make it a good fitness indicator. Sexual selection made our brains wasteful, if not wasted: it transformed a small, efficient ape-style brain into a huge, energy-hungry handicap spewing out luxury behaviours like conversation, music, and art."(133-134)

One should therefore turn around the standard view according to which the aesthetic (or symbolic) dimension is a secondary supplement to the utility-value of a product: it is rather the utility-value that is a 'secondary profit' of a useless object whose production costed a lot of energy in order to serve as a fitness indicator. Already such elementary tools as prehistoric stone handaxes are "were produced by males as sexual displays," since the excessive and costly perfection of their form (symmetry, etc.) served no direct use-value:

"So, we have an object that looks like a practical survival tool at first glance, but that has been modified in important ways to function as a costly fitness indicator. /.../ Handaxes may have been the first art-objects produced by our ancestors, and the best examples of sexual selection favoring the capacity for art. In one neat package, the handaxe combines instinct and learning, strength and skill, blood and flint, sex and survival, art and craft, familiarity and mystery. One might even view all of recorded art history as a footnote to the handaxe, which reigned a hundred times as long."(291)

It is thus not enough to make the rather common point that the dimension of non-functional 'aesthetic' display always supplements the basic functional utility of an instrument; it is, rather, the other way around: the non-functional 'aesthetic' display of the produced object is primordial, and its eventual utility comes second, i.e., it has the status of a by-product, of something that parasitizes on the basic function. In other words, today's definition of man should no longer be 'man is a tool-making animal': MAN IS THE ANIMAL WHICH DESIGNS HIS TOOLS. 




About this article
This paper was orginally presented as part of ERA05:The World Design Congress in Copenhagen (Denmark).

About Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek (born March 21, 1949) is a Slovenian sociologist, philosopher and cultural critic. He was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia), and received a D.A. in Philosophy in Ljubljana and studied Psychoanalysis at the University of Paris. In 1990 he was a candidate with the party "Liberal Democracy of Slovenia" for president of the Republic of Slovenia.