In Ideology, Hawkes postulates the autonomy of representation as the cause and symptom of “spontaneous” false consciousness. A belief in the material efficacy of symbols, he argues, disorders the order of things. People come to believe, for example, that money– the representation of abstract human labor– is intrinsically valuable. In doing so they mistake the sign of a thing for the thing-in-itself, as if money is value.
As another aspect of life under the reign of commodities, the principle of equivalence upon which money depends fatally confuses objects. As we’ve already seen, exchange value departs altogether from use value, erasing the sensuous particularity of things.
This dynamic, this tendency to discard the specific privileges fungibility: everything is “exchangeable” and thus ultimately equivalent. Subjects effectively become the same as objects, an error which is further complicated by the fact that it stems from an accurate grasp of a fully reified situation.
We live, as Amiri Baraka once wrote (pdf), “in a money world.” Given what money really is– a universal commodity that makes “foul fair,/ Wrong right, base noble” (Timon IV.iii.32-33) — to those living in such a world “the truth [is] literally nothing but the shadows of… images” (The Republic Bk. VII).
To behave as though representations are autonomous– to respond to symbols as if they were not simply symbolic– is to be true to a lie. This paradox arises because in our inverted world mere signs do, after all, produce material effects. Fluctuations in currencies and share prices routinely result in people becoming suddenly wealthier, or losing their jobs or, ultimately, going without food or shelter. Even so, virtually everyone understands intellectually that money– most of which does not even take the physical form of currency– isn’t “real.” We know very well that money has no meaning, and yet we continue to behave as though it does. Zizek calls this contradiction “practical fetishism.”