SLAVOJ ZIZEK: A CRITICAL INTRODUCTION

A CRITICAL INTRODUCTION image


This is the fifth chapter of Ian Parker's Slavoj Zizek: A Critical Introduction published by Pluto Press in London in March 2004. The first four chapters deal in detail with the formation and decomposition of Yugoslavia (Chapter 1), how Zizek articulates a particular reading of Hegel (Chapter 2), how he reads Lacan as he likes (Chapter 3), and how sets himself against Marxism (Chapter 4). The book is very sympathetic but very critical of Zizek. Ian Parker is Professor in the Discourse Unit at Manchester Metropolitan University and author of books on psychoanalysis, discourse, politics and culture. He is a practising psychoanalyst, member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research and the London Society of the New Lacanian School. Advance warnings about the book include: 'When I read Parker's manuscript, I experienced an underlying solidarity: despite obvious differences, we share the same basic political concerns and visions. And this makes his critical remarks always pertinent!' (Slavoj Zizek, Ljubljana, Slovenia); 'A sharp, clear and radical analysis of Zizek's works which is sustained by an acute combination of a close reading of Zizek as a Lacanian and an examination of his cultural context.' (Christian Ingo Lenz Dunker, Lacanian Psychoanalyst and Professor of Psychoanalytic Theory, Sao Paulo, Brazil); 'Ian Parker's book is exemplary of an emerging mode of activist interpretation. In reading Zizek's writings, he goes beyond the local annotation of texts and situates the reader in the center of layered contemporary cultural and theoretical arguments.' (Teresa L. Ebert, author of Ludic Feminism and After, New York, USA); 'This is not simply "the best" critical introduction to Zizek — in a much more radical sense, this is the only critical introduction to Zizek. Parker's study is much more than an "important contribution" to the ongoing debate: it redefines its very terms. If this work does not become a standard work of reference, the only conclusion will be that Western academia is caught in an obscure desire to self-destruct.' (Yannis Stavrakakis, author of Lacan and the Political, Athens, Greece).

CULTURE — ACTING OUT

Zizek makes himself appear to the gaze of the West and now it is this appearance of the subject Zizek to us that we will focus on. What you need to know to read Zizek, then, is also precisely what Zizek needed to position himself within and against as specific competing positions in a certain constellation viewed from Ljubljana and Paris.1 That is why the review of Hegelian, Lacanian and Marxist resources in his work in the preceding chapters focused on the particular versions of those theoretical frameworks currently in circulation. A good way of starting this assessment of Zizek is to go back and start again from scratch, now from the position of those who are encountering him for the first time.

Reader comments on one of his website articles2 — on the war against Iraq3 — include some quite revealing responses to his writing. 'Proud American' posted a reply from Kansas, for example, objecting to Zizek's article, commenting that 'it's no strange coming from a guy with rat name [sic]'.4 Other academic commentators have also rolled the name around, using its strangeness to them as the way in to a review of Zizek's ideas.5 This kind of reaction renders quite understandable Zizek's own tetchy comments about the 'gaze of the West' on Slovenia and about patronising lectures from liberals and leftists who tell him what he should or should not write about because of where he comes from.6 For 'ROCKTIME', who went a little further in pinning down what the article on Iraq was about, Zizek was 'Obviously a philosopher from Eastern Germany, whose early years were influenced by the Soviet Union, carries a certain amount of paranoia'. This characterisation neatly disposes of political argument through pathologising the writer (a risk we will also be taking in the following pages).7 The only critical response from a left perspective complained that his article 'is little more than a plea to adapt to the "free Iraq" cabal. It obscures the central truth — that crocodile tears about the "Iraqi people" are the basest form of imperial contempt … Democracy, as usual, has nothing to do with it'.8 This perceptive response is a useful opening to some of the ways that Zizek has been read so far.

We will focus on the critiques of Zizek concerning politics, psychoanalysis and philosophy, and then turn to the way the particular interweaving of his positions in these different fields has led him into some peculiar deadlocks and worrying directions. As we shall see, it is precisely the deadlock in each of the readings he makes of theoretical frameworks that gives rise to the sudden shifts of direction in his writing, often paragraph by paragraph, sometimes sentence by sentence. Certain 'conditions of impossibility' operate at the substantive level — of the content of his claims — and at a stylistic level, so that the manner in which he writes mirrors what he writes about. This is what makes his writing so beguiling, and it sometimes seems designed to disturb those who like academic work to be built around evidence, inference and summative statements; 'The effect is that of a stream of non-consecutive units arranged in arbitrary sequences that solicit a sporadic and discontinuous attention'.9 You think he is saying something, but then his argument veers off course and turns into the reverse. His writing on film in the edited Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Hitchcock or on cyberspace in The Plague of Fantasies, for example, provides the perfect setting for this sliding from claim to characterisation and then sideways to another claim located in a completely different theoretical position, and his anecdotes and jokes function as switch-points for a rapid transition from one kind of argument to another.

Zizek's work has been enthusiastically taken up by some writers in literary and cultural studies precisely because it breaks the traditional taken-for-granted opposition between 'high' and 'low' culture in line with the 'textual wing' of cultural studies, assuming that 'whatever analysis is made of particular uses made of cultural texts in determinate situations, the problem of textuality remains in any case — texts continue to be reproduced, re-used with a difference by other readers'.10 Here questions of authorship and address need to be tackled carefully. This final chapter builds up an argument for seeing Zizek's work as a kind of 'machine' by which Lacan can be put to work sorting and combining Hegelian concepts so that it can then be applied to culture as its object. Culture is treated by him in this process of application as if it were a politically-charged superstructure. This machine, reiterated text-by-text, seems to work for Zizek as a way of reading Hegel, and the Lacan-machine-for-reading-Hegel then becomes a writing machine that holds things together, but in a way that also keeps them at a distance.

One way of accounting for the apparently wilful contradictoriness in Zizek's work is to put it down to 'carefully cultivated idiosyncrasies' underpinned by 'his tireless personal pursuit of publicity through provocation'.11 Another tack is to pursue the thematic of madness further to account for why his writing seems so crazy.12 But whether both claims are true or not, we now need to know how to disentangle ourselves from the seductive lures that hook us into his writing so we can still get something enjoyable and useful out of it. The critical responses to his work will show us something of the field of debate before we move in to pin him down.

His just desserts

As Zizek swerves backwards and forwards between political, psychoanalytic and philosophical reference points, his critics within each of these domains have tried to fix him by exposing inadequacies in his readings of Marx, Hegel or Lacan, and the main critiques have been staged exactly where Zizek himself performs so well, in the domain of cultural analysis. It is in the difficult-to-define realm of 'culture' that we can see limits to his use of theory and some deeper problems emerge in the interweaving of different theoretical frameworks which are designed to interpret, intervene and transform the symbolic coordinates of any given system of meaning. When we try to follow Zizek's attempt to combine the different theoretical frameworks, the real stakes of his work are ideological subjectivity, cultural analysis and political transformation.

Ideological subjectivity

The question of subjectivity is formulated by Zizek primarily with reference to the production of the divided subject of Lacanian theory held in thrall to the object petit a. The fundamental fantasy of the subject precisely specifies that relationship and also, for Zizek, reveals the work of the 'sublime object' of ideology in pulling us back to something that feels deeper and earlier and more authentic to us. But subjectivity is also thematised and problematised in his work through the Marxist motif of 'false consciousness' and genuine 'class consciousness', an opposition that Zizek wants to avoid. Instead, the lure of any true full consciousness is treated as itself an ideological motif. In place of any future moment of full subjectivity that would overcome alienation and perhaps restore any past lost loving relation to others — a hope that one sometimes sees in Frankfurt School Hegelian Marxism — Zizek aims to keep subjectivity open to negativity; Hegel then becomes a theorist who refuses any closure or to repair the things that have been broken. Zizek's Hegel is the one who shows us how we are always already broken, and this is the baseline of Lacanian accounts of the subject and a reminder to Marxists not to hope for too much.

Russell Grigg notes that Zizek's rendition of Lacan is focused on the late Lacan interpreted and formalised by Jacques-Alain Miller after Lacan's death,13 but he also points out that what remains at work in Zizek's political analysis are themes from Hegel; 'this Hegelianism is pre-Oedipal in the true Lacanian sense'.14 That is, beneath and behind a Lacanian account is a notion of subjectivity that corresponds to 'absolute negativity' in Hegel, and this will return to haunt Zizek when he turns to this absolute negativity as source and motor of revolutionary change. Absolute negativity does not always appear to Zizek's readers to provide the most immediately optimistic outlook, and Rosi Braidotti, for example, argues that 'Zizek stresses the gloomiest aspects of Lacan's theory of subjectivity, by applying it to … an overdose of Hegelian dialectics'15 (and here she cites Peter Dews' critique of Zizek's reading of Hegel, to which we will turn in a moment). As we have seen so far, even when Zizek is writing about Lacan, it is actually Hegel who is in command. We will be examining the implications of that privileging of Hegel later in this chapter.

For Braidotti there is a more serious problem, which is that Zizek's work 'represents an anti-feminist regression that reiterates the whole array of symbolic invisibility and specularity which feminists have been arguing against since the early days of Lacan's work'.16 Braidotti's characterisation of Lacan is from the vantage point of a kind of feminism that thinks it knows what woman are, so she sets herself against any kind 'performative' reading of subjectivity, quickly moving on to complain that 'a strange resonance has emerged between Zizek and Butler';17 this presumably means that the debates in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality between Butler, Laclau and Zizek should be viewed with suspicion, as taking place on common ground that we should keep clear of.18

However, despite Braidotti's pessimism about Butler's ability to challenge Zizek, Butler herself does not actually let him so easily off the hook. Butler argues that his work 'tends to rely on an unproblematized sexual antagonism that unwittingly installs a heterosexual matrix as a permanent and incontestable structure of culture in which women operate as a "stain" in discourse'.19 One of the key anchoring points for a psychoanalytic account of subjectivity is the notion of 'trauma' — that which is repressed, disavowed or foreclosed by the subject at the point of its assumption of a position in language — and trauma sometimes appears to be a way of holding the subject onto the past, gripping them so that they cannot move beyond it. For Butler, 'the very theoretical postulation of the originary trauma presupposes the structuralist theory of kinship and sociality',20 and such theories of kinship and sociality are freighted with heteronormative assumptions (assumptions that Zizek does adhere to, and here Butler is quite right); 'What he's doing is consolidating these binaries as absolutely necessary. He's rendering a whole domain of social life that does not fully conform to prevalent gender norms as psychotic and unlivable'.21 This is a real problem in his work.

A different tack on the role of 'trauma' in Zizek's work is taken by John Mowitt, who argues that 'Zizek's appeal to trauma is not really driven by a theoretical need to clarify the concept of the Real, but instead by a political need to forge a link between the Real and trauma'; this is so that psychoanalysis will have 'the last word about trauma'.22 There are political stakes in this 'trauma envy', and Mowitt claims that the politics of trauma for Zizek do not at all lie in recovering or claiming some truth about what has happened in the past — to which it seems Zizek would happily agree — but in claiming a position for psychoanalysis as a master discourse which will speak the truth about trauma against other pretenders. The issue for Mowitt, then, is about the way an account of subjectivity is always implicated in the politics of theory.

Shifting up a gear in rhetorical abuse, Teresa Ebert points out that certain forms of subjectivity fit all-too-well with the ideological requirements of globalizing capitalism, with cynicism operating nowadays as a 'logic of a pragmatism that opportunistically deploys ideas and beliefs in order to … get things done within the existing structures of access and privilege'.23 Zizek's theoretical work is seen by her as fitting all too neatly into this ideological universe as a form of 'metacynicism', 'a cynicism that protects itself from being known as cynical by theorizing the cynical'.24 As we have already seen, Zizek does indeed see traditional Marxism as out-of-date, no longer applicable to new conditions of global capitalism, and this does lead him back to Hegel, with Lacan offering a theory of 'difference' as a substitute for a genuinely Marxist thematic of class struggle.

Ebert is right on track, then, when she claims that 'Zizek mimes Marx in an effort to turn a materialist ideology critique upside down into a Hegelian idealism and dissolves class struggle into the symbolic surplus of the Lacanian Real'.25 A similar point is made by Peter McLaren when he comments that that Zizek's 'Lacanian Marxism' — rather a misnomer if Ebert and McLaren are right — 'proposes in some instances a fascinating yet not unproblematic Hegelian re-reversal of Marxism'.26 Zizek's specifications for the nature of subjectivity already pre-empt any analysis that might be carried out, or any prospect of moving beyond interpreting the world to changing it.

Cultural analysis

Zizek is well-suited to trends in academic cultural theory that would like to restrict themselves to interpreting the world and to treat the idea of changing it as passé. But even then, his use of Hegel to produce analyses that insist on contradiction does make him a good deal more radical than someone who is content with merely identifying and describing structures in literary and cultural texts. Remember that for Zizek Hegel is the figure of perpetual negativity that owes much to Kojève's lectures in Paris in the 1930s. This means that any interpretation of Hegel here is already even more contested than the other various readings of his work.

These different interpretations also carry their own strange political baggage, as Dews points out in his critique of Zizek's reading of Hegel. Dews targets Zizek's argument that 'the identity of the subject consists in nothing other than the continual failure of self-reflection'.27 One aspect of this problem is Zizek's claim that this is properly Hegelian — which Dews says it is not — and the other aspect is evident in the political consequences of Zizek's (mis)reading of Hegel. In the course of his critique, Dews tries to recover some notion of 'intersubjectivity' from Hegel, and he objects to Zizek's insistence that this is always subject to fracture and disintegration by negativity, something evoked by Hegel's brief comments on 'the night of the world' that haunts reason. Dews' critique of Zizek's reading of Hegel leads Dews to the conclusion that 'Zizek is ultimately a "Right Hegelian" masquerading — albeit unwittingly — as a "Left Hegelian"'.28 The Right Hegelian character of Zizek's work is apparent in the split between individual particularity — for which read classical bourgeois individualism — and a strong sense of tradition to secure order. This is fair and right enough as critique.29

Butler also lines up with Hegel — and in the tradition of the Left Hegelians — when she objects to some residues of Kantian formalism in Zizek's identification of formal structures in cultural phenomena. Her point is that 'we cannot identify such [formal] structures first and then apply them to their examples, for in the instance of their "application" they become something other than what they were'.30 The problem with any appeal to universal formal structures, of course, is that they are also freighted with ideological content (as Butler's comments on the supposed link between trauma, kinship and heteronormativity in psychoanalysis make clear). The question that drives Butler's writing, and which it now becomes relevant to ask of Zizek, is how certain assumptions about formal structure are themselves a function of a particular historical conjuncture. Commenting on Zizek's example of Jaws as point de capiton for free floating inconsistent fears in which there is 'the return of the thing to itself',31 Butler asks 'what is the place and time' of this 'performative operation', and she goes on to suggest that it may be 'restricted to the powers of nominalism within modernity'.32 Butler finds an ally here when Laclau homes in on the same problem, noting that Zizek 'locates Lacan within the rationalist tradition of the enlightenment'.33 There is no big problem with that as such, and other writers — Dews, for example — have also argued quite rightly that 'Lacanian theory is perhaps the most radical contemporary version of Enlightenment'.34 The problem for Laclau lies in the way that Zizek 'has Lacanianized the tradition of modernity'.35 It is not so much that psychoanalysis speaks to the universal in Zizek's work, but that he becomes one of the agents of the globalization of the Lacanian rewriting of world history.

The issue here is not so much that Lacan is historically located, but that Lacan is used as a kind of grid to read all political phenomena; Zizek's 'discourse is schizophrenically split between a highly sophisticated Lacanian analysis and an insufficiently deconstructed traditional Marxism'.36 Laclau complains that it is the Lacanian analysis that is in command, and he later concludes that 'Zizek's thought is not organized around a truly political reflection but is, rather, a psychoanalytic discourse which draws its examples from the politico-ideological field'.37 In the same debate Laclau also points out that capitalism cannot be the real, as Zizek argues, because it operates as part of the symbolic. As Zizek has argued himself on many occasions, the Lacanian real is that which resists symbolization, and Laclau's critique is useful insofar as it does draw attention to the problematic way that Lacanian discourse is mobilised by Zizek to read culture. As we shall see, what Zizek actually does is to use Lacan as a kind of machine to read Hegel, and then the Lacan-reading-Hegel-machine is applied to culture. That then gives rise to exactly the kind of disastrous conceptual errors that Laclau identifies and opposes in Zizek's work.

It has been claimed that Zizek has 'a somewhat idealized view of desire'.38 There is some truth in this, but Zizek is also clear enough about the suffocating lure of desire, and he often resists the temptation of idealising it. Instead, it is more often the case that, taking his lead from Lacan after Seminar XI,39 he idealises the drive instead. This is a problem that becomes more apparent when the psychoanalytic 'act' is used as a model of political change.



Political transformation

When Zizek refers to Marxism it is often in order to show the insufficiency of utopian socialist 'metapolitics' to a 'politics proper' that would be able to interpret if not to change global virtual capitalism, and so when he speaks as a Marxist, we cannot take this self-characterisation for granted. Zizek often seems most Marxist at those points in his writing when he claims to have gone beyond Marx in the name of Hegel and Lacan — in The Sublime Object of Ideology for example — and is least Marxist when he claims to 'repeat Lenin' in rhetorical flourishes that try to outflank his opponents from the left. It sometimes seems that it is precisely at those moments when he tries to combine the different theoretical domains — philosophy, psychoanalysis and politics — that he fails, and it is at points when he insists that they cannot be combined that he is most faithful to Marx. However, as critics have pointed out when they tackle Zizek on his supposed Marxism and on his relation to feminism and anti-racism, things are a little more complicated than this.

It could be said that Marxism 'has always been much more to the fore of Zizek's work than many of his commentators have cared to acknowledge',40 and Sean Homer makes this point as a useful corrective to those who would prefer to overlook the Marxism. The problem, as Homer shows, is that Zizek's supposed shift from the earlier apparent 'post-Marxism' (during the time of his engagement with Laclau and Mouffe) to a more orthodox Marxism is itself rather illusory, and seems to be more of a performance for different kinds of audience than anything else; 'his thoroughgoing Lacanianism appears to rule out the possibility of any orthodox "understanding" of Marxism, or, indeed, the formulation of a clearly identifiable political project'.41 The 'thoroughgoing Lacanianism' Homer objects to is actually less of a problem than the way Lacan is turned into a machine for reading Hegel, but Homer is quite right to insist that this has the effect of sidelining Marxist politics. Even Laclau — from the vantage point of a thoroughgoing 'postmarxism' — was led to conclude, during the course of the three-way exchange with Zizek and Butler that his 'sympathy with Zizek's politics were largely the result of a mirage'.42 Whereas it was possible to debate with Butler, in the case of Zizek, 'The only thing one gets from him are injunctions to overthrow capitalism or to abolish liberal democracy, which have no meaning at all'.43

From a Marxist-feminist position, Ebert argues that Zizek's writings 'revive a regressive bourgeois idealism that suppresses the historical and revolutionary knowledges necessary for social transformation'.44 It is not only the case that Zizek revives 'an idealized notion of capitalism as itself a permanent revolution',45 but his insistence that enjoyment is the new bedrock against which all attempts to overthrow capitalism will come to grief is deeply flawed and reactionary. For Ebert, Zizek is thus just one of many 'ludic theorists' for whom desire becomes the new 'base', and — to repeat in a new key Ebert's scathing indictment of his cynical endorsement of prevailing cynical forms of subjectivity — 'Zizek thus makes the social symbolic reality synonymous with the modes of sense-making and subjectivities require by multicultural capitalism'.46

There is a certain queasiness about Zizek's rather repetitive critique of multiculturalism in McLaren's response to Zizek's work. All the same, McLaren neatly turns around Zizek's scornful dismissal of Western liberal romanticising of Native American culture, to question the formulation that they are 'as bad as we'; McLaren remarks that 'there is a danger that Zizek will disappear into the liberal multiculturalism that he so trenchantly contests'.47 Although McLaren does also want to avoid notions of historical inevitability that sometimes appear in Marxist writing, he is not so happy with the notion that a 'sudden, unexpected irruption into everyday life' — an 'event' or act — offers a progressive alternative; this notion would seem to be 'powerered by a decisionism built around a … coupling of Schmittian Leninism to Alain Badiou's Maoist ontology'.48 This worry, of course, chimes with the problems we have identified in the previous chapter with respect to Zizek's writings on 'decision' and the 'act'

One of the main ways political transformation is thematised by Zizek is not from within Marxism at all but from a reading of Lacan on the act. As we have already seen, Grigg draws attention to the problematic role of the Hegelian motif of 'absolute negativity' lying in the background of Zizek's reading of Lacan, and this motif comes to the fore in a somewhat romanticised reading of Lacan on the 'act'. As Grigg — who comes at this question as a committed Millerian — points out, 'from the point of view of political change there would also appear to be a very disturbing implication of this view of an act: its radical indeterminacy, which implies that all political action is gratuitous'.49 There is then a further problem, which is that the figures that Zizek hails as exemplifying some step into absolute freedom are themselves closely tied to the law. Antigone, for example, 'presents as the epitome of manic hysterical behaviour [and] has become a hero of, a martyr to, the father's desire'.50 Her refusal to adhere to the demands of the state 'is entirely consistent with, and binds her to, her family destiny and paternal law'.51 This reading of Antigone, incidentally, is closer to Hegel's own reading, as Judith Butler notes in her attempt to reclaim Antigone for feminism and queer theory.52

Lacan is clear enough in his discussion of Antigone, as Yannis Stavrakakis points out, that while she knows what she is doing in facing death, her decision was never an 'act' that was designed to 'effect a displacement in the status quo'.53 This is already against Zizek's own spontaneist version of what a true psychoanalytic 'act' is, and even by Zizek's own standards, then, 'one has to conclude that this makes her unsuitable as a model for transformative ethico-political action'.54 Once again, the problem lies in the way Lacan is turned from being a tool for political analysis — something Stavrakakis has no problem with55 — into a model for political change.

Asymmetry: machine, object, application

The critical responses to Zizek we have reviewed so far draw attention to his partisan readings of canonical texts and to some of the disturbing political consequences of the peculiar way he weaves his reading of Marx, Hegel, and Lacan. But those critiques do not yet go far enough, on two counts, and these two outstanding issues provoke two questions.

Taking Zizek at his word, twice

Zizek does not pretend to provide an empirically correct reading of any text, and his warnings about the deadlock of representation that sabotages any political project aiming at consensus and shared debate applies equally well to his own work. Every attempt to capture what he is really doing, as if it would be possible for someone else to be a 'Zizekian', will fail. The point he makes time and again from within each different framework is about the nature of the real and the impossibility of sealing it over. Whether by a standpoint that is not inflected by class position, a position that is not reflexively implicated in the presuppositions it makes about its object or a metalanguage that pretends to escape the contours of the symbolic, this impossibility marks something of the truth of what it is to be a human subject. That is, there is no harmonious resolution of political conflict, no clear view of world history and no unassailable position from which to declaim and educate other benighted souls.

We need to take Zizek at his word here in order to tackle the supposition that sometimes appears among his readers, if it is not deliberately produced in the texts themselves, that there is a system of thought being elaborated, an overarching theoretical framework into which each of the other three and more56 systems he discusses and utilises can be absorbed. That is, the too-easy counterpart to the charge that he is opportunistically misreading a theory or cultural phenomenon without any consistent rationale for distorting it is the charge that he must really have a master-plan which, were we to be able to discover it through constructing an accurate picture of his idiosyncratic pathological engagement with Western European culture, his intellectual development from Heideggerian phenomenology or the project of the 'Slovene Lacanian School', we could discover and map each of the apparently accidental but actually deeply-motivated mistakes he seems to make. As if. This leads us to the first question. There is no theoretical system as such in Zizek's work, but it often seems as if there is one. How do we account for that?

The second reason the existing critiques do not go far enough is that they do not account satisfactorily for the dynamic interplay between the different theoretical frameworks he uses and his rapid movement between these frameworks. An all-too tempting way of accounting for the rush we get when we are whirled along in a Zizek text is to imagine the speed of the journey is simply an expression of the speed of writing, to say he just writes too much too fast and that perhaps that is why it does not always make sense. One of the keys to unlocking this image of Zizek the author — who writes too fast and skims through different theories so that we end up with as little idea of where he is going as he does — lies in the form of his own writing. The point he makes about the illusory consistency of the subject and the work of the unconscious, in disrupting as well as reproducing the symbolic networks in which a subject speaks, leads us to some different ways to think about what we imagine him to be as the author of the texts that bear his name.

We need to take Zizek at his word again here when he tells us that in his work nothing is as it seems. There is indeed a performance for different kinds of audience that introduces an element of motivated inconsistency, and so we need to take seriously the rapid transitions from one theoretical frame to another in Zizek's writing, and the sometimes jerky movement from theory to its exemplification in culture or politics and back again, as well as Zizek's own scornful refusal to be pinned down. So, to take him at his word we also need to treat every explanation he gives as untrustworthy as a guide to his work. And we need to do this in a way that grasps something of the movement of his work over time rather than treating the shifts as yet more evidence that there are flaws in the theoretical architecture of his work that are being repaired as it undergoes renovation.57 So, the second question. There is an impression of chaotic movement in his writing which belies the lucid elaboration of a theoretical argument. How do we account for that?

These two questions — how we account for the illusion that there is an underlying rationale, and how not to get fixated on the image of Zizek the magpie for whom it seems that it does not really matter that none of it really hangs together — lead us to one little grid for making sense of where Zizek is going. But you should treat this as only one grid, and as riddled by exceptions. The grid includes the supposition that there is a theoretical system and the supposition that there is an erratic author. Treat those suppositions as stepping stones, not as sedimented 'truths', as if they could really be seen lying underneath the surface of the text or as somehow embodied in the figure of Slavoj Zizek (within whom we could diagnose a certain pathological condition which would explain our confusion).

For these purposes, and only these, I will try to account for how the shape of Zizek's theoretical 'system' has developed through its publication and dissemination in the English language. Here, of course, is a further limitation to this exercise which we should treat as one of the very conditions for being able to read and interpret what Zizek says in any particular article in relation to the rest. What we know about the other writing that appears under Zizek's name in other languages also frames this account, work that ranges from the 1988 book on Hegel and Lacan that Jacques-Alain Miller declined to publish58 to material for a German newsletter discussing sermons for priests.59 We will also, in this process, be supposing something about the author of the texts that comprise this system, but we need to be particularly careful to keep in mind that this author is one who appears for us behind the texts as a function of those texts. We turn to that issue of authorship when we examine the thematic of escape in his writing, but first we will lay out the asymmetrical structure of the writing as an evolving system of work.

 

 

 

Systemic asymmetry

The different elements in Zizek's writing simply do not cohere. This is not necessarily a problem, for perhaps it would be worse if they did lock together. The critical comments on his work reviewed so far in this chapter sometimes focus on his misreading of particular theorists, but there is always also some puzzlement about how it is possible to put the pieces of the jigsaw together. In fact, it is precisely because of the deadlock that Zizek arrives at in his rendering of each framework that he jumps out of that framework into another one. And the jumping backwards and forwards is accomplished all the more artfully when he is able to shift into detailed description of a film-narrative (or plot of a book or opera). This serves not only to divert attention from the nature of the deadlock — when he has reached as far as he can go within one theoretical frame — but also to compound the problem and mystify the reader by evoking a sensation that we are now lost but that it must all really make sense. This deadlock now brings us to the question of where the different elements stand in relation to each other.

The three main theoretical components of Zizek's theoretical system — organised around the signifiers Marx, Lacan and Hegel — are asymmetrically weighted. As we have seen, Zizek renders Hegel in a certain distinct way that has a close relation to the Hegel presented to Lacan and other French intellectuals by Kojève in the 1930s; Zizek's Lacan is a version of late Lacan distilled by Jacques-Alain Miller in the 1980s, and his Marx is not much more than a foil for his attempt to move beyond Marxist 'metapolitics' to a 'politics proper' appropriate to global virtual capitalism. The three components designed to open up and elaborate an interpretation of history, the subject and politics do not always carry equal weight for sure, but complaints by Marxists, Hegelians or Lacanians that he does not do justice to their own favourite theorist misses the point about this weighting. This is because the more important issue is that these frameworks play different roles in his work. Hegel is read through Lacan, and it seems that Lacan is interesting to Zizek only insofar as Lacanian psychoanalysis operates as a system for reading Hegel: 'If I look really deep into my heart, my focus is not Lacan, my focus is not even politics, my ultimate focus is Hegel and Schelling'.60 So, that first relationship between the two is asymmetrical, to the extent that we can say that Lacan is a kind of machine for reading Hegel.61

This means that when you read about Hegel in Zizek it is interesting and useful — you learn something about German idealism, some new interpretation of Hegel — but this entails a retroactive positing of presuppositions, the discovery after the event of Lacanian motifs in Hegel. The other, complementary, effect of this elaboration of Lacan as a machine for reading Hegel is that Lacan himself is reconfigured so that psychoanalysis is tuned to certain frequencies in Hegel. In this respect, the simple charge that Zizek is merely late-Lacanian (or Millerian) is not enough to account for how Lacan has been remade by him to do a certain kind of work on Hegel. A consequence of this is that when we read Lacan through Zizek, in Zizek's lucid but second-hand account, we are reading a Lacan who is useful and interesting only for certain cultural-political purposes. The clinical frame for Lacan's writing is used by Zizek as a warrant for interrogating subjects who may be characterised by different structure — neurotic, perverse, psychotic — and for whom the treatment may be directed to lead to the traversing of their fundamental fantasy, identification with the symptom and subjective destitution, but the clinical content of Lacan's work is stripped out and replaced with abstract formulations about the nature of the subject. The other various elements of Lacan's work that Zizek then draws upon — four discourses, sexuation, the psychoanalytic act, for example — are also then retooled in order to make the Lacan machine for reading Hegel, more efficient.

When we turn to Marx and Marxist politics there is a further significant asymmetry. Zizek is working with an understanding of the political domain that takes Marxism as a conceptual 'matrix' for theorising class struggle independently of any particular empirical analysis of the ownership of the means of production. In this respect he does indeed follow the 'post-structuralist' shift of attention from the economy to the cultural domain, a domain that he treats as if it were a kind of signifying superstructure without any determinate signified or referent. Even the 'economy' is then evoked as a point of the real in and against — as the constitutive limit of — that superstructure. This also means that some Hegelian work has already been done on the material that Marxism concerns itself with such that the appearance of things can be treated as itself the essence, rather than as a 'shadow theatre' for another realm behind it which can be scientifically disclosed to the experts. Politics and culture are certainly treated by Zizek as sites of intervention but also, more importantly, as sites of application. Politics is but one domain, but also perhaps the key cultural domain — the key reference point against which his analyses of cultural material are measured — for the application of the Lacan-on-Hegel machine.

Zizek writes on detective fiction, art-house cinema or high opera as domains of culture that are assumed to be always politically-textured in a certain way — a domain of appearance as the fantasy-infused reality for individual subjects — and so the objects of his analysis are thus already rendered into things that the Lacan-reading-Hegel machine can be applied to. This means that you will learn something about politics and a Marxist tradition in politics — quasi-Stalinist with tinges of Maoism most of the time — in Zizek's work. But you should never imagine that there is a direct identification here between Zizek and his domain of application. Even his quick response to the question as to what a good social order is for him, namely 'communism', is accompanied by a cynical taunting gloss on the answer, that this means 'egalitarianism with a taste of terror'.62 However, the asymmetry between the Lacan-reading-Hegel machine on the one hand and its domain of application as politically-textured culture on the other means that there is a double distortion at work.

Asymmetric anamorphic applications

There is in Zizek's writing a particular kind of application to the domain that frames politics in Lacanian terms, and another that frames it in Hegelian terms, and it is that second asymmetry that makes the political lens of the machine and object very fragile, at least prone to serious symptomatic distortions. The second asymmetry — Lacan-reading-Hegel as the machine, and culture treated as a politically-textured superstructure as the domain of application — means that it is not at all the case that Zizek follows Lenin in putting politics in command. Politics is indeed a constant domain of application for Zizek, but his politics is susceptible to radical, even disastrous shifts as the lens is knocked. With theoretical work, just one little knock of the lens will change the view we have of the whole social field.

One striking example of this anamorphic shift of perspective concerns the relationship between psychoanalysis and culture, specifically psychoanalysis as a cultural practice made possible by the position of Freud as a Jew at one and the same moment in and against the dominant secular, but still by-default Viennese Christian, culture. The characterisation of psychoanalysis as a 'Jewish science' is not a mere fantasy of the Nazis, but also draws attention to the importance in Freud's work of the Jewish religious, mystical and cultural tradition as infusing the texture of debate. This internally heterogeneous and marginalised tradition constituted psychoanalysis as a practice in a particular relation to talk and text, drawing on an intellectual culture in which apprenticeship is organised through an oral tradition which is devoted to re-readings of the Torah, the Talmud and a host of Rabbinical commentaries.63 It would be possible to say that psychoanalysis is also constituted in a particular relation between the law — the Oedipal relation that the child must negotiate to enter civilization, the symbolic that enters into the constitution of the unconscious as the infant becomes a speaking subject — and love. Love is brought to play in the transference enacted in analysis as the repetition of relations to earlier love objects, and the love of knowledge is experienced as appearing in the subject supposed to know. This is why Lacan's work is properly psychoanalytic insofar as it retains that link with the broad cultural tradition of secularised Judaism.

The Christian thematic in Lacan's work is most of the time subdued, mainly submerged within the broader Judaic tradition of psychoanalysis,64 and the Hegelian European worldview is often tempered in Zizek's writing until the late 1990s. However, now that his more explicit discussions of the figure of Christ — a little bit of the real, a fragile figure of lack, the one who assumes the burden of our interpassive relation to the Other — have assumed centre-stage, it is possible to go back and find the same underlying reference points in Zizek's first English-language books, and it is then tempting to assume that this one position underpins each of his successive interventions in philosophy, psychoanalysis and politics since the 1980s. We also need to attend, though, to the change of focus in his work in order to understand how the lens of the Lacan-reading-Hegel machine has been knocked so as to give rise to some quite different political effects.

There is then — when the lens is knocked — an unfortunate retroactive reframing of the Lacanian tradition so that the participation of many Jesuits in the founding of Lacan's own school in 1964 after his 'excommunication'65 from the IPA, for example, stands as evidence for some kind of revolt of the Christians against the new English-speaking psychoanalytic empire, and for what Zizek likes to see as the 'Christianising' of psychoanalysis. It should be noted — especially for readers from within Anglican or Protestant cultural traditions — that Zizek's radical historical counterposition of Judaic Law as rule of an omnipotent terrifying God to Christian Love as the offer of redemption under the guidance of Christ as fragile shepherd is actually simply a repetition of one of the stories Catholic children are told over and again about the Jews in Sunday-school. Zizek's image of Judaism is a Catholic image, and it is being revived by him now exactly at a time when Catholic Slovenia is reasserting its Christian heritage against both the formerly formally-atheist Yugoslavia and the current revival of the Orthodox Church in Serbia. Although Zizek makes a distinction in The Puppet and the Dwarf between the 'perverse' ideological universe of 'really existing Christianity' and the redemptive new beginning promised by Christ that he aims to retrieve from that universe, his favourite texts are those of reactionary Catholic writers like G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis — and he draws attention with great delight, as he did already ten years back (in EYW), that Hitchcock too was an English Catholic.

Psychoanalytic Stalinism

The use of Lacan as a machine for reading Hegel with its domain of application as politics thus careers off the tracks of the quasi-Marxist project of the 1960s; Jacques-Alain Miller had been active in those days as a Maoist so Zizek could then easily have come to imagine that this 'good Stalin' really did want to turn psychoanalysis to the Left, and now Zizek is one of the driving forces for a re-orientation towards some kind of 'Pauline materialism'. On the one hand (a grim prognosis for Lacanian psychoanalysis), Zizek is not alone, for he is accompanied by comrades like Alain Badiou also writing about the 'event' that was St Paul, and the choice of Carl Schmitt — speaking for the worst of the Christian Right — over Jacques Derrida's reworking of Judaic liberalism66 is another bad omen. On the other hand, Zizek does not wield much influence on Miller, whose political ambitions are much more cautious and cryptic.67

In fact, Zizek's relationship to the psychoanalytic community, which he proudly characterises as Stalinist, is uncannily close to the position of Leftist fellow-travelling artists and intellectuals in relation to the Communist Party apparatus when it enjoyed power in Eastern Europe. In 'Lenin's Choice', for example, Zizek praises Bertholt Brecht in terms that draws attention to some close identification with his subject alongside a resurrection of the Neue Slowenische Kunst motif of overidentification; 'Brecht was unbearable to the Stalinist cultural establishment because of his very "over-orthodoxy"'.68 Presumably we are supposed to include in manifestations of this radical orthodoxy Brecht's own diary account — which Zizek cites two pages earlier — of waving at the column of Soviet tanks on their way to crush the Berlin workers' uprising of 1953. It sure is similar to Zizek's tale of sitting eating strawberry cakes in Prague in 1968 while watching the Soviet tanks deal with the demonstrators.69

Brecht's ostensible 'over-orthodoxy' then prompts Zizek to insert a footnote about the six-category classification of literature by the Stalinist regime in the German Democratic Republic. In this classification Brecht figures as one of the '"problematic" authors who, although committed Marxists, were not totally controlled by the Party, and were thus always under suspicion and tightly controlled'.70 This 'problematic' category, along with the category of anti-Communist authors who were simply ignored, was not, Zizek claims, even referred to publicly, and the four categories that were used by the nomenklatura — 'Communist classics, great progressive humanists, tolerated authors and prohibited authors' — thus served to sideline troublesome characters like Brecht without having to confront them head-on.

Zizek's own position in relation to the Millerian 'psychoanalytic army' seems to be exactly of this kind; there have been occasional meetings where he is wheeled out for the US American audience, but he is not a trustworthy part of the apparatus.71 Zizek's references to the Slovene Lacanian inner party circle'72 also draw attention to a marginal status that he seems for now to revel in. Where Zizek moves next with the Lacan machine for reading Hegel applied to culture as some kind of self-sufficient politically-charged superstructure will therefore eventually also pose a question for where he stands in relation to psychoanalysis as an institution, and it may well not be decided by him. Will he indeed slide from the unacknowledged category of problematic authors into those who are simply ignored? This will be determined mainly by the context of his writing, but there are also key issues of form that also need to be tackled. We now move onto more risky territory in order to try and account for stylistic properties of his writing.

The wrong man

In the course of a discussion of the phenomenon of 'interpassivity' — in which we give ourselves over to something or someone to act in our place73 — Zizek extends the remit of the well-known Lacanian formula for transference as the installation by the analysand of a 'subject supposed to know' that stands for them in the place of the analyst. Beyond analysis, Zizek argues, there is already in place a 'subject supposed to believe' which is 'the fundamental, constitutive feature of the symbolic order'.74 Our most fundamental beliefs, then, are from the start imputed to some other, and this 'universally and structurally necessary' phenomenon is the original grounding point from which we develop a relation to belief. One can see here a replay of Zizek's account of the symbolic order as an ideological machinery which already contains a system of beliefs and positions for the divided subject organised around an indefinable 'sublime object'. To become a Marxist, then, is also to find a system in which there are others who believe and then to participate in the ritualised reproduction of those beliefs so that one eventually is able to believe the system oneself.

As Zizek freely admits, this is an elaboration and correction of the Althusserian account of interpellation that mimics a definition drawn from Pascal75 of how one comes to religious faith. There is, he claims, in addition to the 'subject supposed to believe', as a further function of the superegoic imperative to 'enjoy!' (the obscene reverse of the superegoic prohibition on enjoyment) the production of a 'subject supposed to enjoy', someone else who will relieve us of the pressure of having to enjoy ourselves. So now it seems reasonable to step into Zizek's frame of belief to ask what subject supposed to believe we impute to the texts we read by him, and what subject supposed to enjoy appears to us as readers as some kind of ghostly phantom.

The grid I have outlined so far provides one view of the asymmetrical relation between the components of this symbolic system — Zizek's writing — and we have moved a little closer to some kind of understanding of what it is that could be going on in his work. But we still need to go a little further to explain why things are set up in this way and what might happen next. One way of doing that is to reconstruct his trajectory around questions and breaking points, and treat these as the conditions of impossibility that structure his work. Three motifs in his writing are key for plotting this trajectory and for outlining coordinates for making sense of his style of writing.

Post-colonial edginess



First, there is what could be termed post-colonial edginess. What do we learn about what it is to become a subject in post-Second World War Yugoslavia? What we learn from Zizek is a very specific narrative about being at the edge of power. The only child of parents who were members of the Communist Party, as he also was to be, but in an apparatus that was itself at the edge of the edge; Slovenia as a small Catholic country on the edge of a state that presented itself as a socialist self-management regime on the edge of the Soviet bloc. Zizek's writing on cynicism as a key component of the functioning of ideology exactly traces that position of being on the edge, but also of being personally implicated — dependent on parents for support after an academic post was refused him, and then dependent on the party apparatus during his time taking minutes for the very bureaucrats he would indict. This edginess is also replicated in his astute commentaries on West European and US American culture, in an insistence that Europe — with the advent of 'politics proper' in Greece — is the point of opening and of resistance against the new global Empire of post-political rule, and in an attention to what is going on inside the Empire that is sharper than that of many of its own inhabitants.

There are two paradoxes of centre and periphery under contemporary global capitalism that are neatly captured in 'post-colonial' theory.76 One paradox is that while those who like to think of themselves as being at the centre are increasingly uncertain about who they are and where they are going, they project that sense of fragmentation onto the periphery. The 'Third World' and post-Stalinist Eastern Europe can then become the romanticised sites in which non-rational divided subjects seem to live and enjoy diverse and contradictory but, at the same time, more organically-natural lifestyles, and this is one way that post-structuralism hooks up with New Age evocations of something spiritual (something Zizek himself notices and comments upon, of course).

The second intersecting paradox is that the gazed-upon subjects of this supposedly new postcolonial condition, those on the edges, have been very well-schooled in old colonial culture, for they were made to learn it as a condition for being thought civilized enough to participate in intellectual debate. The message the postcolonial subject returns — in reverse true form — to the colonial centres, then, is that indeed it is the case that you have lost your old culture, and we know that better than you. This is the message we get back from Zizek about Hitchcock films, for example. He tells us he has seen all of them, and tells us what is going on in them unbeknownst to us. In this sense we could say that Zizek appears to us as a perfect post-Stalinist postcolonial subject; that he knows more about us than we know about ourselves and that he knows that our fascination with him as an exotic character is license for games in which he tells us lies that we treat as truth.77

Embrace or escape

The second motif is an oscillation between embrace and escape, a polarity in which there is a recurring fear and temptation of complete immersion in a symbolic system on the one hand and a hope, on the other, that there might be some way of leaping out of it so that one is free of all that is laid down and all that is expected. What do we learn about language, the law and ideology from Zizek? That there is a perpetual threat that they will enclose and envelop the individual subject so that there is no way out. The tension between ideology as all-enveloping and the hope that there is an alternative is clearly at work in Zizek's writing on politics. But we find the same tension at work throughout his writing. Do we need to frantically try to get out — with an impossible 'act' as the only way to change the symbolic coordinates — or can we sink relieved into the system of language. Is it really the case that Zizek was ever-so thoroughly against the bureaucracy in Slovenia at all, and was there not always temptation to relax and enjoy being part of the inner party opposition?

There is even a nostalgic tinge to this formulation when Zizek repeats the joke about the bureaucrats in Russia riding about in limousines 'while in Yugoslavia, ordinary people themselves ride in limousines through their representatives',78 for 'by submitting myself to some other disciplinary machine, I, as it were, transfer to the Other the responsibility to maintain the smooth run of things and thus gain the precious space in which to exercise my freedom'.79

Against the complaint in Zizek's writing on ideology — that there is complete closure, no space for thinking against it — there is also, then, a claim that the symbolic is not at all a totally-regulated intersubjective space where everything is closed down. Zizek makes the point against Butler, for example, that she mischaracterises the symbolic when she treats it as something that is imposed to limit the movement of the subject. For Zizek (following Lacan quite faithfully here), it is the imaginary that fixes us in a relation to the other and the entry into the symbolic that opens up space to move around in. There is, then, always something like the hope that 'by surrendering my innermost content, inclusive of my dreams and anxieties, to the Other, a space opens up in which I am free to breathe'.80 There is thus an opposition structuring Zizek's writing, an opposition between the option of moving in or moving out. This opposition sets out a forced choice; an embrace of the way things are as the conservative option, or escape from everything, as the ultra-left option. One option is the cracked mirror of the other.

The knot of writing-culture

The third stylistic motif in Zizek's work is the way he writes culture as a way of knotting things together so that we then suppose that something is holding all of these contradictory texts together. The temptation to be avoided here is to assume that when Zizek moves from one position to another he is solving the contradictions or improving the narrative so that it reads more seamlessly. Rather, we should notice what changes in his writing and what stays the same. What changes is the content of his critical description of cultural phenomena. At one point the concern might be with the process of interpellation in Marx and the spectre of an ideological machine that pulls the subject into it without any meaning offered in return, the predicament of the subject in Kafka's Trial.81 At another point the concern might be with the process by which the police system incriminates a subject and the prospect that someone who is innocent will be at the mercy of the law, the predicament of Henry Fonda in Hitchcock's film The Wrong Man.82 And at yet another point, the concern may be with a new symbolic system luring the subject into it with the promise that everything will be laid open but which is actually shutting things down around it, the predicament of the subject too close to things in cyberspace.83

What stays the same is the horrific idea that something or someone will capture and toy with the subject. This idea is something that, Zizek argues, 'translates the logic of Hitchcock's "sadist" playing with the viewer' in which the trap of 'sadistic identification' is laid; 'Hitchcock closes the trap by simply realising the viewer's desire: in having his/her desire fully realised, the viewer obtains more than he/she asked for'.84 This logic is homologous to when cyberspace closes the gap between subject and symbolic; 'the distance between the subject's symbolic identity and its phantasmatic background; fantasies are increasingly immediately externalized in the public symbolic space',85 and so 'the phantasmatic intimate kernel of our being is laid bare in a much more direct way, making us totally vulnerable and helpless'.86 And — this is the crucial point — Zizek keeps space free from all of this by writing culture.

This is where the Lacan-machine-for-reading-Hegel becomes a writing machine that will hold things together in a way that also keeps them at a distance. And it keeps them at a distance by re-representing them to the Other. One telling example Zizek throws in to his discussion of the staging of things for the desire of the other is that of a comedy film about Western tourists in the GDR. The tourists see brutal dogs and beaten children — the full horror of life under communism as they expected to see it — but when they move on the scene changes and the children get up and dust themselves down, 'in short, the whole display of "Communist brutality" was laid on for Western eyes'.87 Zizek knots things together in his writing so that things seem to hold together, and he always produces that writing as a display for an audience. In this sense he is leading us on again when he says that things are the opposite of what they seem, for his writing is actually a triumph of representation; things are actually as they appear.

The present, to wrap him up

These coordinates for reading Zizek — post-colonial edginess, embrace-escape dualism, writing-culture as the knot of his work — lead us to make a leap from the torrent of books and papers to some figure lying behind them. If we were to think that we really are capturing and characterising something of what is going on inside his head we would be making a big mistake. What we have to keep focussed on is the way that gap between the texts we read and the author is itself an artifice, an artful game in which, as he tells us, everything is the opposite of what it seems. In that game he gives us enough clues to mislead us, perhaps even to read the writing as an elaborate system of defences that would indeed confirm the diagnosis he often provides of himself, that this is the work of obsessional neurosis. And we should also take care not to fall into the trap of imagining that the psychoanalytic machine for reading Hegel applied to Marxist themes is a knot of writing culture that will lead us to a more certain diagnosis of 'Zizek-the-sinthome'.88

The sinthome — among other things the term is a homophone in French for 'saintly man' — is a formulation of the symptom in late Lacan as, in Zizek's words, 'a particular, 'pathological', signifying formation, a binding of enjoyment, an inert stain resisting communication and interpretation'.89 For Lacan, the sinthome was a conceptual device for pinning James Joyce down, of identifying the role of Joyce's writing as the place where things were held together, perhaps as a way of circumventing psychosis. For Zizek, this symptom with which the subject must identify themselves with at the end of analysis is 'a stain which cannot be included in the circuit of discourse, of social bond network, but is at the same time a positive condition of it'.90

This would be a neat enough way to end a book on Zizek; to move through 'two stages of the psychoanalytic process: [1] interpretation of symptoms — [2] going through the fantasy',91 and so conclude that he is an inert stain resisting communication and interpretation. But once again we need to give another little reflexive twist to the narrative, to include some Hegelian reflexive determination in the story, to include us as implicated in the gaze of the West (wherever we are) reading Zizek trying to map the conditions of impossibility that will make his work more readable. For Zizek, the underlying primary position of the subject is as hysteric,92 and capitalism is a form of hysterical social bond. It incites complaining and questioning about what is being done to us and where we are in all this, as men or women. And this hysterical condition of the subject as historically located in certain economic conditions does not so much provoke a psychotic 'passage à l'acte' but 'acting out'. The crucial difference between the two kinds of act, remember, is that a passage à l'acte — which Zizek takes as his exemplar for an act that will escape immersion in a symbolic system that has come too overwhelmingly close — is completely outside the frame of the Other. Acting out, on the other hand is always staged for the Other, a display of hysterical challenge that accuses and refuses. So, when he accuses and refuses his readers he also does so as someone who knows something more than ourselves about what we enjoy. That is why it does not need to make sense, and then it could be said that Slavoj Zizek is acting out, for us, and that is why we like it.



1.This is not at all to pretend that these things viewed from Manchester are now available to the reader undistorted and as they really are. There is no neutral perspective on any of the issues Zizek discusses, and the critique elaborated in this book is from a partisan position that is also Marxist, Lacanian and Hegelian.

2. Within a week of the article appearing there were over fifty, mainly enthusiastic, reader comments on Zizek’s (18 March 2003) article ‘Today, Iraq. Tomorrow … Democracy?’ in the US-based Leftist magazine In These Times, http://inthesetimes.com/comments.php?id=119_0_1_0_C (accessed 26 March 2003). A curious thing about the string of responses is the way that — despite Zizek not having introduced the topic and there being no indication that the readers knew of his recent preoccupations with spirituality — the discussion turned quite quickly into a squabble about what Jesus said and whether George Bush was a good Christian. This is symptomatic of the world into which Zizek is writing, one all too receptive to his work and well able to recuperate it.

3. Slavoj Zizek, ‘Today, Iraq. Tomorrow…Democracy?’ This article consists of extracts from the longer ‘The Iraq War: Where is the true danger?’ dated 13 March 2003 on www.lacan.com/iraq.htm (accessed 24 March 2003).

4. ‘Proud American’ — one of the two right-wing responses — clearly specified ‘rat’ here in the message, and his line was that Bush should ‘carpet-bomb iraq, kill those iraqui rats and their descendents, and take the oil that is rightfully ours’.

5. Robert Miklitsch (1998) ‘"Going through the fantasy": Screening Slavoj Zizek’, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 97, (2), pp. 475-507. This annoying article also plays with the X of ‘X-Yugoslavia’, pointing out that ‘Zizek hails of course from the East’ and commenting that ‘The x here — like the Slavic vs and zs — indicates the uncanny status of Slovenia for most Americans’, p. 476. It is worth displaying these perceptions so we can see what Zizek is up against.

6. The examples include anecdotes about audiences in the US telling him that he should not talk about film when Bosnia was in flames. See, for example, ‘Introduction: From Sarajevo to Hitchcock … and Back’ in Metastases of Enjoyment.

7. The most horrible example of this I witnessed at an academic conference was at the ‘Globalization…and beyond’ meeting devoted to Zizek’s work in Rotterdam in June 2002, where some of the speakers and audience gleefully mimicked Zizek’s gestures (what they clearly saw as slightly manic fidgety movements) after he left the conference. This contemptible display was indeed an example of an evil gaze which sees evil, here aimed at a scruffy successful East-European intellectual with a beard.

8. Peter Anestos posted this on 18 March 2003 from San Francisco.

9. Geoffrey Galt Harpham (2003) ‘Doing the impossible: Slavoj Zizek and the end of knowledge’, Critical Inquiry, 29, (3), pp. 453-485 (p. 485). Sarah Kay (2003) Zizek: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press), is a little too generous when she tries to solve this problem of style by putting it down to the invitation to undergo ‘psychoanalytic therapy’ and to puzzle about lack of fit between examples and themes in the writing while Zizek reveals his ‘persona’ to us.

10. Antony Easthope and Kate McGowan (1992) ‘Introduction’, in A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader (Buckingham: Open University Press), pp. 2-3.

11. Peter Osborne (2003) ‘Interpreting the world: September 11, cultural criticism and the intellectual Left’, Radical Philosophy, 117, pp. 2-12 (p.3).

12. Some accounts of Zizek’s work which do risk playing with motifs of madness to describe his writing are Denise Gigante (1998) ‘Toward a notion of critical self-creation: Slavoj Zizek and the "vortex of madness"’, New Literary History, 29, (1), pp. 153-168, and Bran Nicol (2000) ‘Normality and other kinds of madness: Zizek and the traumatic core of the subject’, Psychoanalytic Studies, 2, (1), pp. 7-19.

13. Russell Grigg (2001) ‘Absolute freedom and major structural change’, Paragraph, 24, (2), pp. 111-124 (p. 111).

14. Ibid., p. 112.

15. Rosi Braidotti (2002) Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming (Cambridge: Polity Press), p. 54.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., p. 56.

18. The original working title of Contingency, Hegemony, Universality — as of 14 June 2002 still present on the image of the cover of the book on www.amazon.co.uk — was Agonistic Universality: A Dialogue on the Theory of Hegemony. Butler argues in her opening contribution to the book that all three co-authors agree ‘on the continuing political promise of the Gramscian notion of hegemony’ (CHU, p. 13), but by the end of the book it did not at all seem clear that Zizek agreed with this at all.

19. Butler (1993) Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (London: Routledge), p. 21.

20. Butler, CHU, p. 142. Against this, Butler’s position is that ‘The formal character of this originary, pre-social sexual difference in its ostensible emptiness is accomplished precisely through the reification by which a certain idealized and necessary dimorphism takes hold’, Butler, CHU, p. 145.

21. Butler, in Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal (1993) ‘Gender as performance: An interview with Judith Butler’, Radical Philosophy, 67, pp. 32-39 (p. 37).

22. John Mowitt (2000) ‘Trauma envy’, Cultural Critique, 46, pp. 272-297 (p. 287).

23. Teresa Ebert (1999) ‘Globalization, internationalism, and the class politics of cynical reason’, Nature, Society, and Thought, 12, (4), pp. 389-410 (p. 400).

24. Ibid., p. 402.

25. Ibid., p. 406.

26. Peter McLaren (2002) ‘Slavoj Zizek’s naked politics: Opting for the impossible, a secondary elaboration’, Journal of Advanced Composition Quarterly, 21, (3), pp. 614-637 (p. 620); McLaren goes on to argue that ‘Zizek’s psycho-Marxism relies too heavily on a theory of language that focuses on the erotogenic body and ignores the toiling body’, p. 638.

27. Peter Dews (1995) The Limits of Disenchantment: Essays on Contemporary European Philosophy (London: Verso), p. 239.

28. Ibid., p. 252.

29. However, Dews’ attempt to recover a notion of ‘intersubjectivity’ from Lacan to repair the damage done by Zizek’s reading of Hegel, on the other hand, will only work if Lacan’s later writings — the main source of Zizek’s development of Lacanian theory — are ignored.

30. Butler, in CHU, p. 26. That ‘Exemplification entails a reductive formulation of theory that keys the decoding of popular culture in reiterable slogans that circularly serve as theory’s illustrations’ is a point neatly made and elaborated against Zizek by Dianne Chisolm (2001) ‘Zizek’s exemplary culture’, Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society, 6, (2), pp. 242-252.

31. The phrase Zizek is citing here is taken from Hegel, and so this introduces a further question about the applicability of formulae from Hegel to all places and all times.

32. Butler, in CHU, p. 27.

33. Laclau, in CHU, p. 75.

34. Dews, The Limits of Disenchantment, p. 238.

35. Laclau, in CHU, p. 75.

36. Ibid., p. 205. Laclau’s own position is that traditional Marxism does need to be deconstructed; ‘class struggle is just one species of identity politics, and one which is becoming less and less important in the world in which we live’, Ibid., p. 203. Lacan may be useful as part of this process, but it would not be helpful if ‘Lacan’ was to turn into a new master signifier.

37. Ibid., p. 276.

38. Grigg, ‘Absolute freedom and major structural change’, p. 122.

39. Jacques Lacan (1973) Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, translated by Alan Sheridan, 1979 (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

40. Sean Homer (2002) ‘"It’s the Political Economy Stupid!" On Zizek’s Marxism’, Radical Philosophy, 108, pp. 7-16 (p. 7).

41. Ibid.

42. Laclau, in CHU, p. 292.

43. Ibid., p. 290.

44. Teresa Ebert (1996) Ludic Feminism and After: Postmodernism, Desire, and Labor in Late Capitalism (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press), p. 58.

45. In this way, Ebert argues, Zizek also turns Trotsky’s notion of permanent revolution ‘into a strategy of crisis management for capitalism itself to produce another comforting narrative of the permanence of capitalism as unstranscendable’, Ibid., p. 61.

46. Ibid., p. 62.

47. McLaren, ‘Slavoj Zizek’s Naked Politics’, p. 629.

48. McLaren, ‘Slavoj Zizek’s Naked Politics’, p. 635.

49. Grigg, ‘Absolute freedom and major structural change’, p. 118.

50. Ibid., p. 120.

51. Ibid., p. 121.

52. ‘Although not quite a queer heroine, Antigone does emblematise a certain heterosexual fatality that remains to be read’, Judith Butler (2000) Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press), p. 72.

53. Yannis Stavrakakis (2003) ‘The lure of Antigone: Aporias of an ethics of the political’, Umbr(a), pp. 117-129 (p. 118).

54. Ibid., p. 119. There is a reply to all the ‘false attributions’ to him by Zizek which actually serves to compound rather than clarify the problems Stavrakakis raises. Slavoj Zizek (2003) ‘"What some would call…": A response to Yannis Stavrakakis’, Umbr(a), pp. 131-135. A similar worry about the political consequences of taking Antigone as an example are voiced by Marc de Kesel (2002) ‘Is not Antigone a proto-totalitarian figure? On Slavoj Zizek’s interpretation of Antigone’, paper at Globalization…and beyond’ conference, Rotterdam, June, unpublished ms.

55. See Yannis Stavrakakis (1999) Lacan and the Political (London: Routledge).

56. Zizek’s detailed discussions of Benjamin, Kant and Deleuze (see OWB) are often yet more opportunities to stage debates between Marx, Hegel and Lacan on the terrain of cultural theory, and this is really where ‘culture’ becomes a fourth frame for his writing. Zizek clearly tackles more than three theoretical frameworks, and his own reading of each of those frameworks has the effect of dividing and multiplying them into more than three.

57. This mistake — the idea that Zizek clarifies and tidies up his mistakes as his work develops — runs through other ‘introductions’ to his work, and sometimes there is a search for the theory that might be responsible for the limitations on how far he can go; in the case of Tony Myers (2003) Slavoj Zizek (London: Routledge) where all the blame is laid on Lacan, for example.

58. The book was Zizek’s (1988) Le plus sublimes des hystériques — Hegel passe (Paris: Point Hors Ligne).

59. See Rebecca Mead (2003) ‘The Marx Brother’, The New Yorker, http://www.lacan.com/ziny/htm (accessed 6 May 2003).

60. We must beware, of course, the temptation to think that even this confession gets at what is really going on. This quote carries on ‘I use Lacan to re-actualise Hegel in the same way that Lacan used Sade’, which also raises some interesting issues about how Zizek views Lacan. Guy Mannes Abbott (1998) ‘Never mind the bollocks’, http://www.g-m-a.net/docs/c zizek.html (accessed 15 May 2001).

61. During his 1964 seminar (XI), however, Lacan enthusiastically repeats Jacques-Alain Miller’s phrase that it is rather a case of ‘Lacan against Hegel’, following which André Green backs up his observation that Lacan is a ‘son of Hegel’ by shouting out ‘The sons kill the fathers!’, Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, p. 215.

62. Mead, ‘The Marx Brother’.

63. See, for example, David Bakan (1990) Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition (London: Free Association Books).

64. Nevertheless critics have already argued that ‘Lacan rewrites Freud’s psychoanalysis in a Christian key, a softening for which the intellectuals were extremely grateful’, André Green (1995-1996) ‘Against Lacanism: A Conversation of André Green with Sergio Benvenuto’, Journal of European Psychoanalysis, 2, http://www.psychomedia.it/jep/number2/greenbenv.htm (accessed 5 August 2002). (Green, although a member of an IPA group in Paris, had been sympathetic to Lacan, attending his seminar for some years until 1967 well after Lacan’s ‘excommunication’ from the IPA. This interview with Green was conducted in May 1994).

65. The term ‘excommunication’ is Lacan’s, and when he spoke of this he drew a parallel between the IPA demand that he should not be allowed to train analysts — an attempt to silence him which made his position in the IPA untenable — with the Rabbinical decree against Baruch Spinoza for heresy. See Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, p. 3. Spinoza is still a potent signifier of secularism, recently so in Israel for example, with one reviewer of a book on his work commenting that although he ‘offers much to be esteemed’, ‘he also offers much to be deplored, advocating in somewhat encrypted fashion the dismantling of revealed religion and its replacement by a positive, secular civil religion’, Alan Mittleman (1998) ‘Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity’, First Things, 79, http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9801/reviews/mittleman.html (accessed 29 April 2003). Zizek has commented that the Spinozist take on rationalism is quite compatible with late capitalism and (it would also seem from the way he characterises Spinoza) with ‘post-politics’. See, for example, the interview in Josefina Ayerza (1994) ‘"It doesn’t have to be a Jew"’, Lusitania, 1, (4), http://www.lacan.com/perfume/Zizekinter.htm (accessed 14 June 2002). Zizek does not at all, therefore, want to be part of the fashionable return to Spinoza — instead, he sees the debate opened up around Spinoza as another opportunity to return to Hegel; ‘what both Spinozans and Levinasians share is a radical anti-Hegelianism’, PD, p. 33.

66. See Susan Handelman (1983) ‘Jacques Derrida and the heretic hermeneutic’, in Krupnick, M. (ed.) Displacement: Derrida and After (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). Zizek’s critique of Derrida from a quasi-Schmittian position also includes an attack on Emmanuel Levinas, Derrida’s mentor and theorist of an ethics explicitly rooted in his experience in a special POW camp. The issue here is not the critique of Derrida and Levinas — whose liberal ethical and political positions are problematic — but the vantage point from which they are being opposed, from the point of enunciation of the critique. See Erik Vogt (2002) ‘Derrida, Schmitt, Zizek’, paper at ‘Globalization…and beyond’ conference, Rotterdam, June.

67. See, for example, his reflections on the September 11 attacks in Jacques-Alain Miller (2001) The Tenderness of Terrorists (New York: Wooster Press). This intervention, touted by the World Association of Psychoanalysis as Miller’s return to politics (see www.wapol.org), offers no actual political programme, and Millerians in different countries seem to be rather bemused by what they should do with it. The book is one of three ‘letters to the enlightened opinion’ published by Wooster Press, the publishing arm of www.lacan.com which is loyally Millerian but also open to publishing on its website and journal Lacanian Ink contributions by Zizek and Badiou as well as Hardt and Negri.

68. Brecht’s radical ‘over-orthodoxy’, Zizek claims, is in contrast to Georg Lukács — ‘the "soft" European humanist’ who ‘played the role of the "closet dissident"’, became part of the Hungarian regime in 1956 and was thus really the ‘ultimate Stalinist’, RG, p. 196. This scathing assessment of poor Lukács, who did indeed serve a convenient function as the humanist left flank of Hungarian Stalinism and then as a rallying point for the Belgrade Praxis group, is very different from Zizek’s (just as revealing) praise for him elsewhere; ‘if there ever was a philosopher of Leninism, of the Leninist party, it is the early Marxist Lukács who went to the very limit in this direction, up to defending the "undemocratic" features of the first year of the Soviet power against Rosa Luxemburg’s famous criticism, accusing her of "fetishising" formal democracy’, p.153. Slavoj Zizek (2000) ‘Postface: Georg Lukács as the philosopher of Leninism’, in Lukács, G. A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic (London: Verso), p. 153. For a Marxist assessment of Lukács which does not slide into admiration for such quasi-Stalinist errors, see Michael Löwy (1979) Georg Lukács: From Romanticism to Bolshevism (London: New Left Books).

69. Rebecca Mead, ‘The Marx Brother’.

70. RG, p. 318.

71. One example of this is the presentation with Jacques-Alain Miller (1996) A discussion of Lacan’s ‘Kant with Sade’. In Feldstein, R., Fink, B. and Jaanus, M. (eds) Reading Seminars I and II: Lacan’s Return to Freud (New York: State University of New York Press). Zizek’s contributions to other Lacanian English-language journals have been for groups that keep Miller at arms length.

72. Zizek’s phrase to describe where Alenka Zupančič stands, in ME, p. 213.

73. Slavoj Zizek (2002) ‘The interpassive subject’, http://www.lacan.com/interpass.htm (accessed 2 December 2002).‘Interpassivity’ designates practices like having something laugh for you in the form of canned laughter on television so that you really do feel that you enjoyed yourself, having a video record your television so you can accumulate a collection of films that you sense you have watched yourself and having someone believe for you in the domain of party politics so that you imagine that there are others who keep a belief system in place. The position adopted in such an interpassive relation is not really passive at all but — as ‘the primordial form of the subject’s defense against jouissance’ — requires active maintenance of enjoyment or belief in the Other and something that approximates to the defensive procedures of obsessional neurosis. Zizek has borrowed this term from Robert Pfaller’s work on avant-garde art practices in Vienna. For one review see Pfaller’s (2002) ‘The work of art that observes itself: Interpassivity and social ontology’, paper at globalization … and beyond’ conference, Rotterdam, June.

74. Zizek, ‘The interpassive subject’. The analyst as ‘subject supposed to know’ is an exception through which there is an attribution of something beyond symbolic belief to an ‘absolutely infallible certainty’ on the part of the analyst as something in the real.

75. Blaise Pascal (1670) Pensées: Notes on Religion and Other Subjects, translated by John Warrington, 1973 (London: Dent).

76. See, for example, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds) (1995) The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (London: Routledge).

77. The juggling of Hitchcock’s films into different categories to trace binary oppositions and transformations of themes being one example, and the analysis of films he has never seen being another; but we also need to be aware that his mocking admission that he has not seen the films is also part of the performance. See ‘Alfred Hitchcock, or, The Form and its Historical Mediation’ in EYW.

78. Zizek, ‘The Interpassive Subject’.

79. Ibid.

80. Ibid.

81. SOI, p. 181.

82. EYW.

83. PF.

84. EYW, p. 222.

85. PF, pp. 163-164.

86. Ibid., p. 164.

87. EYW, p. 224.

88. This notion treats the knotting of the symbolic, imaginary and real as a symptomatic operation for every subject, and it thus refocuses readings of so-called ‘psychotic structure’ in Lacan. ‘With the concept of the ‘Sinthome’ [Lacan] adds a crucial fourth circle — the ‘symptom’ to his triple knot [of Real, Imaginary and Symbolic]. This has the important effect of both untying the earlier knot and suggesting a more dynamic process of naming as writing, or writing as naming.’ Jean-Michel Rabaté (2001) Jacques Lacan: Psychoanalysis and the Subject of Literature (London: Palgrave), p. 158.

89. SOI, p. 75.

90. SOI, p. 75.

91. Ibid., p. 74.

92. Zizek argues that ‘The whole point of Lacan is that the subject of psychoanalysis is a hysterical subject, a hysterical subject in reaction to the scientific discourse which was founded through Cartesian Science.’, in Josefina Ayerza (1992) ‘Hidden prohibitions and the pleasure principle [interview with Zizek]’, http://www.lacan.com/perfume/zizek.htm (accessed 25 February 2003). Lacan follows Freud in seeing obsessional neurosis as a ‘dialect’ of hysteria. In Hegelian terms, then, we could see hysteria as a genus in which there are two species — hysteria and obsessional neurosis — with hysteria as a species of itself. This Hegelian motif of the division of a genus and reflexive inclusion of species in it is often used by Zizek to conceptualise the way a category is included in itself. For example, the Manchester-based brand of tea ‘PG Tips’ is not really a specific kind of tea at all, but a blend of teas. PG Tips is a genus in which there are two species — the blend and PG Tips — with PG Tips as a species of itself (and the ‘PG’ actually stands for ‘Poor Grade’, a meaning washed away by the teas of time). Zizek himself is a blend of theories, and when he is included in texts about other theorists — Hegel, Lacan, Marx — he becomes a blend of himself. He does not actually add any specific concepts to those of the other theorists but articulates and blends the concepts of others, which is one reason why it does not make sense to include in this book a glossary that pretends to be distinctively ‘Zizekian’.



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