Study Guide

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek Essay - Critical Essays

Žižek, Slavoj

Introduction

Slavoj Žižek 1949-

(Also transliterated as Slavoj Zizek) Slovenian critic, essayist, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Žižek's career through 2003.

Žižek has distinguished himself as one of the world's leading cultural theorists. He has earned international notoriety for his numerous volumes of cultural analysis that apply psychoanalytic theory and modern philosophy to American popular culture from a post-Marxist Leftist perspective. Žižek's work has been particularly noted for its explications of the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan and their significance to cultural and political theory. Žižek's writing style, though challenging and rife with difficult theoretical concepts, has been characterized as both quirky and entertaining, informed by the author's rigorous theoretical analysis and a commitment to political relevance. His sense of absurdity in formulating theoretical approaches to cultural criticism is evidenced in the titles of some of his best known works, such as Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (1992), Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) (1992), and The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (1999). However, despite his often amusing digressions into popular culture, Žižek has displayed a firm concern with the social and political realities of life at the turn of the millennium in such works as NATO as the Left Hand of God (2000), Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?: Five Interventions in the Mis(use) of a Notion (2001), and Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (2002).

Biographical Information

Žižek was born on March 21, 1949, in Ljubljana, the capital of communist Yugoslavia. He received a B.A. in philosophy and sociology from the University of Ljubljana in 1971 and an M.A. degree in 1975. Unable to obtain a teaching post due to political reasons, Žižek worked as a translator of German philosophy. In 1977 he took a position at the Central Committee of the League of Slovene Communists, writing political propaganda speeches. During this period, he also continued to write philosophy papers and attend academic conferences. In 1979 Žižek acquired a position as a researcher at the Institute for Sociology at the University of Ljubljana. Žižek traveled to Paris in 1981, where he studied psychoanalysis at the Universite de Paris, and earned a Ph.D. in 1985. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Slovenia emerged from regions of the former Yugoslavia as a democratic nation with Ljubljana as its capital. In 1990 Žižek ran as a pro-reform candidate for the newly formed four-member collective presidency of Slovenia but was not elected. While maintaining his post at the Institute for Sociology at the University of Ljubljana, which provides him with freedom to write and publish without additional responsibilities, Žižek spends a portion of each year as a guest professor at various colleges and universities throughout the United States. He has taught at several universities around the world, including the State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of Minnesota, Tulane, Columbia University, Princeton University, the New School for Social Research, and the University of Michigan.

Major Works

Žižek's writings all concern some aspect of the interface between psychoanalytic theory and political philosophy, as applied to various aspects of culture and politics in the late twentieth century and at the turn of the millennium. His interest in popular culture extends to the exploration of the relationship between psychoanalytic theories of pleasure and Marxist theories of ideology. Lacanian psychoanalytic theory remains the foundation of all Žižek's concepts, and many of his publications attempt to both explain and grapple with the significance of Lacanian theory to post-Marxist cultural theory. The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) provides an introduction to Lacanian theory and includes discussion of concepts from Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the modern philosophy of Jürgen Habermas, the political philosophy of Karl Marx, and the poststructuralist theories of Jacques Derrida. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (1991) presents the reader with the basic theoretical concepts of Lacan via discussion of such popular culture texts as Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and the novels of Stephen King. Enjoy Your Symptom! places the theories of Lacan, Freud, Marx, Socrates, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard within a dialogue of the films of such auteur directors such as Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, and David Lynch. Žižek served as the editor of Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), a collection of essays drawn primarily from the academic film journal Cahiers du Cinema. The various authors included in this volume discuss Lacanian theory as applied to a number of Hitchcock films, including Suspicion, Rear Window, and The Wrong Man, among others. The Plague of Fantasies (1997) provides theoretical discussion of the relationship between fantasy and ideology, as manifested in popular culture in the age of cyber-technology. The work evaluates the concept of fetishism, in both Freudian and Marxian terms, to analyze such cultural phenomena as cybersex and toilet design. The Ticklish Subject probes issues of subjectivity in terms of three different theoretical frameworks—German Idealism, post-Althusserian political philosophy, and the poststructuralist gender theory put forth by Judith Butler. Several of Žižek's later works address more direct questions of political action in the context of contemporary culture and ideology within a postcolonial, post-industrial global economy. Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? examines the cultural and ideological use of the concept of totalitarianism along five different lines of development. Žižek asserts that the very term “totalitarianism” has been used as a “stopgap” of liberal-democratic thinking that ultimately limits and contains the possibility of subversive political ideologies by labeling them as “totalitarian.” Welcome to the Desert of the Real provides commentary on the cultural and ideological implications of the terrorist attacks on the United States that took place on September 11, 2001, while Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (2004) focuses on the continuing American war on terror and occupation of Iraq.

Critical Reception

Žižek has been widely acknowledged as a leading scholar of leftist cultural criticism and one of the greatest modern proponents of Lacanian theory. Many critics have regarded him as a brilliant academic mind on the cutting edge of cultural theory. Lois McNay has asserted that Žižek is “one of the most innovative and exciting contemporary thinkers of the Left.” Clayton Crockett has likewise described him as “one of the most creative and original thinkers on the contemporary scene.” Many reviewers have acknowledged Žižek's ability to formulate broad-ranging but incisive theoretical analyses of everyday life in the contemporary world. However, some feminist cultural theorists have taken issue with Žižek's works of criticism. For example, Žižek has maintained a friendly ongoing public dialogue with gender-theorist Judith Butler, with each party respectfully acknowledging but ardently refuting the others' premises. Butler has argued that Žižek's concept of the individual subject, based as it is on psychoanalytic theory, is ahistorical, while Žižek argues that Butler's metanarrative of the gendered subject is itself ahistorical. Some reviewers have also questioned the value of Žižek's prolific output—publishing as many as two or three books a year. Certain critics, such as Alex Callinicos, have countered this assertion. Callinicos has noted: “[p]erhaps it is a mistake to think of these as separate books rather than chapters in a single vast and continuing philosophical roman fleuve in which Žižek overwhelms his readers with jokes, arguments, film criticism and political polemic.”

Principal Works

The Sublime Object of Ideology (criticism) 1989

For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (criticism) 1991

Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (criticism) 1991

Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (criticism) 1992

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) [editor] (essays and criticism) 1992

Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (criticism) 1993

Mapping Ideology [editor] (essays and criticism) 1994

The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality (essays and criticism) 1994

Gaze and Voice as Love Objects [editor; with Renata Salecl] (essays and criticism) 1996

The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters (essays and criticism) 1996

*The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World [with F. W. J. von Schelling] (essays and criticism) 1997

The Plague of Fantasies (criticism) 1997

Cogito and the Unconscious [editor] (essays and criticism) 1998

The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (essays and criticism) 1999

The Žižek Reader [edited by Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright] (essays and criticism) 1999

The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch's “Lost Highway” (criticism) 2000

Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left [with Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau] (essays and criticism) 2000

The Fragile Absolute, or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (criticism) 2000

NATO as the Left Hand of God (criticism) 2000

Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?: Five Interventions in the Mis(use) of a Notion (criticism) 2001

The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieślowski between Theory and Post-Theory (criticism) 2001

On Belief (criticism) 2001

Repeating Lenin (criticism) 2001

Jacques Lacan: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory [editor] (essays and criticism) 2002

Opera's Second Death [with Mladen Dolar] (essays and criticism) 2002

Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917 [editor and author of the introduction and afterward] (essays) 2002

Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (essays and criticism) 2002

Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (criticism) 2003

Perversion and the Social Relation [editor; with Molly Anne Rothenberg and Dennis Foster] (essays and criticism) 2003

The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (criticism) 2003

Conversations with Žižek [with Glyn Daly] (interviews) 2004

Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (criticism) 2004

*The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World collects a critical essay by Žižek along with the full text of F. W. J. von Schelling's Die Weltalter (second draft, 1813) in English translation by Judith Norman.

Criticism

Edith Kurzweil (review date May 1992)

SOURCE: Kurzweil, Edith. Review of Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, by Slavoj Žižek. American Journal of Sociology 97, no. 6 (May 1992): 1786-88.

[In the following review, Kurzweil asserts that Looking Awry is a work of postmodern theory and faults Žižek for assuming that his readers are already familiar with the theories and concepts of Jacques Lacan.]

Slavoj Zizek is gifted and versatile: he was a researcher at the Institute of Sociology in Ljubjana, and had run as a proreform candidate for the presidency of the republic of Slovenia, before writing Looking Awry—a book he “conceived as a kind of...

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Slavoj Žižek and Peter Canning (interview date March 1993)

SOURCE: Žižek, Slavoj, and Peter Canning. “The Sublime Theorist of Slovenia.” Artforum International 31, no. 7 (March 1993): 84-9.

[In the following interview, Žižek discusses his political philosophy in relation to the political situation in the former Yugoslavia.]

Jacques Lacan is responsible for saying, “there is no sexual relation.” This should not make lovers too upset, for in fact, Love is what we have to make up for the Relation that is missing. Eros would be the potential of supreme Good, for harmony uniting men and women, women and women, men and men. But why did Sigmund Freud have to ruin everything by saying, It is always possible to bond...

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Paul Thomas (review date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Thomas, Paul. Review of Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), edited by Slavoj Žižek. Film Quarterly 47, no. 1 (fall 1993): 46-7.

[In the following review, Thomas argues that the quality of the essays in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) varies greatly and that the collection as a whole should have been edited more carefully.]

In Slavoj Žižek's words [in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock)], “Hitchcock as the theoretical phenomenon we have witnessed in recent decades—the endless flow of...

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Doug Aoki (review date winter 1995)

SOURCE: Aoki, Doug. “Readings Awry.” Canadian Literature, no. 147 (winter 1995): 136-37.

[In the following review, Aoki offers a critical comparison of Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture and Christopher Johnson's System and Writing in the Philosophy of Jacques Derrida, noting that Looking Awry presents “the freshest and most radical reading of Lacan in decades.”]

A glance over these titles [Christopher Johnson's System and Writing in the Philosophy of Jacques Derrida and Slavoj Žižek's Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture] would likely light upon the two...

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Sarah Herbold (essay date autumn 1995)

SOURCE: Herbold, Sarah. “Well-Placed Reflections: (Post)modern Woman as Symptom of (Post)modern Man.” Signs 21, no. 1 (autumn 1995): 83-115.

[In the following essay, Herbold examines Žižek's theory of “woman-as-the-postmodern” from the perspective of feminist cultural theory. Herbold compares the representations of gender and subjectivity in Žižek's essay “Rossellini: Woman as Symptom of Man” with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions.]

Zanetto, lascia le donne, e studia la matematica. (Johnny, leave women alone and go study mathematics.)

(Zulietta [in Rousseau (1782) 1959, 322])

...

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Denise Gigante (essay date winter 1998)

SOURCE: Gigante, Denise. “Toward a Notion of Critical Self-Creation: Slavoj Žižek and the ‘Vortex of Madness.’” New Literary History 29, no. 1 (winter 1998): 153-68.

[In the following essay, Gigante examines Žižek's theories of identity and subjectivity, contrasting them with the critical theories of F. W. J. von Schelling.]

To examine the process of critical self-creation illustrated by Slavoj Žižek, I am content to begin where he begins: with the problem of Beginning itself. As he observes in The Indivisible Remainder—a reading of F. W. J. von Schelling's unfinished masterpiece on the Creation, The Ages of the World [Die...

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Robert Miklitsch (essay date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Miklitsch, Robert. “‘Going through the Fantasy’: Screening Slavoj Žižek.” South Atlantic Quarterly 97, no. 2 (spring 1998): 475-507.

[In the following essay, Miklitsch discusses Žižek's scholarship in the cultural and political context of Slovenian culture after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.]

Far from being the Other of Europe, former Yugoslavia was rather Europe itself in its Otherness, the screen onto which Europe projected its own repressed reverse.

—Slavoj Žižek, “Caught in Another's Dream in Bosnia”

The Giant of Ljubljana? The Casanova of Slovenia? The...

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Robert S. Boynton (essay date October 1998)

SOURCE: Boynton, Robert S. “Enjoy Your Žižek.” Lingua Franca 8, no. 7 (October 1998): 41-50.

[In the following essay, Boynton provides an overview of Žižek's life and career along with interview material gathered during the course of Žižek's lecture series at the British Film Institute.]

Amid the Bustle of Tony Blair's Britain, the tradition of the afternoon tea is one of the last remaining traces of the country's genteel past. There are few places that conjure up that past better than the oak-paneled King's Bar Lounge at the Hotel Russell, a fading Victorian pile that sits on the edge of Bloomsbury, only a few short blocks from the British Museum. On a...

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Lois McNay (review date 31 December 1999)

SOURCE: McNay, Lois. “Unstable in Slovenia.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5048 (31 December 1999): 23.

[In the following review, McNay provides an overview of Žižek's theories of subjectivity, ideology, and psychoanalysis in The Ticklish Subject, asserting that the work is “the most systematic exposition of Žižek's theories so far.”]

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian academic, political activist and one of the leading members of the Lacanian “Ljubljana group”, which uses the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to interpret a range of philosophical and cultural texts, from Hegel and Heidegger through to Hitchcock and Hollywood. An...

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Gustavo Guerra (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Guerra, Gustavo. “Psychoanalysis and Presuppositions.” Style 34, no. 1 (spring 2000): 144-48.

[In the following essay, Guerra finds basic inconsistencies in Žižek's theoretical framework in Cogito and the Unconscious that ultimately undermine the volume as a whole.]

I start from the obviously basic premise that most readers of this review would like to get some information about Cogito and the Unconscious. That being the case, it follows that my title here may be somewhat misleading, if not blatantly confusing, and perhaps even irrelevant. But readers even vaguely familiar with pragmatist philosophy will notice, in my title, the echo of...

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Mena Mitrano (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Mitrano, Mena. “Psychoanalysis and the Moth.” College Literature 27, no. 2 (spring 2000): 201-06.

[In the following essay, Mitrano compares Cogito and the Unconscious with Tobin Siebers's The Subject and Other Subjects, emphasizing how each work addresses theories of philosophy and politics.]

In a recent seminar, philosopher Maurizio Ferraris remarked that our epoch is thoroughly aestheticized. Cogito and the Unconscious, the new collection of essays on Lacanian psychoanalysis edited by Slavoj Zizek, speaks to this aestheticization with the image of a subject beating like a moth against the windowpane of a social code s/he seeks to...

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Slavoj Žižek and Christopher Hanlon (interview date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Žižek, Slavoj, and Christopher Hanlon. “Psychoanalysis and the Post-Political: An Interview with Slavoj Žižek.” New Literary History 32, no. 1 (winter 2001): 1-21.

[In the following interview, Žižek discusses his later critical works, the criticism surrounding his use of Lacanian theory, and the developing political situation in the former Yugoslavia.]

For many, Jacques Lacan represents postmodern theory at its height—that is, at its worst. Lacan, so say his detractors, made a career out of obscurantism, and may not even have believed very much of what he said. Noam Chomsky once indicated such a hypothesis when he explained that “my frank opinion...

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Stephen H. Webb (review date 1 August 2001)

SOURCE: Webb, Stephen H. Review of The Fragile Absolute, or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, by Slavoj Žižek. Christian Century 118, no. 22 (1 August 2001): 31-2.

[In the following review, Webb assesses Žižek's theoretical approach to Christian doctrine in The Fragile Absolute from the perspective of a practicing Christian.]

The rumor swept through my circle of friends like wildfire: Bob Dylan had been converted to Christianity (by Larry Norman, no less) and was going to release a religious album! This was many years before Christian rock became mainstream, with mega-hit bands like Creed. In the '70s, contemporary Christian music...

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Alex Callinicos (review date 17 August 2001)

SOURCE: Callinicos, Alex. “Changing the Possible.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5133 (17 August 2001): 30.

[In the following review, Callinicos observes that Žižek's dominant thematic focus in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? is “the conditions of authentic political action.”]

How does Slavoj Z̆ĭZ̆ek do it? Since The Sublime Object of Ideology, his first book in English, appeared in 1989, the Slovene cultural theorist and Lacanian analyst has bombarded us with so many erudite, witty and challenging works that even his publishers must have lost count. Perhaps it is a mistake to think of these as separate books rather than chapters in a...

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David Wheatley (review date 7 September 2001)

SOURCE: Wheatley, David. Review of On Belief, by Slavoj Žižek. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5136 (7 September 2001): 33.

[In the following review, Wheatley offers a positive assessment of On Belief, calling the work “an honest and admirable meditation on what belief may mean today.”]

Slavoj Zizek takes the question of belief very seriously. On Belief begins with a description of a recent episode of the Larry King Show in which a rabbi, a Catholic priest and a Southern Baptist are discussing ecumenism. The rabbi and the priest agree that, irrespective of creed, a truly good person can rely on divine grace and redemption. The Baptist...

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Kevin A. Morrison (review date December 2001)

SOURCE: Morrison, Kevin A. Review of Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?: Five Interventions in the Mis(use) of a Notion, by Slavoj Žižek. Theoria, no. 98 (December 2001): 118-20.

[In the following review, Morrison argues that Žižek fails to introduce any significantly new concepts in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? and faults Žižek for simply presenting theories already put forth in his many previous publications.]

On receiving Slavoj Žižek's latest book, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?: Five Interventions on the (Mis)use of a Notion, one might recall that familiar saying, “How can I miss you if you won't go away?” Virtually no...

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Sabah A. Salih (review date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Salih, Sabah A. Review of Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?: Five Interventions in the Mis(use) of a Notion, by Slavoj Žižek. World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 252.

[In the following review, Salih describes Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? as Žižek's effort to rescue academic thinking from the restrictions of literary theory and cultural studies.]

A few years back, Frank Lentricchia, then one of the biggest names around in Literary Theory, created quite a stir by announcing in the now defunct Lingua Franca why he had decided not to have anything to do any more with Theory. Theory, he complained, had robbed thinking of its...

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Clayton Crockett (review date June 2002)

SOURCE: Crockett, Clayton. Review of The Fragile Absolute, or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, by Slavoj Žižek. Theoria, no. 99 (June 2002): 141-43.

[In the following review, Crockett lauds Žižek's unique cultural perspective in The Fragile Absolute and recommends the volume to “scholars and thinkers working at the intersections of philosophy, cultural and political theory, and religious thought.”]

Slavoj Žižek is one of the most creative and original thinkers on the contemporary scene. His philosophical juxtaposition of Hegel and Lacan, his political commitment to a certain Marxism which has affinities with Althusser and the...

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Matthew Bullimore (review date August 2002)

SOURCE: Bullimore, Matthew. Review of The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?: Five Interventions in the Mis(use) of a Notion, by Slavoj Žižek. Literature and Theology 16, no. 3 (August 2002): 342-45.

[In the following review, Bullimore compliments Žižek's skill with constructing coherent political arguments in The Ticklish Subject and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, commenting that “Žižek's work provides valuable insight into the mechanisms of our contemporary universe.”]

The Ticklish Subject and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? are two of Slavoj...

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Andrew Hussey (review date 9 September 2002)

SOURCE: Hussey, Andrew. “The Game of War.” New Statesman 131, no. 4604 (9 September 2002): 50-1.

[In the following review, Hussey discusses books by three different cultural theorists examining the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States—Žižek's Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Paul Virillio's Ground Zero, and Jean Baudrillard's The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers Hussey concludes that all three works lack a sense of compassion for the victims of the attacks.]

The tradition of French apologists for terror is as long as it is undistinguished. From the fall of the Girondins in 1793 to Michel Foucault's...

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Derek Hook (review date June 2003)

SOURCE: Hook, Derek. Review of On Belief, Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917, and Welcome to the Desert of the Real, by Slavoj Žižek. Theoria, no. 101 (June 2003): 148-52.

[In the following review, Hook discusses several of Žižek's recent publications—including On Belief, Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917, and Welcome to the Desert of the Real—noting that all three texts explore similar subject material.]

In three titles, published over a short period of time, Slavoj Žižek has spread out the arguments and concerns of a single book, not to mention a series of similar...

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