Slavoj Žižek Critical Essays

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.”