Slavoj Žižek

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Edith Kurzweil (review date May 1992)

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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 introduction to Lacanian ‘dogmatics,’ … as an excuse for indulging in the idiotic enjoyment of popular culture” (pp. vii-viii). He took time off from his political commitments in order to indulge in “post-deconstructionism”—his strictly Lacanian reading of the “Real” (in relation to the “Symbolic” and the “Imaginary”).

Zizek assumes that his readers are conversant with all of Lacan's works, that they are as taken up with Lacanian psychoanalysis and its roots in linguistic theory as he is himself. This means, also, that the child is primarily conceptualized as both by having been born into its language and by the ambivalence deriving from the dual (and coexisting and inseparable) nature of signs and signifiers, and that, therefore, its apprehension of the world derives from all the circumstances and impressions surrounding language learning. In discussing, for instance, “The Hitchcockian Blot as the Gaze of the Other,” Zizek refers to “the Lacanian notion of the master signifier … that does not denote some positive property of the object but establishes, by means of its own act of enunciation, a new intersubjective relation between speaker and hearer” (p. 103). In fact, all of his film criticism is grounded in the assumption that his readers will be tantalized by such neo-Lacanian associations and fabrications.

Thus Zizek assumes we know that the elusive “objet petit a” refers to the inferior size of the little boy's penis which, in the Imaginary of the child extrapolates to his feelings of inferiority to his father; is intrinsic to all of his future emotions and perceptions of conscious and unconscious reality; and of patriarchal society—which is dominated by fathers who possess the phallus, determine laws of inheritance and the relations between families and partners, and so forth. (Such a simple explanation of “libidinal economy,” of course, “misunderstands” Lacan but may aid the uninitiated who read this short review.)

At one point, Zizek locates Sam Spade, the hero of Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon, in “the function of the objet petit a at its purest, … [in] that elusive make-believe that drove the man to change his existence” (p. 8); at another point, he moves via Hegel and “Freud's obsession with Michelangelo's Moses” and “simple causes [that] can produce ‘chaotic’ behavior,” to theories of intuition in physics, especially of the “strange attractor.” Here, this attractor turns into “a kind of physical metaphor for the Lacanian objet petit a … [that] draw[s] us into chaotic oscillation”—into the antithesis of order (p. 38).

Zizek's book is neither sociology, anthropology, or any other social science; it is not a story or narrative; nor is it fiction or psychoanalysis, or what used to be called criticism: it belongs to postmodern theory—itself a slippery term that even its proponents have problems defining. But insofar as postmodernism is described as full of ruptures, breaks, and discontinuities, Looking Awry exemplifies it: Zizek moves elegantly from film to film, from text to text. For instance, he explains that, in Hitchcock's

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exemplifies it: Zizek moves elegantly from film to film, from text to text. For instance, he explains that, in Hitchcock'sThe Trouble with Harry, the social life of the village goes on as people exchange pleasantries while viewing Harry's corpse:

Just like the obsessive personality described by Freud toward the end of his analysis of the “Rat Man,” so the “official ego” of the characters in The Trouble with Harry, open, tolerant, conceals a network of rules and inhibitions that block all pleasure … [in a body that] is present without being dead on the symbolic level … [so that] the only denouement the story can have is Harry's symbolic death.

[Pp. 26-27]

And we learn that “Harry's problem is the same as Hamlet's—the drama of a real death unaccompanied by a symbolic ‘setting of accounts.’”

Clearly, Zizek also supposes that we are familiar with the immense Lacaniana that has been growing astronomically since Lacan's death in 1982, especially in literary theory and in the new field of film criticism. All of Zizek's analyses of the productions of popular culture are Lacanian, with a dash of Foucault (particularly in the use of the “gaze”). The reader alternates between admiration and dizziness as he or she moves from one ambiguous utterance to another, from hidden meanings and connections to double entendres, identifications, and misidentifications in, among others, Hitchcock's films Rear Window,North by Northwest,Secret Agent,Sabotage, and so on; and as he follows the juxtapositions of Hitchcock's artistic aims and multiple texts, his plots and protagonists' gestures, their fantasies and innuendos, and comparisons with films by Fritz Lang, James Cameron, Sergei Eisenstein, and a score of other filmmakers who surpass each other in their abilities to build up suspense.

Among “postmodernists” who judge this type of literary fantasy in terms of imaginative leaps by practitioners, Zizek is bound to be admired: he reaffirms their own activities as he moves, for instance, from Hamlet to Antigone, and maintains that “understatement becomes a specific way of taking note of the ‘blot’ created by the real of the paternal body” (p. 27).

Like Lacan, Zizek easily moves from the human condition to language and to the various ways our symbolic edifice is so easily shattered—sometimes erupting in spectacular form, as in the radiation emanating from Chernobyl, which “confronted us with the threat of what Lacan calls ‘the second death’: the result of the reign of the discourse of science is that what was at the time of the Marquis de Sade a literary fantasy (a radical destruction that interrupts the life process) has become today a menace threatening our everyday life” (p. 36).

But Zizek keeps his promise: he does exemplify Lacan's theories and in the process provides us with excellent summaries of film plots, with many parallels to Lacan's analysis of Poe's “Purloined Letter,” and he elucidates the types of jouissance we may experience when watching a thriller. As required by postmodernists, he makes his bows to radical politics without engaging in political action. Inevitably, Zizek's intellectual footwork seems somewhat farfetched when, for example, he parallels Marx's concept of surplus value with surplus enjoyment and then to exchanges between capital and labor. I kept thinking: Why does not Zizek continue to use his energies in the Slovenes' struggle? For the language of postmodernism is already outmoded, while his society certainly needs the help of one of its most intelligent and talented sons.

Slavoj Žižek and Peter Canning (interview date March 1993)

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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 together in love, as long as someone is left out to hate? Lacan and Freud are pessimists, right? For Love is all-inclusive—at least it can't depend on exclusion and hatred for its condition! Or else, with a yawn and a wink, we resign ourselves to taking advantage of whatever trust remains in human nature.

When Slavoj Žižek says, “There is no social relation,” we react as cynics and Kantian fetishists: I know very well there is no social Harmony prepared in heaven, but that is why we must work it here on earth. But Žižek unveils a new attitude. Social identity is constituted, not on the basis of ideal communication or understanding, but on the condition of persecutory and reactive formations that we all claim the others embody. And they do. But which one of us wants to embrace Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms? The feeling is mutual. Besides, You want to strangle them, you have to get up close.

Antagonism is radical in human nature because we are the self-conscious ones, and the self we are conscious of is mortal, is death itself. To wipe out consciousness (and whatever stands for it) is the purpose of repression, redoubling death with its own negation, a “second death”—erasure of the signifier in the place of consciousness. Behind the signifier is the Thing, the absolute core of the Other “between perception and consciousness.” Behind consciousness is its own unconsciousness. (Who else is unconscious if not consciousness?) To go unconscious is to jouir, that's the Thing, to get off, to get out, to forget. Whoever holds the place of consciousness must be eliminated—that is the social-moral law; whoever plays with jouissance at the limit of awareness had better watch his ass, because the sorry truth is that anyone who seems to be having fun playing with the Thing becomes the target of invidium and must be excluded from the circle of self-identity. Repression is the founding act of becoming human. It is the Thing itself, jouissance. Oblivion, erasure, this is the function of the law—of censorship. The Freudo-Lacanian Law (of which Žižek, constructing a true Hegelian synthetic rhizome for our time, exfoliates the political dimensions) cannot be stated, but if it could, the Thing might say of itself: I do not exist. Or rather, I would not exist, if the Signifier didn't make me. The truth is that the supreme Good is an illusion, “a fantasy filling out a void.” But the belief in it is real and effective as such. The best definition of love is Wallace Stevens': “an illusion so desired / That the green leaves came.” Love is the pure real, the Thing is a sublime illusion, and if you believe in it, it becomes what you make of it: human freedom, the unconditioned absolute for good and evil. And if you don't believe? We are all circling around a central void, a kind of vacuum core that acts as a strange attractor for consciousness and desire. The Thing is surrounded by a horizon of consciousness, an immanent nonEuclidean rim, which yields its multiform topology to the “late Lacan.” We are implicated as subjects and objects in this intensive space of mutual immersion wherein desire is the only real thing. Žižek explores and maps this milieu of libidinal politics, drawing us a series of diagrams of “ideological fantasy.” At the control chamber of bureaucracy, the official Other ruled by knowledge and perversion, its petty heart and massive “mind” (sublime memory), is occupied by a subject-essence, objet a, petite abyss wrapped in fantasy—the image. This substantial core is that “being of semblance,” the human agent, whose only real consistency is jouissance. At the heart of the subject is the “sublime object” sustained—beyond all need—by desire and belief. Our symptom has no image or content except what foolhardiness and creativity provide. For anything new to come into being, it must break the law, but in all innocence. If it aims to violate, it limits itself to transgressing its limits. But whenever the sublime Thing comes for real into the world, it appears necessarily in error and goes against the rules, for with it, the rules change.

There is no beyond aggression. To embody the antagonist oneself is to initiate the movement of creation. So perhaps this is our consubstantial Žižekian illumination: the only Good Thing is the Law (the S1 canceling itself in favor of the void—freedom); but the truly sublime Thing arrives, as Lacan said, “outside the limits of the Law, where alone it can live.” Not the love that binds in unity by exclusion of the limiting exception, but an inconsistent elementary “love without limit,” an ethical, impure desire.

[Canning]: The basic question is, what drew you to Lacan? I know that it was Althusser to some degree, but how did Hegel and Lacan come together for you in your personal history?

[Žižek]: Perhaps the ultimate reason was the specific mapping of intellectual life in Slovenia. In this republic, there were two predominant philosophical approaches: Frankfurt School Marxism and Heideggerianism. Both were unacceptable to us Lacanians, not only generally, but because in Slovenia the Communist Party was intelligent enough to adopt Frankfurt School Marxism as its official ideology. Heideggerianism was from the beginning linked to a right-wing populism, and in other parts of Yugoslavia—of what was once Yugoslavia—to the darkest Stalinist forces. For us Althusser was crucial, is still crucial. But if there is a lesson to be learned from the recent political upheavals in Eastern Europe it's—I'm more and more pro state. Let's praise the state highly, to put it simply. I radically disagree with the leftist position that identifies the state apparatus as the source of all evil. If there is something that we are almost physically experiencing in Eastern Europe, it is how all freedoms and I don't mean freedoms on this abstract ideological level, but very practical, everyday freedoms—imply a functioning state apparatus. This is not a paradoxical new thesis. Etienne Balibar even wrote a nice article, “Es gibt keinen Staat in Europa” (There is no state in Europe), in which he sees this search for a new nationalism and a kind of inner collapse of state power as strictly correlative phenomena. So this is why Althusser was absolutely crucial for us from the very beginning, this and his whole theory of theoretical state apparatuses, even though in terms of his official ideology he might be on the other side.

In Czechoslovakia the big opposition, for example, was Milan Kundera versus Vaclav Havel. Kundera was perceived as having this cynical antistate disposition—for him, the privacy that was left you by the communist regime was the basis for opposition. Havel, of course, was the opposite. In one of his most famous stories, he takes a very Althusserian example, that of a small-time boss who owns a little grocery. Privately this character always speaks against the regime, but on the 1st of May he decorates his shop with the communist slogans. To put it in Althusserian terms, he obeys the ritual, the practices. Havel's whole point was that private disobedience coupled with public obedience is precisely the way the system functioned—that there is not only nothing subversive in this Kundera-like private space, but that the ideal subject of real socialism was precisely the one who did not believe in the system, who had this distance built in. So the truly heroic thing to do was not to tell dirty stories, but to publicly do some small thing that perturbed the ritual.

But aren't you confusing public space with the state? Why do you insist on the state?

Maybe I am confusing them, but this confusion was written into the way the East European communist state worked; it was literally obsessed with maintaining the public image, with controlling what could be said publicly and what not. This obsession had nothing to do with real state secrets; the supposed “secret” could actually be known to everybody. In my own country, in the northwestern part of Slovenia, there are some very nice mountains. To do proper mountain-climbing you need detailed maps. Now under the Yugoslav regime, the maps were a state secret. It was only possible to buy maps that not only were not very detailed, but—this was a very mysterious thing—some roads were changed, some villages were displaced, some sources of water were simply not shown. You would say: Of course, this was simply the communist obsession with secrecy. But this explanation does not work. Why not? Because the borders were absolutely open in Slovenia. What every Slovene mountain climber did was to go 10 miles into Austria, where it was possible to buy accurate maps. Now you will say: Of course, those maps were done with spy satellites. But no. Under international contracts, Yugoslavia had to provide detailed maps to foreign agencies. So this is the mystery: this secrecy was totally nonfunctional. At this ridiculous level, you can see how public space functioned. I think that it was precisely because of this that the communist regime was so vulnerable. I'm even changing my mind retroactively and beginning, in a way, to appreciate this obsession with public image. The communist idea of public space, distorted as it may seem, is a kind of paradoxical reminder of the Enlightenment project, where privately you can think freely and question all authority, but publicly you have to obey social rituals. The Stalinist show trials are an example of this obsession. What was the point of public confessions? Nobody believed them—everybody knew, let's not kid ourselves (I mean apart from some naive Western intellectuals). Nobody believed it—so why were they necessary? Again, it was this absolute obsession.

Is it the public space, then, or is it the state—isn't it the so-called big Other?

Yes, exactly.

But then aren't you making it exist? When you say that it is a field or space or even an agency that must be maintained, which must be there in order to maintain the possibility of freedom. …

Wait a minute. Now there are two issues: one is how the connection between the big Other and public space, the state, functions in communism. But this is another point. I am not saving that precisely this kind of connection must be maintained.

But even here in the United States—

To a far lesser degree here, I think. There is a whole logic of secrets that are known by everybody but still must not be publicly discussed. In Eastern Europe, the moment that they were publicly pronounced, the whole system experienced this as a total catastrophe. Western countries are more cynical in this respect: the pronouncing of something does not have this catastrophic effect. Nobody cares, the whole system goes on. But regarding what I said before, my solution is not a return to the state. Nobody consciously believes in power, but what is necessary for the social system to function is this unconscious belief in the big Other, which sustains power. We only need a couple of ecological catastrophes to understand the utter, absolute impotence of power.

But what would be the result of such a catastrophe?

Ah, this is what I fear; this is the true dilemma. When the big Other in the form of the state collapses, what we will have is a regression (this is not a good term; it's a naive, pre-Althusserian term) to some kind of far more totalitarian (but, again, this is not the proper word, because totalitarianism is a modern phenomenon), prestate, communitarian form of the big Other. Or even to what is usually referred to as New Age consciousness. There they try to make the big Other exist, perhaps in the form of natural balance—but it's always the big Other, precisely in the Lacanian sense of the eternal order that always returns to itself and that we must rejoin. That is to say, the popular perception of the ecological crisis is that the balance of the big Other, defined as a kind of harmony between nature and society, is upset. I think that there you potentially have a far more totalitarian figure of the big Other.

What is the role of racism? Or do you think that's only a contingent factor in the ecological crisis?

My argument is that this new overidentification with the nation is already a regressive answer to the collapse of the big Other; in other words, that the community toward which this new nationalism spontaneously tends is no longer the modern state as we know it.

It's a kind of organized racism.

Definitely. And what worries me is that, more and more, and imperceptibly, it's simply accepted as the field of discussion. For example, it's recently become clear how, even with the Social Democrats in Germany, the discourse is already ambiguous. On the one hand they say, We of course deplore the violence, but on the other hand they give ground to it by acknowledging the “problem” posed by liberal immigration law. I count at least partially on ecology, because I think that a consequence of ecological problems will be to make these notions of national, ethnic identity ridiculous

But you know that Lacan, in his pessimism, predicted that the future is racism.

Wait a minute. He said that almost 20 years ago.

Maybe he was right. Is that why you say that the state has a definite role—that it protects, at least to some degree, against racism? Is this the universalist Hegelian state?

Definitely. There are a lot of things to be said about it, but, yes. Again I think that we are not spontaneously aware of the degree to which the freedoms of the individual against state power in so-called liberal democracies are, in a way, guaranteed and can exist only against the background of the state. But what I want to point out is the following. When people speak about the Soviet Union, they employ certain abstract notions about a system in collapse, etc. But I've talked with a lot of people from the former Soviet Union and, recently, from Serbia, and I think that the political processes at work in these two countries are parallel. To put it very simply, there now exists something that was unthinkable a couple of years ago: a coalition of fascists and communists. This, I think, is what we have to fear in the future. But what struck me was that what these Russians and Serbs feared most was the collapse of the state, of the basic things. I'll put it very cynically. It's very easy to be a leftist and to say “Let's beat the cops,” but what's going on today in Serbia is the opposite: you walk down the street, somebody beats you and robs you. A policeman stands there watching. You go to him and complain, and he beats you a little bit more.


Why? Because they are usually corrupt, and they don't even perceive their own corruption—but that's my point. The whole idea of an absolute minimum of public order on which you can rely is falling apart in Serbia, and, at a different level, in the ex-Soviet Union. One of the things that struck me in Moscow today is that the locals don't refer to the different quartiers by their old historic names, they identify them by the name of the mafia that occupies them. This is the real power vacuum one should be concerned about, instead of worrying about a power vacuum in the case of Saddam Hussein.

The second point is that this is what is ahead for all of us, even for the so-called developed Western countries. The ridiculous mistake of the Western intellectuals was, first, to mock this Eastern European nationalism as something primitive, something out of the 19th century. Exactly the opposite is true: we in ex-Yugoslavia can proudly say that we are the 21st century, we are literally—with all the cynical irony the statement implies—the most progressive country in the world. We are your future. People laugh at us, but look at what's happening in Germany, France, etc. Slowly, the nationalist conflicts are spreading.

But shouldn't we all be terrified by such a prospect?


Then a conservative or a self-reflectively critical conservative statement would say that capitalism must maintain the state as a front for dismantling traditional structures, while protecting against reactionary ones.

Wait a minute: you automatically imply an elementary, Marxist definition of the state as a tool of capitalism. No, I think the role of the state is far more ambiguous today. I'm not saying anything original, I'm only saying, Let's not repeat the usual mistake of the left. The state should not be simply abandoned to the enemy; rather, it should be made into the terrain where we fight the battle. For example, in Germany, I think it was a stupid mistake of the entire left to leave the issue of reunification to the conservatives, instead of trying to inscribe it in the left's own political discourse. The case of a unified Europe presents a similar catastrophe. Tragically, the left is against the unification of Europe. I think that, precisely as leftists, we should support it. Why? Here I will repeat a good old-fashioned Marxist argument: because European capital is already unified. And it is precisely a unified Europe that would be able, through some kind of social-democratic majority, to ensure, in these times of economic crisis, at least a minimum level of social security. With the unification of Europe you would have a kind of central power able to counteract capitalism.

As I said before, for me, the direct fascist-communist coalition is the mystery of the last years. If you read retroactively, you can see it was in preparation for a long time. People ask, for example, with the Communist Party losing two thirds of its vote in France—in a little over ten years it slipped from 20 percent to around 7 percent—where did the votes go? The answer is: to Le Pen. Don't misunderstand me; my point is not to repeat that old center-right liberalist shit about totalitarianisms of the left and right mirroring each other. No, it's more tragic than that: the whole structure of a certain type of European left is extremely traditional, male chauvinist, etc. It's clear, for example, that the miner's strike that crippled England eight or nine years ago wasn't just a question of a thousand jobs, what they were defending was a “way of life,” and an old communitarian feeling. I think it's the same in France, which is why the French Communist Party is very anti-European. And this is the paradox of the Maastricht referendum in France—the only serious forces opposing it were the Front National of Le Pen, that is to say, the neofascist right, and the communists, the left.

So what's your answer? What is the affinity between communism and fascism? Or are you already explaining that?

No, no. We are all looking for the answer. I don't have a good theory. The only proper theory would be—but, again it's difficult to formulate it without falling into the trap of these old totalitarian theories—to employ the Deleuzian term of reterritorialization. What the communists and the fascists share is a horror of a kind of “democratic” vacuum of power.

The myth that should be dispelled is that East European nationalism constitutes a naive regression to the 19th-century nation-state, that the ones who are taking over are some kind of primitive, lower-class, noneducated people. To the extent that all of these nationalist programs are now realized—in the case of Serbia, for example—they are far from amounting to a spontaneous mass movement. Planned years ago; they are the product of nationalist intellectuals. What we have really witnessed is a true debacle, a total failure of the intellectuals in all these cases. This is a very interesting lesson. Intellectuals always try to play on this split: We don't really believe in national identity, we must pretend for the sake of the ordinary people, etc. But in this case the ordinary people are purely imaginary points of reference. To use Lacanian jargon: they are subjects supposed to believe. The only ones who really believe in national identity, who constructed and formed this myth, were the intellectuals.

Returning to what drew you to Lacan. You know, it wasn't obvious to Americans or to English-speaking readers that there was a political dimension or value in Lacan. It seems to me that you invented the notion of the ideological fantasy—that in a way, this is your concept.

Up to a certain point. But you do find it already, at least implicitly, in Alain Grosrichard's Structure du sérail (Structure of the Seraglio).

Could you speak about the concept of ideological fantasy and of political desire, of the desire of a political subject, and address how it brings Lacan and Hegel together—how it overcomes or takes a new step beyond Althusserian interpellation and in the direction of some kind of thinking of the Real, of jouissance?

The question is of such a fundamental nature that I am writing a book to answer it. I can only give you a very general, abstract answer, addressing this move from Althusser to Lacan. Althusser was our origin historically, and we still think that his notion of the ideological state apparatus was extremely useful. Those who really brought down the communists were practical Althusserians. The basic move from Althusser to Lacan can be reduced to two simple observations, I think. First, interpellation ultimately always fails. There is something that resists it. And interpellation fails necessarily, not empirically—that is, it does not sometimes succeed and sometimes fail; rather, failure is inscribed into the very concept. Second, this failure is not something that blocks the normal functioning of ideology, but rather, to use the reversal of Kantian terms already practiced by Derrida, this condition of impossibility is at the same time the condition of its possibility. That is to say, the failure of interpellation is precisely what makes it possible. It is in the place of this failed interpellation that ideological fantasies emerge, to fill out this gap. And for ideology to work, they are a necessary support.

How does it fail? Could you just remind us?

I'm thinking of interpellation in very concrete terms; I can only give you a clinical example, which is nevertheless very useful. This is my formula. What is the place of origin, the original experience, of psychoanalysis? The complaint of the hysteric. And hysteria is precisely resistance to interpellation; that is its whole point. Lacan puts it very nicely when he says, Why am I what you are saying that I am? This is the hysterical question to the master. You are interpellating me into this, but why am I what you are saying that I am? So the hysterical question means the failure of interpellation.

It's: Why am I what you're telling me? But isn't it also something else: Make me desire, make me jouir. I mean, aren't those demands equally fundamental for the hysteric? You can determine my identity, but how do you make me desire? And doesn't that also lead to the question of the fantasy?

As Lacan says, this is the paradox of the hysterical position: the hysteric articulates a certain demand, but his true desire is for this demand to be refused. Yes, I would definitely agree that it is precisely in the gaps of the hysterical question that fantasy emerges.

To organize desire and jouissance?

Yes, because, of course, the first point to be noted is that the question “Why am I what you are saying that I am?” implies that I am only what you are saying that I am, that my symbolic identity depends upon the big Other.

This is a difficult request, but could you relate desire and jouissance within the theory of the ideological fantasy? You did a beautiful reading of this in the third chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology. Does jouissance have anything to do with this condition of failure? Does desire?

We have in Lacan two seemingly opposed ethics. One would be the Brechtian ethics of desire versus enjoyment, the idea being, to put it naively, that the ethical ideal of psychoanalysis is pure desire. And for Lacan, pure desire means something very precise—desire purified of all enjoyment. He saw enjoyment as the inert part, identifying with that which is inert; and for Lacan, the enemy is always this kind of overidentification. In early Lacan, for example, you have imaginary identification, and you have to penetrate to the symbolic structure behind it. Even in the Lacan of the late '50s and early '60s, where you have fundamental identification with your fantasy, what you have to do is to penetrate, to experience the void behind fantasy. Although there are big shifts, the fundamental move is that of assuming distance, this kind of Brechtian Entfremdung (alienation).

Purify your desires.

Yes, purify your desires, to put it simply. For Lacan, the symptom is understood precisely as the way in which you organize your enjoyment. The symptom means that you betray your desire. So, for Lacan, dissolving symptoms—inert jouissance—is, in this sense, a kind of ethical gesture.

The film Zentropa (1991) is a case in point. If we accept this Lacanian ethics of desire, then the myth of this film can be understood as one of Europe as a kind of inert jouissance, where even the innocent American is swallowed up. The whole narrative is structured by the hypnotic voice of Max von Sydow, by the idea that the moment you touch Europe, you touch some mortal vicious circle of enjoyment. Ultimately, however, I think that the film is far more ambiguous than this may suggest, because what it basically does is to fulfill the program of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, which is to reappropriate the Nazi past as an esthetic experience. I am referring to what Syberberg is doing in his last books, which have caused a great scandal. He first accepts the standard psychoanalytic, even Frankfurt School, accusation that the Germans did not durcharbeiten, did not work through their Nazi past, because they don't want to renounce it. Because they didn't do their proper work of mourning, they are still traumatically attached to the past. Now, Syberberg reasons like this: yes, this is true, but the only way to symbolize it at the collective level is through esthetic appropriation. Now comes the dirty part. Who is responsible for it? The Jews. Adorno said that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz; so the Jews, by prohibiting an esthetic relationship with the Nazi past, by painting Nazism as something too horrible, too horrifying, to be appropriated through esthetic experience—the Jews are really to blame. Syberberg literally produces the formula that the real catastrophe is not 1933 but 1945. This gap, this rupture, after which esthetic reappropriation was forbidden—we are all, he literally says this, under this horrible Jewish interdiction; we cannot relate esthetically to our past. For him the only solution is to—

Identify with the symptom.

Yes, precisely; but how? By getting rid of Jewish influence. By throwing out the Jew.

You see a parallel between this and Lacan's theory, to identify with the symptom?

No, it's more complicated; I just wanted to use this to elaborate a certain type of ethics for Zentropa. The Europe Zentropa depicts is the immediately postcatastrophic Europe. It is clear that the film also alludes to today's Europe, the mess of unification. It changes the Nazi experience into a mere part in the larger story of a self-indulgent European decadence. The only thing to do, then, is simply accept the vicious circle of this jouissance. The Lacan of the “ethics of desire” would reject this radically. He would say that this would mean precisely to compromise your desire.

It's a kind of perversion, right? In the sense of the freedom of deciding one's presuppositions and their retroactive positing; it's a perverse decision or identification. You're actually eliminating your desire, identifying with the will. Desire must remain impure, unconscious. That's the paradox.

Yes; between the seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959 to 1960 and “Kant avec Sade,” of 1962, Lacan shifts to this other logic, which is no longer one of pure desire, where every identification with jouissance means betraying desire. Now it is the opposite: the only authentic thing to do is to identify with your symptom. Desire as such means betraying your symptom, betraying your drive. In other words, the only true desire is the death drive, the death drive precisely as accepting your symptom, circulating around your symptom.

Versus the death drive of The Ethics, the “second death,” erasing all memory. But we come to an impasse. Doesn't this justify Syberberg's move, saying: We Germans have to identify with our symptom, this is the only way for us. We have to locate failure somewhere, within the symptom, because otherwise—

At the abstract level it would be very easy to squeeze out of this. The thing to do is simply introduce the distinction between symptom and fantasy. I think that what is at work in Zentropa is not so much symptom as fantasy. When Lacan says to identify with your symptom, he means precisely—

The traumatic symptom, but “elaborated,” analyzed.

The traumatic symptom that is not concealed through the structure of fantasy.

This shift can be detected, for example, in the reading of Antigone in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. For the Lacan of the identification with the symptom, desire as such is a compromise. The logic of desire is that you desire in order to avoid your symptom. In “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious,” 1960, Lacan says as much. It's the crucial formula of the text, and it's a radical reversal of what he was saying a few months before. He says desire is a defense against jouissance. He says it literally. It's not that jouissance is a regression or a kind of coagulation that hinders or blocks the dialectic of desire, it's that desire as such is a defense against jouissance. I'll put it this way. What does Antigone do? In The Ethics Antigone is still basically pure desire. By accomplishing the terrible step beyond, into the void, into Até (divine blindness), she becomes pure desire. But for the later Lacan, she is not desire—she accepts the death drive, understood precisely as the identification with your symptom, opposed to desire.

It's the ambiguity of the relation to the big Other that is in play here. Why? One way to read Antigone is to see her as suspending the big Other as embodied in social power. On the other hand, she can also be read, and this is how Lacan still reads her in The Ethics, as identifying her desire with the desire of the big Other. What Antigone basically does is to insist upon the ritual. Why does she sacrifice her life?

Because she basically says: my desire, my only desire, is that the ritual must be performed. That is to say, the desire of symbolic integration, of the big Other.

Again, I think Lacan himself is deeply ambiguous here. There are four or five features like this, which I have tried to explain in forthcoming articles, For example, who is the objet a in The Ethics? Lacan still claims that, in the perverse scenario, the victim is the objet a. When he speaks of the “between the two deaths,” he uses the miracle of Sadean victims as his example. You can torture them but they always remain beautiful. Then, suddenly, in “Kant avec Sade,” it's the executioner who takes the place of the object. The victim is the S barré, the subject. He totally shifts the formula.

Can we say, then, that what he discovered is the impossibility of purification? At some point in this transition, he discovered the impossibility of pure desire, and the only thing, as he says (in Encore,) is to pass through your division into jouissance and become an object. But at that point you merge with the drive.

I totally agree with your formulation. This is what people usually overlook when they concentrate only on generalities. Lacan discusses this in the mysterious final pages of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964; he says that when you go through fantasy, la traversée du fantasme, you lose desire, you become pure drive. Again, when people talk about the truth of desire, they simply overlook that. In The Four Fundamental Concepts, Lacan defines the final, concluding moment of analysis as the one when you step out, when you don't have desire any more, in this sense. You become the being of the drive; you pass from the side of the divided subject to the side of the object. Which is why the analyst is an object in this sense. I also agree with you if your point is that this is in a way extremely close, almost imperceptibly close, to the perverse position. Although the gap is there—absolute but almost imperceptible.

It's interesting that we've reached this point, but what is the role of self-consciousness at this divide? Could you say that the analyst sustains something unconscious, whether you call it listening with the third ear, the ear as the receptacle of the unconscious—that the pervert serf-consciously identifies, as you correctly say, not with the symptom but with the fantasy us a program, and thereby fills out the objet a, whereas the Lacanian analyst holds it empty and receptive in some way to the future?

The parallel is clear. The basic structure of perversion is that you perceive yourself as the instrument of others' jouissance. This is why, for example, Don Giovanni is a pervert. What is his big trick? His gift is not that he is beautiful, but that he can guess or discern the fantasy of each woman, and he tries to stage that fantasy. Which is why Lacan says une par uneune pour une; for each her own specific fantasy. For the pervert is totally void, he is there only to serve the other, to be the slave of the other's fantasy. This is very nicely expressed by Lacan: the formula of perversion is the simple reversal of the formula of fantasy. This is precisely what happens in psychoanalysis.


The psychoanalyst is a passive blank, an empty screen onto which the analysand projects his or her own fantasies. Of course, as we all know, here is where the difference begins: rather than serving the fantasy, the analyst undermines it. But it's absolutely true that there is a basic homology, which, again, is not sufficiently noted. Now, as to this problem of self-consciousness, I think that here problems begin for Lacan, and we can now approach the second part of your opening question: why Hegel? Unfortunately, Lacan too quickly identifies self-consciousness with self-transparency, and the very condition of the notion of self-consciousness in German Idealism is that you are inaccessible to yourself. It's a positive ontological condition. To be self-conscious, you must be void, you must not be accessible to yourself as what you are. So we have a certain radical gap defining self-consciousness. The subject of self-consciousness is literally S barré. Lacan's idea is that self-consciousness is an object. The point is not that you cannot arrive at self-consciousness; you can arrive at self-consciousness, but it is outside of you, external to you as an object. As a symptom, for example. You are always split between what you are as subject—empty and decentered—and the external place where the truth about you is inscribed. The crucial misunderstanding to be dispelled is this quick identification of self-consciousness with self-transparency. The whole point of Lacan, and of Hegel, is that self-consciousness means precisely splitting, means precisely what Lacan means when he says that your desire is always the desire of desire. That is, that you have to choose your desire. This is the reflexivity of self-consciousness; it has nothing to do with consciousness in the sense that you are aware of it. Quite the contrary, self-consciousness means, already in German Idealism, that you are not aware of what is going on within you.

So in this sense perversion short-circuits the process, the Bewegung [movement and becoming] of consciousness.

That's the very definition of it.

One thing to wrap up the political fantasy question quickly. The political abject implies a collective subject; but how do you move from a psychoanalysis of an individual subject to a collective subject?

Lacan said that the individual is never individuum, indivisible. The individual is split, and it is this very split that connects him with society. I'll put it this way: the individual is always already social precisely because he or she is always split. Usually the social connection is considered at the level of identity, not as split. You are social in so far as you identify with certain social values, etc. For Lacan it is the exact opposite. Society is inscribed into you through a cut, not through some kind of identification. How can we be sure that we can speak with the other, how is communication possible? This can be put in interpersonal terms or, more fashionably, in terms of an ethnic community. How can we be sure what a Chinese speaker means? Are we not, each of us, prisoners of our own ethnic, ideological universes? How can we even say that we participate in the same field of meaning?

Lacan's answer here is paradoxical and deeply Hegelian. The mistake of this solipsistic view, that we can never be sure that we communicate with the other, is that we presuppose that we can communicate with ourselves. Lacan's answer is that we communicate with the others precisely because we cannot communicate with ourselves, precisely because we are always split. The way we are split connects us with others; we look for the missing part in the other. The other fills our own gap. This also answers the question of how communication is possible. This is the Lacanian wager: is not our culture, the way we structure the symbolic edifice of our culture, only an attempt to come to terms with some kind of traumatic impossibility? If we recognize our culture as an ultimately failed attempt to symbolize some antagonism, some real deadlock, this allows us to read the other's culture as an attempt to symbolize the same deadlock. What unites cultures is not the neutral, universal set of meanings that Chomskyan linguists are trying to establish; you don't find it at that level. You find it at the level of an impasse. All cultures are different answers to the same question, arising from the same deadlock; it is precisely the deadlock, the antagonism, that unites us. The problem is to recognize in a foreign culture a different attempt to avoid the same deadlock that we tried to avoid. That we can identify with the other at this point of failure is an almost hysterical paradox. This is the basic Lacanian answer to the question of how can we be sure that we communicate with the other: we don't communicate with ourselves. The other is already in our own split; because we are split, our discourse is already, as Lacan would say, the discourse of the other.

Paul Thomas (review date fall 1993)

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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 books, articles, university courses, conference panels—is a ‘post-modern’ phenomenon par excellence … for true Hitchcock aficionados everything has meaning in his films, the seemingly simplest plot conceals unexpected philosophical delicacies.” He adds that “this book partakes unrestrainedly in such madness.” Indeed it does, to the point of academicizing Hitchcock with a kind of gleeful vengeance. To begin with, much of the Lacanian panoply is out in force—the Imaginary; the Symbolic; the Real; the objet petit a; the “stain”; das Ding; Vorstellung-Repräsentanz; sinthoms; the Unheimlich; the Will-to-Enjoy; and—of course—the Gaze. Nor is this all. The essays that comprise Žižek's collection are peppered with references for which his (reversible?) title does not always prepare us: references (in no particular order) to Freud, Heidegger, Hamlet, Kant, Galileo, Descartes, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Henry James, Aristotle, Holbein, Racine, Sade, and Aristophanes.

All this might be taken to suggest that Žižek's book is eclectic—as well as heavy going—but to a surprising extent it is neither. Whether it's a voyage into Lacan via Hitchcock or Hitchcock via Lacan is finally unclear; even so, the essays that make up the book never lose sight of Hitchcock's films, some of which are covered very imaginatively indeed. The essays remain disparate, and need Žižek's introductory and concluding contributions to give them whatever coherence they display.

Žižek's overall argument, briefly, is that a threefold distinction obtains in Hitchcock's films. From The Thirty-Nine Steps to The Lady Vanishes, they present a hero's subjectivity strengthened by an ordeal (the journey); from Rebecca to Under Capricorn they give us the autonomous subject's displacement by a victorious, insipid, heteronymous hero; and from Strangers on a Train to The Birds they proffer heroes as pathological narcissists incapable of participation in subject formation. To these three types of subjectivity there correspond three types of object: the McGuffin, indifferent in itself but structurally necessary in that it has significance for the characters; the object of exchange circulating among characters (the ring in Shadow of a Doubt, the lighter in Strangers on a Train; in films based on dualisms, the object of exchange alone has no counterpart, no double); and massive, material, oppressive presences which pose a lethal threat (the landscape in North by Northwest, the birds). By the time this sequence has run its course—by the time, in other words, of Psycho—“suspense is never the product of a simple physical confrontation between subject and assailant.” For this very reason Hitchcock's films are on no account to be confused with the “whodunnit” or the film noir. They have moved into a new, uncharted dimension—uncharted, that is, by all except Lacan. This domain is beyond suspense and beyond sadism, as these are normally understood. Increasingly, “the filmic enunciated” (the diegetic content) discloses and indexes its “process of enunciation” (Hitchcock's relationship not with his characters but through these characters with his audience). Hitchcock's orchestration of the viewer's gaze, Žižek insists, is “far more subversive” than may initially appear to be the case. What holds society together is not just identification with the law as Ego-ideal, which regulates its normal, everyday circuit, but identification with the other side of law, its “obscene, superegotistical reverse.” In viewing a Hitchcock film, we are led to identify not with the law itself but with a specific form of its transgression or suspension. (This idea was not so much expressed as domesticated by Bakhtin, whose carnivalesques stop short of the lynching mob; as Nietzsche put it—in words Žižek et al. fail to quote but which Hitchcock as well as Lacan might have understood—“what could be more festive than a beheading?”)

It is precisely this identification with transgression that is (increasingly) “contaminated beyond cure” by Hitchcock, who does not (as is commonly supposed) play along with it in Psycho but utterly subverts it. According to this view, Psycho disobeys all the “normal” Hitchcockian rules—it does not rely on the consistency of a symbolic order or on narrative closure—and makes perfect sense in Hitchcockian terms. Psycho takes us a long way beyond the standard subversion of the idyllic everyday surface of life by the exposure of its dark “reverse.” The surface turned inside out had nothing idyllic or even pleasant about it in the first place. American alienation (“financial insecurity, fear of the police, desperate pursuit of a piece of happiness—in short, the hysteria of everyday capitalist life”) is in Psycho confronted not with cathartic release but with its psychotic reverse, “the nightmare world of pathological crime.” The only topology that suits these worlds is that of the Moebius band; if we progress far enough on one surface—and Hitchcock leads us along it in Vertigo as well as in Psycho (though Žižek does not say this)—we find ourselves all of a sudden on its reverse.

Žižek's argument is certainly an arresting one. But not all the contributors to Everything … bolster it up very much. The problem here is not eclecticism so much as sheer unevenness. The essays making up the book are subdivided into “The Universal: Themes” (part 1) and “The Particular: Films” (part 2). They vary greatly in quality and relevance. Fredric Jameson's essay on “Spatial Systems in North by Northwest,” which deals with only this film and is put into part 1 anyway, presumably because it's so (needlessly) long and woolly, has nothing discernibly Lacanian about it at all. It is counterbalanced to some extent by the more pointed essays by Pascal Bonitzer (on suspense) and Mladen Dolar (on objects), and to a truly considerable extent by Alenka Zupančič's essay on theater in Hitchcock's films, which contains as good a treatment of Murder! as I've ever encountered.

The essays in part 2 are if anything even more varied in quality. Some are slight and dispensable (Michel Chion on The Lady Vanishes, Pascal Bonitzer on the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much). One, at least, is just plain silly (Chion on Rear Window). This suffers badly by comparison not just with Miran BoZ̆ovič's essay on the same film (which redeems Rear Window, fortunately for the argument of the collection as a whole) but also by comparison with Chion's own later essay on Psycho. And one (Renata Salecl on The Wrong Man, which deserves a place on anyone's Hitchcock reading list) is positively transcendent—and very much to the point of Žižek's eventual argument, which is more than can be said for many of the other contributions. This book deserved tighter editing than Žižek saw fit to provide.

Doug Aoki (review date winter 1995)

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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 Jacques, and thereby suppose that Christopher Johnson and Slavoj Zizek are working towards very similar ends—the explication of the thought of one or the other of arguably the two most significant poststructuralist theorists. However, even a little reading proves that each writer is instead more faithful to the differences between their titles. Johnson commits himself to system, and proceeds accordingly to construct a sober argument for a general Derridean theory of writing (écriture), while Zizek only pledges to look at Lacan the “wrong” way. Johnson's scrupulously academic text enlists the usual supporting cast of Hegel, Heidegger, and Freud, while Zizek, casually dismissive of the “academic reception” of Lacan, prefers the company of Stephen King, George Romero, and Werner Herzog. Johnson constantly intertexts his argument with passages from Derrida (although, curiously, the English translations are regularly one sentence longer than the corresponding French), while Zizek declines quoting directly from Lacan in favor of lavishly referencing Hitchcock. Johnson proceeds with a prudent, if unremarkable reading of Derrida, only to get Derrida wrong in the end, while Zizek accomplishes the freshest and most radical reading of Lacan in decades.

To his credit, Johnson acknowledges early on that formalizing Derrida is problematic. Yet he is quick to attribute potential criticism of his project to an interpretive orthodoxy, mobilizing on his own behalf Derrida's pronouncement that the very non-formalizability of a programme is itself formalizable. Johnson takes this as an authorial endorsement of his reassertion of the “second moment” of Derridean thought: the general theory of writing that Johnson claims has been overlooked because of the customary emphasis on deconstruction as critique. His project is therefore a manifestly positive one, well in excess of any explanation of non-formalizability, and that positivity ultimately translates to failure.

Johnson traces the general transformation of the modern episteme through familiar paradigm shifts: from language to writing, in linguistics, and from energy to information, in science. He thereby convincingly argues for the affinity of écriture with both cybernetics—through information as difference—and biology—through the articulation of the body and the dissemination of genetics. He concludes that writing, cybernetics, and biology are all instances of a general systems theory, exemplified by Bateson and the somewhat dated Bertalanffy. Johnson's depiction of writing as an open system is apt, but his subsequent equation of deconstruction and natural selection is as suspect as his hierarchical privileging of the trace, within an écriture he theorizes as “the condition of possibility of the transmission of information.” He would be well advised to reconsider given Derrida's own compelling dance outside systemization in his recent eponymous collaboration with Geoffrey Bennington. Anyone seeking after system, writing, and Derrida would be better served by that book than by this reading gone awry.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement hails Slavoj Zizek as “the Giant of Ljubljana.” Of the six books on Lacan he has published in English in the last five years, Looking Awry is the most accessible, though hardly so much so as fully to merit its Introduction to Lacan billing (VLS rates him as “semi-accessible”). Despite its periodic density and complexity, this book is surely the most intriguing and entertaining way anyone could engage Lacan for the first time. Such affability makes Looking Awry invaluable in the mid-nineties, when Lacanian theory, despite its scandalous opacity and abstruseness, is gaining influence well beyond its traditional niches in film theory and literary criticism—witness Butler's work in lesbian and queer theory, Bhabha's in post-colonial theory, Silverman's in gender theory and semiotics. What makes Zizek uniquely engaging is his dexterous execution of what he identifies elsewhere as the quintessential postmodernist gesture: the estrangement of the everyday through its tactical confrontation with the theoretically recondite. Hence, Looking Awry reads Stephen King's Pet Sematary as inverting Antigone, with the living dead returning to collect some unpaid symbolic debt; Groucho Marx, in Duck Soup, as enacting the definitively human deception of feigning to deceive; Spielberg's The Empire of the Sun as shifting repellently from reality to fantasy space. While the general practice of estrangement is effectively deployed by others, notably Derrida and Foucault, it has a peculiar significance for Zizek, inasmuch as Lacanian psychoanalysis turns on the unreal real of the unheimlich:

Our common everyday reality, the reality of the social universe in which we assume our usual roles of kind-hearted, decent people, turns out to be an illusion that rests on a certain “repression,” on overlooking the reality of our desire. This social reality is then nothing but a fragile, symbolic cobweb that can at any moment be torn aside by an intrusion of the real.

Here the “real” signifies the most crucial and the most refractory order of Lacan's recasting of Freud's psychic topology. The other two consist of the symbolic—the order of reality, society, and language—and the imaginary—the order of image, illusion, mirroring, and identification. The real is, by definition, impossible to define: Lacan, in his characteristically unhelpful way, says that the real is the impossible. It is most readily apprehensible as the negative limit of the symbolic and the imaginary, as the hard kernel of resistance, so it is best to look awry to catch a glimpse of it. And yet, Lacan maintains that subjectivity, as well as reality itself, is radically contingent upon, though different from, the real. Consequently, Zizek performs a virtuoso elucidation of the phantastic necessity of the real; its different modalities, renderings, and evasions; and its consequences for understanding ideology, politics, and Alfred Hitchcock. The result is often delightful, sometimes difficult, always provocative, and ultimately vastly important. As Andrew Ross observes, Zizek reconjures “what was genuinely exciting and revolutionary about the Parisian school.”

Sarah Herbold (essay date autumn 1995)

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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])

Whatever they may signify (and this is precisely the question: whether, how, and to whom they signify anything), the terms woman and the feminine figure prominently in contemporary Anglo-American and French poststructuralist theories of literature and culture.1 This concern with woman and the feminine is implicitly linked to ideas of change and liberation: to a desire to be freed from traditional gender roles and representations in the case of feminist thinkers, and from traditional forms of thought, experience, and expression in the case of poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theorists. For better and/or for worse, woman and the feminine are being associated with the current sense of cultural crisis and innovation that has been dubbed postmodernity. What are in crisis, we are told, are the so-called master narratives of universal reason, truth, progress, and the universal subject that were first conceptualized by Enlightenment philosophers.2 Historical consciousness, psychoanalysis, and structuralism have helped to discredit these master narratives, which have been shown to presume falsely that reality can be objectively known and transparently expressed in language and that man as knower can know himself as object of knowledge. This knowable knower, the Enlightenment humanist subject who is necessarily masculine, has been mortified, and his discourse has ostensibly died of shame along with him. Philosophy can no longer see itself as a universal theory of existence.

Both man and philosophy, then, must be replaced; the new object of affection for many theorists of postmodernity is woman. Such contemporary French philosophers of postmodernity as Jean Baudrillard, Hélène Cixous, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Félix Guattari, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Jean-François Lyotard have placed woman or the feminine at the center of their stylistically decentered theories of epistemological decenterment. Indeed, as one feminist theorist who has analyzed such theories, Alice Jardine, puts it, “the putting into discourse of ‘woman’” seems to be “intrinsic to the condition of modernity” (1985, 25). Or, in the words of Rosi Braidotti, “The problematization of woman, women, and the feminine in contemporary French philosophy is a major factor in the critique and deconstruction of the rational subject” (1991, 8). In the Anglo-American feminist tradition, meanwhile, women play an equally central role in theories of the new, although here the emphasis has usually been on women as historical subjects rather than on woman or the feminine as concepts. The questions to be asked are whether, in attempting to shift both the trajectory and the style of cultural inquiry, poststructuralists and postmodernists are really seeking to avoid the fetishizing or circumscribing of women that is characteristic of the traditions they critique. If so, do they succeed?

It would appear certain at the very least that some things have changed since Kant. As Jardine points out, the centrality of woman to contemporary theories of culture may stem directly from feminism's influence: “The sudden explosion of new theoretical systems [that depend on woman] could be directly linked to the presence of Woman's word” (1985, 97). But “Woman's word” began to make itself heard in Western culture before the twentieth century. Indeed, the theorist of postmodernity whose concept of woman-as-the-postmodern will be the focus of this article, Slavoj Žižek, argues that Kant was the first to inscribe sexual difference into philosophical discourse (1993, 54).3 Žižek also contends that even as he attempted to close it with his theory of transcendental apperception, Kant opened up the gap of impossibility in the subject and in the knowable that constitutes what we now call the postmodern condition (1993, 56, 173). If the discourses of both modernity (i.e., the Enlightenment and its aftermath) and postmodernity (our current state of after-modernism) adopt and in some way depend on woman, one might ask, What has changed—if anything—and why and for whom?

For, as several feminist critics who have warily scrutinized the current confabulation of woman and the postmodern have already observed, this synthesis could be used to reinforce the conceptual and material oppression of women inherent in Enlightenment humanism that it claims to undo.4 Indeed, as Jennifer Wicke and Margaret Ferguson put it, “Feminist postmodernism once read as an oxymoron, and postmodern feminism still has an uncertain valence” (1992a, 3). The tension between feminism and postmodernism derives from what would seem to be their antithetical aims: whereas Anglo-American feminism has concerned itself with women's experience of social oppression and often assumed that all women share a common interest and essence (i.e., it has assumed a humanist but feminine subject), the philosophical project of postmodernism is to deconstruct all broad humanist categories, including “women,” as falsely totalizing (Fraser and Nicholson 1988, 83-85; Wicke 1992). Postmodernism has been described as the attempt to rehistoricize poststructuralism and to compel cultural theory to account for historical and material differences (Ross 1988, xv; Wicke 1992, 18), and postmodernists have charged essentialist or cultural feminism with philosophical simplemindedness because it ignores the complex social construction of subjects and the conventionality of language (Fraser and Nicholson 1988, 84, 91; Butler 1993, 30). On the other hand, it could be argued that feminism as a social practice remains more faithful to the material diversity of individuals and social conditions than postmodernist theory, which like any theory (and perhaps more than some) necessarily essentializes in its formulation of general propositions, no matter how localizing and heterogeneous it tries to make them.5 Thus anti-essentialist, historicized feminism has also been criticized for too readily surrendering the need for women to organize collectively, that is, for surrendering the need to essentialize (de Lauretis 1987, 23-24; Kipnis 1988, 155; Modleski 1991, 17-18, 22, 163). Postmodernism has also been criticized for being too apolitical in its failure to articulate the need for organized movement for change (Fraser and Nicholson 1988, 88; Rose 1988, 243; Wicke 1992, 17-18). More specifically, Jacqueline Rose has criticized formulations of the postmodern such as Fredric Jameson's and Lyotard's for eliding the question of sexual difference (1988, 240-42).

It would seem, then, that the concatenation of feminist and postmodern theory could produce a range of effects—one of which would be to sever the term woman from any reference to actual women (Jardine 1985, 35; de Lauretis 1987, 23) and to permit it to stand for anything and everything. Even worse, an ostensibly feminist postmodernism could co-opt feminist perspectives and resubordinate them to traditional male-dominated interests (de Lauretis 1987, 21). As Tania Modleski puts it, feminists “need to consider the extent to which male power is actually consolidated through cycles of crisis and resolution, whereby men ultimately deal with the threat of female power by incorporating it” (1991, 7). In contrast, Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson suggest that combining postmodernist and feminist theories could capitalize on the strengths of both and redress the weaknesses of each (1988, 84). Postmodernism could help feminists uncover what is theoretically problematic in Western literary humanism and Marxism and also address excessive generalization within feminism (Nicholson 1992, 60).

Because this rapprochement of feminism and postmodernism looks both promising and dangerous, feminists need to look carefully at specific examples of such theories. We need to distinguish, on one hand, between responses to feminism that attend to the costs of suppressing women's perspectives and of representing them tendentiously and that allow women themselves to change and control tradition and, on the other hand, reactions to feminism that merely attempt to resuscitate critically ill, traditionally male-dominated discursive traditions by drawing in and sacrificing to them the vitality of feminine differences. As Modleski has expressed this necessity, “We need to remain aware of how frequently male subjectivity works to appropriate ‘femininity’ while oppressing women … [and we need to] recogniz[e] and challeng[e] the dubious sexual analogies that pervade a wide variety of discourses, however seductive they may at first appear. And this is especially important when … such discourses masquerade as theories of liberation” (1991, 34).

In this light, I propose to scrutinize the theory of woman-as-the-postmodern that the influential cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek has recently propounded. A self-designated champion of both postmodernism and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, Žižek has shaped postmodernist philosophy in such works as The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) and, more recently, Tarrying with the Negative (1993). Žižek superimposes Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic model of individual development onto Hegelian models of historical and epistemological change and Althusserian concepts of ideology in order to schematize how the individual subject is produced in history, how historical change is possible, and what role art plays in forming both the subject and history. Žižek emphasizes the gap between the symbolic realm of language and socially constituted reality and the Lacanian concept of the real.6 He combines Lacan's idea that the subject is split by language into a being that can have access to itself and the world only through the medium of words with Louis Althusser's idea that individuals' identities are produced by their societies' ideological fictions. Although it is impossible to avoid misrecognizing oneself as the originator rather than the vehicle of such linguistic fictions, Žižek posits, we can at least rearticulate our identities through constitutive antagonisms of linguistic and social difference, upon which self-knowledge and democracy depend (1989, 5-6).

But what Žižek is more interested in than how one can understand oneself or redefine oneself politically, or how the self or political conditions might be changed, is how one can achieve the state of “separation” or “subjective destitution”—a distance from all symbols and ideas (1990, 32, 43). While it is impossible to escape being influenced or defined by ideological terms, through experiencing what Žižek calls “abstract negativity,” one can come close to occupying the nonideological void that lies at the center of both individual and collective existence. It is this void that Žižek calls the real, after Lacan. The void of the real is apparently created by language,7 which intercedes between the name and the thing named, thereby creating an unbridgeable separation between the speaker and the thing spoken of (including the speaker himself or herself). The real itself, however, is not linguistic. It is “the duty of the critical intellectual,” Žižek writes, “to occupy all the time … the place of this hole, i.e., to maintain a distance toward every reigning Master-Signifier” (1993, 2; italics in original). For Žižek (as for Kant), the aesthetic realm is the place where the symbolic network of ideological fictions is somehow suspended; it is this space that he seeks to occupy and to defend as the last refuge of the real from ideology. Although the real can never be articulated and exists only as an absence or a void, it is nonetheless a singular object of enjoyment and fascination. And for Žižek it is feminine. It is also postmodernity's fixation.

Žižek uses two different kinds of language and draws on two different cultural fields to carry out his project of “saving” Hegelian theories of history and epistemology through Lacan's psychoanalytic theories of the subject's relation to language (1989, 7). He uses the traditional abstract language and concepts of philosophy to formulate “the notional content [of his theories] in and for itself” (1992a, xi). But he illustrates those theories by drawing on the popular-culture genre of film. Žižek hierarchizes this bifurcation of ends and means: for example, he authorizes his reading of “the most sublime theoretical motifs of Jacques Lacan together with and through exemplary cases of contemporary mass culture” by referring to Walter Benjamin's program of “reading the highest spiritual products of a culture alongside its common, prosaic, worldly products” (1992c, vii). These so-called high and low genres and the two modes of Žižek's own rhetorical strategy are also sexualized. In reading Lacan through popular culture, Žižek implicitly adopts what he calls the feminine role of “smearing” the masculine discourse of the Master (philosophy, psychoanalysis) with the “stain” of the feminine real as embodied in film (1992b, 235-40). In so doing, he implicitly claims to be subverting the elevated, male-centered theories of the Master in a feminine mode: “Smeared by an obscene vitality, the law itself—traditionally, a pure, neutral universality—assumes the features of a heterogeneous, inconsistent bricolage [hodgepodge] penetrated with enjoyment” (1992c, 149).

But Žižek's feminine messiness has a serious purpose: to restore honor to the Master by educating the (feminized) masses in His wisdom. Movies play the role in Žižek's project of what he calls (after Lacan) a sinthome (symptom), an ex post facto manifestation of the Master's theories in the lower realm of popular entertainment: “To put it in Hegelese: Hollywood is conceived as a ‘phenomenology’ of the Lacanian Spirit, its appearing for the common consciousness” (1992a, xi). The masses-as-women, that is, are to be educated at their level through Žižek's ostensibly feminine practice of filling in the holes in Lacan's cryptic utterances with his reading of the so-called feminine artifacts of popular culture.8 Žižek proposes to “mercilessly exploit popular culture, using it as convenient material to explain not only the vague outline of the Lacanian theoretical edifice but sometimes also the finer details missed by the predominantly academic reception of Lacan” (1992c, vii). The Master's edifice apparently needs shoring up by the very elements to which it remains unutterably superior.

Yet even as he fortifies that edifice by mercilessly exploiting popular culture, Žižek can also play the role of the enfant terrible who makes a big mess in his father's house and sullies his name until the moment and in the name of an ultimate Restoration. “Indulging in the idiotic enjoyment of popular culture” (1992c, viii) affords temporary relief from the oppression of the Master's patriarchal legacy. Because movies represent a pleasurable vestige of the feminine real in a void at the center of the intimidating masculine symbolic, they constitute a breathing space that enables the subject (always grammatically masculine for Žižek) “to avoid the total alienation in the signifier”—that is, in ideology or the symbolic (1989, 122). Enjoying oneself idiotically at the movies provides a temporary escape from the mortifying domination of theory—to which, however, enjoyment must always, finally, be surrendered.

Žižek's merciless exploitation of popular culture in order to make the Master's law of psychoanalysis work as a theory of history not only ravishes films: Žižek also draws on the work of feminist theorists of film and psychoanalysis without acknowledging that he is doing so. Jane Gallop, Teresa de Lauretis, Juliet Mitchell, Laura Mulvey, Jacqueline Rose, Kaja Silverman, and others have been exploring the relationship between feminism, psychoanalysis, and film since the mid-seventies. Many of Žižek's central theses, such as his contention that woman represents both a gap in and a challenge to the integrity of the male subject, were first articulated by these critics. In an essay first published in Screen in 1975, for example, Mulvey argued that a psychoanalytic analysis of film could be used for the political (and specifically feminist) purpose of “demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” (1989, 17). Mulvey suggested that female film characters often represent the threat of castration for the male viewer, a central lack that both allures and terrifies and that must be covered over by the fetishistic fantasy of cinematic plenitude (14-16). In another essay published ten years later (before any of Žižek's writings on Lacan and film had been published), Mulvey observed that “Lacan mapped the concept of the symbolic onto Freud's concept of the Oedipal trajectory: access to the symbolic order is achieved by crossing the frontier, out of the imaginary, the dyadic world of mother and child, into the Father's name and his Law. That is, out of a body-based, maternal relationship into one created by social exchange, culture and legal taboos” (1989, 165). Mulvey's analysis of what happens to the heroines of Hitchcock films in relation to this Lacanian theory of the transition from the imaginary to the symbolic anticipated Žižek's theory of the male viewer's traumatic submersion in the real prior to his return to the symbolic. Mulvey writes, “Hitchcock's heroes are plunged into a world turned upside-down, in which identity and even name become uncertain, in which the logical relations of everyday life are reversed in a nightmare universe that also celebrates the pleasure and excitement of liminality. … But journeys end with safe returns” (1989, 171). It is precisely the nature and consequences of this safe return that I will explore.

In order to scrutinize more closely Žižek's theory of woman-as-the-postmodern and its implications for women, I propose to focus on an essay originally published in the journal October titled “Rossellini: Woman as Symptom of Man” (1990). I have chosen to focus on this essay, in which Žižek discusses the roles played by Ingrid Bergman in several Roberto Rossellini films, for two reasons: first, because it encapsulates Žižek's reading of woman-as-the-postmodern and, second, because it can be strikingly juxtaposed with another reading of (a) woman as emblematic of an analogous psychological, historical, and epistemological crisis roughly contemporaneous with Kant—that is, with the supposed onset of modernity. This strategy will allow me to investigate whether the impulse to impose the crisis of modernity on (a) woman in the late eighteenth century differs from the impulse to impose the crisis of postmodernity on woman in the twentieth, and also to examine the implications of this imposition for women.

Because the scope of Žižek's essay and of his general theoretical enterprise is nothing if not all-encompassing (he outlines theories of fascism, Christianity, Communism, the ethics of action, woman, ideology, anti-Semitism, the subject, language, and reality), the stakes of his project are high. This is particularly true for women, since Žižek propounds a theory of woman as such; implicitly, he tells women what they are, can be, and ought to do. Men, on the other hand, are generally exempted from these imperatives on the grounds that they are incapable of carrying them out.

The objective and methods of Žižek's “Rossellini: Woman as Symptom of Man” are ambiguous. First, Žižek wants to exonerate Lacan of the charge of antifeminism by offering a revisionist reading of what seems to be Lacan's “notoriously antifeminist thes[is]” that “woman is a symptom of man” (1990, 20). Žižek argues that Lacan's later theory of the symptom as a psychoanalytic phenomenon reverses the original implications of his thesis: rather than merely being a coded sign that signifies back to man what he truly desires (which man has hidden from himself) and thereby robs him of his identity and self-possession by compelling him to “cede his desire” to her, woman as symptom of man is the guarantor of man's being and existence, precisely because “there is something in her that escapes the relation to man” (21). That is, woman does not come after but rather before man; she is not produced by but rather produces him. She is ontologically independent of him, while he is dependent on her.

Žižek wants to redeem Lacan, but he also ventriloquizes him in order to combine Lacanian psychoanalytic theory with Althusserian social theory and Hegelian theories of history. Bergman serves as the medium for this master-theory: by surrendering herself to Hegelian abstract negativity, the Bergman heroine refuses to sacrifice herself to the Lacanian “big Other” of Althusserian ideology by plunging into the traumatic abyss of the Lacanian real. She thereby performs an act of “symbolic suicide,” which, according to Lacan, is “the only act which is not a failure, the only act stricto sensu” (1990, 22). Woman both is and represents the real, against whose terrifying power to annihilate self and meaning the male conventions of language, identity, and community have been fabricated. Rather than seeking to eliminate her as a sign of his incompleteness, Žižek argues, postmodern man should celebrate woman's absolute priority. While he himself cannot escape from the realm of symbolic ideology, he can at least admire from afar woman's innate proximity to the negative void of the real. For in this void is found jouissance, the blissful enjoyment of the thing-in-itself unencumbered by language, which man can only experience vicariously through woman-as-the-real.

We will look at this argument in detail in a moment, but first I want to point out a symptomatic slippage in the structure of Žižek's argument. In the first place, Rossellini's films cannot prove that Lacan meant what Žižek says he meant, because if anyone could answer this question it would only be Lacan. Although a Lacanian analysis can be applied to them, Rossellini's films have no inherent relation to Lacanian theory. Second, the films also cannot prove that Lacan was right about what woman is or means. They are not truth documents capable of bearing the kind of evidentiary weight that Žižek wants them to carry in relation to what are ostensibly universal truths of human existence. Indeed, this is precisely why Žižek claims to celebrate the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere: because it is not subject to legal universalization.

The biggest problem with Žižek's attempt to prove Lacan's theory through Rossellini's films, however, is that the logic of his argument is circular. Žižek treats Rossellini's films as mere symptoms of Lacan's theory—as material evidence of a theory that has already anticipated them—while at the same time they serve as founding evidence for the theory's validity. It is finally uncertain whether Lacan is a symptom of Rossellini or vice versa. In any case, both become mere symptoms of Žižek's own massive theory of culture: Rossellini proves Lacan, who proves Althusser and Hegel, who prove Žižek. Žižek's project thus reveals itself to be not empirical but ideological—or, rather, romantic. As we shall see, a psychodrama concerning priority, autonomy, and tantalization is central to Žižek's essay. At its core lie questions concerning relations between the principals (Žižek, Rossellini, Lacan, Althusser, Bergman, and Hegel) that have to do with ambivalence toward membership in and exclusion from a sexualized and hierarchized symbolic order.

Žižek's interpretation of Rossellini's films as a symptom of Lacan's theories makes Bergman (as a series of characters in her husband's films) exemplify what Žižek elsewhere calls the pure nonpathological subject who constitutes herself as a pure subject by assuming her nonexistence (1992c, 65-66). As Irene in Europa '51 or Karin in Stromboli, Bergman undergoes symbolic suicide: she radically separates herself from the ideology of her family and community, thereby achieving what Žižek calls a state of “separation” through an experience of “abstract” or “radical negativity” (1990, 37-38). In terms of the central Lacanian distinction between the symbolic and the real (figured here as masculine and feminine, respectively), Bergman-as-woman heroically leaps into “the abyss of the real, out of which our symbolic reality emerges” (40). In Europa '51, for example, Bergman plays a frivolous, wealthy Roman mother, Irene, whose neglect of her young son causes him to commit suicide. Plagued by guilt, Irene becomes a saintlike character who performs many acts of charity, including one that puts her on the wrong side of the law. She is found by a court to be mentally unfit as a result of the shock of her son's death and sent to a psychiatric ward, where she is pronounced insane. “At the end of the film,” writes Žižek, “we see her alone in a sterile cell while, in front of the hospital, the poor whom she tried to help gather and hail her as a saint” (29). In Žižek's view the film is not “a commonplace critique of the so-called ‘alienation of contemporary society,’ where the noise of our bustling social life renders us deaf to the desperate cry of our neighbor and so forth” (29). Rather, her son's suicide constitutes for Irene a traumatic encounter with the real: with an emptiness that lies at the center of ordinary life but remains uncontaminated by language, morality, or politics. Irene performs charitable acts not in order to alleviate her guilt but in order to take refuge in guilt as an escape from this traumatic encounter with the nonsignifying void of the real. When Irene assumes what Žižek calls “the subjective position of the saint” at the end of the film, Rossellini is celebrating her humble submission not to a transcendent faith but to the absence of faith (32). Irene “falls away from the symbolic network and assumes distance toward the symbolic universe” (32).

The result of this symbolic suicide is “a kind of temporary eclipse, aphanisis, of the subject” (1990, 34). Paradoxically, this disappearance constitutes Bergman as subject: by refusing to sacrifice herself to the fictitious big Other of Christian guilt and redemption, Irene resists the temptation to sacrifice herself in order to conceal the big Other's lack. (The big Other in Lacanian terms is “the subject supposed to know”—God, ideology, the psychoanalyst, language—the being or system that seems to guarantee meaning and identity.) Irene and the other Bergman characters are heroic precisely because they refuse to be heroic in ordinary terms: they reject those terms, according to Žižek, without preferring any other set of values. This defiance of the symbolic “is always negative, that is, an act of annihilation. It is not simply that we do not know what will come of it; rather it is that its final outcome is ultimately insignificant, strictly secondary in relation to the ‘No!’ of the pure act” (35).

Žižek argues that, besides acting out this role in Rossellini's films, Bergman played a similar part in relation to Hollywood's film industry. After she happened to see two of the unknown Rossellini's “neorealistic masterpieces” in a small New York theater, Žižek writes, Bergman “wrote a letter to Rossellini in which, placing her own stardom at his disposal, she offered to help him obtain his well-deserved international fame” (1990, 19). Bergman was so impressed by Rossellini's art that she threw over her successful commercial career in Hollywood and offered “to play any role that might be appropriate for a Swedish actress who spoke fluent English, some German, and only two words of Italian: ‘Ti amo!’” (I love you!) (19). Just as Irene in Europa '51 had the courage to sacrifice her place in society to her recognition of the void of the real, Bergman had the courage to rebel against a limited ideological universe, Hollywood, even at the expense of her career. Despite Hollywood's monopoly over the film industry, she refused to yield to the ideological hegemony of that symbolic community and staked herself instead on an unknown outsider's genius.

For Žižek, Bergman both as an actress and as a set of fictional characters thus embodies what lies at the fascinating and seductive center of postmodernism. She corresponds to what Žižek defines in Looking Awry as “the postmodernist break” in representation: the rendering visible of the “real, traumatic kernel whose status remains deeply ambiguous,” the real that “resists symbolization” (1992c, 142-43). Bergman embodies “the real Thing,” the object displayed directly, visibly indifferent and arbitrary, at the center of some symbolic construction, which can “function successively as a disgusting reject and as a sublime, charismatic apparition” (144). This object is “incarnated, materialized emptiness,” a “terrifying … everyday object that has started to function, by chance, as that which fills in the hole in the Other (the symbolic order)” (145). Bergman embodies pure enjoyment (the Lacanian jouissance) because she cannot be successfully—that is, stably—ideologized.

This abyss of nonsignificance is figured as a vagina: it is “an incision,” a “vertiginous abyss,” a volcanic crater into which the viewing subject momentarily disappears while watching Bergman in the Rossellini films (1990, 36, 28, 32). For the (male) viewer, Bergman-as-woman thus represents the death drive and the psychotic: the terrifying but courageous confrontation with the nullity at the center of human existence around and against which all culture is constructed as a “reaction formation” (1989, 5). She is a symptom of man in the sense that she embodies and enacts the fearsome self-immolation in the real that man desires to emulate but cannot bear to perform, and against which all his “frenetic activity” is only a failed attempt “to balance the dignity of her act, to recompense for it” (1990, 44).

In Bergman-as-woman, then, Žižek sees the culmination of a series of epistemological, psychoanalytic, and historical crises that are all versions of the same crisis. Communism, fascism, biblical history, literary and psychoanalytic theory, the subject as defined by Lacan, philosophy, and Rossellini's films all pass through this crisis—and apparently must continue to do so. What makes this glimpse into the abyss of the nonsignifying real possible for the viewer of Rossellini's films is the Bergman character's ability “to perceive this fissure of the symbolic ‘substance’ insofar as she occupies the position of a stranger, i.e., insofar as her gaze is external; those who find themselves within the symbolic order are necessarily blinded” (1990, 41; italics in original). The viewer sees Bergman as an outsider perceiving and leaping into the abyss of the real and so has his own vicarious or symbolic experience of nonexperience (which is the only real experience). While the men involved in this process of history or vision or theory are thus generally portrayed as active and sane system-makers, woman is a passive and mad system-breaker: she “‘undergoes’ the act (‘passes through’ it) rather than ‘accomplishes’ it … the subject is annihilated and subsequently reborn (or not) … which is why every act worthy of the name is ‘mad’ in its radical unaccountability” (34).

Before we look more closely at Žižek's theory of woman-as-the-postmodern, I would like to turn to another text written by a man during a period of acute personal, social, and epistemological change—a text in which the sense of crisis is also both represented and located in a woman. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his autobiography, The Confessions, between 1765 and 1770, at a critical stage in the long transition from a land-based, largely rural, theocentric, Eurocentric, monarchic, collective, and prehistoricizing social structure and worldview to a democratic, individualist, urban, industrialized, capitalist, secular, less Eurocentric, and more historicizing culture. This transition into what we could call modernity was as profound—and unfixable—as the transition from the modern to the postmodern eras, however we might define the latter.9

Rousseau's writings were at once generated by and generators of this transition into modernity, and they also both embraced and rejected it. When he encountered a courtesan named Zulietta in Venice in 1743 or 1744, at the age of thirty-one or thirty-two, Rousseau was struggling with his conflicting desires to attain power in the hierarchical and patriarchal world and to rebel against that world and bring into being by linguistic fiat some alternative world. In his political writings such as The Social Contract ([1762] 1964), Rousseau argued that popes and monarchs should be replaced with citizen bodies empowered to draw up social contracts uniting free individuals. In his more explicitly imaginative and fictional writings, Rousseau imagined for himself a private sphere of absolute aesthetic freedom. Both utopias are presided over by the figure of Nature, a feminine deity who combines both neoclassical and primitivist features. They are thus in some sense feminine; yet Rousseau's Nature is decidedly mannish, especially in the political writings, where women are confined to a domestic sphere of silence even as they are acknowledged to be both crucial and potentially fatal to the well-being of the ideal state.10 The generic/gender opposition and tension between Rousseau's two types of writing resemble the same tension and opposition in Žižek's writing between serious philosophy and popular culture. In both cases, the feminized aesthetic realm is imagined as a private, playful, androgynous alternative to the serious, masculine, social realm.

Even as he imagined a revolutionary society and a state of aesthetic bliss that were ambiguously feminine, however, Rousseau remained sentimentally and ideologically attached to the old patriarchal structures of preferment that promised him the public recognition he craved. Furthermore, many aspects of the new social world that was actually coming into being (as opposed to the worlds he imagined) were not at all consonant with either of his “natural” utopias. Industrialization, capitalism, urbanization, changing class structures, individualism, decentralization of power, privatization, and changes in gender relations threatened Rousseau's fragile sense of identity and authority even as they stimulated his thoughts and ambition. Like Žižek (or the postmodern man), that is, Rousseau felt caught in an interstice between the patriarchal order, which both was recognizable and promised recognition and yet was oppressive in its dominance over all aspects of life, and the new world that was imminent. This new world presented possibilities for both individual and collective liberation but also threatened established modes of knowledge and self-knowledge and structures of power. Partly because he saw that gender roles were changing and partly because of cultural precedent, Rousseau imagined this new world as feminine. Depending on whether he was feeling more excited or alarmed by its possibilities, Rousseau responded to the specter of the future by alternately exalting and demonizing it as a fascinating or repugnant feminine other.

When he describes meeting Zulietta in the The Confessions, Rousseau reveals a dramatic and confusing confrontation between the two phantasms of male premodernity and female modernity. The crisis embodied in Zulietta is a crisis of categories. Coming as it does about halfway through the autobiography, the Zulietta episode describes a point of transition between Rousseau's old world and self and his new ones. (In this sense, it resembles Žižek's treatment of Bergman as embodying the theoretical and historical passage from the modern symbolic to the postmodern real.) The first six books of The Confessions depict Rousseau's youth up to the age of thirty, which he describes as having been spent nestled in the literal and figurative natural enclosure provided by “Mama,” a charming divorcée who took Rousseau in as a sixteen-year-old runaway. In a series of country dwellings in the French-Swiss Alps, “Mama” and her “little one” (as they called each other) lived in what Rousseau describes as a prolonged period of perfect bucolic bliss. When after several years Mama suddenly takes up with a younger man, Rousseau is expelled from Eden: his forced departure destroys the premodern, preadult, and pastoral rapture in which he claims to have lived up to this point.11 The expulsion from the bower is rhetoricized in the terms of a spiritual epic as regressive progress: as he passes from country to city, from youth to adulthood, from private inexperience to public experience, from supposedly nonsexual sexuality with Mama to the world of real sexuality, Rousseau also claims to proceed from a condition of innocence and freedom to one of guilt and constraint.12

When Rousseau arrives in Venice, he imagines he is beginning the second, public phase of his life. He has obtained a post as secretary to the French ambassador to the Venetian state; it is his first opportunity to launch what he envisions as a brilliant diplomatic career. Although his position is somewhat prestigious, however, Rousseau lacks the aristocratic lineage and wealth needed to gain entrance to Venetian society, where public and private affairs mingle, reputations are made, and preferment is secured. As a low-paid secretary, Rousseau writes, he cannot play the galant and pay court to noblemen's daughters: “Entry into the good houses of that city was forbidden to me due to my position [à cause de ma place]. … I knew that … especially in Venice, with a purse as thin [as mine], one should not get mixed up in trying to play the man about town” (Rousseau [1782] 1959, 316).13 Not only is Rousseau's favorite route to social advancement through refined female society unavailable to him; even worse, he is forced to prove his manhood and thereby his social and professional status to the other members of his diplomatic corps by going with them to a brothel.

This is not an attractive prospect. Whereas Rousseau is attracted to demoiselles—pretty, refined, and clean aristocratic women who wear ribbons, lace, and tiny shoes (134)—he dislikes and fears prostitutes (filles publiques). He writes, “I have always had a distaste for prostitutes” (316). In an earlier version of The Confessions he makes a stronger statement: “I could only look upon prostitutes with horror” (1156). Prostitutes represent modernity: the loss of connection with maternal nature, the alienation of the self in a debased, dirty, commercial, urban society, and the destabilization of both material and metaphysical value (36-37). Prostitutes are mere objects of exchange who cannot mirror back to Rousseau any version of himself that flatters or reassures him: in relation to a prostitute he can see himself neither as a solitary pastoral dreamer (because the prostitute cannot represent Nature) nor as an esteemed public figure (because she cannot represent aristocratic society). The fille publique and the demoiselle incarnate both historical and metaphysical oppositions: whereas the young lady belongs to the old order of landed, patriarchal aristocracy and a unified pyramid of social and metaphysical value, with God and king at the top, the girl of the streets belongs to the new world of urban, bourgeois capitalism, in which value is self-created and not dependent on a monolithic social and metaphysical scheme.14 And yet, this new, contemporary world is inseparable from some of Rousseau's most important social and aesthetic ideals. It is also the world of novelty that stimulates him to write, both in emulation of it and as a defense against it. And it is this world that enables him to “authorize” himself as a middle- or even working-class fashioner of words and ideas.

This perplexity plays itself out in Venice. Rousseau's peers in the diplomatic corps evidently doubt his manhood: they reproach him at dinner for being indifferent to the most piquant of Venetian amusements, the courtesans. Domenico Vitali, one of the ambassador's gentlemen-in-waiting with whom Rousseau constantly competes for attention and favors, publicly offers to take Rousseau to meet one of the most famous courtesans, La Padoana. Rousseau avers that he did not want to meet La Padoana but feels he cannot decline the challenge without shaming himself before the other men in the company: “I felt neither the inclination nor the temptation to go, and yet nevertheless, by one of those illogicalities that I myself have difficulty understanding, I ended by letting myself be dragged thither against my tastes, my heart, my reason, my will even—solely out of weakness, out of shameful reluctance to show defiance, and, as one says in that country, per non parer troppo coglione” (so as not to appear too much of a testicle, or fool) ([1782]) 1959, 317). In order not to seem shamefully absurd (i.e., look like a testicle), Rousseau must prove his testicular potency.15

But Rousseau shrinks from this forced self-expenditure. He does his best to avoid actually having sex with La Padoana by ordering sorbet, asking her to sing, and leaving a ducat on her table. But La Padoana “had the singular scruple of refusing to accept money she had not earned, and I had the singular stupidity to relieve her of her scruple” (317). After yielding to the temptation Rousseau at once regrets it: as soon as he gets home, he summons the surgeon to administer remedies. Nonetheless, “nothing can equal the anxiety I suffered for three weeks. … I could not imagine that one could emerge from the arms of La Padoana with impunity” (317). La Padoana represents an alluring and terrifying experience of sexual, social, national, and epistemological otherness that threatens to rob Rousseau of the physical and metaphysical integrity he wants so desperately to believe he possesses—and yet which he is sometimes ready to risk losing for the sake of venturing into an unknown future.

Like his interlude with La Padoana, Rousseau's encounter with Zulietta also comes about between men. In the course of performing his secretarial duties, Rousseau has helped a French boat captain in trouble with the Venetian Senate. The captain, Olivet, responds by treating Rousseau to an honorary dinner on board the vessel, to which Rousseau invites his friend and peer Carrio, secretary to the Spanish ambassador. Rousseau is quite put out when his arrival on the ship is not greeted by a cannon salute, but Captain Olivet expresses his gratitude in a different way: halfway through the meal, a gondola pulls up alongside the ship and a beautiful courtesan steps aboard. Zulietta is a gift for the evening: she is conferred/imposed upon Rousseau, just as La Padoana was, as a symbol of his rank in the masculine hierarchy of the diplomatic service.

From the first moment of their encounter, Zulietta at once fascinates and terrifies Rousseau because she destabilizes the oppositions that govern his thoughts. She is strikingly beautiful and feminine and yet also as agile and brave as a soldier. She leaps from her gondola onto Olivet's ship with three bounds, she spends money wildly, and she keeps two pistols on her dresser. Also, like the foreign-but-familiar Bergman, Zulietta is at once strange and recognizable: when she arrives, she is hailed by Olivet as “the enemy”; she has “big black Oriental eyes” and she speaks only Italian—“her accent alone,” Rousseau exclaims, “would have been enough to turn my head” ([1782] 1959, 318).16 On the other hand, Zulietta pretends to recognize Rousseau: she leaps into his arms and kisses him, crying, “Ah, my dear Brémond—how long it's been since I've seen you!” She explains that Rousseau looks exactly like a former lover—and she announces that she will install Rousseau in Brémond's place (“elle me prenoit à sa place”; 319). Just as the Rossellini movies invite the male viewer to imagine himself as Bergman's lover for the duration of the film (and just as Žižek seems to imagine himself as Rossellini, receiving the unsolicited attention of the beautiful, famous actress), so Zulietta invites Rousseau to be Brémond for a while, until she tires of him. She will love him for free, she says, as long as it pleases her—but when she is through with him, he will have to accept being dumped just as Brémond did. Like the film, this proposition is inherently limited in duration and, presumably, in consequences. For as long as the affair lasts, however, Zulietta will be Rousseau's obsession and he will be hers. Like the moviegoer, Rousseau becomes a privileged voyeur into the beautiful stranger's existence: he follows her around town, to her house, and into her boudoir, listening to her chatter all the while in her exotic tongue.

Like Žižek's Bergman, Zulietta also represents both vitality and death. She is vivacious, petulant, and excites a frenzy of desire, and yet her brilliance and bravery are also shocking and threatening. She appears at Rousseau's side suddenly, “before [he] had even seen them set another place,” and he is at first so startled by her that he is afraid of her ([1782] 1959, 318). Zulietta warns Rousseau that she does not want to be loved halfway, “à la françoise” (319). She tells him, “‘At the first moment of boredom, go; don't stay halfway, I warn you’” (319). And she backs up her warning by explaining why she keeps the pistols atop her bureau: “‘When I am generous with men I do not love, I make them pay for the trouble they put me to—nothing could be more fair. But although I submit to their embraces, I will not endure their insults—and I will not miss my mark with the first man who misses his mark with me’” (319). Zulietta's words could imply that any man who fails to perform sexually to the satisfaction of what Rousseau calls her “ardent temperament” (318) risks death at her hands.17 This resonates with Žižek's description of Bergman as posing the challenge of the death drive, the radical negation of vital instinct, to the male subject/viewer.

In addition to confounding Rousseau's conceptual and experiential categories of male/female, familiar/strange, and vital/fatal, Zulietta also represents both premodern, patriarchal, and virginal purity and the anti-patriarchal, urban corruption of the modern prostitute. On one hand, Zulietta is more pure and fresh than “young virgins in cloisters”: her skin is so fresh, her teeth so white, and “the air of propriety [so] covered her entire person” that Rousseau is afraid he might contaminate her with the pox he still fears he contracted from La Padoana ([1782] 1959, 321).18 On the other hand, Rousseau asserts that Zulietta is only pretending to be pure. He writes of his arrival at her house: “I entered the bedchamber of a courtesan as if it were the sanctuary of love and beauty. I thought I saw the divinity of these things in her person. I would never have believed that in the absence of either respect and esteem one could feel anything like what she made me feel” (320; emphasis mine). Rousseau's ambivalence toward Zulietta's social autonomy can be compared to the slippage in Žižek's essay between seeing Bergman as a bold artist in her own right and as a passive instrument in her husband's aesthetic creation.

When he tries to make love to her, Rousseau is at once intoxicated and disturbed by Zulietta's confusing liminality. But when the moment comes when he has to prove himself to her, Rousseau is nonplussed: “Suddenly, instead of the flames that were devouring me, I felt mortal cold flow through my veins; my legs trembled, and on the verge of fainting, I sat down and cried like a baby” (321). Rousseau continues:

Who could guess the cause of my tears, and what was going through my mind at this moment? I said to myself, “This thing I can do as I like with is the masterpiece of nature and of love; mind, body—everything is perfect; she is as good and generous as she is lovable and beautiful. Nobles, princes should be her slaves; scepters should lie at her feet. As it is, look at her—a miserable streetwalker, available to the public. The captain of a merchant vessel disposes of her; she has just thrown herself at me, whose fortune she knows amounts to nothing, at me, whose worth she cannot know and which must be nothing in her eyes. There is something inconceivable in this. Either my heart is deceiving me, mesmerizing my senses and making me the dupe of a worthless slut, or some secret defect I do not know about ruins the effect of her charms and makes her odious to those who ought to be fighting over her.”

([1782] 1959, 321)

We can infer that Rousseau keeps his assignation with Zulietta for two very different reasons. First, he wants to establish in her eyes and thereby in his own what he refers to as his prix or mérite: his worth within the context of the ancien régime and all that it stands for. Within this ostensibly monolithic social-moral-ontological hierarchy, publicly acknowledged sexual congress with a highly valued courtesan is an initiation rite and a symbol of membership and rank. Rousseau desperately wants to “gather the fruit” of Zulietta's charms before it is too late (320); by enjoying the prix (value) of her charms, he hopes to acquire social value in the old sense. Second, Rousseau is also clearly attracted to Zulietta for the opposite reason: because she makes subversive use of patriarchal social and political convention to declare and enjoy her own freedom. In this sense, she represents the part of Rousseau that wants to flout the limits of the patriarchal system. Ideally, Rousseau would be able to both preserve his status and still venture his freedom; this is precisely what the interlude with Zulietta promises. But it also presents the risk of losing both options by being caught between them. If Zulietta is only a worthless slut who sells sex for a prix (price), sex with her will annihilate Rousseau's tenuous value in the patriarchal scheme and even expose that scheme as invalid.19 It will push Rousseau into the chasm between the old and the new worlds, where all may be lost and nothing gained.

This double bind makes Rousseau an imperious theoretician of woman. Either Zulietta must be “the masterpiece of nature and of love” that she seems to be or she is a worthless slut whose aura of divinity is really a blinding miasma. The possibility that Zulietta can be physically perfect and a worthless slut is literally unthinkable (il y a là quelque chose d'inconcevable): if it were true, it would destroy Rousseau's cherished—but already crumbling—illusion that physical and moral beauty and social status perfectly correspond, are perfectly readable, and will inevitably become apparent in time.

Rousseau tries to extract himself from this double bind by concluding that Zulietta must not be as flawless as she seems. Some “secret defect” must account for the incongruity between her person and her position that will rescue Rousseau's fragile worldview and sense of himself. Accordingly, Rousseau begins to “search for this defect with a singular intensity of mind” (321).20 At first, however, the search turns up nothing; Rousseau concludes that it was he who is extravagant (322) in examining her body frantically for a symptom of her insignificance in the signifying world. But “just at the moment when I was ready to swoon on a bosom that seemed to feel the lips and fingers of a man for the first time,” he writes, “I saw that she had a misshapen breast [un téton borgne]. I am amazed, I examine it, I think I see that one breast is not shaped like the other. There I was, trying to figure out how it was possible to have a misshapen breast, and convinced that it was connected to some remarkable natural imperfection, when by dint of turning this idea over and over in my mind, I saw as clear as day that in the form of the most charming person I could imagine I held in my arms only some kind of monster, the reject of nature, men, and love” (321-22; emphasis mine).21 Rousseau has just (re)constituted Zulietta in his mind as a pure, virginal beauty (“a bosom that seemed to feel the lips and fingers of a man for the first time”)—although he knows she is a courtesan—when his eye suddenly lights on her misshapen breast (literally, a breast blind in one eye). The defect he has been hunting for so avidly in order to explain Zulietta's incoherence magically appears. This defect immediately and neatly places Zulietta in relation to the old imaginary social-metaphysical world, Rousseau in relation to Zulietta, and therefore, Rousseau in relation to the world. Because of her deformed breast, as it were, Zulietta has narrowly missed her chance to be a virgin princess. Borgne means not only “blind in one eye” but also “low” in both a moral and a social sense (“un café borgne” means “a low dive”); the misshapen breast thus securely identifies Zulietta as a low-class, reprehensible slut who can only pretend to be beautiful, noble, and pure. She plummets instantly from the apex of the social pyramid to its lowest stratum. She becomes “some kind of monster, the reject of nature, men and love.” More important, the misshapen breast allows Rousseau to reconstruct the social pyramid over her imperfect body, and he can once again locate himself in the past, present, and future.

But this obliging “response of the real” (to use Žižek's terms) to Rousseau's epistemological and sexual desperation remains mysterious. By the next day, Rousseau has completely forgotten about the defect. He cannot wait to get back to Zulietta to make up for his poor showing the first time around; he is lost in visions of “her charms and graces, aware of my extravagance, reproaching myself for it, regretting moments so badly spent which it had depended on me only to make the sweetest of my life, waiting with the most lively impatience for the moment when I could make up the loss—and nevertheless disturbed still in spite of myself about how to reconcile the perfections of this adorable girl with the indignity of her state” (322; emphasis mine). The “téton borgne” has disappeared or been forgotten: Zulietta has been removed to the realm of fiction as the “masterpiece of nature and of love,” and Rousseau is once again the extravagant who has missed his chance to figure in the ultimate boudoir scene.

As readers, we do not know what we are supposed to conclude about the misshapen breast. Is Rousseau acknowledging that he made it up? Does he think he saw it and later decide he was mistaken? He admits that the connection between the blemish and its metaphysical significance had to be produced through an act of reflection: “By dint of turning this idea over and over in my mind, I saw that. …” Rousseau seems to admit that both at the time of writing The Confessions and when he was with Zulietta the misshapen breast is a symptom, an imaginary figment whose function is precisely to remain unfixable. For this unfixability allows Rousseau to flirt with the various reflective possibilities he can project onto the figure of Zulietta at the same time that it signifies his loss of epistemological certainty. Although the acute anxiety provoked by this crisis of self-reflection is doubtless real, the scenario also enables Rousseau to toy with and phantasmatically to control categorical possibilities. Opposite Zulietta as virgin, courtesan, or prostitute, Rousseau can play prince, rising diplomatic star, self-made man, or low-down wastrel, in at least two very different worlds. He can hesitate on the brink of the abyss that separates the premodern from the modern world—the abyss into which sex with Zulietta would irretrievably have pushed him.

Rousseau makes his inability or refusal to respond to Zulietta only too clear—or, rather, he reveals how clearly Zulietta herself makes it clear to him. When Rousseau has the temerity to mention her misshapen breast, Zulietta first tries to make light of the situation.22 He writes, “In her playful way she said and did things that would make me die of love” (322). But when Rousseau “retained a depth of disquiet that I could not hide from her,” she blushes, adjusts her apparel, rises, circles the room, and fans herself, responding, “‘Johnny, leave women alone and go study mathematics’” (322).

Zulietta's response to Rousseau's absurd, pathetic, and perhaps understandable attempt to “fix” his sense of himself could be appropriated by the woman reader of Žižek's essay on—or perhaps we should say through—Ingrid Bergman. Although Žižek seems to celebrate woman as the incarnation of the postmodern “fault” (the “break with nature,” the nonsignifying gap of the real) rather than to reject and evade her as Rousseau did with Zulietta, Žižek subjects woman (Bergman) to a similar symbolic objectification. A crisis in self-recognition resulting from complex cultural changes (including but certainly not limited to the self-enfranchisement of women) provokes Žižek to try to reinstate the male-dominated philosophical and psychoanalytic hierarchy of Hegel and Lacan and the aesthetic hierarchy of male-as-viewing-subject-and-woman-as-viewed-object around woman, in order to assert and maintain an ambiguous position within those reconstituted hierarchies. Woman serves as symbol and cause of a “crisis” that women have certainly helped to bring about but whose dimensions are infinite.

Moreover, woman serves as the medium for resolving the crisis. The experience of being faced with a powerful sensual experience of a particular woman who may not be only an element in a patriarchal scheme but who may also be a powerful social or aesthetic agent in her own right and so constitute a challenge to that scheme allures but also threatens to overwhelm the unsteady theoretician. Furthermore, Bergman/Zulietta is alluring and threatening not only because she is beautiful, powerful, and desired by many (i.e., she represents what the theorist would himself like to be but does not feel that he is), but also because she is a vulnerable outsider subject to social vilification. Zulietta is vulnerable because she is a prostitute, while Bergman is both a foreigner who left her husband for another (foreign) man and a movie actress. Confronted by this enormously tempting but also threateningly unsteady mirror image of the self, both Žižek and Rousseau hesitate. Both are tempted to take the plunge, to abandon patriarchal power structures and protective and distancing interpretive modes, and to submit to the aesthetic and erotic power and political independence of a charismatic woman. At the same time, they are tempted to identify with the powerful woman's powerlessness, and to acknowledge their own feelings of powerlessness and even victimization—or, alternatively, to play the role of her protector as a way of defending against these feelings. But they are also terrified of this confusing specter and of what she represents for the old order—of politics, philosophy, economic structure, aesthetic practice. Ultimately, neither man can carry out this leap into the unknown, feminine (post)modern where their own shadow sides lie in wait.

The theorist resolves this crisis by means of what Rousseau ironically refers to as “well-placed reflections”: thoughts that arrive just in time to rescue the voyeur who feels himself in danger of losing himself in a woman ([1782] 1959, 321). At the crucial moment of consummation, Rousseau suddenly thinks—about the incongruity between Zulietta's social status and her body and what this might mean about him: “These reflections—so perfectly placed—distressed me so much that they made me cry” (Ces reflexions si bien placées m'agitèrent au point d'en pleurer; 321; emphasis mine). The ironic interjection of “si bien placées” indicates that Rousseau recognizes that he has willed theory to intervene between himself and Zulietta. Žižek, too, implies that he is dimly conscious that his theorizing about the history of metaphysics and the metaphysics of history as Lacanian phenomena constitutes a buffer against the “kernel of the real” and the jouissance that his theory claims to celebrate—namely, in this case, that which is produced by watching Bergman on film. The threat of symbolic castration, of losing his primacy as “that animal whose life is governed by [and, we might add, who governs] symbolic fictions” is averted by designating woman as the abyss in the symbolic and thereby enclosing it/her rather than falling into it/her (Žižek 1990, 39). By theorizing woman as the fall, man remains upright and his crisis becomes manageable.

I am not suggesting that Žižek, like Rousseau, searches for a flaw in or on Bergman in order to evade the crisis of postmodernity. For Žižek, Bergman does not have a flaw; she is a flaw in the symbolic order. She introduces the fall of time and accident into unbroken, static continuity. As Žižek himself puts it, the act that woman does or is “introduces a cut separating ‘after’ from ‘before,’ a discontinuity which cannot be accounted for by a spatial disposition of elements. … The irreducible temporality of the act presupposes a space where there is always, constitutively, something ‘amiss,’ ‘out of joint.’ Time as such implies spatial imbalance, a universe where the thing is always ‘missing from its place’” (1990, 35, n. 18).23 For both Žižek and Rousseau, woman is (in) the gap in thinking, between (for example) the old (Lacan) and the new (Lacan). She is the sublime and the monstrous crux between what was and what will be. Just as Zulietta is unstably both “the most charming person I could imagine” and “some kind of monster, the reject of nature, men, and love,” so Žižek's postmodern real Thing, symbolized by woman, “function[s] successively as a disgusting reject and as a sublime, charismatic apparition: the difference, strictly structural, does not pertain to the ‘effective properties’ of the object, but only to its place in the symbolic order” (1992c, 143). Rousseau recognizes that if Zulietta can at once be a “miserable streetwalker, available to the public” and have a perfect body and elegant appearance, she represents a material threat to his conservative illusions about moral and political order. Similarly, Žižek recognizes that Bergman's being, her unique having-been-there-ness as captured on film, represents an ephemeral form of vitality and creative power that no ostensibly timeless theory can ever master. Bergman thus embodies the “particular contents” escaping from the “fissure” in “universal reason” that Žižek himself identifies as the postmodern trend immanent to philosophical modernism (1992c, 141-42).

Although the strange new world ambiguously embodied in Zulietta tempts Rousseau because it suggests he can reinvent himself with complete freedom and enjoy himself infinitely, it frightens him for the same reasons. Rousseau responds by retreating into patriarchal fictions regarding the inseparability of material and metaphysical meaning and value and their fixability according to an unchanging, transcendental scheme. In contrast, Žižek wants to push Bergman into the abyss of the postmodern that she supposedly incarnates—and the (male) subject/viewer will watch her take the plunge. Postmodernity is to be an aesthetic queendom of the real Thing; its subjects are to be suspended in silent contemplation of the “traumatic kernel” of experience, the “object” in all its “indifferent and arbitrary character” (1992c, 142-43). Despite the brilliance of this cataclysmic spectacle, however, Žižek's projections and objectifications of fear and desire onto woman/Bergman make her a Zulietta-like fantasy of life-giving/death-dealing affirmation/negation of man. And although Žižek professes to be the champion of the particular materiality of the feminine real Thing, the hard kernel of the real that permits enjoyment and resists all attempts to integrate it into the symbolic network of ideology, he ultimately cannot bear to allow being simply to be. He cannot surrender himself to the immersion in the real that he celebrates without recovering himself by returning to a theory of the-real-as-feminine that subordinates it to a master narrative. Women, movies, aesthetic creation, and simply being are inevitably demoted to the status of symptoms of a (man's) theory.

Thus, although he concludes his essay by arguing that all of Rossellini's films were only a belated attempt to catch up with Bergman's creativity and daring, Žižek begins by asserting that before he had ever met her, Rossellini “had effectively already dreamed of Ingrid Bergman”; he had made a film in which the two villains, a lesbian Nazi and a Gestapo torturer, were named Ingrid and Bergmann (1990, 19). Bergman “entered [Rossellini's] life as symptom: although her letter appeared as a shock, a place within Rossellini's symbolic space had already been carved out for her in advance” (20). Furthermore, Žižek does not substantiate Bergman's aesthetic originality by writing as if the roles she played were not roles created for her by Rossellini. And no distinction is made between Bergman and the characters she played. Because he fails to make such distinctions, Žižek ends up celebrating an artifact of Rossellini's creative direction rather than Bergman herself. Tellingly, Žižek titles the essay not “Bergman: Woman as Symptom of Man” but “Rossellini: Woman as Symptom of Man.”

Bergman, then, is not the real subject of the essay; she is a slit or a small black hole around and through which (photographs of her are interspersed across the pages of the essay) Žižek unites Lacan's theories of the act, the real, and the disappearance of the subject, Hegel's theory of abstract negativity, and his own theories about post-Communist Eastern Europe and fascism. Finally, as noted earlier, Rossellini's films themselves are only a feminized manifestation of Žižek's theory of Lacan's and Hegel's theories. Bergman, her characters, and the films stand for Žižek's own symbolization of her/them as the “postmodern break.” They stand in the place Žižek has already prepared for them. They are only symptoms of a theory that denies that it depends on them for its origins and that trivializes them even as it claims to celebrate them. While claiming to represent her, Žižek thus preempts Bergman by putting her in her place—even though according to his own analysis, she already occupies it. Historical development is irrelevant: Lacan's theories, Žižek's readings, and Bergman's acting (on- and offscreen) seem coeval and indistinguishable. What the films supposedly prove, in short, is that man's theory of woman as symptom of man came before woman as symptom of man. This is especially ironic given that while Žižek declares his desire to throw over various oppressive male regimes—the antifeminist in Lacan, the reign of the symbolic (ideology) over the real (art)—he only repeats and compounds the very subjugation of life to lifelessness and of women to men that he decries.

Žižek's uncertainty, anxiety, and ambivalence about what relations of power, priority, and dependence obtain between woman and man, between popular culture and philosophy, between psychoanalytic theory and feminism, also play themselves out in inconsistencies in his theory. One version of the real antedates the symbolic and serves as the ground for its emergence: it is “out of the abyss of the real that our symbolic reality emerges” (1990, 40). In this vein, the masculine power of language and understanding is mythologized as mutilating the maternal body of nature/being: the signifier is “the power that mortifies—disembodies—the life-substance, ‘dissects’ the body and subordinates it to the constraints of the signifying network. The word murders the thing, not only by implying its absence … but above all by dissecting it” (38). But Žižek's theory of woman-as-the-postmodern-real-thing rests on woman, not man, representing the negative (this is what “tarrying with the negative” means): woman is supposed to represent not nature but antinature, not life but death, not everything but nothing, not the ground for the emergence of the symbolic but rather an illusion produced by it retroactively. In this other vein, Žižek writes that “the act as real … does not enable us to (re)establish a kind of immediate contact with some presymbolic life-substance” (40). In Tarrying with the Negative, Žižek elaborates: it is thinking that produces the illusion of a real, unthought object. That object is only mythical, and it is “retroactively produced by the very process of symbolization” (1993, 37). By initiating a gap between word and thing, language creates a longing for the thing-in-itself (1993, 36-39).

Žižek thus oscillates between declaring that the pleasures of the feminine aesthetic (the real) are more real, vital, and important than the unpleasurable, abstract, and masculine theoretical (the symbolic) and arguing that the feminine real is only an illusion, and furthermore, that it is a castrating and negative impulse toward the death drive. The consequence of this incoherence is that Žižek seems to have things both ways at women's expense. Žižek celebrates Bergman for heroically refusing to dedicate herself to something greater than herself, a big Other of ideology, and he claims not to be interested in her willingness to stake her personal and professional life on the search for something to replace or displace outmoded personal or ideological contracts. Thus, woman's act is “always negative, that is, an act of annihilation. It is not simply that we do not know what will come of it; rather, it is that its final outcome is ultimately insignificant, strictly secondary in relation to the ‘No’ of the pure act” (1990, 35).24 Žižek writes as if Bergman's “No!” to Hollywood and her “Yes!” to Rossellini were a single, “negative” act, when the subject of his essay (Rossellini's films) depends precisely on Bergman's second, affirmative gesture. In exonerating Bergman and the characters she plays of the charge of making themselves sacrificial victims to patriarchal ideology, he only succeeds in depriving them of their heroism, making their actions seem senseless, and destroying the basis of his own argument.25

What is cruel and exploitative about this reading of woman is that it deprives her of the grounds and motives for action in order to make her serve its own ideological end—to show that women are excluded from both language and ideology. Žižek speaks for women in order to show that women do not need to speak. This exclusion from language is ostensibly a privilege, a special exemption from the ineluctable submission to the symbolic law of the father to which men are unfortunately subject. But as Judith Butler observes in a trenchant critique of Žižek's theory of the relation between the feminine, the real, and the symbolic, the “conflation of women with … that lost referent [of the real] … is surely as pernicious as any form of ontological essentialism” (1993, 218-19). Butler argues that Žižek's theory of woman as the real is a defense against feminism's challenge to the centrality of the theory of the castration complex and law of the father's phallus in Lacanian theory of subjectivity and that Žižek's theory also attempts to evade history. In seeking to place the real outside discourse (i.e., outside the symbolic and ideology), Žižek is trying at once to escape the limits of history in order to sanctify Lacan's phallocentric theories of subjectivity as true beyond dispute for everyone and to remove both women and homosexuals to the realm of the abject and unspeakable. Butler suggests that Žižek's contradictory insistence that the real is unsymbolizable at the same time that it represents the ineluctable truth of the Lacanian/Freudian theory of castration as the founding principle of all subjectivity “unwittingly installs a heterosexual matrix as a permanent and incontestable structure of culture in which women operate as a ‘stain’ in discourse” (Butler 1993, 20). In sexualizing and dehistoricizing the distinction between the symbolic and the real, Žižek seeks at once “to keep the sexual differential in place” (Butler 1993, 206) and to exclude women from the symbolic in order to silence their challenge to Lacanian theory (196-97).

Furthermore, as Butler points out and as I want to emphasize here, despite his insistence on the negative and nonsignifying character of woman's act, Žižek's own approach to ideology is not nonredemptive of the symbolic, as he claims. Having celebrated woman for refusing to redeem ideology by sacrificing herself to an ideology such as Christianity or fascism, Žižek himself redeems the ideology of Lacan and Hegel—or his version of them. After passing through the feminine abyss of the real, the subject according to Žižek goes back to where he belongs—to the community of law and the word. Hegel, Lacan, and Žižek agree that “man is that animal whose life is governed by symbolic fictions,” and “precisely insofar as the other is a ‘dead scheme,’ we must presuppose it as an ideal point of reference which, in spite of its nonexistence, is perfectly ‘valid,’ and which dominates and regulates our actual lives” (Žižek 1990, 39). The passage through the feminine real thus proves to be a tourist attraction, an inherently (and thankfully) momentary expulsion from the more comfortable (if false) realm of ordinary existence. According to Žižek, the male theorizer/viewer cannot perform woman's act of self-immolation; he constitutes himself as subject precisely by not doing so. Rather, he watches woman's act of self-immolation and (it would seem) explicates it to himself and to other men (or women, if they happen to be eavesdropping) while she is and does; her silence is the material for his speech.

Bergman—woman—is thus a pharmakon, an unclean but purifying substance through which the male subject passes in a rite of self-cleansing and self-mediation. She plays what Jardine has identified (following Julia Kristeva) as the standard role of a “filter: a place of passage, where ‘nature’ confronts ‘culture’” (1985, 89). She is a dark tunnel through which male theorists converse across the centuries, constituting themselves as a group by reference to the not-me. As Braidotti puts it, this discourse on the feminine is a “symptom of the crisis and malaise of the masculine subject and of his homosocial bond—the male corpus socians” (1991, 9). And it is the phallus, symbol of the symbolic, that provides “an image of identification that entitles [man] to make differences between the sexes and among the men, in a hierarchical scale which provides the inner structure of the social bond” (Braidotti 1991, 230). But man's self-recognition still depends on abnegation by another. As Teresa de Lauretis observes, “Woman is still the ground of representation, even in postmodern times. Paradoxically, for all the efforts spent to re-contain real women in the social, whether by economic or ideological means, by threats or seduction, it is the absent Woman, the one pursued in dreams and found only in memory or fiction, that serves as the guarantee of masculinity, anchoring male identity and supporting man's creativity and self-representation” (1987, 82).

Ironically, then, having praised Bergman and other heroines for renouncing renunciation, Žižek (apparently unwittingly) offers himself up as a self-mesmerized martyr to a patriarchal epistemology whose lack—the tendentious sexualization of discourse, the denial of materiality, and the silencing of woman—he himself has identified. Just as La Padoana and Zulietta could have served as points either of entry or of resistance to the diplomatic world for the young Rousseau, so Bergman (woman) can serve for Žižek as a strategic point of entry into a prestigious cohort of male theorists or as a possible escape from it.26 Ultimately, and perhaps with reluctance, Žižek chooses the first option. Like La Padoana and Zulietta, Bergman serves as a public commodity through and around whom Žižek can reunite a large throng of leading men including himself who are all somehow related. Bergman can serve this function because Žižek treats her gesture of delivering herself up to Rossellini as a public artifact and because he confounds Bergman's life with the roles she played. Just as the Venetian courtesan allows a multinational corps of diplomats to signify their membership and status in a group by engaging in publicly acknowledged sexual intercourse, so Bergman serves as a spectacular sexual and aesthetic conduit for a discussion of her husband's oeuvre, Lacan's theories, Tito's opposition to Stalin, Job's defiance of God, and Hegel's philosophy of history. Although without Bergman the essay would lack its missing center, Žižek directs our attention to her only to stray in more compelling directions.

Ultimately, what Rousseau and Žižek are really interested in is neither woman nor a woman but in how they themselves will survive, or capitalize on, or overcome the (post)modern. Žižek's essay is no less autobiographical than Rousseau's Confessions. When Zulietta leaves Venice without warning the day after the contretemps in the boudoir, Rousseau makes it clear that he is relieved.27 He is spared the test of proving his contrition and making up for his deficiencies, and he evades the challenge Zulietta might have posed to his idealized self and polity. What he regrets is not his missed opportunity to know a beautiful, charming, courageous, and witty woman, nor the sensual delights he might have experienced in her company but, rather, the fact that he has left her with a bad impression of himself: “As delightful, as charming as she was in my eyes, I could console myself for losing her; but I confess, what I could not console myself for was the fact that she took only a scornful memory of me away with her” ([1782] 1959, 322). Once she is gone and the terrible instability of their mutual reflection is averted, Zulietta again becomes simply the beautiful courtesan who might have been able to reflect back to her lover a flattering, reassuring, and promising portrait of himself. And yet, beneath the beautiful, aristocratic courtesan still lurks the far more ambiguous and threatening androgynous entrepreneur who has seen Rousseau in all his physical and metaphysical nakedness—and has seen him refuse his opportunity to abandon the patriarchal fictions that both clothe and constrain him. Although Rousseau flees from Zulietta in her boudoir, he allows her to obtrude from his text. This is the homage—feminage—he pays her courage to be.

The issue of mediated self-reflection is also relevant to Žižek. Žižek tries to establish his place in the cohort of postmodernist male theorists by defying that cohort and identifying himself with woman as the abyss of the real within the symbolic: he would occupy the place of the hole. But Žižek's theorizing of woman in relation to a patriarchal concept and tradition of culture, language, and the symbolic makes it impossible for him to occupy this (non)position—which, in any case, he is clearly reluctant to do, because in his terms that would mean forsaking language, tradition, and patriarchal hegemony over culture and cultural theory in favor of some unknown, suicidal, psychotic state of silence and negativity. Instead, Žižek makes Bergman occupy the position he both fears and wants to take. He describes her as the “stranger” who can perceive the fissure of the real because her “gaze is external: those who find themselves within the symbolic order are necessarily blinded” (1990, 41). Žižek thus projects onto Bergman his desired image of himself as the outsider-to-theory who can perceive the aesthetic real Thing at the center of theory, around which all theory revolves and which all (other) theory can ultimately only evade or falsify.28

Like Rousseau, Žižek imagines seeing and being seen by this Bergman—the nonpatriarchal one—as deadly. For recognizing and being seen by or with Bergman as the stranger, the outsider, means sacrificing the other self/Bergman, who “at the height of her stardom” was admired by everyone and with whom everyone wanted to be seen (1990, 44). The gaze of the stranger, the femme fatale, is mortifying, and it would make of Žižek the inverse of what he makes of Bergman. Whereas her simulacrum appears in the small black photos that dot his essay, in his fantasy of the stranger Bergman seeing him, he appears as a small, white corpse covered by a sheet.29

In Tarrying with the Negative, Žižek himself describes this desire to be seen by the Lacanian petit objet a, the small-o other, as the suicidal “scopic drive”: the psychoanalytic subject moves from the realm of desire to the more radical realm of the drive when he yields to the urge to se faire voir, to make himself seen, not to the big Other of ideology but to “the radical heterogeneity of the object qua gaze to which I expose myself” (1993, 196). But exposing oneself to the gaze of this other makes one into the other: one becomes the stain on discourse or visibility that woman embodies. The redemption of the patriarchal scheme of Hegel and Lacan, in short, is a defense against this deeper desire/fear to immolate the self by becoming visible to the “traumatic heterogeneity and nontransparency” of woman's gaze (1993, 197). But in refusing to sacrifice the masculine, modern self to the feminine, postmodern self, Žižek paradoxically liberates the same powerful feminine figure he has sacrificed and repressed, much as Rousseau liberated Zulietta in/from his text.

Jane Gallop observes that interpretation is “always motivated by desire and aggression, by the desire to have and to kill, which is to say, interpretation always takes place within a transferential situation” (1985, 27). Žižek's theory of woman presents itself as an uncanny self-mirroring: in woman, Žižek always figures his own desire and, in this case, his failure to yield to it—and yet his liberation of it, nonetheless, in the form of another. He maintains that:

Rossellini's greatness lies in the fact that he intentionally included in his films traces of his own failure. … Each of his films is ultimately a failed attempt to come to terms with the real of some traumatic encounter. What are Stromboli,Europa '51, and Voyage to Italy if not attempts to integrate, to master the traumatic encounter with Ingrid Bergman, her act of saying “No!” to Hollywood and joining Rossellini at the height of her stardom? This was a tremendous decision, an effective “act of madness” that nothing in Rossellini's own life, full of opportunistic maneuvering, can match. True, all of his films in which she stars display a frenetic activity, an attempt to balance the dignity of her act, to recompense for it. But the act remains hers.

(1990, 44)

Intentional and unintentional failure here become indistinguishable: Rossellini “intentionally” left traces of his own inability “to bring under control the excess of the real” (44), and yet Žižek still pronounces his films' failures to do just that. Žižek's theory of woman as the real can also be read as an ambiguously intentional/unintentional failure to become what woman ostensibly is. Although Žižek's reading of woman is not only as self-interested as Rousseau's but also more totalizing and, therefore, more exploitative,30 what lingers at the end of both texts is a trace of failure and regret for a lost opportunity to enfranchise the self fully and to yield to the experience of another. But here, man's loss is woman's gain: it is she who emerges as powerful, beautiful, and threatening.


  1. The distinction between women as a huge class of historical individuals and woman or the feminine as transhistorical, transindividual categories is central to my article. Slavoj Žižek uses the term woman, a term I regard as questionable because it can only constitute an empty set. De Lauretis defines woman as “a fictional construct, a distillate from diverse but congruent discourses dominant in Western cultures (critical and scientific, literary or juridical discourses), which works as both their vanishing point and their condition of existence.” Women, on the other hand, are “the real historical beings who cannot as yet be defined outside of those discursive formations, but whose material existence is nonetheless certain” (1984, 5). Women can never be defined outside of discursive formations, but (as de Lauretis points out) they need not be defined in order to exist. What matters is how women are defined, by whom, and for what purpose.

  2. For definitions of postmodernity, see Lyotard 1984; Huyssen 1986; Jameson 1991.

  3. Although Žižek does not mention the influence of women on Enlightenment philosophy, it is evident that the participation of women in philosophical discussion in the eighteenth century and other changes in gender roles did influence philosophy. Doubtless these trends were also responsible for this sexualization of discourse. See, e.g., Landes 1989 and Zerilli 1994.

  4. See, e.g., Jardine 1985; Braidotti 1991; Modleski 1991; and Wicke and Ferguson 1992b, a special issue of Boundary 2, which contains several excellent articles on the relation between feminism and postmodernism, some of which I cite below.

  5. Fraser and Nicholson make this point (1988, 91). They also charge French psychoanalytic theories with falling into the trap of “propositionally decry[ing] essentialism even as they performatively enact it” (100).

  6. For an introduction to Lacan's theories in relation to feminism, see Gallop 1985; Mitchell and Rose 1985.

  7. Žižek wavers on the issue of whether the real precedes or succeeds the symbolic; see my discussion on p. 108.

  8. Modleski observes: “Not the least of the problems involved in equating the masses and mass culture with the feminine is that it becomes much more difficult for women to interrogate their role within that culture. … If women are the question, they cannot ask the questions” (1991, 34).

  9. Technological change is certainly central to the postmodern era, whose cultural artifacts—like Žižek's theory—seem to privilege artificiality and the negation of individual identity, even as they exhibit a nostalgia for the age of so-called stars and individual geniuses.

  10. On the role of women in Rousseau's political theory, see Landes 1989; Zerilli 1994.

  11. Rousseau's account of his life with Mama makes it clear that their existence was hardly natural, simple, or blissful, but this is how he characterizes it.

  12. In his autobiography Rousseau deliberately reverses the pattern laid out by Augustine's Confessions: while Augustine describes a return from urban corruption, symbolized by prostitution, to religion and his mother, Rousseau chronicles a progressive alienation from nature and the mother into an urban, secular, promiscuous society. Structurally, the division of The Confessions and of Rousseau's life into two halves imitates the decline from the premodern to the modern that Rousseau bemoans—even as he helps to create this very decline by writing a nonredemptive text. Žižek follows Rousseau: the (feminine) postmodern represents a greater degree of alienation from familiar structures of meaning and morality. We could say that postmodern man migrates from the “good mother,” Nature (the imaginary), toward the castrating and nonsignifying “bad mother” of the real. (Žižek's ostensible reversal of these values—the good mother is now bad and vice versa—does not change the basic scenario.)

  13. This and subsequent translations are my own.

  14. We might remark a resemblance between this opposition and Žižek's Bergman: as Irene in Europa '51 she is a saintly ingenue, but as Hollywood's bad girl who was blacklisted for abandoning her husband for a dashing foreign lover she is an alluringly independent fallen woman. And whereas the demoiselle Bergman is an aesthetic fiction, the fille publique Bergman is a historical fiction: like Rousseau, Žižek associates the fall of woman with the fall into the historical time of (post)modernity.

  15. Here, the absurd and splendid “sublime object of ideology” (to adopt Žižek's terms) is not a woman's genitals but a man's. The fascination with the mother/female lover in Rousseau and Žižek, as I shall show, is often a screen for fascination with the father/brother/male rival/male lover—and with oneself, as uncertainly caught between father and mother (or male rival and female lover).

  16. Žižek emphasizes that Bergman knew only two words of Italian, “Ti amo,” when she wrote to Rossellini. Like Zulietta, i.e., she could not easily communicate with her newfound lover and thus presumably seemed exotic. Žižek also describes Bergman as “the stranger” (1990, 41). Bergman was, of course, Swedish, and her English always remained lightly accented; for the moviegoer, she remains titillatingly foreign and yet familiar.

  17. Robert Alter suggested to me this interpretation of Zulietta's words.

  18. Propriété means both “cleanliness” and “ownership,” but Zulietta is propre only insofar as she appears to be someone else's property rather than her own.

  19. Prix thus resonates ambiguously between the premodern lexicon of inherent, sanctioned value and the modern lexicon of price. Movies, similarly, are at once sublime art and base commerce: they sell beauty and immortality at a cheap rate.

  20. Rousseau's words, “Je me mis à chercher ce défaut avec une contention d'esprit singuliére,” strikingly suggest his eagerness to avoid being split by the conflict between what is happening and what he wants to believe. His mind actively contracts itself (contention) as a single entity (singuliére) in order to ward off dis-tention, or division. The Lacanian subject, we recall, is also a split subject, divided from itself and from the real by language. Language constitutes the barrier as well as the only possible bridge between the two halves of this split. Like Rousseau, Žižek strives to heal this split by displacing it onto woman.

  21. Rousseau changes from the past to the present tense in the second sentence of this excerpt and then back again in the next sentence. This temporal split, which recurs often in The Confessions, reflects his deliberate complication of narrative technique: he creates and exploits the very fragmentation of the modern that he likes to lament.

  22. In another passage, Rousseau speaks of his dislike of intensely intimate situations in which he has to take great risks or “pay with his person” (payer de ma personne; 650). In both passages Rousseau reveals that he thinks of risking himself in financial terms and that the misshapen breast gives him a cover beneath which he can mobilize anxiety as a resource in order to protect himself. He says he “preserved a depth [literally, a fund] of uneasiness that I could not hide from her” (gardant un fond d'inquietude que je ne pus lui cacher; 322).

  23. See Jardine 1985: “It may be that men always feel as if they have ‘lost something’ whenever they speak of women” (68). As noted above, Mulvey was one of the earliest film critics to theorize the objectification of woman as lack. But whereas she described this as a construction imposed on women that ought to be contested, Žižek argues that woman is lack. For further citations on woman as lack in cinematic theory, see Silverman 1988, 28.

  24. Žižek maintains this view of Rossellini's films despite the latter's own apparently conventional, redemptive view of his own films. Žižek notes Rossellini's comment on the suicide of the main character in Germany, Year Zero: it is “a true light of hope … from there is born a new way of living and of seeing, the accent of hope and faith in the future and in men” (1990, 29, n. 12).

  25. In Tarrying with the Negative, Žižek declares that the next step beyond separation from the Other is yielding to the jouissance of identifying with one's symptom (sinthome), thereby “giving up the false distance which defines our everyday life” (1993, 60). Woman's special role, he implies, is the joyous abandonment of ideas (theory) in favor of pleasure (art, or popular culture). Žižek thus imposes on woman the privilege/obligation he accedes to/rejects for himself, while depriving woman of the ability to act ethically.

  26. The symbolic temporary eclipse of the viewing subject that Bergman is described as making possible for the (male) viewer of Rossellini's films constitutes the same kind of “gap in knowable world text” that Alice Jardine has identified as the main fascination of the French theorists of the postmodern (1985, 124). For them, she writes, this gap is “the textual body's most erotic zone” (124). Jacques Derrida, e.g., calls this gap the space entre, in between, which “intervenes between all metaphysical oppositions” (132) and presents “the potentialities of a new nonviolent alterity” where “there is no Father-Author to kill and the classical subject is absent” (110-11). Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call it “chaosmos,” the Real-in-flux, experimentation-life, a feminine excess of objects that “exceed any given system of representation” (137). Woman as the representation of the unrepresentable, Jardine reports, figures in the work of Jean Baudrillard, Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, Joseph Goux, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Serres, and others (38).

  27. When I say “contretemps,” I mean it literally. As I have argued, both Žižek and Rousseau are trying to defend against time, even as they try somewhat feebly to defend against their defenses.

  28. Butler points out that Žižek explicitly adopts the stance of a vigilant defender of the integrity and primacy of Lacanian theory against rival critical perspectives on subjectivity such as those of Foucault, feminists, and poststructuralists. Butler also observes that if the law of Lacanian theory is in need of protection from the threat represented by these perspectives, “the force of that law is already in a crisis that no amount of protection can overcome” (1993, 196-97).

  29. Žižek alludes to the image of the dead clown Calvero in Chaplin's Limelight and to the body of James Stewart after he has been thrown through the window by the murderer in Hitchcock's Rear Window.

  30. See Butler 1993: “Any attempt to totalize the social field is to be read as a symptom, the effect and remainder of a trauma that itself cannot be directly symbolized in language. This trauma subsists as the permanent possibility of disrupting and rendering contingent any discursive formation that lays claim to a coherent or seamless account of reality” (192).

I would like to thank Celeste Langan for recommending that I read Žižek and for providing commentary on drafts of the article. I would also like to thank Ellen Aagaard, Robert Alter, Kate Brown, Thomas Kavanagh, Michael Lucey, Bettina Nicely-Johnson, and the Signs anonymous reviewers for their helpful responses to earlier versions.


Braidotti, Rosi. 1991. Patterns of Dissonance. New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter. New York and London: Routledge.

de Lauretis, Teresa. 1984. Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

———. 1987. Technologies of Gender. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Fraser, Nancy, and Linda Nicholson. 1988. “Social Criticism without Philosophy: An Encounter between Feminism and Postmodernism.” In Universal Abandon: The Politics of Postmodernism, ed. Andrew Ross, 83-104. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gallop, Jane. Reading Lacan. 1985. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press.

Huyssen, Andreas. 1986. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Jardine, Alice A. 1985. Gynesis, Configurations of Woman and Modernity. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press.

Kipnis, Laura. 1988. “Feminism: The Political Conscience of Postmodernism?” In Universal Abandon: The Politics of Postmodernism, ed. Andrew Ross, 149-66. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Landes, Joan B. 1989. Woman and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press.

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mitchell, Juliet, and Jacqueline Rose, eds. 1985. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the École Freudienne, trans. Jacqueline Rose. New York and London: Norton.

Modleski, Tania. 1991. Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age. New York and London: Routledge.

Mulvey, Laura. 1989. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nicholson, Linda. 1992. “Feminism and the Politics of Postmodernism.” Boundary 2 19(2): 53-69.

Rose, Jacqueline. 1988. “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, or a Wife Is Like an Umbrella—Fantasies of the Modern and Postmodern.” In Universal Abandon: The Politics of Postmodernism, ed. Andrew Ross, 237-50. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ross, Andrew. 1988. “Introduction.” In Universal Abandon, The Politics of Postmodernism, ed. Andrew Ross, v-xvi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1782) 1959. Les Confessions. In Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1. Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.

———. (1762) 1964. Du contrat social: Ou, principes du droit politique. In Oeuvres complètes, vol. 3. Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.

Silverman, Kaja. 1988. The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Wicke, Jennifer. 1992. “Postmodern Identity and the Politics of the (Legal) Subject.” Boundary 2 19(2): 10-33.

Wicke, Jennifer, and Margaret Ferguson. 1992a. “Introduction: Feminism and Postmodernism, or the Way We Live Now.” Boundary 2 19(2): 2-8.

———, eds. 1992b. “Special Issue: Feminism and Postmodernism.” Boundary 2, vol. 19, no. 2.

Zerilli, Linda. 1994. Signifying Woman: Culture and Chaos in Rousseau, Burke, and Mill. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press.

Žižek, Slavoj. 1989. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.

———. 1990. “Rossellini: Woman as Symptom of Man.” October 54 (Fall): 19-44.

———. 1992a. Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. New York and London: Routledge.

———. 1992b. Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). London and New York: Verso.

———. 1992c. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press.

———. 1993. Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Denise Gigante (essay date winter 1998)

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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 Weltalter]—it is the crucial problem of German Idealism.1 I, however, will complicate this question of beginnings even further by asking, how is it that one gives birth to oneself as a critical subject? How does one self-create? In the case of Zizek, the critical subject never quite does emerge, but remains trapped in an endless cycle of birth contractions (and expansions) which expose the Real of the struggle involved in any act of self-assertion. Like others, such as his mentor Jacques Lacan, he assumes a theoretical stance which sets out to transgress boundaries between philosophy, psychology, literature, politics, film, and popular culture.2 But where Žižek is unique, and where he makes his radical break with other literary theorists who take up a position, any position at all that pretends to some notional content or critical truth, is in the fact that he fundamentally has no position. His recent outpouring of critical texts—ranging from ideologico-psychological film theory, such as Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), to the politico-philosophical Essay on Schelling and Related Matters (matters which include, and why not, quantum physics)—describes a hybridized critical identity that is almost impossible to pin down. Rather than importing interdisciplinary texts and events to his own theoretical perspective, he functions as a “vanishing mediator,” mediating between various theoretical points of view.

His effort to unite these a priori categories into an “ideological theory” (à la the Kantian transcendental object) seems targeted toward positing himself as an “ideologist,” opening the possibility for a “field of ideology,” and thus raising the stakes of his own critical self-creation further. For while the concept of “ideology” itself has had a long and complicated genealogy,3 the concept of an “ideologist” is something relatively (if not completely) new. Critics have traditionally “handled” ideology from within particular disciplines such as literary studies, sociology, political science, and so forth. To posit oneself as an “ideologist” is a sufficiently original move that it warrants attention, particularly as regards the process of critical self-creation. Žižek's feverish productivity over recent years, far from expounding the substantial content of his critical self, can be read as a desperate quest to fill the gap—in Schellingian terms, the “void”—at the center of his persona, and each new critical endeavor, each book, proves only the absence of any critical truth to be had. It almost seems that the more he writes, the more he undermines the substance of “theory.” Like Lacan, who crossbreeds psychoanalysis with philosophy, linguistics, and literature, Žižek shifts from a psychological lens to analyze politico-cultural events, for example, (the hyphenation being part of the game) to a Marxist-Hegelian lens to analyze theosophy. While such shifts may be read as theoretical evasion, I will borrow a Žižekian maneuver to argue the contrary: his subjective transparency is precisely his point.

In order to understand how the “void” functions at the heart of Žižek's critical self, giving rise to and at the same time undermining each theoretical structure he erects (always with borrowed tools) it will be useful to examine how he adapts this model from Schelling. The Indivisible Remainder is Žižek's attempt to explicate the creation drama narrated by Schelling as “Ages of the World” in three unfinished drafts of Weltalter. His effort to come to terms with Schelling's notion of how the Absolute posits himself and thereby posits the universe is partially intended as a theoretical coup, an attempt to plunder a major text of German Idealism for the materialist camp and rename it as “one of the seminal works of materialism” (IR [The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters] 7). Unlike Schelling's precursor J. G. Fichte, known for his notion of the self as Absolute, a world structured around the undifferentiated, infinite One of the “I,” a subjective ego encompassing both subject and object, Schelling deviates slightly in his middle period (the period of Weltalter) from that central idealist tradition. Extracting the object from the subject (the world of Nature from the world of Mind), he considers both subject and object to be contained within a greater Totality. Leaving aside for the moment his notion of how that Totality functions, we will note that the main concern of Schelling's middle period, his “philosophy of identity,” and of his later period of “positive philosophy” is to account for how that Totality ever came into being in the first place—and why. Žižek proposes to read Schelling's creation narrative as a “metapsychological work,” and I propose to read Žižek the same way. That is, Žižek's text, his critical endeavor to interpret Schelling's story of how the Absolute goes about creating Himself, in turn constitutes an act of self-creation on the part of the critic himself.

According to Weltalter, then, how does creation begin? Schelling's myth, like all esoteric creation mythology under the Judeo-Christian umbrella, from Gnostic to Cabalistic to mystical teachings such as that of Boehme and Meister Eckhart, begins before the Beginning. When Genesis 1:1 proclaims, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” the impulse is to wonder what there was before that. In Schelling's model, before historical time itself, which begins at the start of Genesis, there was the eternal “abyss-origin of all things” (as Žižek describes it), the “void of divine Freedom” which cannot even be said to have existed, since even “Being” had not yet begun. The question Schelling posits in the first book of Weltalter is this: in this timeless, spaceless, always-already past ungrounded abyss of Ungrund,4 how does anything come into being? How and why does the universe emerge? Žižek observes that “Schelling was first and foremost a philosopher of freedom, a philosopher who tackled the ‘impossible’ task of thinking freedom within the framework of a philosophical system” (IR 15). He complicates the notion of God's “free will” by drawing a distinction between the original will of the first age of Ungrund which wants nothing and the perplexing will of the second age which actively wants nothing—wanting nothing in particular. The first step toward creation, therefore, occurs when the will-less, inert will that prevailed (“existed” is again the wrong word) in the primal void of freedom suddenly and inexplicably transforms into a confused, undirected will which in its wanting causes the void-abyss to contract. The result is a wild, irrational “vortex” of egotism and mad, conflicting cravings: “the chaotic-psychotic universe of blind drives, their rotary motion, their undifferentiated pulsating” (IR 13).5 Žižek's interpretation of the vortex as the “crucial point of Weltalter,” should be kept in mind as it will resonate ironically throughout this reading of Žižek:

The critical point of Weltalter—and at the same time the ultimate source of its breathtaking magnitude … resides in the repeated failure of Schelling's desperate endeavour to avoid the terrifying intermediate stage between the pure, blissful indifference of the primordial Freedom and God as a free Creator. What comes in between the primordial Freedom and God qua free Subject is a stage at which God is already a Subject (He becomes a Subject when, by means of contraction, he acquires reality), but not yet a free one. At this stage, after contracting being, God is submitted to the blind necessity of a constricted rotary motion, like an animal caught in a trap of its own making and destined endlessly to repeat the same meaningless motions.

(IR 37)

In the original text, when God “contracts” Being, Schelling plays on two senses of the German word “contract” [zuziehen]: to condense (as in the abyss) and to become afflicted with (as an illness). As in much esoteric creation mythology where the Creation is conceived as a Fall, God “comes down” with reality when he blindly pulls the abyss of freedom into Himself. Peter Dews notes that the mad “whirling motion” which is the process of contracting Being, Schelling's vortex, or “merry-go-round of ontological potentialities [Umtrieb, wirbelnde Bewegung] becomes ever more frantic, culminating in what he terms a ‘wild, self-dismembering madness, which is the innermost trait of all things.’”6 At the root of all life lies this primal swamp of random drives which have not been and (this is the point) fundamentally cannot be inscribed into the symbolic order that begins, in our era, at Genesis. It is in this same vortex, this second age of divine self-creation in Schelling's narrative, that I wish to locate Žižek-in-the-act-of-becoming.

By placing Žižek as critic within this raging vortex of egotistical madness, am I to suggest that the man, Slavoj Žižek, is insane? Certainly not. His runaway prose style, in which phrase after phrase accumulate in enthusiastic, groping sentences which crescendo in an almost desperate attempt to communicate, the repetitions, redundancies, rhetorical circumlocutions and gyrations which make up his style, his excess of supporting examples, heaped one atop the next, making wild, cross-disciplinary sweeps from the political situation in Bosnia to the operas of Wagner to virtual reality, to make a point which either never emerges, or if it does, seems borrowed from Lacan, Adorno, or any number of his other theoretical paradigms: this all provides far more interesting insight into the notion of critical self-creation than that of mere insanity. In part, what Žižek's critical style embodies is the Real of the struggle embodied in any act of self-assertion. It is a struggle which Lacan associates with the problematic of the vel (the or), and which Žižek describes as “a forced choice which is constitutive of the emergence of the subject: the subject either persists in himself, in his purity, and thereby loses himself in empty expansion, or he gets out of himself, externalizes himself, by ‘contracting’ or ‘putting on’ a signifying feature, and thereby alienates himself—that is, is no longer what he is, the void of pure $ [subject]” (IR 44).7 It is also the struggle Schelling describes as occurring between the antagonistic forces of contraction and expansion. Žižek's effort to develop a critical argument through example, to reach out toward conclusion, toward the identity-forming thought (which here counts as thought-action), and then to back down from that claim, withdraw back into the self and ascribe the conclusion to someone else (Lacan, Adorno, Althusser) before reemerging to comment on them, and so on, demonstrates the dialectic of critical self-creation. When we witness this vacillation, we witness the “contractions,” the birth pangs, the Real of giving birth to oneself. The pulsating vortex of presymbolic drives (drives which want, but, having not yet posited an Other, do not know what they want) is a vision of the Absolute hung in delicate balance between competing forces. It describes the expansive-contractive tension underlying the natural world in which the slightest imbalance would cause it either to implode, if the force of gravitation were slightly greater, or explode, were it slightly less. Consequently, it reveals “reality” to be nothing but a play of antagonistic forces.8 Žižek describes this precarious situation as an “impression of reality” to which he later gives the Lacanian label “symbolic order.”

Schelling applies this tension to the process of divine self-creation in a manner approaching the psychological: “There are thus two principles even in what is necessary in God: the outflowing, outspreading, self-giving essence, and an equally eternal power of selfhood, of returning unto self, or of being-in-itself.”9 It is a condition he considers intrinsic to humanity as well, and which Žižek interprets in contemporary psychological terms as “a precise definition of anxiety”:

anxiety arises when a subject experiences simultaneously the impossibility of closing itself up, of withdrawing fully into itself, and the impossibility of opening itself up, admitting an Otherness, so that it is caught in a vicious cycle of pulsation—every attempt at creation-expansion-externalization repeatedly “aborts,” collapses back into itself. This God is not yet the Creator, since a proper act of creation posits the being (the contracted reality) of an Otherness which possesses a minimal self-consistency and exists outside its Creator—this, however, is what God, in the fury of His egotism, is not inclined to tolerate.

(IR 24)

This anxiety of contracting Being, of self-positing, accompanies any critical endeavor. Either one works within given paradigms, dissipating one's energies within certain a priori theoretical categories without ever positing one's own, or else one assumes a stance, “puts on” a critical apparatus, a feature of a “constructed” critical identity that necessarily throws one “out-of-joint” with oneself as subject qua abyss of pure freedom.10 Practically speaking, it is unlikely that the critic will ever find himself or herself at either extremity of this dilemma. Yet there is a whole range of “anxiety” between losing oneself in another's system (or in one's own system) and remaining systemless and thus unspoken. Any venture toward a theoretical position which informs one's reading of a text,11 while it may be necessary for self-assertion in terms of professional identity, while it may enable one to say “who I am” theoretically, is still radically opposed to the unmediated, or in Schelling's terms, “free,” response of the critic to text. To be “true,” the critic must remain an abyss. This notion may be likened to John Keats' description of the poet as the most “unpoetical of any thing in existence,” because the most chameleon-like, the most unfixed, the most un-put-on.12

Indeed this notion of “putting on” operates at the core of all self-creation. In his “Philosophy of Nature” [Naturphilosophie] Schelling plays off multiple meanings of the German verb anziehen: to put on (as in clothes), to pull in or contract (as in gravity), to attract or pull toward oneself (magnetically or seductively), to pull in or tighten (as in a screw), to draw in (as in reins), and so forth: “the subject can never grasp itself as what it Is, for precisely in attracting itself [im sich-Anziehen] it becomes an other, this is the basic contradiction, we can say the misfortune, in all being—for either it leaves itself, then it is as nothing, or it attracts itself, then it is an other and not identical with itself. No longer uninhibited by being as before, but that which has inhibited itself with being, it itself feels this being as foreign [zugezogenes] and thus contingent.”13 What this leads up to, and, as Žižek points out, the implications of which are very radical and far-reaching, is the idea that “fake is original, that is, every positive feature, every ‘something’ that we are, is ultimately ‘put on’” (IR 45). If any theoretical stance is to some degree a “put on,” the question becomes how long can one maintain a theoretical position before eventually stumbling upon an element which will not be contained by it and which will thus unravel the entire system? In fact, this concern about whether a system can ever be all-encompassing occupied Schelling for the majority of his professional life. It became the source of his critique of and radical break with Hegel and the question with which his later “Positive Philosophy” was principally concerned.14 In the Stuttgart Seminars (1810), delivered the same year he began work on Weltalter, Schelling raises the problem:

To what extent is a system ever possible? I would answer that long before man decided to create a system, there already existed one, that of the cosmos [System der Welt]. Hence our proper task consists in discovering that system. The true system can never be created but only uncovered as one that is already inherent in itself; that is, in the divine understanding. Most philosophical systems are merely creations of their authors—more or less well thought out. … To proclaim such a system as the only possible system is to be extremely restrictive [and results in] a dogmatic system. … At the same time, it is impossible to uncover the true system in its empirical totality, which would require the knowledge of all, even the most discrete links.15

If all systems ultimately reduce to a grand charade masking the void of the systematizing subject itself, then, it becomes necessary to take my own project to task and inquire to what extent is it possible to determine “a notion of critical self-creation”? To what extent can Schelling's creation drama provide a model for the process of critical self-formulation in general, and to what extent is that model merely a false, impotent construction, an imposition on the critic's uncontracted and uncodified abyss? Since Schelling spent forty years on questions such as these and left them unresolved, let it here suffice to utilize such concepts as comprise Weltalter for their strategic convenience in describing, or, as Schelling would say, in “discovering” the process of critical self-creation.

The final stage in a discussion of Schelling's creation drama is to explain how the subject who is not yet free, the raging, divine vortex of drives, becomes the free subject who appears as the omnipotent God of Genesis. This transition from the second to the third “age” of Weltalter is accomplished through the act of logos, the pronouncement of the Word, which ushers in time, space, and “reality” as we know it. To escape from the divine self-destructive fury in which the Absolute endures the wild antagonism of conflicting drives, to change from a “psychotic” divine One who is absolutely alone, who is “All” since He tolerates nothing outside Himself—a “wild madness, tearing itself apart” (AF [The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World] 17)—into a free subject possessing a conscious will, He must pronounce the logos and repress the vortex of madness into the always-eternal past. Peter Dews emphasizes the critical distinction between past and “absolute past,” which is prior to the commencement of time and hence the very concept of “past” itself: “The rotary movement must be consigned to an absolute past, a past ‘prior’ to time, if the world is to begin” (LD [The Limits of Disenchantment: Essays on Contemporary European Philosophy] 134). The act of the logos conceived as the founding gesture of temporalization and spatialization opens up time from its closed, eternal rotary motion to the historically progressing, temporal process we experience. Simultaneously, it opens up space from the closed, “self-regurgitating”16 vortex to the ordered, physical manifestation of the world. Though it establishes rationality itself, it is an act which Žižek ascribes to irrationality, or “unaccountable madness” (IR 52), and which Schelling insists can never be remembered or brought to mind:

Likewise that will, posited once at the beginning and then led to the outside, must immediately sink into unconsciousness. Only in this way is a beginning possible, a beginning that does not stop being a beginning, a truly eternal beginning. For here as well, it is true that the beginning cannot know itself. That deed once done, it is done for all eternity. The decision that in some manner is truly to begin must not be brought back to consciousness; it must not be called back, because this would amount to being taken back. If, in making a decision, somebody retains the right to re-examine his choice, he will never make a beginning at all.

(AF 181-82)

When Schelling speaks of “that will,” he speaks of the active will, which in positing an Other “desires” something outside itself. It is important here to note the distinction Žižek points out between “desire” and its earlier (pre-)manifestation as “drive.” Both presymbolic and unoriented, drive does not take part in the ordering of reality, the symbolic system negotiated not by drive but by “desire.” If one can suggest, along with the greater part of structuralist and poststructuralist thinking, that language is the ultimate symbolic system, being the most encoded, then one might assert that language too is negotiated by desire—but that is to jump ahead.

As Žižek points out, the text must always be out of joint with itself in some way. That there must always be some “unappropriable foreign ingredient-body on account of which a text always eludes and defers its being-comprehended—is the ultimate guarantee of its identity; without this unassimilable kernel, the text would lack any proper consistency, it would be a transparent medium, a mere appearance of another essential identity” (IR 26). The text is an externalization or series of signs for whatever is going on inside the creator. It is the counterpart to the creating subject who, in desiring something outside the Self, expresses or externalizes part of the self—externalizes the Word—and thus becomes radically out-of-joint. It is a manifestation of the original disjunction which occurs when the Absolute distances “Himself” from “Himself” in the founding gesture of the Word, and opens up the “difference” necessary for time and space. This very founding gesture of temporalization and spatialization gave birth to the concept of différance upon which Jacques Derrida, a philosophical descendent of Schelling,17 based his theoretical system, one that accounts for every act of literature being linguistically “out-of-joint”: “In constituting itself, in dividing itself dynamically, this interval [between the present and its immediate past, the past that makes it present] is what might be called spacing, the becoming-space of time or the becoming time of space (temporization). And it is this … that I choose to call archi-writing, archi-trace, or différance. Which (is) (simultaneously) spacing (and) temporization.”18 The parentheses in Derrida's writing imply a hesitation to assert the “is”—the “existence,” of différance, which is instead always a “becoming”—or the “simultaneity,” which assumes a notion of time already begun, rather than “ever-becoming.” Language as a system of différance ever reenacts the moment of logos, which is spaceless and timeless as much as it is unconscious. Indeed it is the process of space-making, time-making, and consciousness-making that we discover in the logos, the transition to the third “age” of the world. In his resistance to being born into any critical stance, Žižek as critic exists at the moment of logos, the differentiating act which is at once blind, irrational, and unconscious. He would also claim that it is “radically contingent”: “Everything thus turns around the primordial act by means of which ‘nothing’ becomes ‘something,’ and Schelling's entire philosophical revolution is contained, condensed, in the assertion that this act which precedes and grounds every necessity is in itself radically contingent” (IR 45). In his provocative effort to read Weltalter as a materialist text, Žižek insists that Schelling's version of primordial creation (unlike the fully conscious and free-willing act of creation in Genesis) is an act of blind necessity. Thus, like a deluded God who has forgotten how He came to be and who instead believes that He is freely choosing to pronounce the logos and initiate the world, the critic who believes she or he can consciously assert a position proves unconscious, deluded as to the “reality” of his or her position. What Žižek represents, again, what constitutes his radical departure from ideological critical tradition, is the notion that there can be no critical substance. There is only the conflict noted earlier between self-assertion and withdrawal, between “putting on” an identity and remaining true to a formlessness that cannot be expressed. The critic either never emerges from the ever-becoming vortex of drives qua theoretical impulses, or else asserts himself or herself as a free critical subject against the “freedom” of those unformed impulses at the constitutive center of the self.

At this juncture, it might be pertinent to address a question raised by Derrida: “But can one not conceive of a presence, and of a presence to itself of the subject before speech or signs, a presence to itself of the subject in a silent and intuitive consciousness?” His own response is that “Such a question … supposes that, prior to the sign and outside it, excluding any trace and any différance, something like consciousness is possible. And that consciousness, before distributing its signs in space and in the world, can gather itself into its presence. But what is consciousness? What does ‘consciousness’ mean? Most often, in the very form of meaning, in all its modifications, consciousness offers itself to thought only as self-presence, as the perception of self in presence” (“D” [“Différance”] 16). Consciousness implies self-consciousness. In order to be conscious, the subject must be out-of-joint enough to reflect on himself or herself. Yet the moments of deepest critical insight, one may argue, are moments in which the thinking subject is “unconscious” and connects to the deepest Self, the void of freedom, the will-less will, which wants absolutely nothing for itself qua subject. The paradox is this: only when one assumes no position, pretends to no argument, does one remain true to oneself as critic. As Schelling observes, moments of true insight and originality are relatively rare:

… most men shy away from this freedom which opens like an abyss before them, just as they are frightened when faced with the necessity of being wholly one thing or another. They shy away from this as they shy away from everything coming from that inexpressible; and where they see a ray cast by it they turn away as if it were a flash of lightning that brings harm to everything in its way. They feel themselves crushed by this freedom, as by an appearance from an incomprehensible world, from eternity, from a place entirely devoid of any ground at all.

(AF 175-76)

It is the wild primordial freedom at the heart of every subject that threatens to undo his or her symbolic identity. On the other hand, the reluctance to renounce this identity keeps one from assuming true originality of mind. Žižek interprets this idea in terms of the German Sinn: “Sinn, true spiritual freedom, appears to man in a flash, in the guise of a traumatic encounter whose sudden dazzle throws him off the rails: man is anchored to his egotistic Ground to such an extent that he cannot endure the direct sight of the light of Sinn” (IR 78). What Žižek interprets as “spiritual freedom” [Sinn] can perhaps better (or at least more commonly) be translated as “sense” or “mind.” What his version therefore implies is that true mental/theoretical originality is not a “conscious” act so much as a matter of connecting to the primal abyss of freedom. His next move draws a distinction between “divine Sinn” (spiritual freedom), “man's Wahn-Sinn” (madness), and “Un-Sinn” (non-sense or ungrounded sense), and then he rhetorically inquires: “So it is not sufficient to assert that Reason is nothing but ‘regulated madness’: the very gesture of regulating madness is stricto sensu mad” (IR 78). It is in Žižek's critical interest to associate the repression of madness, or the primordial vortex of drives, with madness itself. It implies that the gesture of divine self-creation in Schelling's creation drama is anything but a “free” act, and therefore radically contingent. It draws the Absolute into a system of contingency—the realm of dialectical materialism—which could not be further from the traditional conception of Schelling's philosophic intentions. It is a stroke of originality for Žižek which he drops the moment the fusion of the two opposing philosophical systems is made, thus serving as his own “vanishing mediator,” as I will discuss in a moment. It is further appropriate for Žižek to associate the moment of self-creation (and hence creation) with madness since the notion of an “ordered” theoretical presentation is anathema to his rhetorical style. Just as he is most original precisely where he fails to assert himself theoretically, Žižek is most “sensible” when he is most irrational. I am aware that this may be seen as an effort to read Žižek in what he would call a “New Age” light, radically opposed to his own notion of himself in the Indivisible Remainder as a Marxist-Hegelian materialist, an effort which would not be unlike his own intention to read Schelling in his opposite guise as a materialist.19 However, what I have tried to suggest is the futility of reading any moment of originality in a systematic light. In Žižek's own terms, I would venture to say that the “kernel” of any original thought will always come wrapped in a symbolic theoretical shell, of necessity out-of-joint with itself, and thus constantly frustrating its own theorization. In other words, a critical effort simply cannot contain the critical truth which produced it.

If positing an identity involves a degree of self-delusion, and if not positing an identity threatens to envelop one in the chaos of antagonistic drives, how is the critic to proceed? How does one reconcile the competing urges toward originality and toward comprehensibility in order to posit oneself, that is, position oneself on the theoretical map? Perhaps Žižek's concept of the “vanishing mediator,” borrowed in turn from Fredric Jameson, might now be called into use.20 In his discussion of Weltalter, Žižek identifies the “vanishing mediator” with the act of logos, “the founding gesture of differentiation which must sink into invisibility once the difference between the ‘irrational’ vortex of drives and the universe of logos is in place” (IR 34). It performs a gesture which accomplishes a transition—here between the second and third “ages” of creation—and then sinks forever into unconsciousness. While it performs the gesture, however, a “vanishing mediator” never establishes itself as part of the historical record. At another point, Žižek applies the concept to the corpus of Schelling's late philosophy, “designating a unique constellation in which, for a brief moment after the disintegration of Absolute Idealism, something became visible that, once the so-called post-Hegelian thought settled itself, and found shape in the guise of Schopenhauer, Marx, and Nietzsche, was again lost from sight. Schelling alone persisted in the ‘impossible’ position of the post-Idealist crack which was quickly filled by post-Hegelian ‘reversals’ of Idealism” (AF 4). It is not that Schelling is to be read simply as a philosopher of transition, however, but as a “‘vanishing mediator’ between the Idealism of the Absolute and the post-Hegelian universe of finitude-temporality-contingency, that his thought—for a brief moment, as it were in a flash—renders visible something that was invisible beforehand and withdrew into invisibility thereafter” (IR 8). While there are several different situations to which he applies the concept,21 this version of Schelling as a “vanishing mediator” offers a clue for how to read Žižek. He is the critic qua “vanishing mediator,” mediating between different theoretical perspectives. Though he may consider a range of ideological phenomena through a hybrid perspective, he will always stop short of calling that perspective his own.

Witness, for example, his intention in The Sublime Object of Ideology to “rescue Lacan” from the charge of “obscurantism” and “ideal-monism” and to place him within the “Enlightenment affirmation of difference and contingency,” in other words, to read him as a historical materialist. It is an effort which mediates between Lacanian and Hegelian theory without, meanwhile, producing any “new theory.” The work merely provides examples to support his mediation between the two preexistent strains of thought. He argues, “the only way to ‘save Hegel’ is through Lacan, and this Lacanian reading of Hegel and the Hegelian heritage opens up a new approach to ideology, allowing us to grasp contemporary ideological phenomena … without falling prey to any kind of ‘post-modernist’ traps.”22 Like Schelling, who he claims reaches back to the “pre-modern theosophical problematic,” Žižek's critical thrust is retrograde, welding preexistent systems, rather than forward to a “new” (postmodern) approach. Similarly, in For They Know Not What They Do, he claims that “Lacan's theoretical apparatus is simply put to work. The book elaborates the contours of a Lacanian theory of ideology, moving step by step … from Hegel through Lacan to the present politico-ideological deadlocks.”23 If this political-psychological hybrid yields anything new—any new “theory of ideology”—he is content to call that theory “Lacanian.” In Enjoy Your Symptom! he proposes the “nullity of cynical distance,” the futility of “deconstructing” all phenomena while simultaneously “playing the game.” His premise is that the real enemy today is not the overbeliever, the fundamentalist, but the cynic, and he articulates that premise in what he calls “Hegelese”: “Hollywood is conceived as a ‘phenomenology’ of the Lacanian Spirit, its appearing of the common consciousness, whereas the second division [of the book] is closer to the ‘logic’ qua articulation of the notional content in and for itself.”24 While we may deduce from his various critical endeavors that his project is geared toward positing himself as an ideologist—again considered as a sort of Kantian transcendental object in which a series of a priori theoretical categories synthesize a range of critical observations (sense intuitions) into a unified whole that would constitute his conception of the Thing—it is still hard to say who Žižek is as a critical subject. Is he a mere amalgamation of interdisciplinary theoretical positions collected under the umbrella of “ideologist”? What is his notional content? His function is radically different from that of the traditional “critic,” the Johnsonian “I,” who takes in a text and then expresses “his” views based on how the work affected his own subjective content, never doubting for a moment the actuality of that content, the “stuff” of the critical “I.” In Žižek's case, however, the subsequent post-Enlightenment undermining of the very notion of “subject” has resulted in undermining and in fact nullifying the “I” qua critical subject. This important point goes a long way toward explaining how a theoretical phenomenon like Žižek can occur, always eluding self-definition, ever on the edge of the vortex, about to be born, grounded in the Ungrund of contradictory, chaotic impulses, filling in cracks in the ideological substance though never taking “part” in that substance, never positing himself as such.

Like his previous works, The Indivisible Remainder—Žižek's effort to mediate between German Idealism and Marxist-Hegelian “materialism”—establishes a continuum in the ideological spectrum where none existed before; yet, again, it stops short of proposing anything philosophically “new.” Ernesto Laclau claims in his preface to The Sublime Object that Žižek does not conclude—in the sense of reaching a conclusion—he stops. He sets out his intention, stating how and what he will attempt to mediate, and then follows that up with a series of chapter-examples. In other words, his argument doesn't traditionally “develop,” and, according to Laclau, his books could continue indefinitely. The end of his “Essay on Schelling,” however, evades concluding in an even more telling way. He actually evades himself by vanishing into Lacanian jargon. Throughout the final passage, his reliance on Lacan increases in urgency until its final summation, which he seems content to hand over to Lacan completely: “if the subject ($) is to represent-express itself in A, it has to rely on B, on a contracted element which eludes idealization. In Lacanian terms: there is no symbolic representation without fantasy, that is, the subject ($) is constitutively split between S1 and a; it can represent itself in S1, in a signifier, only in so far as the phantasmic consistency of the signifying network is guaranteed by a reference to objet petit a” (IR 79). What does this rhetorical ventriloquism accomplish? While one might propose Žižek has realized something Schelling says “very few people have realized [—] that true force lies in limitation and not in expansion, and that more strength belongs to self-denial than to self-indulgence” (AF 141), this is unlikely given the quantity of “expansive” elaboration Žižek incorporates into his narration of Schelling's creation drama. More likely is that we witness in Žižek a paradigmatic critical phenomenon: the critic unable to overcome the central conflict of critical self-assertion, remaining in the Real of that dilemma without “putting on” a “false” critical confidence. To do so would mean in Žižek's own words, that

the subject finally finds himself, comes to himself: his is no longer a mere obscure longing for himself since, in the Word, he directly attains himself, posits himself as such. The price, however, is the irretrievable loss of the subject's self-identity: the verbal sign that stands for the subject—in which the subject posits himself as self-identical—bears the mark of an irreducible dissonance; it never “fits” the subject. This paradoxical necessity on account of which the act of returning-to-oneself, of finding oneself, immediately, in its very actualization, assumes the form of its opposite, of the radical loss of one's self-identity, displays the structure of what Lacan calls “symbolic castration.”

(IR 46-47)

Predictably, Žižek ascribes this insight into the conflict at the heart of critical self-creation to Lacan by giving it a Lacanian theoretical label. His various failures or refusals to assert himself theoretically (and thereby undergo “symbolic castration”) comprise the critical process I have borrowed his own term to label as that of the “vanishing mediator.” Instead of proposing his “own” conclusion, having instead mediated between Schellingian theosophical creationism/identity philosophy, Lacanian subject-formation, and Marxist-Hegelian notions of contingent selfhood, he withdraws. However, I will decline to follow his lead and withdraw from my own conclusion that Žižek will continue to put forth material without ever “putting on” any critical-ideological apparatus to call his own, thereby remaining in touch with the presymbolic (and presemantic) abyss of freedom which refracts its multiplicity in his own maddening prose style, and which, according to him, it would be madness to try to suppress.

Attempting to navigate the unorthodoxy of Žižek's text, his critic (Laclau) flounders eloquently enough before seeking refuge in the Barthean notion of the “writerly text.” Again, he argues that by laying out the premise to unite Hegel and Lacan into a single ideological perspective at the outset, and then adding example upon example of how that perspective operates, Žižek invites his readers to continue that same process past the confines of his book. John Thompson would define this process as “self-formation and self-understanding,” which he believes constitutes ideology itself: “They are not passively absorbing what is presented to them, but are actively, sometimes critically, engaged” (IM [Ideology and Modern Culture: Critical Social Theory in the Era of Mass Communication] 25). If this is so, then Žižek, as a “vanishing mediator,” unites his readers with various crossbred theoretical perspectives until they come to supplant him as functioning “ideologists.” In this sense, he is certainly generating what may be called a “field of ideology.” He would betray himself, however, to generate an original ideological “theory.” The same paradox he applies to Schelling—“that it was his very ‘regression’ from pure philosophical idealism to pre-modern theosophical problematic which enabled him to overtake modernity itself” (IR 8)—here applies to himself. His “regression” from “post-modern” theory to Schellingian creation theory enables Žižek to demonstrate his apocalyptic insight that there can be no genuine theoretical substance (“fake is original”). Since any conscious theoretical assertion impinges upon his “freedom” qua critical subject, Žižek avoids self-formulation. As he explains,” “True freedom means not only that I am not fully determined by my surroundings but also that I am not fully determined by myself (by my own notion, by what I am, by my positive features): a person relates freely both to her existence and to her notion—that is to say, she is not fully determined by them but can transcend them” (IR 71). Since his theoretical enterprise consists of avoiding, even to desperation, the act of self-positing, it might seem inappropriate to let Žižek have the last Word. Yet in this passage his deft (and arguably bizarre) gender substitution, whereby the generic “person” becomes a “she,” allows him to efface himself from his text, a move which in turn allows his critic to step in. Thus I find in reading Žižek, I rashly, and somewhat madly, posit “myself.


  1. “How, then, should one begin an essay on Schelling? Perhaps the most appropriate way is by focusing on the problem of Beginning itself, the crucial problem of German Idealism—suffice it to recall Hegel's detailed elaboration of this problem and all its implications in his Science of Logic” (Slavoj Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters [New York, 1996], p. 1; hereafter cited in text as IR).

  2. For a more detailed discussion, see Ernesto Laclau, preface to Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York, 1989), pp. ix-xv.

  3. French philosopher Desutt de Tracy first used the term “ideology” in 1796 to describe his project of “a new science concerned with the systematic analysis of ideas and sensations—of their generation, combination, and consequences” (John B. Thompson, Ideology and Modern Culture: Critical Social Theory in the Era of Mass Communication [Cambridge, 1990], p. 28; hereafter cited in text as IM). This concept later met serious resistance from Marx, whose German Ideology challenged the notion that ideas themselves can constitute determining principles in the post-Hegelian, materialist world of finitude and contingency. The Marxist insistence that ideology is contingent upon economic and political factors has been taken up by much contemporary theory which must negotiate the various “representations” of ideology. See Thompson, Ideology and Modern Culture, for a further account of the historical evolution of the concept of “ideology.”

  4. As Žižek understands it from Schelling's “Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom” (1810), the work which immediately precedes Weltalter.Grund [the ground of all existence] is ultimately a name for God's self-deferral, for that elusive X which lacks any proper ontological consistency, yet on account of which God is never fully Himself, cannot ever attain full self-identity” (Slavoj Žižek and F. W. J. von Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World: An Essay by Slavoj Žižek with the text of Schelling's “Die Weltalter” [second draft, 1813] in English translation by Judith Norman [Ann Arbor, 1997], p. 6; hereafter cited in text as AF).

  5. This has been, necessarily, a radically oversimplified account of Schelling's most original (and perhaps most difficult) work. It should be read not with an eye toward its obvious lack of metaphysical subtlety, but as a condensed summation of Schelling's tripartite notion of self-creation.

  6. Peter Dews, The Limits of Disenchantment: Essays on Contemporary European Philosophy (New York, 1995), p. 132; hereafter cited in text as LD.

  7. On the Lacanian vel of alienation—the placing in suspense of the subject, its vacillation—see Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, tr. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1978), pp. 209-14.

  8. “If we regard nature in its initial stages, we find an attracting, inward-returning force in all corporeal things; this force never appears for itself alone, but only ever as the bearer of another essence, fastening it down and holding it together. This other essence is expansive by nature” (Žižek and Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom, p. 139). Žižek takes up this idea in “Quantum Physics with Lacan,” the final chapter of Indivisible Remainder.

  9. F. W. J. Schelling, The Ages of the World, tr. Frederick de Wolfe Bolman, Jr. (New York, 1942), p. 97. This translation is taken from the third draft of Weltalter, collected in Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling's Sämmtliche Werke, ed. K. F. A. Schelling, 14 vols. (Stuttgart, 1856-61).

  10. This basic dilemma of identity-formation could also apply to the poet, who must also assert his or her own “voice” within literary tradition. However, since the critic/theorist inhabits a space distinct from and not always commensurate with that of the poet, and since the process of poetic self-creation has already been articulated through various paradigms, such as the psychological model of Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford, 1972), I will let that be.

  11. There are, of course, many social, cultural, and political “events” which may be read as “text.”

  12. John Keats, letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818, in Letters, ed. Maurice Buxton Forman (London, 1952), p. 227.

  13. F. W. J. Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, tr. Andrew Bowie (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 115-16.

  14. See Andrew Bowie's “Introduction” to Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, pp. 1-37.

  15. Idealism and the Endgame of Theory: Three Essays by F. W. J. Schelling, tr. Thomas Pfau (Albany, N.Y., 1994), p. 197.

  16. I employ this phrase with some hesitation, not personally being able to conceive of a spaceless vortex. Let it serve, nevertheless, to represent eternal “becoming,” which has still not contracted into spatial or temporal dimensions.

  17. For an account of Schelling's influence, see Dale E. Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism (Albany, N.Y., 1996). Christopher Norris also stresses Derrida's philosophic heritage: “Derrida's stress on textuality and writing is not in any sense a break with philosophy, or a declaration on interpretive freedoms hitherto undreamt under the grim repressive law of conceptual clarity and truth” (Christopher Norris, Jacques Derrida [London, 1987], p. 2).

  18. Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” in his Margins of Philosophy, tr. Alan Bass (Sussex, 1982), p. 13; hereafter cited in text as “D.”

  19. Žižek claims the two main orientations toward Schelling on “the philosophico-ideological scene” are the “‘postmodern’ relativist New Sophists (from neo-pragmatists to deconstructionists) and New Age obscurantists. … The New Sophists emphasize how Schelling was the first to introduce a crack into Hegel's panlogicist edifice by asserting the motifs of contingency and finitude; the New Age obscurantists perceive Schelling as the philosopher who accomplished the ‘Jungian’ turn by asserting the notions of Weltseele, primordial Wisdom, sexualized cosmology, and so on” (The Indivisible Remainder, p. 5).

  20. For the origin of the concept of “vanishing mediator,” see Fredric Jameson, “The Vanishing Mediator; or, Max Weber as Storyteller,” in his The Ideologies of Theory: Essays, 1971-1986 (Minneapolis, 1988), 2:25.

  21. Slavoj Žižek, in Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham, N.C., 1993), for example, identifies the “vanishing mediator” with the Lacanian subject, who emerges as a crack in the universal substance. In For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (New York, 1991), he identifies it alternately with absolute monarchy and with the Protestant religion à la Jameson.

  22. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 7.

  23. Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, p. 3.

  24. Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (New York, 1992), p. 11.

Robert Miklitsch (essay date spring 1998)

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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 Balkan Lacan? Saint Slavoj?

Who, exactly, is Slavoj Žižek, and where does he hail from?

It is all, one might say, in the name. An anecdote: when I first came across this particular proper name—significantly, while reading Terry Eagleton's introduction to Ideology—I was struck less by Žižek's remarks on ideology, which offered a slight but crucial revision of Peter Sloterdijk's formula for “enlightened false consciousness” (“they know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still, they are doing it”1), than by the sheer strangeness of the name: all those little vs and zs!


Žižek hails of course from the East, as in Eastern Europe, or the Balkans, as in “balkanized.” More specifically yet, he hails from Ljubljana, Slovenia, which nation-state was once part of Yugoslavia.

Slovenia, then, as X-Yugoslavia.

The x here—like the Slavic vs and zs—indicates the uncanny status of Slovenia for most Americans, where Slovenia might as well be Transylvania, and Dracula the first, insidious emissary of the Sino-Soviet Other. Part of the mysteriousness also derives from Slovenia's being—unlike, say, the United States—the product of an extremely complex geopolitical history. For instance, in 1929, King Alexander I abolished the democratic-constitutional government established in 1921, while, in October of the same year the Serbo-Croat-Slovene Kingdom, which had been proclaimed in December 1918, officially became Yugoslavia (“southern Slavs”). The Balkan Pact's formation in 1934 and, later that year, King Alexander's assassination by a Macedonian revolutionary associated with Croat terrorists centered in Hungary reflect the zeitgeist of the period. In fact, King Alexander's assassination occurred while he was on a diplomatic tour of the European capitals in order to secure alliances against an increasingly bellicose Nazi Germany (hence the Balkan Pact). It is one of those historical ironies that suggests not only the volatility of nationalism in this part of Europe between the world wars (King Alexander's assassination itself almost resulting in a war between Yugoslavia and Hungary) but, rather more to the point of Žižek's work, the near-feudal monarchical character of the nation-state of Yugoslavia (where one could still speak of the assassination of kings, as in Hamlet, rather than, as in this country, of presidents).

Although the creation of the sovereign state of Slovenia in 1991 is one terminus to that geopolitical trajectory (bracketing here the whole question of Tito2), this inaugural event for Žižek had less to do with Slovenia proper than with the fate of the Balkans in general. The critical moment here—with respect, that is, to the decomposition of “actually existing socialism” in Eastern Europe—is the death of Ceauşescu, a “fall” that situates the “little story” of Slovenia within the metanarrative of macrocommunism even as it recollects Žižek's own Hamletlike meditations on the sublime problematic of the king-thing: “Is this really him? … Is the thing really with this body? Did it really die with it?”3

This double take on the fall of Ceauşescu—the sudden, utter collapse of the Big Other (when the Sleeping Beauty spell of totalitarianism was finally broken) and the post-execution problem of the despot's “two bodies” (which, for Žižek, uncannily reproduces the aporia associated with the Jacobin logic of regicide4)—is evoked at the very beginning of Tarrying with the Negative. There, the sublimity of Ceauşescu's double death—at once imaginary and symbolic, like Madeleine/Judy's in Hitchcock's Vertigo—is refigured in the cinematic image of the “rebels waving the national flag with the red star, the Communist symbol, cut out, so that instead of the symbol standing for the organizing principle of the national life, there was nothing but a hole in its center.”5 It is between one death and another—from the assassination of King Alexander to the execution of the king-thing Ceauşescu—or between one nation-state and another—from the Serbo-Croat-Slovene Kingdom to post-Communist Slovenia—within just such a determinate, political-historical space that Žižek's work must be situated.6 Not to do so is, it seems to me, to radically ex-nominate that work.

And yet if Žižek as the voice of X-Yugoslavia offers a partial answer to the question of who he is and where he hails from (i.e., Žižek as nationalist and historical witness), the x also signals that it is ultimately impossible to reduce his work to its political and geographical conditions of possibility. As Sartre said famously of Valéry, “Valéry is a petit bourgeois intellectual, … [but] not every petit bourgeois intellectual is Valéry.”7 With this in mind, one might argue that the question is not Who, exactly, is Slavoj Žižek, and where does he hail from? but For whom, exactly, does he function as the “sublime” intellectual Other? To pose the question this way is not only to repose the issue of academic production in all its national and international force; it is also to foreground the issue of reception and consumption, or the problem of desire.


If “Žižek in America” refers to the English or American, as opposed to the Slovene or even French, Žižek, this Anglo-American figure is, first of all, the Žižek of the Sublime Object of Ideology, which was published in 1989 in the Verso series Phronesis, edited by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.8 While the “French Žižek” is by no means absent from this volume (where he acknowledges Jacques-Alain Miller in the same space that he cites Laclau and Mouffe), the fact that his first book in English appeared in the Phronesis series nevertheless intimates that the American reception of his work is overdetermined by a certain British, post-New Left address.9 Still, the “American Žižek”—like the Slovene one—exceeds this particular textual-institutional frame as well. It is not simply that he writes in American English (which immediately distinguishes him from, say, Lacan), but that Žižek, especially in his later work, has a love affair of sorts with American popular culture, so much so that he appears to know the United States from the inside (as it seems only foreigners can do). This Žižek—the one we love to read because he reflects our own popular-cultural vision of the United States back to us (in reverse, as Lacan would say)—embodies the “whole” problem of subjectivity as envisioned by Lacan and reenvisioned by Žižek himself (e.g., desire as the desire of the Other).

That this Žižek may be a mirror image or even a mirage for American readers is an obvious possibility and one that no doubt accounts, at least in part, for his “popularity” in this country (hence my tactical evocation of the “Slovene Žižek” at the very beginning here, which is intended to forestall any simple, “imaginary” reading of his work). But if his U.S. audience is a restricted, not to say academic, one, his popularity can nevertheless be a useful means of exploring the problematic of popular culture as it intersects with that of postmodernism. Žižek himself has explicitly invoked the dialectical relation between popular culture and postmodernism, but for all the hullabaloo about the postmodernist “deconstruction” of the high-modernist division between elite and mass culture (a project that would appear to be central to Žižek10), postmodernism is something of a red herring in his work. That is to say, if Žižek is postmodernist (and it is difficult to imagine a term that better describes his corpus), his postmodernism is—to be crude—more a matter of form than of content. For instance, in the introduction to the Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek observes that the absence of any reference to Althusser in Habermas's Philosophical Discourse of Modernity is a “curious accident,” adding, in a perfectly Žižekian after-thought, “Of course, we are using the term ‘curious accident’ in a Sherlock Holmesian sense.” A little later, introducing Michel Pêcheux's complicated take on Althusser's notion of interpellation, Žižek—in an abrupt, “bathetic” shift in tonality—recalls a Marx Brothers joke to illustrate the comic short circuit of ideological misrecognition: “‘You remind me of Emanuel Ravelli.’ ‘But I am Emanuel Ravelli.’ ‘Then no wonder you look like him!’”11

The way Žižek crosses hierarchically differentiated codes here—in particular, those associated with “high theory” and “mass culture,”12 in the unexpected juxtaposition of Pêcheux with the Marx Brothers—marks his discourse as distinctly postmodernist. In fact, what appeared in the early work to be a strictly ornamental feature—the occasional, illustrative allusion to Coke or Marlboros, Heinlein or Hitchcock, Alien or Invasion of the Body Snatchers—has, in the later work, taken on a programmatic, even methodological, character, as in Looking Awry's subtitle, An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. This postmodernist tack is confirmed in the book's introduction, where Žižek cites Benjamin, Mozart, and Kant in rapid-fire order (including Kant's archly subversive definition of marriage as “a contract between two adult persons of the opposite sex on the mutual use of their sexual organs”) in the course of announcing that Looking Awry proposes, apropos of the marriage of opera and philosophy, a “reading of the most sublime theoretical motifs of Jacques Lacan together with and through exemplary cases of contemporary mass culture.” Although Žižek's modus operandi here would appear to derive from the Lacan of “Kant avec Sade,” the parenthetical cap to the first paragraph of Looking Awry is “classic” Žižek: “(If, now and then, the book also mentions ‘great’ names like Shakespeare and Kafka, the reader need not be uneasy: they are read strictly as kitsch authors, on the same level as McCullough and King).”13

Lacan avec McCullough—Colleen McCullough, author of The Thorn Birds: Could there be any more striking instance of Žižek's postmodernism? And yet, as I have already observed, Žižek—or at least the “early” (Anglo-American) Žižek of the Sublime Object of Ideology—took distinct pains to demarcate his critical distance from postmodernism. Thus the introduction to that book concludes with a caveat about “falling prey” to “‘post-modernist’ traps such as the illusion that we live in a ‘post-ideological’ condition.” Moreover, his later allusion there to “the usual ‘post-modernist’ anti-Enlightenment ressentiment” suggests that the quotation marks are to be understood less in the strict, deconstructive sense than in the more usual pejorative one.14 The division or separation between popular culture and postmodernism in Žižek's work appears, then, to be a symptom of a certain ambivalence, even a contradiction, whereby the “performative Žižek,” who celebrates popular culture, is patently at odds with the other, “constative Žižek,” who critiques postmodernism.

That Žižek is a divided subject, that his discourse performs what is ostensibly the effect of postmodernism (i.e., the gradual effacement of the canonic distinction between mass and high culture), comes as no surprise, of course, given his commitment to the Lacanian conception of the subject. However, if there seems little doubt that Žižek's popularity is more a function of his postmodernist style than of his critique of postmodernism (the term itself being virtually absent from the early work),15 his position on poststructuralism is an altogether different, more material matter. Consider, for instance, his judgment on the absolute difference between Lacan and Derrida. In order to defend Lacan against Derrida, Žižek's dominant gambit from the beginning has been to argue (against the prevailing, received wisdom) that Lacanian psychoanalysis, whatever it is, is not a species of poststructuralism.16 The locus classicus of this brief against deconstruction and for psychoanalysis is the section headed “There is no metalanguage” that opens the third and final part of the Sublime Object of Ideology. Although Žižek contends here that Lacan's work should be carefully distinguished from both hermeneutics (Gadamer) and poststructuralism (Derrida), it readily becomes apparent that the real object of Žižek's critique is not so much hermeneutics or poststructuralism as deconstruction—which is to say, Derrida. Writing in the long wake of deconstruction occasioned by the fall of Paul de Man (among other things), Žižek reasserts the Lacanian “primacy of metaphor over metonymy”—le point capiton over “dissemination”—and, consequently, the whole question of “truth.” Along these properly post-poststructuralist lines, Žižek also declares, in a devastating theoretical flourish, that the “position from which the deconstructivist can always make sure of the fact that ‘there is no metalanguage,’ that no utterance can say precisely what it intended to say,” is in fact “the position of metalanguage in its purest … form.”17

Now, the tenor of this critique may remind one of Lacan's elaboration on the position of the “ostrich” critic-detective in his “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’”—a symbolic structure of which Derrida himself, to be fair, is clearly aware—but, in its stressing of the real, immanent limits of any metalanguage, Žižek's critique of indeterminacy represents a substantial departure from both Derrida and the intersubjective Lacan of the 1950s.18 Still, according to Žižek, what is really at stake in the deconstructionist proposition that “there is no metalanguage” is not (pace de Man and Derrida) its aporiatic status or structure; rather, the “point” is that the metalinguistic position characteristic of deconstruction is itself predicated on denial. Here, Žižek's Freudian emphasis effectively highlights the difference between the rhetoric of deconstruction and what might be called (after Laplanche and Pontalis) the “language of psychoanalysis.” This difference—and the invocation of the psychic mechanism of Verneinung should not obscure the fact that Žižek's defense of psychoanalysis is a philosophical one—is, in a word, subjectivity. Accordingly, when Žižek concludes his Sublime Object argument about Lacan's post-poststructuralism, he submits that “the problem with deconstruction” is not its eschewing “a strict theoretical formulation,” and thus acceding to “a flabby poeticism” à la Lévi-Strauss (although for Žižek it is obviously guilty of these venalities as well), but rather than its position is in fact “too ‘theoretical.’” In other words, to claim, as Žižek does, that deconstruction is too theoretical is to claim that it “excludes the truth-dimension” and, as such, fails to “affect the place from which we speak.” Put another way: precisely because it cannot account for affect, deconstruction is—in the final analysis—“affected.”19


If Žižek has carried on a vigorous rearguard battle against deconstruction, most notably, in admonishing Rodolphe Gasché as well as Derrida himself for misreading Hegel,20 his avant-garde action has been fought on rather different “philosophical” terrain. This terrain is neither postmodernism nor poststructuralism but Marxism. Thus, in the Sublime Object of Ideology, he insists that the debate between Foucault and Habermas is a screen of sorts, concealing as it does another, “more far-reaching” opposition between Lacan and Althusser.21 One way to get at this issue or debate, and its formative effect on Žižek, is to establish the theoretical space of his own work, which is defined, as he himself has noted, by three centers of gravity: dialectics, psychoanalysis, and the critique of ideology—or Hegel, Lacan, and Althusser.

Apropos of Althusser (to take the last “author function” first), Žižek has commented in an interview that the dominant philosophical trends in Slovenia over the last two decades have been Heideggerianism and Frankfurt-school Marxism (as opposed to, say, the Praxis school in Croatia and Hayekian philosophy of science in Serbia). However, neither approach was finally amenable to left Slovene intellectuals like Žižek: Heideggerianism because it was associated with “right-wing populism,” Frankfurt-school Marxism because it was, ironically enough, the “official ideology” of the Slovene Communist Party. Consequently, the task for Žižek was “to be a dissident but not a Heideggerian.”22 This theoretically overdetermined political-historical conjuncture also explains the significance of Althusser for Slovene intellectuals, a significance that is dramatized for Žižek in the “big opposition” between Milan Kundera and Václav Havel. While for Kundera what was left of the private sphere and the small subversions one could perform there were the only source of resistance against the Communist regime, for Havel the basis of opposition was not “telling dirty stories” about the regime in private but doing some small thing, in public, that would disrupt the ritualistic character of everyday life (in accordance with the Althusserian thesis that state power is effectively reproduced via the public's abject submission to its rituals and practices, routines and ministrations).23 Žižek elaborates on this aspect of what might be called the publicity of ideology in Tarrying with the Negative, where he adds that, for Slovene intellectuals, “the name ‘Althusser’ triggered an enigmatic uneasiness in all camps.” Indeed, for Žižek, the political resistance to Althusser merely confirmed the fact that, although Althusserianism was “defamed as proto-Stalinist,” it actually “served as a kind of ‘spontaneous’ theoretical tool for effectively undermining the Communist totalitarian regimes.”24 In so-called actually existing socialism, then, what counted was not “inner conviction” but “external obedience,” not private belief but public practice.25 In this particular context (which is, of course, the “classic” totalitarian one), the way to be really oppositional, according to Žižek, was to “act naively” à la Havel in order to disturb and subvert the regime's appearance of “ideological consistency.”

Yet if Althusser remains one of the theoretical resources for the Slovene critique of ideology, Althusserianism has also always functioned as an object of critique for Žižek, whose lever for this counter-critique is Lacanian psychoanalysis. (Thus “Kafka, critic of Althusser”—a section heading in the Sublime Object of Ideology—might be reformulated “Lacan, critic of Althusser.”) The key to this Lacanian critique of Althusser is the notion of jouis-sense (“enjoyment-in-sense” or “enjoy-meant”), whereby the dimension elided in the Althusserian theory of interpellation is the “dimension beyond interpellation,” or what Žižek simply calls “beyond interpellation.”26 So, in the Metastases of Enjoyment, he asserts that what remains unthought in Althusser is the “uncanny subject” prior to identification and subjectivation.27

Now, given Žižek's critique of both Derrida and Althusser, this “uncanny subject” should clearly not be confused with either the Althusserian account of the imaginary dialectic of recognition and misrecognition (interpellation as identification) or the poststructuralist insistence on the irreducible polysemy of the symbolic register (interpellation as dissemination). Unlike Althusserian interpellation, which is the essence of the ideological operation (“all ideology hails … concrete individuals as concrete subjects”), Žižek's “beyond interpellation” refers to that “kernel of enjoyment” presupposed by ideology as such (“a pre-ideological enjoyment structured in fantasy”).28 The link, then, between Ideological State Apparatuses and interpellation—between, that is, the external “Pascalian machine” (like the one that confronts K. in The Castle) and the subject's internalization of this “bureaucratic” structure as belief (K.'s subjectivation)—is fantasy. In a nutshell (and it's a hard nut to crack, as Žižek likes to say), “fantasy is on the side of reality.”29


If the drift of Žižek's critique of the Althusserian account of ideology (i.e., fantasy as the ideological support of reality) appears remote from the concerns of Althusser, not to mention Marxism, it is nevertheless, for all its Lacanianism, very much Žižek's own. In fact, I would submit that Žižek's rereading of Althusser's theory of interpellation in terms of the “logic of enjoyment,” of jouissance as “beyond interpellation,” subtly displaces the material-institutional terms of the Althusserian problematic and thereby effects a significant shift in Žižek's corpus from a certain Althusserian Marxism to a certain Hegelian Lacanianism (or Lacanian Hegelianism). This double displacement of Althusserianism and Marxism is announced at the beginning of the Sublime Object of Ideology, where, in lieu of the Althusserian and classical Marxist conception of alienation, Žižek proposes the psychoanalytic ethics of separation, as in the “famous Lacanian” maxim “not to give way on one's desire [ne pas céder sur son désir].” Like Laclau and Mouffe, Žižek not only understands separation as antagonism, but defines antagonism in opposition to the classical Marxist notion of social antagonism, which he glosses as follows: (1) “a certain fundamental antagonism” that has “an ontological priority to ‘mediate’ all other antagonisms, determining their place and their specific weight” (economic determination in the first or last instance, or economism); and (2) “historical development [that] brings about … an ‘objective possibility’ of solving this fundamental antagonism” (the revolutionary abolition of class antagonism and economic exploitation, or revolutionism).30

Now, if post-Marxism arguably represents a break with the global, revolutionary logic of classical Marxism (i.e., “that it is not possible to solve any particular question without solving them all”), psychoanalysis, for Žižek, represents an even more radical break. Where the “usual” post-Marxism affirms “the irreducible plurality of particular struggles” (such that, for instance, racism cannot be reduced to capital), Lacanian psychoanalysis interprets this plurality as so many responses to the “same impossible-real kernel.”31 Indeed, the radicality of Lacanian psychoanalysis—at least from a conventional, post-Marxist perspective—is its emphatic reaccentuation of a certain “essentialism” or antagonism: “pure” antagonism. Hence, in the context of a discussion of the super-liberality of Laclau and Mouffe's radical-democratic politics, Žižek observes (rightly, I think) that the “condition of being active politically is precisely to be unilateral: the structure of the political act as such is ‘essentialist.’”32 But, given the provocative nature of such formulations, a number of critical questions materialize: What is the relation between Laclau and Mouffe's understanding of “social antagonism” and Lacan's concept of “pure antagonism”? What is the relation between the Real and antagonism as such?

The answer to the first question is, as it were, the Same, inasmuch as the “splitting” that traverses social antagonism (or, for Hegel, social Substance) is the same as the splitting that constitutes the subject (for Lacan, the so-called sujet barré). As Žižek himself argues with respect to the classic opposition between the individual and society, the subject of social antagonism “is precisely not ‘in-dividual.’”33 In other words, the subject as defined by Lacan—that “internal” limit which both subverts and sustains subjectivity—is the same as the social as defined by Laclau and Mouffe. This “paradoxical limit” is encapsulated in their notorious maxim that “society doesn't exist,” which (like Lacan's formulation “la Femme n'existe pas”34) stresses the paradoxical “nature” of society as at once possible and impossible, or (im)possible. Simply put, societies exist (e.g., “American society”), but no society is identical to itself—to, that is, its founding presuppositions; in fact, to imagine otherwise, to seriously entertain the possibility of a nonantagonistic socius, constitutes—for Žižek as for Claude Lefort—the totalitarian temptation.35 If social antagonism is therefore the same as pure antagonism (which is not to say that they are identical), the answer to the second question above is, again, the Same, since antagonism and the Real refer to the same “thing” (das Ding). Thus, commenting on the practico-epistemological “wager” that motivates Adorno's work, Žižek maintains that it is not aimed at “‘resolving’ or ‘abolishing’ … contradiction by way of some conceptual clarification”; instead, Adorno's work is aimed at “conceiving this contradiction as an immediate index of the ‘contradiction’—that is, the antagonism—that pertains to social reality itself.36

Given this definition of the Real as antagonism and (social) antagonism as the Real, it is nevertheless important, it seems to me, to situate Lacan's notion of the antagonistic Real within the microhistorical context of his work. And here one might say that, with respect to the letter of that work, the Real of the 1950s is not the same as the Real of the 1960s and 1970s. The Real as a “brute, pre-symbolic reality which always returns to its place” dominates, it is true, the early seminars, as in Lacan's observation (articulated in his own peculiar idiolect) that the Real, “whatever upheaval we subject it to, is always in its place; it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from it.”37 In the post-1950s seminars, however, the Lacanian Real is understood as a “hard core” that resists symbolization (perhaps its most familiar definition); moreover, in contradistinction to the Lacan of the “Purloined Letter,” whether the Real has in fact had a place—if it has “actually occurred” in so-called reality—no longer matters, since, like trauma, it can only be accounted for after the fact, après coup.

This said, it would no doubt be closer to the spirit of the seminars to read Lacan's various definitions of the Real as different “aspects” of the same problematic, as “both the hard, impenetrable kernel” that resists symbolic integration “and a pure chimerical entity” that has “no ontological” substance. Put another way (and there are many ways to put it, as anybody who has read Lacan knows), the Real simultaneously possesses “corporeal contingency” (the Real as “presupposed” by the Symbolic) and “logical consistency” (the Real as “posed” by the Symbolic).38 However, lest one think—as it is virtually impossible not to do—that this last, double definition of the Real recollects “some kind of Kantian ‘Thing in itself [das Ding-an-sich],’” Žižek is quick to assure us that it “is not a transcendent positive entity, persisting somewhere beyond the symbolic order like a hard kernel inaccessible to it”; rather, the Real “is nothing at all, just a void, an emptiness in a symbolic structure marking some central impossibility.39 This reading of the Lacanian Real as, precisely, “no thing” (as opposed to, say, a “positive” limit) usefully points up the radical negativity at the heart of Žižek's project, whereby the Real is in the last instance or final analysis, as in Hegel, a “pure ‘Thing-of-Thought [Gedankending].’”40


Such Hegelian trappings would appear to be the height of idealism (at least from a classical Marxist perspective), but the Lacanian-Hegelian concept of the antagonistic Real has, according to Žižek, a definite purchase on the problem of ideology. So, to formulate a number of the critical terms in circulation here, one might say that (social) fantasy is to the Real as ideology is to (social) antagonism.

The most convenient example of this relation, given my earlier construction of the historical-geopolitical preconditions of Žižek's work, is the dissolution of “real socialism,” about which Žižek observes, “This disintegration is of course immediately perceived as a ‘loss’—loss of the quasi-idyllic stability that characterizes the social fabric of post-Stalinist ‘real socialism’”; however, “the idyll was false from the very beginning, society was always-already ridden with fierce antagonisms.”41 Here, in addition to showing how ideology or social fantasy papers over the hole of the Real, Žižek also initiates a critical program. That is to say, if ideology colors in the void of the Real, the critique of ideology necessarily takes the form of a reflexive demonstration of the “logic of fantasy” as, for example, the “loss of loss” (vide Vertigo).

This critical-ideological emphasis on lack and negation—on the “analytical” disclosure of the pure, “primordial lie,” in other words—hints that if Žižek's program cannot be labeled a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (if only because he has so little use for hermeneutics proper and, more importantly perhaps, because of a certain comic, even Chaplinesque, strain in his work),42 it is a politics of demystification for all that. And yet, for Žižek as for Lacan, demystification is not all. Thus, contra Althusser, the critique of ideology is not for Žižek simply a metanarrative of misrecognition (and its interpretation) but a “logic of enjoyment” (and the active traversal or coming to terms with this jouissance). Indeed, this “double session” represents a psychoanalytic reconfiguration of the above-mentioned Lacan-Althusser debate. Whereas the first stage of the critique of ideology is what Žižek calls, after Althusser, the “symptomal reading” or, in the psychoanalytic register, the “interpretation of symptoms,” the second stage is the articulation or, more properly, rearticulation of the deep structure of enjoyment, of the way ideology is predicated on a “pre-ideological enjoyment structured in fantasy.” This second stage is what Žižek describes, after Lacan, as “going through the fantasy [traversée du fantasme].”43

The difference between these two moments or stages—between, that is, interpreting the symptom and going through the fantasy—is crucial. While the symptomatic reading aims to de-totalize the natural, “commonsense” experience of a particular ideological figure (as the Jew, one of Žižek's most privileged tropes, condenses a number of contradictory but socially meaningful mythemes such as “filthy” affluence44), “going through the fantasy” exposes the limits of both classic Ideologiekritik and psychoanalytic interpretation. Moreover, for Žižek, these limits are not so much those of the Althusserian theory of ideology, for instance, interpellation as imaginary/symbolic (mis)recognition, as those of deconstruction in particular and of poststructuralism in general. In other words, it is not enough simply to interpret a symptom or to deconstruct an ideological configuration; as in the Brechtian theory of alienation (Entfremdung), the so-called E- or A-effect, one must attain some “real” distance from the fantasy by experiencing not only how “ideology” organizes one's sense of enjoyment but, equally or more importantly, how it forms the support for one's sense of external reality.45

Although Žižek's description of “going through the fantasy” as the performative moment of ideology critique appears definitive, the problem with this procedure—at least within the psychoanalytic scenario—is that it cannot adequately account for the persistence of a symptom beyond both analysis and fantasy. The solution to this particular problem, for Žižek as for Lacan, lies in the third and final stage of psychoanalysis, which Žižek christens (dialectically recollecting the first stage of the process) “identification with the symptom,” or, rather more allusively, the sinthome. This neologism, constellating various associations (e.g., “Saint Thomas,” “synthetic-artificial man,” “synthesis between symptom and fantasy”), refers to a letter or signifier suffused with idiotic enjoyment, albeit a letter-signifier that constitutes “our only substance, the only positive support of our being.”46

Žižek summarizes the entire triadic movement in a chapter of Looking Awry entitled “The Ideological Sinthome”:

First, we had to get rid of the symptoms as compromise formations, then, we had to “traverse” the fantasy as the frame determining the coordinates of our enjoyment: the “desire of the analyst” was thus conceived as a desire purified of enjoyment. … In the last stage, however, the whole perspective is reversed: we have to identify precisely with the particular form of our enjoyment.47

Here, Lacan's “invention” of the sinthome returns us not only to the Real (in this case, the Real of the symptom) but to the drive and, ultimately, as Žižek notes, to the death drive itself.48 What is at stake in this shift in Žižek's reading of Lacan from the double program of interpretation of the symptom—going through the fantasy to that of going through the fantasy—identification with the symptom? Rather more to the Marxist point, what is the critical-ideological use-value of the notion of the sinthome as well as the “ethical” imperative to identify with the “particular form of our enjoyment”?

Like Brecht's alienation-effect, which relies on what might be called a certain modernist distance, “identification with the symptom,” according to Žižek, is “more radical”—because less “defensive”—than “going through the fantasy” (since desire is understood, as in the late Lacan, as a defense against the traumatic symptom that is jouissance). In other words, where “going through the fantasy” achieves its effect of distanciation by situating “the phenomenon in its historical totality,” “identification with the symptom” makes us “experience the utter nullity of its immediate reality,” the “stupid, material presence that escapes ‘historical mediation.’” The imperative nature of this aspect of the critique of ideology is reflected in the following collective terms: “What we must do … is to isolate the sinthome from the context by virtue of which it exerts its power of fascination in order to expose the sinthome's utter stupidity.”49

If Žižek's explanation of “identification with the symptom” hints that it is not without a collective, critical-ideological element, his remarks later in the same chapter of Looking Awry on the difference between “acting out” and “passage to act [passage à l'acte]” also suggest that his importation of certain late Lacanian concepts into the critique of ideology is not without its problematic aspects. For instance, what is one to make of the assertion that, unlike “acting out,” a “‘passage to act’ entails … an exit from the symbolic network, a dissolution of the social bond”?50 This particular formulation (and admittedly, it is only one formulation) italicizes what may well be the irreducible difference between Marxism and psychoanalysis. For whatever Marxism is (political economy, “philosophy of praxis,” etc.), it cannot be said to be about the “dissolution of the social bond.” Indeed, however utopian Marx's understanding of communism as the solution to the riddle of history (“the dissolution of all classes”), it is in fact predicated on exactly the opposite state of affairs—on, that is, social association. What, after all, can it mean to claim that the most progressive stage of psychoanalysis—and, one imagines, of ideology critique as well—is identification with the “real of jouissance,” a state of “being” that Žižek refers to as “subjective destitution”?51


Although the critical stress in Žižek's work on (over-)identification52 rather than alienation (or, even more to the political-economic point, exploitation) is only one theoretical instance of his turn from Marxism and “return to Lacan,” his Lacanian understanding of history also exhibits the very real distance between his project and Marxism. In fact, if post-Marxism represents, as I believe it does, both an affirmation and a negation of classical Marxism, discarding what is not essential (i.e., Hegelian dialectics) while retaining what is most distinctive and valuable (e.g., the analytical valorization of history and economy, if not “historical materialism” per se), then it may be useful to determine the political-theoretical implications of Žižek's problematic relation to Marx(ism). (Not so incidentally, I take it as a given that, in the relativistic wake of poststructuralism, it is imperative to make these sorts of determinations.)

A preliminary critique of Marx and of historical materialism, in particular, is broached near the end of the first chapter of the Sublime Object of Ideology (“How Did Marx Invent the Symptom?”). Consider the “common” Marxist-feminist critique of psychoanalysis, according to which the Oedipus complex is a “‘false’ eternalization” that misconstrues “a historically conditioned form of patriarchal family” (i.e., the classic bourgeois nuclear family) as a trait “of the universal human condition.” The problem with this particular effort at historicization is that it completely ignores “the ‘hard kernel’ which announces itself through the ‘patriarchal family’—the Real of the Law, the rock of castration.”53 In fact, the irony of this position for Žižek is that, not unlike its ideological complement (and ostensible object of critique), “‘false’ eternalization,” “over-rapid historicization” blinds us “to the real kernel which returns as the same through diverse … symbolizations.”54

As in his post-Althusserian formulation of ideology as “beyond interpellation,” Žižek's understanding of the “unhistorical” as the Real of jouissance is intended to supplement what he sees as the gross poverty of the Marxist conception of history. However, Žižek's view of the “unhistorical” underscores not only the Lacanian thrust of his theory of history but the ontological repetition on which his work is, as it were, “based”: “What the nostalgic image conceals is not the historical mediation but on the contrary the unhistorical traumatic kernel which returns as the Same through all historical epochs.”55 If this statement suggests that Žižek's concept of repetition is unhistorical in the pejorative sense, the real irony of his insistent, even monotonous, invocation of “the unhistorical” is that it ultimately leaves his own avowedly post-poststructuralist work open to the same critique he levels against deconstruction in the Sublime Object of Ideology. Indeed, it might not be too much to say that Žižek's post-poststructuralism, not to mention his “postmodernist” style, “exists only to embellish some basic theoretical proposition,” such as the Real as the return of the (same) “unhistorical” traumatic kernel. One effect of this persistent ontologization of history is that, despite Žižek's theoretic and stylistic ingenuity (and he is nothing if not ingenious), the accent in his work on the unhistoricality of the Real—whether as trauma or the Same, jouissance or antagonism—eventuates in just the sort of “bad infinity” that he imputes to deconstruction: “an endless … variation which does not produce anything new.”56

Now, if it is in fact the case that Žižek's work revolves around a fundamental Lacanian-Hegelian proposition (call it “the Real as antagonism”), and this proposition bears on his critique of Marxist historicism,57 what, one wonders, is the relationship between Hegel and Marx in his work? Although there are any number of moments when Žižek reads this much-disputed relationship, the critical instance arguably occurs in Tarrying with the Negative, where he claims that the “standard Marxist” (Derridean?) critique of Hegelian dialectics as “a closed economy”—a system whose “every loss is in advance recompensed, ‘sublated’ into a moment of self-mediation”58—should be attributed not to Hegel but to Marx. A paradigmatic example of this pre-Hegelianism is Marx's formulation in the Grundrisse of the proletarian as “substanceless subjectivity.”59 At stake here is the problem of alienation or, more precisely, de- or disalienation, since in classical Marxism the proletariat collectively embodies the reconciliation—structurally blocked in capitalism and only “speculated” about by Hegel—of “subject” and “substance” (or, in the classical Marxist idiom, “labor force” and “mode of production”). But according to Žižek, this revolutionary formulation, which for Marx represented “a ‘materialist’ version of the Hegelian reconciliation of subject and substance,”60 must be subjected to a critical rereversal.

Žižek's theoretical gambit here is not, it seems to me, particularly scandalous. (Althusser's surmise about the “eternality” of ideology struck, as it were, the first blow against the classical concept of communism as the social figure for absolute de-alienation.61) However, Žižek's “apocalyptic tone” is scandalous, as when, invoking Marx's materialist critique of Hegel, he proposes that “the time has come to raise the inverse possibility of a Hegelian critique of Marx.” In sum, it is now necessary, “after more than a century of polemics on the Marxist ‘materialist reversal of Hegel,’” to entertain what for dyed-in-the-wool Marxists is unthinkable—that it is none other than Marx himself who should be stood on his head, that it is Marxism which, under the guise of a combative antiphilosophy, “retroactively constructs the figure of Hegel” as “the philosopher who elevates self-mediating Notion into the Ground and Substance of the universe.”62 That Žižek's target here is Marx rather than Derrida is striking, to say the least, since the conventional reading of Hegel as the philosopher-king of sublation is an aftereffect—at least in the United States—of the influence of deconstruction, which no doubt explains Žižek's chronic antipathy to Derrida.63 Still, inasmuch as he has also taken Derrida himself to task for his monolithic reading of Hegel, what, precisely, is at stake in Žižek's claim that “‘Hegel as absolute idealist’ is a displacement of Marx's own disavowed ontology”? As Žižek sees it, Marx's ambiguous relationship to Hegel is not merely a “symptom” of that retroactive displacement but an index of the “inherent impossibility of the Marxian project” as such.64 And yet, if it is clear that one of the things at stake in Žižek's return to Hegel is the validity of Marxism as a historical project, what is not clear, what remains unsaid, is the status of Žižek's “desire for Hegel.”

I raise here the hydra-headed question of desire because Žižek himself argues, à la Lacan, that what is missing from Marx (and, presumably, from the Marxian project itself) is a sense of subjectivity as “inscribed into the very core of Substance in the guise of an irreducible lack which forever prevents it from achieving full self-identity.”65 If one consequence of this anti-identitarian argument is that the absolute de-alienation associated with communism is a priori impossible, the problem with this critique of Marxism is not so much that it conflates communism with Marxism (arguably very different formations) or that it is predicated on a selective reading of Marx (the sort of critical treatment to which Lacan is rarely submitted by Žižek) as that the Lacan-inspired metalepsis “Hegel after Marx” threatens to reinstall a universal law: the law of desire as the law of castration.66 Indeed, if, as Butler argues,67 whatever threatens the invariant “threat” of castration in Žižek's work—Marxism, feminism, or Marxist feminism—is categorically foreclosed, one result of this theoretical foreclosure (and I am thinking here of Žižek's critique of deconstruction) is a certain afteraffect, or “permanent,” prepolitical pathos.

However, the question of politics aside, the most surprising thing about Žižek's Hegelian critique of Marxism—given Althusser's influence on his work—is that it is curiously pre-Althusserian. Bluntly, Žižek's anti-Marxist defense of the “substantial” subject is arguably a species of humanism and, as such, ideological through and through (since the naturalization of human subjectivity is, pace Žižek, the ideological operation par excellence).68 From this critical perspective, it is not hard to see, as Žižek himself is fond of saying, that his conception of the “substance as subject” (and consequent critique of Marx's understanding of proletarian subjectivity) is intended to reinscribe the “ontological” dimension of the historical subject.69 At the same time, if it is true (as Žižek also claims) that the “ontological” subject radically destabilizes the sort of “historical” subject that Marxism presupposes, the “historical-materialist” nevertheless remains after the subject-as-substance (i.e., the subject subjected to the law of castration) has been subtracted. In other words, if the relation between these two modes of subjectivity—the “ontological” and the “historical-materialist”—is not only irreducible but asymmetrical, the “historical-materialist” subject always already exceeds the “ontological” one—at least for Marxism.

Given this asymmetry between history and ontology—what Žižek himself calls the “true critical ‘materialist’ supplement”70—what does it mean to privilege ontology (or, more generally, philosophy) over history? If a Hegelian re-reversal of Marxism is not a species of idealism, what is it? First, whether or not one agrees with Althusser's location of Marx's break with Hegel or, rather more seriously, with the whole notion of an “epistemological break.” Althusser, unlike Žižek, maintains the “classic” distinction between Marx and Hegel, namely, that Hegel(ianism), in whatever form, is an analytical and historical regression.71

Žižek, of course, thoroughly problematizes this genealogy (i.e., Hegel before Marx). Thus, in Tarrying with the Negative, he reverses even as he answers Pierre Macherey's titular question Hegel ou Spinoza? so that one might say as with Marx, so with Althusser. Or, to rewrite Žižek himself, “[Hegel's] philosophy must be read as a critique of [Althusser]—as if [Hegel] read [Althusser] and was able in advance to answer the latter's critique of [‘Hegelianism’].”72 Suffice it to say that if one must choose between Hegel and Althusser (on the analogy of Hegel ou Spinoza?), and this is simultaneously a choice between philosophy and antiphilosophy, then Žižek clearly chooses Hegel and philosophy.73 From a Marxist perspective, though (and this is the theoretical “rub”), to return to Hegel—beyond both Marx and Althusser—is to “engage” in an act of philosophical nostalgia, since, as Žižek himself notes, “Marx insists on the inherent limitation of a purely dialectical [i.e., philosophical] presentation.”74 The “inherent limitations” of a strictly Hegelian and/or philosophical approach can be seen in Žižek's inordinately “thin” sense of historicity; hence, whether the specific object of historical analysis is the Gulag or the Holocaust, Hiroshima or Chernobyl, the answer for Žižek is always, somehow, the Same. In this sense at least, Žižek's project, despite its spirited critique of postmodern historicism and its “dialectical” twin, the “logic of nostalgia,” is thoroughly historicist—in “spirit.”75

Still, assuming—for the sake of argument—that Žižek's basic critique of Marx is correct, that Marx's notion of collective subjectivity and therefore of de-alienation are, sensu stricto, an effect of a “perspective-illusion which hinges precisely on the ‘closed economy’ of the dialectical reversal,” why does Žižek “need” to return to Hegel (rather than, say, Baudrillard) in order to effect this critique?76 In other words, while it is perfectly understandable why Žižek would want to return to Hegel in order to interrogate the received philosophical wisdom about his alleged monism, why is Žižek intent on saving Hegel at the expense of Marx? The answer to this particular question (at least with respect to the “early” Žižek of the Sublime Object of Ideology) is that his “reading of Hegel and the Hegelian heritage”—via, of course, the necessary detour of a reading of Lacan—suggests “a new approach to [the problem of] ideology.”77 The historical thrust of this recommendation would appear to be that today (after, presumably, the debacle that was communism) Hegel can teach us something about the critique of ideology that Marx(ism) couldn't or, rather more to the point, can't. And what Hegel can teach us is Subject, where “Subject” is, as it were, a synonym for “Lacan.”

Given this psychoanalytic tack, Žižek's brand of Lacanianism is emphatically opposed, it is clear, to that post-Hegelian practice which understands itself as antiphilosophy, or “not-anymore-philosophy”—to, that is, Marxism. This prise de position is reflected in the oppositional character of Žižek's conclusion to the introduction to Tarrying with the Negative, where Marxism is summarily dismissed in favor of “Lacanian philosophy”: “One is … tempted to risk the hypothesis that what Lacan's ‘antiphilosophy’ opposes is this very philosophy qua antiphilosophy.”78 Indeed, this “antiphilosophical”-qua-Lacanian Hegelian position is the perspective from which one must read the rhetorico-ecological “demand” that concludes the book as a whole: “Perhaps … our very physical survival hinges on our ability to consummate the act of assuming fully the ‘nonexistence of the Other,’ of tarrying with the negative.79 If this apocalyptic peroration—the concluding emphasis of which echoes Hegel's preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit—is plainly hyperbolic, it is also, I think it safe to say, downright gnomic. What does, or can, it mean to “consummate the act of fully assuming the ‘nonexistence of the Other,’” let alone to consummate the act of “tarrying with the negative”?


The first thing to understand when trying to decipher the programmatic conclusion to Tarrying with the Negative is that the “anxiety of ecology”80 is tied up, for Žižek, with the “collapse of the big Other” (where the ecological and political referents for this catastrophic event are Chernobyl and the end of communism, respectively). In other words, there is a certain historical, if not strictly logical, relation between the demise of communism and the rise of the ecology movement. Thus, with respect to the “green” issue, Žižek argues that the Lacanian lesson to be applied to the anxiety of ecology (to the unaccountable fear that a natural catastrophe is on the immediate horizon) is that “we must learn to accept the real of the ecological crisis in its senseless actuality, without charging it with some message or meaning.”81 As for communism, the substitution of “green” for “red” politics is staged in the last chapter of Tarrying with the Negative, “Enjoy Your Nation as Yourself!” The question here is as simple as it is profound: In the wake of the dissolution of “actually existing socialism” in the Eastern bloc, what is the solution?

If Žižek's long answer to this question is a certain Lacanian ethics, his short, exemplary answer is, as I have already noted, ecology.82 What is striking about this eco-ethical solution, which cannot of course be divorced from the related issue of ethnonationalism, is that it involves an overt, albeit intricate, critique of Spinozism.83 The key figure is once again Hegel, where Hegel is understood (as in Althusser and Macherey) as the diametrical opposite of Spinoza.84 However, the additional Žižekian twist here is that Spinozism is the “ideology of late capitalism.” Indeed, in Žižek's account of late capitalism, Spinozism arguably displaces what Fredric Jameson reserves for the culture of postmodernism (i.e., postmodernism as the “cultural logic of late capitalism”). Accordingly, the answer to the ideology of Spinozism for Žižek is not Marxism (as it is for Jameson) but that oxymoronic practice “Lacanian philosophy.” Moreover, with the collapse of “actually existing socialism,” psychoanalysis itself has acquired a new political urgency, charged as it is—“more than ever,” according to Žižek—with the task of defining the “space of possible resistance” to the production and reproduction of capital. Simply put, the political task of psychoanalysis today is to elucidate those decidedly anti-Deleuzian forms of subjectivity that contest late (Spinozist) capitalism.85

While the so-called ethics of the Real—Lacan's “critique of pure desire” as the “foundation” of Kant's three critiques—can be said to drive Žižek's political philosophy, it must also be said that, his negative invocation of Spinoza notwithstanding, the real object of his critique is not Spinoza per se but a certain reading of him: Deleuze's “affective” interpretation of Spinoza as the premier philosopher of “speeds and slownesses, of frozen catatonias and accelerated movements, unformed elements [and] nonsubjectified affects.”86 What is at stake in this particular reading of Spinoza is the capital-deterritorialized “nature” of postmodern subjectivity, which for Žižek is distinctly Deleuzian in character: “Far from being an autonomous bearer of this process [of ‘affective identification’], the subject is rather a place, a passive ground for the network of partial lateral links.” The postmodern subject described here—plural, affective, dispersed—may sound subversive, but, according to Žižek, this form of subjectivity is not only not subversive, it is in fact the subject of late capitalism, prone as it is to those “particular, inconsistent modes of enjoyment” that are the hallmark of post-Fordist, consumer-driven capital. For Žižek, the critical question is therefore: Is there a “way out of this vicious circle of late-capitalist Spinozism”?87

In order to mount a really effective critique of contemporary ideological phenomena it is necessary, according to Žižek, to “go through the fantasy” of postmodern capitalism. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the aim of Žižek's “return to philosophy” is to root out what might be called the double fantasy of the contemporary (left) “universal intellectual.” This fantasy is premised on two, equally untenable propositions: (1) that the decentered, libidinal subject of postmodernism is the liberatory subject of capitalism (affirmative position); and (2) that the “cure” for this pathological symptom is Marxism (negative position). The problem with this argument for Žižek is that neither Marxism nor Spinozism can be said to represent a genuinely radical critique of late capitalism, since Marxism is merely the negative and “universal” Other of the “new Spinozism,” while the latter discourse is reflexively—and, therefore, uncritically—predicated not on negation (as in Marxism) but on affirmation, not on lack or loss (as in psychoanalysis) but on affect and desire. In other words, Marxism and Spinozism are simply two sides of the same coin: the coin of late capitalism.

Still, if neither Marxism nor Spinozism is the answer to late capitalism, liberalism is no solution either. As Žižek sees it, the “fundamental” political opposition today (at least in Eastern Europe) is not the apparent, “external” one between different regimes of social-political regulation—between nationalism and liberalism, for example, or even socialism and liberalism—but a strictly “internal,” economic one. That is to say, the real opposition should be located within capitalism itself, between those who will be permitted “inside”—integrated into the New (liberal-democratic) World Order—and those who will be condemned to the “outside” or periphery.88 In this context, it is worth noting that if, or precisely because, ethnonationalist fundamentalism is the Other or hidden presupposition of Western-style capitalism (as the epigraph to this essay suggests), the emerging nation-states of what was once Yugoslavia will be especially subject to the draconian diktats of this global political-economic logic—in a phrase: play or pay.

Consequently, the only way out of the “vicious circle” of late Spinozist capitalism—the reactive inverse of which economic universalism is ethnonationalism—“is not to fight the ‘irrational’ nationalist particularism but to invent forms of political practice.”89 Moreover, it is in just this combative, democratic-inventive sense that our “physical survival” as a species can be said to depend on the “coming ecological crisis,” since only such a planetary crisis will allow us to completely come to terms with the “non-existence of the big Other.” Put another way, the “real” value of ecology and its apocalyptic death drive is that, in forcing us to seriously entertain the “idea” of the nonexistence of the planet, it simultaneously compels us to consummate the act of “going through the fantasy” on nationalism as well as of Nature itself. In fact, with that last grand ideologeme in mind, one might say that on the other side of the fantasy of (super-)natural apocalypse or catastrophe is the terrible intuition that Nature, like God, doesn't exist. Or, to cite Spinoza himself, not God or Nature (Deus sive Natura), but neither God nor Nature. Of course, if even capital is a “chimeric apparition,”90 and Marxism merely a fantasy, what is left for the Left to do?


As the foregoing speculations about the ecology movement intimate (and such speculations are the stuff of Žižek's project), there is a significant theoretical difference between his project—founded as it is on the Hegelian notion of Gedankending—and Marxism. For if capital is a monster (Ungeheuer) and, strictly speaking, “no thing,” it is also always something for Marx, and that something is surplus-value.91 But if Žižek does not credit Marxism with any liberatory force (and, it sometimes seems, with only a residual explanatory one), his repeated affirmation of “new social movements” such as ecology indicates that he has by no means abandoned the Left in general. However, Žižek's considered recommendation is that while the politics of “the New” and its various forms of refusal (e.g., ecological “hysteria”) signify a “dimension beyond capital” as well as a necessary utopian sense of futurity, they must also actively engage the recent, catastrophic past. Accordingly, the current task for the Left—a rather formidable one, given the abrupt collapse of communism—is to imagine a viable future without completely forsaking the past, “to keep alive the memory of all lost causes, of all shattered … dreams and hopes attached to leftist projects.” This, for Žižek, is the “real” ethics of the drive, the “compulsion” to “mark,” insistently, the “site” of the trauma, the “Cause qua thing”—with the crucial proviso that this “lost Cause” or “Thing” (and one cannot, perhaps, emphasize this point enough) is not “actually existing socialism” or even communism but that traumatic impossibility which communism sought, tragically, to suture.92

Žižek's politics for the present juncture are predicated, then, on a dialectical refusal of both the current incarnation of contemporary capitalism (i.e., late Spinozism) and that nostalgia for the past-as-simulacrum which is postmodernism (e.g., the “back to the future” Reagan 1980s). In fact, for Žižek, the ethics of the drive—“far from confining the Left within a nostalgic infatuation with the past” (e.g., with the historical failure of revolutionary socialism)—is the only option left for getting some real “distance on the present,” whether understood as the New (post-Communist) World Order or the inhuman, fascist face of ethnonationalism associated with Bosnia.93

Still, if Žižek's exhortation of “an ethics of the Real”—especially in its utopian, repetitive-compulsive aspect (Freud's Zwang)—obviously speaks to some real tactical concerns currently facing the post-Marxist Left, the limits of this very “same” recommendation are equally obvious in the conclusion to “Beyond Discourse-Analysis,” where he presents the “practical” end point of his politics of the (death) drive: “The fact that the signifying field is always structured around a certain fundamental deadlock … doesn't entail any kind of resignation—or, if there is a resignation, it is a paradox of the enthusiastic resignation.94 I suppose one can understand this properly Kantian imperative as a version of Gramsci's memorable precept “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” but the sort of historical tension between theory and practice embodied in Gramsci's work is, it seems to me, all but lost in Žižek's “sublime” formulation. The “willful,” “intellectual” character of Žižek's petition for “enthusiastic resignation” is even more manifest in the Sublime Object of Ideology, where, addressing the crucial question of the efficacy of “at first sight purely speculative [read: Kantian-Hegelian] ruminations” for a psychoanalytic theory of ideology, he introduces a moment synonymous with that of “enthusiastic resignation,” which he labels, after Freud, die Versagung, or “subjective destitution.”95

From a psycho-Marxist perspective, the theoretical interest of this moment—of, that is to say, the “sacrifice of the sacrifice”—is substantial, since die Versagung is allegedly beyond both castration and alienation. Indeed, with the prototypically Marxist concept of alienation in mind, Žižek has argued that the sort of utopianism associated with the ethics of the Real “is possible only on the basis of a certain fundamental ‘alienation.’”96 Drawing out the necessary political implications of this ethics of separation in Tarrying with the Negative, he even adds, “What Eastern Europe needs most now is more alienation.97

Žižek's application here of the logic of separation to the former Yugoslavia makes real political sense, especially given the relative scarcity of civil-social institutions vis-à-vis the State in Eastern Europe; but it seems to me that alienation cannot be understood simply (and however profoundly) as separation, but must ultimately be thought together with the concept and the reality of exploitation. Perhaps (post-)Marxism needs to come to terms, as Žižek's work so ably attests, with the question of “castration” and even “separation.” Certainly, if it is ever going to speak persuasively to the problems of capitalism and ethnonationalism, among other things, it needs to be able to better articulate the way subjectivity is inscribed into the very heart of the discourse of political economy. However, while it may well be true that separation is the ethical-political answer to the problem of castration, die Versagung is not, and cannot be, the answer to the problem of exploitation. And, to the question of exploitation in its most “base,” even banal sense, Žižek has—in the final analysis—no real answer.


While preparing an abridged version of this essay for a conference, I composed the following provisional conclusion: “If the critique of ideology ends, for Žižek, with the death drive, it may well be that his Lacanianism—at least for those of us still committed to the project of Marxism—represents a dreadful, if fascinating, dead end.” The point of my “dialectical punctuation” was to propose that, for all its force and interest, Žižek's project is decisively bereft of the sort of theoretical use-values that contemporary Marxism needs most today.98 In the time between writing the conclusion and delivering the paper, though, it struck me that American academic Marxism seems to be dominated more and more by a kind of political neo-pragmatism, the simplistic version of which attitude is “Žižek isn't Marxist enough!”99 Forget that Žižek—unlike most, if not all, of his American critics—has actually lived most of his life under a Communist regime and thus may have something important, even urgent, to say to those of us who have never really experienced life in a putatively Socialist country. Forget that Žižek's critique may have something to teach us about the practical and theoretical limits of Marxism.

Given the fall of communism and the so-called triumph of transnational capitalism—not to mention the local but by no means insignificant issue of the impact of these events on American academic Marxism (a student recently asked me at the beginning of a course on Marxism and psychoanalysis, “How can one justify teaching Marxism today?”)—given, that is, this unprecedented conjuncture, Žižek's work, to tarry with the negative, cannot not be found wanting. While his political philosophy sometimes appears to be a very real defense against desire and historicity, the historicity of desire (and a defense, therefore, against political despair),100 he can hardly be expected to produce a completely satisfying set of answers to the extraordinarily complex issues that confront the post-Marxist Left at this particular moment.

In any event, it was with these sorts of unorthodox thoughts in mind (to return to my anecdote) that I began to rethink the polemical conclusion to my conference paper, so much so that when I finally read it I immediately put it “under erasure.” My ex tempore argument was that, precisely because of the current conjuncture, it is imperative for post-Marxists and left intellectuals in general not to foreclose on theoretical work whose political efficacy is not immediately apparent. In order to illustrate this point and underscore the performative contradiction of my conclusion, I also mentioned a slip of the pen that I had “suppressed” in the final version of my paper. Instead of writing “Žižek's Lacanianism represents a dreadful, if fascinating, dead end,” I had written “Žižek's Lacanianism represents a deeply troubling, if fascinating, dead end.”

The meaning of this slip (“deeply troubling” when I had no doubt meant to say something like “deeply troubled”) is, I take it, that Žižek's work is deeply troubling for Marxists, not least because, as a left East European intellectual, he does not reflect back the “naive,” fascinated gaze of his not-so-sublime other: the gaze, that is, of the North American Marxist. In this sense (a profound one, it seems to me), Žižek refuses to give us what “we” want, refuses to satisfy “our” desire. Therein, one might say, lies our dread and our fascination, our dreadful fascination.


  1. Quoted in Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction (London, 1991), 40.

  2. In The Destruction of Yugoslavia: Tracing the Break-Up, 1980-92 (London, 1993), Branka Magas writes that “Tito's death in 1980 marked a point of no return for Yugoslavia” (xii); see also “Tito's Deluge” (79-83).

  3. Slavoj Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (London and New York, 1991 [1990]), 256; and, on the death of Ceauşescu, see Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (New York, 1992), 40-41.

  4. See Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, 253-54 and 256-60.

  5. Slavoj Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham, 1993), 1.

  6. For some sense of the context of Žižek's work, see Peter Osborne's interviews with him and Renata Salecl, “Lacan in Slovenia” and “Postscript,” in A Critical Sense: Interviews with Intellectuals, ed. Peter Osborne (New York, 1996), 21-35 and 36-44.

  7. Jean-Paul Sartre, Search for a Method, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York, 1968 [1960]), 56.

  8. Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London and New York, 1989). Laclau's preface (xi) includes a partial bibliography of Žižek's works in French and in Slovene. Laclau and Mouffe's statement about the theoretical program of the Phronesis series (“We believe that an anti-essentialist theoretical stand is the sine qua non of a new vision for the Left conceived in terms of a radical and plural democracy”) can also be found in the front matter of this volume.

  9. Part of this address or context is, as Laclau notes, so-called screen theory and, in particular, the notion of “suture” (on suture and the gaze, see also Osborne, “Lacan in Slovenia,” 27). As Laclau observes, the “younger” generation of Lacanians “attempted to formalize Lacanian theory, pointing out the distinctions between the different stages of his teaching, and placing an accent on the theoretical importance of the last stage, in which a central role is granted to the notion of the Real as that which resists symbolization” (Sublime Object of Ideology, ix-x). The influence of this particular reading of Lacan on Žižek is obvious in the latter's own reaccentuation of the Lacanian Real.

  10. Of course, one could also argue that the distinction between popular culture and “high theory” remains intact in Žižek's work, since “low” or mass culture is used simply to illustrate “high” theory (e.g., Lacanian psychoanalysis). See Slavoj Žižek, “Taking Sides: A Self-Interview,” in The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality (London and New York, 1994), 167-217, where he says that he is “convinced of [his] proper grasp of some Lacanian concept only when [he] can translate it successfully into the inherent imbecility of popular culture” (175). In this context, I might reiterate that what he calls Lacan's “most sublime theoretical motifs” are thought “together with and through exemplary cases of contemporary mass culture”; Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA, 1991), vii; my emphases. In other words, mass- or popular-cultural objects retain a certain specificity in Žižek's work.

  11. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 1, 3.

  12. Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom, 113.

  13. Žižek, Looking Awry, vii.

  14. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 7, 79.

  15. Žižek's engagement with postmodernism does not really commence until Looking Awry (see esp. 141-53). See also Enjoy Your Symptom, 80-83 and 122-24, as well as (and most importantly) Žižek's reading of the difference between Lacan and Foucault with respect to the question of Kant and the Enlightenment (179-84). For Žižek's own restricted definition of himself as a postmodernist, see Osborne, “Lacan in Slovenia,” 34.

  16. In Looking Awry (142-43), Žižek asserts—against all odds, as it were—that “it is only with Lacan that the ‘postmodernist’ break occurs. … In this sense we could even say that deconstructionists are basically still ‘structuralists’ and that the only ‘poststructuralist’ is Lacan.” Cf. what Žižek says about the “unexpected connections” between Lacan and Derrida in The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters (London and New York, 1996), 189-236, esp. 193-96.

  17. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 154, 154-55.

  18. Jacques Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’” (1955-56), trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, in The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading, ed. John P. Muller and William Richardson (Baltimore, 1988), 28-54. With respect to Derrida, I am thinking of not only the historico-philosophic metalepsis “Socrates after Plato,” but also the “homosexual” structure (a tergo): “Socrates is in front of Plato, no, Plato is behind him”; see Jacques Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, ed. and trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, 1987 [1980]), 9.

  19. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 155.

  20. See Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, 72-80. On Gasché's alleged misreading of Hegel, see also Indivisible Remainder, 92-186, esp. 180 n. 45. For a more balanced appraisal of the dispute between Žižek and Gasché, see Peter Dews, “Tremor of Reflection: Slavoj Žižek's Lacanian Dialectics,” in The Limits of Disenchantment (London, 1995), 256-57 n. 37.

  21. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 1. Judith Butler argues that the Žižekian Real “stands theoretically as a counter both to Foucauldian linguisticism … and Habermasian rationalism,” in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York, 1993), 192. Butler's real point, though, is that Foucault (like feminism and poststructuralism) represents a radical “challenge” to Žižek's construction of the Real as the law or “threat” of castration. Needless to say, Butler is also arguing pointedly, if implicitly, about “homosexuality” here.

  22. Quoted in Osborne, “Lacan in Slovenia,” 22; see also 22-25 (on the history of theory in Yugoslavia).

  23. See Žižek, “Superego by Default,” in Metastases of Enjoyment, 54-85, esp. 62-65.

  24. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 229.

  25. On the Pascalian aspect of Althusser's theory of Ideological State Apparatuses, see Žižek, “Superego by Default,” 59.

  26. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 44, 124.

  27. Žižek, “Superego by Default,” 60-61.

  28. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy, trans. Ben Brewster (New York, 1971 [1969]), 127-86; quotation from 173; Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 125; my emphasis.

  29. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 44.

  30. Ibid., 3. On Žižek and Laclau and Mouffe, see Butler, Bodies That Matter, 191-94 and 209-11; Rey Chow, “Ethics after Idealism,” diacritics 23 (1993): 3-22, esp. 14-15; Elizabeth J. Bellamy, “Discourses of Impossibility: Can Psychoanalysis Be Political?,” diacritics 23 (1993): 24-38, esp. 30-35; Anthony Elliott, “Psychoanalysis, Ideology, and Modern Societies,” in Social Theory and Psychoanalysis in Transition: Self and Society from Freud to Kristeva (Oxford, 1992), 162-200, esp. 177-99; and Robert Miklitsch, “The Rhetoric of Post-Marxism: Discourse and Institutionality in Laclau and Mouffe, Resnick and Wolff,” Social Text, No. 45 (Winter 1995): 167-96.

  31. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 4.

  32. Quoted in Osborne, “Lacan in Slovenia,” 34.

  33. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 30.

  34. For a feminist critique of Žižek's recapitulation of Lacan's “la Femme n'existe pas” (which critique I presuppose throughout), see Butler's Bodies That Matter. For his response to Butler's critique, see Žižek, “Taking Sides,” 202-3; and Osborne, “Postscript,” 40-43.

  35. For Žižek's recourse to Lefort, see For They Know Not What They Do, 253-70. See also Robert Miklitsch, “News from Nowhere: Reading Raymond Williams's Readers,” in Cultural Materialism: On Raymond Williams, ed. Christopher Prendergast (Minneapolis, 1995), 71-90.

  36. Žižek, “The Deadlock of ‘Repressive Desublimation,’” in Metastases of Enjoyment, 2-28; quotation from 13.

  37. Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” 40. For Žižek's take on Poe's “Purloined Letter,” see “Superego by Default,” 74.

  38. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 169. On the two aspects of the Lacanian Real, see also “Does the Subject Have a Cause?,” in Metastases of Enjoyment, 29-53, esp. 51 n. 11.

  39. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 173; my emphasis.

  40. Ibid., 172. See also Žižek's comments on his disagreement with Laclau (in Osborne, “Postscript,” 42-43): “The element that limits [the] boundless parade of symbolic reinscriptions is the level of phantasy enjoyment. These are not just symbolic differentials, they exist as historical traumas, registered by the real” (my emphasis). Moreover, says Žižek elsewhere (Indivisible Remainder, 97), “for Lacan the ‘Real’ is not, in the Kantian mode, a purely negative category, a designation of a limit without any specification of what lies beyond—the Real qua drive is, on the contrary, the agens, the ‘driving force,’ of desiring.”

  41. Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, 168.

  42. On the “primordial lie,” see Žižek's introduction to Indivisible Remainder, 1; and for his reading of City Lights, among other things, see Enjoy Your Symptom, 1-9. See also Lacan's by no means incidental remarks on the “comic” in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1978 [1973]), 4-5.

  43. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 74.

  44. Ibid., 201-7.

  45. See Žižek, “Superego by Default,” 80-82; and Osborne, “Postscript,” 38.

  46. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 75.

  47. Žižek, Looking Awry, 138.

  48. In an interview by Peter Canning, Žižek says of the moment of “identification with the symptom,” which he situates between Lacan's Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959-60) and “Kant avec Sade” (1962): “In this other logic, [the question] is no longer one of pure desire, where every identification with jouissance means betraying desire. Now, it is the opposite: the only authentic thing to do is to identify with your symptom. … In other words, the only true desire is the death drive”; Peter Canning, “The Sublime Theorist of Slovenia,” Artforum 31 (1993): 84-89; quotation from 88.

  49. Žižek, Looking Awry, 129.

  50. Ibid., 139; my emphasis.

  51. Ibid., 139-40.

  52. On “identification with the symptom” as overidentification, see, for example, Osborne, “Postscript,” 39. Butler, of course, views disidentification as “itself the point of departure for a more democratizing affirmation of internal difference” (Bodies That Matter, 219).

  53. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 49, 50. For a counter-Žižekian critique of the Marxist-feminist critique of psychoanalysis, see Butler, Bodies That Matter, 200-203. See also, more generally, Robert Miklitsch, “Troping Prostitution: Two or Three Things about (Post-)Marxism/Feminism,” Genders 12 (1991): 120-39.

  54. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 50. Žižek also contends that “what all epochs have in common is not some universal positive feature, some transcendental content; what they all share, rather, is the same deadlock, the same antinomy” (Indivisible Remainder, 217).

  55. Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom, 81; my emphasis.

  56. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 155.

  57. For Žižek's critique of Marxist and Lukácscian historicism in particular, see “Taking Sides,” 200.

  58. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 25.

  59. For Žižek's formulation of “the point at which the Hegelian identity of subject and substance begins to break up,” see Enjoy Your Symptom, 180 n. 24.

  60. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 26.

  61. The problem of history in Althusser is “directly related” to his uncritical appropriation of the Freudian unconscious as the analogue of ideology (i.e., “ideology in general”). As Althusser puts it (“Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” 161), the thesis that “ideology has no history can and must … be directly related to Freud's proposition that the unconscious is eternal.” For his explicit position on historicism, see Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading “Capital,” trans. Ben Brewster (London and New York, 1970 [1968]), 199-244.

  62. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 26.

  63. For the articulation of Marxism and deconstruction in the United States, which was largely a function of Derrida's prior reception (Of Grammatology having appeared in 1976), see Michael Ryan, Marxism and Deconstruction (Baltimore, 1982); and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York and London, 1987).

  64. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 26.

  65. Ibid.

  66. On the communism/Marxism distinction, see Robert Miklitsch, “From Adorno to The Clash,” in From Hegel to Madonna: Towards a General Economy of “Commodity Fetishism” (Albany, 1998), 9-36. For one instance of Žižek's critical attention to Lacan, see “Taking Sides,” where Žižek claims that the “only way to approach Lacan … is to read ‘Lacan contre Lacan’” (173). On the “rock of castration,” Butler observes: “The figure of substance … appears misplaced … unless we take it as a figure for incontrovertibility, specifically, the unquestionable status of the law, where that law is understood as the law of castration” (Bodies That Matter, 201).

  67. See Butler, Bodies That Matter, 207. As forceful as Butler's reading is (and I have obviously found it of particular interest), its force also appears almost directly proportional to its reduction of the Žižekian text—that is, to its rhetoric. To rewrite Butler on Žižek on Lacan: “[Žižek's] own textuality is not considered in the often brilliant appropriations to be found in [Butler's] work” (197). The irony of Butler's reading, then, is that for all its deconstructive zest it privileges the “declarative mode” itself, as if Žižek's text were without performative effects. Bluntly, part of the interest of Žižek's work on, say, the Real as that which exceeds the Imaginary/Symbolic is the way it specifically embodies this “rhetorical” remainder. Accordingly, Butler's reading of the Žižekian text would be more persuasive if her critique recognized the “real” rhetoricity at work there. Another, interrogative way to put this would be to ask and endeavor to answer the following question: Why do “we”—including Butler—(want to) read Žižek?

  68. If Žižek's “humanism” puts him at odds with Althusser's antihumanism, his understanding of the Real of jouissance as the “kernel” of ideology also aligns his work with the Althusserian notion of “permanent ideology,” as Butler suggests (ibid., 278 n. 5). See also Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London, 1977 [1965]), 219-47.

  69. Although what Teresa Brennan calls “the concept of a transhistorical psychical fantasy as such” (or what I here call “the ontological”) “gives the psychical some autonomy in history,” allowing “for a tension between psychical factors and sociohistorical ones,” to term any fantasy “transhistorical”—no matter how “ubiquitous” it may appear to be—is “to impute” to it an immutable status “when we simply do not know if it is immutable, and exempt from historical scrutiny”; History after Lacan (London and New York, 1993), 22.

  70. Žižek, Indivisible Remainder, 13-91; quotation from 46.

  71. See, for example, Althusser, For Marx, 32-34; and Althusser and Balibar, Reading “Capital,” 30-31.

  72. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 140.

  73. In his “Errors of Classical Economics,” Althusser declares that “Spinoza's philosophy introduced an unprecedented theoretical revolution in the history of philosophy, probably the greatest philosophical revolution of all time, insofar as we can regard Spinoza as Marx's only direct ancestor” (Althusser and Balibar, Reading “Capital,” 91-118; quotation from 102; my emphasis). More to the point, in his 1975 soutenance for his doctorat d'état from the University of Picardy, he noted that he had “turned the weapon of Spinoza against Hegel”; Louis Althusser, Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays, ed. Gregory Elliott, trans. Ben Brewster et al. (London and New York, 1990), xviii. As for Lacan's relation to Spinoza/Kant, see Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, where Lacan suggests that “Kant avec Sade” and, more generally, the turn in his work to the concept of die Versagung (“desire in its pure state”) is a direct refusal of Spinoza's position: “This position is not tenable for us” (275-76).

  74. Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, 211.

  75. See Žižek, Looking Awry, 111-16. On his problematic relation to historicism, see also Robert Miklitsch, “‘Out of the Past’: Psycho-Historicism” (forthcoming).

  76. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 26. On the “restricted” use-value of Baudrillard for (post-)Marxism, see Robert Miklitsch, “The Commodity-Body-Sign: Toward a General Economy of ‘Commodity Fetishism,’” Cultural Critique, No. 33 (Spring 1996): 5-40.

  77. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 7 (“the only way to ‘save Hegel’ is through Lacan”).

  78. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 3-4.

  79. Ibid., 237.

  80. See Robert Miklitsch, “Total Recall: Production, Revolution, Simulation, Alienation-Effect,” Camera Obscura 32 (1995 [1993-94]): 5-39.

  81. Žižek, Looking Awry, 35.

  82. For Žižek's more recent remarks on ecology, see Indivisible Remainder, 128, 131.

  83. I am using “ethnonationalism” in Walker Connor's sense of a nation as “a group of people who believe they are ancestrally related”; see his Ethnonationalism (Princeton, 1994).

    Spinoza has, of course, been a resource for the radical environmental movement; see, for example, Robert Hurley's preface to Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco, 1988 [1981]), 11. In “Seeing Green,” Stanley Aronowitz observes that for the Greens (and, in some sense, for Žižek as well), ecology is an “alternative ‘system’ to Marxism and liberalism, the dominant frameworks for working-class and middle-class politics in Western societies,” in Dead Artists, Live Theories (New York, 1994), 286-95; quotation from 287. For an original reconceptualization of Marxism and ecology, see Brennan, History after Lacan, 166-96.

  84. See, in particular, Christopher Norris, “Spinoza versus Hegel: The Althusserian Moment,” in Spinoza and the Origins of Modern Critical Theory (Oxford, 1991), 21-53.

  85. See Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 216-19.

  86. Deleuze, Spinoza, 129.

  87. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 218, 219.

  88. Osborne (“Postscript,” 37) quotes Žižek as saying that although “Marxism is still valid in its belief in a fundamental antagonism pertaining to today's liberal democracy,” the antagonism “has assumed a new form”: “It is no longer capitalists versus proletariats, but those who are inside the system versus those who aren't.”

  89. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 220.

  90. Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom, 123.

  91. On the “monstrous nature of the commodity,” see Thomas Keenan, “The Point Is to (Ex) Change It,” in Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, ed. Emily Apter and William Pietz (Ithaca, 1993), 152-85, esp. 152-61. See also Brennan's gloss of Capital: “The transformation of labour-power into labour is none the less, and oddly, a transformation from something immaterial to something material” (History after Lacan, 203). Accordingly, to think surplus-value is to think this “something.”

  92. Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, 271, 272.

  93. Ibid., 273. For an especially illuminating example of Žižek's understanding of the Bosnian war, see “Taking Sides,” 210-17.

  94. Slavoj Žižek, “Beyond Discourse-Analysis” (1987), appendix to Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (London, 1990), 249-60; quotation from 259. See also “In His Bold Gaze My Ruin Is Writ Large,” in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), ed. Slavoj Žižek (London, 1992), 211-72, esp. 252-55, as well as 262-63, where he mobilizes the moment of die Versagung in his reading of The Silence of the Lambs: “‘Eat your being-there!’” For Žižek's reading of the Kantian distinction between “fanaticism” (Schwärmerei) and “enthusiasm” proper, see Sublime Object of Ideology, 204.

  95. Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 230. Elsewhere (Enjoy Your Symptom, 176), Žižek observes that “what Freud called Todestrieb [death drive] … ultimately equals die Versagung”; see also Indivisible Remainder, 92-95 and 115-22.

  96. Žižek, Looking Awry, 142. Elsewhere, Žižek comments, “When you want to actualize your non-alienated project and you are confronted with some limit, disalienation does not consist in annihilating the limit, but in seeing how this limit is the positive condition of your very activity” (Osborne, “Lacan in Slovenia,” 25).

  97. Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, 211. See also his observations on the Slovene punk band Laibach, whose fundamental cry was “We want more alienation” (Osborne, “Lacan in Slovenia,” 24).

  98. “Dialectical punctuation” is an allusion to Lacan's theory and practice of the short session (séance scandée); see Jacques Lacan, “The Function and Field of Speech and Language” (1953), in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York and London, 1977 [1966]), 30-113, esp. 95.

  99. Cf. Žižek's comments on his relations with the Slovenia Green Party, “which threw [him] out for not being enough of a Marxist” (Osborne, “Lacan in Slovenia,” 29).

  100. With respect to the question of the transhistorical, Victor Wolfenstein has argued—convincingly, I believe—that transhistorical “theories of human nature” such as Žižek's “function as defenses against the unremitting historicity of human existence,” in Psychoanalytic-Marxism: Groundwork (New York, 1993), 164. Moreover, philosophies of transhistoricization—again, such as Žižek's—constitute not only a “resistance to or defense against the analysis of desire,” but, most importantly (given the geopolitical conditions of possibility of Žižek's work), a “defense against political despair” (ibid.). This last defense is most obvious, it seems to me, in Žižek's recourse to the concept of die Versagung.

Robert S. Boynton (essay date October 1998)

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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 drizzly summer afternoon, I sink into one of the Lounge's overstuffed leather chairs, feeling as if I were being transported back to an earlier, more leisurely era—far from “cool Britannia” and debates over the future of the euro. The spell is abruptly broken, however, by the sudden, agitated entrance of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who is in town to deliver a series of lectures at the British Film Institute.

“We must have the most fanatically precise English tea,” Zizek insists, gesticulating dramatically in the style of a European dictator. “Everything must be exactly the way the English do it: clotted cream, cucumber sandwiches, scones. It must be the most radically English experience possible!”

Bearded, disheveled, and loud, Zizek looks like central casting's pick for the role of Eastern European Intellectual. Newspapers are lowered and conversations stop as a skittish waiter shows us to a small table in the far corner of the room. Barely pausing to sit down, Zizek launches into a monologue so learned and amusing that it could very well appear—verbatim—in one of the many books he has written about the obscene rules that sustain our supposedly civilized social practices. With lightning speed, he moves from the decline of British culture (“They took perfectly good tea, added milk, and made it look like filthy dishwater!”) to Hollywood (“Brad Pitt's Seven Years in Tibet—a terrible movie!”) to the Tibetan legal system (“a process of formalized bribery where opposing parties bid against each other in a ritualized auction—I absolutely love this!”).

Zizek talks exactly as he writes, in a nonstop pastiche of Hegelian philosophy, Marxist dialectics, and Lacanian jargon leavened with references to film noir, dirty jokes, and pop culture ephemera. “Discussing Hegel and Lacan is like breathing for Slavoj. I've seen him talk about theory for four hours straight without flagging,” says UC-Berkeley's Judith Butler. When not mediated by the printed page, however, the obsessive-compulsive quality that makes his hyperkinetic prose so exhilarating is somewhat overwhelming—even, evidently, for Zizek himself. Popping the occasional Xanax to settle his nerves, he tells me about his heart problems and frequent panic attacks. As his eyes dart around the room and his manic monologue becomes more frantic, I fear that I may be his last interviewer. Zizek is like a performance artist who is terrified of abandoning the stage; once he starts talking, he seems unable to stop. “You must be much crueler, more brutal with me!” he pleads, even as he speeds his pace to prevent me from cutting him off. “You should never enter a sadomasochistic relationship,” he scolds, a sly smile peeking out from his bushy beard. “You wouldn't whip your partner hard enough!”

When the waiter returns, Zizek finally pauses, studies the menu, and orders a pot of mint tea and a plate of sugar cookies. Mint tea and cookies? What about our “radical” English experience? “Oh, I can't drink anything stronger than herbal tea in the afternoon,” he says meekly. “Caffeine makes me too nervous.”

For Zizek, a conversation—whatever the topic—is an exercise in self-contradiction. When he thinks you are beginning to get a handle on his motives or desires, he pulls an about-face, insists he doesn't mean anything he has just said, that his own views are the exact opposite. His contrariness is famous, and as a writer it has generally served him well—helping to earn him a reputation as a dazzlingly acute thinker and prose stylist and to win him a cult following among American graduate students. In person, however, it seems that Zizek's contrariness is at least partly an uncontrollable compulsion. And yet his manipulations and subterfuges are so entertaining, and his intellect so stimulating, that it is far wiser to surrender without a fight than to try to trump him at his game.

Later that evening, I have an opportunity to watch Zizek's mesmerizing oratorical skills in action at the Museum of the Moving Image, where he gives a standing-room-only lecture on the erotic forces at play in science fiction. The audience is a diverse group, with hip, nose-ring-studded film theorists jostling for seats with graying, tweedy academics. Beforehand, I find Zizek pacing madly outside the auditorium, and he confides to me that this week's panic attacks have been so severe he nearly canceled tonight's engagement. A few minutes into his talk, however, he is fine; his emotional anxiety is quickly transformed into a blur of theoretical intensity.

By the time his two-week-long lecture series is completed, he has offered a succession of Lacanian interpretations—accompanied by visuals—of Titanic,Deep Impact,The Abyss, several works by Hitchcock and David Lynch, and even an episode of Oprah (with Slovene subtitles). At one point, he gleefully fast-forwards over a portion of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, explaining that despite its theoretical value it is quite a dull film. “For me, life exists only insofar as I can theorize it,” he confesses. “I can be bored to death by a movie, but if you give me a good theory, I will gladly erase the past in an Orwellian fashion and claim that I have always enjoyed it!” It is a bravura performance, replete with Zizek's trademark synthesis of philosophical verve and rhetorical playfulness—an intellectual style that recently led Terry Eagleton to describe him in The London Review of Books as “the most formidably brilliant exponent of psychoanalysis, indeed of cultural theory in general, to have emerged in Europe for some decades.”

Of course, many readers are likely to feel disoriented by Zizek's fast-paced, densely associative writing, as well as by his reliance on the difficult notions of a notorious French psychoanalyst. Zizek's chief intellectual hero, Jacques Lacan, is a man whom recent critics have portrayed as an eccentric tyrant who may have perpetrated a grand intellectual hoax on his followers. But Zizek's appeal is due, in part, to his considerable ease with two subjects that most disciples of Lacan disregard: popular culture and politics. In much of his work, Zizek employs familiar concepts from the psychoanalytic and Lacanian lexicon—projection, inversion, the Real and the Symbolic—to explore the ideological contradictions of contemporary life. In books like Enjoy Your Symptom!,Looking Awry,The Plague of Fantasies, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), he offers provocative, and always lively, readings of everything from Patricia Highsmith novels to the resurgence of nationalism in Eastern Europe.

Politically savvy and deeply rational, Zizek's Lacan is a far cry from the abstruse guru of indeterminancy invoked by American literary theorists. In his writing, Zizek militates against the “distorted picture of Lacan as belonging to the field of ‘post-structuralism.’” Rather, he argues that Lacan offers “perhaps the most radical contemporary version of the Enlightenment.”

Zizek's Lacanian defense of the Enlightenment distinguishes him from many contemporary theorists. Indeed, the enormous popularity of Zizek's best-known book, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso, 1989), may owe something to the fact that it offers an alternative to two entrenched and antithetical bodies of contemporary thought: the French postmodernists' skepticism about the Enlightenment ideals of universality, truth, reason, and progress, and the German theorist Jürgen Habermas's attempt to vindicate those ideals with his theory of “communicative rationality.” While Foucault and Derrida dissolve the human subject in a sea of discursive indeterminacy and historical contingency, Habermas's defense of reason ultimately rests on a vision of the individual as an ethical actor in a functional community.

Zizek is sympathetic to many of Habermas's aims, but he offers a more complex psychoanalytic account of human thinking and desiring. Unlike Habermas, he assumes that communities are constitutively dysfunctional and that the human subject is always divided against itself by contradictory desires and identifications. And the rationalist project must proceed from the recognition of these fundamental truths. The thrill of reading Zizek (who, as a stylist, no one would ever confuse with the turgid Habermas) arises in part from the collision between the insanity he finds everywhere in our psychic and social lives and the rigorous clarity with which he anatomizes its workings. “He has almost single-handedly revived a dynamically dialectical, Hegelian, style of thinking,” says Eric Santner, a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Chicago. “I think of him as a sort of ‘logician of culture’ who reveals the underlying structures of politics and ideology in much the way Kant did.”

If Zizek's is not a household name in academe, this is not due to a lack of effort on his part. His ability to compose his books in English (parts of them are subsequently translated into Slovene) has so hastened his pace of publication that his various English-language publishers must occasionally scramble to keep him from flooding the market. No less than a dozen titles have appeared under his name since 1989, including several essay collections in the separate book series he edits for Verso and for Duke University Press. And 1999 will be a big year—even for Zizek Inc. Blackwell is publishing The Zizek Reader, and Verso is publishing The Ticklish Subject. Advertised as his magnum opus, The Ticklish Subject may be his most focused and most political book to date. Taking on contemporary intellectual bugaboos—from political correctness to multiculturalism—Zizek argues for a radical politics that will be unafraid to make sweeping claims in the name of a universal human subject. “A spectre is haunting Western academia,” he writes, “the spectre of the Cartesian subject.”

Many of Zizek's distinguishing marks—his passion for psychoanalytic inversions, his fascination with Western popular culture, his resistance to the cynical logic of depoliticization—can be traced to the paradoxes of growing up under Yugloslav socialism. Born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 1949, Zizek was the son of devout communists who grew increasingly disenchanted. He had a difficult relationship with his father, who wanted him to become an economist. Instead, Zizek divided his attention between reading philosophy and watching movies. Access to Western movies was easy because of a tradition requiring that movie companies deposit a copy of each film they distributed with the archives of regional universities. “The cinematheque theater was a miracle for us,” remembers Zizek. “We were able to see unlimited Hollywood movies and European art films—one or two a day, five days a week.”

Despite its relatively liberal cultural and political policies, Zizek argues, Tito's Yugoslavia produced a more repressive (though subtly so) brand of ideology than the other Eastern-bloc countries. While Czechoslovakian or Polish authorities made no secret of their authoritarian tactics, the more permissive Yugoslavian communists sent out mixed signals about what was and was not permitted, thereby fostering an unusually effective, because at least partially self-regulating, system of censorship. By way of example, Zizek tells the story of a Slovenian book publisher in the fairly tolerant late 1970s who wanted to collect some of the best-known Soviet dissident writing. “The party line fluctuated so much that the Central Committee of the League of Slovene Communists was terrified of committing itself one way or the other,” Zizek explains. “So the members said, ‘Wait a minute, you are yourself free to decide what to publish’—which was the really Kafkaesque situation. At least with Polish censorship, it was a strict bureaucracy, which would negotiate, reach a compromise, and give you a final decision. This would have been paradise for us! The nightmare of Yugoslavia was that you couldn't get a clear answer from anyone about anything.”

The young Zizek was attracted to ideas that were relatively uncontaminated by ruling ideologies. After completing his undergraduate studies in 1971, Zizek wrote a four-hundred-page master's thesis called “The Theoretical and Practical Relevance of French Structuralism,” which canvassed the work of Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, Lévi-Strauss and Deleuze. Initially, Zizek was promised a university position. But when the evaluating committee judged his thesis insufficiently Marxist, the job went to another, less qualified candidate. “Slavoj was so charismatic and brilliant they were afraid to allow him to teach at the university lest he become the reigning sovereign at the department of philosophy and influence students,” says the Lacanian social philosopher Mladen Dolar, who was also a graduate student at the time.

Zizek was devastated by this slight and spent the next several years virtually unemployed, supporting himself by translating philosophy from the German and living off his parents. In 1977, some of his former professors used their connections to win him a job at the Central Committee of the League of Slovene Communists, where, apart from assisting with occasional speeches (in which he would insert covertly subversive comments), Zizek was left alone to do his own philosophical work: The philosopher whose unreliable politics prevented him from teaching was now helping to write propaganda for the leaders of Slovenia's Communist Party. Zizek still revels in the irony. “I would write philosophy papers and then deliver them at international conferences in Italy and France—trips that were paid for by the Central Committee!”

If Yugoslavian socialism produced a thoroughly cynical citizenry, a country of people who understood that the last thing the regime desired was for them to believe too ardently in the official principles of communism, this, argues Zizek, was ideology at its most effective. “The paradox of the regime was that if people were to take their ideology seriously it would effectively destroy the system,” he says. In his account, cynicism and apathy are explanations not for the regime's failure but, perversely, for its success. “The conventional wisdom is that socialism was a failure because, instead of creating a ‘New Man,’ it produced a country of cynics who believed that the system is corrupt, politics is a horror, and that only private happiness is possible,” he argues. “But my point is this: Perhaps depoliticization was the true aim of socialist education? This was surely the daily experience of my youth.”

To counter this depoliticization, Zizek banded together with the Ljubljana Lacanians, a tightknit group of Slovenian scholars that included Mladen Dolar, Alenka Zupancic, Miran Bozovic, Zdravko Kobe, and Zizek's wife, Renata Salecl. In their hands, French psychoanalysis acquired an often highly comic cast. The group took over a journal, Problemi, and founded a book publishing series, Analecta; inspired by Lacan's roots in the French surrealist movement (he was friends with André Breton and Salvador Dalí), they used these outlets to perpetrate several literary hoaxes. Articles in Problemi were frequently written under pseudonyms or left unsigned, in parodic imitation of Stalinist practice. Zizek once wrote a pseudonymous review attacking one of his own books on Lacan. On another occasion, Problemi published a fictional roundtable discussion of feminism in which Zizek played the boorish interlocutor, posing provocative questions to nonexistent participants. (Later, in Enjoy Your Symptom!, Zizek continued to engage in literary hoaxes with an essay on the films of Roberto Rossellini—none of which he had seen.) With the regime's aversion to Lacan on the rise, Zizek sensed a wonderful opportunity for mischief; writing in a widely read academic journal, Anthropos, under an assumed name, he published a deliberately clumsy attack on an imaginary book that allegedly detailed why Lacan's theories were wrong. The next day bookstores across Ljubljana received requests for the title.

In 1981, Zizek spent a year in Paris, where he met some of the thinkers whose work he had been so avidly consuming. He would return often. In 1982, however, Lacan died and his mantle passed to his son-in-law, Jacques-Alain Miller—a man who would play an important role in Zizek's career. A former student of Althusser's, Miller had impressed Lacan with the coherence he brought to the master's sprawling theoretical system. While many Lacanians accuse Miller of simplifying Lacan (perish the thought!), others believe that Lacan's posthumous reputation would not have grown without Miller's ordering influence. A shrewd political operator, Miller was eager to expand the Lacanian empire farther than its progenitor had ever imagined. Miller taught two classes in Paris: one that was open to anyone, and an exclusive, thirty-student seminar at the École de la Cause Freudienne in which he examined the works of Lacan page by page. After a brief interview, Zizek and Dolar were invited to attend this latter class. “Miller took enormous interest in us because we came from Yugoslavia,” Dolar remembers. “We had been publishing Lacan in Problemi and Analecta for years, and he was grateful for that. He thinks very strategically and didn't have anyone else established in Eastern Europe. To him, we were the last stronghold of Western culture on the eastern front.”

Zizek's Paris years, although intellectually stimulating, were not very happy. Thanks to Miller, who got him a coveted teaching fellowship, he was able to stay in Paris and write a second dissertation, a Lacanian reading of Hegel, Marx, and Saul Kripke, portions of which would later become The Sublime Object of Ideology. But his first marriage, to a fellow Slovenian philosophy graduate student, had just ended, and there were times he felt he was on the brink of committing suicide. His meager stipend barely kept him alive. He was a ripe if reluctant candidate for psychoanalysis, and there were many days, he says, when he skipped meals in order to pay for treatment.

In addition to being Zizek's teacher, adviser, and sponsor, Jacques-Alain Miller became his analyst as well. While familiarity between analyst and analysand is discouraged by Freudians, it was not unusual for Lacanians to socialize with their patients. Lacan's most controversial psychoanalytic innovation, however, was the variable, or “short,” session through which he tried to combat a patient's resistance by introducing an element of discontinuity into the therapeutic process. In contrast to Freud's fifty-minute “hour,” Lacan's sessions ended the moment he sensed the patient had uttered an important word or phrase—a break that might occur in fifteen minutes or less. Miller had fine-tuned the logic of therapy to the point that few sessions lasted more than ten minutes. “To be in analysis with Miller was to step into a divine, predestined universe,” says Zizek. “He was a totally arbitrary despot. He would say, come back tomorrow at exactly 4:55, but this didn't mean anything! I would arrive at 4:55 and would find a dozen people waiting.”

One goal of the variable session is to keep a patient from preparing material ahead of time. In this respect, Lacanian psychoanalysis met its match in Zizek. “It was my strict rule, my sole ethical principle, to lie consistently: to invent all symptoms, fabricate all dreams,” he reports of his treatment. “It was obsessional neurosis in its absolute purest form. Because you never knew how long it would last, I was always prepared for at least two sessions. I have this incredible fear of what I might discover if I really went into analysis. What if I lost my frenetic theoretical desire? What if I turned into a common person?” Eventually, Zizek claims, he had Miller completely taken in by his charade: “Once I knew what aroused his interest, I invented even more complicated scenarios and dreams. One involved the Bette Davis movie All about Eve. Miller's daughter is named Eve, so I told him that I had dreamed about going to a movie with Bette Davis in it. I planned every detail so that when I finished he announced grandly, ‘This was your revenge against me!’”

As the head of the main Lacanian publishing house, Miller was in a position to turn Zizek's doctoral dissertation into a book. So, when not presenting his fabricated dreams and fantasies, Zizek would transform his sessions into de facto academic seminars to impress Miller with his keen intellect. Although Zizek successfully defended his dissertation in front of Miller, he learned after the defense that Miller did not intend to publish his thesis in book form. The following night he had his first panic attack, which had all the symptoms of a heart attack. Eventually, he placed the manuscript with the publishing house of a rival Lacanian faction.

Before Zizek began shuttling between Paris and Ljubljana, his professional prospects had already taken a turn for the better. He was still unable to hold a university position, but in 1979 some friends intervened and got him a job as a researcher at the Institute for Sociology. Given its social science orientation, Zizek was not allowed to do philosophy; instead, he announced that he would do research on the formation of Slovenian national identity. “I did the transcendental trick and said that although the long-term project is on Slovene nationalism, I must first sketch the conceptual structure of nationalism,” he says. “Unfortunately, this ‘clarification’ has now gone on for two decades.”

The job was a blessing in disguise. Once Zizek made his peace with the social scientists, he discovered that he was free to write, with none of the bureaucratic and pedagogical burdens of a Western academic. In essence, he is on permanent sabbatical. “Every three years I write a research proposal. Then I subdivide it into three one-sentence paragraphs, which I call my yearly projects. At the end of each year I change the research proposal's future-tense verbs into the past tense and then call it my final report,” he explains. Because the institute's budget depends on how much its members publish, Zizek—who publishes more work in international publications than everyone else combined—is left completely alone. “With total freedom, I am a total workaholic,” he says.

Total freedom also allowed Zizek to play a role in Slovenian politics. Although not a full-fledged activist, he was intimately involved in the movement that helped hasten the end of Yugoslavian socialism. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Zizek was a popular newspaper columnist for the weekly Mladina and helped found the Liberal Democratic Party, which opposes both communism and right-wing nationalism and has stressed feminist and environmental issues. In 1990, he even ran for a seat on the four-member collective Slovenian presidency (he finished fifth). As Slovenia achieved a mostly peaceful independence, Zizek wrote frequently about the bloody conflicts nearby. And when the Liberal Democrats came to power in 1992, he found himself in the odd position of being an intellectual who wasn't marginalized. Zizek is quite proud of the “dirty deals” and compromises made by his party. “I despise abstract leftists who don't want to touch power because it is corrupting,” he says. “No, power is there to be grabbed. I don't have any problem with that.”

The day after Zizek's lecture, he and his wife, Renata Salecl, meet me for lunch at a cozy Greek café just down the block from their London hotel. An attractive woman with a round face and short blond hair, Salecl is as calm and deliberate as Zizek is nervous and neurotic. Zizek, who claims he lacks the social graces to attend cocktail parties or schmooze with scholars and politicians, says that he relies on her to navigate the shoals of the outside world. She buys his clothes (“For me, shopping is like masturbating in public,” he says), negotiates their teaching deals, and generally keeps him from having a nervous breakdown. Her first book, Discipline as a Condition of Freedom (which was recently staged as a ballet), was a Foucault-inspired analysis of communist Yugoslavia. “Nobody believed in the rules, but they nevertheless kept following them obediently, and I wanted to know why,” she explains. She has spent the morning at the offices of Verso, which will be publishing her book [Per]versions of Love & Hate this fall.

Together, she and Zizek have mastered the intricacies of American academic politics and established a congenial teaching ritual that keeps them in the United States for one semester every year. Recently, they have held positions at Columbia, Princeton, Tulane, University of Minnesota, Cardozo Law School, and the New School for Social Research; this fall, they are teaching at the University of Michigan. The duo has refined the process to a science. Each university must provide teaching positions, offices, and accommodations for both of them and agree that they will each teach one two-month course, consisting of one lecture per week on whatever subject they happen to be writing about. In addition to his U.S. pay, Zizek receives a full salary from his institute in Ljubljana. “When people ask me why I don't teach permanently in the United States, I tell them that it is because American universities have this very strange, eccentric idea that you must work for your salary,” Zizek says. “I prefer to do the opposite and not work for my salary!”

Zizek has developed an elaborate set of psychological tricks to manipulate his American students and enable him to have as little contact with them as possible. At the first meeting of each course, he announces that all students will get an A and should write a final paper only if they want to. “I terrorize them by creating a situation where they have no excuse for giving me a paper unless they think it is really good. This scares them so much, that out of forty students, I will get only a few papers,” he says. “And I get away with this because they attribute it to my ‘European eccentricity.’”

Zizek says that he deals with student inquiries in a similar spirit. “I understand I have to take questions during my lectures, since this is America and everybody is allowed to talk about everything. But when it comes to office hours, I have perfected a whole set of strategies for how to block this,” he says with a smirk. “The real trick, however, is to minimize their access to me and simultaneously appear to be even more democratic!” Initially, Zizek scheduled office hours immediately before class so that students could not run on indefinitely. Then he came up with the idea of requiring them to submit a written question in advance, on the assumption that most would be too lazy to do it (they were). Zizek reserves what he calls “the nasty strategy” for large lecture classes in which the students often don't know one another. “I divide the time into six twenty-minute periods and then fill in the slots with invented names. That way the students think that all the hours are full and I can disappear,” he explains.

Undergraduates are apt to be tolerant of their professors' idiosyncrasies, but Zizek may have less luck hiding from critics when The Ticklish Subject is published this winter. Just as he once saw socialist Yugoslavia as a country that had been cynically depoliticized by its leaders, so Zizek now believes that conservatives, liberals, and radicals have effectively stamped out genuine politics in the West. The modern era, he argues, is decidedly “post-political.” Instead of politics, he writes, we have a largely conflict-free “collaboration of enlightened technocrats (economists, public opinion specialists …) and liberal multiculturalists” who negotiate a series of compromises that pose as—but fail to reflect—a “universal consensus.”

Blair's New Labourites and Clinton's New Democrats are only the most recent depoliticized political parties to have made “the art of the possible” their modest mantra. Zizek also charges that sexual and ethnic identity politics “fits perfectly the depoliticized notion of society in which every particular group is ‘accounted for,’ has its specific status (of a victim) acknowledged through affirmative action or other measures destined to guarantee social justice.” In satisfying grievances through programs targeted to specific groups, such as affirmative action, the tolerant liberal establishment prevents the emergence of a genuinely universal—and in Zizek's definition, properly political—impulse.

For Zizek, all successful ideologies function the same way. If American-style consumer capitalism has replaced Yugoslavian Marxism as the antagonist, the battle is still the same: to create the conditions for what he calls “politics proper,” a vaguely defined, but deeply heroic and inherently universalist impulse, in which a given social order and its power interests are destabilized and overthrown. “Authentic politics is the art of the impossible,” he writes. “It changes the very parameters of what is considered ‘possible’ in the existing constellation.”

This is a noble vision, but when Zizek turns to history, he finds only fleeting examples of genuine politics in action: in ancient Athens; in the proclamations of the Third Estate during the French Revolution; in the Polish Solidarity movement; and in the last, heady days of the East German Republic before the Wall came down and the crowds stopped chanting “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people!”) and began chanting “Wir sind ein Volk” (“We are a/one people!”). The shift from definite to indefinite article, writes Zizek, marked “the closure of the momentary authentic political opening, the reappropriation of the democratic impetus by the thrust towards reunification of Germany, which meant rejoining Western Germany's liberal-capitalist police/political order.”

In articulating his political credo, Zizek attempts to synthesize three unlikely—perhaps incompatible—sources: Lacan's notion of the subject as a “pure void” that is “radically out of joint” with the world, Marx's political economy, and St. Paul's conviction that universal truth is the only force capable of recognizing the needs of the particular. Zizek is fond of calling himself a “Pauline materialist,” and he admires St. Paul's muscular vision. He believes that the post-political deadlock can be broken only by a gesture that undermines “capitalist globalization from the standpoint of universal truth in the same way that Pauline Christianity did to the Roman global empire.” He adds: “My dream is to combine an extremely dark, pessimistic belief that life is basically horrible and contingent, with a revolutionary social attitude.”

As philosophy, Zizek's argument is breathtaking, but as social prescription, “dream” may be an apt word. The only way to combat the dominance of global capitalism, he argues, is through a “direct socialization of the productive process”—an agenda that is unlikely to play well in Slovenia, which is now enjoying many of the fruits of Western consumer capitalism. When pressed to specify what controlling the productive process might look like, Zizek admits he doesn't know, although he feels certain that an alternative to capitalism will emerge and that the public debate must be opened up to include subjects like control over genetic engineering. Like many who call for a return to the primacy of economics, Zizek has only the most tenuous grasp of the subject.

What then are we to make of Zizek's eloquent plea for a return to politics? Is it just another self-undermining gesture? In part it is, but that may be the point. The blissful freedom of the utopian political moment is something, he believes, we all desire. But so too, he would acknowledge, do we desire ideologies and institutions. And these contradictory impulses—toward liberation and constraint—are not only political. A central tenet of Lacanian psychoanalysis is that the push and pull of anarchic desires and inhibiting defense mechanisms structure the psychic life of the individual. And why shouldn't this same dialectic characterize Zizek's own intellectual life, which has been devoted to proclaiming the universal relevance of Lacan's ideas?

“Do not forget that with me everything is the opposite of what it seems,” he says. “Deep down I am very conservative; I just play at this subversive stuff. My most secret dream is to write an old-fashioned, multivolume theological tract on Lacanian theory in the style of Aquinas. I would examine each of Lacan's theories in a completely dogmatic way, considering the arguments for and against each statement and then offering a commentary. I would be happiest if I could be a monk in my cell, with nothing to do but write my Summa Lacaniana.

But wouldn't that be lonely? Once again, Zizek qualifies his qualification. “Okay, maybe not a solitary monk. I could be a monk with a woman.”

Lois McNay (review date 31 December 1999)

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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 explicit aim of the Ljubljana group is to use psychoanalytic theory to reinvigorate Marxist leftism, and, in 1989, Žižek stood as a candidate in the Slovenian presidential elections.

The Ticklish Subject offers the most systematic exposition of the foundations of Žižek's theories so far. His concern to revivify leftist politics is motivated by the disillusioning passage of Eastern European countries from socialism to capitalism, in which the civilized Czechs, once mobilized by the appeal of Havel and other cultural icons, are suddenly turned into “cheap swindlers of Western tourists”. In contrast to the pragmatic nature of British politics, post-Communist Slovenian politics is strongly influenced by intellectual currents involving nationalist writers with Heideggerian connections, New Left civil-rights groups and Catholic intellectuals. It is said that Lacanian psychoanalysis has penetrated political elites to such a degree that it is the closest one gets to a dominant ideology within Slovenia.

Žižek's use of Lacan's thought to redefine left-wing politics runs against the widely held view that psychoanalysis is essentially ahistorical because of its focus on archetypal psychic dynamics. Rather than showing how certain behaviours and norms may be changed, psychoanalysis emphasizes their entrenched and apparently immutable nature. Thinkers influenced by the work of Michel Foucault, for example, claim that psychoanalysis is an instrument of social control, reinforcing rather than challenging conformism. In The Ticklish Subject, Žižek, however, turns this view on its head, suggesting that psychoanalysis is the catalyst for a revolutionary reconfiguration of identity and politics. He elaborates Lacan's idea that the idea of a coherent, self-knowing individual is a linguistic illusion that conceals the fundamental void or lack on which all identity is based.

This lack is held to arise from an insurmountable incompatibility between language and the other symbolic forms through which the world is experienced (“the big Other”) and primordial reality or the Real (“the Thing”). The radical heterogeneity of the Real ensures that it always eludes being definitively captured in language, remaining unknowable. For example, if we consider the formation of heterosexual identity, the complexity of human drives and desires constantly thwarts the social compulsion to enclose male and female experience within the ideological poles of masculinity and femininity. In this case, the disruptive effects of the fugitive Real are experienced through the unconscious, in dreams, slips of the tongue and “perverse” desires. In society at large, the spectral presence of the Real is glimpsed in, say, violence or revolution. The Real is the traumatic kernel of social life, a submerged but perpetual threat to its stability. It is also, in a circular logic, the hidden motor of social action which is oriented to denying this profound indeterminacy by asserting the inevitability of the order of things.

The argument that all seemingly stable social forms are precariously balanced over a primal, chaotic void is a version of the anti-humanism that was an effect of the ascendancy of structural and post-structural thought in France from the 1960s onwards. When claims about the death of the Cartesian subject are brought to bear on political thought, it has often resulted in a denunciation of the grand narratives and universal assumptions of the politics of modernity which believes that societies can be rationally planned and reshaped. The belief in progress and the total solutions proposed by Marxism, liberalism, fascism and Stalinism are, in various ways, underpinned by a hubristic belief in a coherent, impartial and rational agent of change who is often tacitly attributed male characteristics. As a result, many thinkers on the Left have moved towards embracing a politics of diversity, or a “postmodern identity politics”, which is defined as transitory, local and based on the assertion of specific group rights.

The difficulty with postmodern identity politics, for Žižek, is that they leave untouched the backdrop of globalizing capitalism; in so far as identity politics can be turned into a “lifestyle”, its emancipatory impact can be contained within consumer society. Globalization can only be challenged effectively by a new form of leftist universalism, based on Lacan's unstable subject. On this view, it is the “night of the world” that lies at the core of the individual that is, in a sense, the ultimate guarantor of freedom, and that bespeaks the possibility of breaking out of orthodox understandings of who we are and how it is possible to operate politically.

Žižek is a little vague on the precise lineaments of this new political subject, but he holds that it involves a yoking together of particular claims and universal calls for justice in order to rupture established norms.

Challenging liberal beliefs in the neutrality of the universal, Žižek argues that it can only be discerned from the perspective of those excluded from it. He adds that the political demands made by excluded groups do not just represent specific injustices but stand in for universal injustices. In a pluralist society the consequence of this is that there are many competing claims for political recognition which cannot all be reconciled or granted. This means that a universal left-wing politics is inescapably agonistic, but for Žižek politics is the art of the impossible rather than the possible.

Žižek's major strength is also his weakness. By constantly tweaking psychoanalytic theory, he generates surprising insights into political problems, from Nazism to the Third Way. But the same deconstructive strategy—seeking out the troubling repercussions of the Real on what seems most certain—is always deployed. No matter how brilliantly it is executed, it is the monotony of this repeated manoeuvre that undercuts his attempt to demonstrate the historical sensitivity of psychoanalytic theory. The unpredictable and variable nature of politics is reduced each time to the same recurring dynamic. None the less, Slavoj Žižek's argument is subtle, witty and impassioned, and this book—his fourteenth in nine years—confirms his status as one of the most innovative and exciting contemporary thinkers of the Left.

Gustavo Guerra (essay date spring 2000)

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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 Richard Rorty's well-known essay “Does Academic Freedom Have Philosophical Presuppositions?” In that essay Rorty summarizes, better than anything I can think of, a central tenet of the brand of pragmatism that has of late been known as “neopragmatism,” or “the new pragmatism.” Rorty argues that our traditional reliance on guiding principles to justify practices is initially misguided. Rorty argues, moreover, that such presuppositional relationship is in fact nonexistent insofar as practices presuppose beliefs only if dropping a belief implies a change in the particular practice. What this means—or what Rorty would want it to mean—is that practices are independent of the particular beliefs we might have about them. And when a certain practice is found to work—or not—it will matter little what kind of justification one gives to its workings because even in the likely case of conflicting accounts the workings of that particular practice will not have changed.

These neopragmatist issues are relevant here because Žižek depends heavily on them in his “Introduction: Cogito as a Shibboleth,” the opening essay that is also the driving force behind most of the articles collected in Cogito and the Unconscious, which is the second volume of the sic series published by Duke University Press. The first volume, subtitled Gaze and Voice as Love Objects, inaugurated a new series of psychoanalytic texts that aim to do “psychoanalytic interpretation at its most elementary,” and to locate “a bundle of Lacanian interventions into a specific domain of ongoing theoretical, cultural, and ideologico-political battles” (1st. pg.). The series is edited by Slavoj Žižek and Renata Salecl. Although the two volumes differ radically in quality, they both follow a similar format: Žižek is featured in both the introductory and the concluding chapters (in sic 1 he shared the introductory piece with Salecl) and then each text contains a series of articles devoted to the particular topic of the book. What is interesting about the series is the fact that these texts feature a group of major scholars engaged in a thorough discussion of a few—usually complex or problematic—terms in Lacanian theory from every possible angle imaginable. Thus at the end of, say sic 1, readers should have a much more informed and sophisticated understanding of “the gaze and the voice as love objects,” which is the phrase that subtitles the book while it also provides a narrow, clear, focal point.

Whereas the first volume was truly engaging, informative, and dealt in great detail with the topics of “gaze” and “voice” in Lacanian psychoanalysis, this is unfortunately not the case with the second volume. And that Žižek depends so much on neopragmatist theory to frame his own argument probably explains why. One major difference between the success of the first book and what I perceive as the failure of the second is that while the first one in fact does discuss Lacanian topics, like the “gaze” and the “voice,” this is not the case here. As its title indicates, Cogito and the Unconscious is primarily devoted to the relationship between philosophy and psychoanalysis. What the book leaves unclear is precisely why that relationship matters in the first place; how the two disciplines relate to each other is even more unclear, if not downright confusing. Because most of the essays in the collection are—supposedly—directly connected to Žižek's initial observations, I will devote most of my own observations to Žižek's pieces, paying special attention to his introduction. Žižek initially gets a lot of mileage out of what he calls the “relationship” between philosophy and psychoanalysis, a relationship he finds problematic because he claims it is often understood in one of two ways, both of which are, in his view, erroneous: either philosophers are usually searching for “the philosophical foundations of psychoanalysis,” or psychoanalysts are too busy “psychoanalyzing the philosophers” (1). While Žižek somewhat nonchalantly admits that this second option is antiquated and no longer taken seriously—making one wonder what his point in invoking it then is—he spends most of the chapter discussing the remaining, flawed, option: the issue of philosophical foundations of psychoanalysis. And here is where things get really muddy. Because in order to prove the preeminence of psychoanalysis over philosophy—or any other discipline, it seems—Žižek resorts to the pragmatist line of argumentation that claims that there are no presuppositions to practices. And that therefore philosophers should stop worrying about finding philosophical presuppositions for psychoanalysis because none exist. Instead of looking for the nonexistent presuppositions of psychoanalysis we should be looking, claims Žižek, for the philosophical implications of psychoanalysis. Given the weight that Žižek places on this apparently minor detail, it is strange that he nowhere explains what it means for him to differentiate presuppositions from implications. But the difference is highly relevant for his ensuing discussion of philosophy and psychoanalysis.

Let me go on a brief but useful tangent to get to Žižek's point. Žižek's dislike of deconstruction cannot be overstated. Part of that dislike has to do with the way in which deconstruction focuses on binaries. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the main reason why Žižek spent most of his career foregrounding what he calls the late Lacan is because he thinks the early Lacan spent too much time worrying about binarisms. In effect the early Lacan of the symbolic and the imaginary, or the signifier and the signified is totally unappealing to Žižek. And that is precisely why he wants to move away from presuppositions to implications. In Žižek's presentation of these two terms, a presupposition establishes a relationship between two entities, one of which depends heavily on the other to exist; an implication, conversely, unites both entities, entangling them so they become one. This is philosophically incorrect.1 But let's assume for a moment that even though Žižek is a philosopher writing a book on philosophy he is using these words in a nonphilosophical sense. Let's assume, that is, that by shifting from presupposition to implication it would be possible to engage in the unitarian kind of thinking Žižek favors. And that in doing that we could then place “psychoanalytic propositions back into philosophy” (2). What Žižek states here is a thesis that I find particularly weak. A weak thesis is one that is limited, a thesis about some things but not about everything; only in the cases when a thesis is weak does it allow for a distinction between what is presupposed and what is not. A strong thesis, by contrast, is one that follows its logical implications to the end. One cannot claim that philosophical presuppositions do not exist by using a presupposive premise; that is, one can't say philosophical presuppositions don't exist except in this particular case. To put it differently, Žižek likes to claim that the relationship between philosophy and psychoanalysis is not presuppositional insofar as he imagines philosophy as “foundational, or essentialist” philosophy. And that in itself is a presupposition. A lot of philosophy, however—I should add a lot of recent philosophy—is simply not essentialist, by which I mean that it is not trying to look for “philosophical foundations,” as Žižek put it, of anything, least of all of psychoanalysis. Thus it clearly seems that Žižek is throughout the book simply using philosophy as a straw person that allows psychoanalysis to gain its own ‘rightful’ place.

This brings me to another important point, one having to do with the place of psychoanalysis and philosophy in the text, one that is also related to a particularly distinctive argumentative style in this book, and one that I find disappointingly uncompelling. This line of argumentation surfaces obsessively throughout this text, taking the form of Žižek asserting the centrality of a particular premise he deems fundamental simply because he says so. I find this unpersuasive because these frequent interjections are nothing more than simple assertions and because they beg the pragmatic question of whether one's general assertions are congruent with one's arguments. That is, Žižek's line of reasoning often takes the form “this is as it is because I say it is.” Here is Žižek:

The fundamental fantasy is that which cannot ever be subjectivized.


It is against this background that one should appreciate the paradoxical achievement of Lacan, which usually passes unnoticed even by his advocates.


[philosophers and psychoanalysts] fail to see that the Cartesian subject emerges precisely out of the “death of man.”


What one should avoid here is the Foucaldian misreading.


What the “deconstructionist” hasty dismissal of self-consciousness in German Idealism fails to note is precisely the paradoxical complicity of the two aspects of self-consciousness.


I suppose one gets the main thread of Žižek's line of thought, which can be reinforced by nothing that a good number of his sentences start with the following cliché. “The basic/central tenet in Lacan/Derrida/Foucalt is that […]” What's exasperating about this rhetorical style is that it goes against a particular Anglo-American academic tradition of writing, which happens to be the tradition with which Žižek interacts, at least in this text. In that tradition, writers often engage the authors they discuss, usually advance their particular interpretation by logical argument, and always state why they think their interpretation is better, or different, or more relevant, than others. We do not get any of that here. We are just told that things are the way they are because Žižek says so. One way of explaining this issue is to say that Žižek—as most of the contributors to the volume—does not belong to that particular tradition. But if this is true, it is also the case that he has been publishing and interacting in that tradition long enough to understand its presuppositions quite well. Thus there is an inherent sense throughout the text that the authors—Žižek in particular—refuse to bother about the intellectual matters they themselves bring out. Insofar as it is the case that the writings of Žižek in this volume set the tone and agenda for the book, that is the relationship between philosophy and psychoanalysis—even more specifically Descartes and psychoanalysis—and insofar as the book is characterized, as I argued above, by a refusal to engage that particular topic in any significant way, I find the book highly disappointing and sadly unchallenging.

This is not to say, however, that some of the individual pieces do not have intrinsic merit. Salecl's “The Silence of Feminine Jouissance,” for instance, is a brilliantly lucid discussion of psychoanalytic issues in The Odyssey. Kantian scholars are likely to find Alenka Zupančič's “The Subject of the Law” appealing, as probably also would scholars working on what is known as the “critical legal studies” movement. Robert Pfaller's “Negation and Its Reliabilities: An Empty Subject for Ideology?” puts yet another spin on the perennial topic of Althusserian interpellation, and Marc de Kessel's “A Sovereign's Anatomy: The Antique in Bataille's Modernity and Its Impact on His Political Thought” is likely to be a great read for scholars and students of Georges Bataille. But despite the clear value of these individual pieces the larger question is still the structure of the book as a whole and the even more important issue of the relationship between psychoanalysis and philosophy. Insofar as this is a book about Descartes and psychoanalysis it still has to rethink its major claims. Insofar as it hasn't yet thought, it therefore is not one.


  1. The philosophical relationship between the closely related notions of presupposition and entailment is obviously beyond the scope of this review. But a few comments are in order. Philosophically, a presupposition is an assumption that involves some sort of—usually necessary or contingent—truth. If A presupposes B then to deny the assumption A while asserting B would be a contradiction. This is precisely the reason why Rorty can claim that the relationship between theory and practice is presuppositional. Implication is a notion closely related to entailment. A, for instance, implies B if B cannot be false when A is true. The central thing to understand here is that both terms always constitute relationships between two statements. There are literally volumes on the topic. For a quick clarification see Flew, upon which I have myself relied; for a more thorough treatment of the topic see Lewis.

Works Cited

Flew, Antony. A Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: St. Martin's, 1984.

Lewis, David. Papers in Philosophical Logic. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Rorty, Richard. “Does Academic Freedom Have Philosophical Presuppositions?” The Future of Academic Freedom. Ed. Louis Menand. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996: 21-42.

Žižek, Slavoj, and Renata Salecl, eds. Sic 1: Gaze and Voice as Love Objects. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1996.

Mena Mitrano (essay date spring 2000)

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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 renew. This assessment is not very different from the Lacan-inspired account of subjectivity Julia Kristeva offered more than twenty years ago. At that time, to make up for linguistics' failure to apprehend “anything in language which belongs not with the social contract but with play, pleasure or desire” (26), Kristeva invented semanalysis, a procedure that identifies in the subject's “capacity for enjoyment” (27) the key to renewing the order in which s/he seems apocalyptically trapped. But if the special effect of jouissance has freed the subject from the strictures of the social code, it has also magnified its tremblings. Like the subterranean being in Elizabeth Bishop's “The Man-Moth,” our post-social code subject has reduced the sky to a “useless [] protection.” If once all the attention was on the moth's calamitous lot within the social contract, now the lights are turned on us. In watching the struggling thing, we “see” our own awesome subjection to an awesome tale of imprisonment. Legitimate questions on this tale's power cross the mind: is it a conservative theory, after all? Does it end up telling us that we find the man-moth's beatings against the pane beautiful? Is subjection the beauty of the subject? And, if it is, why should the subject bother to renew the order that subjects him/her?

Having conjured the scene of a moth-like subject with “The Subject of the Law,” Alenka Zupancic's essay on the Sadean trap of the Kantian sublime, Zizek's anthology veers from any aesthetic display of subjection toward a re-evaluation of the philosophical subject. At this point, the collection captures us with a seductive insight. Both philosophy and psychoanalysis share a subject whose ascent to logos presupposes “the night of the world,” an abyss of chaos and madness. While psychoanalysis has been able to speak this “inherent tension,” philosophy has disavowed it. Caught in the fetters of academic knowledge, its wings clipped by feminist and postmodern accusations of transcendental universality, the philosophical subject has had its complexity—indeed, “its innermost core” (2)—buried. In brief, psychoanalysis is the voice of philosophy. It can unearth philosophy's “invisible truth” (29).

This insight is corroborated by Mladen Dolar's “Cogito as the Subject of the Unconscious,” which examines the two Lacanian readings of the cogito, the standard account of Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, and the other, less known, account of “La Logique du Phantasme” (The Logic of Fantasy). In the first, cogito is founded on the primary repression of being: cogito ergo sum chooses “thought over being” (19). The subject has disappeared as being and the signs of this disappearance have been transferred to the Other. Modifying Descartes (for whom God remains the ultimate guarantor of knowledge), Lacan bars the Other, making the Other's desire inscrutable. Thus, if the disappearance of being sends the subject in search of an object inside him/her that might be on a level with the Other's desire, this search resolves in alienation in the signifier, the stand-in for something inaccessible that the Other lacks. In the second reading, Lacan rejects the dialectics of desire. Having inverted Descartes's terms (sum,ergo cogito), he posits a primary alienation. This alienation before the alienation in the signifier (and the intervention of the unconscious) rejects the Other because it covers the foundation of signification in being.

Dolar's point is that Lacan's return to Descartes reverses the succession of the two phases of the subject. In the phase of primary alienation there is “the espousal of an imaginary being (false being) of an ‘I’ sustained by the grammar of the drives” (35). Having rejected thought, this false “I” still experiences itself as the subject of thought. Clearly, the revised succession is instrumental to Lacan's theorization of a subjective position before enunciation. The pre-enunciative position—as this position might be termed—testifies to the non-transcendental nature of the subject as it has everything to do with a “stain of sum” prior to enunciation. Without neglecting the extremely engaging trio of essays on the critics of cogito (Robert Pfaller on Althusser, Marc de Kessel on Bataille, and Zizek on cognitive sciences' dismissal of the philosophical subject), Dolar's piece remains crucial to the book's thesis. At a time when the philosophical subject is under all sorts of attacks, psychoanalysis makes visible “the traces of [its] traumatic passage” (259) from the abyss of self-withdrawal (formerly misunderstood as Descartes's spectral vanishing point) to the open of rationality.

Yet, the book's return to the Lacanian two-step cogito may not be as unorthodox as the introduction assumes. Certainly, the contemporary “liberating proliferation of the multiple forms of subjectivity—feminine, gay, ethnic …” (6) issues from a rejection of Descartes. One need only recall Adriana Cavarero's feminist critique of “the monstrosity of the universal subject simultaneously male and neuter” (1987, 47). However, feminism was not the only censor of the universal subject. As Kristeva noted, linguistics played its part. With its democratic wish to make everyone begin in language, linguistics risked equating the psychic life of the subject with his/her social positioning. In the final analysis, both Zizek's anthology and the contemporary array of historicized multiple identities harbor the same dream of theorizing a pre-enunciative position. And rightly so, for the “stain of sum” prior to enunciation, which makes it difficult to close the gap between power and the psyche, is the real hope if, in the words of Michel Foucault, we want to become what we could be.

Perhaps because of this shared dream, the book, framed as a return to a more “classic,” pre-feminist cogito, ends up being haunted by feminism. For example, Renata Salecl's “The Silence of Feminine Jouissance” unfailingly echoes Luce Irigaray's classic “When Our Lips Speak Together.” Jouissance's extra-linguistic, non-symbolic ambience in Salecl's article builds on the non-identificatory indifference on the side of being, which characterizes the feminine subjective position (the pre-enunciative position in Lacan) in Irigaray's historic piece: “Why speak? you'll ask me. … Aren't my hands, my eyes, my mouth, my lips, my body enough for you?” (1985, 214). Similarly, Zizek's remarks on sexual difference restore a certain philosophical glitter to Irigarayan feminism: “A woman is much less dependent on her partner, since her ultimate partner is not the other human being, her object of desire (as in man), but the gap itself, the distance from the partner in which is located the jouissance feminine” (88-89). Even Irigaray's notion of mimicry is brought to new Hegelian heights in a reading of Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead, where the secondariness of ultra-macho figures elevates itself into the spirit of a “feminine subject liberated from the deadlocks of hysteria” (108). In Zizek's hands, feminist sexual difference turns out to have been an ontological attribute of the subject all along. The problem is that Zizek's psychoanalysis, eager to speak philosophy's innermost kernel, may disavow its own theoretical hybridity.

Tobin Siebers shows little sympathy for “philosophical exercises in the Continental tradition” (94-95). In his book [The Subject and Other Subjects], Zizek and Lacan are people with a “Midas touch” he would not want to have. They turn stories inside out; they are the practitioners of “the modern sublime,” an “ob-scene” mode of thinking “less concerned with meaning than with desire” (99). Contrary to the classic sublime, where the subject experiences a self-awareness before a power far greater than his/her own, the modern sublime is in flight from the here and now and, consequently, from the labor of building communities. A similar verdict is issued against deconstructive theorists. They too are the storytellers of a “tyrannical and incomprehensible will” not even they can understand (112). Deconstruction, concludes Siebers, is “a nightmare” (94), its language-centered practice “revolting to a wider audience of practical readers” (85).

Obviously, Siebers is not happy with European thought's flight from the political. But his discontent betrays a more local argument with multiculturalism, which he holds responsible for the disintegration of race in the emergent concern with ethics. Undoubtedly, multiculturalism's inclusive spirit has redefined ethics. Most of us now think that ethics is “about including the excluded at all costs.” But for Siebers, the multicultural ideal of a constellation of discrete cultures bordering on one another is only apparently interested in this redefinition. A consequence of the anthropological transformation of politics after the defeat of the civil rights movement, multiculturalism uses ethics to suppress the relevance of politics, displacing political action with cosmopolitanism. Like the civil rights movement, multiculturalism raises the issue of American identity: “It asks who is to be let into the American community” (63). Unlike the civil rights movement, multiculturalism does not want an answer. Indeed, its ethical zeal makes legislating the inclusion or exclusion of differences not only impossible but also ethically offensive (64). Who is to say which differences are good and which are bad? Think of the paradox of multiculturalism through the anecdote of the girl who, upon being shown the picture of a Roman stadium where lions eat Christians, cried when she spotted a lion without his Christian (64). “Is it fair that he doesn't have a Christian? How do we ease his suffering? How are we to right his wrong?” (64).

These are all legitimate questions if we accept spectacle as the substance of ethics. But it could be argued that an ethical society does not need to throw lions and Christians together for a gaze. From the vantage point of Zupancic's Lacanian discussion of Kant—a philosopher Siebers appreciates in his engaging last chapter “Politics and Peace”—it becomes clear that Siebers's argument with multiculturalism is an argument with the force of a formal law. First, multiculturalism says that everyone is a victim. Then, it elevates victims to heroes and asks everyone to feel for the victim the same “respect” Kant attributed to the law. As Zupancic explains, Kant's moral imperative is on the side of the superego, fixed on the spectacle of a subject submitted precisely through his/her awesome capacity for submission. What Siebers dislikes about multiculturalism, then, is what Lacanian theory critiques in Kant. Like the Kantian imperative, multiculturalism's respect for the victim has a Sadean potential: it aspires above all to formalize the awesome power to feel a law, to be subjected by a law—the victim's in this case. This is why, arguing for a continuity between Geertz's moral appreciation of differences and Rorty's enlightened ethnocentric anti-ethnocentrism, Siebers complains that the idea of a multicultural solidarity remains “aesthetic”: it “frames a spectacle or object to be appreciated in itself” (69).

Even though he repeatedly argues for a return to the political, Siebers shares the restless spirit of postmodernism, which he defines as “utopian philosophy” bewildered about the possibility of thinking beyond the here and now (“What Postmodernism Wants”). Put in another way, postmodernism cannot accept easy solutions and easy answers. What else, in fact, is the invocation of the political—with the attendant comforting concepts like the practical, the here and now—if not a way of stopping the flow of the impossible (because unanswerable) questions dared by contemporary thought? Exemplary is Siebers's treatment of “symbolic violence.” First, Siebers traces multiculturalism's revulsion for symbolic violence to its anthropological roots. The ethnographer's encounter of the familiar “we” and the exotic “they” has taught us that “desiring to be recognized and not being recognized is a form of symbolic violence. Indifference is a crime against the Other's subjectivity. Shaking hands shakes the foundations of the self” (75). Then, having cogently summed up the whole question of contemporary subjectivity (Nancy 1991, 28) as if it were anthropology's heritage, he concludes that “[t]his position has no political viability, and it is ethically incoherent” (75). At this point, the appeal to the political sounds like a dismissal of the questions posed by philosophy as irrelevant to practice.

Yet, Siebers's raucous restlessness becomes endearing once it reveals a mourning for the critic's lost vocation to heal cultural splits. Clearly, the essay on J. Hillis Miller (“Reading for Character”), a critic divided between his loyalty to the ethical law of deconstructive undecidability and a yearning for “really” reading, alludes to the state of American academia. The American critic comes across as a little trapped, a little besieged, perhaps even a little censored, “an enigmatic construction” with “resources that are and are not permitted to it” (77). One of the prerogatives the critic has lost—and that Siebers forcefully reclaims—is the making of community. Despite the cosmopolitan definition of character as “a place of otherness,” literature for Siebers retains an almost eucharistic aim: it must produce a common “we.” In Siebers's view, this aim “provides the only truly satisfying closure for human beings in both narrative and life” (94). Would this closure be so satisfying when the “we” is a formal “we”, a fetishized subject passing as the subject, a forced communion passing as a political community?

Zizek's anthology and Siebers's essays take up two familiar contemporary issues: the crisis of philosophy and the loss of politics. In doing so, they argue at each other but, together, make for a good read on the current state of the subject. This is still beating against the old pane of dialectics. Call it master/slave, call it lions-and-Christians, it matters little. The scene is the same: a closed space the moth is dying to escape.

Works Cited

Cavarero, Adriana. 1987. “Sulla mostruosità del soggetto.” In Il Pensiero della Differenza Sessuale. DIOTIMA. Vol. 1. Milano: La Tartaruga.

Ferraris, Maurizio. 1998. “Estetica Sperimentale.” Naples: Istituto per gli Studi Filosofici.

Irigaray, Luce. 1985. This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Kristeva, Julia. 1986. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. 1991. The Inoperative Community. Ed. Peter Connor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Slavoj Žižek and Christopher Hanlon (interview date winter 2001)

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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 is that [Lacan] was a conscious charlatan, and he was simply playing games with the Paris intellectual community to see how much absurdity he could produce and still be taken seriously.”1 Even Lacanians might find it in their hearts to forgive Chomsky such a remark, since it was Chomsky who, after asking Lacan a question concerning thought (at the latter's 1968 presentation at MIT), received the reply, “We think we think with our brain; personally, I think with my feet. That's the only way I come into contact with anything solid. I do occasionally think with my forehead, when I bang into something.”2 As if to condense the aura of contrariness and enigma he cultivated in such exchanges, Lacan often relayed his teachings through now-infamous maxims and mathemes, those Zen koans of the French postmodern era: “Desire is desire of the Other,” “There is no sexual relation,” “The Woman does not exist.”3 No wonder Chomsky and many others turn their heads in exasperation.

The best counterpoint to suspicions such as Chomsky's may well be found in the work of Slavoj Žižek, whose frenetic endorsements of Lacanian theory achieve a dense complexity even as they provide moments of startling (and typically humorous) clarity. Take Žižek's way of explaining why even one of the most banal features of late twentieth-century culture, the laugh-track of situation comedy, is itself an illustration of the Lacanian thesis that “desire is desire of the Other”:

… let us remind ourselves of a phenomenon quite usual in popular television shows or serials: “canned laughter.” After some supposedly funny or witty remark, you can hear the laughter and applause included in the soundtrack of the show itself—here we have the exact opposite of the Chorus in classical tragedy; it is here that we have to look for “living Antiquity.” That is to say, why the laughter? The first possible answer—that it serves to remind us when to laugh—is interesting enough, since it implies the paradox that laughter is a matter of duty and not of some spontaneous feeling; but this answer is not sufficient because we do not usually laugh. The only correct answer would be that the Other—embodied in the television set—is relieving us even of our duty to laugh—is laughing instead of us. So even if, tired from a hard day's stupid work, all evening we did nothing but gaze drowsily into the television set, we can say afterwards that objectively, through the medium of the Other, we had a really good time.4

Whimsical and yet theoretically earnest solutions to everyday conundrums such as this can have the effect of seducing even Žižek's most skeptical readers, but this is not to say that Žižek's work hasn't earned him opponents. For many, Žižek's Lacanian analyses of contemporary culture cannot quite shed the burdens of classical psychoanalysis itself: in an academy happily enamored of historicism and often disinclined toward universalism of any kind, Žižek's mostly ahistorical, psychoanalytic defense of the Enlightenment draws criticism from various epistemological camps. One of the most persistent reproaches, for instance, has been voiced by Judith Butler, who asks rhetorically, “Can Žižekian psychoanalysis respond to the pressure to theorize the historical specificity of trauma, to provide texture for the specific exclusions, annihilations, and unthinkable losses that structure … social phenomena … ?”5 Others have raised suspicions about the political implications of the Žižekian subject: “[Žižek] views the modern individual as caught in the dichotomy between his or her universal status as a member of civil society, and the particularistic attachments of ethnicity, nation and tradition, and this duality is reflected in his own ambiguous political profile—marxisant cultural critic on the international stage, member of a neo-liberal and nationalistically inclined governing party back home.”6

I recently met with Žižek in order to discuss such complaints, as well as to elicit his opinions on the ongoing crises in the ex-Yugoslavia, Žižek's country of birth. The latter topic has become a heated subject for Žižek, who ran a close campaign for the presidency of Slovenia in 1990, and who views the resurgence of nationalism in the Balkan states as a phenomenon that has gone completely misunderstood by the West. Since the Bosnian conflict began near the outset of the last decade, ex-Yugoslav politics have taken up more space in Žižek's thinking, but still, there is probably no dominant feature within the contemporary landscape he analyzes. For Žižek, one quickly realizes, life is essentially an excuse to theorize; hence, his Lacanian commentary on the psychopathology of everyday existence rarely ceases. As we packed into a crowded elevator in New York's St. Moritz hotel, for instance, the panel of control buttons caught Žižek's eye, provoking an excursus on the faulty logic behind the hotel's symbolic exclusion of the thirteenth floor. “You cannot cheat God!” he proclaimed, drawing bewildered glances from the people around us. “They shouldn't call it the fourteenth floor—they should just make the thirteenth floor an empty mezzanine, an ominous lack in the midst of the others.” Somehow, the commentary slid effortlessly, naturally, into the subject of voyeurism, and from there, to the Lacanian distinction between the gaze and the look. Our later conversation partook of a similar, free-associative pattern even as it returned to a few fundamental concerns: the position of Lacanian theory in today's academy, Žižek's friendly antagonism with Judith Butler, Žižek's own polemic against multicultural identity politics. And talking with Žižek, one realizes that these issues are all of a piece with a larger problem: What kinds of political ontology—what manner of social perception, for that matter—does today's theoretical constellation allow or, more particularly, foreclose?

[Hanlon]: Your home city, Ljubljana, is home to a number of prominent Lacanians today. Was there something particular about the Slovene—then the Yugoslav—scene that made Lacan particularly crucial during the 1980s, when you were first formulating your project?

[Žižek]: I believe it was simply some incredible contingency. The first thing here is that, in the ex-Yugoslavia, the phenomenon is strictly limited to Slovenia—there are practically no Lacanians in the other Yugoslav republics. But I'm often asked this question: “Why there?” The only thing I can say is that there were some marginal, not-sufficient, negative conditions. One was that the intellectual climate was very open; or rather, the regime was open if you didn't directly pursue political opposition. There was intellectual freedom, borders were open, and so on. … And the other thing was that Slovenia was, far from being isolated from Europe, a kind of microcosm, in the sense that all of what went on in the philosophical scene around the world, all main orientations, were fairly represented. This is to say, there was a clear Frankfurt School or Critical Theory orientation, there was a Heideggerian orientation, there were analytical philosophers, and so on and so on. … But within this constellation, I don't have a precise theory, though it's something I'm often asked. Why there? One thing is that in other areas—around Zagreb and Belgrade, in Croatia and Serbia—they have much more substantial psychoanalytical traditions, and maybe this is what prevented them from appropriating Lacan. In Slovenia, there was no psychoanalytic tradition, so we were starting from a zero-point.

For me, the original spark came out of the confluence of two traditions: Frankfurt School marxism and, of course, Lacanian psychoanalysis. When I was a young student in Slovenia, the intellectual scene was divided between Heideggerians and the Frankfurt School. Under Yugoslav Communism, that is, dialectical materialism was dead; it was no longer the State philosophy. It was some kind of vague humanist marxism, linked to the Frankfurt School. At least in Slovenia, the main opposition was Heideggerian: this is why my first book was on Heidegger and language. But what made me suspicious was this phenomenon, as it seemed to me, by which both Heideggerians and the followers of the Frankfurt School began to speak the same language. This precisely aroused me.

Though Slovene culture and politics play a pronounced role in your later work—say, from The Metastases of Enjoyment onward—American popular culture remains the central touchstone. Do you see America as more pathological, more ripe for analysis?

This is perhaps the result of my personal trauma, which was that my relationship with Slovene art, especially with Slovene literature and cinema, was extremely negative. In Slovenia we have a cult of literature, especially poetry, as “the fundamental cornerstone of our society”; the idea is that the Slovene poets effectively created the Slovene nation, so there's a false veneration of poetry. On top of it, most Slovene writers now are, in no uncertain terms, right-wing nationalists, so I'm happily not on speaking terms with them—it's a kind of negative gesture of pride for me to turn to American pop culture. Although, in the last few years, I have been turning toward so-called “literary” or high culture; my new book will deal with Shklovsky, Tchaikovsky, and so on.

Another new book? Does Verso at all worry that you might flood the market?

There have been some surprises here. For example, they were worried about The Ticklish Subject. “After so many books, who will buy such a thick book, 400 pages. …” But OK—I know that I am very close to flooding the market; the next thing will be that next month a short book on David Lynch's Lost Highway will come out by the University of Washington Press, Seattle. Then it will be this other book, this big triple-orgy, this dialogue, between Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and me. The idea was that each of us should write an opening statement, maybe fifty pages, defining his or her position toward the other two. Then two rounds of questions and answers; it grew into a big book, about three hundred printed pages. And it's very interesting to me, because it isn't a polite debate; it's nasty, nasty—it almost but I hope didn't ruin our personal relationships. We're really pretty good friends, but it does get nasty, with all these rude expressions, you know: “He's totally missing the point,” “He didn't do his homework,” “Sounds like she's decided to tone it down a little bit,” and so on and so on.

I want to ask about one common critique of your work, most recently voiced by James Hurley, that centers on what we might call your “intrapsychic” focus.7 For you, of course, ideological coercion occurs at the libidinal level, at the constitutive level of a subject who “is” a disjunction between the Symbolic and the Real. But some commentators have expressed concern that this intrapsychic focus has the effect of leaving us little to do by way of intervening upon specifically institutional mechanisms of coercion. Do such objections concern you?

No, because I think that such criticism misses the point of Freudian subjectivity. I think that the very term “intrapsychic” is misleading; I think that, at least for Lacan, who emphasizes this again and again, the proper dimension of the unconscious is not “deep inside.” The proper dimension is outside, materialized in the state apparatuses. The model of split subjectivity, as later echoed by Louis Althusser, is not that there is something deep in me which is repressed; it's not this internal psychic conflict. What subverts my conscious attitudes are the implicit ideological beliefs externalized, embodied in my activity. For instance, I'm interested in this new fashion of Hollywood Holocaust comedy. Have you noticed how, starting with Life Is Beautiful, we have a new genre, repeated in Jakob the Liar, and so on? Apropos of this, I ask, “Why do Holocaust tragedies fail?” For me, Spielberg is at his lowest during a scene from Schindler's List, when the concentration-camp commander faces the Jewish girl and we have this internal monologue, where he is split between his attraction to the girl and his racist tract: you know, “Are you a rat? Are you a human being?” and so on. I think this split is false. I take here quite literally Lacan's dictum that psychoanalysis is not psychology, that the ultimate lesson of psychoanalysis is that when you analyze phenomena like Nazis or Stalinism, it is totally wrong to think that you will arrive at any pertinent result through so-called in-depth profiles of figures like Stalin or Hitler. Here there is a lesson to be learned from Hannah Arendt—though at a different level I disagree with her—about the banality of evil. The banality of evil means for me that the key is not, for example, the personality of Eichmann; there is a gap separating the acts of Eichmann from Eichmann's self-experience. But what I would add is that this doesn't mean that Eichmann was simply innocent in the sense that he was possessed by some kind of brutally objective logic. My idea is more and more that we are dealing with—to reference my eternal idea about canned laughter—what I am tempted to call a kind of canned hatred. In the same way that the TV set laughs for you, relieves you of the obligation to really laugh, Eichmann himself didn't really have to hate the Jews; he was able to be just an ordinary person. It's the objective ideological machinery that did the hating; the hatred was imported, it was “out there.”

He even reported that he admired the Jews, that he used to literally vomit with disgust at the efficiency of the extermination …

Yes! So again, I would say that this reproach misses the point in the sense that the fundamental lesson of psychoanalysis is that the unconscious is outside, crystallized in institutional practices. This is why, for me, commodity fetishism is a nice example of this—not collective, I'm not speaking of course about some Jungian collective unconscious—unconscious in the sense of the set of presuppositions, beliefs. The subject is not aware of these beliefs, but the beliefs are materialized in the social practices, rituals, institutions in which the subject participates. So in this sense, I claim that this idea that when you analyze in psychoanalytic terms what are ideological phenomena, you translate them into intrapsychic phenomena, definitely does not hold for Lacan. If anything, Lacan can be accused of the opposite mistake, of externalizing these issues. For example, in a friendly discussion with him years ago, this is what Fred Jameson reproached me with: that the inner self-experience disappears with me, that I externalize everything into social rituals.

Let me put it this way: Lacan is an author with which it's incredible how “anything goes.” It's incredible how whatever comes to our head, you can attribute to Lacan—people are very insensitive to the things Lacan actually says. OK, he's a difficult author, but nonetheless, some of the things he says are formulated very clearly. Just to give you an example: though I appreciate her very much—especially her late work, The Psychic Life of Power—Judith Butler repeatedly makes this strange claim, this strange thesis, that for us Lacanians (not for her), “unconscious” is Imaginary resistance to the Symbolic Law. Where did she find this? I'm almost tempted to say, “Wait a minute! If there is one phrase that is the first commonplace about Lacan, the first association, it is ‘The unconscious is structured like a language’!” The unconscious is the Symbolic order. Where did she find this idea that the unconscious is Imaginary resistance? I know what she means—her idea is that we are caught in the web of social relations which are the Symbolic order, and that unconsciously, our resistance is to identify with the set of social norms, and so on and so on. OK! An interesting thesis, but unfortunately, it has absolutely nothing to do with Lacan.

I'd like to discuss your ongoing debate with Butler, but first, could we talk about another more general facet of your reception? I've seen you speak on several occasions now, and each time, I notice the same split within your audience. On the one hand, there's a kind of weird delight you can elicit, an experience of almost fanatical excitement, but on the other, one also observes a deep displeasure. Of course, many public intellectuals gain both followers and opponents, but with you, there's almost no middle ground between these two extremes …

… I know. My friends tell me that if you check the reviews of my books, I get either five stars or no stars. You know, either, “It's total crap!” or “It's a revelation!” Never, “It's a moderately good book, not very good, but some solid achievements.” This is an interesting point in the sense that—this is true especially in England, with Radical Philosophy; they don't like me there—there are these fantasies circulating around me, that I shouldn't be trusted; beneath this apparently marxist, left-wing surface, there is this strange, decadent, even nationalistic attachment …

Peter Dews has indicated such a suspicion [in The Limits of Disenchantment].

Yeah! And I'm still on speaking terms with Peter Dews, but I told him, “My God!” Where did he get that? Because the irony is that in Slovenia, nationalists cannot stand me. In Slovenia, I'm always attacked as a “national nihilist,” a “cynicist,” and so on. … The idea that I'm a nationalist seems simply ridiculous to me, a kind of propaganda. The catch is the following one: I come from Slovenia, and for a lot of Western left-wingers, we Slovenes committed the original sin. The idea is that we were the first ones to leave Yugoslavia, that we started the process and then hypocritically escaped the consequences. We stepped out when the house of cards was starting to collapse, and started it all, and we didn't even suffer for it. It's incredible how strong this accusation is. So Dews's big reproach is “Why didn't you oppose the disintegration of Yugoslavia?” First, I was pretty much indifferent to this at the time. But the thing that surprises me about this is that—typically in England—the very same people who are opposed to the disintegration of Yugoslavia, if you ask them about, for instance, Ireland: all these principles are suddenly reversed. So that is not nationalist madness?

I guess I would say that at least one level of this political suspicion against me is conditioned by what I call this politically-correct Western-leftist racism. In the aftermath of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, a new entity was produced with which I don't want to have anything to do: the traveling post-Yugoslav academic. You know, going around, telling the world how horrible it is, all this nationalist madness, blah, blah, blah …

“How can you stand up here talking about David Lynch when your country is in flames …”?

Yeah, yeah, that kind of stuff. And I've never wanted to play that game, to present myself as this kind of victim. This is one aspect. The other aspect is a general resistance to Lacan. Let's put it this way: vaguely, we have three orientations today. For phenomenologists or Heideggerians, Lacan is too eccentric, not to be taken seriously. For Habermasians—though Dews is usually an exception here—Lacanians are some kind of protofascists, irrationalists, whatever; basically, they prefer not to enter into discussion with us. For example, in one of her last articles, I saw Nancy Fraser make a line of distinction between Kristeva and Lacan, claiming that Kristeva may be of some use, but that Lacan can be of absolutely no use. … With deconstruction, it's the same—you know, this incredible tension between Lacan and Derrida. Then, of course, for cognitivists, Lacan is simply deconstruction. So all main orientations definitely reject the Lacanian approach.

Well, apropos of this Habermas/Lacan division you mention …

… But wait a minute—who stands for Lacan? I don't think we are strong enough Lacanians to function as opposition. The debate is usually either Habermas versus communitarians, who consider Habermas too much of a universalist, or on the other hand Habermas versus deconstructionists, who again question whether we need universal norms. The point is … don't you think that for Habermasians we rarely even enter the picture? The big debate is, for example in the feminist circle, Nancy Fraser or Seyla Benhabib against Judith Butler, against Wendy Brown—you have that opposition. Or deconstruction versus neopragmatism—we simply do not enter the picture.

Well, here in the States, the opposition seems to me, more and more, to be between neopragmatists—I'm not thinking of Habermasians so much as I am about people like Richard Rorty, Walter Benn Michaels—and “the theorists,” in a totalizing, reductive sense. For instance, a couple of years ago, I saw Cornel West intone a kind of neopragmatist complaint against you during a roundtable discussion: how do you justify your highly abstract work, when there are concrete political battles to be waged, and then call it liberal?

Cornel West? Was that the Harvard roundtable?

Yes. In any case, I point out the instance as an indication that perhaps it's theory itself that is discounted, or discountable, right now, rather than Lacanian theory in particular.

Well, I don't think that … OK, Cornel West did say that. But I nonetheless don't think that he perceives us as the main opponent. Because this very reproach that you mention is not a reproach that can be addressed specifically to Lacan. My idea is the old marxist idea that this immediate reference to experience, practice, struggle, etcetera, usually relies on the most abstract and pure theory, and as an old philosopher I would say, as you said before, that we simply cannot escape theory. I fanatically oppose this turn which has taken place in social theory, this idea that there is no longer time for great theoretical projects, that all we can do is narrativize the experience of our suffering, that all various ethnic or sexual groups can ultimately do is to narrate their painful, traumatic experience. I think this is a catastrophe. I think that this fits perfectly the existing capitalist order, that there is nothing subversive in it. I think that this fits perfectly today's ideology of victimization, where in order to legitimize, to gain power politically, you must present yourself, somehow, as the victim.

An anecdote of Richard Rorty's is of some interest to me here. You know Rorty's thesis—and you know, incidentally, I like Rorty, because he openly says what others won't. But Rorty once pointed out—I forget where—how if you take big opponents, such as Habermas and Derrida, and ask them how they would react to a concrete social problem, whether to support this measure or that measure. … Are there any concrete political divisions between Habermas and Derrida, although they cannot stand each other? There are none! The same general left-of-center, not-too-liberal but basically democratic vision … practically, their positions are indistinguishable. Now, Rorty draws from this the conclusion that philosophy doesn't matter. I am tempted to draw a more aggressive, opposite conclusion: that philosophy does matter, but that this political indifference signals the fact that although they appear opposed, they actually share a set of presuppositions at the level of their respective philosophies. Besides, not all philosophers would adopt the same position; someone like Heidegger definitely would not, and a left-winger like [Alain] Badiou definitely would not.

The big question for me today concerns this new consensus—in England it's the “third way,” in Germany it's the “new middle”—this idea that capitalism is here to stay, we can maybe just smooth it out a little with multiculturalism, and so on. … Is this a new horizon or not? What I appreciate in someone like Rorty is that at least he openly makes this point. What annoys me about some deconstructionists is that they adopt as their rhetorical post the idea that what they are doing is somehow incredibly subversive, radical, and so on. But they do not render thematic their own deep political resignation.

You've been a long-time opponent of what you call postmodern identity politics, and especially the subversive hope some intellectuals attach to them. But with your newest book, this critique acquires a more honed feel. Now, you suggest that partisans of the identity-politics struggle have had a “depoliticizing” effect in some way. Could you hone your comments even further? Do you mean that identity politics have come to supersede what for you are more important antagonisms (such as that between capital and democracy, for instance), or do you mean something more fundamental, that politics itself has been altered for the worse?

Definitely that it has been altered. Let me put it this way: if one were to make this reproach directly, they would explode. They would say, “My God, isn't it the exact opposite? Isn't it that identity politics politicized, opened up, a new domain, spheres of life that were previously not perceived as the province of politics?” But first, this form of politicization nonetheless involves a transformation of “politics” into “cultural politics,” where certain questions are simply no longer asked. Now, I'm not saying that we should simply return to some marxist-fundamentalist essentialism, or whatever. I'm just saying that … my God, let's at least just take note of this, that certain questions—like those concerning the nature of relationships of production, whether political democracy is really the ultimate horizon, and so on—these questions are simply no longer asked. And what I claim is that this is the necessary consequence of postmodern identity politics. You cannot claim, as they usually do, that “No, we don't abandon those other aspects, we just add to politics proper.” No, the abandonment is always implicit. Why? Take a concrete example, like the multitude of studies on the exploitation of either African Americans or more usually illegal Mexican immigrants who work as harvesters here in the U.S. I appreciate such studies very much, but in most of them—to a point at least—silently, implicitly, economic exploitation is read as the result of intolerance, racism. In Germany, they don't even speak of the working class; they speak of immigrants …

“Visiting workers.”

Right. But the point is that we now seem to believe that the economic aspect of power is an expression of intolerance. The fundamental problem then becomes “How can we tolerate the other?” Here, we are dealing with a false psychologization. The problem is not that of intrapsychic tolerance, and so I'm opposed to this way in which all problems are translated into problems of racism, intolerance, etcetera. In this sense, I claim that with so-called postmodern identity politics, the whole concept of politics has changed, because it's not only that certain questions aren't any longer asked. The moment you begin to talk about … what's the usual triad? “Gender …”


Yes. The moment you start to talk this way, this “class” becomes just one aspect within an overall picture which already mystifies the true social antagonisms. Here I disagree with Ernesto Laclau's more optimistic picture of the postmodern age, where there are multiple antagonisms coexisting, etcetera …

… But aren't you then subordinating what is “merely cultural” to a set of “authentically” political problems?

No, no. I'm well aware, for example, that the whole problematic of political economy also had its own symbolic dimension. … I'm not playing “merely cultural” problems against “real” problems. What I'm saying is that with this new proliferation of political subjects, certain questions are no longer asked. Is the state our ultimate horizon? Is capitalism our ultimate horizon? I just take note that certain concerns have disappeared.

Let's talk about another aspect of this critique you lay out. Part of your polemic against this “post-political” sphere concerns the great premium you place on the “Lacanian act,” the gesture that resituates everything, creates its own condition of possibility, and so on. Could you specify this further by way of pointing to an example of such an act? In culture or politics, is there some instance of an authentic Lacanian act that we can turn toward?

[…] You've got me here, in that sense. But I'm not mystifying the notion of act into some big event. … What I'm saying is that the way the political space is structured today more and more prevents the emergence of the act. But I'm not thinking of some metaphysical event—once I was even accused of conceiving of some protofascist, out-of-nowhere intervention. For me, an act is simply something that changes the very horizon in which it takes place, and I claim that the present situation closes the space for such acts.

We could even draw the pessimist conclusion—and though he doesn't say so publicly, I know privately that Alain Badiou tends to this conclusion—that maybe politics, for some foreseeable time, is no longer a domain where acts are possible. That is, there were times during which acts did happen—the French Revolution, the October Revolution, maybe the '68 uprisings.

I can only say what will have been an act: something which would break this liberal consensus, though of course not in a fascist way. But otherwise, there are examples from culture, from individuals' experiences; there are acts all around in this sense. The problem for me is that in politics, again, the space for an act is closing viciously.

Let's move on to another topic. I have to ask you about your reaction to what may be Derrida's last word on his whole conflict with Lacan, published in Resistances to Psychoanalysis. Without retracting any of his original theses concerning Lacan's seminar on “The Purloined Letter,” Derrida now insists that “I loved him and admired him a lot,” and also that “Not only was I not criticizing Lacan, but I was not even writing a sort of overseeing or objectifying metadiscourse on Lacan,”8 that it was all part of a mutual dialogue. … What is your response to this?

I would just like to make two points. First, I still think, as I first developed in Enjoy Your Symptom!, that “resistance” is the appropriate term here. In deconstructionist circles, you can almost feel it, this strong embarrassment about Lacan. So they can buy Lacan only, as it were, conditionally, only insofar as they can say he didn't go far enough. I claim that the truth is the exact opposite; the only way they can appropriate Lacan is to submit him to a radical misreading. You know, all the time we hear about the “phallic signifier,” and so on, and so on, but the figure of Lacan they construct is precisely what Lacan was trying to undermine. For example, one of the standard criticisms of some deconstructionists here in the States is that Lacan elevates the “Big Other” into some kind of non-historical, a priori symbolic order. … My only, perhaps naïve answer to this is that the big Lacanian thesis from the mid-fifties is that “The Big Other doesn't exist.” He repeats this again and again, and the point of this is precisely that there is no symbolic order that would serve as a kind of prototranscendental guarantor. My second point would be a very materialist, Althusserian one. Without reducing the theoretical aspects of this conflict, let's not forget that academia is itself an “Ideological State Apparatus,” and that all these orientations are not simply theoretical orientations, but what's in question is thousands of posts, departmental politics, and so on. Lacanians are excluded from this. That is to say, we are not a field. You know, Derrida has his own empire, Habermasians have their own empire—dozens of departments, all connected—but with Lacanians, it's not like this. It's maybe a person here, a person there, usually marginal positions. So I think we should never underestimate this aspect.

I think it would be much nicer, in a way, if Derrida said the opposite: not that “I really hated him,” but “there is a tension; we are irreducible to each other.” This statement you point out is the kiss of death. What's the message in this apparently nice statement from Derrida? The message is that “the difference is really not so strong, so that our field, deconstruction, can swallow all of this; it's really an internal discussion.” I think it is not. I'm not even saying who's right; I'm just claiming—and I think this is more important than ever to emphasize—the tension between Derrida and Lacan and their followers is not an interfamilial struggle. It's a struggle between two radically different global perceptions. Even when they appear to use approximately the same terms, refer to the same orders, they do it in a totally different way, and this is why all attempts to mediate between them ultimately fall short. Once, I was at a conference at Cardozo Law School where Drucilla Cornell maintained that the Lacanian Real was a good “first attempt” at penetrating beyond this ahistorical Symbolic order, but that it also retains this dimension of otherness that is still defined through the Symbolic order, and that the Derridean notion of writing incorporates this otherness into the Symbolic order itself more effectively, much more radically, so that the “real Real” lies with Derrida's écriture, Lacan's “Real” is still under the dimension of the metaphysical-logocentric order, and so on. This is typical of what I'm talking about. We should simply accept that there is no common language here, that Lacan is no closer to Derrida than to Hegel, than to Heidegger, than to whomever you want.

Judith Butler—with whom you have engaged in ongoing if cordial debate—maintains that the Lacanian topology is itself dubious for its nonhistorical, transcultural presuppositions. You yourself have written that “jouissance is nonhistorical”9—How do you respond to complaints such as Butler's?

Ah! This is what we are struggling with for dozens, maybe hundreds of pages, in this book. My answer is to say that she is nonhistorical. That is to say, she presents a certain narrative, the same as Ernesto [Laclau]. With Ernesto, it's that we have an older type of essentialist class politics, then slowly, slowly, essentialism starts to disintegrate, and now we have this contingent struggle for hegemony where everything is open to negotiation. … With Judith Butler, there is the same implicit narrative: in the old times, there was sex essentialism, biologically-identified; then slowly, slowly, this started disintegrating into a sex/gender distinction, the awareness that gender is not biologically—but rather culturally—constructed; finally, we come to this performativity, contingency, and so on and so on. So the same story, from essentialist zero-point to this open contingency where we have struggles for hegemony which are undecided. My first reproach as a philosopher to this is that here, some metanarrative is missing. To ask a very stupid, naïve question: why were people one hundred and fifty years ago essentialists? Were they simply stupid? You know what I mean? There is a certain, almost teleological narrative here, in which from the “bad” zero-point of essentialism, slowly we come to the “good” realization that everything is a performative effect, that nothing is exempted from the contingent struggle for hegemony. But don't you need a metanarrative if you want to avoid the conclusion that people were simply stupid one hundred and fifty years ago?

Well, perhaps not a metanarrative in the sense of a guiding historical trajectory, but an acceptance of a loosely Foucauldian premise, that one hundred and fifty years ago there were in place certain institutional mechanisms, power-discourses, which coerced belief from their subjects, engendered them …

Ah! But if you accept this Foucauldian metanarrative, then things get a little complicated. Because Foucault is not speaking about truth-value; for him, it is simply the change from one episteme to another. Then … OK, I ask you another question—let's engage in this discussion, with you as Butler. So: is there a truth-value distinction between essentialism and the performativity of gender or is it simply the passage from one episteme to another? What would you say?

I won't speak for Butler, but if I were a Foucauldian, I would say that the latter is the case, though I may prefer the later episteme in light of my own political objectives.

Yeah, but Butler would never accept that.

You don't think so?

You think she would? Because I think that the epistemic presupposition of her work is implicitly—even explicitly, at least in her early work—that, to put it bluntly, sex always already was a performative construction. They just didn't know it then. But you cannot unite this with Foucauldian narrative, because Foucauldian narrative is epistemologically neutral, in which we pass from one paradigm to the other. You know, sex was confessionary then; sex is now post-confessionary, pleasurable bodies, whatever. … But OK: Foucault would be one possible metanarrative. Marxism would provide the other one, in the sense that “the development of capitalism itself provoked a shift in subjectivity,” whatever. But again, what I claim is that there is some unresolved tension concerning historicity and truth-value.

I ask you a different question. Both in Laclau and in Butler, there is a certain theory: Butler—and I'm speaking of early Butler; later, things get much more complex, much more interesting, a more intense dialogue becomes possible …

So we're talking about Gender Trouble, parts of Bodies That Matter

Yeah, I'm talking about Gender Trouble with Butler, and about Hegemony and Socialist Strategy with Laclau. Why? Because let's not forget that these two books were the only two authentic “big hits” of the time. … I'll tell you why: both Gender Trouble and Hegemony and Socialist Strategy were read as a model for a certain political practice. With Gender Trouble, the idea was that performativity and drag politics could have a political impact; it was, to put it in naïve, Leninist terms, “a guideline for a certain new feminist practice.” It was programmatic. It was the same with Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. It was a justification for the abandonment of so-called essentialist class politics, after which no specific struggle takes priority, we just have to coordinate our practices, cultivate a kind of “rainbow coalition,” although Ernesto rejects the term. … Now, what are these theories? Are they universal theories—of gender or of social/political processes—or are they specific theories about political practice, sex practice, within a certain historical/political moment? I claim that the ambiguity is still irreducible. At the same time that it's clear that these theories are rooted in a certain historical moment, it's also clear that they touch upon a universal dimension. Now my ironic conclusion is that, with all this anti-Hegelianism, what both Ernesto and Judith do here is the worst kind of pseudo-Hegelian historicism. At a certain point, it's as if the access to truth or what always already was true is possible only in a certain historical situation. So in other words, philosophically, I claim that beneath these theories of contingency, there is another narrative that is deeply teleological.

But either Butler or Laclau might rebut this reproach by pointing out that even such an embedded teleology is no worse than a matrix of non-historical Lacanian presuppositions.

But my God, this is the big misunderstanding with her! Butler systematically conflates what she calls “Real” with some nonhistorical symbolic norm. It's interesting how, in order to qualify the Lacanian notion of sexual difference as a nonhistorical Real, she silently slips in this nonhistorical gender norm, to then claim that “we homosexuals are excluded from this,” and so on. So her whole criticism inveighs against this notion that Lacan thinks of sexual difference as part of a nonhistorical, heterosexual normativity, and that this is what should be subverted. … Of course, my counterpoint is that “Real,” for Lacan, is the exact opposite. “Real” is that on account of which every norm is undermined. When [Butler] speaks of historicity, my point is not that there is something nonhistorical which precedes us. My point is that the Lacanian Real, in a way, is historical, in the sense that each historical epoch, if you will, has its own Real. Each horizon of historicity presupposes some foreclosure of some Real. Now, Judith Butler would say “OK, I agree with this, but doesn't this mean that we should re-historicize the Real, include it, re-negotiate it?” No, the problem is more radical. … Maybe the ultimate misunderstanding between us—from my perspective—is that for her, historicity is the ultimate horizon. As an old-fashioned Freudian, I think that historicity is always a certain horizon which has to be sustained on the basis of some fundamental exclusion. Why is there historicity? Historicity doesn't simply means that “things change,” and so on. That's just stupid evolutionism; not in the biological sense, but common sense. Historicity means that there must be some unresolved traumatic exclusion which pushes the process forward. My paradox would be that if you take away the nonhistorical kernel, you lose history itself. And I claim that Judith Butler herself, in her last book, is silently approaching this position. Because in Gender Trouble, the idea that your psychic identity is based on some primordial loss or exclusion is anathema; it's the Big Bad Wolf. But have you noticed that, if you read it closely, in The Psychic Life of Power she now accepts this idea of a primordial loss when she speaks of these “disavowed attachments”? The idea is now that we become subjects only through renouncing the fundamental passionate attachment, and that there's no return, no reassumption of the fundamental attachment. It's a very Freudian notion. If you lose the distance, the disavowal … it's psychosis, foreclosure.

The big problem I have with this shift is that it's a very refined political shift of accent. What I don't quite accept in her otherwise remarkable descriptions is how, when she speaks about the “marginalized disavowed,” she always presupposes—to put it in very naïve terms—that these are the good guys. You know: we have Power, which wants to render everything controllable, and then the problem is how to give voice to those who are marginalized, excluded …

You see it as a kind of vulgar Bakhtinianism?

Yeah, yeah—you know what I'm aiming at. What I'm aiming at is … aren't racist, anti-Semitic pogroms also Bakhtinian carnival? That's to say that what interests me is not so much the progressive other whom the power is controlling, but the way in which power has to disavow its own operation, has to rely on its own obscenity. The split is in the power itself. So that … when Butler argues very convincingly against—at least she points to the problematic aspects of—legal initiatives that would legalize gay marriages, claiming that in this way, you accept state authority, you become part of the “visible,” you lose solidarity with all those whose identity is not publicly acknowledged … I would say, “Wait a minute! Is there a subject in America today who defines himself as marginalized, repressed, trampled by state authority?” Yes! They are called survivalists! The extreme right! In the United States, this opposition between public state authority and local, marginalized resistances is more and more an opposition between civil society and radical right-wing groups.

I'm not saying we should simply accept the state. I'm just saying that I am suspicious of the political pertinence of this opposition between the “public” system of power which wants to control, proscribe everything, and forms of resistance to subvert it. What I'm more interested in are the obscene supplements that are inherent to power itself.

Has this relatively pro-State position played a role in your decision to support the ruling party in Slovenia?

No, no … that was a more specific phenomenon, a very naïve one. What happened was that, ten years ago, the danger in Slovenia was the same as in all the post-Communist countries. Would there emerge one big, hegemonic, nationalist movement that would then colonize practically the entire political space, or not? That was the choice. And by making some compromises, we succeeded. In Slovenia, the scene is totally different than in other post-Communist countries, in the sense that we don't have—as in Poland, as in Hungary—the big opposition is not between radical, right-wing, nationalist movements and ex-Communists. The strongest political party in Slovenia is neither nationalistic, nor ex-Communist … it was worth it. I'm far from idealizing Slovenia, but the whole scene is nonetheless much more pluralistic, much more open. It wasn't a Big Decision; it was just a very modest, particular gesture with a specific aim: how to prevent Slovenia from falling into the Serb or Croat trap, with one big nationalist movement that controls the space? How also to avoid the oppositions I mention that define the political space of Hungary and Poland?

Could we talk about Kosovo? In The Metastases of Enjoyment, when the Bosnian conflict was still raging, you insisted that the West's inability to act was rooted in its fixation with the “Balkan victim”—that is, with its secret desire to maintain the Balkan subject as victim. More recently, when the NATO bombings were under way, you claimed that the act came much too late. Now, the West seems to have descended into a period of waiting for a “democratic transformation” of Serbia …

… which will not happen, I think. Let me end up with a nice provocation: the problem for me is this abstract pacifism of the West, which renders publicly its own inability to act. What do I mean by this? For the West, practically everything that happens in the Balkans is bad. When the Serbs began their dirty work in Kosovo, that was of course bad. When the Albanians tried to strike back, it was also bad. The possibility of Western intervention was also bad, and so on and so on. This abstract moralism bothers me, in which you deplore everything on account of … what? I claim that we are dealing here with the worst kind of Nietzschean ressentiment. And again, we encounter here the logic of victimization at its worst, exemplified by a New York Times piece by Steven Erlanger.10 He presented the crisis in terms of a “truly human perspective” on the war, and picked up an ordinary [Kosovar] Albanian woman who said, “I don't care who wins or who loses; I just want the nightmare to end; I just want peace; I want to feel good again. …” This, I claim, is the West's ideal subject—not a conscious political fighter, but this anonymous victim, reduced to this almost animal craving … as if the ultimate political project is to “feel good again.”

In other words, a subject who has no stake in whether Kosovo gains independence or not …

No stake, just this abstract suffering … and this is the fundamental logic, that the [Kosovar] Albanians were good so long as they were suffering. Remember the images during the war, of the Albanians coming across the mountains, fleeing Kosovo? The moment they started to strike back—and of course there are Albanian excesses; I'm not idealizing them in this sense—they become the “Muslim danger,” and so on. So it's clear that the humanitarian interventions of the West are formulated in terms of this atmosphere of the protectorate—the underlying idea is that these people are somehow not mature enough to run their lives. The West should come and organize things for them, and of course the West is surprised if the local population doesn't find such an arrangement acceptable.

Let me tell you a story that condenses what I truly believe here. About a year and a half ago, there was an Austrian TV debate, apropos of Kosovo, between three different parties: a Green pacifist, a Serb nationalist, and an Albanian nationalist. Now, the Serb and the Albanian talked—of course within the horizon of their political projects—in pretty rational terms: you know, the Serb making the claim that Kosovo was, for many centuries, the seat of the Serbian nation, blah, blah, blah; the Albanian was also pretty rational, pointing out that since they constitute the majority, they should be allowed self-determination, etcetera. … Then the stupid Green pacifist said, “OK, OK, but it doesn't matter what you think politically—just promise me that when you leave here, you will not shoot at each other, that you will tolerate each other, that you will love each other.” And then for a brief moment—that was the magic moment—I noticed how, although they were officially enemies, the Albanian and the Serb exchanged glances, as if to ask, “What's this idiot saying? Doesn't he get it?” My idea is that the only hope in Kosovo is for the two of them to come together and say something like the following: “Let's shoot the stupid pacifist!” I think that this kind of abstract pacifism, which reformulates the problem in the terms of tolerance … My God, it's not tolerance which is the problem! This is what I hate so much apropos of Western interventionism: that the problem is always rephrased in terms of tolerance/intolerance. The moment you translate it into this abstract proposition which—again, my old story—depoliticizes the situation, it's over.

Another aspect I want to emphasize apropos of Serbia: here, my friend/enemy, a Serb journalist called Alexander Tijanic, wrote a wonderful essay examining the appeal of Milošević for the Serb people. It was practically—I wondered if I could have paid him to make my point better. He said that the West which perceives Milošević as a kind of tyrant doesn't see the perverse, liberating aspect of Milošević. What Milošević did was to open up what even Tijanic calls a “permanent carnival”: nothing functions in Serbia! Everyone can steal! Everyone can cheat! You can go on TV and spit on Western leaders! You can kill! You can smuggle! Again, we are back at Bakhtin. All Serbia is an eternal carnival now. This is the crucial thing people do not get here; it's not simply some kind of “dark terror,” but a kind of false, explosive liberation.

Do you see a viable political entity in Serbia that might alter this?

I can give you a precise answer in the guise of a triple analysis. I am afraid the answer is no. There are three options for Serbia: one possibility is that Milošević's regime will survive, but the country will be isolated, ignored, floating in its own shit, a pariah. That's one option. Another option that we dream about is that, through mass demonstrations or whatever, there will be “a new beginning,” a new opening in the sense of a Western-style democratic upheaval. …11 But I think, unfortunately, that what will probably happen if Milošević falls will be what I am tempted to call the “Russia-fication” of Serbia. That is to say, if Milošević falls, a new regime will take over, which will consist of basically the same nationalists who are now in power, but which will present itself to the West—like Yeltsin in Russia—as open, and so on. Within Serbia, they will play the same corrupt games that Yeltsin is now playing, so that the same mobsters, maybe even another faction of the mafia, will take over, but they will then blackmail the West, saying that “If you don't give us economic help, all of these nationalists will take over. …”

The “democratic resistance” in Serbia, in fact, is also deeply nationalistic, right?

Of course! What you don't get often through the Western media is this hypocritical … for instance, when there was a clash between the police and anti-Milošević demonstrators, you know what the demonstrators were shouting? “Why are you beating us? Go to Kosovo and beat the Albanians!” So much for the “Serb Democratic Opposition”! Their accusation against Milošević is not that he is un-democratic, though it's also that: it's “You lost Bosnia! You lost Kosovo!” So I fear the advent of a regime that would present itself to the West as open and democratic, but will play this covert game. When pressed by the West to go further with democratic reforms, they will claim that they are under pressure from radical right-wing groups.

So I don't think there will be any great transformation. Now that the Serbs have lost Kosovo, I don't think there will be another great conflict, but neither do I think there will be any true solution. It will just drag on—it's very sad.


  1. See “Noam Chomsky: An Interview,” Radical Philosophy, 53 (Autumn 1989), 32.

  2. See Elizabeth Roudinesco's account of this moment in her biography Jacques Lacan, tr. Barbara Bray (New York, 1997), pp. 378-79.

  3. See, respectively, Jacques Lacan, Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, tr. Alan Sheridan and ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York, 1981), p. 235; Jacques Lacan, Seminar XX: On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, tr. Bruce Fink and ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York, 1998), pp. 12, 72-73.

  4. See Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York, 1989), p. 35.

  5. See Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York, 1993), p. 202.

  6. See Peter Dews, The Limits of Disenchantment (New York, 1995), p. 252.

  7. See James Hurley, “Real Virtuality: Slavoj Žižek and ‘Post-Ideological’ Ideology,” Post-Modern Culture, 9.1 (September 1998).

  8. See Jacques Derrida, Resistances of Psychoanalysis, tr. Peggy Kamuf, Pascale-Anne Brault, and Michael Naas (Stanford, 1998), pp. 56, 63.

  9. See Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (New York, 1997), pp. 48-54; see also his The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (New York, 1999), pp. 313-20.

  10. See Steven Erlanger, “In One Kosovo Woman, An Emblem of Suffering,” New York Times (12 May 1999), p. A 13.

  11. Since this interview took place, of course, precisely such a scenario has played out in Belgrade, though we cannot yet see whether Vojislav Koštunica's brand of Serb nationalism will be at all preferable to Milošević's.

Stephen H. Webb (review date 1 August 2001)

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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 occupied a small ghetto in the entertainment world, stigmatized by its association with the inherent rebelliousness of rock-and-roll. Musicians like Norman, Keith Green and Phil Keaggy, however, helped many young evangelicals reconcile their cultural isolation from pop culture. My friends and I were desperate to have rock music affirm our faith, in part, I am sure, so that we could listen to it with a clean conscience. We even entertained reckless dreams that Dylan would ignite a renaissance of religious music as powerful as any pagan revelry.

Dylan's faith has come and gone, but pop music is in the church to stay. It is not clear, however, whether the church has baptized rock-and-roll in order to save others or to save itself. Is the church merely updating its musical liturgy, or has it fallen victim to the nearly omnipotent power of popular culture? Who has converted whom?

I was reminded of such questions—and my own youthful enthusiasms—when I read The Fragile Absolute. Slavoj Zizek, who is from Slovenia, is known for blending psychoanalysis and Marxism, with plenty of references to pop culture thrown into the mix. This has given him a virtual cult following overseas, and his reputation is growing in America. Ironically, he is the perfect thinker for global capitalism. He incorporates everything into his philosophy, from Oprah Winfrey to Stephen King. Like a multinational corporation, he will not be satisfied until he penetrates every market.

His attempt to absorb Christianity, then, should not be surprising. Indeed, in Europe, where the post-Christian era has already reached high noon, philosophers are once again exploring Christianity precisely because it seems so strange and new. Zizek wants to recruit Christians to work against the enchantment of popular culture and the universal religion of consumerism.

Secular promises of liberation through psychoanalysis or Marxism have always been better at criticizing society than offering practical proposals for a better world. Psychoanalysis tries to enable individuals to deal with personal traumas that can never be fully healed, and Marxism is a reaction to the trauma of social injustice. For Zizek, who calls himself a “Paulinian materialist,” both of these systems of thought must rely, in the end, on the practice of sacrifice. Psychoanalytic patients must learn to give up their investment in their personal problems, and Marxists must give up the Stalinist legacy of an oppressive nationalism.

But how do we give up one dream without replacing it with another? Zizek turns to Christianity, especially the story of Abraham and Isaac, for a lesson in how to separate the act of sacrifice from blind loyalty to a sacred cause. The father lets go of the son without resentment or calculation. Christians are called to renounce worldly idols in order to work toward the concrete ideal of an inclusive community. To put it in psychoanalytic terms, Christians sacrifice the imaginary for the real. Zizek thus decisively abandons, once and for all, the tired leftist diatribe that Christianity promises a magic kingdom of escapism rather than a realistic kingdom of justice.

Does Christianity need saving, or does Marxism? Is Zizek a Bob Dylan, turning to Christianity because socialism is in decline, or is he a sincere convert to the rabbi from Galilee? I do not think that Christians need to be anxious about whether celebrity philosophers respect their faith, but I do think it is important to evaluate the future of this new alliance between post-modern European philosophy and the church. Zizek assumes that the church and Marxism can be allies because they have a common enemy in the corrosive consequences of consumerism. The question is whether they have a common hope. Given the present disarray of socialism, Zizek's ideal of absolute justice is very fragile indeed. It makes sense that he would reach out to the church to fill the vacuum left by a proletariat that has lost its voice. It would make a lot less sense for the church to try to salvage an economic ideal that has ruined many countries and countless lives.

Zizek believes in the absolute of a classless society that is rendered fragile by global capitalism. The church believes in an absolute that is fragile precisely because it is absolute. History has shown how dangerous it is to turn Zizek's dream into a sacred truth. To say that the absolute is fragile, then, is not to say that our fragile dreams of justice should be made absolute.

Alex Callinicos (review date 17 August 2001)

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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 single, vast and continuing philosophical roman fleuve in which Z̆ĭZ̆ek overwhelms his readers with jokes, arguments, film criticism and political polemic. In the process, he has emerged as one of the major philosophers of the Western Left.

Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? is the latest instalment. Its ostensible target is what Žižek calls the “Denkverbot (prohibition against thinking)”—he has in mind the old West German Berufsverbot, banning state employment of leftists—that “shamefully exploits the horrors of Gulag or Holocaust as the ultimate bogey for blackmailing us into renouncing all serious engagement”. This does not mean that Žižek ignores Hitler's and Stalin's crimes—on the contrary, he offers a perceptive analysis of how, under Stalinism, “the victim of the show trial has to participate in his own public degradation, actively forsaking his dignity”.

But Žižek's real subject in this book, as in much of his recent writing, is the conditions of authentic political action. He approaches it as a very eccentric Hegelian Marxist, reading Hegel through Lacan's reinterpretation of Freud. This is less bizarre than it might seem—Lacan's early writings show the influence of Alexandre Kojève's lectures on Hegel, and he is the only major thinker identified with poststructuralism who refuses to reduce subjectivity to an effect of impersonal structures and practices. Žižek is thoroughly Hegelian in the remarkably friendly view of Christianity that he takes here. He even prefers Pope John Paul II to the Dalai Lama: while the latter “presents us with a vague feel-good spiritualism without any specific obligations. … The Pope … reminds us that there is a price to be paid for a properly ethical attitude.”

This may sound more like Ann Widdecombe than Rosa Luxemburg, but, for Žižek as for Hegel, the most important thing about Christianity was that it brought the principle of subjectivity to self-consciousness. Žižek wants to overcome what he calls the “antinomy of postmodern reason”. Contemporary thought is caught between a narrow “realism” that accepts the parameters set by liberal capitalism as unalterable and the postmodernist doxa, according to which “what we perceive as ‘reality’ is simply the result of a certain historically specific set of discursive practices and power mechanisms”. The way out, according to Žižek, lies in Lacan's notion of the Real as the experience of a pre-conceptual chaos that resists integration into the symbolic system by virtue of which we interpret the world and determine what counts as real and as possible.

What we treat as “reality”, then, is what “is experienced as ‘possible’, within the symbolically constructed social space—that is, the demands of social reality”. The Real subverts this socially sanctioned “reality”. It is by virtue of this that an authentic act is possible: it is “an intervention in social reality that changes the co-ordinates of what is perceived as ‘possible’; it is not simply ‘beyond the Good’, it redefines what counts as ‘Good’”. This distinction between the Real and reality is relevant, according to Žižek, beyond the domain of ethico-political action; thus he argues that scientific revolutions must be understood along Kuhnian lines as redefining our conception of reality rather than as extending our knowledge of an antecedently existing reality.

But, for Žižek, the most important implications of the Lacanian concept of the Real are at once political and philosophical. The Real signifies that it is possible to challenge the neo-liberal Washington consensus accepted by conservative and centre-left politicians alike. It also sustains a paradoxical form of subjectivity that is neither the coherent self imagined by post-Cartesian philosophy nor the mere product of “power-knowledge” to which it was reduced by Foucault, but rather the source of decisions that cannot be grounded in existing norms and that indeed rewrite the rules of the social and political game.

Whether Žižek's theory of subjectivity can deliver the goods is doubtful. Apart from anything else, it rests on some of the most speculative constructions of Lacanian psychoanalysis. But neither these metaphysical extravagances nor Žižek's joke-littered prose should be allowed to obscure the seriousness of his philosophical enterprise. This attempt to rethink the conditions of radical political action is one of a number of signs that, after the doldrums of the 1980s and 90s, left-wing thought is beginning to revive. It will be fascinating to follow where the flood of his eloquence and imagination next sweeps Slavoj Žižek.

David Wheatley (review date 7 September 2001)

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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 thinks otherwise: only those who “live in Christ” can be saved, which means that sadly “a lot of good and honest people will burn in hell”. Zizek wants us to dwell on this as an illustration of the basic premiss of On Belief: that to “break the liberal-democratic hegemony”, an authentic radical position must be prepared to “endorse its materialist version”. He goes on to discuss the radical legacies of Christianity and a more recent religion, Marxism-Leninism. Zizek argues that the suppression of the Cathar heresy by the Church was prompted not by its divergence from orthodox teaching, but by its laying bare of the inherently transgressive content of orthodoxy itself. For an ideology to achieve hegemonic status, it must lose contact with the violence of its founding moment, revivals of which it then repudiates as heretical.

Comparisons with the Stalinist experience of “actually existing socialism” as a Marxist heresy are acutely drawn, though his attempts to revisit Leninism as “the politics of truth” quickly meet the stumbling block of its particular “materialist version”, which, as Bertolt Brecht reminds us, involved putting large amounts of people up against walls and shooting them.

Zizek's books have been compared to rock albums, such is the level of expectation generated among fans by each new release, and On Belief is not without a touch of a “greatest hits” syndrome. A sentence on Leibniz and cyberspace on page 26 seems to have taken his fancy, as he repeats it verbatim on page 52. This book can be contrary and perverse, but it is, none the less, an honest and admirable meditation on what belief may mean today.

Kevin A. Morrison (review date December 2001)

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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 publishing season passes without a new book by Žižek and spring 2001 is no different with Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? and a revised edition of Enjoy Your Symptom! both recently released.

The premise of Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? is that the notion of totalitarianism is “a kind of stopgap: instead of enabling us to think, forcing us to acquire a new insight into the historical reality it describes, it relieves us of the duty to think, or even actively prevents us from thinking”. How? In Žižek's estimation the left has essentially thrown up its collective hands in agreement that liberal democracy reigns supreme and is thus attempting to redefine itself firmly within the grasp of liberal-democratic thinking. Totalitarianism, Žižek contends, is an ideological notion used to block any attempt to think outside of the liberal-democratic horizon and, as such, he calls for the entire notion of totalitarianism to therefore be discarded.

One either subscribes today, Žižek observes, to the “basic co-ordinates” of liberal-democracy or one is considered to be totalitarian and anti-democratic. To evade any real social reform and to dismiss any radical social thought, liberal-democrats simply respond to any such efforts by saying that however valuable a given reform might be it will inevitably lead down the road to totalitarianism. But when totalitarianism is invoked, to what definition does one refer?

In five interventions that trace the notion of totalitarianism conceptually rather than historically, Žižek explores how totalitarianism is fundamentally different from Nazi fascism and socialism under Stalin. In a brilliant explication of the Stalinist show trials, and the relationship between Bukharin and Stalin, Žižek reveals the ways in which the October 1917 revolution was a genuinely authentic act, in terms of breaching the dominant system and maintaining one's fidelity to the revolution, that was ultimately perverted by Stalin who framed mass exterminations in terms of Kantian ethical duty and responsibility. Žižek still sees in communism, though, the kernel of a radical emancipatory project that might be the only escape from the structural grip of Capital that renders impotent nearly every major political challenge to it.

Žižek decries much of the left's seeming complicity with liberal-democracy and the spread of capital, arguing that both the feminist-deconstructionist who reluctantly embraces melancholia as one's permanent state of being, and the cultural studies intellectual who embraces a complete relativism, cannot properly commit authentic acts of resistance. Their positions are, instead, rather easily incorporated within the horizons of liberal-democratic thinking. In striking contrast to prevailing theories on the left that see resistance only in terms of parody, Žižek argues that such a form of resistance is nothing more than resigned acceptance to the status quo and he exhorts us, instead, to summon of the spirit of revolution in order to repoliticise the processes toward inevitable globalisation.

As is characteristic Žižek offers robust chapters on each of his five subjects making accessible the various theories of German Idealism and Lacanian psychoanalysis through repeated references to popular culture. Žižek is at his best when, in opening Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, he explains one of the main functions of totalitarianism through a careful reading of the back of a “Celestial Seasonings” green tea bag. Even the title, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, echoes a recent McDonald's advertising campaign. But sometimes his imagination wanders a bit too much as when he claims that the only time one sees manual labour anymore is in the standard James Bond flick in which the hero destroys the place of production. What, then, are we to make of the now standard practice of being able to watch the production process through windows, guided tours, and even Web cams? Like the now rather fashionable restaurant design in which the kitchen is situated in the middle of the restaurant design in which the kitchen is situated in the middle of the restaurant with all those dining able to peer in on the chefs at work, the production process itself has been commodified and staged for the consumer's gaze.

For all of its insights and the many incisive critiques of our current cultural and apolitical present, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? is all too familiar. The same jokes and stories, theories, ruminations, anecdotes, and popular culture references that appear in his many articles, online postings, and the nineteen (and counting) other books authored or edited by him appear here, too. If one has encountered Žižek before, there is little here that is new. That is not to say one should not read it. But if you are prone to skipping reruns, you might want to wait until next season when yet two more books by Žižek are released.

Sabah A. Salih (review date spring 2002)

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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 dialectical edge, thinking in effect becoming a matter of just plain “xeroxing,” something like “Tell me your theory and I will tell you what you would say, even about books that you haven't read.” A recent (4 October 2001) London Review of Books roundtable in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks perfectly illustrates Lentricchia's point. The contributors all seem to have proceeded according to some unwritten rules that basically determine what is being said. Edward Said, for example, cannot bring himself to say much else beyond his usual criticism of America as a place where Arabs and Muslims are not welcome; and the antifoundationalist Richard Rorty, unwilling to take grand narratives seriously, can only hope that next time around luck would be on our side. Slavoj Žižek's book Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? is an effort to rescue thinking from such quagmires.

Žižek's 1989 book The Sublime Object of Ideology made the Slovene philosopher a household name in academia almost overnight. He had been called “the logician of culture,” “the most formidably brilliant exponent of psychoanalysis, indeed of cultural theory in general,” “the Hegel of the Balkans,” one of the most stimulating thinkers of our time. Whether it is Hegel or Marx, Freud or Lacan, Habermas or Derrida, literature or film, the pope or the Dalai Lama, Žižek discusses them all with lightning speed, without ever losing his cool.

Žižek describes himself as “an old-fashioned dialectical materialist” working to bring radical politics and economics back to contemporary debate, and he is quite fearless in this endeavor. Much like Terry Eagleton, he has no patience with postmodern taboos, calling them tools of blackmail and control. For him, Cultural Studies, as the primary culprit, is not just guilty of subordinating Knowledge to Truth, of passing judgment without proper knowledge, of lacking specific disciplinary skills, of not being able to fit fully into existing academia; a lot more serious is the field's tendency to be totalitarian: “Do not Cultural Studies … function as a discourse which pretends to be critically self-reflective, revealing predominant power relations, while in reality it obfuscates its own mode of participating in them? … What if the field of Cultural Studies, far from actually threatening today's global relations of domination, fit their framework perfectly?”

As a tool of control, Žižek maintains, the specter of totalitarianism today is often raised to “tame free radicals,” to discredit their emancipatory projects. The notion thus, like such terms as postindustrial society or information society, “far from being an effective theoretical concept,” works more like a “stopgap: instead of enabling us to think, forcing us to acquire a new insight into the historical reality it describes, it relieves us of the duty to think, or even actively prevents us from thinking.”

As can be seen thus far, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? is not a history of a notion but an analysis of its “dialectical movement from one particular content … to another.” These include the postmodern insistence that totalitarianism is “modernism going awry,” that the Holocaust is the “absolute crime,” that all radical politics end up becoming totalitarian, and that “political totalitarianism is grounded in phallo-logocentric metaphysical closure.”

As an antidote to these and other postmodern prohibitions against thinking, Žižek calls for a fearless challenge: “So what if one is accused of being ‘anti-democratic,’ ‘totalitarian.’” Žižek sees in the campaign to elevate the Holocaust into something like “sublime Evil” an effort to delegitimize other cruelties, particularly those committed by the West against the Third World. He considers the purges under Stalinism more “irrational” than Fascist or Nazi violence, for the former, like today's transnational capitalism, pervaded the entire social body, while the latter was “condensed” into a program of anti-Semitism. On the other hand, even in the brutal conditions of the Gulag, “the notion of material production as the site of creative fulfillment survived.”

As an alternative to the current postmodernist cult of cynicism and retreat into islands of privacy and nihilism advocated by the likes of Jean Baudrillard and Jean-François Lyotard, among others, the five essays making up Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? insist on the social link and offer the visionary strength for resistance against all forms of totalized explanations.

Clayton Crockett (review date June 2002)

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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 Frankfurt School, along with his engaging prose that illuminates movies and other aspects of contemporary culture, combine to make his voice unique and important. The Fragile Absolute, a follow-up to The Ticklish Subject, unites social and political analysis with a consideration of religion.

As the subtitle suggests, Žižek deals less with Christianity itself than with a specific legacy, here based on Alan Badiou's reading of St. Paul. On this reading, “Christianity and Marxism should fight on the same side of the barricade against the onslaught of the new spiritualisms” (p. 2). New age spiritualisms converge with perverse aspects of a well-intentioned tolerance and multiculturalism that represses national and racial conflict only to see such conflicts break out anew all the more virulently, in a return of the repressed. These new age spiritualisms and multiculturalist ideologies mask the true enemy, capitalism, which both Marxism and Christianity (properly understood) provide tools to identify and oppose.

Žižek moves effortlessly and dazzlingly from topic to topic, from the Balkan conflicts to Diet Coke to the film Blue, and his prose is very clear, although at times understanding hovers tantalizingly just out of reach. Žižek uses Lacanian concepts of imaginary, symbolic and real to express political insights. He argues that “the struggle for hegemony within today's postmodern politics … encounters the Real when it touches the point of actually disturbing the free functioning of capital” (p. 55). Our liberal, multicultural celebrations of difference are an imaginary fantasy which allows us to ignore the brutality of capitalism as it expands and destroys all opposition. Our fantasy is imagining that we are free subjects capable of resting in a place outside capitalism in order to resist it, and believing that multiplying cultural differences actually opposes rather than supports the unifying process of creating a global market. We need a symbolic discourse and practice that directly engages capitalist oppression.

Although Žižek opposes many contemporary forms of postmodernism, he ultimately critiques the modern stance of opposition to the system of capitalist power. His strategy wagers that unreserved identification with the cultural forms of capital ultimately exposes the vacuity of its logic. This is a “surprising radical gesture” which has affinities with Deleuze and Guattari's attempt to push capitalism to its limit in Capitalism and Schizophrenia and also Baudrillard's ironic embrace of simulacra. Here, “the subject is actually ‘in’ (caught in the web of) power only and precisely insofar as he does not fully identify with it but maintains a kind of distance towards it; on the other hand, the system (of public Law) is actually undermined by unreserved identification with it” (p. 148). This gesture is a quasi-miraculous event that possesses affinity with Paul's notion of agape. On this reading of Pauline Christianity (using Hegelian language), “the suprasensible [God] is the appearance as such” (p. 105). Furthermore, Christian charity, as opposed to pagan wisdom and justice, uncouples one from enslavement to the Law and allows an experience of the Absolute in moments of fragile and fleeting beauty (p. 118).

Žižek conclusions are both evocative and provocative. The scope of his treatment in such a concise work loses some of the fine-grained complexity of both Christian thought and contemporary Marxist theory, but his creative juxtaposition demands that the reader grapple with his ideas. Actually, since most of the analysis is cultural and political, the invocation of Christianity appears almost like a spirit conjured up to validate his theoretical discussions of cultural phenomena and global capital. Nonetheless, this book is highly recommended for scholars and thinkers working at the intersections of philosophy, cultural and political theory, and religious thought.

Matthew Bullimore (review date August 2002)

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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 Žižek's most recent interventions into political theory. He has recently published two works (The Fragile Absolute, or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? Verso: London, 2000 and On Belief, Routledge: London, 2001), dovetailing with the volumes under consideration, which focus more specifically on theological themes. All four books, however, show Žižek's present interest in using the logic of Christianity to exemplify what he sees as authentic revolutionary commitment.

Žižek's work comes out of the Slovene/Ljubljiana Lacanian school. The school is non-clinical but uses Lacanian psychoanalysis as the privileged lens in its philosophical hermeneutic. Lacanian theory is deployed in order to describe, understand, and analyse contemporary political and ideological theories and practices. Another hallmark of the school is its use of (popular) forms of cultural expression (film, literature, the joke) to explicate Lacanian theory. Žižek's multiform work, like that of the school in general, thus continues to resist specific appellations, although it consciously resists that of being ‘postmodern’. Žižek ardently critiques postmodern thought, preferring for himself the seemingly perverse self-description: ‘Pauline materialist’.

These books are published in Žižek's series ‘Wo Es War’—dedicated to combining Lacanian and Marxist insights to question, and interrupt the ever more acquisitive circuit of capital. The Ticklish Subject acts as Žižek's philosophical manifesto. The introduction declares that ‘a spectre is haunting Western academia, the spectre of the Cartesian subject’. This is an attempt by the ‘partisans’ of Cartesian subjectivity to meet head-on the ‘nursery tale’ (1-2) of ‘The Cartesian Subject’ decried by nearly all contemporary academic discourses. Žižek's obdurate insistence on reinstating the Cartesian subject lies in realising that at its heart is a traumatic empty core: the abyss of freedom. This subject is the subject of a Lacanian interpreted German Idealism, and not the transparent thinking self that has become the postmodern scapegoat for all our philosophical woes. This (yes, idiosyncratic) Cartesian subject is the condition for an authentic abyssal ‘act’ that might supplant a postmodern emphasis on constant, shifting rearticulations of discursively formed subjectivities that remain contingent upon the hidden backdrop of global capitalism.

Focussing on contemporary political theory, The Ticklish Subject is dialectical in style. Each of the three parts begins with a chapter explicating a major critique of Cartesian subjectivity, with a second chapter dealing with the problems inherent in that position. Part I deals with the subject in German Idealism. Heidegger is criticised for his misreading of Kant, and is then supplemented in the next chapter by Hegel and the reflexive, hysterical (ticklish) subject of his work. Part II confronts four major political theorists who, Žižek controversially argues, work out of an Althusserian heritage: Balibar, Rancière, Laclau and Badiou. Each deals with the contemporary Third Way, ‘post-political’ liberal-democratic stance through theories of political subjectivation. Alain Badiou, as a reader of St Paul, is championed by Žižek for his description of ‘Truth-Events’ that break with the contemporary order of ‘Being’. The second chapter seeks to supplement their work with a Lacanian emphasis on both the mediating ‘totalitarian’ master and also the act of the ‘empty’ subject. It is here that Žižek appeals to the logic of Christianity. Žižek sees Christ's injunctions (to hate mother and father, for example) as the mad act that breaks all former substantial ties. After Badiou, he then explores the Pauline formation of the community of the Holy Ghost, faithful to the Truth-Event of Christ's death and resurrection, as a paradigm for the political community. Finally, Part III takes issue with the postmodern celebration of the proliferation of subjectivities. Žižek engages with the work of Judith Butler and her theory of performativity as the ‘most representative and persuasive’ (3) proponent of such a stance. The final chapter, which is perhaps the most interesting in terms of Žižek's political thought, asks ‘Whither Oedipus?’ in these contemporary accounts of subjectivation. If the Oedipal mode of subject formation is in decline then Žižek is led to ask what the dangers of a loss of symbolic authority today might be. Žižek worries that this decline of authority leads to new modes of subjection and dependency. Žižek's response is self-consciously that of the (Marxist) ‘materialist’. If the ‘depoliticized economy is the “fundamental fantasy” of postmodern politics’ (355) then a repoliticisation of the economy is the way to ‘traverse this fantasy’. This is not to the detriment of issues raised by postmodern forms of political subjectivity, but ‘precisely in order to create the conditions for the more effective realisation of feminist, ecological, and so on, demands’ (356). Žižek's belief, persuasively presented, is that to challenge the apparently unanimous consensus on the unassailable status of capitalism will precipitate a ‘mad’ totalitarian moment.

Thus, in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, Žižek seeks to identify (mis)uses of the trope ‘totalitarian’ within present intra-academic wranglings and so allow for a ‘positive’ reappropriation of the term. Specifically, Žižek complains that the limits of postmodern ethics and politics are marked by the misuse of ‘totalitarianism’ as the accusation to end all debates. He argues that the term has been marshalled by the present liberal-democratic hegemony to criticise Leftists who manifest, it claims, the obverse side of fascist discourse. This goes hand in hand with an absolutising of the evil of the holocaust—a move that ensures the status quo and finally refuses any real radical ethico-political engagement. And so, Žižek scathingly writes: ‘conformist, liberal scoundrels can find hypocritical satisfaction in their defence of the existing order: they know there is corruption, exploitation … but every attempt to change things is denounced as ethically dangerous … resuscitating the ghost of “totalitarianism”’ (4).

The five chapters follow five (mis)uses of ‘totalitarianism’ in contemporary theory. Chapter 1 deals with totalitarianism as modernism going awry, either as the inevitable outcome of the Enlightenment project, or as the manifestation of its failure to realise its true potential. Here Žižek deploys a theological meditation on the totalitarian moment of Christ's life and death to explain how it is possible to break out of the constraints of a postmodern world that is the actual outcome/failure of the Enlightenment. Chapter 2 is an attempt to think the holocaust differently, in opposition to the contemporary consensus that to apply concrete political analysis to the holocaust is already to have trivialised it. The argument is here sustained through attention to aesthetics and the nature of the tragic/comic. Thirdly, Žižek attacks the neo-liberal juxtaposition of ethnic fundamentalisms and Leftist emancipatory politics, a move that equates emancipatory politics with inevitable ‘total control’. Lenin is invoked as allowing precisely for the way out of a capitalist existence as ‘bondsmen’ to greed. Rather, and again after Badiou, we are to be the momentarily rootless, those who refuse substantial ties in order to move forward. The fourth chapter is an argument against the ‘mantra of contingency/displacement/finitude’ (6) in postmodern politics. This stance, Žižek argues, so fears metaphysical closure that no concrete political effects are tolerated for fear of totalitarianism. Žižek provides a treatment of the ‘post-secular’ ethics of the Other in Derrida and Levinas. Here we learn that we are to be mourners and not melancholics—again, because the latter still cling to lost roots whilst the former are able to cut loose and begin again. Provocatively, the Christian is seen as a paradigmatic mourner that allows the mediator (Christ) to vanish. Žižek has described (52) how this letting go of the lost object allows one to move from the circuit of desire to the authenticity of an economy of love. Finally, he examines the claim made by scientific cognitivists that cultural studies forms a totalitarian Party that refuses rational debate. In the conclusion, Žižek describes the remaining spectres of totalitarianism in the political field today, including a treatment of cyberspace.

Žižek's work seems so striking, perhaps, because of its novelty and sheer audacity. Against the growing orthodoxy of deconstructionist doxa, Žižek strategically uses words from his own Leftist, ‘Pauline’ revolutionary vocabulary (master, totalitarianism, evil, truth, love) to move beyond the strictures of capital. The use of theological themes is tantalising. This ‘theology’, with its self-consciously Hegelian flavour and its Girardian influence, is not traditionally orthodox. Yet, given that Žižek's theory of the political act is currently narrated through an extended meditation upon Christian desire/love, his work promises to make us rethink the intimate link between Christian desire, christology and community. It will be instructive to see how Žižek develops his theological thought in relation to theological reactions to his work. However, I think that Žižek's suggestiveness is still at present found in his wonderfully irreverent mixture of ‘high’ theory and ‘low’ culture to provide a startling critique of ideology. Perhaps most striking here is Žižek's description of the way that fantasy suffuses our very everyday existence and keeps desire flowing. Love is found in a communal formation that has broken with its fantasy, and again Žižek here envisages a post-capitalist society. The use of ‘the subject’, as opposed to ‘subject position’, with its emphasis on act/decision and even ‘conversion’ (DSST [Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?], 152), may be especially welcome to some theological ears.

I would ask how far Žižek can sustain the argument that he is not postmodern. From a theological perspective, it seems that he is not always able to mark his difference from the ‘true’ postmodernists as starkly as he wishes. I suspect that Žižek might argue that he is writing himself ‘another’ modernity, which could be an interesting point of comparison with certain contemporary theological voices. With reference to his stance against ‘post-secularism’, for example, I would question how far the return of the theological in his work, albeit fairly doctrinal, is not similarly symptomatic of a wider turn also manifested in the writers of alterity (Levinas/Derrida). Žižek is a self-confessed ‘atheist’, and I am not certain that immersing yourself in the (Lacanianised) logic of a theological position takes you beyond ‘post-secularism’, Pauline materialist or not. Nevertheless, Žižek's work provides valuable insight into the mechanisms of our contemporary universe, and is certainly never uninteresting (even if his voluminous output creates overlaps and repetitions).

Andrew Hussey (review date 9 September 2002)

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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 impassioned defence of the Iranian revolution of 1979, French intellectual life has been shaped by revolutionary violence; indeed, it is one of the founding myths of French political thought. The publication, then, of these essays by two leading French thinkers and a fellow-traveller [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] on the events of 11 September 2001, and their aftermath, is, to say the least, intriguing.

A couple of years ago, I saw Jean Baudrillard give a lecture in Paris. Solidly built—nothing of the fey academic about him—he spoke with an almost Presbyterian rigour and passion about the war in Kosovo and how a cult of victimhood had become the defining issue of international politics, at least from the point of view of western intervention. The problem with the Kosovo conflict, he said, was not that Milosevic was evil, but that the Kosovar Albanians had been portrayed as helpless victims in need of “our” aid. What can be called the Steven Spielberg version of history meant that, from Auschwitz to the Gaza Strip, politics in the 20th century had been abolished in favour of sentiment and emotional hypocrisy.

Baudrillard is notorious in the English-speaking world for his declaration, made in late 1990, that the “Gulf war did not take place”. By this, he did not mean that nothing had happened in the deserts of Iraq, but that the conflict had really taken place in the western media, and had no real meaning outside of that space. In this sense, the Gulf war confirmed Baudrillard's theories of “simulacrum” and “hyperreality”—parallel ways of describing how all contemporary phenomena, from pornography to war, exist at an untouchable distance from everyday life.

The obvious challenge of 11 September, for Baudrillard, is that the slaughter took place in real time and in a real space. This, as he recognises, makes it impossible for him to theorise in any meaningful way on the metaphorical possibilities of a virtual conflict. Instead, he argues that what happened in September last year was a form of “spectacular Evil” that destroyed for ever the possibility of consensus politics in the global arena. Baudrillard describes how the destruction of the twin towers, as representatives of global power, had been the secret, unspoken fantasy of all those who had to any extent opposed such power. What he calls the “spirit of terrorism” is the waking nightmare of fantasy become reality, which means that in the west, we are all, whether of the right or left, now engaged in a murderous game, the rules of which are constantly being changed, not according to the globalised strategies of the western powers, but according to the inscrutable, ultimately unknowable, demands of “the enemy”.

Baudrillard's essay was originally published in Le Monde, alongside an equally illuminating article by the Tangier-based writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, who emphasised the dangers of the new, unpredictable rules of international lawmaking. “The new rules are ferocious,” Baudrillard concurs, “because the game is ferocious.”

Baudrillard, perhaps unexpectedly for his detractors, offers a sober and hardheaded commentary on the events of last September and their aftermath. Significantly, there is no trace of the specious and pretentious nihilism that is so often claimed as the hallmark of his thinking. Rather, he offers a clear analysis of the terrible miscalculations in the west that have brought us to this point, and which seem to offer us no way back from the spectral “war on terrorism”.

Paul Virilio is equally bleak, but casts his net far wider than Baudrillard. He presents a gloomy overview of present cultural conditions in the west, which he pronounces as moribund and “morally rudderless”. Despite his often convoluted arguments, Virilio is able to reach simple, if blindingly obvious, conclusions: the attack on the World Trade Center was a declaration of total war; Osama Bin Laden is a war criminal. But because western civilisation is rubbish, he writes, in an Inspector Clouseau-like echo of Oswald Spengler and Frazer in Dad's Army, we're all doomed anyway.

There are some interesting, if peculiar, insights here. But the overall effect of this book is to confirm Anglo-American prejudices about the redundancy of Marxist and post-Marxist intellectuals in a world that has abolished Big Ideas as the determining forces in human history.

The thrust of Slavoj Zizek's essay is that 11 September offered the United States “an opportunity to realise what kind of world it was part of” and, he says, jabbing his finger even harder, to feel “responsibility and guilt towards the impoverished third world”. That the Americans refused to seize the opportunity to indulge in a festival of self-loathing served merely to confirm their wickedness. This is by now a long-familiar and, in some quarters, even respectable position to hold. The real problem here is that Zizek is unwilling to distinguish between the American government, which may well be bad or at least dim-witted, and the American people, who may not be as familiar as Zizek with the nuances of thought of Giorgio Agamben but who, as a walk down a New York street will reveal, are far more diverse in looks, ideas and opinions than he ever gives them credit for. It does not help matters that the book is written in the irritating and ingratiating jargon of cultural studies textbooks of the 1980s, with its multi-layered and dismal puns and its references to anything from Apocalypse Now Redux to the Monkees.

Zizek seizes the moral high ground and, with all the haughtiness of the clever-dick academic that he is, proceeds to lecture us from it. But this is not scholarship or original thought. It is simple exhibitionism of a particularly nasty sort. Most ignorantly, he accuses the Americans of exploiting their status as victims, without ever seeming to grasp that the ordinary men and women who were killed or maimed that day were, in the most real and terrible sense, victims. If they were later exploited as such, it was as part of a process that was beyond their control.

Each of these writers is correct to assume that we need philosophy more than ever in the face of great events, if only to separate real thought and feelings from emotional blackmail and hysteria. But it is also one of the tasks of the philosopher, at least according to Montaigne, to confront morality with compassion. The inability to do this—which exposes the limits of so-called postmodern thought and its avatars—may yet prove to be one of the most sinister legacies of 11 September.

Derek Hook (review date June 2003)

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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 examples and, in fact, similar tracts of text. One wonders whether this is the first sign of the dissipation of Žižek's intellectual aura, an indication, through repetition and overlap, that the popular theorist has started spreading himself too thin. There are a series of recurring themes across the titles, amongst which include the U.S. political crisis after September 11, the worldwide threat of supposed ‘Fundamentalism’, the continual juxtaposition of irrational religious belief with technologized, consumerist atheism, the growing threat of the new European Right-wing, the Palestinian question, and the ongoing persistence of Holocaust debates.

Welcome to the Desert of the Real is the most recent of the titles, a modest Verso paperback that reworks and expands a series of September 11 arguments that Žižek has replayed in various forums since the attacks. On Belief, the first of the three to be published, likewise bears the impression of a quickly-written book, one hastily prepared at the publisher's behest. It rehearses a fundamental Žižekian concern, far better explored in his earlier Enjoy Your Symptom!—how fantasmatic supports (here of a pseudo-religious sort) structure our daily existence and reality, despite our insistence to the contrary. The most prominent of the three publications is Revolution at the Gates, an edited collection of Lenin's 1917 writings, bracketed with a vitriolic introduction and a book-length commentary. It best epitomizes the joint concerns of these titles, and its themes are cross-referenced in each. And it is Lenin, perhaps even more than Žižek's favoured theorists (Freud, Lacan, Hegel, Adorno, Badiou) that proves to be the recurring figure.

In this respect, Žižek has picked his ideologue well; the very unthinkability of Lenin as a model for political action today, or such is Žižek's intimation, tells us something. Lenin, as both historical monument and collection of ideas, stands for a kind of despotic modernism, for centralization, for an unrepentant and uncompromising politics, for revolutionary commitment to universal truth, for hard Marxism, for deliberate action that takes on its own responsibility, for the possibility of universal social transformation. The current neo-liberal-democratic order stands, by contrast—at least according to Žižek—for a middling doxa of compromise, for discursive multiplicity and multiculturalism, for the non-partisan, for the post-Marxian abandonment of revolutionary politics, for postmodern shifting identities/subjectivities. More than this—and here Žižek is at his most scathing—such a ‘liberal-parliamentary consensus’ represents an apolitics of ‘the interpassivity of doing things in order to really prevent something happening’ (170).

Within the frame of this greater theoretical argument, Žižek cuts a swathe across common causes in apparently ‘critical’ thought or politics. Nothing, he claims, is easier than securing international funding on projects that seek to fight new forms of ethnic, religious or gender discrimination. Each of these fragmented topics treads fearfully away from engaging any totalizing project; even more so, they show not the slightest signs of seriously challenging the existing order. To cut to the point: these ‘fights’ seem to short-circuit any real radicalism, any real prospect of setting in motion a properly unearthing structural change; each such cause finds it difficult to fathom the notion of revolution. And each finds its feet, its motivation, and its overall plan of action quite comfortably within the contemporary climate of globalized capital.

We return here to Žižek's recurring preoccupation: the insidious functioning, whether in psyche or culture—or here, in a ‘politics of inactivity’—of ideology. Here, as in all of his writing, Žižek is reluctant to allow us to forget the lesson of hegemony. This is a formula he detects in virtually all his readings of popular culture and politics. His constant recourse to ‘Hegelese’, to Lacanian psychoanalysis and a myriad other theoretical figures, aims exactly at unfolding this formula, and doing so precisely when it appears to have been most effectively dispelled. It is in this vein that he argues that official ideology has come to represent itself as its own greatest transgression. This, however, is a lesson which should come as no surprise given that the normal functioning of capitalism, like that of modern power more generally, involves some kind of disavowal of the basic principle of its functioning.

As part of the general trajectory of this argument, Žižek takes issue with the ‘right to narrate’ argument so popular in the field of postcolonial studies, and proposes instead ‘the right to truth’ argument. It should be obvious, he insists in Revolution at the Gates, that any kind of adequate politics—that is to say, a politics of transformation, of forceful and material intent—needs ground itself in a truth, and more than just this, a universal truth. The only real universality, he proclaims, is the political one, ‘the universal link binding together all who experience a fundamental solidarity, all those who become aware that their struggles are part of the very struggle which cuts across the entire social edifice’ (177); hence, contra the compromise politics of today's left, and contra notions of discursive multiplicity/relativism, the Leninist argument for the importance of both universal truth and partisanship. Despite the apparent contradiction between the two, ‘the universal truth of a concrete situation can be articulated only from a thoroughly partisan position; truth is, by definition, one-sided’ (177).

What is often so thrilling about Žižek is also that which causes the most consternation. The characteristic conjunctions of intricate theoretical arguments, spread liberally across these three books, the pairings of Adorno with Lacan, Arendt with Badiou, the conversions of theoretical positions across Benjamin, Butler, Hegel, Freud and others, are indisputably stimulating, but they are also worrying. At times one cannot help but wonder whether the subtleties of certain of the arguments replayed end up slipping between the cracks, falling beneath the vociferous polemic. Žižek certainly deserves far more sustained critical and scholarly attention in this regard, although it should be admitted that his skills of paraphrase—like the virtuosity of his intellectual mix-and-match—are not best attacked as a case of simple misreading. Having said that, one does feel that Žižek's work at present occupies a kind of ‘state of grace’, as if the current intellectual climate has not quite yet caught up with him, that the Left has not as yet properly assimilated his charge on its accepted wisdom, or formulated a critique robust enough to adequately respond.

If Žižek's theoretical extrapolations do not lose the gist of their often opaque antecedents, and if the ultimate critiques he thus patches together are frequently trenchant, his ‘playings out’ of theory do at times risk a certain banality. So, in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, he quotes a verse from a song featured in the animated children's series The Land Before Time as means of illustrating the shortcomings of a particular brand of liberal multiculturalism. The point, basically, is that the happy ‘collaboration-in-difference’ message of the celebrate-diversity discourse is ideology at its finest. Why? Because it insulates against the development of ‘vertical’ antagonisms that should cut through society. Put differently: limp multiculturalism short-circuits the development of (kinds of) class-struggle. Or, in even more forceful terms (and here the unison of the argument shared by all three books really comes to the fore) ‘democracy is today's political fetish—the disavowal of social antagonism’. Hence, adapting Horkheimer's injunction: ‘[i]f you don't want to talk about capitalism, then you should keep silent about Fascism’, Žižek's argument in Revolution at the Gates is that if one is unwilling to subject liberal democracy and the flaws of multiculturalist tolerance to critical analysis, then one should keep silent about the new Rightist violence and intolerance’ (168).

Now, as sharp an argument against the shortcomings of multiculturalism and neo-liberal democracy as this might be, one cannot help but wonder if it does not lose some of its force through the very inanity of the above example with which Žižek chooses to dramatize it. Popular culture references such as this run the risk of rendering theory banal because there seems so little about them which affords genuinely interesting points of purchase; they risk reducing away the complexities of theory and hence ‘lower the pitch’ of the intellectual engagement to a point where the application becomes dull and uninspired. Such a set of often inane popular cultural references begs the question of selection, and one is tempted to venture that what is constant here is in fact the pure arbitrariness of such examples. In fact, one sometimes gets the impression that whatever catches Žižek's eye on television over breakfast in the morning has a chance of gaining a starring role in whatever he is writing at the time. Although, in contrast, at other times one wonders whether these allusions to cinema, television and the passing news headlines are the real characters, the real focuses of his books, and whether the theoretical motifs are not orchestrated around them, rather than the other way around. (And here I admit, I am borrowing an argument Žižek himself makes in reference to Hitchcock). Nonetheless, the joke may well be on us; the illustration may not be that of theory by means of the flotsam and jetsam of throwaway newsmedia culture, but that of popular newsmedia culture by means of theory. And this is the point: what Žižek appears to lack in these three books is exactly what made his earlier texts so compelling. Whereas the earlier texts made use of multiple theoretical combinations to mount fundamentally interesting forms of critique, to re-think the objects of critique, and around which to arrange a set of exemplars drawn from the cultural field, here one gets something of a sense of complacency, of the props preceding the substance of the argument. It is as if a series of attention-grabbing contemporary concerns and interests (not all of which are political) are the points of structure, and that slightly routine and over-rehearsed theoretical impressions are now brought out to animate them. So On Belief's discussion of Tibet, for example, seems a little tired, uncharacteristically unprovocative; as if the theoretical ‘takes’ on the topic never really rise above the level of the counterintuitive.

This is also the problem with what appears to be the critical endpoint of each of the books. If Žižek's objective is to return us to re-enthused Marxian and even Leninist forms of analysis, then he seems, quite simply, to be right. But do we not here risk the old fallacy of the metanarrative? Are all our political ills, our wars, our sympathetic (or engaged) struggles over territory, representational value, ideology, and so on, reducible, once again, to the old enemy of Capitalism? Whereas the earlier books, notably The Sublime Object of Ideology, excelled in the eclectic metatheoretical combinations which allowed real conceptual depth in thinking of the object of critique—that is, the complex inter-weavings of psychical and ideological power—Žižek here seems a little too easily reductive in what he takes to be the object of critique. This, perhaps, is a result of what seems to be his knee-jerk reaction against neo-liberal postmodernism. Whatever it may be, one suspects that Žižek is not stretching his conceptual abilities to the point he could. What one fears, and what one gets in patches in these three titles, is Žižek cobbling together a set of familiar themes that are worked through in less interesting variations of his earlier work. In this connection, one hopes that what lies ahead is more than Žižek pastiching Žižek.


Principal Works


Further Reading