Zizek reads Hegel through Lacan

18 10 2010

Slavoj Zizek’s book, The Sublime Object of Ideology, is not an easy work to cipher. So anything I jot down here may or may not be representative of what he actually says there. It has been ages since I read Jacques Lacan, and like the vast majority of people, I didn’t really “get it” when I read him. Whether or not it is at all possible to “get him” is the subject of another series of notes.

When I read books like this, I try to grab on to one idea and see how it interacts with all of the others that I seem to be having trouble with. In this case, that idea is a re-reading of the Hegelian dialectic. For all of you philosophical virgins out there, the Hegelian dialectic is commonly understood as a method for understanding how ideas move in history. The idea (a thesis) is negated by something (an antithesis) only to reach a higher level of understanding (synthesis). Zizek’s problem with this model is that the reading is, in a sense, too positive. The synthesis here is not a higher idea that emerges after a process of negation. It is, rather, a change of perspective in terms of how one sees the original thesis. It is not that the synthesis is something entirely new, but rather it is the thesis viewed in its negativity, the thesis avec negation, the objet petit a, the object as a lack. As Zizek writes in a related essay on the subject:

It would be a complete misunderstanding of the dialectical relationship between Knowledge and Truth if this rapport were viewed as a progressive approximation whereby the subject, driven by the operation of Truth, passes from one figure of knowledge (having proved its ‘falsity’, its insufficiency) to another that is much closer to Truth, etc., until a final agreement between knowledge and Truth is achieved in the form of Absolute Knowledge. From this perspective, Truth is conceived of as a substantial entity, an In-Itself, and the dialectical process is reduced to a simple, asymptotic movement, a progressive approximation to the Truth, in the sense of Victor Hugo’s famous saying: ‘Science is an asymptote of Truth. It ever approaches but ever touches it.’ On the contrary, the Hegelian coincidence of the movement toward truth with truth itself implies that there already has contact with the truth: truth itself must change with the changing knowledge, which is to say that, once knowledge no longer corresponds to truth, we must not merely adjust knowledge accordingly rather transform both poles – the insufficiency of knowledge, its apropos of the truth, radically indicates a lack, a non-achievement at the heart of truth itself.

Zizek reads the modern phenomenon of ideology itself in this light. Ideology does not seek some ultimate goal, something outside of itself that is “pulling the levers”, so to speak. The goal of ideology is jouissance, the Lacanian term meaning a sort of absurd pleasure only insofar as it is a pleasure that means nothing; a pleasure that “breaks” meaning. For example, when Mussolini was asked why the fascists wanted to rule Italy, he replied, “To rule Italy!” Zizek cites Pascal’s famous wager and a passage of Descartes in which he says that the only way to get out of a forest is to keep walking in a straight line as other examples of the jouissance of ideology. To quote from the book:

It is as if Descartes, in the quoted passage, is giving us, perhaps for the first time, the pure form of this fundamental ideological paradox: what is really at stake in ideology is its form, the fact that we continue to walk as straight as we can in one direction, that we follow even the most dubious opinions once our mind has been made up regarding them; but this ideological attitude can be acheived only as a “state that is essentially by-product”: the ideological subjects, ‘travellers lost in a forest”, must believe that their decision is well founded, that it will lead to their Goal. As soon as they perceive that the real goal is the consistency of the ideological attitude itself, the effect is self-defeating. We can see how ideology works in a way exactly opposed to the popular idea of Jesuit morals: the aim here is to justify the means.

Thus, Zizek turns Marx’s reading of ideology in Capital on its head: it is not that people do things, absurd things, yet know not why they do them. They know perfectly well that what they are doing is absurd, yet they do them anyway, to acquire that jouissance. Or to quote from the essay cited above: ‘In Marxism, a man knows what he wants and does not possess it; in psychoanalysis, a man does not know what he wants and already possesses it’. The tension that Zizek highlights is that the truth is perceived to be in the Other, though what we find in the Other is already a lack. The answer was already present in the very asking of the question. The goal is in the exercising of ideology, not in its coming to rest.

This is a very skeleton-like outline of a lot of complicated (and convoluted?) arguments, and we haven’t even covered the differences between the Real and the Symbolic, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, in the coming weeks, I think I will have to unwrap various themes from Zizek’s work. His analysis of Stalinism, for example, is quite worthy of extensive commentary, as are his readings of various movies and pop cultural icons. In spite of his complexity, his curmudgeonry, and obvious obfuscation in places, Zizek is thoroughly readable. One could say that he is so because he combines effortlessly philosophy with popular culture; psychoanalysis with pop music, politics, and movies. One can sort of look down on him for that: a sort of harmful jester who makes a mockery of high culture, and intentionally writes things just to be incendiary.

Zizek for me has another appeal. Modern people have an insatiable tendency to read about themselves. This is perhaps behind the appeal of psychoanalysis and therapy in the first place. The philosophical tools to “read” our daily lives, however, are often quite poor, having been forged in a distant elitist agrarian past. What does Plato have to say to Britney Spears? What does Aristotle have to say to the middle class, cookie cutter home? More often than not, especially amongst religious conservatives, we consign modern life to being a discursive non-entity, or we try to bang it into a box in which we know it doesn’t fit. When Zizek tries to analyze the differences between French and German toilets, we may think he is just trying to get a rise out of us by turning the scatological ideological. My sense is that if in the ancient world even how one harvested one’s crops was determined by transcendent principles, it just makes sense that we try to find the same sort of meaning in the objects and devices that surround us. That is why Zizek is worth reading, even if we don’t always agree with him. He is the hardest working man in (philosophical) show business because he perceives this lack in our discursive tool box.



11 responses

26 10 2010

I’d rather read Sartre’s “Elections, piege a cons”.

20 10 2010

Well, I finally broke down and bought Late Capitalism, even though Ernest Mandel has his own red t-shirt ( http://prisonship.wordpress.com/2007/08/26/episodes-in-socialist-culture-mandel/ – scroll down to bottom of post)

20 10 2010

I’m glad y’all are reading Zizek, especially you Ochlophobist! I was the one who made the anonymous comments on Arturo’s blog anonymously about Zizek, the Fragile Absolute, etc. I had a similar reaction to that book – very profound. I’ll try to comment on both of your blogs more. I read them both everyday, and have for a good while.

20 10 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Dollars to doughnuts, one of those groups sounds like th ISO, or the International Socialist Organization. They are a state capitalist, pseudo-Trotskyist splinter group who usually recruit young geeky men through sexual favors (at least that is what I heard ten years ago). And you are right: much of the New Left, even the radical New Left, prioritized identity politics over everything else. My Trotskyist cultish grouplet did this, and it is one of the reasons I left and renounced Marxism altogether. Marxism, I think, helped me to be a better traditionalist (not in the Catholic sense of the term).

That being said, the second half of the Zizek interview posted here makes me want to read Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism over again. For all of the baiting of Keynesian economic theory by the Christian right, they seem to forget that the most Keynesian maneuveur of all is not to build roads and bridges, but tanks and bombs. Mandel called that Department III, as opposed to Department I (the creation of the means of production), and Department II (the creation of goods to be consumed) – both outlined in Marx’s Capital. The one way to get around a classical capitalist crisis of overproduction is to produce things that do not have to be consumed by buyers, but can destroy entire cities and create a demand for the things to rebuild them.

Politically, I do not know what to think of Zizek. Is he serious? In my old Marxist days, I would have considered him a petit-bourgeois social democrat who was the clown of the capitalist ruling classes. Now, since I am just as jaded and cynical about politics as he seems to be, I enjoy hearing what he has to say.

19 10 2010

Part II of the Democracy Now interview with Zizek is here:


Two thoughts – One, I think that my favorite passages from Zizek are his interpretations of scripture. The new intro to The Fragile Absolute, which I just started reading because of a comment left on a thread here, contains some of the most profound scriptural hermeneutic that I have read in years. I’ll be very interested to read your thoughts on that work when you get to it.

Second, Zizek’s relationship to communism intrigues me, and sorta kinda confirms in me inclinations I have had but have not been able to come to terms with. At one point he compares Communists who want to reject Lenin and return to the “pure” Marxism of Marx to Christians who want to reject Paul and return to the “pure” authentic religion of Jesus. He says you can’t have Christianity without Paul and you can’t have communism without Lenin. But beyond that Zizek’s posture seems to be one of a quirky Old Leftist who takes strategic shots at New Leftist myths – the video you had earlier where he attacks Starbucks and the perversity of “charity” in our age seems typical. I read that he dropped out of the communist party back home out of protest for the imprisonment of some of his friends, but he strikes me as still radical in the best of ways, and his take on the necessary relationship between the radical and the Christian (which I am getting into now) seems fascinating. I love in the part II interview I link to above that Zizek notes that “those who dare to strike today are usually the privileged” — and he contrasts this to poor textile workers – Zizek is one of the few public intellectuals who seems to keep bringing the focus back on class and on economic determinisms, saying those things the New Left has long been too embarrassed to say. I’m not sure that Zizek ever gives one a clear vision of what a radical life should look like in these “end of days” – I mean, the guy was married to an Argentine underwear model for a while, but the outline he sort of provides does incline one to run far away from Whole Foods liberalism as fast as one can.

One last thought on Zizek and the Old Left. I recently was looking at some photos of two different socialist groups here in America. Both groups spend as much or more time on “social issue” politics, particularly queer liberation, than they do on economic-worker related issues. Both had pictures of middle class mostly white guys wearing cool socialist t-shirts (red, with fists on them) and some of these guys were holding their fists up in the photos. This contrasted with the Trots (who I have only encountered from a distance as it were, at the Trot bookstore in MPLS and at rallies and once in jail) and old CPUSA (prior to it going Social Dem) and other real Marxist folks I know and knew in my childhood who dressed, uh, normal (like workers or in cheap suits, etc.) and didn’t do so many raised fist photo ops to flicker to their friends. Zizek seems to really have a handle on how pathetic the Left has become. I listen/read Zizek and just want to cry out, “I repent, I repent…” Social Dem, catholicish games like distributivism, middle class white agrarianism, it’s all entertainment. Zizek is entertainment too, but he at least reminds me of various realities.

Solidarity forever (fist not raised)…

19 10 2010
Henry Karlson

Welcome to the Desert of the Real was the first Zizek book I read, and I found out I liked much of what he had to say in it. Of course, as Arturo points out, there is much we will disagree with him — but that is always the case with philosophy.

19 10 2010
Henry Karlson

If you had not read it, I think you would like this quote, which I put up on Vox Nova ages ago (and consistently gets people coming in to read it):

As for the ‘clash of civilizations’, let us recall the letter form the seven-year-old American girl whose father was a pilot fighting in Afghanistan: she wrote that — although she loved her father very much, she was ready to let him die, to sacrifice him for her country. When President Bush quoted these lines, they were perceived as a ‘normal’ outburst of American patriotism; let us conduct a simple mental experiment and imagine an Arab Muslim girl pathetically reciting into the camera the same words about her father fighting for the Taliban — we do not have to think for long about what our reaction would have been: morbid Muslim fundamentalism which does not stop even at the cruel manipulation and exploitation of children . . . . Every feature attributed to the Other is already present at the very heart of the USA. Murderous fanaticism? There are in the USA today more than two million Rightist populist ‘fundamentalists’ who also practise a terror of their own, legitimized by (their understanding of) Christianity. Since America is, in a way, ‘harbouring’ them, should the US Army have punished Americans themselves after the Oklahoma bombing?

–Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (London: Verso Press, 2002), 43-4. (http://vox-nova.com/2008/09/27/quote-of-the-week-slavoj-zizek/)

And here is another quote:

The danger represented by the Iraq War can be best exemplified by the actual role of the populist Right in Europe — namely, to introduce certain topics (like the foreign threat, the necessity of limiting immigration, etc.) that can be silently taken over not only by conservative parties, but even by the de facto politics of ‘socialistic’ governments. […]

What we have here is a kind of perverted Hegelian ‘negation of negation’: in the first negation, the populist Right disturbs the aseptic liberal consensus by giving voice to passionate dissent, clearly arguing against the ‘foreign threat’; in a second negation, the ‘decent’ democratic centre, in the very gesture of pathetically rejecting this populist Right, integrates its message in a ‘civilized’ way — between these two movements, the entire field of ‘unwritten rules’ has already changed to the extent that no on even notices and everyone is simply relieved that the anti-democratic threat is over. And the true danger is that something similar will happen apropos of the ‘war on terror’: so-called ‘extremists’ like John Ashcroft will be discarded, but their legacy will remain, imperceptibly interwoven into the invisible ethical fabric of our societies. Their defeat will be their ultimate triumph: they will no longer be needed, since their message will have become incorporated into the mainstream.

–Slavoj Žižek, “The Iraq War — Where is the True Danger,” pgs. 289 – 303 in The Universal Exception (New York: Continuum, 2007):301-302. (http://vox-nova.com/2008/10/20/quote-of-the-week-slavoj-zizek-2/)

19 10 2010
laura t.

thanks again! i saw the program this morning, and his thoughts on the right wing in europe, the tea party and the arrogance of the left kept coming back to me throughout the day of news watching. that’s what i like about zizek: what he says stays with you for some time and asks you to keep questioning. now all i have to do is read him. his new book “living in the end times” sounds good to me, divided as it into the five stages of grief. i’ve been developing the idea for a couple of years that we are all in one or another stage of grief at all times since we are usually dealing with some loss. again, thanks for thinking of us. ~lt

19 10 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Here is a footnote for this post. Interesting stuff as usual:


18 10 2010
laura t.

good job, thoroughly convincing.

18 10 2010
JS Allen

Zizek is quite a guy. I thought this profile of him was really entertaining.

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