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Slavoj Zizek

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Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek (born March 21, 1949) is a Slovenian sociologist, philosopher, and cultural critic. He was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia), and he received a D.A. in Philosophy in Ljubljana and studied Psychoanalysis at the University of Paris. In 1990 he was a candidate with the party Liberal Democracy of Slovenia for President of the Republic of Slovenia.

Žižek is well known for his use of the works of Jacques Lacan in a new reading of popular culture. He writes on countless topics including fundamentalism, tolerance, political correctness, globalization, subjectivity, human rights, Lenin, myth, cyberspace, postmodernism, multiculturalism, David Lynch, and Alfred Hitchcock.

Life and workEdit

Žižek is a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. He has been a visiting professor at, among others, the University of Chicago, Columbia, London Consortium, Princeton, The New School, the European Graduate School, the University of Minnesota, the University of California, Irvine and the University of Michigan. He is currently the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Žižek's early career was hampered by the political environment of 1970s Yugoslavia. In 1975, he was prevented from gaining a post at the University of Ljubljana after his Master's thesis was deemed to be politically suspect. He spent the next few years undertaking national service in the Yugoslav army and eventually became involved with a group of Slovenian scholars whose theoretical focus was on the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan.[1]

It was not until the 1989 publication of his first book written in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, that Žižek achieved international recognition as a major social theorist. Since then, he has continued to develop his status as an intellectual outsider and confrontational maverick. One of Žižek's most-widely discussed books, The Ticklish Subject (1999), explicitly positions itself against Deconstructionists, Heideggerians, Habermasians, cognitive scientists, feminists and what Žižek describes as New Age "obscurantists".

One of the problems in outlining Žižek's work and ideas is that he frequently changes his theoretical position (for instance, on the question of whether Lacan is a structuralist or poststructuralist) between books and sometimes even within the pages of one book. Because of this, some of his critics have accused him of inconsistency and lacking intellectual rigor. However, Ian Parker claims that there is no "Žižekian" system of philosophy because Žižek, with all his inconsistencies, is trying to make us think much harder about what we are willing to believe and accept from a single writer. (Parker, 2004) Indeed, Žižek himself defends Jacques Lacan for constantly updating his theories, arguing that it is not the task of the philosopher to act as the Big Other who tells us about the world but rather to challenge our own ideological presuppositions. The philosopher, for Žižek, is more someone who criticizes than someone who tries to answer questions.[2]

Recently, Žižek wrote text to accompany Bruce Weber photos in a catalogue for Abercrombie & Fitch. Questioned as to the seemliness of a major intellectual writing ad copy, Žižek told the Boston Globe: "If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post, I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!" [3]

He is widely regarded as a fiery and colorful lecturer who does not shy away from controversial remarks. His three part documentary 'The Pervert's Guide to Cinema' was broadcast on British television by the More4 channel in July 2006.

Ontology Edit

Žižek's ontology is an idiosyncratic materialism. Theorizing from within a tradition of dialectical materialism, he engages contemporary theories of ontology and epistemology, emphasizing discontinuities and contradictions within existing systems of thought. Like Deleuze and Badiou, Žižek articulates a theory that claims both a materialist basis of consciousness and the "autonomy and efficacy" of thought.[3]

Žižek's recent book, The Parallax View, is his most in-depth exposition of ontology so far. Žižek stages confrontations between idealist and materialist understandings of various aspects of ontology. One such confrontation between idealism and materialism is expressed in Lacanian terms between an idealism's purported ability to theorize the All versus a Materialism's understanding that an apparent All is really a non-All.

Žižek's penchant for staging a confrontation between idealism and materialism leads him to describe his work in such paradoxical terms as a "materialist theology." His theology is as idiosyncratic nonetheless as his materialism. Žižek offers that in actuality reality is fundamentally open, and a materialist "minimal difference", the gap that appears in reality between a reductionist description of physical process and one's experience of existence, ontology as lived, is the real of human life and the crucial domain that an ontology must attempt to theorize. This domain he equates with an all too human christian theology centered on radical doubt. Žižek equates the gap with the Freudian death drive, as the negative and mortifying "thing that thinks." Although biological psychology might one day be able to completely model a person's brain, there would still be something left over that could not be explained, and this something corresponds precisely with the Fruedian death drive. It is important to note that it is the death drive, which according to Žižek takes this role, not the pleasure principle. The negative aspect of consciousness that breaks and offers judgement on the unrepresentable totality is emphasized. Žižek points to the fact that consciousness is opaque. A primary characteristic of consciousness is that you can't ever know if a thing is really conscious or merely mimicry. Žižek critiques Lacan by noting that "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." [4]

Žižek's metaphysics is, to a certain extent an anti-metaphysics, because he believes it is absurd to theorize the All, because something will always remain untheorized. This can be explained in Lacanian terms, in terms of the relationship between the Symbolic and the Real. For Žižek, we can view a person in several ways, but these ways are mutually exclusive. For example, we can see a person as either an ethical being with free will or a determined biological creature but not both. These are the Symbolic interpretations of the Real, ways of using language to understand that which is non-All, that which cannot be totally understood by description. For Žižek, however, the Real is not a thing which is understood in different ways depending on how you decide to look at it (person as ethical being versus person as biological being); the Real is instead the movement from one vantage point to another - thus the title The Parallax View. Unlike postmodernist theorists he often criticizes, Žižek sidesteps relativism by claiming that there is a diagonal ontological cut across apparently incommeasurable discourses, which points to their intersubjectivity. This means that although there are multiple Symbolic interpretations of the Real, they are not all relatively "true." The truth is revealed in the process of transiting the contradictions; or the real is a "minimal difference", the gap between the infinite judgement of a reductionist materialism and experience as lived.

The formation of the subject Edit

Since the unconscious is structured like a language ("comme une langue"), it will orient itself towards desire in two aspects: first, the objects of desire, which is called the "goal" of desire in Lacan's Seminar XI, and, the unconscious, or the mechanism of desire in itself, which is called the "aim" of desire and deemed the more important aspect in the process of desire by Lacan himself. Objects are mainly contingent, yet they are supposed to find their place inside the Symbolic realm to be desirable to us (and thus to make themselves "objects" to us). In other words, the Symbolic decides what is desirable and undesirable to us; while the desirable objects can provide us with temporary pleasure, the latter is both the remains and surplus of Symbolization, i.e., the realm of jouissance and of the Real.

These objects constitute the symptom of the human being; but they can also become the opposite: its fetish. Žižek writes of the fetish that it is effectively the counterpart to the symptom; operating as a kind of sham life, it structures our entire life in order to support it. The fetish is the embodiment of a lie that enables us to endure an unbearable truth (Slavoj Žižek 2000). This is the Real itself (in the Lacanian sense), an isolated object (the Lacanian objet petit a) whose fascinating and meaningful presence guarantees the structural real, the social order. This real enables one to gain a distance from everyday reality: one introduces an object that has no place inside it, that cannot be named or otherwise symbolized - the photo collage of the beloved in the film The Truman Show, for example. What Žižek means is that every symbolic structure must contain an element that embodies the moment of its impossibility, around which it is organized. This is both impossible and real (in its effect) at the same time. The symptom on the other hand is the return of the repressed truth in a different form.

Žižek explains this objet petit a—the MacGuffin—in the following way: "MacGuffin is objet petit a pure and simple: the lack, the remainder of the real that sets in motion the symbolic movement of interpretation, a hole at the center of the symbolic order, the mere appearance of some secret to be explained, interpreted, etc." (Love thy symptom as thyself).

The RealEdit

Here the Real is a rather enigmatic term, and it is not to be equated with reality. For our reality is symbolically constructed; the real, however, is a hard kernel, the trauma that cannot be symbolized i.e. expressed in words. The real has no positive existence; it exists only as barred. "Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony that I will give you." (Exodus 25:21)

Not everything in reality can be unmasked as fiction; only the many things - indeterminate points - that have to do with social antagonism, life, death, and sexuality. These we have to endure if we are to symbolize them. The real is not a sort of reality behind reality, but rather the void or empty places that render reality incomplete and inconsistent. It is the screen of the phantasm, the very screen itself that distorts our perception of reality. "And he made a screen for the door of the Tent, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, the work of the embroiderer;" The triad of the symbolic/imaginary/real reproduces itself within each individual part of the subdivision. There are also three modalities of the real:

  • The "symbolic real" : the signifier reduced to a meaningless formula (as in quantum physics, which like every science grasps at the real but only produces barely comprehensible concepts)
  • The "real real": a horrific thing, that which conveys the sense of horror in horror films
  • The "imaginary real": an unfathomable something that permeates things as a trace of the sublime. This form of the real becomes perceptible in the film The Full Monty, for instance, in the fact that in stripping the unemployed protagonists disrobe completely; in other words, through this extra gesture of "voluntary" degradation something else, of the order of the sublime, becomes visible.

Psychoanalysis teaches that (postmodern) reality is precisely not to be seen as just a narrative, but rather that the client must recognize, endure, and fictionalize the hard kernel of the real in his own fiction.

The symbolicEdit

The Symbolic is inaugurated with the acquisition of language; it is mutually relational. Thus it is that only he is a king towards whom others behave as underlings. At the same time, there always remains a certain distance towards the real (except in paranoia): not only is the beggar who thinks he is a king a madman, but so is the king who really believes he is a king. For effectively the latter has only the "symbolic mandate" of a king.

  • The real symbolic is the signifier reduced to a meaningless formula
  • The symbolic symbolic qua speech and meaningful language itself.

The (monitor-) screen as a means of communication in cyberspace: as an interface it refers us to a symbolic mediation of communication, to a chasm between whoever speaks and the "position of speaking" itself (i.e. the nickname, the email address). "I" never "in fact" coincide exactly with the signifier, I do not invent myself; rather my virtual existence was in a certain respect already co-founded with the advent of cyberspace. Here one must come to terms with a certain insecurity, but one which cannot be resolved in postmodern, contingent simulacra. Here too, as in social life, symbolic networks circulate around kernels of the real. This is one answer to Žižek's (oft-practiced inversion of the) question: It is not "What can we learn from life about cyberspace, but rather what can we learn from cyberspace about life?" These inversions serve theoretical psychoanalysis: i.e. contrary to applied psychoanalysis, it does not merely seek to analyze works of art and make what is threatening comprehensible, but rather to create a new perspective on the ordinary, to renew a sense of the strangeness of everyday life, and by way of the object to further develop the theory.

Symbolic networks are our (social) reality.

The imaginaryEdit

The imaginary is located at the level of the subject's relation to itself. It is the gaze of the Other in the mirror stage, the illusory mis-recognition, as Lacan concludes citing Arthur Rimbaud: "I is an other" ("Je est un autre"). The imaginary is the fundamental fantasy that is inaccessible to our psychological experience and raises up the phantasmal screen in which we find objects of desire. Here we can also divide the imaginary into a real (the phantasm that assumes the place of the real), an imaginary (the image/screen itself that serves as a lure), and a symbolic imaginary thinking. The imaginary can never be definitively grasped, since any discourse on it will always already be located in the symbolic.

All the levels are interconnected, according to Lacan (from the Seminar XX on), in a kind of Borromean link, i.e. as three rings are linked together such that should any one of these be disconnected all the remaining ones would also come apart.

Postmodernism Edit

One theme in particular that Žižek addresses is postmodernism, which confronts psychoanalysis with new questions. By virtue of the demise of a patriarchally structured society and firmly established, authoritarian models of order, the Oedipus complex—one of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis—begins to falter.

Ideology constitutes itself, so to speak, from both sides of the coin: both from the values openly proclaimed by a political system and also its so-called hidden underside or dirty secret - that is, an ideology's implicitly deployed values and premises, which however must remain unspoken in order for an ideology to function and reproduce itself. To all these ideologically determined, phantasmal forms of lying or evasion, Žižek opposes the goal of psychoanalysis, which consists of traversing the fantasy, passing through the field of the deceptive image whose symptomatic formation brings about the construction of the subject, and to forge ahead to the kernel of enjoyment. A so-called "authentic act" destroys the phantasm.

Ideology is the distortion of non-ideology, the utopian moment (Fredric Jameson). This non-ideological component of our longing should be fully respected. In other words, the longing for community itself should not be regarded as proto-fascistic, or even its root - it becomes that only in its fascistic articulation.

In our current post-ideological times, ideology functions on the basis of an inner distance, where the symbolic mandate is not taken seriously; e.g., a father today is often one who ironically denigrates himself, together with the absurd fact itself of being a father today.

Žižek follows Louis Althusser (among others) in jettisoning the Marxist equation: "ideology=false consciousness." Ideology, to all intents and purposes, is consciousness. Ideology does not "mask" the real—one cannot achieve true consciousness. This being the case, post-ideological postmodern "knowingness"—the wink wink nudge nudge cynicism and irony of postmodern cultural production—does not reveal the truth, the real, the hard kernel. Knowing that we are being "lied" to is hardly the stuff of revolution when ideology isn't, and never has been, simply a matter of consciousness (cynicism, irony, and so on), of subject positions, but is the very stuff of everyday praxis itself. The cynics and ironists, not to mention the deconstructionists et. al., may KNOW that reality is an "ideological construction"—some have even read their Lacan and Derrida—but in their daily practice, caught up in an apparently unalterable world of exchange-values (capital), they do their part to sustain that construction in any case. As Marx would say, it is their very life process that is ideological, what they know, or what they think they know, being neither here nor there. The postmodern cultural artifact—the "critique," the "incredulity"—is itself merely a symptom/commodity/fetish. Thus has capital commodified even the cynicism that purports to unmask its "reality," to "emancipate."

Politicization Edit

Today, in the aftermath of the "end of ideology", Žižek is critical of the way political decisions are justified; the way, for example, reductions in social programs are sometimes presented as an apparently 'objective' necessity, though this is no longer a valid basis for political discourse. He sees the current "talk about greater citizen involvement" or "political goals circumscribed within the rubric of the cultural" as having little effectiveness as long as no substantial measures are devised for the long run. But measures such as the "limitation of the freedom of capital" and the "subordination of the manufacturing processes to a mechanism of social control"—these Žižek calls a "radical re-politicization of the economy" (A Plea for Intolerance).

So at present Slavoj Žižek is arguing for a politicization of the economy. For indeed the "tolerant" multicultural impulse, as the dogma of today's liberal society, suppresses the crucial question: How can we reintroduce into the current conditions of globalization the genuine space of the political? He also argues in favor of a "politicization of politics" as a counter balance to post-politics. In the area of political decision making in a democratic context he criticizes the two-party system that is dominant in some countries as a political form of a "post-political era", as a manifestation of a possibility of choice that in reality does not exist.

Politicization is thus for him present whenever "a particular demand begins to function as a representative of the impossible universal". Žižek sees class struggle not as localized objective determinations, as a social position vis-à-vis capital but rather as lying in a "radically subjective" position: the proletariat is the living, "embodied contradiction". Only through particularism in the political struggle can any universalism emerge. Fighting for workers interests often appears discredited today ("indeed in this domain the workers themselves only wish to implement their own interests, they fight only for themselves and not for the whole"). The problem is how to foster a politicizing politics in the age of post-politics. Particular demands, acting as a "metaphorical condensation", would thus aim at something transcendent, a genuine reconstruction of the social framework. Žižek sees the real political conflict as being that between an ordered structure of society and those without a place in it, the "part that has no part" in anything yet causes the structure to falter, because it refers to i.e. embodies an "empty principle" of the "universal".

The very fact that a society is not easily divided into classes, that there is no "simple structural trait" for it, that for instance the "middle class" is also intensely fought over by a populism of the right, is a sign of this struggle. Otherwise "class antagonism would be completely symbolized" and no longer both impossible and real at the same time ("impossible/real").

Critiques of Žižek Edit

Main article: Critiques of Slavoj Žižek

Žižek's notoriety in academic circles has increased rapidly, especially since he began publishing widely in English. Many hundreds of academics have addressed aspects of Žižek's work in professional papers.[4] Inevitably, in the course of such scholarly discussion, many other thinkers differ with aspects of Žižek's conceptual approach or specific arguments.

References Edit

  1. "Chronology: Slavoj Žižek, His Life." From[1]
  2. Butler, Rex and Scott Stephens. "Play Fuckin' Loud: Žižek Versus the Left." The Symptom, Online Journal for[2]
  3. Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences. Routledge. 2004 NY,NY pg. 30. section on quasi-cause
  4. interview with Canning, 1993, p. 89

Bibliography Edit

  • Žižek, Slavoj (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (1990). Ernesto Laclau Beyond Discourse Analysis (in New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time) (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (1991). For They Know Not What They Do (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (1991). Looking Awry (Print) (in English), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (1992). Enjoy Your Symptom! (Print) (in English), London: Routledge.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (1993). Tarrying with the Negative (Print) (in English), Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (1993). Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan...But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (1994). The Metastases of Enjoyment (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (1996). The Indivisible Remainder: Essays on Schelling and Related Matters (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (1997). The Abyss of Freedom (Print) (in English), Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (1997). The Plague of Fantasies (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (1999). The Ticklish Subject (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj; Butler, Judith; Laclau, Ernesto (2000). Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2000). The Fragile Absolute (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2001). Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2001). The Fright of Real Tears: Kryzystof Kieślowski Between Theory and Post-Theory (Print) (in English), London: BFI.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2001). On Belief (Print) (in English), London: Routledge.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2001). Opera's Second Death (Print) (in English), London: Routledge.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2002). Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2002). Revolution at the Gates: Žižek on Lenin, the 1917 Writings (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2003). Organs Without Bodies (Print) (in English), London: Routledge.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2003). The Puppet and the Dwarf (Print) (in English), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2004). Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (Print) (in English), London: Verso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2005). Interrogating the Real (Print) (in English), Continuum Publishing.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2006). The Universal Exception (Print) (in English), Continuum Publishing.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2006). Neighbors and Other Monsters (in The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology) (Print) (in English), Cambridge, MA: University of Chicago Press.
  • Žižek, Slavoj (2006). The Parallax View (Print) (in English), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-24051-3.

Other Works Cited Edit

Canning, P. "The Sublime Theorist of Slovenia: Peter Canning Interviews Slavoj Žižek" in Artforum Issue 31, March 1993, pp. 84-9

Critical Introductions to Žižek Edit

  • Sarah Kay, Žižek: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Polity, 2003)
  • Tony Myers, Slavoj Žižek (London: Routledge, 2003)
  • Ian Parker, Slavoj Žižek: A Critical Introduction (London: Pluto Press, 2004)

External linksEdit

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:

Articles by Žižek Edit Edit

The academic website contains a large number of web-accessible versions Žižek's articles, including:

In These Times Edit

The magazine of political commentary and investigative journalism, In These Times, also contains web-accessible articles by Žižek:

Miscellaneous Edit

This article is based on the article about Slavoj Žižek in the GermanСлавой Жижек da:Slavoj Žižek de:Slavoj Žižek es:Slavoj Žižek fr:Slavoj Žižekhe:סלבוי ז'יז'ק nl:Slavoj Žižekpt:Slavoj Zizek ru:Жижек, Славой sl:Slavoj Žižek fi:Slavoj Žižek sv:Slavoj Žižek

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