< >   perfume   lacanian ink   symposia   messageboard   sitemap   links   bibliographies   chronology  

Slavoj Zizek: Live Theory
Rex Butler
[space] © Rex Butler & lacan.com 2004


The subject of philosophy

The authors of books like this are often reluctant to speak of the private lives of their subjects. After all, what has this to do with their work? How is this to help us understand what they write? Our doubts, however, are soon overcome when we consider the Slovenian cultural analyst Slavoj Zizek. For what can we say about him that he does not already say himself? What secret can we reveal that he has not already turned into the punchline to one of his many well-rehearsed jokes? Which other theorist, for example, would allow himself the following one-liner to illustrate the psychoanalytic concept of the phallus: 'What is the lightest object in the world? The penis, because it is the only one that can be raised by a mere thought' (TS, 382-3)? Who else, in a parody of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, would observe:

In the traditional German lavatory, the hole down which the shit disappears is up front, so that it is first laid out for us to inspect; in the traditional French lavatory, it is in the back, so that the shit is meant to disappear as soon as possible; while the Anglo-Saxon (English and American) lavatory presents a kind of synthesis, with the basin full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible but not to be inspected? (PF, 4)

Or, most famously, would confess that, eating in a Chinese restaurant, his greatest fear is not that he will somehow fall into an orgy with his fellow diners but actually end up sharing a meal with them: 'How many people have entered the way of perdition with some innocent gangbang, which at the time was of no great importance to them, and ended up sharing the main dishes at a Chinese restaurant' (E!, ix)? Or would cheerfully admit to a whole range of bad habits: not just the usual 'private repulsive rituals' of smelling one's sweat or picking one's nose (AF, 80), but the slightly more social ones of watching pornography (PF, 177-80), engaging in cybersex (IR, 191-3) and even reading Colleen McCullough (LA, 160)?1

Now, Lacanian psychoanalysis will recommend as part of its cure a process of radical externalization. It is the idea that we must accept that we are entirely responsible for the situation we find ourselves in; that it is our actions, not the motivations behind them, that define us; that there is no inner core of our being, inaccessible to others. It is what Lacan came to call towards the end of his teaching the identification with the symptom, and it meant that we are not to hide the idiosyncrasies and sometimes embarrassing tics and quirks that make us up but acknowledge that they are part of who we are. And this is undoubtedly what Zizek is doing here. But, if we can say this, there is one thing that Zizek does not admit to in that list above - and that is the very symptom of theory itself. For it really is the most extraordinary spectacle, seeing Zizek lecture. There he stands, this wildly gesticulating, bear-like man, tugging his beard and shirt, dark circles of sweat growing beneath his armpits, his neatly-combed hair growing lank and dishevelled, his eyes staring blindly around the room. He speaks rapidly through a strong Central European accent and a lisp, constantly circling back upon himself to try to make himself clearer, threatening never to stop. We feel he is making the same point over and over, but we cannot quite grasp it, and in order to do so he must take in the entirety of Western philosophy and culture, both high and low: from Schoenberg to sci-fi, from quantum mechanics to the latest Hollywood blockbuster, from now-forgotten figures of 18th and 19th century German philosophy to the notoriously obscure writings of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan... Indeed, Lacan once cruelly quipped of James Joyce that, although what he wrote was almost psychotic in its refusal to fix meaning, this writing was also the only thing that saved him from actual psychosis - and we think the same is true of Zizek as well. Zizek's fellow theorist Judith Butler writes on the back cover of one of his books: 'Slavoj lives to theorize', but we suspect the opposite is true and Zizek theorizes to live. Although, as his public performances and writings attest, his work is endlessly shifting, open-ended, refuses to close itself down or draw conclusions - in a word, is psychotic - it is also only the activity of theorizing that saves him, saves him from the very thing this theorizing brings about.

But, for all of our mockery, seeing Zizek speak takes us back to a possibility only rarely glimpsed since the origins of Western civilization. For he reminds us as much as anyone of the ancient Greek heroine Antigone, who insists beyond all reason and ends up sacrificing herself for a tragic cause. That is, we seem to have here a man who is, in the words of Lacan, 'between two deaths' (S7, 270), his outer being reduced to a mere shell or remainder. And yet he is also a man who, like Antigone, appears infused by some unstoppable power, possessed by some extraordinary cause in a world that lacks causes.2 We might say that Zizek is filled with a kind of death drive, a desire for self-extermination, except that what he reveals is that life itself, life in its profoundest sense, is not possible before this going-towards-death; that what we think we sacrifice when we live life like him only has value when seen from the other side. As Lacan says in his Seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, in which he discusses Antigone's case, from this other side we can see and live life 'in the form of something already lost' (S7, 280). And perhaps even beyond Antigone - who, after all, still did believe in something, still did have a cause - what are we to make of Zizek, who constantly changes his position and ultimately believes in nothing except the 'inherent correctness of theory itself' (CU, i)? What would it mean to sacrifice ourselves and everything we believed in (even our cause) for this 'nothing'? And why would we nevertheless go ahead and do it? Is this death the very life of theory, Theory itself as Cause?

The life of theory

Zizek first announced himself to the English-speaking world in 1989 with the publication of The Sublime Object of Ideology. It is an at-the-time unexpected fusion of Marx's notion of the commodity, Althusser's concept of interpellation and Lacan's idea of the split subject, in order to elaborate what we might call the social symptom. This symptom is for Zizek a way of bringing together - a long-running problem for progressive politics - the specifics of individual psychology with a wider analysis of the social. The fundamental insight of the book - adapted from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's ground-breaking Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) - is that the social is essentially divided, antagonistic, unable to be given closure. This has the consequence that the various terms that are used to understand and construct it are themselves provisional, contingent, continually fought over. Thus a term like 'democracy', which is constantly invoked as a desirable goal of society, is not ideologically neutral or unquestionably positive, but the subject of various groups attempting to claim it (SO, 98). Each of these attempts necessarily fails, because no one signifier can speak for the entirety of the social; but each group looks for an explanation of this failure to some external and intrusive element, whose removal would restore an imagined wholeness. It is this element that Zizek calls the 'sublime object of ideology': that ambiguous symptom-element that is 'heterogeneous to any given ideological field and at the same time necessary for that field to achieve its closure' (SO, 21).

Zizek follows this up two years later with For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. This densely theoretical text - as if to underscore its political relevance - was originally delivered as a series of two-part lectures over the winter of 1989-90 to a general audience in the months leading up to the first free Slovenian elections after the fall of Communism. These were elections in which Zizek himself stood as a pro-reform candidate for the Liberal Democratic Party. For They Know Not is, in part at least, a continuation of the enquiry into that fantasmatic 'sublime object', typically a Jew or foreigner, that allows the social to constitute itself as a whole. As Zizek writes in the Introduction, in his typical manner of making a serious point with a joke, if in Sublime Object he was able to count on the humour of the Jewish man who, wishing to emigrate from Russia and giving as one of his reasons his fear of anti-Semitic violence with the rise of the new nationalisms and being told that there is nothing to worry about because Communism will last forever, was able to reply: 'Well, that is my second reason!', this is no longer the case (TK, 1). Today, it is precisely the upsurge of racist violence with the collapse of Communism that is the reason for the Jewish man wanting to leave. And here Zizek speaks of the way that, along with the apparently non-ideological 'enjoyment' that allows ideology, there is also underlying this racism the fear of the theft of our enjoyment by others, the resentment of foreign invaders who threaten our way of life because of the strange new ways they have of enjoying themselves (TK, 37-8, 213-4).

The innovative aspect of both of these books is the way they are able to revive the traditional category of ideology-critique in these supposedly 'post-ideological' times. Indeed, they are able to demonstrate that it is our very distance from ideology - whether this is understood in terms of post-modern cynicism or pre-ideological 'enjoyment' - that allows ideology to do its work. The other striking thing about the two books is the way they are able to recast the psychoanalytical concept of fantasy and turn it into a tool for ideological analysis. The French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser was perhaps the first to show that fantasy is not to be understood as a merely subjective error or delusion, the simple refusal to recognize things as they are. Rather, for Althusser, fantasy is objective. It is not so much in what we believe as in our external social practices that fantasy is to be found. Thus, in terms of commodity-fetishism, it does not matter that we know money is not an immediate expression of wealth but only an abstracted version of social relations. All that matters is that in our actual behaviour we continue to act as though it is (SO, 31). This is the radical meaning behind Marx's analysis of the commodity form: that 'things (commodities) believe in our place' (SO, 34). This is also the conclusion to be drawn from Zizek's introduction of Lacan's notion of the split subject to Althusser's concept of interpellation, for what we see is that ideology works in an unconscious way, which is not to be understood as saying that its subjects know nothing of it - they do - but that the form of their behaviour escapes them (SO, 15). They are 'decentred' not because there is some aspect of their behaviour that they misrecognize or misperceive, but because from the beginning they are able to act or believe only through the agency of another (not only the Other as embodied in the fetish but also as embodied in social customs (SO, 36)).

These two books, although strikingly original in the context of the English-speaking reception of Continental philosophy, were in fact the outcome of a larger body of work done by Zizek and a group of like-minded Yugoslavian theorists, principally centred around the University of Ljubljana, throughout the 1970s and 1980s. (These theorists, with whom Zizek continues to maintain his ties, often either collaborating with them or writing the forewords to their books, include the philosopher Miran Bozovic, author of An Utterly Dark Spot and editor of Jeremy Bentham's The Panopticon Writings; philosopher Mladen Dolar, author of The Bone in the Spirit: A Lacanian Reading of Hegel's 'Phenomenology of Spirit' and co-author with Zizek of Opera's Second Death; legal theorist Renata Salecl, author of The Spoils of Freedom and (Per)versions of Love and Hate; and philosopher Alenka Zupancic, author of Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan. Zizek in interviews speaks of the various orientations of philosophy in the former Yugoslavia against which he and his colleagues pitched themselves:

In the Republic of Slovenia, there were two predominant philosophical approaches: Frankfurt School Marxism and Heideggerianism. Both were unacceptable to us Lacanians, not only generally, but in Slovenia the Communist Party was intelligent enough to adopt Frankfurt School Marxism as its official ideology. Heideggerianism was from the beginning linked to right-wing populism, and in other parts of Yugoslavia to the darkest Stalinist forces. For us, Althusser was crucial.3

Why Althusser? Because the old Yugoslavia was the proverbial 'socialism with a human face', in which the problem was not the direct imposition of ideology, but the fact that the old regime did not appear to take its own ideology seriously, and incorporated its own criticism in advance (IR, 3). It is exactly the same problem of private cynicism and public obedience that we find in contemporary capitalism (with same question of why this cynicism, far from undermining the regime's hold on power, actually strengthens it).

Indeed, after studying at the University of Ljubljana, Zizek was at first unable to find a job teaching because he was deemed by the authorities to be 'too unreliable'. He spent a number of years in the 1970s unemployed, before finally, his intellectual brilliance unable to be denied but prevented from having any actual contact with students, he was given a research position at the Institute of Sociology attached to the University. Zizek now ironically describes this period - during which he was supported by the State but not forced into normal academic duties - 'in Michael J. Fox terms as the secret of my success'.4 It is a situation he has been able to maintain, thanks to his frenetic publishing schedule and his burgeoning world-wide reputation:

Every three years I write a research proposal. I then divide it into three one-sentence paragraphs, which I call my yearly projects. At the end of each year I change my research project's future tense verbs into the past tense and then call it my yearly report. With total freedom, I am a total workaholic.5

After obtaining a Doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana in 1981, Zizek then went to Paris to study at the famous Seminar of Lacan's designated heir Jacques-Alain Miller, by whom he was analysed and with whom he would take out a Doctorate in Psychoanalysis in 1985. The book Le plus sublime des hystériques - Hegel passe (1988) is a product of Zizek's French period, in which he first puts forward his unique blend of Lacan and popular culture, as well as his unorthodox reading of Hegel. (It also includes much of what was to become Sublime Object and For They Know Not.) It sees Hegel not, as a generation of French post-structuralists have, as a thinker of the dialectical reconciliation of opposites, but as the most profound theorist of difference - a difference that is not to be grasped directly but only through the very failure of identity (HP, 89-90).

Immediately following For They Know Not, three new books appear. They are the first we would say that specifically come about as a result of Zizek's new English-speaking audience, that are not simply the outcome of his previous study or direct circumstances. They are perhaps less charged politically, less filled with the urgency of their task. As their titles indicate, they are essentially popularizations - virtuosic, pop-encyclopaedic, sublime-bathetic couplings of the highest and the lowest cultural themes. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Lacan through Popular Culture (1991) takes the reader through a number of Lacanian concepts ('Real', 'Gaze', 'Sinthome') by illustrating them with examples taken from popular culture. Thus we have Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun used to speak of the 'answer of the Real' (LA, 29-30), Michael Mann's Manhunter to speak of the perverse 'gaze' (LA, 107-8) and Patricia Highsmith's short story "The Pond" to speak of the pathological 'sinthome' (LA, 133-6). This is followed by Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (1992), which consists of a series of two-part lectures, the first elaborating some Lacanian concept through an example taken from Hollywood cinema - what Zizek calls 'for the other' - and the second treating the same concept in terms of its inherent content - 'in itself' (E!, xi). Thus we have a discussion of Lacan's notion of the suicidal 'act' through a consideration of the films of Roberto Rossellini (E!, 31-66), the post-modern loss of the 'phallus' in terms of David Lynch's Elephant Man (E!, 113-46) and woman as a 'symptom' of man with regard to the femmes fatales of 1950s film noir (E!, 149-93). The third book that appears in English during this period, although it was originally published in French in 1988, is the edited anthology Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) (1992). It includes essays by the French film critic Pascal Bonitzer on Hitchcockian suspense, Zupancic on the way in which 'theatre' reveals the truth in Hitchcock and a long essay by Zizek on how the spectator's gaze is already included in Hitchcock's films. All of these books, which are absolute academic best-sellers and begin to bring his name for the first time before a wider audience, establish Zizek's lasting popular public image as a devoted pop-culture aficionado. There appears to be in his work a deliberate inversion of aesthetic categories, an upending of cultural hierarchies. Thus we have the putting together of Stephen King and Sophocles (LA, 25-6), Wagner and Westerns (LA, 114-5) and Colleen McCullough and Kant (LA, 160-2). There is obviously a kind of provocation to all of this, very close to that distinctive postmodern sensibility of camp, but Zizek claims an exalted pedigree for his procedure: Diogenes, Walter Benjamin and even Kant himself (LA, vii).

1993 sees the publication of arguably Zizek's magnum opus, the extraordinary Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel and the Critique of Ideology. In it, we find his most extended treatment of Hegel so far, again arguing, against a whole generation of post-structuralists in general and Derrida in particular, that Hegel does not attempt to do away with all difference within a 'restricted' economy, but rather seeks to theorize a fundamental 'crack' in the world, which forever resists dialectical synthesis (TN, 21). In the chapter "Hegel's "Logic of Essence" as a Theory of Ideology", Zizek makes the case for the importance of Hegel's notion of 'positing the presuppositions' (TN, 126) for any serious work in ideology analysis. He also looks at the way Hegel reconceptualizes Kant's notion of the 'sublime' not as some transcendental 'beyond' out there but as a kind of fantasy image brought about by a split in here (TN, 35-9). This strange logic, which Zizek will go on to connect with a certain feminine 'not-all', as opposed to a masculine 'universality produced through exception' (TN, 53-8), will have the widest implications for the rest of Zizek's work. It will allow him to criticize, for example, the usual notion of human rights as a universality only possible on the basis of a series of exclusions (women, children, the mad, the primitive), a universality from which ultimately everybody is excluded (ME, 157-8), as opposed to a conception of human rights as non-universal but applying precisely to these exceptions (L, 267-8). Or it will allow him to think why, although any opposition to it is swallowed up or absorbed by it, the current capitalist order is necessarily incomplete, unable to be realized (TS, 358; L, 266-7).

This interest in a particular 'feminine' logic is continued in the subsequent Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality (1994), the first of three new books that have a partial, essay-like quality after the systematic exposition of Tarrying with the Negative. In Metastases, Zizek explores this logic in a number of fields, from the masculine construction of woman in mediaeval courtly poetry and film noir to the radical 'feminism' (in a typically perverse and counter-intuitive reading) of Otto Weininger's notorious turn-of-the-nineteenth-century anti-Semitic and misogynistic tract Sex and Character. In Metastases, following it must be said the pioneering Lacanian feminist Joan Copjec, Zizek takes a distance from the usual 'constructivist' accounts of contemporary feminism, which argue that woman is merely a performatively enacted or historically contingent fiction. For Zizek, this essentially 'symbolic' conception of woman - which condemns her either to mimic parodically the various clichés of femininity or to a silence outside of language - excludes the 'Real' of sexual difference. Rather, instead of this choice, what we see, to put it in Zizek's still too-condensed formulation, is that, whereas 'it is man who is wholly submitted to the phallus (since positing an exception is the way to maintain its universal domination), only woman through the inconsistency of her desire attains the domain "beyond the phallus"' (ME, 160-1).

Zizek's next book, The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters (1996), both signals a shift in his work and makes explicit what was previously only implicit in it. It is an extended analysis of a now slightly marginal figure from the history of German philosophy, F.W.J. Schelling (1775-1854). Zizek's polemical point is that Schelling in fact played a pivotal role between the idealism of Kant and Hegel and the materialism of Marx (IR, 4). But in what exactly does this materialism consist? Zizek insists that tracking it down is a tricky business. It is not to be found where we might expect. It is to be seen in that moment in Schelling when he admits that God is not eternally given but has as it were to posit Himself, contract Himself out of some obscure impenetrable 'Ground' (IR, 61-2). That is, Schelling is concerned not with the problem of how to pass from the perfect to the imperfect, how God enters the world, but on the contrary with the problem of how to pass from the imperfect to the perfect, how God arises in the first place (IR, 16, 112-3). Schelling's crucial realization is that God is imperfect, that there is always something missing from Him: a gap that might be understood as the human itself (IR, 67). It is a realization that Schelling himself came to shrink from. By means of an analysis of the successive drafts of the great Weltalter fragment (whose unfinished character for Zizek is the very sign of its materialist status), Zizek shows how Schelling moves from a position in which God comes about through a primordial contraction of 'Ground', which is materialist, to one in which God is a kind of pre-existing essence, which is idealist. And in 1997 Zizek reissues as The Abyss of Freedom, accompanied by a long introduction written by him, Schelling's second draft of the Weltalter fragment, in which his thinking of this 'free' positing by God of His own existence goes furthest, and draws a perhaps surprising conclusion: that materialism is not to be understood as a form of determinism, in which everything can be exhaustively explained, but as what keeps causality open, what allows the possibility of freedom.

Also in 1997 The Plague of Fantasies is published, which is very much a collection of disparate pieces, including a version of the introduction first written for the collection Mapping Ideology (1994) and essays on such diverse topics as virtual reality, the sexual act in cinema and the possibility of an ethics beyond the Good. (Indivisible Remainder, for its part, already included an essay entitled 'Quantum Physics with Lacan'!) It is interesting to observe here how Zizek has moved on from his earlier attempts to analyse ideology in terms of the fetish in Sublime Object and For They Know Not. Even bearing in mind the vastly expanded, intrapsychic conception of ideology at stake there, in Plague it is even more intrusive and extreme. We have the sense of something that penetrates even the deepest recesses of our bodies, that colonizes even our most private fantasies. We have an 'interpassivity', as in computer games and simulations, in which the Other not only knows and believes for us but even enjoys for us (PF, 113-7). It is a world in which we risk psychosis because that gap between the world and our various constructions of it becomes increasingly filled in (PF, 157-9). Ideology becomes a total and seamless screen, as we realize that what we understand as 'reality' was always already virtual. And yet, says Zizek - in a formulation that might remind us of Jean Baudrillard - this is only because of a certain 'Real' that is excluded (PF, 163). It is at this point that another 'ethics', an 'ethics' beyond the Good, might be thought.

The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, published in 1999, is another attempted summa of Zizek's philosophy. This massive, 400 page tome, reputedly written in a mere six months, is divided up into three parts: the first, which treats Heidegger and his reading of the Kantian Transcendental Imagination in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics (this a continuation of the enquiry into that 'gap' which allows freedom in Schelling); the second, which takes up the fate of three post-Althusserian French political thinkers (Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière); and the third, which consists of an extended engagement with the feminist deconstructionist Judith Butler. Or, as Zizek says in his "Introduction," the book addresses three distinctive philosophical traditions: German philosophical Idealism, French political philosophy and Anglo-American cultural studies (TS, 5). Ticklish Subject marks an advance on Zizek's previous work in several respects. First, the opening section sees a detailed explication of the thought of Heidegger, who is to become a more and more common reference in Zizek's writings to come. Second, following the path-breaking book by Badiou, St Paul, or, The Birth of Universalism, Zizek is more and more willing to define his political project - against Laclau and Mouffe - in terms of a certain universality. Third, the book constitutes Zizek's closest encounter yet with feminist-queer 'constructivism' and a defence against the emerging criticism that his use of the Lacanian 'Real' is 'ahistorical'. We see him in his debate with Butler seeking to negotiate a way simultaneously against historicism and any simple anti-historicism. And all of this he does, finally, by means of a spirited and unexpected defence of Cartesian subjectivity, the object of critique of virtually every contemporary philosophical orientation (deconstructionism, feminism, New Age spiritualism, scientific cognitivism).

This is followed soon after - with no sign of fatigue or let-down - by the short polemical pamphlet The Fragile Absolute, or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (2000). It can be seen as a continuation of Ticklish Subject's defence of Pauline Christianity and its insight (as opposed to multi-culturalism, ethical relativism and even orthodox Christianity) that a universal truth is worth fighting for. It is a truth, however, that is only to be obtained from a position of engaged particularity. In this we might see a shift from the earlier defence of the 'absolute particular' (LA, 156) of the other's enjoyment, akin perhaps to traditional liberal tolerance, to an assertion of the 'particular absolute' of our own partisan position, akin to St Paul's famous militancy. This argument for a newly committed 'universality' is seen also in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, which appears the following year. This book is a withering attack upon the contemporary tendency to level the charge of 'totalitarianism' against any attempt to propose a political 'Grand Narrative', an accusation that functions precisely as a way of discouraging any real social change (for example, the argument that any attempt to propose a unified political position against capitalism can only lead to a new form of dictatorship). At this point a more and more explicit Marxism enters Zizek's work, indeed, an argument for a form of Communism involving an organized party structure and the socialization of economic resources. Zizek's politics here have moved well beyond any notion of an always unrealizable 'democracy', in which the locus of power must always remain empty (TK, 267-70), to an admiration for such figures as Lenin, who were willing to seize power and impose their political will. But it is a Lenin, surprisingly - as Zizek argues in the long Afterword he writes for his 2002 collection of Lenin texts, Revolution at the Gates - who is not at all inconsistent with a certain notion of Christianity.

Throughout this period, Zizek continues to publish a whole series of other texts and interventions: an essay on David Lynch, a long-time favourite, The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime (2000); a lecture series on the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski for the British Film Institute, The Fright of Real Tears (2001); a short text updating his thoughts on ideology, On Belief (2001); a response to the attacks on the World Trade Center, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002); essays in books he has either edited himself or been included in, On the Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (1996), Cogito and the Unconscious (1998) and Sexuation (2002); a joint volume with Butler and Laclau, in which each debates the others' position, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (2000). It is simply an extraordinary outpouring of material, which shows no signs of slowing down and, indeed, even seems to be speeding up. In 2000, Zizek publishes three books; in 2001, four; in 2002, four again. One of the paradoxes of this is that it seems that, as his work becomes more and more explicitly anti-capitalist, it is also becoming more commodified. That is, we might not only speak of Zizek himself in terms of a certain excremental identification, but also of his work. In its very excessiveness, unmasterability, relentless accumulation and the difficulty of knowing what to do with it all, does it not resemble excrement, or even the hoarding of capital itself? It is a paradox he explores in his recent work: that not only is capitalism its own critique, but this critique always ends up returning to capital itself (L, 277). But Zizek could only get the effects he does by going as close as possible to his own personal dissolution, his fusion with the Other. As he writes in Ticklish Subject:

This is the domain 'beyond the Good', in which a human being encounters the death drive as the utmost limit of human experience, and pays the price by undergoing a radical 'subjective destitution', by being reduced to an excremental remainder. Lacan's point is that this limit-experience is the irreducible/constitutive condition of the (im)possibility of the creative act of embracing a Truth-Event; it opens up and sustains the space for the Truth-Event, yet its excess always threatens to undermine it. (TS, 161)

How to read Zizek?

Of course, it is absurd to suggest that a thinker as prolific and popular as Zizek needs an introduction. After all, what can any commentary say about him that he does not already say? How to explain Zizek any more clearly than he does himself? (Or, to put this another way, what is to guarantee that we can make any clearer what Zizek fails to? How can we be sure that we get to the bottom of what drives him on through all those endless repetitions and re-elaborations that run throughout his texts?) In that process of radical externalization that characterizes Zizek's work, this striving to make himself absolutely clear, Zizek compares what he is doing to the Lacanian procedure of the passe, in which the analyst-in-training has to pass on their findings to two uninitiated members of the general public, who in turn have to transmit them to the examining committee. 'The idiot', he says generously, 'for whom I attempt to formulate a theoretical point as clearly as possible is ultimately myself' (ME, 175). But it is undoubtedly also us. Perhaps all we can offer in this book, paradoxically, is to make Zizek less accessible, less popular, less easily understood. We do not try to find other examples to explain his work - always a worthless academic exercise. We do not try to write in the same exuberant style. We do not try to be funny. (Think of all those endless, dreadful attempts to imitate Derridean écriture.) In a sense, we try to be faithful to Zizek's own self-assessment from his Preface to the collection The Zizek Reader:

In contrast to the cliché of the academic writer beneath whose impassive style the reader can catch an occasional glimpse of a so-called lively personality, I always perceived myself as the author of books whose excessively 'witty' texture serves as the envelope of a fundamental coldness, of a 'machinic' deployment of a line of thought which follows its path with utter indifference towards the pathology of so-called human considerations. (ZR, viii)

But what is this 'machine'? What is the internal, non-human, non-pathological logic of Zizek's work? Here we meet perhaps the second difficulty that arises in any consideration of Zizek. Introductory texts like these inevitably excuse themselves before the author they discuss. In a mock-heroic version of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, they wish only to disappear before the greatness they present. In a performative contradiction, they are nothing, they insist. It is much better to read the 'real' author; their only hope is that the person buying their book goes on to read the 'real' author; and so on. But is this really the case with Zizek? In another side to that radical externalization we spoke of before, is it not possible that Zizek's own books are merely, as he himself puts it, an 'introduction to Lacan through popular culture' or 'everything you always wanted to know about Lacan (but were afraid to ask Hitchcock)'? That is to say, is there any point in actually reading Zizek? Might there ultimately be no difference in status between our introduction to Zizek and Zizek himself? And might this not even be to suggest that there is no need to read Zizek if we have already read those authors he writes about? Perhaps this book should be entitled "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Zizek (But Were Too Lazy to Read Zizek)" or "Everything You Already Knew about Zizek (Because You Have Already Read Lacan and Hegel)".

At stake here is the status of Zizek's thought. Is there anything beneath the glittering brilliance of its writerly surface, its extraordinary and eclectic range of references, its argumentative brio? Is it merely an extended explication of Lacan, a fusion of Lacan and Hegel, a politicization of Lacan through Marx? Does it possess that 'oneness' or unifying trait that we take to characterize all authentic philosophy? Or must all this be thought another way? Is significant thought characterized by any identifiable oneness, or is it rather always split, introducing a kind of split into the world? And is this what Zizek's thought forces us to consider? Is it something like this 'doubling' or 'antagonism' that is at stake in it? In order to answer these questions, let us listen in fact to the words of one of Zizek's critics, the 'post-theory' film writer Ed O'Neill. Here he is reviewing the Zizek-edited anthology Cogito and the Unconscious:

Example after example is supplied, but the principle that makes them examples is not itself given. Appeals are implicitly made to Lacan's authority, but the source of that authority is never mentioned. The truth of Lacan's theories is urged by showing how other people's theories support that truth but without explaining why these theories have the same object. One concept is defined in terms of another, which is then described the same way, ad infinitum. What's being explained is mixed with what's doing the explaining in a circular fashion so striking that it may well count as both a novelty and a technical innovation in the history of interpretation.6

What exactly is going on here? O'Neill in his naïveté perhaps comes close to putting his finger on the two striking though contradictory impressions we have when reading Zizek. The first is that, as in the confusion of theory and examples he observes, it is not some literal fidelity to Lacan's psychoanalysis that is at stake there. It is not some pre-existing orthodoxy or body of precepts that is being 'applied' to various examples. Rather, Lacanian psychoanalysis is caught up from the beginning in other fields of knowledge, establishing a potentially endless series of analogies between them: 'One concept is defined in terms of another, which is then described the same way, ad infinitum'. And this undoubtedly has the strange effect that, even when Zizek is not directly speaking about Lacan, he is speaking about Lacan. Lacan is not so much being translated as he is the very medium of translation itself. The second impression we have is that the total presence of Lacan in Zizek's work means that his actual authority disappears. Just as with that confusion between theory and examples O'Neill observes, there is a confusion between Lacan and those who cite him: 'The truth of Lacan's theories is urged by showing how other people's theories support that truth'. That is to say, it is precisely through Zizek's dogmatic fidelity to Lacan, through his absolute identification with him, that he is able to become original himself. Unlike so many other commentators who through their criticisms of Lacan reveal themselves to be attached to him, it is only Zizek who through his literal adherence to him is finally able to break with him.7 As Zizek says, it is our very desire to look for mistakes and inconsistencies in the Other that testifies to the fact that we still transfer on to them, while it is only something like this identification with the symptom that might allow us to avoid the fantasy (SO, 66). Or, to put this in the slightly blasphemous form of the Jesuits' relationship to God, Zizek 'believes that the success of his undertaking depends entirely on him and in no way on [Lacan]; but, nonetheless, sets to work as if [Lacan] alone will do everything and he himself nothing' (B, 125)

What is radically posed by Zizek's work - both as a theme within it and by the very existence of the work itself - is the relationship of thought to the Other, to the subject who knows. How to become original when one's great influence is Lacan, who has already thought of everything (not so much because he actually has as because, within the structure of transference that characterizes thought, he will be seen as having already done so)? Let us take here the example of those two thinkers who are constantly invoked in this regard, Marx and Freud. It is they who are seen to constitute an unsurpassable horizon to thought, impossible to go beyond. It is they whom we can only ever be seen to repeat. But what is it that characterizes the particular quality of their thought? And how is it that we might somehow think 'after' it? The specific concepts that Marx and Freud introduce, class and the unconscious, are not simply empirical, demonstrably either true or not, but rather challenge the very limits of scientificity. In a way, they 'double' what is by an undemonstrable yet irrefutable hypothesis that not only lies within the existing discursive field but also resituates it, giving all the elements within it a different meaning. As a result, these concepts are present when they appear to be absent (the field as it is is only possible because of them) and absent when they most appear present (any naming of them from within the current set-up is only to stand in for them). So what could it mean, therefore, to relate to Marx and Freud, to continue their work, as perhaps Althusser and Lacan did? It must mean that what they do has a similar quality, that it does not so much either follow or refute them as 'double' them, at once completing them and showing that they must be understood for a entirely different reason than the one they give themselves. And it is this that we would say characterizes all significant 'postmodern' thought: the problem of what to say about closed systems, systems of which there is no external standard of judgement, in which the Other already knows everything. (The whole question of the 'end to metaphysics' is misunderstood - even by Badiou and Deleuze - if it is not grasped in this sense.) It is this that distinguishes all philosophical thought worthy of the name: the fact that it does not merely lie within the empirical field but is also the 'transcendental' condition of it. And it is this that constitutes the unity and originality of this thought - not that it is 'one' but that it endlessly doubles and splits the world (and itself): Derrida's différance, Deleuze's deterritorialization, Irigaray's woman, Baudrillard's seduction and perhaps something in Zizek...

In fact, Hegel was the first philosopher to speak of this 'end' of philosophy. This 'doubling', as Zizek so brilliantly brings out, is what is at stake in Hegel's notion of dialectics and not any reconciliation with the world. And, indeed, it is something like this 'end of philosophy' in the sense of having nothing to say that we see in undoubtedly one of the most interesting attempts to account for what is 'original' about Zizek: Denise Gigante's "Toward a Notion of Critical Self-Creation: Slavoj Zizek and the "Vortex of Madness". She writes:

But where Zizek 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.8

This, we would say, is a fascinating insight; but we disagree with Gigante when she suggests that this condition is somehow unique to Zizek himself. On the contrary, we would argue that all post-Hegelian philosophy, or indeed all philosophy in the light of Hegel, begins with this 'nothing to say'. It is what we will come to speak of as the 'contraction' of the primordial void in Schelling (IR, 22-7). It is that 'empty' speech that for Lacan precedes and makes possible 'full' or authentic speech (S1, 51). It is even that vouloir-dire or undeconstructible 'Yes!' that motivates deconstruction in Derrida. It is at once an attempt to follow or be faithful to what is, adding nothing, and it is the saying or re-marking of this nothing as something, thus opening up the possibility of something to say. (It is perhaps no coincidence that Lacan speaks of the special status of the great philosophers' knowledge, the way it advances not singly but always 'two by two, in a supposed Other' (S20, 97), mentioning in this regard Marx, Freud and even himself, in the Seminar Encore, devoted to the question of woman. For, as we will see, this structure in which the symbolic order is total, allowing no exception, and yet we are entirely outside of it, unindebted to any Other, is precisely the 'feminine' logic Lacan is trying to elaborate there.)

Zizek gives another hint as to what he considers philosophical originality - the difference between authentic philosophy and mere academic commentary - in his book on Kieslowski, The Fright of Real Tears. He writes:

In philosophy, it is one thing to talk about, report on, say, the history of the notion of the subject (accompanied by all the proper bibliographical footnotes), even to supplement it with comparative critical remarks; it is quite another to work in theory, to elaborate the notion of the 'subject' itself. (K, 9)

Zizek speaks here of the elaboration of the philosophical notion of the subject as an example of the distinction he is proposing between first- and second-order philosophical systems; but we suggest that it is more than an example: it is the very distinction itself. To elaborate the subject is what philosophy does. But what exactly does this mean, to elaborate the subject? And in what ways, if any, does Zizek do it? It would involve not only elaborating a particular subject as the name of a philosophical system or a philosophy that will come to be known by a particular name, but - although this is not strictly speaking opposed - the subject as a split subject, what Lacan indicates by the symbol $, the subject as gap or void. All significant philosophical systems, that is, introduce a certain gap or void into what is - a gap or void that we would call the subject. Repeating the essential Hegelian gesture of translating 'substance as subject', what is is understood as standing in for a void (SO, 201-30; TN, 21-7). And it is around this 'subject' that the essential connection between philosophy and psychoanalysis might be made. It is around this 'subject' - the subject as split and the subject as introducing a kind of split - that the originality of Zizek's philosophy is to be found.

'Why is every act a repetition?'

But in order to see what all of this might mean in more detail, let us turn to a text of Zizek's originally entitled "Philosophy Traversed by Psychoanalysis", and now reprinted in Enjoy Your Symptom! as "Why is Every Act a Repetition?" In this text, Zizek addresses the relationship of psychoanalysis to philosophy, which is precisely not a matter of psychoanalysing philosophy or particular philosophers but of psychoanalysis constituting philosophy's frame. As he writes: 'It [psychoanalysis] circumscribes the discourse's frame, i.e., the intersubjective constellation, the relationship toward the teacher, toward authority, which renders possible the philosophical discourse' (E!, 92). That is, if psychoanalysis is external to philosophy, it is an externality philosophy cannot do without and which philosophy from the beginning takes as its subject - Zizek in his text cites Plato's Symposium as the first attempt by philosophy to speak of its intersubjective (psychoanalytic) origins. In "Why is Every Act?", however, it is a short text by Kierkegaard, "Philosophical Fragments," that Zizek considers at greatest length in order to speak of this transferential aspect to philosophy. In "Philosophical Fragments," Kierkegaard makes a distinction between theology (not psychoanalysis) and philosophy (even Plato) over the question of this transferential, intersubjective relationship to truth. Whereas in traditional philosophy, according to Kierkegaard, a philosopher like Socrates is only the 'midwife' for a timeless and eternal truth, in Christian doxa the truth of a statement lies not in what is said but in the authority of the one who speaks. The truth of Christ's message lies not in any actual content but in the very fact that Christ said it. This is the meaning behind Kierkegaard's insistence, undoubtedly a little strange to our ears, that anyone who believes what Christ is saying because of what He says reveals themselves not to be a Christian: a Christian, on the contrary, believes what Christ says because it is said by Christ (E!, 93).

However, it is not quite as simple as this, for at the same time as this absolute emphasis on Christ's personal authority, He is also only an empty vessel for the word of another. In other words, Christ only possesses the authority He does because He carries the higher, transcendental Word of God. It would be in what He transmits and not in Christ Himself that His power lies. Or, to use Kierkegaard's distinction, Christ is not so much a 'genius' as an 'apostle' (E!, 93). (We might think again here of what Lacan says in Encore about those special agents of knowledge, Marx, Freud and implicitly himself: that, if they are great and singular figures, whose ideas cannot be separated from them as founders, it is also 'clearly on the basis of the Other that they have constituted the letter at their own expense' (S20, 97-8).) We thus appear to have a kind of dilemma, for the authority of Christ lies not in what He says but only in His personal authority, and yet He only retains this authority insofar as He transmits directly and without mediation the Word of God. What then lies at the impossible intersection of these two sets - Christ's life and His teachings? How to think together these two elements that at once exclude and are necessary to each other? Zizek seeks to represent what is at stake by means of the following diagram (E!, 96):

What is important about this diagram? In the first part of his essay, Zizek takes up the question of what Lacan calls the 'forced choice' (E!, 69): the idea that underlying the symbolic order in which we live there is a choice whether to enter it or not. As a result of this choice - which in a sense is forced because the only alternative to it is psychosis - a situation that arises after it is able to be presented as though it already existed before it. A situation that relies upon the assent of the subject is able to be presented as though the subject is unnecessary, as though the decision has already been made for them. For example, we recognize the king because he is the king, even though he is the king only because we recognize him. Or we acknowledge the interpellation or hailing of authority - 'Hey you!', as shouted by a policeman - even though it is specifically meant for us only after we acknowledge it.9 And this 'conversion' of the arbitrary and conventional into the regular and natural is made possible by what Zizek calls the master-signifier: that by which an implicit order or prescription is made to seem as though it is only the description of a previously existing state of affairs. As he writes in "Why is Every Act?":

The Lacanian S1, the 'master-signifier' which represents the subject for other signifiers, is therefore the point of intersection between the performative and the constative, i.e., the point at which the 'pure' performative coincides with (assumes the form of) its opposite. (E!, 99)

Zizek's point, however, is that in a way we can repeat this forced choice and thus expose this process. We can go back to that moment of our original entry into the symbolic and relive it as though it has not already taken place and thus think what is lost by it.10

It is this possibility, Zizek argues, that is to be seen in Kierkegaard's conception of our relationship to Christ. What we glimpse there in the laying bare of the transferential relationship to knowledge, in the way the Word of Christ relies upon a certain blind authority, is a moment 'before' we enter the symbolic order, as though we could somehow choose whether to recognize the king or accept that interpellation by which we become a subject. (Of course, the paradox of this is that there is in fact no 'choice' involved here at all, because we only become subjects possessed of free will as a result of this decision to enter the symbolic order. And it is precisely in this split not so much between various choices within the symbolic as between the symbolic and what comes 'before' it that the subject in the proper philosophical sense emerges. As Zizek writes: 'In this split, in this impossibility of a "pure" performative, the subject of the signifier emerges' (E!, 99).) In other words, according to Zizek, what we witness in Kierkegaard's model of Christian authority, with its absolute emphasis on the physical presence of Christ, is a momentary 'separation' of prescription and description, something that is not simply reducible to the symbolic order. And this is why, in that diagram above, Zizek represents the intersection between 'personal description' (prescription) and 'teaching' (description), which would normally be occupied by S1 or the master-signifier, by what Lacan calls object a or a 'little piece of the real' (E!, 101). Again, as opposed to traditional philosophy, in which the teacher or the means of expression is finally dispensable as the mere medium of an eternal truth, in Kierkegaard it is the unsurpassable condition for access to Christian revelation, which is not to be grasped outside of the actual present in which it occurs.

For Zizek, it is just this emphasis on the material presence of the analyst that also characterizes psychoanalysis, and why that 'trauma' it discovers is not merely to be understood as some repressed and timeless memory the analyst helps us to recover but as something that is played out for real within the psychoanalytic session, something that does not exist before analysis and actual contact with the analyst (E!, 102). And, again, it is this 'repetition' of the forced choice that might allow psychoanalysis, like Christianity, to break the transferential relationship, to bring out the separation between the analyst and the position they occupy, to see the prescription (transference, personal authority) 'before' it becomes description (the way things naturally appear to be, teaching). It is not perhaps here simply a matter of getting rid of the master-signifier, for the symbolic field is unable to be constituted without it - again, the question of the paradoxical split 'subject' - but of somehow rendering present that empty prescription that 'precedes' and 'allows' it. As Zizek observes of Lacan's clinical practice and the way he attempted to theorize the position of the analyst as holding the position of object a in that diagram above:

The unmasking of the master's imposture does not abolish the place he occupies, it just renders it visible in its original emptiness, i.e., as preceding the element which fills it out. Therefore the Lacanian notion of the analyst qua envers (reverse) of the master: of somebody who holds the place of the master, yet who, by means of his (non)activity, undermines the master's charisma, suspends the effect of 'quilting', and thus renders visible the distance that separates the master from the place he occupies, i.e., the radical contingency of the subject who occupies this place. (E!, 103)

And the same would go for all great thinkers in the relationship of their personal authority to their teaching: they too ultimately seek to 'render visible the distance that separates the master from the place he occupies'.11 It is this that constitutes the anti-authoritarian thrust of our contemporary 'masters of suspicion'.

Yet, as Zizek is undoubtedly aware, Marx, Freud and Lacan are not straightforwardly anti-authoritarian or anti-transferential. In fact, what their work - which is arguably the final outcome of that critique of authority that characterizes the Enlightenment - reveals is that the Enlightenment is not, as is usually thought, opposed to authority but inseparable from it. The truth is arrived at not through the careful weighing up of the reasons for and against a certain proposition, but by the unappealable fiat of authority. Indeed, as we have already seen, insofar as the statements of these thinkers are not just empirical but also assert the 'transcendental' conditions of their respective fields, they cannot be tested or questioned but only followed. As Zizek writes:

Since Marx and Freud opened up a new theoretical field which sets the very criteria of veracity, their work cannot be put to the test in the same way one is allowed to question the statements of their followers... For that reason, every 'further development' of Marxism or psychoanalysis necessarily assumes the form of a 'return' to Marx and Freud: the form of a (re)discovery of some hitherto overlooked layer of their work, i.e, of bringing to light what the founders 'produced without knowing what they produced'. (E!, 100)

But it is at this point that we must ask: why this coincidence of transference and anti-transference? Why are these master-thinkers not simply anti-transferential but also transferential, indeed, more transferential than ordinary thinkers? Is it not merely that the authority of transference is to be overcome by another transference but that the very attempt to uncover transference leads to transference? And how, to come back to our original question of Zizek's relationship to his sources, are we to imagine Zizek 'going beyond' them, when every 'further development' of them can only assume the form of a 'return' to them, a '(re)discovery of some hitherto overlooked layer' of their work? Can any such 'breaking with' or 'overturning of' them only take the form of a certain 'return' to them? And what, finally, is the role of object a in all of this? Is it to be thought of as exposing the 'original emptiness preceding the element that fills it out' in that diagram above, or must all this be thought another way?

In order to begin answering these questions, let us turn to the passage in "Why is Every Act?" immediately after Zizek discusses the attempted psychoanalytic breaking of the transference. He speaks there of the Lacanian procedure of the passe, in which, as we have seen, the analyst-in-training does not immediately pass on their findings to the examining committee but only through two uninvolved middle-persons or passeurs. In this way, Lacan sought to break any initiatic contact between the analyst and the committee; but there is also something else produced. For, of course, these passeurs get things wrong, distort the message. The message does not arrive intact at its destination. And yet, if we can say this, this just is the knowledge of the unconscious that the analyst-in-training possesses. It is just this that they are able to pass on intact to the examining committee. In other words, the knowledge of the unconscious that the analyst possesses lies not so much in anything they actually say as in their saying of it. It is nothing that can be lost or distorted because it is this very loss and distortion. And it is this, finally, that the analyst-in-training must realize - just as earlier we spoke about the way that 'trauma' does not exist as something recollected, but as what is produced in the relationship with the analyst - that the meaning of their words is nothing that can be grasped by them but comes about only in the relationship between two. This is the experience of 'decentrement' that Lacan called 'subjective destitution', which is the realization that our meaning does not originate with ourselves but only with our mistakes and distortions, as what we have produced without knowing it or what is in us more than ourselves. That is to say, what the analyst must in the end realize is that they are themselves a passeur: that they transmit knowledge from the Other to the Other without knowing what it is; that all they add is a certain distortion, a particular way of speaking, a characteristic enunciation.

Do we not see the same thing with our great philosophers? For perhaps unexpectedly - to go back to that original distinction Kierkegaard makes vis-à-vis Christ - Zizek calls them at a certain point not 'geniuses' but 'apostles' (E!, 101). But of whom are they the apostles? In what way is it not merely a matter of their personal qualities but also of them being the carriers of the word of another? And how is this a clue to what we have just seen about them: that they are unable to be surpassed, or surpassed only in their own name? Again, what is it that defines the particular contribution of our major thinkers? What is it that separates their thought - authentic philosophy - from that of others - academic commentary? If we can repeat ourselves, it is because they do not simply offer concepts from within an already existing field but also redefine this field, or as Zizek puts it they 'circumscribe the discourse's frame'. It is this Zizek calls, with regard to Plato and Kierkegaard - as an example of this - the 'subjective constellation, the relationship toward the teacher, toward authority, which renders possible the philosophical discourse'. But, once more, we would say that this is not so much an example of as the very thing that authentic philosophy does: it speaks of, takes into account, the intersubjective dimension of philosophy. It grasps, understands, that from the beginning it is caught up in a transferential - dialogical - relationship with its interpreters. Its word lives on - and it recognizes this - not because of some concrete doctrine set out in advance but because it is seen in retrospect to be what its interpreters say it is. To put this another way, what exactly does Marx mean by class, the specific concept that he introduces? Class is not something that is either present or not, but what is present in its absence and absent in its presence. The meaning and even the existence of class is always being disputed, but class just is this struggle (ME, 181-3; T?, 228). And, similarly, Freud's unconscious, as Lacan demonstrates, is not so much something that is either present or not as what comes about in the relationship between it and its interpreters, whatever it is that they speak of. It is as though Marx and Freud (and Hegel too, as Zizek shows in his Le plus sublime des hystériques) have undergone the passe and now realize that they are merely the empty transmitters or apostles of the word of another. But of whose word are they the apostles (and this undoubtedly applies to Christ too, as St Paul shows)? Precisely of us, their interpreters or analysts.

But, to get back to our main point, the paradox here is that it is in remarking upon transference that our speakers produce transference. It is in speaking of the way that their message is always distorted that their message is never distorted. The intersubjective element of philosophy, the fact that its authority comes from us, is not simply irreconcilable with the authority of philosophy but is its real basis. And this is the ambiguity of object a as at once what is in the subject 'more than themselves' and the stand-in for that 'act' that would repeat and thus reveal the 'forced choice'. For let us go back to that 'act' by means of which we are able to relive this forced choice as though it has not yet happened, and which opens us up to something 'before' or 'outside' of the symbolic order. The example Zizek gives of it in "Why is Every Act?" is Antigone's famous 'No!' to King Creon's refusal to allow her brother Polynices a proper burial. It is a gesture that places her outside of the social, that proposes a radically different set of values, and which therefore can only be judged in its own terms. As Zizek writes:

This 'law' in the name of which Antigone insists on Polynices' right to burial is the law of the 'pure' signifier prior to every positive law that judges our deeds: it is the law of the Name which fixes our identity beyond the eternal flow of generation and corruption. (E!, 92)

And yet, ironically, to all intents and purposes, this 'No!' is exactly like the word of the master-signifier itself, which can also only be judged tautologically and requilts the social field, forcing us to read everything in a new way. And this, again, is the difficulty we have with our master-thinkers and why it is so hard to think 'after' them, for in a sense the concepts they propose are nothing positive but only the 'inscription of a pure difference' (E!, 91), already naming their own difference from themselves. That is, as we have seen with the concepts of class and the unconscious, we could no sooner name their absence, our difference from them or even the fact that they arise only in their relationship to us, than these would return to them as what they are already about. It is they that would remark before us their own absence and difference from themselves.12

As Zizek admits, this standing outside of the forced choice can only end up repeating it. This act comes down finally to a choice not whether to enter the symbolic or not but between two alternatives already within the symbolic. As Zizek makes clear in that other diagram he reproduces in the chapter (E!, 76), object a still lies within the set defined by S1 and S2, two different master-signifiers. Or, as he puts it there: 'The subject cannot "have it all" and choose himself as nonbarred; all he can choose is a partial mark, one of two signifiers, the symbolic mandate that will represent him, designate his place in the intersubjective network' (E!, 76). Or, as he will elsewhere say, paraphrasing Lacan, the choice comes down to that between 'bad' and 'worse' (E!, 75), which perhaps is not simply that between a master-signifier within the symbolic order and a psychotic act outside of it, but is always echoed - insofar as we are a 'split' subject - in the choice between two signifiers within the symbolic order. But it is in this context that we must read Zizek carefully - and perhaps even against himself - when he states that in Lacan's 'suspension' of the master-signifier we might somehow see '[the master's-place] visible in its original emptiness, i.e., as preceding the original element which fills it out'. For, as Zizek himself argues, this object a only 'comes into being through being lost, i.e., it is not given prior to its loss' (E!, 75). In other words, this empty place is never given as such but is only ever a retrospective effect of it being filled in. The repetition of the forced choice never really comes up with a different decision, never actually chooses otherwise; but this repetition itself testifies to something always not chosen. Again, as Zizek says with regard to the notion of the working through of 'trauma' in psychoanalysis, it is not so much some prior existing alternative that is either recollected or not as a fleeting possibility that arises in the present, at the very moment it is not chosen. As in Kierkegaard's notion of the religious, we do not so much repeat some particular thing or even decision as the very failure to make a decision: 'Insofar as repetition is not possible, it is possible to repeat the very experience of impossibility' (E!, 79). And in repeating it as impossible, we do not merely render it possible, change the course of events, but think what is excluded to ensure that things are as they are, what is allowed by this always unchosen alternative. This is the very 'transcendental' philosophical gesture as such, understanding how what is stands in for a certain fundamental impossibility.

It is for this reason too that this act of which we are speaking is not some 'exception reconciled in the universal' (E!, 84), or at least not in any obvious sense. For this repetition of the forced choice is not in the end a breaking or transgression of the symbolic order. It is not directly opposed to or outside of it. As we have already seen, we can only overturn one prescription by another prescription, one transference by another transference. Rather, what this 'possibility' opened up by the act suggests is that, even though there is no actual outside to the symbolic order, even though any attempt to think something prior to it can only choose an alternative already within it, all this is only possible because of a certain 'outside', a certain 'alternative' forever excluded. It is precisely what Zizek means by the Real as a kind of 'transhistorical kernel' (E!, 81), for which object a stands in. Again, it would not be so much anything prior to the symbolic as what is excluded at the very moment it is included, what each of these master-signifiers tries to speak of, what each of these 'doublings' or 'requiltings' seeks to respond to. And what this forces us to think is both that there is nothing outside of the symbolic order (this object a will always turn into another master-signifier) and this symbolic is empty, contains nothing (in a way does not exist until the 'free' decision to enter it). At the very moment the symbolic order 'doubles', names its own difference from itself, there is also something that 'doubles' it, which cannot be named. As opposed to any 'exception reconciled in the universal', there is at once no exception and all is exception. And this is the ambiguity of object a as that 'law of the name', let us say of the master-signifier: it is both only a new master-signifier, which cannot be lost, and what allows this loss to be recorded, that without which this loss would not exist. It is this equivalence that Zizek speaks of throughout his work in terms of the Hegelian formulae 'the Spirit is a Bone' (E!, 88) and the monarch as the identity of the 'State qua rational totality and the "irrational", biological positivity of the king's body' (E!, 86). It is also the particular rhythm that characterizes Zizek's work: a kind of 'Schellingian' simultaneous contraction and expansion, in which proper names and concepts at once channel the disseminatory drift of the writing and argument and open it up to the loss of coherence and sense.

To return finally to that diagram with which we began, we might say that it is the very image of philosophy - or at least philosophy as seen from a Hegelian perspective. For what we see in the impossible intersection of personal description and teaching there is the attempt to make enunciation and enunciated equal in order to speak of that void or emptiness that makes the symbolic order possible. In other words, its 'doubling' of the system before (whether it be social reality or a philosophical construct) takes the place of an always excluded enunciation: it speaks of that position from which the equivalences of the system before are possible. And yet it could no sooner speak of this enunciation than lose it, turn it into an enunciated, allowing another to 'double' it in turn. Object a, that mysterious object of desire of philosophy, is just this equivalence of personal description and teaching, enunciation and enunciated, no sooner spoken of than lost, like that famous paradox, so important to Lacan, of 'I am lying' (S11, 138-41). And the great philosophers, those who join in this conversation, realize this, and in so doing lose it again. Philosophy is always the same story told differently, but this story is nothing but these differences. We come back to our original insight that perhaps all Zizek adds is a certain argumentative brio, a new range of references, a brilliant writerly style - in short, a new way of speaking - but all this only to stand for that nothing (object a) that at once completes those systems (Hegel, Lacan, contemporary capitalism) he analyses and ensures that they can never be completed. In this, he perhaps touches on the proper definition of the act as outlined in "Why is Every Act?": he at once only repeats what is already there before him and reveals that what is does not exist before this repetition (we can only choose to enter the symbolic order and this order would not exist without us). He therefore demonstrates both that nothing is outside of the symbolic order and that we are completely undetermined by it. This is what we might call the real 'suspension' of transference at stake in philosophy: not the simple end or breaking of transference, the revealing of some original 'emptiness', but a 'suspension' that exists only in retrospect, no sooner spoken of than lost, and thus always to be taken up again. To express it formulaically: just as transference itself is only possible because of a certain breaking of transference, so this breaking of transference only exists within transference.

The reader's forced choice

How is all this to relate to what we say about Zizek here? What does all this leave us to say? Zizek on many occasions speaks about what he feels to be the overall objective of his work. It is, as we have seen in 'Why is Every Act?', to contest the naturalness and authority of every ideological construction of reality. As he says in The Fright of Real Tears, the aim of philosophy is not so much to argue for the reality of fictions as to make us 'experience reality itself as a fiction' (K, 77). Or, as he argues in the Introduction to Tarrying with the Negative, the philosopher should attempt to 'step back' (TN, 2) from actuality to possibility, to show how things might be otherwise. In this, as he puts it there, they must seek to 'occupy all the time the place of the hole, i.e., to maintain a distance toward every reigning master-signifier' (TN, 2). And yet - to go back to the lesson of that diagram - this hole is always turning into a master-signifier; this hole can only be seen through a certain master-signifier. As Zizek states elsewhere, object a is the master-signifier seen 'anamorphically' (SO, 99; T?, 149). How then to maintain this distinction between object a and the master-signifier? How to keep 'looking awry' upon reality? It is not, as Zizek seems to be suggesting at times, a matter of an act or void before the master-signifier. So is object a merely a master-signifier in waiting? Is it a matter of keeping object a from turning into a master-signifier? Or must the relationship between the two be thought otherwise? s the only way of keeping them apart to argue that they arise at the same time? That object a is a kind of 'possibility' born at the same time as the master-signifier? That object a, to use a language that Zizek will increasingly have resort to, is not so much opposed to or outside of the master-signifier as what makes the master-signifier both possible and impossible (IR, 144-5; L, 274-5)?

It is these questions that lie at the heart of this book, for as we have already seen one of the crucial questions at stake in any evaluation of Zizek is to what extent does he simply oppose the master-signifier and object a and their equivalents and to what extent does he think their relationship otherwise? It is this alternative that opens up that 'void' or 'emptiness' around which Zizek's work is organized and that might allow us to say something 'new' about it ourselves. In Chapter 2, we take up the ideological master-signifier or quilting point as it appears in Zizek's work and see that it is neither some transcendental signified nor despotic authority that forces us to obey it, but - this is the particular problem Zizek addresses - something that as it were 'doubles' reality, that we follow whether we want to or not, that incorporates our own distance on to it. It is a distance that is to be seen not only within the master-signifier itself but in the way we relate to it - and, in both cases, it involves the object a. That is, if object a can be seen as undermining the master-signifier, imposing a certain distance on to it, it can also be understood as extending or strengthening it. The master-signifier's distance on to itself and ours on to the master-signifier paradoxically extends its reach even more, denying us any critical perspective on to it. And yet - this is the ambiguity we trace throughout here - this necessarily means that the master-signifier comes close to its own unveiling or dissolution. The very element that allows the ideological field to be sutured, that means there is no outside (that the outside is already inside), also desutures it, opens it up, ensures that there is always a certain 'distance' on to it that is necessary for it to be constituted and that can never be finally incorporated.

Accordingly, in Chapter 3, we begin the complex task of thinking object a as the 'opposite' or 'inverse' of the master-signifier with regard to Zizek's notion of the 'act' as that which breaks with or resituates the ideological field. But already here we might think how this act does not so much break with or resituate this field - for in that case it would be merely another master-signifier - as represent a kind of 'virtuality' or 'possibility' forever excluded from it. The act is not something that is deferred or impossible; but neither is it, as Zizek sometimes implies, something that can definitively be accomplished. Rather, it is something that is always as it were coming into being or taking place; something that, in Lacan's words, 'doesn't stop (not) being written' (S20, 59), without being thought of in terms of some potential becoming actual. The act, as we have seen before, is what we might call object a or stand-in for the Real. And, in Chapter 4, we go on to explore this notion of the act as a kind of 'virtuality' that 'doubles' every actuality, as what not only actually occurs but what allows all else to take place. That is, again, the act as object a is neither opposed to the master-signifier nor an interregnum between master-signifiers but arises at the same time as the master-signifier as its 'transcendental' condition of possibility. To put all this in Hegelian terms, if the master-signifier is seen as the subject of this book, in Chapter 2 we look at the master-signifier, in Chapter 3 at the 'negation' of the signifier and in Chapter4 at the 'negation' of this 'negation' of the master-signifier (which does not simply return us to the master-signifier). Or, if object a is seen as the subject of this book, in Chapter 2 we look at it 'for-the-other', in Chapter 3 at it 'in-itself' and in Chapter 4 at it 'in-and-for-itself'. Finally, in Chapter 5, in an attempt to summarize these issues, we look at the various critics of Zizek (principally the 'radical democrat' Ernesto Laclau and the feminist-queer theorist Judith Butler, but also briefly the Frankfurt School Marxist Peter Dews). We see raised in the arguments between them the question - the underlying subject of this book - of how to think the relationship between the master-signifier and the act: whether the act is outside of the symbolic and how then to name it; whether the act is within the symbolic and how then it could fundamentally change anything. What we see there is a problem we have touched on before: the difficulty of Zizek thinking the Real (or its stand-in, object a) as a kind of 'empty space', preceding that element which fills it in.

Our reading here - though this is not to imply any simple development in Zizek's thinking - is broadly chronological. In Chapter 2, we look extensively at Sublime Object and For They Know Not; in Chapter 3, at Indivisible Remainder and Ticklish Subject; in Chapter 4, at Fragile Absolute and On Belief; and, in Chapter 5, at Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. Or, to put it another way, this time placing the emphasis not so much on what is said as its saying, we might suggest that this book divides into two contrasting approaches or tonalities. The first is what we might call, following Lacan's schema of the 'four discourses' (CU, 74-81), the discourse of the 'master' or the 'university', in which, transferring on to Zizek, we seek to systematize his work, making it the source of a stable and consistent authority, explicating it as though everything had already been said by him, as though the answers to all our objections will eventually be found there. The second is what we might call the discourse of the 'hysteric' or 'analyst', in which we seek to bring out our moments of doubt, confusion and frustration before the work, which we then attribute to Zizek himself, or in which we seek to catch him out in his shortcomings or inconsistencies. But, as we have tried to show before, these two attitudes are not strictly separable: one is always turning into the other; both are true at once. It is at that very moment when we think we see flaws in Zizek's argument that we most transfer on to him (for it is at just these moments that we feel we might one day be like him, that we are 'more in Zizek than Zizek himself'); and it is only by transferring on to Zizek that we might somehow go beyond him (it is only by completely internalizing him that we might end up saying something different from him, that we might end up becoming ourselves). Again, we come close to the secret of all significant systems of thought: at once they allow us to think - as though we could for a moment step outside of the symbolic order - that something is lost by transference, that they are not entirely saying what we think they are saying, and it is this that not only strengthens our transference on to them but leads to transference in the first place. It is not only the creators of the great philosophical systems who are split subjects in this sense, who repeat a kind of forced choice, but those who read them as well.


1. There is perhaps only one thing that Zizek will not admit to: looking up his own sales figures on Amazon.com. In a classic example of what he calls 'interpassivity' - enjoyment through the other - he will attribute this to his friends, who then tell him. See on this Christopher Hanlon, 'Psychoanalysis and the Post-Political: An Interview with Slavoj Zizek', New Literary History 32, 2001, p. 7.
2. Or, because anyone who believes anything today runs the risk of being seen as kitsch, we might compare Zizek to another of his literary heroes, the architect Howard Roark from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead:
"Roark stood before them as each man stands in the innocence of his own mind - and they knew suddenly that no hatred was possible to him. For the flash of an instant, they grasped the manner of his consciousness. Each asked himself: do I need anyone's approval? - does it matter? - am I tied? And for that instant, each man was free - free enough to feel benevolence for every other man in the room." (AF, 86)
3. Cited in Peter Canning, "The Sublime Theorist of Slovenia", Artforum, March 1993, p. 85.
4. Cited in Guy Mannes Abbott, "Zizek within the Limits of Mere Reason", The Independent, May 3, 1999, p. 42.
5. Cited in Robert S. Boynton, "Enjoy Your Zizek!", Lingua Franca 8(7), October 1998, p. 48.
6. Edward R. O'Neill, "The Last Analysis of Slavoj Zizek", Film-Philosophy 5(17), June 2001, p. 7.
7. As Zizek puts it: "The only way to produce something real in theory is to pursue the transferential fiction to the end" (H, 10). This might be compared to the acquisition of a language: it is only when we have completely internalized it that we can begin to think for ourselves (ME, 43-6).
8. Denise Gigante, "Toward a Notion of Critical Self-Creation: Slavoj Zizek and the "Vortex of Madness", New Literary History 29, 1998, p. 453.
9. Some of Zizek's examples of the false 'free' choice that arises after the fundamental 'forced' choice include: that between Nutra-Sweet and High & Low for artificial sweetners, between Jay Leno and David Letterman for late night TV, between Coke and Pepsi for beverages (T?, 240-1) - and we even might say between the two political parties in most modern democratic duopolies. This is the meaning behind the famous Marx Brothers' joke quoted by Zizek: 'Tea or coffee? Yes, please!' (CHU, 240), which operates as a refusal of this false choice.
10. As a perfect instance of this, we might think of Cavell's notion of the 'comedy of remarriage', which signifies not so much any actual break-up of the couple as a free repetition of the original 'forced' decision to marry. That is, each of the parties behaves as though they were not married and can choose again whether or not to enter into a relationship with the other. See Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
11. Zizek is perhaps the opposite to Lacan in this regard. He attempts to bring out the 'disparity' between the empty place and what fills it not through his absence but through a kind of over-presence: the split between the mathemic purity of his thought and his physical and emotional 'grossness', his sexist and non-'pc' jokes. His strategy is perhaps not dissimilar to that of contemporary artists, who seek to maintain the sacred 'void' by putting a piece of excrement in its place (FA, 30-1).
12. This is also the conclusion Foucault reaches in his essay "What is an Author?", in which he considers a special class of authors he calls the 'initiators of discursive practices', principally Marx and Freud. In their work, we have not only a 'certain number of analogies that could be adopted by future texts, but they also make possible a number of differences', Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, Oxford: Blackwell, 1980, p. 132.


back up to be continued...

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

Rex Butler

© Copyright Notice. Please respect the fact that all material in LACAN.COM is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.