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The three main influences on Slavoj Zizek's work are G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx and Jacques Lacan
1. Hegel provides Zizek with the type of thought or methodology that he uses. This kind of thinking is called dialectical. In Zizek's reading of Hegel, the dialectic is never finally resolved.
2. Marx is the inspiration behind Zizek's work, for what he is trying to do is to contribute to the Marxist tradition of thought, specifically that of a critique of ideology.
3. Lacan provides Zizek with the framework and terminology for his analyses. Of particular importance are Lacan's three registers of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. Zizek locates the subject at the interface of the Symbolic and the Real.
The basis of the imaginary order is the formation of the ego in the "mirror stage". Since the ego is formed by identifying with the counterpart or specular image, "identification" is an important aspect of the imaginary. The relationship whereby the ego is constituted by identification is a locus of "alienation", which is another feature of the imaginary, and is fundamentally narcissistic. The imaginary, a realm of surface appearances which are deceptive, is structured by the symbolic order. It also involves a linguistic dimension: whereas the signifier is the foundation of the symbolic, the "signified" and "signification" belong to the imaginary. Thus language has both symbolic and imaginary aspects. Based on the specular image, the imaginary is rooted in the subject's relationship to the body (the image of the body).
Although an essentially linguistic dimension, Lacan does not simply equate the symbolic with language, since the latter is involved also in the imaginary and the real. The symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier, in which elements have no positive existence but are constituted by virtue of their mutual differences. It is the realm of radical alterity: the Other. The unconscious is the discourse of the Other and thus belongs to the symbolic order. Its is also the realm of the Law that regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. The symbolic is both the "pleasure principle" that regulates the distance from das Ding, and the "death drive" which goes beyond the pleasure principle by means of repetition: "the death drive is only the mask of the symbolic order." This register is determinant of subjectivity; for Lacan the symbolic is characterized by the absence of any fixed relations between signifier and signified.
This order is not only opposed to the imaginary but is also located beyond the symbolic. Unlike the latter, which is constituted in terms of oppositions such as "presence" and "absence", there is no absence in the real. The symbolic opposition between "presence" and "absence" implies the possibility that something may be missing from the symbolic, the real is "always in its place: it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from there." If the symbolic is a set of differentiated signifiers, the real is in itself undifferentiated: "it is without fissure". The symbolic introduces "a cut in the real," in the process of signification: "it is the world of words that creates the world of things." Thus the real emerges as that which is outside language: "it is that which resists symbolization absolutely." The real is impossible because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order. This character of impossibility and resistance to symbolization lends the real its traumatic quality.
Unlike almost all other kinds of contemporary philosophers, Zizek argues that Descartes' cogito is the basis of the subject. However, whereas most thinkers read the cogito as a substantial, transperent and fully self-conscious "I" which is in complete command of its destiny, Zizek proposes that the cogito is an empty space, what is left when the rest of the world is expelled from itself. The Symbolic Order is what substitutes for the loss of the immediacy of the world and it is where the void of the subject is filled in by the process of subjectivization. The latter is where the subject is given an identity and where that identity is altered by the Self.
Reading Schelling via Lacan
Once the Lacanian concepts of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are grasped, Zizek, in philosophical writings such as his dicussion of Schelling, always interprets the work of other philsophers in terms of those concepts. This is so because "the core of my entire work is the endeavour to use Lacan as a privileged intellectual tool to reactualize German idealism". (The Zizek Reader) The reason Zizek thinks German idealism (the work of Hegel, Kant, Fichte and Schelling) needs reactualizing is that we are thought to understand it in one way, whereas the truth of it is something else. The term "reactualizing" refers to the fact that there are different possible ways to interpret German idealism, and Zizek wishes to make "actual" one of those possibilities in distinction to the way it is currently realized.
At its most basic, we are taught that German idealism believes that the truth of something could be found in itself. For Zizek, the fundamental insight of German idealism is that the truth of something is always outside it. So the truth of our experience lies outside ourselves, in the Symbolic and the Real, rather than being buried deep within us. We cannot look into our selves and find out who we truly are, because who we truly are is always elsewhere. Our selves are somewhere else in the Symbolic formations which always precede us and in the Real which we have to disavow if we are to enter the Symbolic order.
The reason that Lacan occupies a privileged position for Zizek's lies in Lacan's proposition that self-identity is impossible. The identity of something, its singularity or "oneness", is always split. There is always too much of something, and indivisible remainder, or a bit left-over which means that it cannot be self-identical. The meaning of a word, i.e., can never be found in the word itself, but rather in other words, its meaning therefore is not self-identical. This principle of the impossibility of self-identity is what informs Zizek's reading of the German idealists. In reading Schelling, i.e., the Beginning is not actually the beginning at all - the truth of the Beginning lies elsewhere, it is split or not identical to itself.
How, precisely, does the Word discharge the tension of the rotary motion, how does it mediate the antagonism between the contarctive and the expansive force? The Word is a contraction in the guise of its very opposite of an expansion - that is, in pronouncing a word, the subject contracts his being outside himself; he "coagulates" the core of his being in an external sign. In the (verbal) sign, I - as it were - find myself outside myself, I posit my unity outside myself, in a signifier which represents me. (The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters)
The Subject of the Enunciation and the Subject of the Enunciated
The subject of enunciation is the "I" who speaks, the individual doing the speaking; the subject of the enunciated is the "I" of the sentence. "I" is not identical to itself - it is split between the individual "I" (the subject of enunciation) and the grammatical "I" (the subject of the enunciated). Although we may experience them as unified, this is merely an Imaginary illusion, for the pronoun "I" is actually a substitute for the "I" of the subject. It does not account for me in my full specificity; it is, rather, a general term I share with everyone else. In order to do so, my empirical reality must be annihilated or, as Lacan avers, "the symbol manifests itself first of all as the murder of the thing". The subject can only enter language by negating the Real, murdering or substituting the blood-and-sinew reality of self for the concept of self expressed in words. For Lacan and Zizek every word is a gravestone, marking the absence or corpse of the thing it represents and standing in for it. It is partly in the light of this that Lacan is able to refashion Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" as "I think where I am not, therefore I am where I think not". The "I think" here is the subject of the enunciated (the Symbolic subject) whereas the "I am" is the subject of the enunciation (the Real subject). What Lacan aims to disclose by rewriting the Cartesian cogito in this way is that the subject is irrevocably split, torn asunder by language
The Vanishing Mediator
The concept of "vanishing mediator" is one that Zizek has consistenly employed since For They Know Not What They Do. A vanishing mediator is a concept which somehow negotiates and settles - hence mediating - the transition between two opposed concepts and thereafter disappears. Zizek draws attention to the fact that a vanishing mediator is produced by an assymetry of content and form. As with Marx's analysis of revolution, form lags behind content, in the sense that content changes within the parameters of an existing form, until the logic of that content works its way out to the latter and throws off its husk, revealing a new form in ots stead. Commenting Fredric Jameson's "Syntax of Theory" (The Ideologies of Theory, Minnesota, 1988), Zizek proposes that
The passage from feudalism to Protestantism is not of the same nature as the passage from Protestantism to bourgeois everyday life with its privatized religion. The fisrt passage concerns "content" (under the guise of preserving the religious form or even its strengthening, the crucial shift - the assertion of the ascetic acquisitive stance in economic activity as the domain of manifestation of Grace - takes place), whereas the second passage is a purely formal act, a change of form (as soon as Protestantism is realized as the ascetic acquisitive stance, it can fall off as form). (For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political factor)
Zizek sees in this process evidence of Hegel's "negation of the negation", the third moment of the dialectic. The first negation is the mutation of the content within and in the name of the old form. The second negation is the obsolescence of the form itself. In this way, something becomes the opposite of itself, paradoxically, by seeming to strengthen itself. In the case of Protestantism, the universalization of religious attitudes ultimately led to its being sidelined as a matter of private contemplation. Which is to say that Protestantism, as a negation of feudalism, was itself negated by capitalism.
THE FORMULAS OF SEXUATION
The pleasure principle functions a a limit of enjoyment; it is a law that commands the subject to "enjoy as little as possible". At the same time, the subject constantly attempts to trangress the prohibitions imposed on his enjoyment, to go "beyond the pleasure principle". The result of transgressing the pleasure principle is not more pleasure, but pain, since thre is only a certain amount of pleasure that the subject can bear. beyond this limit, pleasure becomes pain, and this "painful pleasure" is what Lacan calls jouissance: jouissance is suffering. The term expresses the paradoxical satisfaction the subject derives from his symptom, that is the suffering he derives from his own satisfaction.
Lacan in Encore states that jouissance is essentially phallic: "jouissance, insofar as it is sexual, is phallic, which means that it does not relate to the Other as such." However, Lacan admits a specifically feminine jouissance, a supplementary jouissance which is beyond the phallus, a jouissance of the Other. This feminine jouissance is ineffable, for women experience it but know nothing about it. Going beyond the phallus, it is of the order of the infinite, like mystical ecstasy.
"Woman doesn't exist", la femme n'existe pas, which Lacan rephrases as "there is no such a thing as Woman", il n'y a pas La femme. Lacan questions not the noun "woman", but the definite article which precedes it. For the definite article indicates universality, and this is the characteristic that woman lacks: "woman does not lend herself to generalisation, even to phallocentric generalisation." He also speaks of her as "not-all", pas toute; unlike masculinity - a universal function founded upon the phallic exception (castration), woman is a non-universal which asmits no exception. "Woman as a symptom" (Seminar RSI) means that a woman is a symptom of a man, in the sense that a woman can only ever enter the psychic economy of men as a fantasy object, the cause of their desire.
For Zizek, woman is what sustains the consistency of man; woman non-existence actually represents the radical negativity which constitutes all subjects. The terms "man" and "woman" do not refer to a biological distinction or gender roles, but rather two modes of the failure of Symbolization. It is this failure which means that "there is no sexual rapport". See Woman is one of the Names-of-the-Father, or how Not to misread Lacan's formulas of sexuation for Zizek's position vis-à-vis sexuation.
For Zizek, present society, or postmodernity, is based upon the demise in the authority of the big Other. Continuing the theorists of the contemporary risk society, who advocate the personal freedoms of choice or reflexivity, which have replaced this authority, Zizek argues that these theorists ignore the reflexivity at the heart of the subject. For Zizek, lacking the prohibitions of the big Other, in these conditions, the subject's inherent reflexivity manifests itself in attachments to forms of subjection, paranoia and narcissism. In order to ameliorate these pathologies, Zizek proposes the need for a political act or revolution - one that will alter the conditions of possibility of postmodernity (which he identifies as capitalism) and so give birth to a new type of Symbolic Order in which a new breed of subject can exist.
Zizek refers to the law throughout his work. The term "the law" signifies the principles upon which society is based, designating a mode of collective conduct based upon a set of prohibitions. However, for Zizek, the rule of the law conceals an inherent unruliness which is precisely the violence by which it established itself as law in the first place.
"At the beginning" of the law, there is a certain "outlaw", a certain real of violence which coincides with the act itself of the establishment of the reign of the law... The illegitimate violence by which law sustains itself must be concealed at any price, because this concealment is the positive condition of the functioning of the law. (For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor)
The authority of the law stems not from some concept of justice, but because it is the law. Which is to say that the origin of the law can be found in the tautology: "the law is the law". If the law is to function properly, however, we must experience it as just. It is only when the law breaks down, when it becomes a law unto itself, and it reaches the limits of itself, do we glimpse those limits and acknowledge its contingency by reference to the phrase "the law is the law".
The Desintegration of the Big Other
One key aspect of the universalization of reflexivity is the resulting desintegration of the big Other, the communal network of social institutions, customs and laws. For Zizek, the big Other was always dead, in the sense that it never existed in the first place as a material thing. All it ever was (and is) is a purely symbolic order. It means that we all engage in a minimum of idealization, disavowing the brute fact of the Real in favor of another Symbolic world behind it. Zizek expresses this disavowal in terms of an "as if". In order to coexist with our neighbors we act "as if" they do not smell bad or look ridiculous.
The big Other is then a kind of collective lie to which we all individually subscribe. We all know that the emperor is naked (in the Real) but nonetheless we agree to the deception that he is wearing new clothes (in the Symbolic). When Zizek avers that "the big Other no longer exists" is that in the new postmodern era of reflexivity we no longer believe that the emperor is wearing clothes. We believe the testimony of our eyes (his nakedness in the Real) rather than the words of the big Other (his Symbolic new clothes). Instead of treating this as a case of punctuting hypocrisy, Zizek argues that "we get more than we bargained for - that the very community of which we were a member has disintegrated" (For They Know Not What They Do). There is a demise in "Symbolic efficiency".
Symbolic efficiency refers to the way in which for a fact to become true it is not enough for us just to know it, we need to know that the fact is also known by the big Other too. For Zizek, it is the big Other which confers an identity upon the many decentered personalities of the contemporary subject. The different aspects of my personality do not claim an equal status in the Symbolic - it is only the Self or Selves registered by the big Other which display Symbolic efficiency, which are fully recognized by everyone else and determine my socio-economic position. The level at which this takes place is not
that of "reality" as opposed to the play of my imagination - Lacan's point is not that, behind the multiplicity of phantasmatic identities, there is a hard core of some "real Self", we are dealing with a symbolic fiction, but a fiction which, for contingent reasons that have nothing to do with its inherent structure, possesses performative power - is socially operative, structures the socio-symbolic reality in which I participate. The status of the same person, inclusive of his/her very "real" features, can appear in an entirely different light the moment the modality of his/her relationship to the big Other changes. (The Ticklish Subject: the Absent Center of Political Ideology)
The Return of the Big Other
Besides the construction of little big Others as a reaction of the demise of the big Other, Zizek identifies another response in the positing of a big Other that actually exists in the Real. The name Lacan gives to an Other in the Real is "the Other of the Other". A belief in an Other of the Other, in someone or something who is really pulling the strings of society and organizing everything, is one of the signs of paranoia. Needless to say that it is commonplace to argue that the dominant pathology today is paranoia: countless books and films refer to some organization which covertly control governments, news, markets and academia. Zizek proposes that the cause of this paranoia can be located in a reaction to the demise of the big Other:
When faced with such a paranoid construction, we must not forget Freud's warning and mistake it for the "ilness" itself: the paranoid construction is, on the contrary, an attempt to heal ourselves, to pull ourselves out of the real "illness", the "end of the world", the breakdown of the symbolic universe, by menas of this substitute formation. Looking Awry: an Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture)
Paradoxically, then, Zizek argues that the typical postmodern subject is one who displays an otright cynicism towards official institutions, yet at the same time believes in the existence of conspirancies and an unseen Other pulling the strings. This apparently contradictory coupling of cynicism and belief is strictly correlative to the demise of the big Other. Its disappearance causes us to construct an Other of the Other in order to escape the unbearable freedom its loss encumbers us with. Conversely, there is no need to take the big Other seriously if we believe in an Other of the Other. We therefore display cynicism and belief in equal and sinceres measures.
Postmodernism: An Over-Proximity to the Real
One of the ways in which Zizek's understanding of the postmodern can be characterized is as an over-proximity of the Real. In postmodern art (or postmodernism) Zizek identifies various manifestations of this, such as the technique of "filling in the gaps". What Zizek means by this can be seen in his comparative analysis of The Talented Mr. Ripley (book and film). In Patricia Highsmith's novel, Ripley's homosexuality is only indirectly proposed, but in Anthony Minghella's film Ripley is openly gay. The repressed content of the novel, the absence around which it centers, is filled in. For Zizek, what we lose by covering over the void in this way is the void of subjectivity:
By way of "filling in the gaps" and "telling it all", what we retreat from is the void as such, which is ultimately none other than the void of subjectivity (the Lacanian "barred subject"). What Minghella accomplishes is the move from the void of subjectivity to the inner wealth of personality. (The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory)
In Highsmith's novel the status of Ripley's sexuality is. at most, equivocal. As such, the book remains "innocent" in the eyes of the big Other because it does not openly trangress one of its norms. While we can interpret the clues in the story as indicating Ripley's homosexuality, we do not have to do so. The film, on the other hand, "shows it all", Ripley is here objectively homosexual. So whereas in one instance the reader can decide subjectively whether or not Ripley is gay, the film allows no such room for manoeuvre and the viewer is forced to accept Minghella's reading of the text.
For Zizek, we are not so much living in a post-ideological era as in an era dominated by the ideology of cynicism. Adapting from Marx and Sloterdijk, he sums up the cynical attitude as "they know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still, they are doing it". Ideology in this sense, is located in what we do and not in what we know. Our belief in an ideology is thus staged in advance of our acknowledging that belief in "belief machines", such as Althusser's Ideological State Apparatuses. It is "belief before belief."
Pinning Down Ideology with Points de Capiton
One of the questions Zizek asks about ideology is: what keeps an ideological field of meaning consistent? Given that signifiers are unstable and liable to slippages of meaning, how does an ideology maintain its consistency? The answer to this problem is that any given ideological field is "quilted" by what, following lacan, he terms a point de capiton (literally an "upholstery button" though is has also been translated as "anchoring point"). In the same way that an upholstery button pins down stuffing inside a quilt and stops it from moving about, Zisek zrques that a point de capiton is a signifier which stops meaning from sliding about inside the ideological quilt. A point de capiton unifies an ideological field and provides it with an identity. Freedom, i.e, is in itself an open-ended word, the meaning of which can slide about depending on the context of its use. A right-wing interpretation of the word might use it to designate the freedom to speculate on the market, whereas a left-wing interpretation of it might use it designate freedom from the inequalities of the market. The word "freedom" therefore does not mean the same thing in all possible worlds: what pins its meaning down is the point de capiton of "right-wing" or "left-wing". What is at issue in a conflict of ideologies is precisely the point de capiton - which signifier ("communism", "fascism", "capitalism", "market economy" and so on) will be entitled to quilt the ideological field ("freedom", "democracy", Human rights" and son on).
The Two Deaths
The fact that for Zizek the apparently all-inclusive whole of life and death are supplemented, by both a living death and a deathly life, points to the way in which we can die not just once, but twice. Most obviously, we will suffer a biological death in which our bodies will fail and eventually disintegrate. This is death in the Real, involving the obliteration of our material selves. But we can also suffer a Symbolic death. This does not involve the annihilation of our actual bodies, rather it entails the destruction of our Symbolic universe and the extermination of our subject positions. We can thus suffer a living death where we are excluded from the Symbolic and no longer exist for the Other. This might happen if we go mad or if we commit an atrocious crime and society disowns us. In this scenario, we still exist in the Real but not in the Symbolic. Alternatively, we might endure a deathly life or more a kind of life after death. This might happen if, after our bodies have died, people remember our names, remember our deeds and so on. In this case, we continue to exist in the Symbolic even though we have died in the Real.
The gap between the two deaths, Zizek argues, can be filled either by manifestations of the monstrous or the beautiful. In Shakespeare's Hamlet for example, Hamlet's father is dead in the Real, however, he persists as a terifying and monstrous apparition because he was murdered and thereby cheated of the chance to settle his Symbolic debts. Once that debt has been repaid, following Hamlet's killing of his murderer, he is "completely" dead. In Sophocles' Antigone, the heroine suffers a SYmbolic death before her Reak death when she is excluded fom the community for wanting to bury his traitorous brother. This destruction of her social identity instils her character with a sublime beauty. Ironically Antigone enters the domain between the two deaths "precisely in order to prevent her brother's second death: to give him a proper funeral that will secure his eternalization" (The Ticklish Subject: the Absent Centre of Political Ontology). That is, she endures a Symbolic death in order that her brother, who has been refused proper burial rites, will not suffer a Symbolic death himself.
The Spectre of Ideology
Zizek distinguishes three moments in the narrative of an ideology.
1. Doctrine - ideological doctrine concerns the ideas and theories of an ideology, i.e. liberalism partly developed from the ideas of John Locke.
2. Belief - ideological belief designates the material or external manifestations and apparatuses of its doctrine, i.e. liberalism is materialized in an independent press, democratic elections and the free market.
3. Ritual - ideological ritual refers to the internalization of a doctrine, the way it is experienced as spontaneous, i.e in liberalism subjects naturally think of themselves as free individuals.
These three aspects of ideology form a kind of narrative. In the first stage of ideological doctrine we find ideology in its "pure" state. Here ideology takes the form of a supposedly truthful proposition or set of arguments which, in reality, conceal a vested interest. Locke's arguments about government served the interest of the revolutionary Americans rather than the colonizing British. In a second step, a successful ideology takes on the material form which generates belief in that ideology, most potently in the guise of Althusser's State Apparatuses. Third, ideology assumes an almost spontaneous existence, becoming instinctive rather than realized either as an explicit set of arguments or as an institution. the supreme example of such spontaneity is, for Zizek, the notion of commodity fetishism.
In each of these three moments - a doctrine, its materialization in the form of belief and its manifestation as spontaneous ritual - as soon as we think we have assumed a position of truth from which to denounce the lie of an ideology, we find ourselves back in ideology again. This is so because our understanding of ideology is based on a binary structure, which contrasts reality with ideology. To solve this problem, Zizek suggests that we analyze ideology using a ternary structure. So, how can we distinguish reality from ideology? From what position, for example, is Zizek able to denounce the New Age reading of the universe as ideological mystification? It is not from the position in reality because reality is constituted by the Symbolic and the Symbolic is where fiction assumes the guise of truth. The only non-ideological position available is in the Real - the Real of the antagonism. Now, that is not a position we can actually occupy; it is rather "the extraideological point of reference that authorizes us to denounce the content of our immediate experience as 'ideological.'" (Mapping Ideology) The antagonism of the Real is a constant that has to be assumed given the xistence of social reality (the Symbolic Order). As this antagonism is part of the Real, it is not subject to ideological mystification; rather its effect is visible in ideological mystification. Here, ideology takes the form of the spectral supplement to reality, concealing the gap opened up by the failure of reality (the Symbolic) to account fully for the Real. While this model of the structure of reality does not allow us a position from which to assume an objective viewpoint, it does presuppose the existence of ideology and thus authorizes the validity of its critique. The distinction between reality and ideology exists as a theoretical given. Zizek does not claim that he can offer any access to the "objective truth of things" but that ideology must be assumed to exist if we grant that reality is structured upon a constitutive antagonism. And if ideology exists we must ne able to subject it to critique. This is the aim of Zizek's theory of ideology, namely an attempt to keep the project of ideological critique alive at all in an era in which we are said to have left ideology behind.
RACISM AND FANTASY
Fantasy as a Mask of the Inconsistency in the Big Other
One way at looking at the relationshipbetween fantasy and the big Other is to think of fantasy as concealing the inconssistency of the Symbolic Order. To understand this we need to know why the big Other is inconsistent or structured around a gap. The answer to this question is that when the body enters the field of signification or the big Other, it is castrated. What Zizek means by this is that the price we pay for our admission to the univerdal medium of language is the loss of our full body selves. When we submit to the big Other we sacrifice direct access to our bodies and, instead, are condenmned to an indirect relation with it via the medium of language. So, whereas, before we enter language we are what Zizek terms "pathological" subjects (the subject he notates by S), after we are immersed in language we are what he refers to as "barred" subjects (the empty subject he notates with $). What is barred from the barred subject is precisely the body as the materialization or incarnation of enjoyment (jouissance). Material jouissance is strictly at odds with, or heterogenous to, the immaterial order of the signifier.
For the subject to enter the Symbolic Order, then, the Real of jouissance or enjoyment has to be evacuated from it. Which is another way to saying that the advent of the symbol entails "the murder of the thing". Although not all jouissance is completely evacuated by the process of signification (some of it persists in what are called the erogenous zones), most of it is not Symbolized. And this entails that the Symbolic Order cannot fully account for jouissance - it is what us missing in the big Other. The big Other is therefore inconsistent or structured around a lack, the lack of jouissance. It is, we might say, castrated or rendered icomplete by admitting the subject, in much the same way as the subject is castrated by its admission.
What fantasy does is conceal this lack or incompletion. So, as we saw previoulsly when alluding to the formulas of sexuation, "there is not sexual relationship" in the big Other. What the fantasy of a sexual scenario thereby conceals is the impossibility of this sexual relationship. It covers up the lack in the big Other, the missing jouissance. In this regard, Zizek often avers that fantasy is a way for subjects to organize their jouissance - it is a way to manage or domesticate the traumatic loss of the jouissance which cannot be Symbolized.
The Window of Fantasy
For Zizek, racism is produced by a clash of fantasies rather than by a clash of symbols vying for supremacy. There are several distinguishing features of fantasy:
1. Fantasies are produced as a defence against the desire of the Other manifest in "What do you want from me?" - which is what the Other, in its incosnsistency, really wants from me.
2. Fantasies provide a framework through which we see reality. They are anamorphic in that they presuppose a point of view, denying us an objective account of the world.
3. Fantasise are the one unique thing about us. They are what make us individuals, allowing a subjective view of reality. As such, our fantasies are extremely sensitive to the intrusion of others.
4. Fantasies are the way in which we organize and domesticate our jouissance.
Zizek contends that today's racism is just as reflexive as every other part of postmodern life. It is not the product of ignorance in the way it used to be. So, whereas racism used to involve a claim that another ethnic group is inherently inferior to our own, racism is now articulated in terms of a respect for another's culture. Instead of "My culture is better than yours", postmodern or reflexive racism will argue that "My culture is different from yours". As an example of this Zizek asks "was not the official argument for apartheid in the old South Africa that black culture should be preserved in its uniqueness, not dissipated in the Western melting-pot? (The Fragile Absolute, or Why the Christian Legacy is Worth Fighting For) For him, what is at stake here is the fethishistic disawoval of cynicism: "I know very well that all ethnic cultures are equal in value, yet, nevertheless, I will act as if mine is superior". The split here between the subject of enunciated ("I know very well...") and the subject of the enunciation ("...nevertheless I act as if I didn't") is even preserved when racists are asked to explain the reasons for their behavior. A racist will blame his socio-economic environment, poor childhood, peer group pressure, and so on, in such a way as to suggest to Zizek that he cannot help being racist, but is merely a victim of circumstances. Thus postmodern racists are fully able to rationalize their behavior in a way that belies the traditional image of racism as the vocation of the ignorant.
The Ethnic Fantasy
If "ethnic tension" is a conflict of fantasies, what is then the racist fantasy? For Zizek there are two basic racist fantasies. The first type centers around the apprehension that the "ethnic other" desires our jouissance. "They" want to steal our enjoyment from "us" and rob us of the specificity of our fantasy. The second type proceeds from an uneasiness that the "ethnic other" has access to some strange jouissance. "They" do not things like "us". The way :they" enjoy themselves is alien and unfamiliar. What both these fantasies are predicated upon is that the "other" enjoys in a different way than "us":
In short, what really gets on our nerves, what really bothers us about the "other", is the peculiar way he organizes his jouissance (the smell of his food, his noisy songs and dances, his strange manners, his attitude to work - in the racist perspective, the "other" is either a workaholic stealing our jobs or an idler living on our labor. ( Looking Awry: an Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture)
So ethnic tension is caused by a conflict of fantasies if we regard fantasy as a way of organizing jouissance. The specificity of "their: fantasy conflicts with the specificity of "our" fantasy".
For Zizek, the perception of a threat, by "them" as well as by "us", remains strong. The last two decades have witnessed a marked rise in racial tension and ethnic nationalism. Following Lacan and Marx, Zizek ascribes this rise to the process of globalization. This process refers to the way in which capitalism has spread across the world. displaceing local companies in favor of multinational ones. The effects of this process are nor necessarily just commercial, for what is at stake are the national cultures and politics bodies which underpin, and are supported by, resident industries. When McDonald's opens up in Bombay, for example, it is not just another business, but represents a specifically American approach to food, culture and social organization. The more capitalism spreads, the more it works to dissolve the efficacy of national domains, dissipating local traditions and values in favor of universal ones.
The only way to offset this increased homogeneity and to assert the worth of the particular against the global is to cling to our specific ethnic fantasy, the point of view which makes us Indians, British or Germans. And if we try to avoid being dissolved in the multicultural mix of globalization by sticking to the way we organize jouissance, we will court the risk of succumbing to a racist paranoia. Even if we attempt to institute a form of equality between the ways in which we aorganize enjoyment, unfortunately, as Zizek points out, "fantasies cannot coexist peacefully" (Looking Awry)
The Ethics of Fantasy
For Zizek is the state that should act as a buffer between the fantasies of different groups, mitigating the worst effects of thoses fantasies. If civil society were allowed to rule unrestrained, much of the world would succumb to racist violence. It is only the forces of the state which keep it in check.
In the long term, Zizek argues that in order to avoid a clash of fantasies we have to learn to "traverse the fantasy" (what lacan terms "traversing the fantôme). It means that we have to acknowledge that fantasy merely functions to screen the abyss or inconsistency in the Other. In "traversing" or "going through" the fantasy "all we have to do is experience how there is nothing 'behind' it, and how fantasy masks precisely this 'nothing'". (The Sublime Object of Ideology)
The subject of racism, be it a Jew, a Muslim, a Latino, an African-American, gay or lesbian, Chinese, is a fantasy figure, someone who embodies the void of the Other. The underlying argument of all racism is that "if only they weren't here, ife would be perfect, and society will be haromious again". However, what this argument misses is the fact that because the subject of racism is only a fantasy figure, it is only there to make us think that such a harmonious society is actually possible. In reality, society is always-already divided. The fantasy racist figure is just a way of covering up the impossibility of a whole society or an organic Symbolic Order complete unto itself:
What appears as the hindrance to society's full identity with itself is actually its positive condition: by transposing onto the Jew the role of the foreign body which introduces in the social organism disintegration and antagonism, the fantasy-image of society qua consistent, harmonious whole is rendered possible. (Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Holliwood and Out)
Which is another way of saying that if the Jew qua fantasy figure was not there, we would have to invent it so as to maintain the illusion that we could have a perfect society. For all the fantasy figure does is to embody the existing impossibility of a complete society.
Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography
Lacan.com thanks Tony Myers who graciously lent material from his Slavoj Zizek, London: Routledge, 2003.
Photo credit: Kate Milford
© Tony Myers and lacan.com 1997/2006
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