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Rex Butler and Scott Stephens
[space] © Rex Butler - Scott Stephens and lacan dot com 2005


This essay, "Slavoj Zizek's Third Way", is the Editors' Introduction to the second volume of his Selected Writings, The Universal Exception (Continuum, 2005). This volume includes the essays "Welcome the Desert of the Real", "The Prospect of Radical Politics Today", "Against the Double Blackmail" and "Iraq - Where is the True Danger?", referred to here.


Let us begin here by noting an odd coincidence. After the terrorist strikes of 11 September 2001, both Slavoj Zizek and Jean Baudrillard leapt immediately into print. The two authors were, of course, already well-known for their interventions in world political events, often writing responses in newspapers or on the internet mere days after momentous events or at the height of major public debates (the role of NATO in Yugoslavia, the attempted genocide in Rwanda, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the issues surrounding genetic cloning and manipulation). But, paradoxically, for all of their usual haste in making their views known and amid calls from both sides of politics for swift retaliation, they both urged a kind of caution or delay. Baudrillard, for his part, wrote in The Spirit of Terrorism:

The whole play of history and power is disrupted by this event, but so, too, are the conditions of analysis. You have to take your time. While events were stagnating, you had to anticipate and move more quickly than they did. But when they speed up this much, you have to move more slowly-though without allowing yourself to be buried beneath a welter of words, or the gathering clouds of war, and preserving intact the unforgettable incandescence of the images. 1

While Zizek, for his part, in the essay "Welcome to the Desert of the Real", stated that any immediate reaction would be little more than an impotent passage à l'acte, whose sole purpose would be "to avoid confronting the true dimension of what occurred on 11 September".

To draw out what is going on here more precisely, it is crucial to realize that it is not simply a matter of these two highly "engaged" thinkers suddenly losing their nerve in the face of this almost overwhelming disaster, as so many others on the Left did. Rather, it is astonishing how quickly they formulated their responses to what had happened and distributed them via the internet around the world. And yet at the same time what they advise is a form of inaction, a pause, a time for reflection. This would, however, not be to do nothing, but to take the opportunity to think. It is through the minimal delay introduced by this thinking that we might somehow avoid those hysterical calls for action that would merely reproduce the existing ideological co-ordinates (of which even the claim that everything is different following 11 September is only a variant, a "hollow attempt to say something 'deep' without really knowing what to say"). As Zizek writes in his essay "The Prospect of Radical Politics Today", in a surprising inversion of Marx's famous thesis 11 ("Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point is to change it"):

The first task today is precisely not to succumb to the temptation to act, to intervene directly and change things (which then inevitably ends in a cul-de-sac of debilitating impossibility: 'What can one do against global Capital?'), but to question the hegemonic ideological coordinates.

Indeed, once identified, this stress on thinking—on thinking as such—can be seen to form the basis of all of Zizek's specific political commitments. We might just speak of three such instances that occur in this book. In his response to NATO's endorsement of some minimal standard of "human rights" in Kosovo, Zizek insists that the transparent evocation of non-political "humanitarianism" is little more than a ruse to prevent us from thinking "the shady world of international Capital and its strategic interests". In the aftermath of the collapse of the WTC Towers, Zizek unexpectedly endorses the plea of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, that Americans should exercise their own judgement when responding to 11 September: "Don't you have your own thinking?" And, finally, in the months following the United States' invasion of Iraq, Zizek, while rejecting the combined French and German opposition as a kind of appeasement "reminiscent of the impotence of the League of Nations against Germany in the 1930s", nevertheless asserts that the very awareness of their failure to provide a substantive alternative itself constitutes a positive sign. But is there a logical form, a consistent structural principle, behind Zizek's various positions with regard to these events? Might they not be seen, like that France and Germany he condemns, as merely the hysterical rejection of the existing alternatives without being able to put forward anything of their own? In a split between form and content, might we not say that on the level of form Zizek wants to see himself as an "engaged" intellectual, but on the level of content he is struck by a kind of paralysis, unable to suggest any meaningful action? In fact, this exact criticism, often coming from the perspective of a pseudo-ethical, pragmatic Realpolitik, is often made against Zizek. It has been put forward by the English deconstructionist Simon Critchley, 2 by Zizek himself (which shows that he is not entirely unaware of its pertinence); 3 but undoubtedly the exemplary instance is that of early Zizek ally and critic of postmodern "identity" politics Ernesto Laclau. As Laclau writes in the exchange between him, Zizek and Judith Butler, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality:

In his previous essay—"Class Struggle or Postmodernism? Yes, please!"—Zizek had told us that he wanted to overthrow capitalism; now we are served notice that he also wants to do away with liberal democratic regimes—to be replaced, it is true, by a thoroughly different regime about which he does not have the courtesy of letting us know anything... Zizek does actually know a third type of sociopolitical arrangement: the Communist bureaucratic regimes of Eastern Europe under which he lived. Is that what he has in mind?... And if what he has in mind is something entirely different, he has the elementary intellectual and political duty to let us know what it is... Only if that explanation is made available will we be able to start talking politics, and abandon the theological terrain. Before that, I cannot even know what Zizek is talking about—and the more this exchange progresses, the more suspicious I become that Zizek himself does not know either. 4

Ironically here, with surprising clarity, Laclau identifies actually what is at stake in Zizek's work, the fundamental wager on which his various interventions depend: the possibility of some "third type" of socio-political organization not covered by either the existing liberal democratic regimes or their socialist alternatives. Again, let us pursue this idea through those three representative examples discussed above. With regard to the NATO intervention in Kosovo, Zizek seeks to avoid what he calls the "double blackmail" of having to choose between sides, the argument that, "if you are against the NATO bombings, you are for Milosevic's proto-Fascist regime of ethnic cleansing; if you are against Milosevic, you support the global capitalist New World Order". Instead, his point is that "phenomena like Milosevic's regime are not the opposite of the New World Order, but rather its symptom, the place from where the hidden truth of the New World Order emerges". With regard to the terrorist attacks on the WTC, Zizek rejects the argument that would have it that, "if one simply, only and unconditionally condemns the attacks, one cannot but appear to endorse the blatantly ideological position of American innocence under attack from Third World Evil; if one draws attention to the deeper socio-political causes of Arab extremism, one cannot but appear to blame the victims who ultimately got what they deserved". Instead, the "only solution is to reject this very opposition and to adopt both positions simultaneously, which can be done only if one resorts to the dialectical category of totality". And, finally, with regard to the American invasion of Iraq, Zizek refuses both proposed alternatives, arguing both for and against military intervention: "Abstract pacifism is intellectually stupid and morally wrong—one must oppose a threat. Of course the fall of Saddam's regime would have been a relief to a large majority of the Iraqi people. Of course militant Islam is a horrifying ideology". Instead, "although this (all these reasons for war) is true, the war is wrong".

Now, in a conventional political discourse, the elaboration of the wrong alternatives would be merely a preliminary to the eventual laying out of the correct one. Or, in a pseudo-Hegelian manner, it would be a matter of somehow finding a compromise between them, picking out the best elements of both. But this is not what Zizek means by any "third type of socio-political arrangement": it is not any balance or negotiation that he is interested in. Rather, if Zizek seeks to make a choice at all between these two alternatives, it is precisely to maintain the choice. If there is a solution to the problem he sets out, it is not to be found by deciding between alternatives or proposing some middle-path between them, but by thinking both together. Or if, within the current political situation, Zizek is forced to choose between them, he nevertheless wants to think what precedes that choice, what both choices exclude and stand in for. In a manner consistent with his analysis of how a subject is formed within the symbolic order by means of a certain "forced choice" as to whether to enter society or not—which, although it appears free, is in fact forced because the only alternative to it is psychosis—so in his political pronouncements Zizek wants to think a situation before what we might call our political "forced choice", as though we did not have to make it. 5

However, Zizek does not stop there, which would again indicate a certain paralysis of thinking before the event. Instead, what he seeks to render through the identification of those two false choices we are confronted with is their speculative identity. Upon what is this identity founded? Why are all choices within our given ideological co-ordinates fundamentally the same choice? Hegel would have it that it is because of the "dark, shapeless abyss" of abstract universality, which like the Lacanian Real is "always in the same place". And Zizek will translate this in his work as the undifferentiated domain of global Capital. That is to say, for Zizek, as for Hegel, thinking is the withholding of the forced choice in thinking the totality that precedes and conditions it. But, in thinking this totality, in immersing it in the medium of representational thinking—Vorstellung—Zizek, following Hegel, also introduces a kind of delay into it, makes it pass from Substance to Subject. 6 In so doing—this is Marx's point that the only alternative to Capital is Capital itself—Zizek shows that Capital is "re-marked" from somewhere else, is only possible because from the beginning it stands in for its own opposite. To the very extent that it can be thought—this is Hegel's point about immersing abstract universality in the medium of representational thinking—it is not a true universality, it is not abstract enough. It is only its own exception. Or, to put it another way, it is revealed as exception by a still greater universality, which is Zizek's point concerning universality: it is nothing else but what makes every particular particular.

But to go back to that passage from Substance to Subject, which is the power of dialectical thinking, we might say that—in a literal way—all Zizek does here is "humanize" Capital (but then, from this perspective, what is the "human"?). And this cannot but remind us of that "Third Way" alternative Zizek so vehemently rejects throughout his work. However, are the reasons for this rejection—and let us even suggest, as he does with regard to Blair and Haider, a certain clinching of Zizek and Blair—not to be explained as arising out of Zizek's own uncomfortable proximity to Blair, as indeed is hinted at by Laclau's suggestion that what is implicit in Zizek is some kind of impossible "third way"? 7 But let us be more exact here. At stake in Zizek's Third Way is a necessary distinction between form and content. With regard to content, he is absolutely in agreement with the Third Way and its desire to institute progressive social programs in the face of conservative opposition. There is simply no alternative to capitalism (at this moment). But with regard to form, Zizek absolutely rejects the Third Way's concession to this fact in advance. For Zizek, the conclusion that there is no alternative to capitalism can only be reached via the thinking of the alternative that, precisely through its exclusion (this again is Hegel's point concerning the distinction between concrete and abstract universalities), ensures there is only capitalism. In other words, as opposed to the Third Way in which we always begin with capitalism, for Zizek capitalism is only the result of a more abstract universality (capitalism and its other).

And this allows us to account for Zizek's much-criticized political practice in the former Yugoslavia in terms consistent with his current political theory. His actions then, from the perspective of what is now assumed to be his radical Leftism, are usually represented as a liberal compromise, something he would wish to leave behind. (Zizek ran as a pro-reform candidate for the Presidency in the first free elections in Slovenia.) However, our point would be that, far from having to be disavowed in the light of his later political theory, these early actions only make sense in light of it. For what Zizek can be seen to be doing at that time is, while acknowledging the necessity of having to make a choice within the newly "liberated" (i.e., capitalist) Yugoslavia, attempting to maintain the fundamental choice, to avoid foreclosing the possibility of some utopian social transformation. (And it is crucial to note that at no point in his work has Zizek ever repudiated the implicit utopian dimension of democracy or a shared civic space, just that platform on which he ran in the election: this may even have analogies to his support for the "inner greatness" of Stalinist bureaucracy.) It is for this reason—and the comparison is intended—that Zizek will call those transitional social movements in the newly ex-Communist countries, such as East Germany's Neues Forum, a "third way". Once more, with regard to their content, these movements were probably nothing different from those Third Way movements that subsequently broke out in the West. (Were they in fact their inspiration?) But, with regard to their form, they were absolutely different. While on the surface appearing to adapt to the new capitalist exigencies, they did, for a brief moment, embody a true alternative to both capitalism and Communism (exactly what Laclau demands of Zizek).

But perhaps this last statement—that is was only for "a brief moment" that those new movements of ex-Communism opened up an alternative—is a little too "pathetic". By this we mean that absolutely—and we insist on this point—Zizek approves of someone like Blair's instrumentalization of the "progressive" policies of the Third Way, his willingness to "get his hands dirty", as Zizek says approvingly of all "conservatives". 8 What he in fact admires about the third way alternative at the breaking down of Communism was not so much its momentary utopianism as its readiness to embody a new liberal bureaucratic state, in short, its desire not to fail, as with much typical Leftism, including even Neues Forum itself, whose tragic character was that it came to embrace its own inevitable failure. (This is also the tragedy of a figure like Havel: that he wasn't always a pathetic, liberal "fool", who knew very well his own impotence, but for a moment was a conservative "knave", who was prepared to do what it took to seize and maintain power.) We might say here that, in the exact sense that Zizek gives to an authentic conservatism, the Third Way is conservative: a way of "maintaining the Old" (that is, maintaining the excluded alternative to capitalism) within the new conditions of multinational capitalism. This is for Zizek the most radical gesture of all—and it might apply even to Zizek himself. His new, seemingly extreme radical Leftism might ultimately only be a way of maintaining his original liberal "conservatism" within the new conditions of the Left's theoretical perversion and decline.

At this point, we return for the last time to those three examples of Zizek's specific political commitments with which we began. With regard to their content, we would say that Zizek's actual position does not much differ from our contemporary 'Really Existing Third Way'. But as to their form, there is an absolute difference. And what we mean by this is that the Third Way alternative—this is the very "speculative identity" with its opposite that makes it possible—can only be arrived at by considering its opposite, or more exactly by comparing its own rule to itself. To put this more simply, Zizek by and large agrees with the actions of democratic liberalism in each of those situations, but each time—and this is the very time of thinking—suggests not merely that they have to apply their own standards to themselves, but that they are only possible because they have already applied their own standard to themselves, are already in a speculative relationship with their opposite. We can only arrive at these decisions in the first place because they stand in for, take the place of, that "dark, shapeless abyss" they imply from the beginning. It is this abstract universality—which in effect makes these decisions always exceptions—that pushes these decisions into realization, precipitates them, makes them pass over from Substance to Subject, a subject that is nothing else but that decision or action within a determined situation. (And, not coincidentally, it just this kind of Hegelian speculative identity of opposites, of actions not only leading to but only being possible because of their opposites, that Baudrillard means by the "symbolic exchange" between the West and its other in his analysis of 11 September.)

In each of these examples, therefore, there is a certain "infinite justice" implied, which we might define here simply as the Third Way being taken more seriously than it does itself, the Third Way applying its own ruthless pragmatism and lack of excuses first of all to itself. Again, it would not at all be an apology for inaction or indicate any moral equivocation, but on the contrary point to the necessity of always doing more, of always acting on time. Thus, with regard to Yugoslavia, Zizek (in a statement significantly left out of the "official" version of the text published in New Left Review) suggests as a "solution" to the problem of NATO intervention: "Precisely as a Leftist, my answer to the dilemma, 'Bomb or not?', is: 'Not yet enough bombs and they are already too late'". With regard to 11 September, Zizek speaks of the way that, to the extent that the "coalition" forces seek their enemy outside of themselves, they would always miss their target; that they would obtain "infinite justice" only insofar as they also struck at themselves: "The justice exerted must be truly infinite in the strict Hegelian sense, i.e., in relating to others, it has to relate to itself—in short, it has to ask the question of how we ourselves, who embrace justice, are involved in what we are fighting against". Finally, with regard to the American invasion of Iraq, Zizek is not opposed to it—those reasons he put forward earlier against its pacifist condemnation still hold—but he objects to who does it, for what reasons it is done: "It is who does it that makes it wrong. The reproach should be: who are you to do this?" And this is why, in essays published after this collection was put together, Zizek argues for the "justice" of Bush's re-election: not for the typical Leftist reason that his excesses will somehow hasten the collapse of capitalism, but in order to ensure that he will be held accountable for his actions. As he writes: "If Kerry had won, it would have forced the liberals to face the consequences of the Iraq War, allowing Bush to blame the Democrats for the results of his own catastrophic actions". 9

In fact, it is possible to imagine the organization of this book as a series of these exceptions or "infinite judgements". In the first section, "The Fascinated Gaze", we include a number of essays dealing with Zizek's "original" Yugoslavian context; in the second, "Really Existing Socialism", a number taking up that Communism under which he lived the first part of his life; in the third, "Really Existing Capitalism", a number treating that capitalism under which he currently lives; and, in the fourth, "What is (Not) to be Done?", a number dealing with those world political events we have discussed. In each, the section in question constitutes a kind of exception to the one following it, represents what it has to deny in order for it to constitute itself: Yugoslavia as an exception to Communism; Communism as an exception to capitalism; and capitalism itself as an exception, as shown by the racism of the former Yugoslavia, the terrorist strikes of 11 September and the difficulties of the military occupation of Iraq. The point in each case is not so much that the universal requires some exception to it in order for it to be founded as that the universal itself is an exception, only possible because of some third for which both it and its opposite stand in. There is, however, no final reconciliation implied here because this third is never to be thought outside of its own opposite. There is no gradual synthesis or coming together of opposites that this book witnesses, but only a kind of constant turning back upon itself in a process of infinite judgement, a constant 'raising to a higher power' that always remains the same. Each section generalizes, universalizes the section before, but there always remains the 'same' antagonism, the 'same' exception.

To be more specific, for all of the abstraction of which Zizek might be accused, the essays here are full of the details of specific leaders' names, particular events, concrete and nuanced political opinions. Again, we would simply say two things about this. First, we are not to think of these details and the abstract form of Zizek's argument as opposed. As we have tried to make clear, Zizek's invariable method is to think the excluded 'third' option in any political situation, which can never be grasped as such but only as its own exception. However, the details of Zizek's writing—contra Laclau—only come to light because of this abstraction, are only this exception. Second, these details—considered political opinions, the smallest accuracies of fact (Zizek is fond of quoting Lenin's aphorism that the "fate of the entire working class movement for long years can be decided by a word or two in the Party program")—are precisely themselves a way of maintaining the fundamental choice. 10 The patient, meticulous elaboration of the facts is the very time of thinking itself, the refusal to act in such a way that merely reconfirms the existing ideological co-ordinates. And yet, of course, these facts are never neutral: they can only be seen from a particular symbolic perspective. The details in Zizek, that is, are always only an exception, one of two sides, miss what they are aiming at. Indeed, Zizek's entire work—even his so-called theoretical arguments—is merely a series of details understood in this way. It both attempts to think the forced choice (and thus seeks to overcome it) and only repeats it, misses it yet again. It at once is the thinking of the exception and merely itself another exception. And it is in this complicated sense that we might conceive of that split in appearance that is the exception: a split not simply between the world and some transcendental realm for which it stands in, but between the world and what allows it to be remarked as detail, the world itself as exception. True thinking is based not on something outside the world, producing a split between the ought and the is, but only on the world itself, producing a split between the is and the is. It is a split that is the very time and place of thought itself.

And this perhaps is the point at which to rehabilitate Hegel's critique of Spinoza, now infamously characterized by Zizek as "the ideologue of late capitalism" 11 who was unable to contemplate this "Capital-Substance":

On the side of content, the defect of Spinoza's philosophy consists precisely in the fact that the form is not known to be immanent to that content, and for that reason it supervenes upon it only as an external, subjective form. Substance, as it is apprehended immediately by Spinoza without preceding dialectical mediation—being the universal might of negation—is only the dark, shapeless abyss, so to speak, in which all determinate content is swallowed up as radically null and void, and which produces nothing out of itself that has a positive subsistence of it own. 12


1. Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. Chris Turner, London and New York, Verso, 2002, p. 4.

2. Simon Critchley, "The Problem of Hegemony", 2004 Albert Schweitzer Series on Ethics and Politics, New York University, p. 5 (www.politcaltheory.info/essays/critchley.html).

3. See, for example, Zizek commenting that his recent book on Iraq represents little more than "a bric-à-brac of the author's immediate impressions and reactions to the unfolding story of the US attack on Iraq" (Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, London and New York, Verso, 2004, p. 7).

4. Ernesto Laclau, "Constructing Universality", in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, London and New York, Verso, 2000, p. 289.

5. For Zizek's analysis of the "forced choice", see the chapter "Why is Every Act a Repetition?", in Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out, London and New York, Routledge, 1992.

6. We might also compare this to the "choice" Lacan proposes between 'Being (the subject)' and 'Meaning (for the Other)' in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1979, pp. 210-3.

7. In fact, we would argue that, in the same way that the conciliatory tone of Hegel's claim that his critique of Schelling in The Phenomenology of Spirit was directed not at Schelling himself, but rather at the "shallowness" of those Schellingians who "make so much mischief with your forms in particular and degrade your science into a bare formalism" ("Letter to Schelling, 1 May 1807", in Hegel: The Letters, trans. Clark Butler and Christiane Seiler, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 80), revealed how grave the philosophical rift between the two of them was, so Zizek's admission that he is "not actually arguing against (Laclau's and Butler's) position but against a watered-down popular version they would also oppose" (Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, p. 91) functions as an internal reflection on the irreducible difference between Zizek and Butler and Laclau. By contrast, we would say that Zizek's most publicly declared antipathies often mask an undeclared affinity. This, we would suggest, is the case with Blair and the Third Way. Indeed, could we not even propose that Zizek sees in Blair something of that great "critique" of bureaucracy he also finds in Stalin, the idea that a revolution without its corresponding form of bureaucracy is ultimately a revolution without a revolution? Or, more exactly, do not recent events regarding the agreed hand-over of power after the recent election in Britain lead us to think that Blair is like Lenin, who understood he was to be thrown away after his usefulness was over, while his deputy, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor the Exchequer, is more like Stalin? That Blair's true greatness—for all of the accusations of the lack of ideals of the Third Way—will ultimately lie in his sacrificing himself for the Cause? To this extent, we would contrast the profound, 'inhuman' self-instrumentalization of Blair with the "objective beauty" of someone like Havel, who remains "human, all too human".

8. Hence the long list of "conservatives" that Zizek has gone on the record as admiring: not just the well-known Pascal, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and W.B. Yeats, but Pope John Paul II, Christopher Hitchens (with regard to Iraq), Stalin, Hegel, even Lacan himself...

9. Slavoj Zizek, "Hooray for Bush!", London Review of Books 26, 2 December 2004.

10. Slavoj Zizek, The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World, Ann Arbor, MI, University of Michigan Press, 1997, p. 85.

11. Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology, Durham, Duke University Press, 1993, pp. 216-9.

12. G.W.F. Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic: Part 1 of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences (with the Zusätze), trans. T.F. Geraets, W.A. Suchting and H.S. Harris, Indianapolis, Hackett, 1991, p. 227.




Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

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