< >   perfume   lacanian ink   symposia   messageboard   sitemap   links   bibliographies   chronology  

Slavoj Zizek / Glyn Daly
Risking the Impossible
[space] © Glyn Daly & lacan.com 2004


• - Slavoj Zizek: A Primer


The constitutive madness of being

The Zizekian paradigm - if we can speak of it in those terms - draws its vitality from two main philosophical sources: German idealism and psychoanalysis. In both cases, Zizek's central concern is with a certain failure/excess in the order of being. In German idealism this aspect is made increasingly explicit through reference to what can be called an unaccountable "madness" that is inherent to, and constitutive of, cogito and subjectivity as such. For Kant this is the dimension of "diabolical Evil" while for Schelling and Hegel it is the "right of the self" and the "night of the world" respectively. The point is that, in each of these cases, there is an increasing emphasis on negativity as the fundamental (and ineradicable) background to all being.

As Zizek makes clear in The Ticklish Subject, what German idealism accomplishes is a displacement of the usual opposition between the idea of the savage "pre-human" self and the symbolic universe of "civilized" human subjectivity (where in the Enlightenment tradition the latter is identified with the Light of Reason and as something which affects an ultimate mastery, or pacification, over the former). Instead, what is affirmed is a view of subjectivity that can only come into being as a passage through madness; as an ongoing attempt to impose a symbolic integrity against the ever-present threat of disintegration and negativity (Zizek, 1999: 34-41).

In psychoanalysis this thematic aspect of dislocated subjectivity is developed further in respect of the Freudian notion of death drive. Death drive emerges precisely as a result of this gap in the order of being - a gap that simultaneously designates the radical autonomy of the subject - and is something that constantly threatens to sabotage or overwhelm the symbolic framework of subjectivity. In Freud the category of death is not simply a cancellation but refers rather to the (immortal) dimension in subjectivity that persists beyond mere existence or biological life. As Zizek puts it: "Human life is never "just life," it is always sustained by an excess of life" (Zizek, 200 1: 104). This excess of life is death drive. And it is in the context of the latter that both Freud and (especially) Lacan identify the peculiarly human motivation in regard to jouissance: that is, a basic compulsion to, enjoy; to achieve consummate satisfaction and thereby heal the gap, or "wound", in the order of being.

The human condition is marked by an eternal and impossible attempt to bring about some sort of resolution to this drive; a paradoxical drive to resolve drive as such - In this way, drive becomes attached to certain "objects of excess" (the ideal experience, lifestyle, possession etc.) - Lacan's objets petit a - that hold the promise of, at least partial, fulfillment but which can never fully deliver it in a once-and-for-all way. The objets petit a exist in a permanent state of displacement and are always elsewhere. 1

It is in these terms that Zizek insists on a Lacanian reading of the subject. In certain post-structuralist and deconstructivist circles - where the emphasis is on a notion of multiple-being that is always provisionally configured within sliding planes of différance - the idea of the subject has become rather unfashionable as it allegedly conjures up the image of a unified Cartesian identity or some kind of center to subjectivity. But as Zizek has consistently stressed, the subject is neither a substantial entity nor a specific locus. Rather, the subject exists as an eternal dimension of resistance-excess towards all forms of subjectivation (or what Althusser would call interpellation). The subject is a basic constitutive void that drives subjectivation but which cannot ultimately be filled out by it (Zizek, 1990: 254). It is simultaneously the lack and the leftover in all forms of subjectivation. This is why the Lacanian mark for the subject is $ (the "barred", empty subject). The subject cannot find its "name" in the symbolic order or achieve full ontological identity. Using Lacan's expression, the subject always remains as a "bone stuck in the throat of the signifier". And insofar as the subject is linked with the radical negativity of the death drive it also reflects the same kind of tension identified in German idealism. Thus the subject is both the movement away from subjectivation - the excess that engulfs symbolic coherence in an entropic night of the world - and the very drive towards subjectivation as a way of escaping such a condition (Zizek, 1999:159). In this sense identification is always structured in terms of a certain being-towards-madness.

A scene from Scott's Bladerunner provides a useful example. Using the "voigt-kampff" machine, Deckard (Harrison Ford) interrogates Rachel (Sean Young) at the Tyrell Corporation in order to test her empathic responses and thereby to establish whether she is truly human or a manufactured "replicant". Rachel's answers are slick and sure-fire and indicate well-rounded subjectivation. The final question, however, leaves Rachel floundering in a state of confusion as she cannot find a point of positive identification (in the symbolic order) and the machine registers a chilling wipe-out - the void of $. What is compelling about the scene is that far from separating Rachel (and the other replicants) from "us", it serves to underscore her human condition as a being whose subjectivation is prone to failure and negative distortion. It is precisely this malfunctioning element (the bone stuck in the symbolic order) that confers human status. Thus what is masked in this projection of failure on to Rachel is the traumatic knowledge that it is us, who cannot resolve the question of "who am I" in an ultimate sense or completely fill out the void of $.

At the some time, it is through this very resistance-excess towards subjectivation - and the consequent drive to resolve impossible questions concerning identity, destiny, divinity and so on - that human beings are essentially open to the possibility of developing new forms of subjectivation. In this way, the subject is both the transcendental condition of possibility and impossibility for all forms of contingent subjectivation.

And it is interesting to see how the subject persists even more obstinately in the context of today's attempts to either eradicate or supersede it. Two examples are informative here. In deconstructionist philosophy, Derrida has tended to reject the idea of the subject in favor of a conception of subjectivity that is based on a kind of ephemeral decisionism (the multiform processes of becoming/unbecoming) that cannot find an ultimate edge. In support of this, Derrida refers to Kierkegaard and his famous assertion that "the moment of the decision is the moment of madness". From a Lacanian perspective, however, it is precisely this moment of madness that marks the constitutive dimension of the subject.

In biogenetics, by contrast, there is now the capability of determining the human genome and our basic DNA coordinates. Yet it is precisely at this point of total disclosure that the mystery deepens and we are drawn more and more into confrontation with the very incapacity to represent or resolve the gap between subjectivation and that which constantly overflows it: death drive and its characteristic forms of animus, impulsion, desire and so on. Far from capturing the essence of the human being, a paradoxical result of biogenetics is that it brings us into increasing proximity with the very "inhuman" excesses that are constitutive of humanity as such - the Lacanian "in us more than us" - and which testify to the ineradicable nature of the subject.

Dimensions of the Real Through a widening analysis of death drive and the various aspects of negativity that are inherent to being, the later Lacan advanced his crucial generic formulation of the Real. Under the leadership of J.-A. Miller, the concept of the Real has been at the center of the Paris-based "new school of psychoanalysis" in which Zizek has played a key role.

Lacan identifies the Real in relation to two other basic dimensions - the symbolic and the imaginary - and together these constitute the triadic (Borromean) structure of all being. For Lacan, what we call "reality" is articulated through signification (the symbolic) and the characteristic patterning of images (the imaginary). Strictly speaking both the symbolic and the imaginary function within the order of signification. As with Einstein's "general" and "special" theory of relativity, the imaginary may be regarded as a special case of signification. What differentiates them is that while the symbolic is in principle open-ended, the imaginary seeks to domesticate this open-endedness through the imposition of a fantasmatic landscape that is peculiar to each individual. In other words, the imaginary arrests the symbolic around certain fundamental fantasies. As an illustration of this, Zizek (1993: 48-9) takes the relationship between Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) at the centre of Demme's film, The Silence of the Lambs. In a close approximation to a Lacanian psychoanalyst, what Lecter seeks to discover is the specific way in which the symbolic universe of Starting is structured (in tendential terms at least) around a fundamental fantasy - the crying of the lambs and the failed attempt to rescue one of them. The point is that Starling makes sense of her world (she is able to narrate symbolically "who she is" for the Other) precisely through a certain arresting fantasy at the level of the imaginary. In this way, the fantasy-imaginary dimension is drawn into focus at those (nodal) points where we expect to be taken most seriously in respect of the mythical narration of who we really are ("it was in that moment that I knew I wanted to be . . .").

The Real, by contrast, does not belong to the (symbolic-imaginary) order of signification but is precisely that which negates the letter, that which cannot be incorporated within such an order. The Real persists as an eternal dimension of lack and every symbolic-imaginary construction exists as a certain historical answer to that basic lack. The Real always functions in such a way that it imposes limits of negation on any signifying (discursive) order and yet - through the very imposition of such limits - it serves simultaneously to constitute such an order. The Real in this sense is strictly inherent to signification: it is both the unsurpassable horizon of negativity for any system of signification and its very condition of possibility.

While the Real, by definition, cannot be directly represented, it can nonetheless be alluded to in certain figurative embodiments of horror-excess. In Zizek's famous example, it is alluded to in the monster from Scott's film, Alien, whose blood literally dissolves the fabric of reality (Zizek, 1989: 78-9). And just as the unity of the protagonists in this film is constituted against the threat of the Alien, so reality itself is always constructed as an attempt to establish a basic consistency against the disintegrative effects of the Real. Just as being may be understood as being-towards-madness, reality is always reality-towards-the-Real. Every form of (symbolic-imaginary) reality exists as an impossible attempt to escape the various manifestations of the Real that threatens disintegration of one kind or another: trauma, loss, anxiety and so on.

In Zizek's early works the Real tended to be characterized in terms of some kind of force of negation (the Alien, the Medusa's head, forces of nature and so on). In the later works, however - e.g. The Ticklish Subject, The Fragile Absolute and On Belief - Zizek has been concerned to emphasize the more subtle dimensions of the Real. Thus the Real does not simply function as an external (hard) limit to signification, it also plays a more intangible role on providing a certain invisible-immanent twist that gives shape and texture to reality. Taking an analogy from art, this intangible Real could be said to Function like the "vanishing point": i.e. something that cannot be represented but which is nonetheless constitutive of representation. 2 In quantum physics, by contrast, the Real would be the curvature space: something that cannot be dimensionally determined but which creates the conditions of possibility for dimensionality as such. Or, if we take Luhmann's systems theory, the Real is present in terms of the constitutive paradox whereby a system is able to establish its forms of internal coherence and unity only insofar as it cannot systematize its own principles of constitution. 3 The point is that the Real should not be identified exclusively as an explicit force of negation; it also plays a more implicit and evanescent role in the construction of our everyday forms of social reality.

It is in this context that Zizek has engaged in a certain "deconstruction" of the real-symbolic-imaginary triad, such that each of these terms should be regarded as fractally integrated or mapped onto each other. In the case of the Real then we have the real Real, the symbolic Real and the imaginary Real (Zizek, 2001: 82-3). The real Real is the shattering experience of negation (the meteors, monsters and maelstroms; of trauma). The symbolic Real, by contrast, refers to the anonymous codes and/or structures (vanishing points, space curvature, scientific formulae and so on) that are meaningless in themselves and simply function as the basic abstract "texture" onto which (or out of which) reality is constituted. Zizek argues that in the contemporary era it is capital itself that establishes the essential backdrop to reality and which, therefore, may be regarded as the symbolic Real of our times (Zizek, 1999: 222; 276). In this way the new cyber stockmarkets - with their constant digital output - can be seen to function as a kind of oracular network of sacred information that in an abstract indifferent way determines the fate of the Enrons, the Worldcoms and entire national and international markets,

Finally we have the imaginary Real in which again there is an emphasis on an invisible-immanent twist that gives structure and specificity to the imaginary realm. The (imaginary) dream landscape is a clear example of this, In dream there is often a sense of infinite possibility. However, where one encounters a particular image of horror-excess (an immanent marker of the Real) - where the dream turns into a nightmare - there is an immediate compulsion to turn away and escape back into reality; to wake up, These immanent markers of the Real establish a kind of "cartography" of the imaginary realm.

This is also what gives cyberspace (the postmodern digitalized imaginary) its ambiguity. The celebrationist (Gnostic) view of cyberspace is that of a free-floating universe, impervious to the Real, where identities can be manipulated and fantasies played out. Yet cyberspace can also function as the very medium that brings us into proximity with our most intimate fears and anxieties: fetishistic/morbid obsessions, fascination-repugnance towards certain sexual/social practices; an insufferable association with Otherness ("I might be like them") and so on. To put it in the vernacular, there is always the possibility of clicking on a window too far; one that sends us rebounding back towards everyday reality in order to avoid confrontation with those markers of the Real, of traumatic excess, that are inherent to the imaginary. It is this theme of attempting to escape back into reality that is explored in some of the more intelligent films in the horror genre: Jacob's Ladder, Flatliners, the Freddie Krueger Nightmare series and so on.

Yet it is not simply at the level of cinema and cyberspace that the imaginary Real is experienced. The tragedy of 11 September 2001 can also be looked at from this perspective (Zizek, 2002). In a way we could say that, especially for Americans, the trauma was doubly inscribed. First there was the cataclysmic event itself but, second, there was this dimension of the imaginary Real in which popular fantasies regarding the orgiastic destruction of New York (viz. Independence Day, Godzilla, Deep Impact to name but a few) seemed to erupt through to reality - and thereby to render meaningless any escape back to reality. In this way the trauma of 11 September was intensified precisely as a result of this transdimensional breach; this transgression of the subliminal injunction that fantasies should "stay there" and not pursue us.

Ideology and the status of the impossible

It is in the light of this more subtle perspective on the Real that Zizek has also revised his approach to the question of ideology. In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek developed his famous inversion of the classical "false consciousness" thesis. Thus ideology does not conceal or distort an underlying reality (human nature, social interests etc.) but rather reality itself cannot be reproduced without ideological mystification (Zizek, 1989: 28). What ideology offers is the symbolic construction of reality - the ultimate fantasy - as a way to escape the traumatic effects of the Real. Reality is always a "virtual" take on the Real; a virtualization that can never Fully overcome the Real or achieve homeostasis. In the language of Laclau and Mouffe, this means that Society as an integrated unity is universally impossible precisely because of the constitutive excess of the Real qua the unmasterable negativity upon which every positivization finally depends.

And it is here that ideology performs its supreme conjuring trick. What ideology aims at is a fantasmatic re-staging of the encounter with the Real in such a way that the impossibility of Society is translated into the theft of society by some historical Other. In Nazi ideology, for example, it is the contingent figure of the Jew who is made directly responsible for the theft/sabotage of social harmony - thereby concealing the traumatic fact that social harmony never existed and that it is an inherent impossibility (1989: 125-7; 1993: 203-4). By imputing the status of the Real to a particular Other, the dream of holistic fulfillment - through the elimination, expulsion or suppression of the Other - is thereby sustained.

More recently, however, Zizek has developed a new twist to this perspective. Ideology not only constructs a certain image of fulfillment (Plato's City of Reason, the Aryan Community, multiculturalist harmony etc..), it also endeavours to regulate a certain distance from it. 4 On the one hand we have the ideological fantasy of being reconciled with the Thing (of total fulfilment), but, on the other, with the built-in proviso that we do not come too close to it. The (Lacanian) reason for this is clear: if you come too close to the Thing then it either shatters/evaporates (like the frescoes in Fellini's Roma) or it provokes unbearable anxiety and psychical disintegration.

Crucial here is the status of the category of the impossible For Zizek impossibility is not the kind of neutral category that we tend to find in Laclau and Mouffe (as in their impossibility-of-Society thesis) where it tends to connote a basic constitutive frontier of antagonism. Like the immanent markers of the Real, impossibility gets caught up in ideology and is configured in such a way that it both structures reality and determines the coordinates of what is actually possible. As Zizek argues in this book, beyond the prima facie ideological operation of translating impossibility into an external obstacle there is a further deeper stage to the operation: that is, the "very elevation of something into impossibility as a means of postponing or avoiding encountering it". Ideology is the impossible dream not simply in terms of overcoming impossibility but in terms of sustaining that impossibility in an acceptable way. That is to say, the idea of overcoming is sustained as a deferred moment of reconciliation without having to go through the pain of overcoming as such.

The central issue is one of proximity; of maintaining a critical distance by keeping the Thing in focus (like the image on a screen) but without coming so close that it begins to distort and decompose. A typical example would be that of someone who fantasizes about an ideal object (a sexual partner, promotion, retirement etc.) and when they actually encounter the object, they are confronted with the Real of their fantasy; the object loses its ideality, The (ideological) trick, therefore, is to keep the object at a certain distance in order to sustain the satisfaction derived from the fantasy "if only I had x I could fulfil my dream". Ideology regulates this fantasmatic distance in order to, as it were, avoid the Real in the impossible: i.e. the traumatic aspects involved in any real (impossible) change.

This allows for a more nuanced reading of ideologies. Let us take the case of an international crisis: the so-called "liberation of Kuwait" during the 1990s Gulf conflict. Here the ideological discourse tended to operate along the following tines: "we must achieve the liberation of Kuwait ... while recognizing that any true liberation (i.e. abolishing Kuwait's feudal dynasty and setting up democratic structures) is currently impossible." And do we not have something similar with the so-called New World Order? Any real (or indeed Real) attempt to establish such an order would inevitably require traumatic far-reaching changes: global democracy based on universal rights, popular participation, the eradication of poverty and social exclusion (etc.) as part of a genuine "reflexive modernization". However, what we actually have is the routine invocation of the New World Order in term of an indefinite ideal that functions precisely as a way of preventing any real movement towards it. In the Kantian terms of the sublime, any convergence with what might be called the Bush-Blair "axis of Good" would become an unbearable evil. So we have the same type of ideological supplement at work: "we are moving towards a New World Order that will not tolerate the Saddam Husseins of this world... while recognizing that a true New World Order (one that would be intolerant of all the autocrats, royal families and the corporate dictatorships of global capitalism) is currently/always impossible . . ." In this way, impossibility loses its innocence and, far from comprising a simple repressed dimension, is rather something that can be seen to function as an implicit-obscene ideological supplement in today's realpolitik.

Politics and radical incorrectness

The notion of impossibility lies at the root of Zizek's political perspective. And here we get a different spin on the very compelling post-Marxist advances of Laclau and Mouffe aim their demonstration that a transparent antagonism-free Society is inachievable. For Zizek the key question is not so much whether Society is (im)possible, but rather how is society impossible and how is impossibility understood politically? In today's postmodern culture, the idea of the impossible is one that tends to feed into a language of "provisionality", "partiality", "precariousness" and so on. Every gesture is in a way already disavowed through a sense of irony, ersatz and supersession. The problem, therefore, is that the postmodern enthusiasm for impossibility is one that lends itself too readily to a type of politics that itself becomes overly partial and provisional; where political ambition is already limited by its own sense of limitation as such. 5 In other words, the potential danger is that we are left with a politics that stops at the level of impossibility without ever seeking to, as it were, possibilize the impossible.

The political consequences of this type of perspective are already clear. The so-called ethical approaches to foreign policy, third world debt, immigration, social redistribution and so on are always works-in-progress; so many expressions of the Third Way passion for focus groups ("listening to all sides", "feeling their pain". . .) without ever passing to the act proper. So perhaps the political spirit of the postmodern age is not so much the Derridean one of Hamlet's ghost (of infinite indictment etc.) but of Hamlet himself who, in the sense of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, constantly resolves to do but instead ends up constantly resolving. In a further twist on Zizek's argument - where, in the Hegelian sense, something retroactively posits its own conditions of possibility - we might say that with today's political culture we have a dear example of the simultaneous retroactive positing of the conditions of impossibility.
There is a further potential danger. This concerns especially orthodox trends in politically correct multiculturalism and their distortion of a certain type of alliance politics that seeks to establish chains of equivalence between a widening set of differential struggles around gender, culture, lifestyles and so on. While there is nothing wrong in principle with establishing such forms of solidarity, the problem arises where this type of politics begins to assume, in a commonsense way, a basic levelling of the political terrain where all groups are taken to suffer equally ("we are all victims of the state/global capitalism/repressive forces..."). In other words, there is a danger that equivalential politics becomes so distorted that it becomes a way of disguising the position of those who are truly abject: those who suffer endemic poverty, destitution and repressive violence in our world system. In this way, the abject can become doubly victimized: first by a global capitalist order that actively excludes them; and, second, by an aseptic politically correct "inclusivism" that renders them invisible inside its postmodern forest; its tyranny of differences.

For Zizek it is imperative that we cut through this Gordian knot of postmodern protocol and recognize that our ethico-political responsibility is to confront the constitutive violence of today's global capitalism and its obscene naturalization/anonymization of the millions who are subjugated by it throughout the world. Against the standardized positions of postmodern culture - with all its pieties concerning "multiculturalist" 6 etiquette - Zizek is arguing for a politics that might be called "radically incorrect" in the sense that it breaks with these types of positions 7 and focuses instead on the very organizing principles of today's social reality: the principles of global liberal capitalism. This requires some care and subtlety.

For far too long, Marxism has been bedeviled by an almost fetishistic economism that has tended towards political morbidity With the likes of Hilferding and Gramsci, and move recently Laclau and Mouffe, crucial theoretical advances have been made that enable the transcendence of all forms of economism. In this new context, however, Zizek argues that the problem that now presents itself is almost that of the opposite fetish. That is to say, the prohibitive anxieties surrounding the taboo of economism can function as a way of not engaging with economic reality and as a way of implicitly accepting the latter as a basic horizon of existence. In an ironic Freudian- Lacanian twist, the few of economism can end up reinforcing a de facto economic necessity in respect of contemporary capitalism (i.e. the initial prohibition conjures up the very thing it fears).

This is not to endorse any kind of retrograde return to economism. Zizek's point is rather that in rejecting economism we should not lose sight of the systemic power of capital in shaping the fives and destinies of humanity and our very sense of the possible. In particular we should not overlook Marx's central insight that in order to create a universal global system the forces of capitalism seek to conceal the politico-discursive violence of its construction through a kind of gentrification of that system. What is persistently denied by neo-liberals; such as Rorty (1989) and Fukuyama (1992) is that the gentrification of global liberal capitalism is one whose "universalism" fundamentally reproduces and depends upon a disavowed violence that excludes vast sectors of the world's population. In this way, neo-liberal ideology attempts to naturalize capitalism by presenting its outcomes of winning and losing as if they were simply a matter of chance and sound judgement in a neutral marketplace.

Capitalism does indeed create a space for a certain diversity, at least for the central capitalist regions, but it is neither neutral nor ideal and its price in terms of social exclusion is exorbitant. That is to say, the human cost in terms of inherent global poverty and degraded "life-chances" cannot be calculated within the existing economic rationale and, in consequence, social exclusion remains mystified and nameless (viz. the patronizing reference to the "developing world"). And Zizek's point is that this mystification is magnified through capitalism's profound capacity to ingest its own excesses and negativity: to redirect (or misdirect) social antagonisms and to absorb them within a culture of differential affirmation. Instead of Bolshevism, the tendency today is towards a kind of political boutiquism that is readily sustained by postmodern forms of consumerism and lifestyle.

Against this Zizek argues for a new universalism whose primary ethical directive is to confront the fact that our forms of social existence are founded on exclusion on a global scale. While it is perfectly true that universalism can never become Universal (it will always require a hegemonic-particular embodiment in order to have any meaning), what is novel about Zizek's universalism is that it would not attempt to conceal this fact or to reduce the status of the abject Other to that of a "glitch" in an otherwise sound matrix.

Risking the impossible

The response of the left to global capitalism cannot be one of retreat into the nation-state or into organicist forms of "community" and popular identities that currently abound in Europe and elsewhere. For Zizek it is, rather, a question of working with the very excesses that, in a Lacanian sense, are in capitalism more than capitalism. It is a question, therefore, of transcending the provincial "universalism" of capitalism. To illustrate the point, Zizek draws attention to the category of "intellectual property" and the increasingly absurd attempts to establish restrictive dominion over technological advances - genetic codes, DNA structures, digital communications, pharmaceutical breakthroughs, computer programs and so on - that either affect us all and/or to which there is a sense of common human entitlement Indeed, the modern conjuncture of capitalism is more and more characterized by a prohibitive culture: the widespread repression of those forms of research and development that have real emancipatory potential beyond exclusive profiteering; the restriction of information that has direct consequences for the future of humanity; the fundamental denial that social equality could be sustained by the abundance generated by capitalism. Capitalism typically endeavors to constrain the very dimensions of the universal that are enabled by it and simultaneously to resist all those developments that disclose its specificity-artificiality as merely one possible mode of being.

The left, therefore, must seek to subvert these ungovernable excesses in the direction of a political (and politicizing) universalism; or what Balibar would call égaliberté. This means that the left should demand more globalization not less. Where neo-liberals speak the language of freedom - either in terms of individual liberty or the free movement of goods and capital - the left should use this language to combat today's racist obsessions with "economic refugees", "immigrants" and so on, and insist that freedoms are meaningless without the social resources to participate in those freedoms. Where there is talk of universal rights, the left must affirm a responsibility to the universal; one that emphasizes real human solidarity and does not lose sight of the abject within differential discourses. Reversing the well-known environmentalists' slogan, we might say that the left has to involve itself in thinking locally and acting globally. That is to say, it should attend to the specificity of today's political identities within the context of their global (capitalist) conditions of possibility precisely in order to challenge those conditions.

Yet here I would venture that, despite clearly stated differences (Butler et al., 2000), the political perspective of Zizek is not necessarily opposed to that of Laclau and Mouffe and that a combined approach is fully possible. While Zizek is right to stress the susceptibility of today's "alternative" forms of hegemonic engagement to deradicalization within a postmodern-p.c. imaginary - a kind of hegemonization of the very terrain (the politico-cultural conditions of possibility) that produces and predisposes the contemporary logics of hegemony - it is equally true to say that the type of political challenge that Zizek has in mind is one that can only advance through the type of hegemonic subversion that Laclau and Mouffe have consistently stressed in their work. The very possibility of a political universalism is one that depends on a certain hegemonic breaking out of the existing conventions/grammar of hegemonic engagement.

It is along these lines that Zizek affirms the need for a more radical intervention in the political imagination. The modem (Machiavellian) view of politics is usually presented in terms of a basic tension between (potentially) unlimited demands/appetites and limited resources; a view which is implicit in the predominant "risk society" perspective where the central (almost Habermasian) concern is with more and better scientific information. The political truth of today's world, however, is rather the opposite of this view. That is to say, the demands of the official left (especially the various incarnations of the Third Way left) tend to articulate extremely modest demands in the face of a virtually unlimited capitalism that is more than capable of providing every person on this planet with a civilized standard of living.

For Zizek, a confrontation with the obscenities of abundance capitalism also requires a transformation of the ethico-political imagination. It is no longer a question of developing ethical guidelines within the existing political framework (the various institutional and corporate "ethical committees") but of developing a politicization of ethics; an ethics of the Real. 8 The starting point here is an insistence on the unconditional autonomy of the subject; of accepting that as human beings we are ultimately responsible for our actions and being-in-the-world up to and including the construction of the capitalist system itself Far from simple norm-making or refining/reinforcing existing social protocol, an ethics of the Real tends to emerge through norm-breaking and in finding new directions that, by definition, involve traumatic changes: i.e. the Real in genuine ethical challenge. An ethics of the Real does not simply defer to the impossible (or infinite Otherness) as an unsurpassable -horizon that already marks every act as a failure, incomplete and so on. Rather, such an ethics is one that fully accepts contingency but which is nonetheless prepared to risk the impossible in the sense of breaking out of standardized positions. We might say that it is an ethics which is not only politically motivated but which also draws its strength from the political itself.

For Zizek an ethics of the Real (or Real ethics) means that we cannot rely on any form of symbolic Other that would endorse our (in)decisions and (in)actions: for example, the "neutral" financial data of the stockmarkets; the expert knowledge of Beck's "new modernity" scientists; the economic and military councils of the New World Order; the various (formal and informal) tribunals of political correctness; or any of the mysterious laws of God, nature or the market. What Zizek affirms is a radical culture of ethical identification for the left in which the alternative forms of militancy must first of all be militant with "themselves". That is to say, they must be militant in the fundamental ethical sense of not relying on any external/higher authority and in the development of a political imagination that, like Zizek's own thought, exhorts us to risk the impossible.


1 Lacan's objet petit a (object small a) refers to a certain excess that is in the object more than the object the object-cause of desire. We might say that it is not so much the object of desire as the desirous element that can reside in any object: the drive towards some elusive point of consummation that may be quite incidental to the object itself (e.g. a shirt that was once worn by Elvis). It is that which "authenticates" the object and/or the experience of having it (e.g. the idea of virginity in Bu˝uel's That Obscure 0bject of Desire). If we take Tarrantino's Pulp Fiction then we see that the narrative ultimately revolves around a lost/stolen object inside a case that must be retrieved by Vincent and Jules. This object cannot be seen and is only alluded to in the reflective glow of the protagonists' faces, This is the objet petit a: something whose authenticity cannot be represented or substantialized and which is but a reflection of the drive to complete the (broken) circuit of enjoyment and to be reconciled with (impossible) desire itself.
2 In this sense we might say that the vanishing point is the very "subject" of (visual) art.
3 For example a system of law requires a basic code for distinguishing what is lawful and what is not. However, the legal/illegal distinction cannot be determined outside the system of law. Moreover, the question as to whether the system of law itself is legal or illegal is strictly unthinkable within the terms of the latter.
4 See also Daly (1999) for a discussion of this point.
5 To avoid any misunderstanding: there is no suggestion that Laclau and Mouffe's perspective necessarily leads in this direction; merely that it is a potential distortion of their perspective. In fact, Laclau and Mouffe have been concerned to fundamentally distance themselves from this type of distortion in their explicit critique of Third Way politics (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: xv).
6 As Zizek has pointed out in a number of texts, today's form of multiculturalism comprises a culture that tends to view every culture as a particular difference "except" itself and to tolerate everything "except" criticism.
7 Perhaps we could add here that the political - as conceived by Lefort (1989) and developed by Rancière (1999) and others - is always "incorrect" in that it represents some kind of rupture with/challenge towards received conventions and ordering principles. In this sense it could be said that political correctness marks a further (regressive) attempt to eliminate the dimension of the political.
8 This derives from Lacan (1992) and his view of an ethics of psychoanalysis. More recently, Zizek has developed the idea of an ethics of the Real - or a Real ethics - in numerous texts. For an extended, and brilliant, analysis of an ethics of the Real, see Zupancic (2000).


back up to be continued...

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

Glyn Daly

© 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.