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On BeliefReview - On Belief
by Slavoj Zizek
Routledge, 2001
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D.
Oct 16th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 42)

Consistent with the style of many of his recent works, Slavoj Zizek's On Belief is a frenetic tour rapidly ranging across the varied landscapes of psychoanalytic metapsychology, Marxist political theory, the history of philosophy, and popular culture. Zizek's trademark hybridization of Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalysis, German Idealism, and dialectical materialism guides his analyses of diverse features of contemporary cultural phenomena: the human being's relationship to its body in light of the information age's "cyberspace," the pervasive attitude of cynical resignation exhibited by the members of late capitalist societies (i.e., a pessimistic "realism" about the inherent corruption/degradation of the political sphere and the diminishing prospects of genuine social change), the differences displayed by the theosophical structures of Judaism and Christianity (examined from both psychoanalytic and political points of view), and, finally, as per the book's title, illustrations of how "belief" operates for subjects in today's socio-symbolic environment. Given the sheer breadth of topics and references touched upon by Zizek, this review will limit itself to selectively highlighting those aspects of his text that are of the greatest interest either, in some cases, from the perspective of a general reader or, in other cases, for those familiar with the more intricate details of Zizek's own evolving theoretical itinerary.

A gem of psychoanalytic cultural analysis occurs quite early in the book. Zizek mentions a Freudian concept all too frequently used and abused by cultural commentators, literary theorists, and the like: the "fetish" (usually an unremarkable quotidian object invested, by the fetishist, with an extraordinary quota of libidinal cathexis). Zizek posits a strict distinction to be maintained between repression and fetishization as two separate defensive strategies utilized by the psyche. In repression, the subject bars a traumatic memory or ideational content from entering the restricted domain of its conscious awareness. The correlate of repression is the "symptom," namely, a conspicuous-but-seemingly-nonsensical feature of the individual's experiential field and/or behavioral patterns that results from the repressed material exerting a distorting influence on the subject's lived reality. Due to the censorship of repression, the conscious individual is largely unaware of the significance and function of the symptom qua pathological return of the repressed. The fetishist, on the other hand, deliberately and knowingly "enjoys his/her symptom" (as per the title of a 1992 book by Zizek).

What's more, Zizek claims, the fetishist, by clinging to some object endowed with an excessive, disproportionate significance, is able to appear to others, not as a delusional pervert lost in the clouds of his/her idiosyncratic fantasy world, but, rather, as a hardened, pragmatic realist: that is, someone who can accept and tolerate the harshness and difficulty of daily existence without complaint. However, if the fetish-object is taken away from the fetishist, this cynical façade of pragmatic resignation disintegrates, plunging the subject into depression, despair, or even psychosis (in other words, the fetishist, bereft of his/her fetish, undergoes what Lacan calls "subjective destitution"). The upshot of all this is the proposal of a specific guideline for a hermeneutics of suspicion to be exercised with respect to all the manifest, fashionable attitudes of cynical resignation and pessimistic realism prevalent amongst the denizens of today's capitalist polis--"So, when we are bombarded by claims that in our post-ideological cynical era nobody believes in the proclaimed ideals, when we encounter a person who claims he is cured of any beliefs, accepting social reality the way it is, one should always counter such claims with the question: OK, but where is the fetish that enables you to (pretend to) accept reality 'the way it is?'" (pg. 15). Naturally, Zizek reminds readers that Marx himself already understood the essentially fetishistic nature of money and commodities (implying that, for today's late-capitalist, post-ideological subjects, if their small salaries and various little techno-gadget toys were to be taken away from them, their pretense to being realistically accepting of the status quo would be immediately dropped).

Shortly after this discussion of the fetish as a notion useful for contemporary socio-cultural interpretation, Zizek briefly alludes to a theoretical incompatibility that his work has long passed over in silence. In previous writings, he often speaks of Marx and Lacan in one and the same breath, as though no tension existed between, on the one hand, the herald of a dormant revolutionary potential capable of radically transforming relations between human beings, and, on the other hand, the Freudian prophet of the ultimately conflictual and dysfunctional nature of the libidinal economy and its attendant forms of subjectivity. Although there is a pronounced "materialist" bent to the late Lacan's ruminations on desire and symptom formation, he nonetheless never fully embraces Marxist thought. In fact, in a 1969 public response to the student radicals involved in the May '68 revolts, Lacan heaps scorn upon his audience of idealistic young left-wing "revolutionaries." Making implicit reference to his then-new theory of the "four discourses" (i.e., the elementary permutations on the basic form of social link between "speaking beings": the discourses of the master, the hysteric, the university, and the analyst, all elaborated in the seventeenth seminar of 1969-1970), Lacan tells them, "What you, as revolutionaries, aspire to is a Master. You will have one" (Jacques Lacan, "Impromptu at Vincennes" [trans. Jeffrey Mehlman], Television/A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment [ed. Joan Copjec], New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1990, pg. 127). This is not a man who is very optimistic about human beings' capacity for drastic changes, for their accomplishing a genuinely revolutionary refashioning of their own reality. As a true Freudian, Lacan is convinced that the past always manages to insidiously reproduce itself in ever-anew present circumstances, that there are specific features of the human constitution and the structure of subjectivity that cannot be vanquished by mere ideological, revolutionary fiat.

Zizek is even more specific about the gap separating psychoanalytic metapsychology and revolutionary politics, suggesting a possible Lacanian critique of the Marxist vision of the politico-economic transition from capitalism to communism. Marx imagines the possibility of, through the communist revolution, unleashing the full productive forces of economic activity, forces supposedly no longer fettered by the intermittent economic crises necessarily generated by the inherent structure of the capitalist order. But, Zizek contends, a Lacanian diagnosis of this Marxist vision of a perfectly and harmoniously functioning economy as a "fantasy" would state the following: there is no retention of the forces of economic productivity without the multitude of obstacles and barriers posed to this same productivity by economic crises (that is to say, the removal of capitalism, as an impediment to production, results in the dissolution of production itself). Is Zizek here insinuating, in technical psychoanalytic terms, that the deadlocks of the individual subject's libidinal economy--Lacan's concept of "desire" is the dynamic implicitly invoked contra Marx's expectations of a future removal of the capitalist obstacle to an anticipated state of (utopian) affairs--set limits upon what is and isn't possible at the collective levels of political and economic systems? Is this a veiled concession that, as the usual observation goes, Marxism, despite its merits as a critical assessment of capitalism, is incapable of furnishing a viable, "real world" alternative (due to what Freud himself, in 1929, refers to as Marx's unrealistic assessments of human nature)? How should this vaguely sketched Lacanian objection to Marx be viewed with respect to Zizek's otherwise enthusiastic endorsements (later in the same text) of a "return to Lenin," of a revival of a revolutionary stance in the face of the hegemonic liberal democratic/technocratic "third way?"

Not only does Zizek's vacillating balancing act between Marxism and psychoanalysis provoke a degree of uncertainty in readers about how to interpret his own theoretical approach (given that it consists, in part, of a fusion of Marx and Lacan), but, additionally, another major theoretical conflict rears its head in On Belief: the antagonism between transcendentalist and historicist approaches to theoretical problems. In his 1993 book Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology, Zizek announces his intention to rescue Lacan from the clutches of post-modernists and post-structuralists, to install his work in its proper position in relation to the history of ideas: Lacan is to be viewed as a transcendental philosopher, proposing a "critique of pure desire" centered on the invariant role of objet petit a. More recently, in the 1999 text The Ticklish Subject and the 2000 Contingency, Hegemony, Universality anthology (a three-way exchange between Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Zizek), Zizek continues to defend the legitimacy of the transcendental stance, despite it having fallen out of fashion with the majority of practitioners of contemporary continental philosophy (who, under the influence of Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, and others, reject Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and similar modern "logocentrists" as outmoded). He indicts a historicism unsupplemented by a prior delineation of relevant trans/non-historical "conditions of possibility" participating in the interpretation of given historical phenomena as intellectually bankrupt.

As Lacan himself, in the unpublished thirteenth seminar (The Object of Psychoanalysis, 1965-1966), says, "historical things are not historical simply because an accident happened, they are historical because it was necessary for a certain shape, a certain configuration, to come to light" (session of June 15th, 1966). From a Lacanian perspective, a transcendental investigation into those aspects of the structure of subjectivity necessitating a certain pattern to emerge in the unfolding of otherwise contingent, empirical circumstances (an investigation conducted, at specific levels, by psychoanalytic metapsychology) has explanatory precedence over any historicist analysis of these same facts. At various points in On Belief, Zizek has indirect recourse to this general dimension of Lacanian theory, speaking of "the 'transcendental illusion of desire'" (pg. 68) and "the internal, inherent obstacle constitutive of desire as such" (pg. 76). And yet, perplexingly, in both his recent writings as well as public lectures, Zizek sometimes violently repudiates the transcendental reading of Lacan. In a presentation delivered in New York in March of 2001 (this paper appears as part of the second chapter in Of Belief), he sets about attacking one of the principle proponents of this brand of Lacanian theory (Bernard Baas, who elucidates various connections between Kant and Lacan in his 1992 Le désir pur and his 1998 De la chose à l'objet). He also goes on to suggest that the shifting evolution of Lacan's conceptual edifice should be understood against the background of broader social, economic, and political currents in post-war France (he draws a series of parallels between crucial turning points in Lacan's intellectual development and chronologically isomorphic changes in French public life).

It simply cannot be the case that Zizek, possessing such an intimate and nuanced familiarity with Lacanian thought, is suggesting that Lacan's oeuvre be reduced to the status of a refined, epiphenomenal manifestation, deceptively couched within Freudian parlance, of twentieth century France's familiar socio-historical dramas. Assuming that this isn't the gist of his suggestions, could Zizek be interpreted as subtly hinting that the progression of Lacanian theory is, viewed from a certain angle, a microcosmic reflection of the unfolding of a macrocosmic geo-political structure--a structure which Lacan himself, from within his "subordinate," "overdetermined" position in relation to this enveloping, macro-level historical movement, nonetheless provides the very conceptual tools for identifying and understanding? Is this to imply that Lacan is the intellectual equivalent of Hegel's Napoleon (if Napoleon is, as Hegel dubs him, "An Idea riding on a horse," Lacan would be "An Idea sitting behind a couch"), an individual crystallization/embodiment (i.e., a determinate Particularity) of a trans-individual, dialectical dynamic (i.e., the Universality of, in this case, a Gallic Geist), a moment of culmination that self-reflexively reflects, within itself, the actual movement producing it? Would this be, at the broadest of levels, to set the stage for an eventual proclamation of a properly conceived Hegelianism as the key to breaking out of today's sterile, seemingly antinomic impasse between transcendentalism and historicism?

Given Zizek's musings later in this book on historicity in Alain Badiou's conception of "event" and Francis Fukuyama's trumpeting of the imminent arrival of Hegel's "end of history," the answer to the above questions is far from clear. In proposing that historicity per se be defined as the occurrence of sudden ruptures/breaks (akin to Thomas Kuhn's "paradigm shifts"), Zizek refrains from explicitly stating either whether a certain decisive break has indeed occurred (i.e., whether Fukuyama is right, which would be consistent with his earlier mention of a Lacanian critique of Marx-history is over because the shift/rupture marked by capitalism really is the last genuine change, after which an overall structural stability sets in due to a certain symbiosis achieved by capitalism's arrangement of relations between the plurality of libidinal economies and the overarching, mediating socio-symbolic economy) or whether the "true and real end" has yet to arrive (his concluding remarks about Christian theology indicate that he now sees Christianity as containing within itself, when coupled with Marx and Lenin, the potential for engendering further breaks and revolutionary transformations, thus reconfiguring the historical field in a way unforeseen by those trapped within the confining closure of the capitalist ideological status quo-Zizek's three most recent books all flirt with this messianic perspective, and he alludes to the need to overcome Lacan's own cynical, pessimistic conservatism in favor of an optimistic, exuberant commitment to some as-yet-unspecified form of concrete praxis).

Finally, Zizek's clarifications concerning the Lacanian concept of the Real--these clarifications are prompted, in part, by Jacques-Alain Miller's article "Paradigms of Jouissance" (published in Lacanian Ink number 17 [Fall 2000])--will be satisfying to anyone who has found themselves vexed by the apparent vagueness and ambiguity of Lacanian uses of this concept. Zizek contends that there are three primary senses of the Real, correlated with Lacan's three structural categories: an Imaginary Real (the je ne sais quoi of sublimity that makes an ordinary object into "the Real thing," the libidinal Ding an sich), a Symbolic Real (the brute materiality of the signifying chain, divested of the ephemeral ideality of meaning accompanying conscious employments of representations), and a Real Real (exhibited in horrific images of corporeality, sexuality, and death). Although not exhaustive of the plurality of senses that the Real has throughout the full expanse of Lacan's oeuvre, this schematic outline elegantly encapsulates the basic parameters of theoretical significance that this concept/category takes on in its various contexts of employment.

Overall, one gets the feeling, in reading On Belief, that Zizek is in the midst of a transitional phase, a period during which he's stepping back from his earlier work and sorting out the dense, tangled web of philosophico-intellectual commitments he's enmeshed himself in over the past twelve or so years of intense publishing activity. Although one would be hard pressed to claim that he succeeds in resolving, in this particular book, the various problems that have come to occupy center stage in his own emerging theoretical system (most notably, the issue of how to rethink the rapport between Marxism and psychoanalysis as well as the struggle to strike a balance between transcendentalism and historicism), he continues to distinguish himself as a genuinely original philosophical mind, a writer capable of achieving novel, unprecedented breakthroughs in the context of contemporary thought. One hopes that, out of the volatility of the tensions and difficulties rising to the surface of his recent texts, Slavoj Zizek will, in the near future, succeed in pointing the way towards a reconfiguration of the very terrain against whose background he is presently laboring.

© 2001 Adrian Johnston

Adrian Johnston recently completed a Ph.D. in Philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook. His dissertation was Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive.

This review first appeared online Sept 4, 2001


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