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ZizekReview - Zizek
A Critical Introduction
by Sarah Kay
Polity Press, 2003
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D.
Jun 17th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 25)

One of Slavoj Zizek's favorite recent references is a short 1997 book on Gilles Deleuze by Alain Badiou, Deleuze:  La clameur de l'ètre.  In this text, Badiou contends that the typical first impressions arising from a reading of Deleuze's works tend to reinforce a misinterpretation of him as philosophically celebrating the flourishing of heterogeneous multiplicities and the mad dance of "nomadic rhizomes" chaotically branching out in every possible direction, with no guiding trajectory either shaping this philosophical program or governing its objects of descriptive inquiry.  Deleuze is all too often cast as a theoretical anarchist of desire, as a schizophrenic troublemaker disrupting the organized structures operative within both political and libidinal economies.  In short, much of Deleuzian thought is exegetically filtered through the lens of his joint "anti-Oedipal" endeavor with Félix Guattari.  Badiou maintains that a pronounced discrepancy exists, in Deleuze's oeuvre, between, on the one hand, its superficial style, whose baroque, ornate intricacies encourage the view that this is a philosophy of explosive fragmentation, and, on the other hand, its basic, underlying content, its endlessly reiterated thesis.  Beneath the scintillating stylistic façade of a "rhizomatic" prose, Deleuze tirelessly and monotonously pursues the same essential point again and again:  everything exists on a single ontological level; everything is to be situated on one sole "plane of immanence"--therefore, the temptation to posit split tiers of existence (such as Plato's division between the visible and intelligible realms and Kant's noumenal-phenomenal gap) must be decisively resisted.  The heterogeneity of appearances belies the homogeneity of being.  Thus, according to Badiou, the frenzied multiplication of the "Many" in Deleuze ultimately serves to better reveal the all-inclusive "One" of an ontology of absolute immanence.

A similar observation should be made regarding Zizek's own corpus.  His frenetic accumulation of an ever-growing number of cultural examples and his famed forays into the twisting nooks and crannies of the popular imagination are liable to mislead readers into viewing him as an anti-systematic thinker (a thinker who seeks to compromise the ostensible purity of philosophical thought by forcing it into being dialectically contaminated through a symbiotic fusion with the disorganized domain of contemporary quotidian culture).  Faced with the "pyrotechnics" and "fireworks" of his extended, theoretically elaborate asides concerning literature, art, film, and daily life in late-capitalist societies, readers are susceptible to being dazzled to the point of giddy, over-stimulated incomprehension, of being stunned like the proverbial deer caught in the glare of blinding headlights.  Zizek's rhetorical flare and various features of his methodology are in danger of creating the same unfortunate sort of audience as today's mass media (with its reliance upon continual successions of rapid-fire, attention-grabbing sound bytes), namely, consumers too easily driven to distraction.  The extent of this risk can be mitigated if one keeps in mind that Badiou's warnings about Deleuze (i.e., don't let the heterogeneous style distract from and thereby obscure the homogeneous content) are equally applicable to Zizek himself.  When Zizek declares that he employs, for instance, popular culture as a subservient vehicle for the deployment of speculative theoretical philosophy--the "Many" of Zizek's examples ultimately serves the "One" of a project aiming at the "reactualization" (as Zizek himself puts it) of Kantian and German idealist thought through the mediation of Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalytic metapsychology--he is quite serious.  And yet, Sarah Kay challenges this Zizekian self-portrait as an oversimplification.  Not only does she see a much more volatile co-dependence between theory and culture at work in Zizek's writings (she hesitates to accept at face value Zizek's claim that, for him, culture is subordinate to theory)--but, she also argues that the central topic over which Zizek obsesses, the Lacanian register of the Real, compels him to adopt non-systematic, fragmentary procedures (as a series of "failed" or "missed" encounters with the forever-elusive Real) for attempting to engage with this interminably insistent-yet-inaccessible theoretical "object."  The Real, on Kay's reading, shatters the Zizekian oeuvre into a multitude of partial, "awry" perspectives on an infinitely receding vanishing point that can only ever be approached in an indirect, tangential manner.

In the opening of her introduction, Kay correctly identifies Zizek's intellectual agenda as involving the task of elevating Lacan to the dignity of philosophical modernity--"Zizek's... main philosophical contention is that Lacan's thought is heir to the Enlightenment, but represents a seismic shift forwards.  For Zizek, Lacan both continues and radicalizes the trajectory of European transcendental metaphysics" (pg. 1).  As is well known, the two main poles/components of his work are modern philosophy (from Descartes to Marx, with special emphasis on Kant, Schelling, and Hegel) and Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis.  A few of the minor problems with Kay's introduction to Zizek arise from the fact that, as she has the merit of openly and honestly admitting, she isn't a specialist in either area, being neither an expert on the late modern German philosophical tradition nor a psychoanalyst or scholar of Lacan's works (thus, when discussing Hegel, for instance, she seems unaware that his use of the term "understanding" [Verstand] has a precise technical meaning related to the Kantian distinction between understanding and "reason" [Vernunft], and that this isn't to be taken in a loose, everyday sense as a catch-all designation for the conceptual as opposed to the utterly non-conceptual--see page forty-two).  Consequently, details of the particular slant of her interpretation might be the result of trying to make a virtue out of the necessity of this constraining limitation:  as far as the philosophical dimension is concerned, Kay says very little about Kant, Schelling, and Badiou (these three are central figures in Zizek's more recent texts--Kay covers each in a couple of pages), putting a perhaps disproportionate amount of emphasis on Hegel; and, as far as the psychoanalytic dimension is concerned, Kay explicitly (and questionably) downplays Freud's role in Zizek's endeavors, claiming that Lacan alone is the sole analytic authority to which he appeals.

The five chapters of Kay's book (not including the introduction) cover the following areas of Zizek's work:  philosophy, culture, sexuality, ethics, and politics (she also offers readers a glossary at the end to aid in deciphering Zizek's terminology).  In "Dialectic and the Real:  Lacan, Hegel and the Alchemy of après-coup," Kay advances several claims.  First, she portrays Lacan's fidelity to Freud as bringing him into conflict with Hegel.  Although she admits that Lacan, in various places, favorably invokes Hegel, she nonetheless opts to highlight the former's disagreements with and criticisms of the latter (Kay extracts these Lacanian objections to Hegelian philosophy mostly from the 1960 ecrit "The subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious").  Of course, the Hegel that Lacan is said to reject is the straw man caricature of the philosopher of "absolute knowledge," the pretentious, self-anointed prophet of the end of philosophical and political history.  Then, Kay argues that Zizek counters Lacan's criticisms of Hegel one-by-one, recasting Hegel as a thinker of radical contingency, rather than as the herald of a final static closure qua outcome of some pre-ordained teleological movement.  Kay justifiably asserts that this Zizekian recasting of Hegel is intimately bound up with his philosophical deployment of the Freudian-Lacanian temporal model of retroactive causality (i.e., Freud's Nachtraglichkeit and Lacan's apres-coup)--"Another crucial aspect of Zizek's argument is his insistence that Hegel is a philosopher of contingency, not teleology.  It is only in retrospect that the outcome of the dialectic appears to have been necessary.  But, when looked at prospectively, it is always open to chance" (pg. 25).  As Kay notes, this heterodox portrait of Hegel enables Zizek to argue that true universality emerges out of the immanent, concrete domain of historical particularity--"it is only the particular which can become universal...  Far from diminishing its universality, historical specificity is the reflective key to it" (pg. 44).  The apparent necessity and inevitability of the march of Hegelian Geist is a perspectival après-coup effect:  instead of being an eternal, always-existent blueprint prefiguring the materialization of historical configurations, Geist only appears in its necessity and inevitability for the gaze of subjective hindsight, for those embedded within a contingent series of events rendered retroactively comprehensible vis-à-vis the formulation of such "spiritual" structures (Kay would be well served here by referring to Lacan's discussion of cybernetics and binary code in the postface to the "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'" as illustrating certain central aspects of Zizek's recasting of Hegel).  However, one of Kay's main claims in this chapter is a bit questionable.  She argues that the Zizek seeks to raise the level of Hegel's importance for Lacanian thought specifically at Freud's expense.  As is well known, Lacan never tires of emphasizing that his own work rests upon Freud, that his teachings represent a "return to Freud."  Kay seems to imply that Zizek, perhaps signaled by the relative dearth of references to Freud in his writings (as compared with other figures), aims to replace Freud as the primary historical forerunner of Lacan.  Just because Zizek, in the interests of his own theoretical purposes, doesn't refer to Freud as much as to Hegel doesn't necessarily entail that he actively downplays Freud's importance for the inner workings of Lacan's conceptual apparatus.  Zizek, although heavily influenced by Lacan, is motivated by a different set of intellectual agendas, practices, and contexts than his so-called "master."  His deployment of Lacanian theory in conjunction with philosophy reflects these different concerns, rather than indicating a desire to internally revise Lacan's corpus.

The next chapter, "'Reality' and the Real:  Culture as Anamorphosis," is devoted to elucidating the details of a Zizekian understanding of culture.  One of the most decisive factors contributing to Zizek's present fame is his witty, playful employment of numerous examples plucked from popular culture.  He humorously blends the "high" (extremely complex bodies of ideas, such as those propounded by Hegel and Lacan) with the "low" (in some cases, the lowest of low brow Hollywood blockbuster entertainment).  Unlike many ivory tower academics, he's refreshingly averse to the sort of snobbery that dictates illustrative references being limited to Greek tragedies or Proust;  he treats the entire range of cultural products, from Mozart to "The Matrix," as all equally capable of serving as grist for the mill.  In fact, time and again, Zizek produces surprising moments when the reader realizes that, in being dragged through the murky mud of popular culture, intricate-yet-ephemeral theoretical notions (rather than, for all that, losing their clarity) are rendered almost impossibly crystalline and concrete--this is, along with jarring Nietzschean reversals of perspective ("You usually think it's this way, but, in reality, the opposite is actually the case!"), his trademark flourish.  Zizek sometimes insists that his recourse to various cultural objects is merely engaged in for the sake of attaining a better grasp of a given set of philosophical and/or psychoanalytic concepts, namely, that these objects are mere props or vehicles for more abstract ideas.  However, Kay doubts this.  As noted, she contends that Zizek's grasp of theory is informed and contaminated by his detours through the socio-cultural domain.  In order to organize what risks potentially being a completely disorganized and haphazard chapter--Zizek's cultural references are all over the map--Kay wisely sticks to a guiding thread:  she examines the Zizekian cultural field as the reality within which "sublime objects" appear (as per the title of his first book in English, the 1989 Sublime Object of Ideology).  Kay, following Lacan, exploits the semantic link between "sublime" and "sublimation."  Lacan, in the seventh seminar, defines sublimation as the process whereby "an object is raised to the dignity of the Thing" (a formula also echoing Hegelian "sublation" [Aufhebung]).  So, Kay accordingly notes that an object (die Sache) becomes "sublime" when it occupies the forever-vacant place of the "Real Thing" (das Ding) as the primordially missing, jouissance-laden center of gravity for the entire libidinal economy.  A "sublime object" (objet petit a) is something situated at the interstices of Lacan's three registers:  the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary (the later Lacan places objet a at the center of his tripartite Borromean knot).  Or, more succinctly put, these privileged objects situated within the sphere of culture are the loci where the Real sublimely shines through the cracks in the fabric of otherwise mundane reality.  As Kay aptly expresses it, these Lacanian-Zizekian objects "communicate something of the jouissance at their centre and, at the same time, hold it at bay.  By providing the co-ordinates for actual, real-world objects, they... serve to support our sense of 'reality,' but they also trouble it with the uncanny menace of the real" (pg. 57).  As a "theorist of the Real," Zizek scours the surface of culture looking for those moments where these alluring-yet-threatening flashes pop into view, and he finds them in a bewildering array of places.

"The Real of Sexual Difference:  Imagining, Thinking, Being" tackles Zizek's heavily Lacanian handling of sexual difference.  Kay observes that, when speaking of sex, Zizek oscillates between two modes:  either crass, offensive vulgarities (usually involving dirty jokes) or incredibly abstract formalities (a la Lacan's logical "mathemes of sexuation").  In other words, he either wallows in base crudeness or indulges in disembodied theoretical speculations.  Kay's contention here is that this seesawing of Zizek's discourse apropos of the topic of sexuality is a performative instantiation of yet another aspect of the Real (i.e., sexual difference as an impossible "stumbling block" for the Symbolic).  More specifically, just as Zizek moves back-and-forth between "too much" (an almost pornographic portrayal of sex) and "not enough" (a level of theoretical abstraction seemingly too far removed from the embodied tangibility of sex), so also, "Sex... is the domain of the 'too much' or the 'not enough'" (pg. 101).  The first half of the chapter is principally occupied with outlining the fundaments of Lacan's account of sexual difference as offered in his famous twentieth seminar (Encore, 1972-1973).  After laying this groundwork, Kay, in the latter half of the chapter, proceeds to focus on two issues:  Zizek's disagreements with Judith Butler and his particular redefinition of the psychoanalytic notion of the "fundamental fantasy."  Against Butler's accusations that Lacanian theory erroneously reifies contingent socio-historical conflicts into apriori, transcendent(al) structures, Zizek demonstrates how her critique is founded upon a confused misapprehension of the status of Lacan's three registers--"Butler, Zizek observes, systematically reads the real as if it were the symbolic, and the symbolic as if it were the imaginary.  At each stage she semanticizes Lacan's thought, substituting symbolic difference for real antagonism and then confusing symbolic difference with ideological content" (pg. 93).  Regarding the fundamental fantasy--such fantasies are "vanishing mediators" between the primordially repressed Real of unbearable trauma and the tame, domesticated surface of Imaginary-Symbolic reality--Kay sees Zizek's crucial, innovative contribution as residing in the discernment of a foundation to the being of the subject beyond, behind, or beneath sexuality.  The sexualization of the unconscious is a secondary after-effect of a prior tension-ridden dynamic involving the drives and the difficult, disturbing entrance into the mediated realm of the symbolic order (as per Lacan's concept of "symbolic castration").  Sexuality isn't, in Zizek's account, a primary, indissoluble given, an axiomatic starting point.  Rather, as Kay accurately notes, the Lacanian-Zizekian position here is that sexuality and the formation of gender identities are after-the-fact responses to an underlying and unrepresentable trauma involving the archaic conflict, in the individual's forever-lost ontogenetic prehistory, between the libidinal economy and its enveloping matrices of mediation.

The last two chapters, "Ethics and the Real:  The Ungodly Virtues of Psychoanalysis" and "Politics, or, The Art of the Impossible," are closely tied together.  "Ethics and the Real" can be read as, in part, a supplement to the first chapter.  Whereas the first chapter's summary of Zizek's engagement with philosophy focuses almost exclusively on Hegel, this later chapter somewhat makes up for this lop-sidedness by providing a series of short summaries of various other Zizekian philosophical references:  Pascal, Kant, Schelling, Kierkegaard, Althusser, and Badiou.  Kay maintains that one of Zizek's primary objectives in passing through the works of these various philosophers is the forging of, as she puts it, a "godless theology" (pg. 103).  Like Badiou (in his reading of Saint Paul), Zizek turns to Christianity, seeking, through a secular, atheistic appropriation, to extract from it valuable insights into pressing matters of practical as well as theoretical concern (of course, a key precursor of this is Hegel's treatment of Christianity as an unconscious set of precious philosophical-dialectical insights, insights that he, the philosopher-dialectician, seeks to "raise to the dignity of their Notion").  The conclusion of "Ethics and the Real" segues into the subsequent chapter on politics with the claim that, "Radical politics, Zizek is asserting, is the materialist atheist equivalent of Protestant fundamentalism" (pg. 126).  In other words, what Zizek is looking for in thinkers ranging from Pascal to Badiou is a viable bulwark against the ethically suspect symptoms of postmodern, late-capitalist society:  covertly conformist cynicism and a pervasive relativism that does nothing but tacitly justify the reigning status quo.

In "Politics, or, The Art of the Impossible," Kay asserts that Zizek's entire theoretical endeavor is political from top to bottom.  Given that the Lacanian subject is "decentered" and "outside of itself"--such subjectivity is inextricably intertwined with the grand Autre of the symbolic order--its very nature is inseparable from the polis in which it's embedded.  The bulk of Zizek's socio-political analysis centers on the workings of ideology in relation to psychoanalytically delineated mechanisms structuring the subject's relation to reality (especially fetishistic disavowal and its sustenance of unconscious belief in the social system).  However, Kay describes a recent shift away from a Lacanian "critique of ideology"--as Kay notes, Lacan himself is hardly sympathetic to extreme leftist politics--and towards a more Marxist political program based on Lacan's notion of the "Act" (as defined chiefly in the fifteenth seminar, L'acte psychanalytique, 1967-1968).  Whereas an "action" is something unproblematic for and compatible with a governing state of affairs, an Act per se is a violent gesture shattering the Symbolic framework in which it occurs.  Zizek's recourse to the Act as the foundation for a renewal of radical politics testifies to "a striking combination of optimism and pessimism... pessimism about the situation as it is, optimism that it could be transformed" (pg. 154).  In describing capital itself as functioning at the level of a Real materiality underpinning the Imaginary-Symbolic reality of the socio-political order, Zizek makes it seem as if this vampiric monstrosity is a foe so insidiously powerful that only a miraculous event could bring about its defeat.  And, his affirmation of the eternal possibility of the emergence of genuine Acts expresses his belief that such miracles can still grace those subjected to today's lamentable political circumstances.

Despite the fact that his writing is quite lucid, people often complain that Zizek is difficult to access:  his discussions jump too quickly from topic to topic and he draws on too diverse a range of figures and areas.  It's indeed true that a full appreciation of Zizek's oeuvre requires of the reader that he/she acquire familiarity with, among other thinkers, Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lacan, and Badiou.  Attempting to decipher his texts without this background, although tempting given the amount of material, is an effort doomed from the start.  However, Kay's introduction, while no substitute for this labor, is a helpful guide for those trying to find their initial bearings amidst the frenzied whirlwind of Zizek's hyper-kinetic prose.  She clearly and concisely summarizes some of the themes and ideas to which Zizek repeatedly recurs.  Similarly, the organization of her book is well thought out, managing to productively touch upon the most essential areas of Zizekian concern.  Ironically enough, the success of Kay's struggle to exegetically lend a degree of stable coherence to Zizek's writings cuts against her claim, advanced in the book's introduction, that Zizek is an anti-systematic theorist, a theorist whose theories are prevented from ever achieving internal consistency due to the disrupting effects of his chosen object of inquiry, namely, the Real itself.  Thanks to her introduction, previously disoriented and confused readers of Zizek now have a chance of discerning the contours of a fairly integrated set of arguments and strategies.


© 2003 Adrian Johnston


Adrian Johnston, Ph.D. holds a position as interdisciplinary research fellow in psychoanalysis at Emory.


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