Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Žižek's Tarrying with the Negative

One of Žižek’s theoretically most substantial books is Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (1993). In Tarrying with the Negative (abbreviated TWTN below), Žižek shows how Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory opposes cognitive and ethical relativism and reaffirms a conception of universal truth.

Žižek demonstrates, on the one hand, how Lacanian analysis reveals the produced and artificial character of the master signifier. This “signifier with no signified” (word with no definition), serves as a quilting point that provides the illusion of consistency in a discourse or social link. But on the other hand—against the misconception that Lacanian theory is just another form of postmodern relativism—Žižek shows how Lacan’s approach reinvigorates the concept of universality. For Lacan the universal truth of any situation is revealed through contingency.

TWTN shows how those who identify with an ideology tend to be unaware of its inconsistency. For example, postmodern relativism—the ideology of late capitalism—is self-referentially inconsistent insofar as it implicitly offers a synoptic view of the Whole even while it explicitly denies the possibility of any synoptic view of the Whole. It is absurd to claim that it is universally true that all meaning is the result of non-universal, performative practices. Similarly, adherents of any ideology are generally not cognizant of the hidden, obscene underside—the repressed truth—of the social reality. Thus the universal truth of an event or situation is not revealed in the “big Other”, the intersubjective, socio-symbolic network; on the contrary, the universal truth of an entire situation is accessible only to those who occupy the position of the abject, excluded other. Any ideology disenfranchises some particular group, and when this exclusion is symptomatic of a wider problem, it encapsulates what is wrong with the entire society. Consequently, the truth of the entire social field is disclosed only at its margins, through the experiences of those who are excluded and made abject by the hegemonic ideology. In sum, universal truth is revealed through a contingent and historically relative locus in the constellation of social positions.

After the ontological preparation, Žižek turns to the critique of ideology and the Real of social antagonism. In the last chapter of TWTN, he argues that nationalistic mobilizations involve an illusion produced by the element of fantasy at work in ideology. Fantasy patches up the inconsistency of the intersubjective, symbolic network, the big Other. However, the master signifier around which any ideology revolves cannot provide true unity, because it is a word with no definition—a name for nothing—that is positivized through the unreflective actions of believers so as to keep repressed any awareness of class antagonism within the regime.

In the concluding passages of TWTN, Žižek asks whether liberal democracy—and its implicit compromise with capitalism—is the only option for the left today. He reveals the vacuity of the liberal-democratic notion of the universal as a neutral medium for the expression of self-interest or group identity. He argues that this sterile notion of universality serves the interests of multinational, corporate capitalism. But how can leftists oppose nationalism without sliding into the vacuous, liberal-democratic notion of universality as a neutral framework for compromise? Žižek answers by reviving the Hegelian notion of concrete universality: a form of universality that is realized only through the partisan—and properly political—act of taking sides. Žižek argues that at this juncture in history, what is called for is the identification with the disenfranchised “excremental remainder” of society.

Because the universal truth of an entire society is revealed only through the position of that society’s excluded, abject other, it is by occupying the position of this disenfranchised other that we will traverse the fantasies of nationalism and racism, and achieve the solidarity of a common struggle. By means of a politics of identification with the abject other, we open up the possibility for the ethical-political act as symbolic suicide. In this way, a revolutionary collective may change the entire coordinates of a situation and reactualize emancipatory possibilities that had been repressed by the hegemonic ideology. In the book’s final chapter, Žižek argues for an openly partisan and committed, unorthodox version of Marxism. The concluding sentences reiterate Žižek’s claim that because of the coming ecological crisis, the fate of humanity hinges on the acceptance of transcendental materialism and its concomitant Marxist political stance. In short, communism is the only viable political alternative.