Saturday, August 29, 2009

On the Term "Žižekian"

From “Žižek and Cinema” (editor Srecko Horvat) in: Tvrda Journal for Theory, Culture and Visual Media, 1-2, editor in chief Žarko Paic, Croatian Writers Society, Zagreb, 2007.

Questioner - Srecko Horvat (SR), Interviewee - Paul A. Taylor (PT)

See the Interview online at

Since Žižek is perhaps most characterized by his constant striving to question and interrogate, his work does not lend itself well to the static quality implied by the term Žižekian. The uncategorizable aspect of Žižek is indicated by the geographical and disciplinary spread of Žižek's readership in general and the IJŽS Editorial Board in particular.

But so far as people may be very loosely called Žižekian or Žižekian fellow-travellers, I would suggest that they are identified by such common features as:

An eclectic range of interests - Žižek combines a huge breadth of references - from US television programmes to Shakespeare to international differences in toilet design - with a depth of analysis that contains rewarding insights into the complex intricacies of philosophy and psychoanalysis. The ease with which he cuts across almost tribal disciplinary boundaries and vested interests is another important reason why, if there is such as thing as an identifiably Žižekian approach, it is unlikely to ossify any time soon!

A good (or maybe wicked?) sense of humour - Žižek's work is profoundly rewarding to sustained and diligent reading (an increasingly rare luxury in today's stressed world) and highly entertaining - there are not many philosophers who can make you laugh out loud the way Žižek regularly does. This is a much under-rated quality of his work - the pure jouissance of his theorising. Why should intellectual work be disproportionately staid and po-faced? But more than this, Robert Pfaller's article in Issue 1 of IJŽS explains how beyond the value of the humour itself, Žižek's jokes and stories serve an important theoretical purpose - they keep the practice of philosophy alive and well and not just the distant, hard-to-approach content of dusty tomes.

A parallax view - Žižek illustrates theory's power to go beneath the surface of our everyday reality. After reading Žižek, you may continue as you did before, but you can no longer claim you don't know any better. An under-acknowledged feature of his work is this ethical quality - his exposure of hypocrisy and lazy thinking that dominates the public sphere.

Faith in speculation - a particular appeal of Žižek's theorizing is its practical usefulness. Ironically, his unashamedly speculative approach in such recent works as Welcome to the Desert of the Real (about the events and aftermath of 9-11) and Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, nevertheless serves to uncover the underlying issues behind very real events better than most self-styled "realistic" or "pragmatic" writings. If you want to understand better the dynamics of denial involved in a Western society that does not even go to the bother of accurately documenting the numbers it kills - Žižekian speculation helps you realize such victims' status as the West's little Others.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Žižek and the Logics of the Political

From "The Materialism of Spirit - Žižek and the Logics of the Political"
by Glyn Daly, University of Northampton, UK.
in IJŽS Vol 1.4

The Spirit of the Political (and the Political in the Spirit)

Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (2000) can be seen as a kind of philosophical equivalent of Yalta in which each of the protagonists - Butler, Laclau and Žižek – debate the destinies and materialist prospects for the political. Butler and Laclau are directly opposed. Butler embraces a radical contextualism against which every attempt to establish transcendental categories and argument is seen to founder. One cannot, for example, speak of hegemony (as a universal logic) without paying attention to the place of enunciation; without putting ‘one’s body on the line’ (Butler in Butler et al, 2000: 178). There is consequently no universality as such, only a politics of competing universalities; one in which the very sense of the universal is ‘wrought from the work of translation’ (Butler in Butler et al, 2000: 179). For Laclau, by contrast, contextuality is something that already implies its Other: the universal conditions of possibility that enable contexts to emerge in the first place. In a kind of inversion of Kant, what we have is a ‘noumenalism’ of empty universals: antagonism, dislocation, empty signifier that can be added to the Derridean order of dark metaphysics (trace, differánce, undecidability etc.).

Žižek certainly agrees with Laclau as regards the persistence of a negative form of transcendentality. Against Butler’s criticism that Lacanians insist on a transcendental sexual difference ‘even when sexed bodies emerge that do not fit squarely within ideal gender dimorphism’, Žižek subverts this by substituting the ‘even when’ with ‘because’: i.e. ‘sexual difference has a transcendental status because sexed bodies emerge that do not fit squarely within gender dimorphism’ (Žižek in Butler et al, 2000: 309). On the other hand, Žižek also agrees with Butler and her argument that the structuring of the social space and intersubjective recognition is retroactively constitutive of its very sense(s) of the universal.

This does not mean that we can infer Žižek’s position as comprising any kind of ‘third way’. On the contrary, I think that what Žižek is critiquing in both Butler and Laclau is an underdeveloped perspectivism. In the case of Butler this refers to her implicit Foucauldianism where emphasis is placed on the emancipatory potential of marginal groups to challenge/subvert the power bloc. For Žižek what this misses is the way in which a power bloc is already split in terms of an ‘official’ identity and an obscene underside that already takes into account its own transgressions – they are both part of the perspectival totality.

With Laclau the problem arises from the opposite (transcendental) end of matters. That is to say, the generalisation of the hegemonic form of politics does not provide a perspectival account of the historical conditions of that generalisation – Laclau’s own historicism appears to fall back on an implicit, even teleological, developmentalism. More than this, Žižek argues that Laclau’s argument commits him to a self-hampering view of politics:

I am tempted to argue that the main ‘Kantian’
dimension of Laclau lies in his acceptance of
the unbridgeable gap between the enthusiasm
for the impossible Goal of a political
engagement and its more realizable content…
My claim is that if we accept such a gap as the
ultimate horizon of political engagement, does
it not leave us with a choice apropos of such an
engagement: either we must blind ourselves to
the necessary ultimate failure of our endeavour
– regress to naivety, and let ourselves be caught
up in the enthusiasm – or we must adopt a stance
of cynical distance, participating in the game
while being fully aware that the result will be
(Žižek in Butler et al, 2000: 316-317).

Petition: Free the Tarnac 9


The following petition was originally published under the title “No to the New Order” in the November 27th edition of Le Monde.

A recent operation by the French police, intensively covered by the media, ended in the arrest and indictment of nine people under anti-terrorist laws. The nature of this operation has already undergone a change: after the revelation of inconsistency in the accusation of sabotaging French railway lines, the affair took a manifestly political turn. According to the public prosecutor: “the goal of their activity is to attack the institutions of the state, and to upset by violence – I emphasize violence, and not contestation which is permitted – the political, economic and social order.”

The target of this operation is larger than the group of people who have been charged, against which there exists no material evidence, nor anything precise which they can be accused of. The charge of “criminal association for the purposes of terrorist activity” is exceptionally vague: what exactly is an association, and how are we to understand the reference to “purposes” other than as a criminalization of intention? As for the qualification “terrorist”, the definition in force is so broad that it could apply to practically anything – and to possess such and such a text or to go to such and such demonstration is enough to fall under this exceptional legislation.

The individuals who have been charged were not chosen at random, but because they lead a political existence. They have participated in demonstrations, most recently against the less than honorable European summit on immigration in Vichy. They think, they read books, they live together in a remote village. There has been talk of clandestinity: they have opened a grocery store, everyone knows them in the region, where a support committee has been organized against their arrest. What they are looking for is neither anonymity nor refuge, but rather the contrary: another relation than the anonymous one of the metropolis. In the end, the absence of evidence itself becomes evidence against them: the refusal of those who have been charged to give evidence against one another during their detention is presented as a new indication of their terrorism.

In reality, this whole affair is a test for us. To what degree are we going to accept that anti-terrorism permits anyone to be arrested at any time? Where are we to place the limit of freedom of expression? Are emergency laws adopted under the pretext of terrorism and security compatible with democracy in the long term? Are we ready to let the police and the courts negotiate this turn to a new order? It is for us to respond to these questions, and first by demanding the end of these investigations and the immediate release of these nine people whose indictment is meant as an example for us all.

Giorgio Agamben, philosopher;
Alain Badiou, philosopher;
Jean-Christophe Bailly, writer;
Anne-Sophie Barthez, professor of law;
Miguel Benasayag, writer;
Daniel Bensaïd, philosopher;
Luc Boltanski, sociologist;
Judith Butler, philosopher;
Pascale Casanova, literary critic;
François Cusset, philosopher;
Christine Delphy, sociologist;
Isabelle Garo, philosopher;
François Gèze,
La Découverte publishers;
Jean-Marie Gleize, professor of literature;
Eric Hazan,
La Fabrique publishers;
Rémy Hernu, professor of law;
Hugues Jallon,
La Découverte publishers;
Stathis Kouvelakis, philosopher;
Nicolas Klotz, film director;
Frédéric Lordon, economist;
Jean-Luc Nancy, philosopher;
Bernard Noël, poet;
Dominique Noguez, writer;
Yves Pagès,
Verticales publishers;
Karine Parrot, professor of law;
Jacques Rancière, philosopher;
Jean-Jacques Rosat, philosopher;
Carlo Santulli, professor of law;
Rémy Toulouse,
Les Prairies ordinaires publishers;
Enzo Traverso, historian;
Jérôme Vidal,
Amsterdam publishers;

Slavoj Žižek, philosopher.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Revolution at the Gates

From Revolution at the Gates: Žižek on Lenin, the 1917 Writings (Verso, 2002), pages 310-311

Today, a lot of ongoing phenomena have to be explained through some kind of conspiracy theory (acts of semi-clandestine government agencies; the strategies of large companies). And, in order to fight them, we are more and more in need of our own half-clandestine organizations. Perhaps Lenin's formula of the Party from his much-vilified What is to Be Done? has acquired new relevance today.

John Berger recently made a salient point apropos of a French poster for the Internet investment brokers Selftrade: under the image of a hammer and sickle cast in solid gold and embedded with diamonds, the caption reads: "And what if everybody profited from the stock market?" The strategy of this poster is obvious: today, the stock market fulfils egalitarian Communist criteria: everybody can participate in it. Berger indulges in a simple mental experiment: "Imagine a communications campaign today using an image of a swastika cast in solid gold and embedded with diamonds! It would of course not work. Why? The swastika addressed potential victors not the defeated. It invoked domination not justice." The hammer and sickle, in contrast, invoked the hope that "history would eventually be on the side of those struggling for fraternal justice". The irony is thus that, at the very moment when this hope is officially proclaimed dead by the hegemonic ideology of the "end of ideologies", a paradigmatically "post-industrial" enterprise (is there anything more "post-industrial" than dealing with stocks on the Internet?) has to mobilize this dormant hope in order to get its message through. "Repeating Lenin" means giving new life to this hope, which still continues to haunt us.

As a result, repeating Lenin does not mean a return to Lenin--to repeat Lenin is to accept that "Lenin is dead", that his particular solution failed, even failed monstrously, but that there was a utopian spark in it worth saving. Repeating Lenin means that we have to distinguish between what Lenin actually did and the field of possibilities he opened up, the tension in Lenin between what he actually did and another dimension: what was "in Lenin more than Lenin himself". To repeat Lenin is to repeat not what Lenin did but what he failed to do, his missed opportunities. Today, Lenin looks like a figure from a different time zone: it is not that his notions of the centralized Party, and so on, seem to pose a "totalitarian threat"--it is rather that they seem to belong to a different epoch to which we can no longer properly relate.

Instead of reading this fact as proof that Lenin is outdated, however, we should, perhaps, risk the opposite conjecture: what if this impenetrability of Lenin is a sign that there is something wrong with our epoch? What if the fact that we experience Lenin as irrelevant, "out of synch" with our postmodern times, imparts the much more unsettling message that our time itself is "out of synch", that a certain historical dimension is disappearing from it?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Truth, Universality, the Real

From “Repeating Lenin,” by Slavoj Zizek

Lenin’s Choice

Original source:; Mark-up: Styled and linked to Zizek's sources for by Andy Blunden.


So when Lenin says “The theory of Marx is all-powerful, because it is true,” everything depends on how we understand “truth” here: is it a neutral “objective knowledge,” or the truth of an engaged subject? Lenin’s wager — today, in our era of postmodern relativism, more actual than ever — is that universal truth and partisanship, the gesture of taking sides, are not only not mutually exclusive, but condition each other: in a concrete situation, its UNIVERSAL truth can only be articulated from a thoroughly PARTISAN position — truth is by definition one-sided. (This, of course, goes against the predominant doxa of compromise, of finding a middle path among the multitude of conflicting interests.) Why not, then, shamelessly and courageously ENDORSE the boring standard reproach according to which, Marxism is a “secularized religion,” with Lenin as the Messiah, etc.? Yes, assuming the proletarian standpoint IS EXACTLY like making a leap of faith and assuming a full subjective engagement for its Cause; yes, the “truth” of Marxism is perceptible only to those who accomplish this leap, NOT to any neutral observers. What the EXTERNALITY means here is that this truth is nonetheless UNIVERSAL, not just the “point-of-view” of a particular historical subject: “external” intellectuals are needed because the working class cannot immediately perceive ITS OWN PLACE within the social totality which enables it to accomplish its “mission” — this insight has to be mediated through an external element.

And why not link these two externalities (that of the traumatic experience of the divine Real, and that of the Party) to the third one, that of the ANALYST in the psychoanalytic cure? In all three cases, we are dealing with the same impossibility which bears witness to a materialist obstacle: it is not possible for the believer to “discover God in himself,” through self-immersion, by spontaneously realizing its own Self — God must intervene from outside, disturbing our balance; it is not possible for the working class to actualize spontaneously its historical mission — the Party must intervene from outside, shaking it out of its self-indulgent spontaneity; it is not possible for the patient/analyst to analyze himself — in contrast to the Gnostic self-immersion, in psychoanalysis, there is no self-analysis proper, analysis is only possible if a foreign kernel which gives body to the object-cause of the subject’s desire. Why, then, this impossibility? Precisely because neither of the three subjects (believer, proletarian, analyst) is a self-centered agent of self-mediation, but a decentered agent struggling with a foreign kernel. God, Analyst, Party — the three forms of the “subject supposed to know,” of the transferential object, which is why, in all three cases, one hears the claim “God/Analyst/ the Party is always right”; and, as it was clear already to Kierkegaard, the truth of this statement is always its negative — MAN is always wrong. This external element does not stand for objective knowledge, i.e. its externality is strictly INTERNAL: the need for the Party stems from the fact that the working class is never “fully itself.”

In his Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx already deploys something like the logic of hegemony: the emergence of a “universal class,” a particular class which imposes itself as universal, engendering global enthusiasm, standing for society AS SUCH against the ancien regime, anti-social crime AS SUCH (like bourgeoisie in the French revolution). After follows the disillusion so sarcastically described by Marx: the day after, the gap between universal and particular becomes visible again, capitalist vulgar profit as the actuality of universal freedom, etc. — For Marx, of course, the only universal class whose singularity (exclusion from society of property) guarantees its ACTUAL universality, is the proletariat. This is what Ernesto Laclau rejects in his logic of hegemony: for Laclau, the short-circuit between the Universal and the Particular is ALWAYS illusory, temporary, a kind of “transcendental paralogism.”12 However, is Marx’s proletariat really the negative of positive full essential humanity, or “only” the gap of universality AS SUCH, irrecoverable in any positivity?13 In Alain Badiou’s terms, proletariat is not another PARTICULAR class, but a SINGULARITY of the social structure, and AS SUCH the universal class, the non-class among the classes.

What is crucial here is the properly temporal-dialectical tension between the Universal and the Particular. When Marx says that, in Germany, because of the compromised pettiness of the bourgeoisie, it is too late for the partial bourgeois emancipation, and that, because of it, in Germany, the condition of every particular emancipation is the UNIVERSAL emancipation, one way to read this is to see in it the assertion of the universal “normal” paradigm and its exception: in the “normal” case, partial (false) bourgeois emancipation will be followed by the universal emancipation through the proletarian revolution, while in Germany, the “normal” order gets mixed up. There is, however, another, much more radical way to read it: the very German exception, the inability of its bourgeoisie to achieve partial emancipation, opens up the space for the possible UNIVERSAL emancipation. The dimension of universality thus emerges (only) where the “normal” order enchaining the succession of the particulars is perturbed. Because of this, there is no “normal” revolution, EACH revolutionary explosion is grounded in an exception, in a short-circuit of “too late” and “too early.” The French Revolution occurred because France was not able to follow the “normal” English path of capitalist development; the very “normal” English path resulted in the “unnatural” division of labor between the capitalists who hold socio-economic power and the aristocracy to which was left the political power.

One can also make the same point in the terms of the opposition between interpretation and formalization14: the external agent (Party, God, Analyst) is NOT the one who “understands us better than ourselves,” who can provide the true interpretation of what our acts and statements mean; it rather stands for the FORM of our activity. Say, Marx’s deployment of the commodity form in the Chapter 1 of Capital is NOT a “narrative,” aVorstellung, but a Darstellung, the deployment of the inner structure of the universe of merchandises — the narrative is, on the contrary, the story of the “primitive accumulation,” the myth capitalism proposes about its own origins. (Along the same lines, Hegel’s Phenomenology — contrary to Rorty’s reading — does not propose a large narrative, but the FORM of subjectivity; as Hegel himself emphasizes in the Foreword, it focuses on the “formal aspect /das Formelle/.15 This is how one should approach the absence of large all-encompassing narratives today — recall Fredric Jameson’s supple description of the deadlock of the dialogue between the Western New Left and the Eastern European dissidents, of the absence of any common language between them:

“To put it briefly, the East wishes to talk in terms of power and oppression; the West in terms of culture and commodification. There are really no common denominators in this initial struggle for discursive rules, and what we end up with is the inevitable comedy of each side muttering irrelevant replies in its own favorite language."16

Jameson at the same time insists that Marxism still provides the universal meta-language enabling us to situate and relate all other partial narrativizations/interpretations — is he simply inconsistent? Are there two Jamesons: one, postmodern, the theorist of the irreducible multiplicity of the narratives, the other, the more traditional partisan of the Marxist universal hermeneutics? The only way to save Jameson from this predicament is to insist that Marxism is here not the all-encompassing interpretive horizon, but the matrix which enables us to account for (to generate) the multiplicity of narratives and/or interpretations. It is also here that one should introduce the key dialectical distinction between the FOUNDING figure of a movement and the later figure who FORMALIZED this movement: ultimately, it was Lenin who effectively “formalized” Marx by way of defining the Party as the political form of its historical intervention, in the same way that St. Paul “formalized” Christ and Lacan “formalized” Freud.17

This formalization is strictly correlative to focusing on the Real of an antagonism: “class struggle” is not the last horizon of meaning, the last signified of all social phenomena, but the formal generative matrix of the different ideological horizons of understanding. That is to say, one should not confuse this properly dialectical notion of Form with the liberal-multiculturalist notion of Form as the neutral framework of the multitude of “narratives” — not only literature, but also politics, religion, science, they are all different narratives, stories we are telling ourselves about ourselves, and the ultimate goal of ethics is to guarantee the neutral space in which this multitude of narratives can peacefully coexist, in which everyone, from ethnic to sexual minorities, will have the right and possibility to tell his story. The properly dialectical notion of Form signals precisely the IMPOSSIBILITY of this liberal notion of Form: Form has nothing to do with “formalism,” with the idea of a neutral Form, independent of its contingent particular content; it rather stands for the traumatic kernel of the Real, for the antagonism, which “colors” the entire field in question. In this precise sense, class struggle is the Form of the Social: every social phenomenon is overdetermined by it, which means that it is not possible to remain neutral towards it.


12. See Ernesto Laclau, “The Politics of Rhetoric,” intervention at the conference Culture and Materiality, University of California, Davis, 23-25 April 1998. When today’s postmodern political philosophers emphasize the paradox of democracy, how democracy is possible only against the background of its impossibility, do they not reproduce the paradoxes of the Kantian practical reason discerned long ago by Hegel?

13. See Eustache Kouvelakis’s commentary to L'Introduction a la Critique de la philosophie du droit de Hegel, Paris: Ellipses 2000.

14. I owe this distinction to Alain Badiou (private conversation).

15. This should be the answer to Veit Harlan, the Nazi director who, around 1950, despaired about the fact that Jews in the US did not show any understanding for his defense for making The Jew Suess, claimed that no American Jew can really understand what was his situation in the Nazi Germany: far from justifying him, this obscene (factual) truth is the ultimate lie. — At a different level, there are in Palestine today two opposite narratives (the Jewish and the Palestinian one) with absolutely no common horizon, no “synthesis” in a larger meta-narrative; the solution thus cannot be found in any all-encompassing narrative.

16. Quoted from Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe, Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 2000, p. 237.

17. This difference between interpretation and formalization is also crucial to introduce some (theoretical) order into the recent debates on the holocaust: although it is true that the holocaust cannot be adequately interpreted or narrated, in short: rendered meaningful, that all the attempts to do it fail and have to end in silence, it can and should be “formalized,” situated in its structural conditions of possibility. [....]

Enjoyment and the Effect of Linguistic Sense

From “De Maistre Avec de Sade: Zizek Contra

De Maistre”

IJŽS Vol 1.4 - Matthew Sharpe: Deakin University, Australia.

see original article at


The pivot of Žižek’s theory of political ideology is a series of claims Žižek makes on the basis of Lacan’s development of the category of the Real in and after Seminar VII (1959-1960). If we are to understand the logics of political ideologies, and the source of their power to ‘interpellate’ or name individuals, we need to understand the role of the Real of Jouissance. This underlies the symbolic register of power which we have been focusing on here up to now: which is the basis of Žižek’s criticisms of Derrida, Laclau and Mouffe. Žižek’s central, related concepts of ideological fantasy, the disidentification of subjects with ideologies, and the ‘inherent transgressions’ which allow subjects the (false) semblance of political independence all turn on his Lacanian account of the relations between the symbolic and the Real. They also underlie Žižek’s most incisive cultural analyses, including his justly celebrated critique of the faux political cynicism of late capitalist subjects about public authority. [see endnote 2]

Based in Žižek’s confessedly ‘dogmatic’ reliance on Lacan, one great boon of his political interpretations is the depth at which they are grounded, in terms of a fundamental ontology of subjectivity and its relations to language. As The Sublime Object of Ideology lays out in its central chapter, the basic logics at work in ideological interpellation, for Žižek, are grounded in the ‘quilting’ operation at play in the production of sense in language. For Lacanian theory, a signifier’s sense or ‘signified’ only becomes clear, retrospectively, at the end of an utterance. At this point, the entire sentence(s) is ‘quilted’ or ‘tied’ to the big Other of accepted linguistic meanings. Before such time, the signifiers are ‘floating’, indeterminate, and open—as we must add—to the telltale interruptions of the unconscious in ‘slips.’ [see endnote 3] What Žižek stresses, pointing to the top half of Lacan’s famous ‘bottle opener’ diagram developed in Seminar V, is the undergirding role of Jouissance in the quilting of linguistic sense. (Žižek, 1989: ch. 3) For ‘quilting’ to be successful, and the effect of sense to be generated, Žižek argues that subjects must suppose that language has touched a ‘little piece of the Real.’

endnote 2:

As Žižek contends in ‘I Hear You With My Eyes’: “A cynic mocks public law from the position of an obscene underside which, consequently, he leaves intact … Cynical distance and full reliance on [ideological fantasy about the Jouissance of the Other] are thus strictly correlative: the typical subject today is the one who, while displacing cynical distrust of any public ideology, indulges without restraint in paranoiac fantasies about conspiracies, threats and excessive forms of enjoyment of the other …” (Žižek, 1999: 101)

endnote 3:

Of course, this exigency is what makes reading convoluted sentences in student essays such a chore—one never knows where the student is heading to, and sometimes your expectations that they will arrive at sense are disappointed.