Three Essays on Zizek

Zizek Marat Joseph

•1. Žižek’s Argument

I’d like to put two questions to Slavoj Žižek, though the second question might turn out to be the first one wearing different-colored leotards. It would help, I think, if I explained first what I take to be Žižek’s core argument—the problem and puzzle driving his theoretical overproduction—both so that he can tell me if I’m wrong and because readers of Žižek are sorely in need of a map. It’s not that he never says what he is after; the problem is, rather, that the centrality of this one issue tends in his writing to get lost amidst the riffs and the endlessly re-explained Lacanianisms and the compulsive recording of everything he’s watched this year on hotel room televisions. It is possible to read an awful lot of Žižek and still not realize that he has a point. Indeed, one sometimes gets the feeling that the only people who understand him less well than his opponents are his enthusiasts.

So here, for easy reference, is his animating claim: that every political formation, in addition to generating the law, generates a particular more or less expected way of violating the law. Any set of prohibitions comes with its own accustomed transgressions, a particular way in which Law-in-the-abstract allows itself to be broken. Different laws produce different lawbreakers or different modes of rebellion. And what keeps us attached to a given political order—what makes us loyal to it—is not the law, but the transgression. We like living in a particular society because of the illicit pleasures that it affords us—because, that is, it grants us a particular set of turn-ons, and it does so not by openly trading in these latter, but precisely by seeming to disallow them. Following the law is one path to subservience; breaking it is a second. Transgression, in fact, produces in us the more powerful political obligation; it is the device by which a governing order takes hold of us for good. And Žižek, by making this argument, is merely tracking back to Freudian ground zero, to the idea that all of our relationships carry a libidinal charge or that desire and satisfaction are permanent features of our psychic lives—ineliminable, not to be overcome. The idea, further, is that law by itself couldn’t possibly work; the law alone can never be lawlike in its effects, for if some authority genuinely denied us all pleasure, we would take measures to abolish it. But authority doesn’t deny us pleasures; it creates new ones and can become, indeed, just another target for our ardor.

Enjoyment, to bottom-line it, is not the heroic alternative to discipline and convention. It is discipline’s sidekick and in some sense the authentically nomian term—the secret bearer of law’s regularities and compulsions. The libido is the vehicle of our subjection and thus the answer to why most of us, even those of us in the habit of striking defiant poses, don’t seek fundamental political changes or seek them only half-heartedly: Change would disrupt whatever erotic bargain we’ve quietly worked out with the prevailing order. Žižek’s way of putting all this is to say that every political system—every code of law or tablet of rules—comes with an “obscene supplement”; he also calls it “the inherent transgression.” And his single greatest talent as an intellectual is to survey some corner of the social scene and find the smudge of obscenity that holds it together, to smoke out its anchoring enjoyment, to help you see how people are getting off on things that they don’t seem to be getting off on.

That’s a pretty Calvinist skill as skills go. And, indeed, it is the asceticism of Žižek’s position, so unlike the prevailing tenor of radical philosophy, that we will want to underscore. In 1934, Wilhelm Reich, having recently fled to Denmark from Berlin, wrote an essay trying to make sense of the epochal victory in Germany of the leather-jacket Right. Why had the German Left failed to stand up to the fascists? How had they ceded so much ground? Reich began that essay by saying that Marxists were going to have to spend less time thinking about structure and system and historical process and more time thinking about “the subjective factor in history”—less time improvising mini-lectures on monopoly capitalism and the pseudo-democratic ruses of the bourgeois state and more time talking to ordinary people about how they feel and what they might do to feel better. The most remarkable section of the essay comes when Reich begins quoting Joseph Goebbels, not in order to document yet another National Socialist inanity, but in order to make clear that the fascists were onto something. Their success meant, by definition, that they had understood something that the Left had failed to grasp.National Socialism, [Goebbels] said, was not a puritan movement; the people should not be robbed of their joie de vivre; the aim was to achieve more life affirmation and less hypocrisy, more morality and fewer moralistic attitudes.” This is what socialists should have been saying, but perversely weren’t. Shame sits ever on our lips. Reich perceived a basic contradiction in the political constellation of the early 1930s: The fascists successfully appealed to people at the level of pleasure and desire, even while implementing punishment. The socialists, meanwhile, had big plans for emancipating their fellows in several different senses at once, and yet comported themselves according to the petty morality of the well-cushioned parlor. Fascism, in short, broke through in Germany because it was a lot more fun—it seemed to run on expanded erotic energies—whereas the Left, as ever, preferred to educate its potential comrades in the gross national product of India while asking them pointedly whether they fully understood that children made their shoes. Marxists, Reich concluded, needed to buy some guitars; they would have to write some better tunes.

It is this Reichian program, moreover, this determination to out-merry-make the Right, that Fredric Jameson has been trying to keep alive when arguing that Marxism must continue to strut down “the path of the subject,” that it must learn better ways to stimulate the “desire called Marx” or the “desire called utopia.” “If ideology … is a vision of the future that grips the masses, we have to admit that … no Marxist or Socialist Party anywhere has the slightest conception of what socialism or communism as a social system ought to be or can be expected to look like.” It’s just that Jameson, who was born eight months before Elvis Presley, came of age alongside the rock’n’roll Left that Reich seemed in many respects to have blueprinted, which means that his repeating of Reich’s complaint in the 1970s and ‘80s has to be read as an implicit reckoning with the counterculture’s limitations, an admission that even the newly larkish Left—the Left naked and capering—had been no match for General Electric and the Nixon administration. It’s not that Reich was wrong, and yet the socialist libido was still going to need something more than a Bo Diddley beat — that’s one version of Jameson.

And of course it’s not just Jameson who has been making this case. This is one of the things that makes Žižek so important—that he hasn’t been copycatting the inherited Reichian line, and so offers an alternative to Jameson and Deleuze and the many barrelsworth of Reich and Marcuse that really existing queer theory has smuggled past its Foucauldian sentries, an alternative, that is, to the no-longer-new Left’s program for the endless expansion and intensification of sexual life. Žižek is a Freudian, to be sure, and a man of the Left, but he is not a Left Freudian, if we take that term still to refer to one who mistakes his testicles for the working class and who regards the Id as a buddy and a pet and the smothered wellspring of his creativity. So Žižek is not like Jameson and Deleuze, but this observation is itself easily misunderstood. For his version of psychoanalysis does not want you to give up on your unorthodox desires—or at least not on all of them. Quite the contrary. Žižek’s sense is that we almost all engage in unusual behavior—sexual or at least eroticized behavior—to some degree. The problem is that nearly all of that behavior takes place with reference back to authority or to the law. We develop most of our sexual quirks as a way of taking a position with regard to the Master; we carry some notion of authority around in our heads, and the ways in which we like to get off are almost always predicated on what we believe to be true about the people in charge. So Žižek does indeed reject as facile the usual anti-authoritarian thrust of radical psychoanalysis, convinced as it is that we can forthrightly strip down and hump our way to emancipation, but it does so only to reinstate that anti-authoritarianism in another, more difficult place. Psychoanalysis in this mode doesn’t care what you get up to—it really doesn’t care how you take your pleasures—provided that these make no reference to the Master, provided, that is, that they aren’t even a rebellion against him. And to that extent there is one sense in which Žižek’s Lacanian-Hegelian system, otherwise committed to the ideas of negation and the lack, is fully invested in establishing a positivity or simple fact. Your task is to figure out the peculiar way you happen to desire when authority is entirely removed from the picture, when, that is, you no longer take the Master to be peeping from behind the curtains.

This, then, is the reason to go into analysis: The analyst has to be on the lookout for the one thing you desire—or the one way you desire, the one way you organize your satisfaction—that is not relational, not a position over and against bosses and fathers. Such is the knack that any good analyst has to develop: the ability to discriminate between Master-directed kink and kink that is truly your own. The bargain that analysis will make with you is that any enjoyment that survives the sundering of your psyche from authority is yours to keep. It’s just that most of your libidinal habits are not going to survive that sundering—or will be transformed by it into new ones. Žižek, following Lacan, calls any enjoyment thus liberated a sinthome, which, in the original French, isn’t anything more than an arch misspelling of and murky pun upon the word symptom. The Lacanian point is that the enjoyment that you take home with you at the end of a successful course of psychoanalysis is likely to look like and sound like a symptom—fevered, morbid, a “deviation from normal functioning,” the clinicians like to say. But it won’t actually be a symptom, or it will be a symptom with a difference, a symptom that is not a symptom. Analysis, in other words, aims not to cure you or return you to normal functioning, but to help you find your way to a happier disorder. Žižek’s hunch is that most people will leave analysis freakier than when they went into it.

So can we tell the difference between the raunch that unshackles us and the  raunch that fixes us in place? This is one of the more pungent questions that a political psychoanalysis prompts us to ask. For Wilhelm Reich was, of course, in one sense absolutely correct. It is not hard to agree that fascism succeeded in large part by devising new gratifications for its adherents. And perhaps it was only predictable that the Western Left would decide to take Reich’s advice and compete on that ground and help build consumer society’s all-singing-all-dancing-24-hour gaudy show. But psychoanalysis allows us to take stock of where we rock’n’rollers remain least at ease—or, indeed, to describe with some precision the new forms of anxiety that have come to the fore in an age of sex-without-taboos. Žižek’s argument is, in this respect, best understood as proposing a new way to periodize recent history—a new way, that is, of identifying the novelty of the present. It bears repeating: If Žižek is right, then in the political organization of enjoyment, obscenity has always played some kind of role. Even public life organized around strong authority figures used to summon the obscene supplement in its support. But we’ll want to at least consider the possibility that in our version of consumer capitalism, the obscene supplement has become primary and so largely supplanted what it had once been asked merely to buoy. The transgression has moved into the position of the master and so instituted a kind of authoritative obscenity. This marks a comprehensive change in what we might call the regime of enjoyment. Again: What keeps you attached to a society is the forms of deviant pleasure that it winks at. In nearly every social order that has ever existed, there has been law: state law or generally recognized prohibitions, and some people get off on breaking the law, while other people get off on the law itself, get off on enforcing it, get off on playing the cop or exasperated schoolmarm. What sets the present apart is that the prohibitions have to some considerable extent faded, which has produced a system of transgression without law or perhaps even transgression as law—what Žižek calls “the world of ordained transgression”—a society of compulsory pleasure in which you are perpetually enjoined to blow your load. You can think of this, if you like, as the flip side to another of Reich’s signature arguments. Sex-pol claimed that if you raised children in a sexually liberated way, refusing to drum inhibition into them, then they would not be willing later in life to go along with authority, because they would not be in the habit of giving up what was important to their happiness. They would be able to resist the call to renunciation, and if authority threatened their enjoyment directly, they would mutiny. Libidinally unpoliced children would become anti-authoritarian adults. The simple corollary of this argument is a catastrophe that Reich never even paused to consider—the plausibility of which advanced capitalism endlessly demonstrates—which is that if authority doesn’t threaten such people’s enjoyment, they will never rebel. If the social order gives people abundant opportunities to get off, it can abuse and exploit them in every other way.

Anyone trying to make sense of Žižek, then, will want to start tracking the ways in which ascetic and anti-ascetic arguments are knotted together in his work. He routinely speaks of “obscene enjoyment” or sometimes just of “obscenity,” and this in tones that we typically associate with anti-pornography campaigners. It’s just that what this version of psychoanalysis considers obscene is not sex, but the conjunction of sex and authority. An obscene pleasure is not one in which I gnash a ball gag or show too much areola, but one in which I imagine, however inarticulately, that I am serving the Master or emulating him or, indeed, defying him. To practice an anti-obscenity would therefore mean to devise a sexuality rigorously beyond the law. Whether or not it might also mean to devise a law beyond sexuality—a law unstained by pleasure—is one of the great open questions in Žižek work. You can, at any rate, accentuate this argument’s anti-asceticism, if you care to, since one of the conundrums most driving Žižek’s work is whether or not the sinthome can be turned into a politics. There is no question that Lacanianism can underwrite political positions or attitudes; it can underwrite a disconcertingly wide variety of them, in fact. The question is, rather, whether it can also produce a genuinely political practice. Could ordinary people learn en masse how to sever their desire from authority? Could we agree collectively not to fuck the police?—because if we can’t, then Lacanianism would seem condemned to remain a therapy and not a politics, to be undertaken in near isolation by the unhappy and the kithless, and producing little more than a libidinal aristocracy, the few upon whom liberated enjoyment has been bestowed, the jedi of the sinthome, an order increasingly restricted to France and Argentina and the university neighborhoods of Buffalo, NY. Can the sinthome be mass-produced?—that’s the properly hedonist version of Žižek’s project.

But then you can also, if you wish, lift out of Žižek’s arguments their fully anti-hedonist strains. Because when he tries to imagine this Lacanian politics, the models he turns to are notably austere: Kantianism, Christianity, Leninism. He says admiringly that poor teenagers with almost nothing to their name can still have discipline, an almost literal self-possession, a martial bearing and a karate chop. That most of us have met no such teenagers—that fifteen-year-olds tend, indeed, to be bywords not for discipline but for its opposite—suggests only how committed Žižek is to a certain fantasy of restraint and composure and self-command. One easy way to summarize Žižek, then, is to note that he tends to make abstemious proposals to libertine prompts. Liberated desire mutates inchwise into liberation from desire. It is easy for readers to find themselves wrong-footed by this. Chances are that you were first drawn to Žižek for one of two reasons: Maybe he was exactly what you always dreamed an Eastern European intellectual would be—manic, vulgar, flocculent; like a drunken peasant who just happened to be a great philosopher; not merely a Lacanian, but a gypsy-punk Lacanian. Or maybe it was enough that you found him funny, the one critical theorist whose mode of argumentation reliably recalls stand-up comedy, a programmatic tastelessness best watched on YouTube in six-minute bursts. Žižek, of course, doesn’t just retell a lot of inherited anekodty; his most famous observations themselves have the structure of bits: Have you ever noticed that different countries have different toilets? But then there is much in his thinking that Slavophiles and comedy nerds are required to overlook: that, for instance, he regularly attacks Eastern European intellectuals and artists for playing up the hard-living, balalaika schtick or for cultivating the impression that they write their books in slivovitz instead of ink. This, he says, is precisely the indecency on which nationalism thrives, and not only in the Balkans. Fans also fail to notice that Žižek’s first book in English already contained an attack on laughter (and the ideology of a liberated laughter)—an attack that he has never backed away from or even, to my knowledge, qualified. Obscenity might be the enemy, but comedy is its sniggering minion. Adorno used to say that anyone committed to the future would have to learn first to be unhappy in the present—that before we would so much as know to be fed up with our own exploitation, we would have to be “sated with false pleasures.” There is nothing that Žižek distrusts more than a dirty joke, which means you probably like him for the wrong reasons.


3 responses to “Three Essays on Zizek

  1. i’m sure you were expecting this, but what about:

    “On the one hand, we have so-called biopolitics, that is to say, more and more our lives are controlled through state mechanisms, whatever, all these theories articulated by Foucault and later by Agamben. On the other hand, we have what right wingers usually refer to as a liberal, extreme narcissism, this “culture of complaint,” or, “culture of victimization.” You know, where whatever you do -like, I look at you now and [smacks his hand on the table] ha, ha, ha, rape already or harassment – is construed as oppressive. Incidentally, the only way to react to excessive political correctness, I claim, is propagating dirty jokes.

    Dirty jokes are ambiguous. On the one hand, of course, I’m well aware they can be racist, sexist, and so on. On the other hand, I hate the term “African-Americans.” I prefer black, and they do too. I think African-American as a term is the worst example of apparent political correctness…So whenever I meet blacks in this kind of situation, I immediately try to break these racist barriers. And what’s my measure that we truly broke the barrier? Ok, at one level it’s political correctness, but it’s absolutely clear that if you play this game, only politically correct terms and ooooh, this fake interest, “ooooh, how interesting, your culture, what a wealth,” and blah, blah, blah, it will backfire. Blacks confess to me that they secretly despise this kind of white liberalism. What’s the trick? Humor. It’s a kind of dialectical double reversal. And this is when they really admit you. That somehow you can return to the worst starting point, racist jokes and so on, but they function no longer as racist, but as a kind of obscene solidarity. To give you an extremely vulgar example, I met a big, black guy, and when we became friends, I went into it like, [assuming a naïve, awe-filled whisper] “Is it true that you have, you know [makes gesture signifying a gigantic penis]?” and (this is a racist myth I heard in Europe) “Is it true that you blacks can control your muscles so that when you walk with a half erection and there is a fly here you can BAM! [slaps thigh] snap it with your penis?” We became terribly close friends! Now, I’m well aware of how risky these waters are, because if you do it in the wrong context, in the wrong way, I’m well aware that this is racism.”

    yes, the intended structure of the dirty joke here is dialectical, it’s not used in some ‘straightforwardly’ racist way. but the same could be said of just about anyone who tells an offensive joke in public, or at least of their alibis – that the joke is ironic, not serious, breaking down artificial barriers, etc.

    zizek’s humor is directed against (his fantasy of) the narcissistic enjoyment of the Whole Foods set, which for him is the truly pernicious obscene pleasure offered by ‘liberal capitalism’: tolerance, multiculturalism, etc. — essentially liberalism in the aftermath of feminist, anticolonialist and racial justice critiques.

  2. Christian Thorne

    That’s really helpful — I hadn’t seen it before. I’m struck by how classically Freudian most of this sounds, a vintage 1905 position ready for immediate deployment in the present, to the effect that jokes allow access to otherwise repressed material. But that means they are to approached as symptoms or at least as symptom-like. They aren’t good. They are only usefully clear about the bad.

    Where he goes beyond Freud is in that notion of “obscene solidarity.” This gets at what I take to be the chief hesitation in Zizek’s thinking. Sometimes — here, for instance — he seems to think that obscenity can be redirected to just ends, that the task is to make obscene enjoyment the carrier of political goods: We aren’t just pursuing equality and solidarity and happiness and self-determination, we are pursuing the filthy-raw versions of all these things. But then it’s unclear in what sense a just obscenity would still be obscene. At the very least, I take him to mean that anti-racist racist jokes are like the sinthome, generating a redeemed obscenity that only an analyst could tell apart from the debased version. We would have to devise some goofy, Lacanian mispelling of “obscene” to make the point clear.

    But then sometimes (more often?) he argues that we need to pursue a politics *beyond* obscene enjoyment, which seems to mean beyond enjoyment. A just politics doesn’t “possess a different obscene supplement”; it “simply doesn’t have one.” But then anyone who has read even a little Freud would have to ask: Where, then, does enjoyment *go*? Wasn’t the whole point that we are not made to exist beyond enjoyment? And what does that do to the obscene solidarity we feel with other people’s penises? But that’s the subject of Essay #3….