Tag Archives: Slavoj Zizek

Zizek’s Stalling



•3. Žižek’s STALLING




We would do well to remind ourselves of how the Greimas square works, because knowing the square is going to make it easier to pick out what is least settled in Žižek’s thinking: his uncertainties, his panic. Before you click away to some corner of the Internet that doesn’t involve Lithuanian semiotics, let me observe that there is nothing metaphysical about the Greimas square. It’s just a device for beginning to say in which specific ways a given opposition is likely to turn unstable—which particular terms, in other words, an antithesis will generate but no longer be able fully to encompass. It provides a rough guide to the instability of any conceptual pair you find yourself needing to think about. Perhaps you’re trying to make sense of a story (or a philosophical system or the everyday idiom of a school or social scene), and you’ve noticed that it is fixated upon some opposition. If you now tabulate a Greimas square around the opposition’s two terms, you will have a much clearer idea of how X vs. Y can become unstuck, at which point you can turn back to the narrative (or whatever) and start scanning it for its pressure points. You will have a better chance of naming the passages (or episodes or characters or arguments) that most threaten the narrative’s governing antithesis. The Greimas square will flush out the material that the story has to work hardest to contain.

Here’s the easiest possible example. We compulsively code people and animals according to their genitalia, to the point where some people think that the doors of restaurant bathrooms are the very model and derivation of all two-term thinking. So the Greimas square begins with what first strikes the mind as a fixed opposition:

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Next comes the bit that has the character of an instruction. For each term x, you think up some adjectives that describe the un-x and then record them in a short list beneath x’s opposite number, like so:

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All of the action happens now, once you have these four corners in place, as you begin to sum each of the vectors in the square, vertically, horizontally, and diagonally: Man plus woman, man plus mannish, man plus effeminate, and so on. If we accelerate to the completed square, it will look like this:

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We’ll want to note at least three things about this and any other such quadrangle. 1) Its line of central terms, from “hermaphrodite” down through “tomboy,” all name intermediate or mongrel concepts: mules, tangelos, the usual stuff of the dialectic. The Greimas square is an especially efficient way of generating, from out of a system in seeming repose, its agitation—its misfits and unassimilated conceptual grit—though it will at the same time disclose the categories by which the system will move in to denominate its own anomalies. 2) When you sum each side of the square vertically (man + mannish, for instance), the adjectives that reside on the bottom tier will serve as intensifiers, producing purified or pumped-up versions of each of the antithesis’s central poles. Implicit in the Greimas square is thus the neglected insight that positive terms—terms that seem to exist outside of relationship—are as disruptive to a binary order as intermediate ones. 3) Aficionados of Greimas often call the hermaphrodite—the both-and construction that perches on the top of the completed square—the perfected or utopian term. It’s not clear whether we should call this synthesis queer (because its archetype is the androgyne) or un-queer (because its original is marriage). Either way, it is in this utopian term that the system’s initial opposition is overcome, its stalled conflicts and predictable oscillations set to one side, and the gratifying possibility of new historical and narrative material at last glimpsed. The x-plus-y term is usually thought of as the way out of a given semiotic square and into some other parallelogram or lozenge.

Knowing even this much about Greimas should allow us to say what makes Žižek’s project in many respects rather unusual. His thinking is manifestly organized around an opposition—the antithesis of law and transgression. That couplet will reappear in scores of his more local arguments. But what he calls upon us to repudiate, after those many arguments have crystallized out into their overriding political claim and program, is the merger of law and transgression in post-Oedipal capitalism’s culture of compulsory mischief, that historically novel system in which authority accrues to the rule-breaker rather than to the bailiff and in which it has become possible—check your own head—to feel guilty about doing what you’re told or to find the superego calling you to account for being insufficiently insubordinate. We can simplify that last sentence: Žižek repudiates the merger, and this is peculiar because it means that on the schedule of concepts generated squarewise by the antithesis law vs. transgression, it is the perfected term—the fusing of obedience and rebellion—that Left Lacanianism recommends we back away from. Žižek is widely regarded as a dialectical thinker, but it has to be said: He takes the synthesis to be the problem, and that isn’t how the dialectic typically works. Žižek means to identify an already existing fusion and then in some not entirely perspicuous sense resolve it back into its component parts, to throw the dialectic in reverse or desublate an established Aufhebung. Anyone running a Greimas square on The Plague of Fantasies or The Ticklish Subject is going to stop short upon finding the utopian term preemptively blocked, displaced by market society’s malign parody of reconciliation. We’ll still want to work up the square, though, because doing so will at least generate the other options, the terms that might be asked to serve as utopia now that synthesis has forfeited the role. Some other location on the square is going to have to provide the chute that leads out of its geometry, and we’ll want to know which it is.

So here is what Žižek’s square would look like if we left all its terms in the abstract:


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At this point, our task is to work out what more specific terms Žižek has inserted into each of these conceptually dictated slots. We need, that is, to determine what kinds of historical substance can be attributed to the square’s otherwise intangible positions. We already know that the perfected term has been captured by the new spirit of capitalism and its “world of ordained transgression.” Change fast … match your brand’s look and feel … constantly innovating … 5 billion emails every month … monitor activity … celebrate creativity and chaos. And any disaffection we feel towards this term can effortlessly be extended to the two just below it, those other, equally inauspicious mediations: lawlike transgressions, the Lacanian name for which is hysteria, and transgressive knuckling to the law, known locally as perversion.

So with the central spindle removed from consideration, a Lacanian politics is going to have to travel the Greimas square’s outer perimeter. Three possibilities end up suggesting themselves:


Three o’clock

-Perhaps what we’re looking for is a politics that, in Žižek’s words, “suspends the dimension of the Law” or that affords us “jouissance outside the Law”—a transgressive transgression, then, a mode of waywardness that makes no reference back to the decrees of God or government and so can no longer be called “transgression” or “misconduct” nor even properly “lawlessness.” Žižek’s name for such devilry is “Christianity,” which is going to seem less confusing if we quickly note four things:

1) The philosopher from Catholic Europe doesn’t seem to realize it, but he isn’t talking about Christianity in general so much as about its hyper-Pauline strains—about radical Protestantism, in other words, and especially about the sects that came to the fore around the English Revolution: the Independents, the early Baptists, the Muggletonians. Something about Žižek’s confessional turn would have been more comprehensible if he had subtitled his books “Why the Quaker Legacy Is Worth Fighting For” and “The Perverse Core of Quakerdom.” If his persistent Jesus talk has struck many readers as confusing, this is at least in part because the Christians he is talking about are either dead or living in Pennsylvania college towns. Chances are you haven’t met them.

2) These Christians really did declare an end to the law. Here’s John Milton in Paradise Lost: “And to the cross he”—Jesus—“nails thy enemies: the law that is against thee and the sins of all mankind.” Knowing the historical case is your best chance at guessing the kind of politics that Žižek is trying to resuscitate when he says, in Miltonic accents, that Christ “signals the Law’s demise.” In the seventeenth century, some radical Protestants began selecting their own ministers from out of the nation’s pool of university graduates. They wouldn’t accept appointments from a superimposed hierarchy, but expected, rather, to exercise oversight over their own guardians. Others began raising ministers from out of their own plebian ranks—lay preachers, then, who kept their day jobs and were granted no special authority over their parishioners. In Bristol, England, there were mixed-raced Baptist congregations presided over by women as early as 1650. And then others still took the next consequent step and abolished the position of minister altogether, a feat that once perfected within the church could next be repeated extra-ecclesiastically. Milton held high office for its duration in the revolutionary government that beheaded the English king in 1649, which act is what the poet had in mind when he imagined the law being executed in Jesus’ stead, with Christ back on the ground and hammering, a centurion turned against the empire, the crucifix mutating before the reader into Judea’s guillotine.

3) This Christianity depends on a simple shift in grammatical mood. Where most churchgoers will tell you that Christians should love other people, the believers-beyond-the-law will say instead that Christians do love other people. If you are the sort of person who takes care of others without asking for their papers or checking first to see if they are worth your attention, then you are a Christian; and if not, then not. If, that is, you have to think about any of this, if you have to deliberate your way to that position, then you are only revealing your distance from God. There is thus an anti-ethical moment within Christianity itself, for which solidarity is not an obligation, but a kind of moral fact—the most important thing, in one sense, but also just something that people do. Keeping the law would, from this perspective, be a problem, since once you tell yourself that you should be more loving, you have made it clear that you would actually rather be some other way—you would prefer to be unreceptive or perfunctory or bilious—at which point agape can become just another target for your resentment, one more stricture that your authenticity requires you to defy.

4) In Book 8 of Paradise Lost, after the archangel Raphael has finished telling Adam the story of the Creation and the war in heaven and the ostracism of the rebel angels, he pauses to ask if the first man has any questions. And Adam has only a single question—just one thing he wants to ask: Do angels have sex? Raphael replies that they do, except that spirits have no flesh, such that they are constantly passing in and out of each other organisms, “obstacle finding none of membrane,” wafted into penetration by each puffing breeze. What Milton brings into view, then, is the possibility of a sex uncarcassed, whole-bodied and resolutely non-genital, still the literary canon’s most compelling image of polymorphous desire, a libido without need of fruitfulness or groin-anchoring. We will read elsewhere in the poem that the angels are “without feminine”—they are all “masculine”—and this will only confirm the point: that the radical Protestant heaven is a place of unrestrained sex between men, or if not men than males, gay sex, you might want to say, except that this sex accords no priority to “joint or limb”—some other gay sex, therefore, the hypothetically unphallic version, gay male sex refashioned on the example of its lesbian feminist antithesis. This is Christianity’s own vision of liberated enjoyment or good obscenity—of pleasure beyond the law—all of it palpable still, if you seek out the right Sunday service, in the quaking and the shaking and the shout music. The overall point is simple: Žižek sometimes seems to think that Jesus is how you become a Lacanian without going into therapy, and he thinks this because there really have existed Christians who believed that the law had been abolished and that moral life was a matter of enjoyment rather than obligation.


Six o’clock

-But then you might decide that pursuing an ethical enjoyment doesn’t make any sense. Let’s first put the best face on that position: The doctrine of good obscenity holds that political goods are not sustainable if they are rooted in repression. If, for instance, my fellows and I achieve our solidarity only by discretion and euphemism, then our camaraderie can at any point be blown apart by an eruption of the Real. The alternative would be to absorb trauma and the drive into our position and so to seek gonzo versions of what we’ll have to stop calling values: not freedom, but nasty freedom; not equality, but nasty equality; not justice, but nasty justice. Liberté, égalité, obscénité. But this proposal is hard to carry through consequently. Part of the problem is as it were philological. Another of Lacanianism’s core arguments is that the father is always a sham. That’s the starting point, in fact, from which psychoanalysis leads most directly to an emancipatory politics; it thinks it can show you that paternal authority doesn’t really exist. You probably formed your conception of authority at age two or three, attributing to your father powers that he plainly did not possess. To a toddler, the father is, ludicrously, the Person Who Can Do Anything He Wants—the one who can run faster than you and jump higher and always reach the ice cream, the one who can pull your nose from your face and reattach it at will, the one who can send you to your room and somehow make you stay there. Žižek’s claim is that your relationship to authority has never stopped being childish in this fashion, that even once you grew taller than your dad and began to outrun him and realized that the nose in the old man’s fist was just his own poorly disguised thumb, you transferred your belief in his omnipotence to the father’s sundry proxies: cops, bosses, priests, &c. What remains as one of childhood’s more damaging legacies is your conviction that there exists somewhere someone who gets to do all the things that you are prevented from doing, someone who possesses the jam that you lack. The grown-up alternative to this view would be, rather than struggling against such people, to stop believing in them, to stop conferring on them a supremacy that they would not have absent your belief. So authority in some sense doesn’t exist but is merely an attribution; all pretended powers are to that extent spurious; and the word “obscene,” in Žižek’s writing, usually refers to the way in which your desire is entwined with such fantasized and illegitimate hierarchy. But when Žižek writes, as he often does, that what we require is, say, an “obscene solidarity,” he can’t mean the word in that sense. He can’t mean a solidarity supercharged by some delusion we hold about our fathers, since the paternal presence, even if a phantom, would so obviously compromise the solidarity it is being asked to underwrite. Worse: We require an obscene politics on simple Enlightenment grounds, so that our practices will not depend on repression and its fragile lies, but then obscenity threatens to reintroduce into those practices distortion and misapprehension at another level. We watch Pentecostals chicken-walk down a church aisle, and we can just about imagine an obscene justice, except that obscenity in the sense that Žižek usually means it would transplant injustice back into the realm of the fair and the due. How, we will need to know, could obscenity serve justice and still be experienced as obscene? Wouldn’t obscenity by definition bring with it excess, inhumanity, compulsion, &c?

Nor is the problem merely lexical. That Žižek continues to use the word “obscene” in these contexts should rankle; it is a persistent if accidental reminder that transgression carries law with it and that devising genuinely liberated versions of the Left’s core positions is going to take more than an act of will. So the next part of the problem is epistemological: Let’s suppose I’m white and I’m close to some guys who aren’t, and I say that, no, really, I can joke with them about how enormous their penises are, because I am thereby acknowledging the history of racist cliché, the sexual panic that was woven into every looped rope, &c. This will be the crucible of our confrerie; my tastelessness will retrieve entire registers of historical experience that tact would just as soon place beyond discussion. And yet it is reasonable to ask: How will my buddies know what construction to put on my jokes? Psychoanalysis hardly suggests that we are transparent to one another, so I shouldn’t, if I’m following Žižek, be able to take my intelligibility as given. How, in other words, would anyone who is not himself a trained Lacanian analyst be able to tell that my joke isn’t a way of pulling racial rank on them? And wouldn’t even my analyst require long acquaintance with me in order to make that determination? So why would any comrade of mine put up with those big-black-dick jokes for the time it took to figure this out? Or maybe I think that my crew should be able to know my mind immediately and on the spot. Maybe there are simple verbal indices that will tell a person what is liberated enjoyment and what is mere hysteria. But then what would those be? Psychoanalysis doesn’t give us any reason to hope that this would be the case, and Žižek never instructs us on how to make the call, and besides, if there were such rhetorical cues—features of syntax or word-choice or inflection—then these would be mimickable by any racist and they would thereby stop functioning as cues. So let’s agree that my friends can’t tell my mind. But then I have to wonder, too, whether I can really know that my wisecracks are emancipated and anti-racist rather than obscene. Can I be sure that I understand my speech any better than others do? When did Freudians start believing that people are in control of their own utterances? At this point the epistemological problem reveals itself to have been a properly analytic one all along. For even if I speak my jokes in the spirit of uninhibited fellowship, can I be sure that I’m not also deriving pleasure, repetitively and compulsively, from them? It is a rare joke that tells itself only once.

One way to terminate this train of misgiving would be to give up on the idea of a good obscenity or enjoyment outside the law. Perhaps rather than trying to wrest pleasure free from regulation, we could cancel the law and enjoyment in one, swinging from the Greimas square’s scatty right flank down to its neutered fundament. The neither-nor would replace the both-and as the dialectic’s utopian term, producing not a synthesis but merely an uncharged field, atheticized and disannulled—an antinomianism still, but one that gains the unlawed person no treats or hedonic bonuses, an antinomianism chaste and meager. Perhaps, Žižek writes, we should worry less about “suspending the explicit laws” and worry more about suspending “their implicit spectral obscene supplement.” A good politics wouldn’t produce a different obscenity; it would “simply have none.” The complication that emerges at this point is that Žižek’s name for this position, as rival to an ecstatic Christianity, is also Christianity, which is thereby made to occupy two competing slots on the Greimas square. Maybe Christianity is the religion of love-not-law, featuring a god who pals around with whores and compulsively turns all nonalcoholic liquids into wine. But then maybe radical Protestantism’s love-beyond-the-law will itself no longer feel much like love. The Quakers, after all, haven’t quaked for centuries. They sit in silence in spare rooms and address each other as “friends”—Lenten intimates and un-obscene compeers, forming a horizon of flat amity from which no-one rises to the level of lover.


Nine o’clock

-But then if the idea is now to cancel the obscene supplement, it is enough to consult the Greimas square to know that one further option remains conceptually available. This would be the square’s left extremity: the law that is fully law, law in its positivity, with no furtive link back to disobedience—a position that, though thinkable, is psychoanalytically disallowed, which makes it all the more surprising that Žižek has been willing both to entertain the option as a political goal and to propose a candidate as historical bearer of the project. Here’s the project: “The problem (today, even) is not how we are to supplement Law with true love (the authentic social link), but, on the contrary, how we are to accomplish the Law by getting rid of the pathological stain of love.” “Kant sans Sade,” he sometimes calls this idea, a figure we normally know as “Kant.” And here’s the bearer: “Jews assert the Law without superego.” The origins of Judaism lay in a “liberation from the obscene superego.” Israelite hyper-legalism—the stance of a cartoon Judaism that sticks myopically to the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit—brings into view the law in its pure form, without “the repressed desire to sin.” And with that we have the answer to the acrostic’s last unsolved clue. Once we speak the word “Judaism,” we can re-do Žižek’s square with all its proper names and historical specifications:

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This schema allows us to see, among other things, that Žižek’s turn to political theology hasn’t, in fact, been all that pious. He has been interested in Christianity and Judaism only because their various sects really have had rather different things to say about a person’s proper relationship to the law and so can, at the price of a certain brusqueness, be asked to stand in for the combinatory’s several positions. But anyone put off by his readings in the history of religion can at any point return to the square in its conceptual purity and ahistorical abstraction; there’s no reason you can’t put forward your own secular version of the square, provided you are willing to propose alternate, irreligious candidates to take the place of Žižek’s godly ones. One word of caution: The most difficult moment in that undertaking is always going to involve the slot that Žižek calls “Jewish,” which has to be occupied by a magical people without drive or libido, utopian Pharisees and virtuosi of repression, the ones who can ignore their desires and never pay the price.

An opportunity now arises: With the completed square in front of us, we can say at last where Žižek’s thinking is most stuck. The square’s simplicity strips away the endless ingenuity of Žižek’s page-long riffs and discloses instead the unsteadiness of his Lacanian structure—the problems it cannot solve and questions it cannot answer. What almost no-one has noticed, for one, is that Žižek has been distancing himself from Christianity over the past decade and shifting over instead to the positions that he calls Jewish. Granted: They’re probably only Jewish within his Lutheran and sock-puppety scheme. The way he uses “Judaism” as a shorthand for various law-loving positions might, indeed, irritate you, but before your annoyance propels you to stop reading, you might want to at least register that this Judaism, if a scarecrow, is a scarecrow that Žižek has begun to identify with. Here, reduced to their tags, are some of the positions he has been arguing of late: that we have to “assert the priority of the Jewish principle of just revenge/punishment”; that we must mount a defense of “rigorous Jewish justice”; that we must retrieve “the most precious and revolutionary aspect of the Jewish legacy”; that we must forgo the banalities of human rights talk for the non-negotiable severities of the Decalogue; and, again and again, that “we are all potentially homo sacer,” which, traced back to its source in Agamben, means “We are all potentially victims of the camps” and is thus an erudite, Romanizing update of an old radical street chant: “Nous sommes tous des Juifs allemands.” You might remember reading in the Book of Acts that the early Christians were communists—“all things were common property to them”; “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own”—and guessed on those grounds that Žižek’s drift to Leninist militancy was the simple extension of the month he spent reading Paul in the late ‘90s. Rhetorically, though, Žižek’s neo-Bolshevism is better understood as a break with his Protestantism, which turns out to have been cranky and fleeting, like those three Dylan albums that no-one ever listens to, though Zizek has never really announced his conversion, and it will take some cross-referencing to establish the point: In one book we read that ancient Judaism was “revolutionary” because it was willing to treat the law as a “pronouncement,” “something externally and violently imposed.” In another we read that the Left must “assume the task of a new ‘ordering’ against the global capitalist disorder”; capitalism is a non-regime of “permanent self-revolutionizing” and pointless innovation, against which we must “shamelessly enforce” a new law. Our communism will, in this sense, come from Sinai and not Galilee. Under the sign of Moses, revolution and counter-revolution become impossible to tell apart.

This particular argument of Žižek’s might, at first, seem a little startling, if only because it has rarely been appreciated how much of his corpus amounts to an ongoing Réflexion sur la question juive. But what is truly confounding is not this or that particular proposal of Žižek’s—not this or any other recommendation as to how we might best tackle the problem of enjoyment—but the sheer number of such recommendations. Žižek has lots of ideas about how we might get enjoyment right, and the effect of this fertile, brainstorming array of possibilities is to rob each individual suggestion of its plausibility and so to make the problem seem insoluble after all. False motion is the sign of the system’s stalling, its unremitting reasking of a question the possible answers to which never seem to stick. Žižek is hardly immune from the kettle logic he is quick to spot in others: —I didn’t break your law. –The law was broken when you gave it to me. –Law? What law? God doesn’t make laws. Pauline Christianity is likely to believe that Jesus “paid the price” or “fulfilled the law,” that he enabled God to show us mercy by suffering in our place, &c. It is in this sense entirely nomian and law-loving, suggesting as it does that it was beyond God’s power simply to repeal the law or to declare it void. Even a radical Protestantism thus preserves something of the law’s structure secreted inside itself, on the theory that Christ’s death keeps in permanent balance the scales of divine justice. Against this a more thorough-going antinomianism can argue that Jesus’ death was so brutal that there is nothing you and your piety can do to make it right again. You cannot say: Oh, I get itthis man was tortured and hung up to die, and I therefore promise not to have sex until I get married. That idea is, in fact, a little nutty, as though your prolonged virginity were in some sense equivalent to torture, as though the one could compensate for another. The best thing about Christianity is that it has at its center an act that was entirely cruel, because cruelty breaks the logic of the quid pro quo, which is the logic of the law or the contract or the bargain. But this notion of grace—which is the doctrine of the law’s gratuitousness and self-indicting excess—imposes the burden of endless thanksgiving, the acknowledgment day after day of an unpaid debt, which is to say a peonage: “Then for thy passion—I will do for that—Alas, my God, I know not what.” Calvinism, meanwhile, manages to suspend the law only by positing a sovereign god, a lord and father, whose authority cannot be checked even by his own commands; there is no law, it’s true, but only because God doesn’t have to honor any of the agreements you think you’ve made with Him. A Christian antinomianism, judged within a Lacanian frame, keeps cycling back to law and superego and Big Daddy. Žižek’s point all along has been that the concept of law doesn’t exhaust how the social order keeps a hold on us—that there is always something beyond law—and that this other thing, Enjoyment, necessarily approaches us as non-juridical beings, hence in the mode of bare life. Antinomianism might be the path to emancipation, but it is also the condition of both the sovereign and the homo sacer, those persons outside the law. So Žižek has gotten more hostile to Enjoyment over time. His asceticism has taken over. He has come to think of Judaism as a spiritual practice that can teach us how to follow the law without getting sucked into the obscene supplement. And he thinks the same thing about Kant—that Kant teaches us how to work upon ourselves, in a Lacanian spirit, so that we can identify moral law without Enjoyment getting in the way. And he thinks that Leninism was a Judeo-Kantian politics, before Stalinism took over and brought obscene enjoyment back into Communism. But there is still a very big problem. When he is attacking the theory of radical democracy put forth by some rival Lacanians, Žižek says that these others just don’t get it—that the negativity at the heart of democracy generates its own obscene supplement. Democracy prides itself on being ideologically thin, which means conceptually and libidinally thin, minimally mystified. A proper democracy will be entirely procedural or formal; it won’t tell anybody what to think or feel or want. But this means that democracy cedes enjoyment, the libido, &c to the Right, to which it is then attached in a historically determinate structure: an erotically thin democracy will always go hand in hand with erotically charged challenges from the Right. You can say in advance that they have to go together; you can’t have the first without the second. That’s what he means when he says that the last generation’s new nationalisms and new fundamentalisms have been part and parcel of democracy and the center-Left: Obscene enjoyment “is the obverse, the fantasmatic supplement, of democracy itself.”  It is on this point that Zizek is, in fact, closest to Wilhelm Reich. But then one has to wonder: How is his notion of a Judaic communism of the Law exempt from this same critique? What happens to Enjoyment under Judaism or Kantianism or Leninism? We’re really back to basics. Psychoanalysis tells us that the libido never just goes away; you can’t tell it to leave and you can’t tell it to heel. So why would Jews and Communists be exempt from this? Why would they and they alone have beaten Donkey Kong? If consumer capitalism is the Regime of Obscene Enjoyment that a justice-loving Communism is offering to repress, then won’t capitalism just take on the status of the Real or the drive, especially for the many of us who will possess pre-revolutionary memories of such a thing—won’t a successfully suppressed capitalism just become the market unconscious, the consumer underground, the shop-till-you-drop-and-all-you-can-eat-and-our-doors-never-close? So here are my two questions for Žižek, which I’m hoping someone will put to him the next time he is near a mike: First, are we meant to pursue a politics beyond obscenity or is the idea to make obscenity itself do the work of justice, and if the latter, in what sense would this obscenity still be obscene? Second, and perhaps more pressingly: How do Jews get their kicks? I know, I know: That question lies at the center of Žižek’s entire conked-out system, and it still sounds like a joke.

(My thanks to Jason Josephson, Anita Sokolsky, Ali Mctar, and my fellow readers of Zizek in ENGL 456.)


Zizek’s method



•2. Žižek’s Method


Žižek is above all a Gothic writer, and the admirers who approach him as though he were Louis CK or Reggie Watts are thus falling into a kind of category error. They’ve got the genre wrong, like the people who go to slasher movies and chortle every time the knife comes out. A Gothic writer: It’s not just that Žižek publishes on the kind of accelerated schedule that we more typically associate with pulp fiction or even comic books, though some still unfriendly readers could probably reconcile themselves to his industrial tempo if they began thinking of The Monstrosity of Christ and First as Tragedy not as free-standing volumes, nor even properly as books, but simply as the latest issues in a long-running title—a single year’s worth of Slavoj Žižek’s Adventures into Weird Worlds. The first-order evidence for Žižek’s Gothicism—the cues and triggers that invite us to read his writing as a kind of Gruselphilosophie—are not hard to find: the frequent encomia to Stephen King, to whom even his beloved Hitchcock is finally assimilated; a tendency to explicate Lacan by summarizing the plots of scary movies; a persistent concern with trauma, cataclysm, and grief. Psychoanalysis’s most fundamental insight, he writes, is that “at any moment, the most common everyday conversation, the most ordinary event can take a dangerous turn, damage can be caused that cannot be undone.” So, yes, Žižek is a magnetic and slobber-voiced goof; he is also the theorist of your life where it is going to be worst, the implacable prognosticator of your distress.

But even once we’ve spotted the jack-o-lantern that Žižek never takes off his porch, it is going to be hard to know what to do with it or how to reckon its consequences. What, after all, does it mean to say that a given philosopher is a kind of horror writer? You might be wondering, for instance, if there is a philosophical argument attached to all of Žižek’s horror-talk. It would be possible at this point to survey the philosophy canon and compile a list of concepts or excerptable positions establishing European thought’s many different accounts of terror, trepidation, and unease. Indeed, for the philosophy graduate student, the language’s fine discriminations between panic’s various grades and modes come as it were with the names of Great Thinkers already attached: Hobbesean fear, Kierkegaardian dread, Freudian Unheimlichkeit, the angst, anxiety, or anguish of your preferred existentialist. And there is nothing stopping you from reading Žižek in this manner and so walking away with yet another philosopheme, in which case you might decide that Žižek is a fairly conventional theorist of the spooky-sublime, like so: All language involves a doubling; whenever we name something, we fashion a doppelganger for it. I open my mouth, and where before there was one thing, the object, there are now two, the object and its name, and if I’m thinking clearly I need to be able to distinguish rigorously between the word “table” and the touchable, breakable, enduring-decaying, eighteenth-century Connecticut batten door upon which I am now typing. Žižek takes the position that language thus severed from its referents is always on the side of fiction, fantasy, and ideology. You can only be sure that you are in the presence of something real if this kind of doubling hasn’t taken place, if, in other words, the object hasn’t been surrounded by verbal shadows of itself. If you can talk about something, then it is by definition untrue; it has already been translated into a kind of derealized chatter. And if it’s true, or if it’s Real—because that’s the philosopheme you are about to pocket: the Real—then you can’t talk about it or can’t talk about it lucidly and coherently. But in that case, the only things that get to count as Real are the things that resist being named—those enormities that daunt our congenital glibness—which is to say the worst things: the torsions, the tearings, the ugliest breaks. Nearly everything can get sucked into the order of language, but some few things can’t. What remains is what’s real: the unspeakable.

But perhaps this too-fluid summary is beside the point. For to call Žižek a Gothic writer is finally to say less about the substance of his arguments than about his way of making those arguments—his philosophical style or Darstellung. It is one thing, I mean, to point out that Žižek gives an account of fear, which we could reflect on and debate at the seminar table and then agree with or not. It is another, rather more interesting thing to observe that Žižek is trying to scare you—not just to explain the uncanny to you, but to raise its pimples in your armflesh: “What unites us is that, in contrast to the classic image of proletariat who have ‘nothing to lose but their chains,’ we are in danger of losing everything.” Critical theory, of course, has always been readable as a mode of Gothic writing, just another subgenre of the dark-fantastic, with Freudianism and Foucauldianism assuming their place on the bookshelf alongside vampire novels and chronicles of crewless ghost ships and other such stories of the damned. Marx describes the commodity as “phantom-like” and calls capital a bloodsucker and attributes to it a “werewolf-hot-hunger.” Freud makes of psychoanalysis a sort of ghost story and instructs his followers to conduct therapy as though it were a séance or an exorcism—a making-the-spirits-walk. In German, the other name for the unconscious is not reassuringly distanced and Latinate, but bluntly, forbiddingly vernacular. The Ego, this is to say, does not share our person with the Id—that’s not how Freud puts it. Das Ich is chained to das Es,the Me” to “the It,” or, if you like, to It. Walter Benjamin, meanwhile, asks us to declare our solidarity with the dead. Adorno requires that you take a shard in the eye. Foucault recasts Left Weberianism as a paranoid thriller, a story about imprisonment and surveillance and the impossibility of outrunning power. Critical theory, this is all to say, needs to be read not only as a teaching or a storehouse of oppositional arguments, but also as a historically inventive crossbreeding of philosophy and genre fiction. The Frankfurt School Reader is, in that sense, one of the twentieth century’s great horror anthologies. If we now insert Žižek into this philosophical-literary timeline, we should feel less awkward naming some of his writing’s schlockier conventions: his direct emotional appeals to the reader; his sudden juxtapositions of opposed argumentative positions, which recall less the patient extrapolations of the dialectic than they do the jump cuts of summer-camp massacre movies; his pervasive intermingling of high and low, which marks Žižek’s arguments as postmodern productions in their own right, against which the genre experiments of Freud or Benjamin will seem, in retrospect, downright Jamesian and understated and belletristic. Das Ding an sich is just about hearable as the name of a B-movie: The Thing In Itself!

But this isn’t yet to say enough. I want you to agree that the Gothic in Žižek is something more than a reasoned-through philosophical position, offered to the reader to adopt as creed or mantra. But it is also something more than a sinister rhetoric or set of literary conventions—more than a palette of gruesome flourishes borrowed from the horror classics. In Žižek’s writing, the Gothic attains the status of a method. This will need to be explained, but it’s worth it: It is a tenet of Lacanianism that things in the world have trouble cohering or maintaining their integrity; this is true of persons, but it is every bit as true of institutions or, indeed, of entire social fields. One of the great Lacanian pastimes is thus to scan a person or a piece of writing or a historical-political scene for evidence of its (her, his) fragmentation or disintegration. To the bit of Sartrean wisdom that says that all identity is performance, the Lacanians add a qualifier: All identity is failed performance, in which case it is our task to stay on the lookout for a person’s protrusions and tells and prostheses, the incongruous features that seemingly put-together persons have not been able to absorb into their specious unity. In what specifiable ways are you least like you claim to be? Where is your Adam’s apple, because it’s probably not on your neck? Now once you get good at asking such questions of people, the challenge will be to figure out how to ask them again of the systems in which people reside. The Real—whatever lies menacingly outside of discourse—can take several different forms: Most obviously, it can name external trauma: assaults upon your person, the bullet in your belly, your harrowing. But it might also name your own disgusting desires, the ones you are least willing to own. Or it might name the totality (of empire, say, or global capitalism). Any concept that we form of the totality is going to be a reification, of course, something theorized, which is to say linguistically devised or even in some sense made up. But the totality-as-such, as distinct from this or that concept of totality, will persist as an unknowable limit to our efforts. It will be, to revise an old phrase, a structure palpable only in its effects, with the key proviso now being that the only effects that matter are the unpleasant ones: a structure palpable only in its humiliations. The world system is the shark in the water. Again, the Real might name a given social order’s fundamental antagonisms—the conflicts that are so basic to a set of institutions that no-one participating in those institutions can stand outside them. Or the Real might name the ungroundedness of those institutions and of our personae, their tenuous anchoring in free choices and changeable practices. So if you want to write political commentary in the style of Žižek, you really only need to do two things: 1) You scan the social scene that interests you in order to identify some absurd element within it, something that by official lights should not be in the room. Political Lacanianism in practice tends to be one big game of “Which one doesn’t belong?” or “One of these things is not like the others.” And 2) You figure out how this incongruity is an index of the Real in any of those varied senses: trauma, the drive, the totality, antagonism, or the void. You describe, in other words, how the Unspeakable is introducing anomalies and distortions into a sphere otherwise governed by speech.

So that’s one version of Žižek’s Gothic method. There are thus three distinct claims we’ll need to be able to tell apart. We can say, first, that Žižek likes to read Gothic fiction and also the eerier reaches of science fiction—and that’s true, though he precisely does not read them the way a literary critic would. It has always been one of the more idiosyncratic features of Žižek’s thought that he is willing to proclaim Pet Sematary a vehicle of genuine analytic insight or to see in horror stories more broadly a spontaneous and vernacular Lacanianism, in much the same way that old-fashioned moral philosophers used to think of Christianity as Kantianism for people without PhDs. To this observation we can easily add a second: that Žižek himself often reads as though he were writing speculative fiction, as in: You are not an upstanding member of society who dreams on occasion that he is a murderer, you are a murderer who dreams every night that he is an upstanding member of society—though keep reading in Žižek and you’ll also find: torture chambers, rape, “strange vibrating noises.” And yet if we’re taking Žižek at his word, then the point is not just to read Gothic novels, nor yet to write them. We must cultivate in ourselves, rather, a determination to read pretty much everything as Gothic. Once we’ve concluded that horror fiction offers a more accurate way of describing the world than do realist novels—that it is the better realism, a literature of the Real—then the only way to defend this insight will be to read the very world as horror show. It will no longer be enough to read Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson. The Gothic hops the border and becomes a hermeneutics rather than a genre. Anything—any poem, painting, person, or polity—will, if snuck up upon from the right angle, disclose to you its bony grimace.

This approach should help us further specify Žižek’s place on the philosophical scene. It is often complained that Hegelian thinkers—Adorno, Wallerstein, Jameson—subdue their interlocutors not by proving their arguments false but precisely by agreeing with them. Going up against a Hegelian, you find yourself less refuted than outflanked—absorbed, reduced, assigned some cramped nook in the dialectical apparatus. That’s a point we can now extend to Žižek, in whose writing the Gothic gets weaponized in precisely this Hegelian way. Horror becomes a device, a move, a way of transforming other people’s arguments. When Žižek engages in polemic with some peer, his usual tack is not to controvert his adversary’s arguments, but rather to improvise an eerie riff upon them, to re-state his opponent’s claims in their most unsettling register. You can call this the dialectic, but you might also call it pestilence. Žižek infects his rivals with Lacan and forces them to speak macabre versions of their core positions: undead Heidegger, undead Badiou, undead Judith Butler.

Three of these fiends we will want to single out:

Žižek summons zombie Deleuze. It is often remarked that critical theory in the new century has taken a vitalist turn. The trials-by-epistemology that were the day-to-day business of the long post-structuralist generation have given way to the endless policing of ontologies. Graduate students accuse each other of possessing the wrong cosmology or of performing their obeisance to the object with insufficient fervor. Deleuze and Guattarí can be corrected only by those proposing counter-ontologies. Claims get to be right because Bergson made them. You are scared to admit that you wrote your whole first book without having read Spinoza. Nietzsche is still quotable, but only where he is most ebullient and alpine. You ask which description of the stars, if recited consequently to its last rhyme, will reform the banking system and unmelt the ice caps. Klassenkampf seems less interesting than theomachia. What is less often remarked is that vitalism has only returned to the fore by consenting to a major modification—a fundamental change in its program and priorities—only, that is, by agreeing not to grant precedence to those things we used to call “living.” The achievement of the various neo-vitalisms has been to extend the idiom of the old Lebensphilosophie—its egalitarian cosmos of widely shared powers, its emphasis on mutation and metamorphosis—to entire categories of object that vitalists used to think of themselves as opposing: the inanimate, the inorganic, and the dead. It is in this sense misleading to call Deleuze a Spinozist without immediately noting that his Spinoza has been routed through La Mettrie and the various Industrial Revolutions and the Futurists, which makes of schizoanalysis less a vitalism than a profound updating of the same, such that it no longer has to exclude the machine—a techno-vitalism, then, for which engines are the better organisms, and which takes as its unnamed material prompts epochal innovations in the history of capitalism itself: the emergence of the late twentieth century’s animate industrialisms, flexible manufacturing and biotech, production producing and production produced.

So that’s one vitalism of the unliving, but there are others. Jane Bennett claims for her ontology the authority of her great lebensphilosophische forebears—Spinoza, Bergson, Hans Driesch, Bakhtin—and yet calls matter “vibrant” rather than “vital,” because she wants her list of things living and lifelike to include national electricity grids and the litter thrown from the windows of passing cars. Bennett is trying to imagine a United States that has become in a few key respects more like Japan—an America in which Midwesterners, possessed by an “irrational love of matter,” hold funeral services for their broken DVD players and pay priests to bounce adzuki beans from off the hoods of newly purchased trucks. The phrase “vibrant matter” might hearken back to William Blake’s infinite-in-everything, but Bennett uses it mostly to refer to the consumables and disposables of advanced capitalist societies: to enchanted rubbish dumps and copper tubing and other such late-industrial yōkai. The task, again, is to figure out how to be a vitalist on a planet without nature—a pantheist of the anaerobic or Spinoza for the Anthropocene. Bennett herself says that what interests her is above all the “variability” and “creativity” of “inorganic matter.”  In that context, the achievement of the adjective “vibrant” is to recall the word “vital” without entailing it: not alive, merely pulsating; not vitalist, but vitalish.

What we can now say about Žižek is that he offers his own, rather different way of dialectically revising the older vitalisms. His point is that most people already happen upon the cosmic life force—in their everyday lives and without special philosophical tutoring—and that such encounters are, on balance, terrifying. The élan vital is not your iPod’s morning workout mix; nor is it some metaphysical energy drink. It is the demiurge that makes of you “a link in the chain you serve against your will”—the formulation is Freud’s—“a mere appendage of your germ-plasm,” not life’s theorist and apostle, but its stooge and discardable instrument. Psychoanalysis is the school that takes as its starting point the repugnance that we properly feel towards life—a vitalism still, but one with all the judgments reversed, a necrovitalism, in which bios takes on the attributes that common sense more typically associates with death, its nullity, above all, and its blind stupidity. One of Žižek’s favorite ways of making this point is by reminding you of how you felt when you first saw Ridley Scott’s Alien—movie of cave-wombs and booby-trapped eggs, of male pregnancies and forced blow jobs, which ends when the undressed woman finally lures from his hidey-hole the giant penis monster, the adult alien with the taut, glossy head of an erection. But we might also think of the matter this way: In the early 1950s, Wilhelm Reich—the magus of western Maine, Paracelsus in a lab coat, the ex-Freudian who thought he could capture the cosmic life force in shoeboxes and telephone booths—organized something he called the Oranur Experiment. Reich had by that point begun styling himself the counter-Einstein, foil and counterweight to the Nobel Laureate of Dead Cities, dedicated to building the nuclear age’s new and sorely needed weapons of life. He had to this end procured a single needle of radium; the idea was that he would introduce this shaving of Nagasaki into a room supercharged with élan vital so that he could observe the cosmic forces of death and the cosmic forces of life fighting it out under laboratory conditions. It did not go as he’d planned. Reich panicked when he discovered, not just that the radium was in some sense stronger, but that the radioactivity had contaminated and rendered malevolent the compound’s orgone. The cosmic life force hadn’t been obliterated; it had been turned, made sinister, recruited over to do the work of death. Žižek, we might say, is the theorist of this toxic vitality; the one who thinks that orgone was bad to begin with; the philosopher of rampant and metastatic life.


Žižek summons zombie Levinas. It might be more precise to say that Žižek summons the zombie Other or the Neighbor-Wight. Either way, poring over Žižek’s response to Levinas is your best chance at learning how to replicate his achievement—how, that is, to turn philosophers you dislike into your reanimated thralls. Derrida delivers the funeral oration; Žižek returns with a shovel later that night. The spell you will read from the Lacanian grimoire has three parts:

-First, you seek out the moment in your rival’s system where his thinking is already at its creepiest. Chapbook summaries of Levinas often make him sound like a fairly conventional European moral philosopher, as though he hadn’t done anything more than cut a new path, dottering and roundabout, back to the old Kantian positions about the dignity and autonomy of other people. It is easy, I mean, to make Levinas sound inoffensive and dutiful. The wise man’s hand silently cups the chin of a stranger. It will be important to insist, then, that ethics-as-first-philosophy harbors its proper share of sublimity or even of something akin to dread. We know that Levinas’s first step was to adjust Husserl’s doctrine of intentionality: So consciousness is always consciousness of something—sure enough. And all thinking is directed outward; it cannot not refer—granted. But intention, even as it fans away from me in a wide, curving band, will meet obstacles or opacities, and it is by fixing our attention on these stains in the phenomenological field that Levinas develops what he himself calls “a philosophy of the enigma”—a kind of anti-phenomenology in which thinking begins anew by giving priority to what does not appear and in which it falls to me to sustain and shepherd this strangeness I have just discovered in the Not-I. This is a program whose uncanny and un-Kantian qualities we could restore only if we agreed to set aside Levinas’s own undarnably worn-out language—alterity, the Other, otherness—and to put “the Alien” in its stead: an ethics of the Alien would ask us to look upon the face of the Alien so that we can better understand the tasks of being-for-the-Alien. For current purposes, what we’ll want to keep in mind is that Žižek has no beef with this Levinas. He agrees after a fashion with the doctrines of alterity and can easily translate their claims about the obscurity of other people into Lacanian observations about the modes of appearance of the Real. But again, it’s not the argument that matters; it’s the method: Žižek has to find at least one point of agreement with Levinas, because that’s how the zombie hex gains access to its mark.

-So that’s the first step. You make a point of agreeing with your rival by finding that one argument of his that is already pretty occult. The next step, then, is to show how he nonetheless runs away from the creepiness he has conjured. Žižek’s complaint against Levinas is easily summarized. He thinks that the ethics of alterity, far from demanding difficult encounters with other people, encourages me to keep my relationship to others within strict bounds—to delimit, attenuate, and finally dull such encounters. Totality and Infinity is the handbook for stage-managing a counterfeit otherness, as a moment’s reflection on two of the words we most associate with Levinas should suffice to show. Who, after all, are the people who routinely allow themselves to be “caressed”? A Levinasian ethics takes as its paradigmatic others people with cheeks at the ready: lovers and children and hospice patients. The attitude it means to cultivate in us is accordingly amorous or avuncular or perhaps candy-striping. The moral person is the one in a position to dandle and cosset. The language of “the Neighbor,” meanwhile, forfeits even the slight provocations of the word “Other,” making strangers proximate again, returning outlanders to their position of adjacency. Neighbors aren’t the ones who draw out of you your hitherto unsuspected capacities for righteousness. They are the ones-to-whom-you-loan-cordless-drills, the ones-who-could-afford-to-buy-on-your-block. Psychoanalysis, then, is where Žižek would have us look for a philosophical program that does not housebreak the Other in this way, though the phenomenologists, if they are to follow him there, will have to agree to reinstate the entire, outmoded metaphysics of appearance v. essence, since those who go into analysis are consenting to set aside public facades and facile self-perceptions and are learning instead to speak the secret language of hidden things. The more-than-Levinasian task, at any rate, would be to find a way to live alongside that person, the person whose unspoken desires you would doubtless find ugly. Other people would terrify you if you knew them well—that is the most remorseless, Freudian plain speech—and it is in the dying light of that claim that Levinas’s thinking looks suspiciously like an excuse not to know them. A psychoanalytically robust account of Otherness would therefore have to reintroduce you to the people next door, that “inhuman” family with whom you now share a hedge, where by inhuman Žižek means “irrational, radically evil, capricious, revolting, disgusting.” Can you hew to the ethics of neighborliness even when a vampire buys the bungalow across the street? Are you willing to caress not just an unfamiliar face but a moldering one? Methodologically, the point we will not want to miss is that Levinas now stands accused on his own terms of having replaced the Alien with the Other, of having persuaded you to stuff your ears against your neighbors’ shenanigans, of having evinced once again what he himself once called the “horror of the Other which remains Other.” We put up with other people as long as they put up a face. And here, finally, is the portable technique, which you can bring to bear against any theorist and not just against the radical ethicists: When you read a rival philosopher, you will want to take whatever creepy argument he already proposes and find a way to make it a whole lot creepier. That will be your chance to conduct a kind of body swap, to replace the philosopher with a more consequently unpleasant version of himself.

-So that’s the second step. Step three is: You welcome your rival into the army of the dead, making sure that he realizes that he is just one monster among many such. Here’s where the hoodoo gets tricky. A Levinasian ethics presents itself to us as intimate, a thought nestled between two terms, Me and the Other, where the latter means “the neighbor and his mug at strokable distance.” And yet the term “Other” is incapable of this kind of grazing approach; it is barred in its very constitution from ever rubbing noses with us. For the word indicates no particular second person but only the anonymous and shrouded Autrui. If I speak only of “the Other,” with no further specification, I could be referring to anyone but me. The concept produces no further criterion and calls no-one by name. Behind its sham-individuation there thus lurks the mathematical sublimity of the crowd, impersonal and planet-filling. At this point you have two options: You can decide that the ethics of alterity is ineffectual because self-consuming in this fashion, claiming to preserve the irreducible strangeness of the other while in fact washing such peculiarities away in a bath of equal and undifferentiated otherness. The philosophical system’s organizing term is, as ever, what betrays it. Alternately, you can decide that a Levinasian ethics can survive only by generalizing itself, by accepting its own faceless abstraction as a prompt and so by agreeing to become categorical. If we follow this second route, we will have to say without blushing that Levinas’s thought as it has come down to us was already characterized by a pressure, irregularly heeded, to all-but-universalize. The term Other directs my moral concern recklessly in all directions, sponsoring a universalism to which I am the only exception—a humanism minus one.

But then it should be easy to add the subtracted one back in. It should be easy, I mean, to get the Me to takes its place among those many indistinct others and thereby to make Levinas’s universalism complete. It will be enough, in fact, to call to mind the basic dialectical idea that we do not cognize objects singly, but only relationally or in constellations. This means, among many other things, that the Me and the Other strictly imply one another. If my action in the world didn’t reach a certain limit, if I didn’t routinely knock into other objects and persons, if these latter didn’t reliably humble me, then I wouldn’t even have a sense of myself as a Me, which is to say as something that does not, in fact, coincide with the world. But then the Other and the Me are not fixed positions; they are conceptually unstable and even in some sense interchangeable. I can obviously switch places with the other; I am other to the Other, who, in turn, is a Me in her own right. As soon as I concede this, I have discovered my own alien-ness. Second, and as an intensification of these Hegelian reciprocity games, we can collapse the two terms into a single formation: not the Me and the Other, but the Other-Me or the self as foreign element. This can be managed a few different ways. My experience of becoming—of my own changeability—renders me other to myself, reconstructing the ego as watercourse or Heraclitean series. I do not shake the Other’s hand as though I didn’t know what it was like to be a stranger. But we can also travel a more direct psychoanalytic path to the same insight, simply by noting that I am not transparent to myself, not in charge of my own person, that my own desires and motives are basically incomprehensible to me—that, indeed, I am just another dimness or demonic riddle.

And with that, the terms generated by Levinas’s philosophy mutate beyond recognition. This, in case you missed it, is the culminating step in Žižek’s method: If when reading philosopher X, you hold fast to what is most Gothic in X’s thinking—if you generalize its monstrosities and don’t exempt yourself from them, if you promote Unwesen to the position of Wesen—then other core features of X’s system will break and buckle and shift, until it no longer really looks any more like X’s thinking. To stay with Levinas: The ethics of alterity rotates around a single inviolable prohibition—that I not conclude that all egos are more or less the same; that I not propose a theory of subjectivity that would hold equally for all people; that I not stipulate as the precondition of my welcoming another person that he or she be like me. But if the terms “self” and “other” cannot be maintained in their separateness—and they can’t—then this injunction will be lifted, and Žižek can improvise in its stead a paradoxical argument in which alterity becomes the vehicle of our similarity, in which I realize I am like others in their very otherness, in which the Hegelian homecoming comes to pass after all, but on the terrain of alienation and not of the self, in which what establishes our identity is not some human substance, but our inevitable distance from such substance—which distance, we, however, share. There thus arises the possibility that I will identify with the Alien, not in his humanity, but in his very monstrosity, as long as I have come to the conclusion first that the world’s most obviously damaged people only make public the inhumanity that is our common portion and my own clandestine ferment. And out of such acts of identification—and not of pity or tolerance or aid—Žižek would build, in the place of Levinas’s philosophy à deux, a global alien host or legion of the damned. Radicalize what is creepiest in your rival, in other words, and then make it universal. This brings us to Episode Number Three, in media res, as they say: already in progress…

Levinas zombie

Žižek summons the zombie multitude. I want to point out two more instances of this horror-movie universalism—two more cases, that is, in which Žižek takes one of radical thought’s settled positions and contagiously expands its orbit. What you’ll want to pay attention to is how each position leads to the same conceptual destination, which is the undead horde—Levinas has just led to the horde; and now Rancière will lead to the horde, and then Agamben will, too, like characters in a Lucio Fulci movie getting picked off at twenty-minute intervals. The horde: We’ll want to consider the possibility now that the cadaver-thronged parking lot is a post-political society’s last remaining image of the unmediated collectivity, the term that, having driven from consciousness the gatherings and aggregates posited by classical political philosophy—the assembly, the demos, the populo, the revolutionary crowd—must now be asked to absorb into itself the indispensable political energies we used to expect from these latter. Can we get the walking dead to mill about the barricades?—that is another of Žižek’s driving questions. Will they know to throw rocks?

One path to the horde begins with Rancière’s idea that politics proper belongs to “the part that has no part”—which is the philosopher’s oxymoronic term for the disenfranchised, those who are important to the system’s functioning but who don’t in the usual sense count, who don’t get to take part and who have no party. Rancière’s claim—and sometimes Žižek’s, too—is that only the agitations of such people (refugees, guest workers, the undocumented) so much as deserve to be called “politics,” because it is only at a system’s roiled margins that basic questions about a polity can be raised, questions, that is, about its scope and constitution. Anything that happens in the ordinary course of government takes the state’s functioning for granted and so isn’t really about the polis—is not, in that sense, “political.” On the face of it, this is a terrible idea. Rancière’s position is anti-constitutional and anti-utopian and indeed committed to failure. My actions only get to count as political provided the state does not recognize me, and as soon as I succeed in convincing someone in power to look me in the eye or indeed to act on my behalf, I cede my claim to be a political actor and become just another pawn of policy makers and the police. There is, in this sense, no such thing as getting the state right; every political breakthrough is actually a setback. To frame your program in terms of “the part that has no part” is to show contempt for those parts-with-parts, absolutely any parts, even though some of these portions will be quite meager. This has made Rancière ill-equipped to talk about what we might call the part that has little part: the native-born working classes, the rural poor, the jobless, the ineffectually enfranchised.

So can Rancière’s thinking be Gothically universalized? It is one of the more attractive features of Žižek’s thinking that he corrects Rancière at just this point and in just this fashion, insisting on the instability of the conceptual pair around which the politics of parts usually turns, inclusion-exclusion, as in: Politics is only ever out there; here there is only administration. That last sentence turns out to be untenable, for even the part that has no-part is not simply excluded. It is one of radical thought’s lazier habits to treat the word “margins” as though it meant the outside when it fact it means the space just inside the door, the page’s extremity and not the empty air that surrounds the lifted book. More: Even the word “exclusion” never refers to simple separation or distance. You have to have had some contact with a system for me to be able to say that you are excluded from it; the very concept depends on some thread or temporary node of connection. The gauchos of the Uruguayan plains may not be represented in the Danish Folketing, but they aren’t excluded from it either. “Exclusion” contains the idea of “inclusion” within itself and is not the latter’s simple opposite. Genuine apartness would require a different concept. This observation will allow Žižek to fold the old proletariat back into the category of the part that has no part. Working people and refugees are actually in similar positions of inclusion/exclusion: the grinding, mutilating condition of being swept up in a system whose inner workings nonetheless seem closed off and impossible to fathom.

One way to think about what Žižek is doing here would be to say that he is trying, within the terms dictated by contemporary European philosophy, to get us to shake off our gauchiste habit, picked up over the social democrat decades, of seeing European workers as basically First World and coddled and deleteriously white. He wants to help us retrieve “a more radical notion of the proletarian”—where more radical means not “more militant,” at least not in the first instance, but merely “more abject.” If I say now that the doctrine of we-all-are-refugees might hold the key to the emergence of a new proletariat, you might object, mildly, that this new proletariat sounds a lot like the old one—the really old one, the one that didn’t yet drive oversized Buicks, the working class stump-armed and black-lunged and blind. There is something new, however, about Žižek’s version of the wretched ones, which is that he’s pretty sure that they include us, the people who actually read his books, the people who know who Žižek is: the second-year university students, the middle-aged art historians, the underemployed web designers, the gap-year backpackers. “Today, we are all potentially homo sacer”—and then that’s a second, unusually clear instance of his Gothic universalism right there, now keyed to Agamben, who, once whammied, will produce an image of the concentration camp victim as Everyman or bare life as Ordinary Joe. To be a new-model proletarian is simply to know that your life, if not yet ghastly, is nonetheless exposed and insecure—wholly vincible. In place of Hardt and Negri’s squatters and street-partiers and Glo-Stick communards, Žižek means to fill the streets with a multitude less than human. It might take a minute for this idea to sink in. The new proletariat will be built out of homines sacri.  Žižek’s thrilling and preposterous idea is that having failed to organize fast-food chains or big-box retail, we might yet organize ourselves on the basis of la vita nuda—that the Musselmänner might form a union and yet remain Musselmänner, that those who have lost even the instincts of self-preservation, who have stopped swatting the flies that lay eggs in their open sores, might be made to see the point of collective bargaining.

It has become almost obligatory over the past decade to argue that fear lives on the Right, that terror is a means of social control, that one could defeat Al Qaeda and the Patriot Act at once if only one would resolve to be unafraid, if only we could make ourselves okay with not being safe. It is against the Left machismo of those arguments, so many rehashings of the old Spinozist idea that “fear makes us womanish,” that Žižek’s accomplishment over the last decade can be measured, as he has set about to reclaim terror as one possible platform for emancipation and revolutionary equality, to help us imagine a communism for the screamers and the tearful and the scared. Not that Žižek is offering to make you any less frightened. He will not give you refuge or grab your hand or quietly sing nonsense lyrics into your ear. A politics of militant fear does not begin by offering solace. Quite the contrary: Our task will be to communicate fear and to amplify it. You have a few different options as to how you might go about this. You can issue reasoned admonitions, explain to us soberly about the threats and the thresholds and the no-going-back: two degrees Celsius, go ahead tell us again. Or you can make us feel your own foreboding, as also the grief that is fear’s come-true aftermath: Show us the photographs of Katrina graffiti—“Destroy this memory,” one picture records, in white paint on a flooded brick house, in good, teacherly cursive, no less. But it has been left to Žižek to propose a radically darkened politics, a politics that, no longer content to protest the ongoing catastrophe, has taken the disaster into itself and begun to root for ruin. We are the ones they were supposed to be afraid of. In George Romero’s Land of the Dead, the zombies are for once oddly purposeful, these animate corpses with faces torn into tragic masks, whose first, returning memories are of what it was like once to work and when not working march. You are probably already hurting. A just politics is going to hurt a whole lot worse.

Land of the Dead


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.