Žižek in 2008
|Full name||Slavoj Žižek|
|Born||21 March 1949 (1949-03-21)
Ljubljana, PR Slovenia, FPR Yugoslavia
|Era||20th- / 21st-century philosophy|
|Region||Western Philosophy Psychoanalysis|
|School||Hegelianism · Psychoanalysis · Marxism|
|Main interests||Ontology · Film theory · Psychoanalysis · Ideology · Theology · Marxism|
Slavoj Žižek (pronounced [ˈslavoj ˈʒiʒɛk]; born 21 March 1949) is a Slovenian continental philosopher and critical theorist working in the traditions of Hegelianism, Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis. He has made contributions to political theory, film theory, and theoretical psychoanalysis.
Žižek is a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia and a professor at the European Graduate School. He has been a visiting professor at, among others, the University of Chicago, Columbia, London Consortium, Princeton, The New School, the University of Minnesota, the University of California, Irvine and the University of Michigan. He is currently the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London and president of the Society for Theoretical Psychoanalysis, Ljubljana.
Žižek uses examples from popular culture to explain the theory of Jacques Lacan and uses Lacanian psychoanalysis, Hegelian philosophy and Marxist politico-economic critique to interpret social phenomena. He writes on many topics including subjectivity, ideology, capitalism, fundamentalism, racism, tolerance, multiculturalism, human rights, ecology, globalization, the Iraq War, revolution, utopianism, totalitarianism, postmodernism, popular culture, opera, cinema, political theology, and religion.
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Zižek was born in Ljubljana, PR Slovenia, FPR Yugoslavia to a middle-class family. His father was a civil servant from the region of Prekmurje in eastern Slovenia, his mother was a native of the Brda region in the Slovenian Littoral. He spent most of his childhood in the coastal town of Portorož. The family moved back to Ljubljana when Slavoj was a teenager. He attended the prestigious Bežigrad High School. In 1967, he enrolled at the University of Ljubljana, where he studied philosophy and sociology. He received a Doctor of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Ljubljana and studied psychoanalysis at the University of Paris VIII with Jacques-Alain Miller and François Regnault.
Žižek's early career was hampered by the political environment of 1970s Yugoslavia. He started his studies in an era of relative liberalization of the Communist regime. He frequented the circles of dissident intellectuals, including the Heideggerian philosophers Tine Hribar and Ivo Urbančič, and published articles in alternative magazines, such as Praxis, Tribuna and Problemi, of which he was also an editor. In 1971 he was given employment at the University of Ljubljana as an assistant researcher with the promise of tenure. In 1973, after Tito and Stane Dolanc removed the reformist Slovenian leadership and the regime's policies toughened again, he was dismissed after his Master's thesis was explicitly accused of being "non-Marxist". He spent the next few years undertaking national service in the Yugoslav army in Karlovac.
After four years of unemployment, Žižek gained a job as a recording clerk at the Slovenian Marxist Center. At the same time, he became involved with a group of Slovene scholars, among whom were Mladen Dolar, Alenka Zupančič and Rastko Močnik, whose theoretical focus was on the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. In 1979, he was hired as a researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the University of Ljubljana with the help of philosopher Ivan Urbančič.
Žižek was member of the Communist Party of Slovenia until October 1988, when he quit in protest against the JBTZ-trial together with 32 other Slovenian public intellectuals. Between 1988 and 1990, he was actively involved in several political and civil society movements which fought for the democratization of Slovenia, most notably the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights. In the first free elections in 1990, he ran as candidate for Presidency of the Republic of Slovenia (an auxiliary institution abolished in the constitution of 1991) for the Liberal Democratic Party. In a 2008 interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! he described himself as a "communist in a qualified sense."
It was not until the 1989 publication of his first book written in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, that Žižek achieved international recognition as a social theorist. Since then, he has continued to develop his status as a confrontational intellectual. One of Žižek's most-widely discussed books, The Ticklish Subject (1999), explicitly positions itself against Deconstructionists, Heideggerians, Habermasians, cognitive scientists, and what Žižek describes as New Age "obscurantists".
One of the problems in outlining Žižek's work and ideas is that he seems to change his theoretical position (for instance, on the question of whether Lacan is a structuralist or poststructuralist) between books and sometimes even within the pages of one book. Because of this, some of his critics have accused him of inconsistency and lacking intellectual rigor. However, Ian Parker claims that there is no "Žižekian" system of philosophy because Žižek, with all his inconsistencies, is trying to make us think much harder about what we are willing to believe and accept from a single writer (Parker, 2004). Indeed, Žižek himself defends Jacques Lacan for constantly updating his theories, arguing that it is not the task of the philosopher to act as the Big Other who tells us about the world but rather to challenge our own ideological presuppositions. The philosopher, for Žižek, is more someone engaged in critique than someone who tries to answer questions.
However, this claim about the role of the philosopher/theorist is complicated by how Žižek frequently derides the consumerist fashionability of postmodern cultural criticism while affirming his universal emancipatory stance and love for "grand explanations" (Žižek, 2008). In contrast to Parker, Adrian Johnston's book Zizek's Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity argues against the position that Žižek's thought has no consistency or underlying project. Specifically, Johnston claims in his Preface that beneath "what could be called 'the cultural studies Žižek'" is a singular "philosophical trajectory that runs like a continuous, bisecting diagonal line through the entire span of his writing (i.e. the retroactive Lacanian reconstruction of the chain Kant-Schelling-Hegel)." Žižek's affirmation of this claim suggests that like his predecessor Hegel, Žižek's work is better described as rigorous in the sense of systematic rather than as comprising a single, all-encompassing "system."
Žižek wrote text to accompany Bruce Weber photos in a catalog for Abercrombie & Fitch. Questioned as to the seemliness of a major intellectual writing ad copy, Žižek told the Boston Globe: "If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post, I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!" He is widely regarded[by whom?] as a fiery and colorful lecturer who does not shy away from controversial remarks. His three-part documentary The Pervert's Guide to Cinema was broadcast on British television by the More4 channel in July 2006 and is available on DVD. Žižek has been publishing on a regular basis in journals such as Lacanian Ink and In These Times in the United States, the New Left Review and The London Review of Books in the United Kingdom, and with the Slovenian left liberal magazine Mladina and newspapers Dnevnik and Delo. He co-operates also with the influential Polish leftist magazine Krytyka Polityczna, and serves on the editorial board of the psychoanalytical journal Problemi.
He is a fluent speaker of Slovene, Serbo-Croatian, English, French and German. He also has basic knowledge of Italian  He was formerly married to Slovenian philosopher Renata Salecl and to Argentine model and Lacanian scholar Analia Hounie.
Astra Taylor's 2005 documentary Žižek! documented its title subject, and Žižek also appeared in her 2008 Examined Life. The International Journal of Žižek Studies was launched in 2007, and since 2005, Žižek has been a member of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts.
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Žižek's ontology posits a return to the category of the Cartesian subject, a return to the category of ideology, and a return to the notion of the Lacanian Real.
In The Parallax View (2006), Žižek stages confrontations between idealist and materialist understandings of various aspects of ontology. One such confrontation between idealism and materialism is expressed in Lacanian terms between an idealism's purported ability to theorize the All versus a Materialism's understanding that an apparent All is really a non-All. His penchant for staging a confrontation between idealism and materialism leads him to describe his work in such paradoxical terms as a "materialist theology." Žižek offers that reality is fundamentally open and a materialist "minimal difference" - the gap that appears in reality between a reductionist description of physical process and one's experience of existence - is the real of human life and the crucial domain that an ontology must attempt to theorize. Žižek equates the gap with the Freudian death drive, as the negative and mortifying "thing that thinks." Although biological psychology might one day be able to completely model a person's brain, there would still be something left over that could not be explained. This "remainder" formally corresponds precisely to the Freudian death drive and Schellingian/Hegelian self-reflecting negativity or "Night of the World," all of which Žižek formulates as the zero-level of subjectivity. It is death drive which takes this role, not the limit-function to pleasure called the pleasure principle, thus it is the negative aspect of consciousness that breaks and offers judgment on the unrepresentable totality. Žižek points to the fact that consciousness is opaque. Taking his cue from Descartes' problem of the possible automaton in hat & coat and the Husserlian failure to fully account for the selfhood of the other (through resort to the metaphor of "empathy"), Žižek claims a primary characteristic of consciousness is that one cannot ever know if an apparently conscious being is truly conscious or merely an effective mime.
Žižek's metaphysics are, to a certain extent an anti-metaphysics, because he believes it is absurd to theorize the All, because something will always remain untheorized. This can be explained in Lacanian terms, in terms of the relationship between the Symbolic and the Real. For Žižek, we can view a person in several ways, but these ways are mutually exclusive. For example, we can see a person as either an ethical being with free will or a determined biological creature but not both. These are the Symbolic interpretations of the Real, ways of using language to understand that which is non-All, that which cannot be totally understood by description. For Žižek, however, the Real is not a thing which is understood in different ways depending on how you decide to look at it (person as ethical being versus person as biological being); the Real is instead the movement from one vantage point to another - the "parallax view". Žižek sidesteps relativism by claiming that there is a diagonal ontological cut across apparently incommensurable discourses, which points to their intersubjectivity. This means that although there are multiple Symbolic interpretations of the Real, they are not all relatively "true." Žižek identifies two instances of the Real; the abject Real, which cannot be symbolized, and the symbolic Real (see On Belief), a set of signifiers that can never be properly integrated into the horizon of sense of a subject. The truth is revealed in the process of transiting the contradictions; or the real is a "minimal difference", the gap between the infinite judgement of a reductionist materialism and experience as lived.
Žižek argues that Descartes' cogito is the basis of the subject. However, whereas most thinkers read the cogito as a substantial, transparent and fully self-conscious "I" which is in complete command of its destiny, Žižek proposes that the cogito is an empty space, what is left when the rest of the world is expelled from itself. The Symbolic Order is what substitutes for the loss of the immediacy of the world and it is where the void of the subject is filled in by the process of subjectivization. The latter is where the subject is given an identity and where that identity is altered by the Self.
Once the Lacanian concepts of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are grasped, Žižek, in philosophical writings such as his discussion of Schelling, always interprets the work of other philosophers in terms of those concepts. This is so because "the core of my entire work is the endeavour to use Lacan as a privileged intellectual tool to reactualize German idealism". (See The Žižek Reader) The reason Žižek thinks German idealism (the work of Hegel, Kant, Fichte and Schelling) needs reactualizing is that we are thought to understand it in one way, whereas the truth of it is something else. The term "reactualizing" refers to the fact that there are different possible ways to interpret German idealism, and Žižek wishes to make "actual" one of those possibilities in distinction to the way it is currently realized. At its most basic, German idealism believes that the truth of something could be found in itself. For Žižek, the fundamental insight of German idealism is that the truth of something is always outside it. So the truth of our experience lies outside ourselves, in the Symbolic and the Real, rather than being buried deep within us. We cannot look into our selves and find out who we truly are, because who we truly are is always elsewhere.
Our selves are somewhere else in the Symbolic formations which always precede us and in the Real which we have to disavow if we are to enter the Symbolic order.
To Žižek, Lacan's proposition that self-identity is impossible becomes central in structuration of the subject. The identity of something, its singularity or "oneness", is always split. There is always too much of something, and indivisible remainder, or a bit left-over which means that it cannot be self-identical (e.g., the meaning of a word can never be found in the word itself, but rather in other words; its meaning therefore is not self-identical). This principle of the impossibility of self-identity is what informs Žižek's reading of the German idealists. In reading Schelling, for example, the Beginning is not actually the beginning at all - the truth of the Beginning lies elsewhere, it is split or not identical to itself.
How, precisely, does the Word discharge the tension of the rotary motion, how does it mediate the antagonism between the contractive and the expansive force? The Word is a contraction in the guise of its very opposite of an expansion - that is, in pronouncing a word, the subject contracts his being outside himself; he "coagulates" the core of his being in an external sign. In the (verbal) sign, I - as it were - find myself outside myself, I posit my unity outside myself, in a signifier which represents me ("The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters").
The subject of enunciation is the "I" who speaks, the individual doing the speaking; the subject of the enunciated is the "I" of the sentence. "I" is not identical to itself - it is split between the individual "I" (the subject of enunciation) and the grammatical "I" (the subject of the enunciated). Although we may experience them as unified, this is merely an Imaginary illusion, for the pronoun "I" is actually a substitute for the "I" of the subject. It does not account for me in my full specificity; it is, rather, a general term I share with everyone else. In order to do so, my empirical reality must be annihilated or, as Lacan avers, "the symbol manifests itself first of all as the murder of the thing". The subject can only enter language by negating the Real, murdering or substituting the blood-and-sinew reality of self for the concept of self expressed in words. For Lacan and Žižek, every word is a gravestone, marking the absence or corpse of the thing it represents and standing in for it. It is partly in the light of this that Lacan is able to refashion Descartes' maxim "I think, therefore I am" as "I think where I am not, therefore I am where I think not".
The "I think" here is the subject of the enunciated (the Symbolic subject) whereas the "I am" is the subject of the enunciation (the Real subject). What Lacan aims to disclose by rewriting the Cartesian cogito in this way is that the subject is irrevocably split, torn asunder by language
The concept of vanishing mediator is one that Žižek has consistently employed since For They Know Not What They Do. A vanishing mediator is a concept which somehow negotiates and settles - hence mediating - the transition between two opposed concepts and thereafter disappears. Žižek draws attention to the fact that a vanishing mediator is produced by an asymmetry of content and form. As with Marx's analysis of revolution, form lags behind content, in the sense that content changes within the parameters of an existing form, until the logic of that content works its way out of the latter and throws off its husk, revealing a new form in its stead. "The passage from feudalism to Protestantism is not of the same nature as the passage from Protestantism to bourgeois everyday life with its privatized religion. The first passage concerns "content" (under the guise of preserving the religious form or even its strengthening, the crucial shift - the assertion of the ascetic acquisitive stance in economic activity as the domain of manifestation of Grace - takes place), whereas the second passage is a purely formal act, a change of form (as soon as Protestantism is realized as the ascetic acquisitive stance, it can fall off as form)" (For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor).
Žižek sees in this process evidence of Hegel's "negation of the negation", the third moment of the dialectic. The first negation is the mutation of the content within and in the name of the old form. The second negation is the obsolescence of the form itself. In this way, something becomes the opposite of itself, paradoxically, by seeming to strengthen itself. In the case of Protestantism, the universalization of religious attitudes ultimately led to its being sidelined as a matter of private contemplation. Which is to say that Protestantism, as a negation of feudalism, was itself negated by capitalism.
The Real is not only opposed to the imaginary but is also located beyond the symbolic.
Unlike the latter, which is constituted in terms of oppositions such as "presence" and "absence," there is no absence in the real. The symbolic opposition between "presence" and "absence" implies the possibility that something may be missing from the symbolic, the real is "always in its place: it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from there." If the symbolic is a set of differentiated signifiers, the real is in itself undifferentiated: "it is without fissure." The symbolic introduces "a cut in the real," in the process of signification: "it is the world of words that creates the world of things." Thus the real emerges as that which is outside language: "it is that which resists symbolization absolutely." The real is impossible because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order. This character of impossibility and resistance to symbolization lends the real its traumatic quality.
There are also three modalities of the real:
Although the Symbolic is an essentially linguistic dimension, Lacan does not simply equate the symbolic with language, since the latter is involved also in the imaginary and the real. The symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier, in which elements have no positive existence but are constituted by virtue of their mutual differences. It is the realm of radical alterity: the Other. The unconscious is the discourse of the Other and thus belongs to the symbolic order. It is also the realm of the Law that regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. The symbolic is both the "pleasure principle" that regulates the distance from das Ding, and the "death drive" which goes beyond the pleasure principle by means of repetition: "the death drive is only the mask of the symbolic order." This register is determinant of subjectivity; for Lacan the symbolic is characterized by the absence of any fixed relations between signifier and signified.
The basis of the Imaginary order is the formation of the ego in the "mirror stage". Since the ego is formed by identifying with the counterpart or specular image, "identification" is an important aspect of the imaginary. The relationship whereby the ego is constituted by identification is a locus of "alienation", which is another feature of the imaginary, and is fundamentally narcissistic. The imaginary, a realm of surface appearances which are deceptive, is structured by the symbolic order. It also involves a linguistic dimension: whereas the signifier is the foundation of the symbolic, the "signified" and "signification" belong to the imaginary. Thus language has both symbolic and imaginary aspects. Based on the specular image, the imaginary is rooted in the subject's relationship to the body (the image of the body).
One of the ways in which Žižek's understanding of the postmodern can be characterized is as an over-proximity of the Real. Žižek identifies various manifestations of this in postmodern culture, such as the technique of "filling in the gaps." (See Žižek's analysis). By way of "filling in the gaps" and "telling it all", what we retreat from is the void as such, which is ultimately none other than the void of subjectivity (the Lacanian "barred subject"). (See The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory.)
For Žižek, present society, or postmodernity, is based upon the demise in the authority of the big Other (see Jacques Lacan). Continuing the theorists of the contemporary risk society, who advocate the personal freedoms of choice or reflexivity, which have replaced this authority, Žižek argues that these theorists ignore the reflexivity at the heart of the subject. For Žižek, lacking the prohibitions of the big Other, in these conditions, the subject's inherent reflexivity manifests itself in attachments to forms of subjection, paranoia and narcissism. In order to ameliorate these pathologies, Žižek proposes the need for a political act or revolution - one that will alter the conditions of possibility of postmodernity (which he identifies as capitalism) and so give birth to a new type of Symbolic Order in which a new breed of subject can exist.
Žižek follows Louis Althusser in jettisoning the Marxist equation: "ideology equals false consciousness." Ideology, to all intents and purposes, is consciousness. Ideology does not "mask" the real—one cannot achieve true consciousness. This being the case, post-ideological postmodern "knowingness"—the cynicism and irony of postmodern cultural production—does not reveal the truth, the real, the hard kernel. Knowing that we are being "lied" to is hardly the stuff of revolution when ideology is not, and never has been, simply a matter of consciousness, of subject positions, but is the very stuff of everyday praxis itself. The cynics and ironists, not to mention the deconstructionists et al., may know that reality is an "ideological construction"—some have even read their Lacan and Derrida—but in their daily practice, caught up in an apparently unalterable world of exchange-values (capital), they do their part to sustain that construction in any case. As Marx would say, it is their very life process that is ideological, what they know, or what they think they know, being neither here nor there. The postmodern cultural artifact—the "critique," the "incredulity"—is itself merely a symptom/commodity fetish. Thus has capital commodified even the cynicism that purports to unmask its "reality," to "emancipate."
Today, in the aftermath of the "end of ideology", Žižek is critical of the way political decisions are justified; the way, for example, reductions in social programs are sometimes presented as an apparently 'objective' necessity, though this is no longer a valid basis for political discourse. He sees the current "talk about greater citizen involvement" or "political goals circumscribed within the rubric of the cultural" as having little effectiveness as long as no substantial measures are devised for the long run. But measures such as the "limitation of the freedom of capital" and the "subordination of the manufacturing processes to a mechanism of social control"—these Žižek calls a "radical de-politicization of the economy" (A Plea for Intolerance).
So at present Slavoj Žižek is arguing for a politicization of the economy. For indeed the "tolerant" multicultural impulse, as the dogma of today's liberal society, suppresses the crucial question: How can we reintroduce into the current conditions of globalization the genuine space of the political? He also argues in favor of a "politicization of politics" as a counter balance to post-politics. In the area of political decision making in a democratic context he criticizes the two-party system that is dominant in some countries as a political form of a "post-political era", as a manifestation of a possibility of choice that in reality does not exist.
Politicization is thus for him present whenever "a particular demand begins to function as a representative of the impossible universal". Žižek sees class struggle not as localized objective determinations, as a social position vis-à-vis capital but rather as lying in a "radically subjective" position: the proletariat is the living, "embodied contradiction". Only through particularism in the political struggle can any universalism emerge. Fighting for workers interests often appears discredited today ("indeed in this domain the workers themselves only wish to implement their own interests, they fight only for themselves and not for the whole"). The problem is how to foster a politicizing politics in the age of post-politics. Particular demands, acting as a "metaphorical condensation", would thus aim at something that transcends those particular demands, a genuine reconstruction of the social framework. Žižek, following Jacques Ranciere, sees the real political conflict as being that between an ordered structure of society and those without a place in it, the "part that has no part" in anything but nonetheless causes the structure to falter, because it refers to—i.e. embodies—an "empty principle" of the "universal".
The very fact that a society is not easily divided into classes, that there is no "simple structural trait" for it, that for instance the "middle class" is also intensely fought over by a populism of the right, is a sign of this struggle. Otherwise "class antagonism would be completely symbolized" and no longer both impossible and real at the same time ("impossible/real"). His solution to capitalism is a rapid repoliticization of the economy.
Slavoj Žižek's notoriety in academic circles has increased rapidly, especially since he began publishing widely in English. Many hundreds of academics have addressed aspects of Žižek's work in professional papers. Inevitably, in the course of such scholarly discussion, many other thinkers differ with aspects of Žižek conceptual approach or specific arguments. While there is no indication that Žižek has received more criticism than have other continental philosophers of similar repute, a great number of writers have taken stances critical of Slavoj Žižek's work.
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