Why read Žižek

Alan Sharples

Part 1 Ideology

In the film They Live(John Carpenter), an unemployed construction worker called Nada (‘nothing’ in Spanish), drifts into an unnamed American city of skyscrapers looking for work. After various trials and tribulations he gets a job on a building site, but then things take an unexpected turn. He comes across a pair of sunglasses; he puts them on, and immediately perceives the world around him in an entirely new light: every billboard, poster and sign displays its subliminal message. An advertisement depicting a luxury holiday destination dissolves to reveal the command ‘MARRY AND REPRODUCE’, shop signage becomes simply the word ‘CONSUME’ repeated over and over; then there are injunctions such as, ‘NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT’, and, ‘OBEY ‘. Nada’s faith in the ‘American dream’ is suddenly shattered. His innate belief in capitalism – that a system dominated by the wealthy and powerful can also be benign, or if not, at least neutral towards people like him – is destroyed.

Listening to, or reading Zizek can have a similar effect, though it must be said; real insight into the all-pervading and ever-present ‘ruling ideology’ is, paradoxically, but not surprisingly, rarely as simple, or as immediate, as putting on a pair of shades! Nor, for that matter, do the covert edicts that we unconsciously respond to, only come in the form of words and phrases. From the moment we are born, the prevailing ideas of our society surround us, we are submerged in them; Nada, following his epiphany, is indeed, a fish out of water, a fish fighting for its life! Zizek, being the Hegelian he is, takes the analogy one step further, by turning it on its head; under a totalitarian regime, he suggests, the very opposite might be the case, instead of experiencing a liberal democracy unmasked to reveal the dictatorship beneath, as in Carpenter’s 1988 Science Fiction film, we might uncover, what he calls, ‘obscene surplus enjoyment’ offered between the lines of explicit exhortations to OBEY etc. He gives the extreme example of a fascist poster that might say ‘Defend the Fatherland, drive out Communism’, put on the glasses and it reads: ‘Get to beat-up Jews, steal their possessions and burn down their synagogues’. The Russian film ‘‘Come and See’ (Elem Klimov 1985), based on first-hand accounts of genocide in Belorussia during World War 2, in one sequence, depicts in very graphic terms just such a Rabelasian scene, the obscene obverse of the Wehrmacht professed code of discipline and honour.

Also notable in They Live, is an extraordinary ten-minute-long fight scene between Nada and his friend Frank, it is a struggle that ensues when Nada tries to persuade him to put on the special glasses. Nada’s dogged persistence only serves to provoke Frank’s suspicious nature; it awakens in him a primordial dread, a fear that his life of bearable misery is about to end. He also senses that he will become like Nada, an outlaw, with no going back (and, of course, all his presentiments are proven correct). He puts up a heroic resistance, trading blow for blow, as anyone would, but finally, exhausted and prostrate, he succumbs and allows Nada to put the ‘critico-ideological’ glasses on him. Frank, a big man, buckles under the shock, then, he rages with dismay and anger at what he sees. A similar negative enlightenment (with vastly superior special-effects) is visited upon Neo after taking the red pill given to him by Morpheus in the film The Matrix (1999). Keanu Reeves (typically), when faced with the momentous decision of choosing between the red pill, (seeing how deep the rabbit-hole goes) and the blue pill, (returning to his ‘normal’ life of blissful ignorance), merely raises an eyebrow!  You might say, this is a long way from anything Marx, Lenin or Trotsky ever wrote. You would be right. However, Zizek argues that, we should not only re-appraise what they said in terms of today’s conditions, but also ask ourselves how they would interpret our world, if they were alive today.

Why Read Žižek?

This article’s title can be given an alternative emphasis, thus: Why read Zizek? And it is this question that I will dispense with first. There are literally hundreds of interviews, film clips (he has made two films), and lectures (at the European Graduate School, New York Public Library and many others) on ‘You Tube’. There can be no doubt his world-wide popularity is largely due to the entertaining and informal way he conducts his talks, interacting with his audience, indulging in friendly banter, ribaldry etc. His talks do not require any previous knowledge of his written work, and for many the wealth of video clips available may be enough in themselves, and that is fine; but personally I think they are just an appetizer for the main course. To really understand Zizek, it is essential to read his books.  Zizek is the philosopher of popular culture and a great populariser of philosophy, but his theorizing can be challenging at times; however, he repays any effort devoted to understanding him, in spades.

Zizek has been called a post-modernist, a label he rejects, but I think his writing-style is post-modern – personal anecdotes, scenes from popular films, (ranging from Kung Fu Panda to Tarkovsky’s Solaris) music scores, jokes, quotations from the bible etc. – he uses anything he can lay his hands on, to illustrate his ideas. However, given this, you would be wrong to presume, that his familiarity with the works of luminaries such as, Marx, Kant, Hegel, Freud, De Saussure, Heidegger etc. is merely superficial; a close reading will reveal that, Zizek is not only fully conversant with their theories, but is able to amplify them, applying their tenets in entirely new contexts. Slavoj Zizek, Slovenian philosopher, cultural critic, psychoanalyst and film-theorist, examines the relevance of Hegelian dialectics and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in the 21st century, by using them as a means to understand the development of capitalist ideology.

Zizek has said, “Totalitarianism is not a dogmatism which has all the answers; it is, on the contrary, the instance which has all the questions,” and has suggested that now may be the time to invert Marx’s famous dictum: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world . . . the point is to change it.” Given this, it is not surprising; he is more interested in interpreting events and formulating the right questions, than offering answers, or issuing directives. He described himself, in an interview, (Charlie Rose PBS), as being like a conjuror, who, having shown the audience his hat, never produces a rabbit from it; which could be one of the reasons why, as he says, everyone on the Left hates him. Another reason could be, he re-examines their dogmas – something like a forensic pathologist exhuming  bones pertaining to ‘cold cases’ or ‘doubtful convictions’ – and, using the latest advances in analysis he uncovers vital (but often unwelcome) new ‘evidence’ , overturning new shibboleths of the Left, like ‘Multiculturalism’ and ‘identity politics’ .

Zizek has written over 50 books in English, of which I have read only 12, and because he is a pithy writer, there is always more to be gleaned from re-reading them, hence, I cannot claim to be an expert on his work. However, I have chosen three books to précis, which, apart from being almost exclusively concerned with ideology, also seem to follow a natural progression: the ideas introduced in The Sublime Object of Desire, are further developed in The Plague of Fantasies, and given their full theoretical form in For they know not what they do. I intend to tackle the tricky subject of the best place to start reading Zizek in Part 2.


The Sublime Object of Ideology. 1989

Zizek states that the main aim of this book is to: serve as an introduction to Lacanian psychoanalysis, to accomplish a kind of return to Hegel and to contribute to the theory of ideology.

Zizek argues that cynicism and a ‘certain distance’, is embedded in, and crucial to, the effectiveness of contemporary ideology. By expanding on Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, he proposes, that today, commodities ‘believe for us’. In this, his first book in English, he also claims an essential role for fantasy in the manufacturing of desire. Some of the concepts, among others, first broached here, are, ‘the subject supposed to know’, intersubjectivity, the ‘big Other’ and Lacan’s objet petit a.

To exemplify the Hegelian notion of the ‘negation of negation’ Zizek recounts one of his many Soviet-era jokes:  Rabinovitch, is a Jew who wants to migrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why; Rabinovitch answers: “There are two reasons why. The first is that I’m afraid that in the Soviet Union the Communists will lose power, there will be a counter-revolution and the new power will put all the blame for the Communist crimes on us Jews – there will again be anti-Jewish pogroms . . .” “But” interrupts the bureaucrat, ‘”this is pure nonsense, nothing can change in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists will last forever!” “Well,” responds Rabinovitch calmly, “that’s my second reason.”

Another Hegelian concept introduced here, under the sub-heading of ‘Positing the Presuppositions’, is that of the ‘Beautiful Soul’, (a theme he returns to again in For they know not what they do): a person who, “structures the ‘objective’ social world in advance so that it is able assume, to play in it the role of the fragile, innocent and passive victim.”


The Plague of Fantasies. 1997

Firstly, Zizek describes what he calls, ‘The seven veils of Fantasy’: (1) “. . . fantasy constitutes our desire, provides its co-ordinates, that is, it literally ‘teaches us how to desire.” (In the ‘passing train’ sequence in  Possessed1931, Joan Crawford, stands-in for us, watching transfixed as her fantasies pass, in successive frames, just like a filmstrip, before her/our eyes!) (2) The ‘original question of desire’ (returning to the theme of intersubjectivity introduced in ‘The Sublime Object of Ideology’) is, ‘What do others want from me?’(3) In narrating any event or experience there is a tendency to occlude any antagonism or deadlock (e.g. changing the order of events) that spoils the story. (4) The perverse longing for the rule of Law. (5) The impossible Gaze, (one example would be that of Marty in Back to the Future, 1985, who meets his parents at a time previous to his own conception). (6) “. . . an ideological identification exerts a true hold on us precisely when we maintain an awareness that we are not fully identical to it.” (7) The symbolic public order is maintained by fantasies which often take the form of ‘unwritten rules’.

Under the sub-heading: ‘Of fools and knaves’, using two slightly vulgar jokes, Zizek makes a perfectly serious point about the major difference between Left and Right-wing intellectuals.  Zizek takes issue with Hannah Arendt’s notion of, ‘the banality of Evil’, by exploring the factors of: surplus obedience, surplus enjoyment, and shared complicity in Nazism, which he describes as paranoiac; going on to contrast Nazism with the Stalinist ‘purges’. Also he proposes that, when a supporting fantasy disintegrates, what is left behind; is the very form of reality, which is (paradoxically) experienced as a nightmare. I suppose Murdoch and his empire, currently in jeopardy due to the revelations of the ‘Leveson enquiry’, is the kind of thing Zizek has in mind with: “Unwritten rules, sustain Power as long as they remain in the shadows; at the moment they are publicly recognised, the edifice of Power is thrown into disarray”. On page 116, Zizek gives one of his interpretations of Hegel’s dialectics, an analysis which, I sense, underlies much of his reasoning. He then follows with, fetishism, past and present, ‘the subject supposed to believe/know/enjoy’, interpassivity (‘weepers’ at funerals, canned laughter on TV). He then drops a bombshell by explaining that the ‘fundamental fantasy’, so central to our sense of ourselves as subject, is, in fact, inaccessible to us.

Under, ‘Cyberspace, or, the unbearable closure of being’, Zizek writes: “And is not the notion of cyberspace a key symptom of our socio-ideological constellation? Does it not offer the promise of false opening (the spiritualist prospect of casting off our ‘ordinary’ bodies, turning it into a virtual entity which travels from one virtual space to another) as well as the foreclosure of the social power relations within which the virtual communities operate?” Under the sub-heading: ‘The phantasmic hypertext’, Zizek proposes “that cyberspace merely radicalizes the gap constitutive of the symbolic order: (symbolic) reality always-already was ‘virtual’, that is to say: every access to (social) reality has to be supported by an implicit phantasmic hypertext.” In explaining how this hypertext works, he writes of the need to ‘keep up appearances’, suggesting that for symbolic authority to be effective it must stay ‘virtual’ and goes on to explain how a failure of symbolic law can easily lead to superego injunction.  Zizek discusses the effect of science on fantasy, takes us on a journey through the Heart of Darkness to the mystery of Shangri-la, then via Lacan’s superego injunction “enjoy” to the ‘rape of fantasy’/‘empty gesture’ scene in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.


For they know not what they do. Enjoyment as a political factor. (First published 1991, re-published 2008)

The three main aims of this book are identical to those in The Sublime Object of Ideology’, however, Zizek regards this volume as a more substantial achievement in comparison, it being more ‘theoretical’, something he explains in more depth in his 152 page foreword to the second edition. It also represent ‘a return to Hegel’, to quote John Rowan’s review on the Amazon site: “I have been studying Hegel for 58 years, and feel that this guy has it right – time after time hitting on some new way of seeing Hegel that places him right in the postmodern highway”. To summarise the general thrust of the text, I have decided to simply quote the dedication, and a joke (used in The Sublime Object of Ideology) that he repeats here, and revises (this goes to show what a Stalinist he is! [Just joking!]) for the Introduction.

First, the dedication: “After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the GDR, no one knew what to do with the six hundred trained dogs used by the border patrols to prevent illegal crossings. At first many people bought them as watchdogs, because they were expected to be ferociously aggressive’; those who bought them, however, were soon disappointed: these dogs almost never barked or attacked anyone  – they were, rather, sad loners preferring to just crawl into the shadow of some edifice resembling a high wall . . .after six months retraining, however, it was possible to “re-socialize” them, turning them not into aggressive beasts, but into vivacious animals always ready to play with children . Let me dedicate this new edition of For they know not what they do to those dogs.”

And now the joke, again: “Rabinovitch, is a Jew who wants to migrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why; Rabinovitch answers: “There are two reasons why. The first is that I’m afraid that in the Soviet Union the Communists will lose power, there will be a counter-revolution and the new power will put all the blame for the Communist crimes on us Jews – there will again be anti-Jewish pogroms . . .” “But” interrupts the bureaucrat, “this is pure nonsense, nothing can change in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists will last forever!” “Well,” responds Rabinovitch calmly, “that’s my second reason.

In the Sublime Object of Ideology, published in 1989, it was still possible to count on the efficacy of this joke, while according to the latest data, the main reason which Jews who emigrate from the Soviet Union cite is Rabinovich’s first reason. They effectively fear that , with the disintegration of  Communism and the emergence of nationalist forces openly advocating anti-Semitism, the blame will again be put on them, so that today we can easily imagine the reversal of the joke, with Rabinovich answering the bureaucrat’s question: “There are two reasons why. The first is that I know that Communism in Russia will last forever, nothing will really change here, and this prospect is unbearable for me . . .” “But”, interrupts the bureaucrat,” this is pure nonsense, Communism is disintegrating all around!  All those responsible for the Communist crimes will be severely punished!” “That’s my second reason!” responds Rabinovich.”

Zizek goes on to say: “Retaining from the good old times the idea that the impetus of progress in Socialism is self-criticism, the present book supplements The Sublime Object of ideology by endeavouring to articulate the theoretical apparatus which enables us to grasp the historical shift indicated by the strange destiny of the Rabinovich joke: the eruption of enjoyment in the form of the re-emergence of aggressive nationalism and racism that accompanies the disintegration of “actually existing socialism” in Eastern Europe. This is what the book’s title aims at – psychoanalysis is much more severe than Christianity: ignorance is not sufficient reason for forgiveness since it conveys a hidden dimension of enjoyment. Where one doesn’t (want to) know, in the blanks of one’s symbolic universe, one enjoys, and there is no Father to forgive, since these blanks escape the authority of the Name-of-the-Father.”

WHY READ ŽIŽEK. Part 2, Politics. To follow . . .

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