Slavoj Žižek, Professor of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis at The European Graduate School / EGS.
Slavoj Žižek (b. 1949) is a Slovenian-born philosopher and psychoanalyst. He is a professor of philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS, a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, and founder and president of the Society for Theoretical Psychoanalysis, Ljubljana. Aside from these appointments, Žižek tirelessly gives lectures around the globe and is often described as “the Elvis of cultural theory”. Although, more seriously, as British critical theorist Terry Eagleton confers, Žižek is the “most formidably brilliant” theorist to have emerged from Europe in decades. Many, in fact, now consider Žižek to be “the most dangerous philosopher in the West.”
He grew up in in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which at the time was part of the former Yugoslavia. The regime’s more permissive, albeit “pernicious,” policies allowed for Žižek’s exposure to Western theory and culture, in particular film, English detective novels, German Idealism, French structuralism, and Jacques Lacan. Studying at the University of Ljubljana, he completed his master's degree in philosophy in 1975 with a thesis on French structuralism and his Doctoral degree in philosophy in 1981 with a dissertation on German Idealism. He then went to Paris, along with Mladen Dolar, to study Lacan under Jacques Alain-Miller (Lacan’s son-in-law and disciple). During this time in Paris, from 1981–85, Žižek completed another dissertation on the work of Hegel, Marx, and Kripke through a Lacanian lens. After his return to Slovenia, he became more politically active writing for Mladina, a weekly newspaper, co-founding the Slovenian Liberal Demorcratic Party, and running for one of four seats that comprised the collective Slovenian presidency (Žižek came in fifth).
Žižek rose to prominence in 1989 following his first book published in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology. Since then he has written countless books, in fact, perhaps the only thing more numerous than the talks he tirelessly gives across the globe are the books on which those interviews stand. For the last twenty-five years Žižek has been writing predominantly in English, and to a far lesser extent in his native Slovenian, for obvious reasons. His books of the last decades include: For They Know Not What They Do (1991), Tarrying with the Negative (1993), The Plague of Fantasies (1997), The Ticklish Subject (1999), Parallax View (2006), Did Someone Say Totalitarianism? (2001), The Indivisible Remainder (1996), Enjoy Your Symptom (1992), Looking Awry (1991), Absolute Recoil (2015), Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (2003), Revolution at the Gates (2002), Living in the End of Times (2010), The Metastases of Enjoyment (1994), The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (2002), The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (2009), First as Tragedy Then as Farce (2009), How to Read Lacan (2007), The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (2012), In Defense of Lost Causes (2007), On Belief (2001), On Violence (2008), The Fragile Absolute, Or Why the Christian Legacy is Worth Fighting For (2000), and Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (2012). Along with these and many other books, he has also co-authored a number of books with Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, Eric Santner, John Millbank, Ernesto Laclau, Boris Gunjević, and Agon Hamza, among others. Further, he is the editor of a number of consequential series, including Wo Es War by Verso, SIC by Duke University Press, and Short Circuits by MIT Press. Finally, Žižek is a consistent contributor to Lacanian Ink, Crisis and Critique, and other journals.
Lets “begin at the beginning”––as Žižek is fond of saying, clearly referring to the project of German Idealism, as is evident to the careful reader––or better, still, let’s begin before the beginning. The style of Žižek’s work is infamous. From his many talks and lectures, through his essays and books––the introductory, the directly political works, and the more serious, challenging works (Parallax View, The Ticklish Subject, For They Not What They Do, Less than Nothing)––Žižek’s style has often led many to not take him seriously. It should, however, be asked: why does Žižek speak and write as he does (given his frequent remarks that his true love is serious philosophical thought, more specifically still, the resurrection of German Idealism)? And what is style? The answer to the second is simpler than that of the first: style, as Jacques Lacan states in the opening pages of Écrits, is always a question of to whom one is addressing oneself. The answer to the first, however, is the same.
Žižek’s style has long been a point of discussion, and often a consideration by which he is not only not taken seriously and disregarded, but also a preoccupation that offers some sympathizers an excuse to not engage with his thought seriously. Perhaps this is reason enough to take it––as well as our preoccupation with it––more seriously. His style involves not only a disregard for the distinction between high and low culture––strikingly collapsing genres into one another––academically inappropriate uses of examples to illustrate serious philosophical, psychoanalytic and political issues, etc., but also the curious and frustrating moment in which he refuses to answer to the demands of his readers and listeners as to what they are to do with it all, by claiming that he does not know.
But is this really so particular to Žižek? What is the Žižekian procedure, when minimally defined? Žižek always begins with a cultural phenomenon or presupposition, which is slowly poked and probed by other cultural phenomena and presuppositions, until the reader finds himself in a position opposite to the one from which he may have begun, but without ever having been confronted with “philosophical truth,” stated with straight authority. Conceptual tools are used throughout, but are introduced slowly only as to clarify and distinguish the immanent analysis, only fully developed at the end. Moreover, as irreflexive or spontaneous relationships, oppositions, positions, and definitions of phenomena are subverted, the same result takes place in theory. In both cases, odd couples are formed between philosophies, between theories and political practices, between emblems and implications, processes, assumptions and conclusions, and so on. Figures enter the scene in odd positions, arguments are continually problematized, up until the very end, at which point a novice to Žižek’s philosophy is not immediately left with a clear conclusion of his position, but rather a web of confusion, so to speak, and yet at the same time the sense that there is a system of sorts––the consistent grasp of which is the work still left for the reader. Finally, we could even add that the very sequence of Žižek’s work is constant, although his exact position has shifted a number of times, such that he always begins not only with ideology, but with ideology at its purest, that is, a position presupposing itself non-ideological, and an articulation of how the position sees itself, finally arriving at some formulation of absolute knowledge; or, as Žižek constantly reminds his readers, absolute knowing, and the consequent ethical stance to be assumed. There is no reason not to be frank: the Platonic dialogues find their resurrection here.
A second remark bears mention here: in his books and talks Žižek assumes the position offered to him, or even demanded of him––the position of he who, is supposed to, know. The position is offered to him, and demanded of him precisely because he consistently catches theories and positions at the moment of their contradiction or duplicity. Assuming the position, Žižek frustrates the demand; that is, he assumes the position without answering to the demand––revealing the desire of his audience. In short, Žižek’s style, his discourse, is the embodiment of one of the primary elements of his theory: the community of analysts as the model for an emancipatory collective. As Lacan would say, in regards his position, at its most elementary, is not articulable, because it is articulated.
As he so often publicly proclaims, Žižek is a card-carrying Lacanian. This itself is peculiar, given his distance from Jacques-Alain Miller, on, amongst other things, the political implications of psychoanalysis, and most specifically, the psychoanalytic school as a model for emancipatory political organization. In fact, a large part of Žižek’s political project, if not its foundation, assumes the possibility of a passage where Lacan is popularly assumed to have found only an impasse. Even so, Žižek is a Lacanian; it is by way of his fidelity to Lacan, by way of his return to Lacan, that he can see the limits of Lacan and move beyond.
While Žižek’s “exact position” has shifted a number of times, his basic constellation (as he often reiterates, for instance in For They Know Not What They Do) has remained constant: Hegel, Marx, and Lacan. And within this constellation are three related concerns to which he relentlessly returns: (1) enjoyment as a political factor, (2) the subject as a self-relating negativity, and (3), the problem of appearance, i.e., not what is hidden behind it, but precisely why anything appears in the first place, as he writes in Parallax View:
… the fundamental lesson of Hegel is that the key ontological problem is not that of reality, but that of appearance: not ‘Are we condemned to the interminable play of appearances, or can we penetrate their veil to the underlying true reality?,’ but ‘How could––in the middle of the flat, stupid reality which just is there––something like appearance emerge?’ Put otherwise, the final concerns can be stated thus: how must the order of being be structured such that something like an event is possible? (Parallax View, p. xx)
Žižek’s search for these conditions of possibility lead him not only to the Lacanian conceptions of the non-existence of the Big Other or the Real as barred, but to German Idealism. Recently, it has become ever more frequent that Žižek confirms that his true master is not Jacques Lacan but G.W.F. Hegel. This remark bears mention as Žižek’s return to German Idealism is not at all merely a resurrection of Hegel, but of all the great philosophers of this time––Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel––or, more accurately, of the movement from Kant to Hegel.
We find mention of this movement from Kant to Hegel frequently in his works. And in brief, Žižek’s understanding of this transition is that Hegel ontologized Kant, meaning, that Hegel names the transition from an epistemological void to an ontological one:
All Hegel does is, in a way, to supplement Kant’s well-known motto of the transcendental constitution of reality (‘the conditions of possibility of our knowledge are at the same time the conditions of possibility of the object of our knowledge’) by its negative––the limitation of our knowledge (its failure to grasp the Whole of Being, the way our knowledge gets inexorably entangled in contradictions and inconsistencies) is simultaneously the limitation of the very object of our knowledge, that is, the gaps and voids in our knowledge of reality are simultaneously the gaps and voids in the ‘real’ ontological edifice itself. (The Ticklish Subject, p. 55)
The void in the ontological edifice, according to Žižek’s reading of Hegel, is itself the subject. And so, the movement from Kant to Hegel is the movement from the inaccessible Thing beyond the subject’s reach to the subject itself as the Thing incapable of being reduced to the world of phenomena around which is exists. Žižek’s thesis is that the Hegelian Absolute is not a calm and serene All at peace with itself, but an Absolute constantly at war with itself, internally torn asunder by unrest and antagonism. The name of this crack in the One is the subject. This is, he proposes, the sense of Hegel’s fundamental thesis, announced at the outset of The Phenomenology of Spirit, is that the True is not only Substance, but equally Subject.
What takes place for Žižek here is a shift in the real: from the Kantian real to the Hegelian. As is often the case, Žižek uses the terms of psychoanalysis to read philosophy. In this case, he uses Lacan’s conception of the Real to draw out the shift: there is the Kantian Real-as-presupposed and the Hegelian Real-as-posed, i.e., the Kantian Real of being is a being that pre-exists and exists beyond the realm of phenomena, while the Hegelian Real is one posited by the subject behind the real of phenomena. In the first instance, the real is a substantial fullness that precedes the advent of, again in Lacanian terms, the Imaginary-Symbolic reality, i.e., phenomena, while in the second it is an empty void situated within the Imaginary-Symbolic reality, and the posited consequence of breakdowns, inconsistencies, and impasses within it. This is, however, a simplified distinction for the simple reason that as the shift in Lacan, announced after the Seventh Seminar, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, is not a simple change from one notion of the real to another, homologously, the movement from Kant through to Hegel is not a simple substitution. The full account of this movement demands an understanding of Žižek’s interpretation of the entire sequence of attempted resolutions to the Kantian problem, i.e., of the passage from Kant to Fichte to Schelling to Hegel, and Žižek’s continuous meditation on this problem constitutes the very kernel of all of his works.
In sum, at the strictly philosophical level, Žižek’s work focuses on the resurrection of German Idealism, specifically the notion of the subject as self-relating negativity, and the problem of the ontological conditions of possibility for appearance. His latest work, as announced in the subtitle of his latest book, Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, is to establish the foundations of dialectical materialism. At the political level, Žižek’s project can be said to have three primary concerns: first, the identification of contradictions in late or contemporary capitalism, along with its democratic-liberal ideology, second, the overarching problem of enjoyment as a political factor, and three, theoretical work on a new form of mastery and organization.