Slavoj Žižek and Communication Studies
Summary and Keywords
Slavoj Žižek stands as one of the most influential contemporary philosophical minds, stretching across a wide variety of fields: not just communication and critical/cultural studies, but critical theory, theology, film, popular culture, political theory, aesthetics, and continental theory. He has been the subject (and object) of several documentaries, become the source of a “human megaphone” during Occupy Wall Street, and become, while still living, the subject of his own academic journal (the International Journal of Žižek Studies). Žižek’s theoretical claim to fame, aside from his actual claim to fame as a minor “celebrity philosopher,” is that he weaves together innovative interpretations of G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Jacques Lacan to comment on a variety of subjects, from quantum physics to Alfred Hitchcock films to CIA torture sites. While there are as many “Žižeks” as there are philosophical problem-spaces, Žižek proposes an essential unity within his project; in his work, the triad Hegel-Marx-Lacan holds together like a Brunnian link—each link in the chain is essential for his project to function. Further, his intentionally provocative work acts as a counterweight to what he views as the dominant trends of philosophy and political theory since the 1980s—postmodernism, anti-foundationalism, deconstruction, vitalism, ethics, and, more recently, speculative realism and object-oriented ontology.
Slavoj Žižek, an internationally known philosopher, is notorious for his innovative, provocative, and pathbreaking interpretations of contemporary events, philosophy, politics, and popular culture. While he has commented on a great range of subjects, his own philosophy can be elaborated according to his readings of three pivotal thinkers—Karl Marx, Jacques Lacan, and G. W. F. Hegel. His major contributions to the field of communication and critical/cultural studies have come through opening new ways to interpret ideology and perform Marxist ideology critique, repopularizing Lacanian psychoanalysis as an interpretive framework, and posing, through his style of thought, new ways to interpret Hegel’s dialectical method. Because each of these thinkers is so important to Žižek’s thought, a brief explanation of their work precedes the discussion of his uptake thereof. Žižek has also elicited criticisms from both within and without his intellectual traditions and sparked several controversies.
The thinker’s uptake of Lacan, Hegel, and Marx lays down a political and theoretical marker in several interrelated ways. His blend of historical materialism, psychoanalysis, and dialectics is an all-encompassing philosophical approach, in which the structure of the universe, the subject, and the world’s political economy can be interpreted with many of the same tools. This approach offers a complex yet mobile vocabulary to speak on all manner of issues, from waterboarding to Lars van Trier films; from high-frequency financial trading to Looney Tunes characters. His use of such popular culture examples (which may be one source of his popularity among readers) exists alongside his penetrative readings of alternative philosophical traditions. His work engages with Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Friedrich Schelling, and Søren Kierkegaard, among many others. Yet although his thought is extremely elastic, Žižek should be read against a particular formation of the contemporary (Western) academic community following the Cold War. His work arises largely in conversation with—and contrast to—other contemporaneous trends that have arisen around this time, notably Deleuzan vitalism or “new materialism,” Derridean deconstruction, veins of post-structuralist thought that run through Foucault, the strictly “political” concerns of authors like Jacques Ranciere, Chantal Mouffe, and Ernesto Laclau, as well as the autonomist Marxism emblematized by Antonio Negri. Contemporary continental philosophy, particularly since the translation of many works into English since the 1980s, has generated new possibilities of theorizing the present, and Žižek has commented on these trends and many more; there are as many “Žižeks” as there are philosophical problem-spaces. Žižek’s works as a whole should be read against the backdrop of the contemporary conjuncture: the prevalence of globalized capitalism following the end of the Cold War, the rise of “new nationalisms” and “new fundamentalisms,” the potential for ecological catastrophe, and the ubiquity of ideology in culture. Overall, Žižek has left an indelible mark on the field and continues to pose challenges thereto.
Ideology and Fantasy
In the Marxist tradition, “ideology” names how the values, beliefs, and priorities of a socially dominant class (in the capitalist mode of production, the capital-owning bourgeoisie) come to stand in for the values of society as a whole. Ideologies render a supremely unequal world as sensible, even desirable, through six strategies. According to Eagleton (2007, p. 45), ideologies are unifying, action-oriented, rationalizing, legitimating, universalizing, and naturalizing. For instance, in the capitalist mode of production, cultural texts that valorize the accumulation of material wealth, respect for law enforcement agencies that protect private property, and support privatized responsibility for social issues represent “bourgeois ideology.” For Marx, bourgeois ideology arises from the capitalist mode of production itself, in which human beings become commodities by exchanging their labor for a wage and people exchange money for commodities in consumer markets. Since every exchange appears to be “fair” and “voluntary,” the idea is embedded that a wage is what someone is worth, even though employers profit when they make more money than they pay out in wages. Both labor-power as an abstract, calculable relation, and the money commodity itself are examples of mystifications built into the system: Marx termed this the “commodity fetish.” Other interpreters of Marxist thought have labeled ideology as “false consciousness,” wherein working people mistakenly believe that their interests are aligned with their employers. Marx’s phrase is “they do not know they are doing it, but they are doing it”: by acting as if the capitalist mode of production is predicated on “equality” rather than “unequal exchange,” working people play out ideology every day and partake in actions that embody this essential mystification.
To Žižek, the contemporary world order, far from being “post-ideological” following the end of the Cold War, is absolutely suffused with ideology, thanks to globalized capitalism’s reach. He foregrounds the Lacanian concept of the objet petit a as ideology’s basic unit. In Lacanian theory, the objet petit a is “the object-cause of desire” that coordinates the activities of a subject. Lacan describes it as something “in you more than yourself,” or that which cannot be reduced to a positive feature but rather something behind or below phenomenal appearance that coordinates a subject’s actions. To satisfy a desire would be to extinguish it, so the objet petit a serves as a placeholder, or function, rather than an actual “thing.” (For instance, a middle-class subject could be oriented toward a promotion—if only she could attain this thing, she would be made whole. If unattained, it remains as an unrealized desire, but if attained, the promotion itself loses its “special status” and the subject chooses a new object.) In his first book in English, the highly influential The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek reads Jacques Lacan’s “graph of desire” as a process of ideological interpellation and provides new paths for the interpretation of ideology. For Žižek, ideology is similarly organized around such a precious object of desire that renders the social world harmonious. He uses the Lacanian formula, $ ◊ a, “the fundamental fantasy,” defined as “the barred subject (of language) spurred in relation to the objet petit a” to elucidate this insight. The fundamental fantasy means that a subject, already “cut off” from their real desire in some way (because they must use the medium of language) desires a fantasmic object, a missing, imaginary object that would make the subject whole again. Ideology functions as a widespread version of this basic psychoanalytic insight.
For Žižek, ideology is the very fabric of our interpersonal, political, cultural, and individual lives. Ideological thinking is not a distorted way of thinking but the basic structure of reality itself. In other words, “reality” itself is ideological. He writes: “The function of ideology is not to offer us a point of escape from our reality but to offer us the social reality itself as an escape from some traumatic, real kernel” (Žižek, 2008b, p. 45). Žižek parts ways from classical Marxism on the status of what is not consciously thought. He reverses Marx’s aforementioned dictum and, borrowing liberally from Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason, writes that contemporary ideology should instead be defined as “They know full well they are doing it, and yet they still do it.” In Žižek’s interpretation, ideology must mask not bare, unmediated reality but a horrifying void that props up our current existence. Ideology compensates not for an alternative state of affairs but an unrepresentable antagonism. As Sharpe and Boucher point out, Žižek’s approach resembles a version of the French Marxist Louis Althusser’s notion of ideology as expressive causality of the social whole; they contend that Žižek owes much to Althusser on this point (2010, pp. 44–45). Eagleton, also following Althusser, called this type of ideology a socially necessary mystification arising from the structure of society itself (2007, p. 30). Perhaps Žižek does not offer the same kind of specificity as Althusser, if only because in our contemporary (“postmodern”) condition, ideology exists on an immanent plane and is not distinct from any other arena. The novelty of Žižek’s approach is that it returns, in some ways, to Marx himself, for they both locate a mystification at the very root of social life itself—it is not “discourse” added to reality, nor is it (in the vulgar Marxist parlance) that the ideological “superstructure” emanates directly from the economic “base” of society. To be clear, the alliance with classical Marxism is uneasy—Žižek’s thought analogizes the social antagonism inherent in the capitalist mode of production to the unrepresentable Lacanian Real. Johnston (2008) writes,
whereas traditional Marxist thought insists upon the possibility of revolutionarily reversing such alienation at the macro-level of socioeconomic relations, a capitalist-inspired account of micro-level subjectivity . . . requires supplementing dialectical materialism with transcendental materialism by insisting on the existence of certain sorts of irreversible alienation. (p. 270)
The “real antagonism” of the class struggle within classical Marxism indicates that this antagonism can be overcome with an alteration of the mode (or at least the forces) of production, whereas Žižek’s psychoanalytic allegiances indicate that the stumbling block is far more fundamental, for the subject is constituted by a fundamental alienation by signification itself.
For communication scholars, Žižek’s definition of ideology means that the term is not yoked to the camera obscura or “false consciousness” models of ideological thinking, or even yoked to discrete speech acts or texts. Ideology is “out there” in practices, in commodities (especially money), and certainly not solely inside people’s heads. Stripped of its conscious trappings, Žižek’s work allows scholars to think of ideology as “fetishistic” in the Freudian sense. For Žižek, this psychoanalytic insight means that ideology is not a mystification or a secret but installed directly into the texture of reality itself. He writes, “The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not that of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself” (Žižek, 2008b, p. 30). The film They Live provides a clear example of this phenomenon at work, and Žižek discusses it in his film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. In the film, entrepreneurial, imperialistic aliens have invaded the United States, and have replaced advertisements, products, and television with directly ideological messages that are not visible to the naked eye. Magazine pages are surreptitiously replaced with “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT,” billboards now say “OBEY” and “MARRY AND REPRODUCE” beneath their dazzling imagery. The film’s protagonist discovers a pair of special sunglasses, made by a resistance group, that allow him to see reality for what it “really is”—grey, lifeless, and injunctive.
For Žižek, the film epitomizes his theory of ideology because the injunctions are part of reality itself, and the radical ideological critique (the sunglasses) functions to subtract the alluring images from this reality (Fiennes & Wilson, 2013). In his reading, the standard Marxist approach would instead see “reality” as bright, beautiful, and authentic, and subjects would be forced to wear sunglasses that impose direct ideological messages onto our world (Fiennes & Wilson, 2013). This formal reversal may appear minimal but exemplifies the difference between his view of ideology and his interpretation of the classical Marxist school. The fantasy of glamor, choice, and individuality masks the ideology directly inscribed into our everyday being.
Another example of the exteriority of ideology comes from Welcome to the Desert of the Real, in which he describes the nation of Cuba as a state “between two deaths,” holding on as an independent communist nation after the fall of the Soviet Union. Cuba, against all odds, stood firmer than the USSR against the global capitalist order and, above all, remained faithful to being cut off from the rest of the capitalist world. That is, it is no surprise that its leader was named Fidel Castro—with a fidelity to the castration through its revolution (Žižek, 2002c, p. 8).
Communication scholars have turned to Žižek’s Marxist-Lacanian approach to ideology to revive the term in response to discursive materialists like Greene and Slack and from critical rhetoricians such as Blair and Condit (Cloud & Gunn, 2011, pp. 413–414). In their review of the literature on ideology, Cloud and Gunn argue that the term has gone somewhat out of fashion in favor of non-Marxist approaches that privilege “discourse” and its direct role in the production of social reality. For Cloud and Gunn, ideology is still a worthwhile category in the field because it provides a space for radical critique of the existing order through its representation in communicative practices; Žižek’s framing, in particular, works because a Real antagonism is constitutively excluded from discourse (2011, p. 416). Biesecker (1998) succinctly lays out what Žižek’s work is capable of adding to rhetorical inquiry:
First, it explains why ideological interpellations per se work or take hold. . . . Second, the later conception of the real obliges us to acknowledge rather than to disavow the absolutely central role of fantasy in individual and collective life. . . . Third, and finally then, the later Lacan’s theorization of the real helps Žižek to reveal why every ideological or social formation is necessarily provisional and, hence, open to symbolic or discursive reconstruction. (p. 226)
To reduce ideology to a plurivocal play of signifiers misses that a social antagonism is what motivates ideological discourse in the first place.
Both for Žižek and the classical Marxist tradition, ideology (and mediation broadly conceived) is absolutely necessary in order for the capitalist mode of production to exist. The sheer massive presence of ideological discourse and ideological practices in contemporary capitalism (“even when we dream,” as Žižek points out in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology) is a signal to the philosopher that the capitalist mode of production is incapable of closing its own loop. Ideology thus provides a supplement—akin to the surplus value produced within the wage relation—to the normal functioning of modern life, without which the edifice would collapse. The laying bare of the contradictions inherent within this mode of production would simply be too much to bear. Since the capitalist mode of production depends on mystifying a class contradiction at its most basic level, communication functions to cover over, or overcome, it. Žižek elaborates this point in reference to the Lacanian psychoanalytic tradition. For Lacan, signification arises from a deadlock—the ego “speaks where I am not,” all speech comes from an absence of presence, that there is a gap that must be overcome in communication. That this gap must fundamentally be repressed, that a genuine contradiction is at stake, is precisely what politicizes Žižek’s philosophical engagements.
Psychoanalysis, Enjoyment, and the Symbolic Order
Beyond fantasy, Žižek contends that Lacanian psychoanalytic tradition has much to offer critical scholars and has greatly contributed to its revivification of as an interpretive practice. Žižek explains a great deal of Lacanian concepts throughout his work, particularly in reference to popular culture and cinema. Žižek’s book Looking Awry elucidates the objet petit a, the Real, the sinthome, and the phallus, among other concepts, using Hollywood films and detective novels. In communication studies, Lacan’s notions of the symbolic order and enjoyment (jouissance) provide scholars with critical insights. Within the field, scholars such as Biesecker, Gunn, Lundberg, Chaitlin, Matheson, Rickert, Zemlicka, and others have explored Lacanian psychoanalysis’s potential for rhetorical inquiry; Žižek has functioned as a “gateway drug,” or vanishing mediator to the works of Lacan himself.
Lacan, a practicing analyst his entire professional life, gained notoriety in France for his innovative readings of the Freudian tradition. Promising a “return to Freud,” he advanced a series of concepts that, depending on one’s interpretation, either turned or returned psychoanalysis to its roots in the interpretation of speech, away from its “biological” or essentialist trappings. Gunn writes that Lacan posits a triad of the “imaginary” (the world of images and ephemeral appearances), the “symbolic” (the system of language and discourse), and the Real (the “surplus, an impossible excess that cannot be symbolized”) (2004, p. 7). These three elements weave, and orbit, one another; the task of analysis is to untangle and organize them. For example, the above formula for “fundamental fantasy” ($ ◊ a) incorporates all three elements of this triad. The imaginary order appears in the objet petit a, the imagined desired object. The symbolic is indicated by $, or the subject whose body is cut diagonally by language, who must use it to communicate, but loses something essential in expressing their desires. The Real underwrites both elements—it emerges as a crack within the symbolic order and also shadows the objet petit a. No “real thing” could ever fully satisfy a subject’s desire, so the Real eludes this desire.
For Lacan, “the unconscious is structured like a language,” meaning that the linguistic principles of connection, disconnection, habituation, and investment structure his patients’ psychic lives (1998, p. 20). To discover a patient’s inner life, one must attend to her speech in a literal (letter-al) way. Lacan writes that the tools of rhetoric are also the tools of psychoanalysis and thus can be used for interpretive practice (2002, pp. 221–222). Thus, for communication scholars, the symbolic order holds a special place; it is the space wherein one can discover the fantasies that structure a subject’s psychic reality. The human subject is not reducible to her language, nor is she reducible to a “material” body: the Lacanian approach cuts diagonally and thus does not fit neatly into any single philosophical tradition. Moreover, desire is, at root, intersubjective, and Lacan develops the concept of the “big Other” of language that registers the subject’s desire. Rhetorical scholars in particular have used the insight about the asymmetries of communication latent within Lacan’s work to produce novel readings of cultural texts, from the Jade Helm 15 military exercises to human bio-enhancement debates (see Further Reading).
As Žižek explains, the psychoanalytic intervention began by hypothesizing that people do not enjoy “as they should,” according to dominant cultural expectations; some internal block prevents happiness, despite the fact that the exterior conditions for it exist in abundance. Subjects lack the proper coordinates for desire—not that they do not desire, but that something short-circuits its channels:
The fundamental point of psychoanalysis is that desire is not something given in advance, but something that has to be constructed—and it is precisely the role of fantasy to give the coordinates of the subject’s desire, to specify its object, to locate the position the subject assumes in it. It is only through fantasy that the subject is constituted as desiring: through fantasy, we learn how to desire.
(Žižek, 1991, p. 6)
For Žižek, humans are caught in networks of desire, while not knowing precisely what they desire—as mentioned above, “fantasy” provides the coordinates that stage desire; it does not fulfill desire itself. Lack is not a concept with any positive ontological consistency. Biesecker (2007) writes that lack is:
always already at the core of subjectivity lies a constitutive void, the self is therefore fundamentally compensatory and ultimately delusional, and ideology is the symbolic space of self-enunciation at once inaugurated and governed by lack and always already lacking—a melancholic economy’s spectral and structural effect. (pp. 150–151)
For Lacan, “lack in being”—the manque a être—arises out of the cracks within the symbolic order.
Žižek draws a homology between the neurotic structure of desire in psychoanalysis to the structure of ideology in politics. The basic coordinates here are, “If not for X, I would be able to enjoy fully, the community would be whole, etc.” Because capitalism itself cannot “square the circle,” ideology must produce a symbolic displacement, or symptom, that serves as a repository for class struggle. Thus, the currency of ideological investment is not mystification but rather enjoyment. This also represents an advance over classical Marxist theory, since for Žižek, ideological action consists as much in “enjoying” transgressive texts and practices as consuming their opposite. The capitalist mode of production can contain the contradictions of these different sides of ideology and ideology critique; contemporary ideology contains an inner “cynical distance” that is difficult to overcome from within the classical Marxist tradition but possible with a psychoanalytic framework. Within this framework, any desired object is missing but retains an open place:
The basic presupposition of psychoanalytic interpretation, its methodologic a priori, is, however, that every final product of the dream work, every manifest dream content, contains at least one ingredient that functions as a stopgap, as a filler holding the place of what is necessarily lacking in it. . . . In the final analysis, an element always ‘sticks out,’ marking the dream’s constitutive lack.
(Žižek, 1991, p. 52)
Because the Symbolic order cannot express a one-to-one relation with the world, because one always says either “too much” or “too little” when speaking, there is a structural discomfiture at work in language. For Žižek, this impossibility signals (but is not coterminous with) the Lacanian Real, which arises within cracks of the symbolic order; it is not an “unrepresentable excess” on its own. Instead, language must cover over this impossibility. Since one cannot ever directly aim at satisfaction and achieve it, satisfaction must always come through some indirection. This swerve, or clinamen, around the “Real thing” that would satisfy one’s desire is the swerve of enjoyment. Butler contends that this minimal gap within the Symbolic is an inner distance, which accounts in advance for the failure of any signifier to “cover” the concept fully (Butler, 2005, p. 27). One repeats, and enjoys, the circulation in lieu of enjoyment of “the thing” itself; put differently, “lack” and “enjoyment” fit together in a dialectical relation.
Žižek offers a critical method for investigating any given discourse: “The easiest way to detect ideological surplus-enjoyment in an ideological formation is to read it as a dream, and analyse the displacement at work in it” (2002b, p. xc). Scholars must find the “navel” of any given formation, the non-dialectizable kernel that holds the ideological edifice together, and extract whatever a-rational enjoyment is left over. Thus, psychoanalysis insists that one must no longer enjoy this hidden, obscene pleasure that sustains an ideological (or psychological) fiction as a mask for an unrealized desire but rather address that lack as structural. Within communication studies, this structural relation with the symbolic order explains how publics and individuals invest in certain discursive formations. Lundberg and Gunn both use enjoyment to describe how Christian evangelical publics repeat the death of Christ on the cross while watching The Passion of the Christ (Gunn, 2011; Lundberg, 2009).
Enjoyment (jouissance) is a load-bearing term for Žižek, for it represents, as he puts it, the singular substance acknowledged by psychoanalysis. The term is mobile, for it marks simultaneously a compulsion to repeat, the satisfaction elicited from repetition, an unsymbolizable excess, and an unbearable affect. However defined, it should be distinguished from “pleasure,” and indeed, pleasure can be defined as the avoidance, or limitation, of jouissance (Evans, 1996, pp. 91–92). For Žižek, this encounter with jouissance “is always traumatic; there is something at least minimally obscene about it; I cannot simply integrate it into my universe, there is always a gulf separating me from it” (2008a, p. 49). To substantiate the Lacanian concept, Žižek references the uncanny visuals of director David Lynch (in Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Fire Walk with Me), gratuitous sex acts (racist cuckoldry, anal fisting, sadomasochistic pornography), as well as the uncanny visuality of terrorism, especially the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001, in the United States. Each of these objects are ones of arousal and of fascination—they hitch onto the subject’s unconscious and, as mentioned above, compel repetition because they cannot simply be placed into a symbolic matrix. For Žižek, enjoyment in the current conjuncture is both “too much” and “not enough,” it both satisfies and reminds us that it is not the “real thing.” He writes (2009):
That is, the superego aspect of today’s “non-repressive” hedonism (the constant provocation we are exposed to, enjoining us to go right to the end and explore all modes of jouissance) resides in the way permitted jouissance necessarily turns into obligatory jouissance. (p. 58)
Wood elaborates this insight: “How is prohibition universalized today? Because desire is inherently transgressive, in a society where anything is permitted, enjoyment arises as a paradoxical hedonistic asceticism in order to maximize pleasure, one must keep fit, moderate enjoyment, etc.” (2012, p. 59). In Žižek’s estimation, the contemporary superegoic injunction is not “Obey!” but “Enjoy!”: “We never enjoy spontaneously, we always follow an obscene injunction: ‘The psychoanalytic name for this injunction, for this obscene call, ‘Enjoy!,’ is superego’ ” (2002b, p. 10). Following Lacan, Žižek links enjoyment to the Marxian concept of surplus value. Any ideological formation contains a latent kernel of enjoyment that, much like Marx’s concept of surplus value, is simultaneously necessary and superfluous for the system to function. In this contemporary moment, enjoyment is also “not enough” because, as Žižek posits, ideology functions by positing the “theft of enjoyment,” or the idea that some other group “enjoys” at our expense. Two examples, one from the political Right and one from the Left, elucidate Žižek’s approach to enjoyment in contemporary ideology.
Enjoyment and Ideology: Left and Right
First, Žižek uses the “theft of enjoyment” hypothesis to explain anti-Semitism. For the anti-Semite, the figure of “the Jew” is blatantly absurd—Jewish people are both clever and of low intelligence; simultaneously rootless cosmopolitans and backward-looking traditionalists; both capitalist and Bolshevik. What occurs when “the Jew” becomes an alibi for social ills is a structural inversion, beyond even the way that Lacan describes the point de capiton, in which all individual features retroactively coalesce around a singular-universal figure:
The “Jew” cannot be reduced to a purely formal organizational device; the efficacy of this figure cannot be explained by reference to the textual mechanism of “quilting”; the surplus on which this mechanism relies is the fact that we impute to the “Jew” an impossible, unfathomable enjoyment, allegedly stolen from us.
(Žižek, 2002b, p. 19)
In anti-Semitism, “the Jew” becomes a transcendental figure; when inserted into the social space, every social malady “makes sense.” “The Jew” coheres an inherently contradictory state of affairs, even if the individual predicates cannot hold together individually. This minimal shift from “demystification” toward “enjoyment” accomplishes a great deal for critical scholars. The aim is no longer to “unmask” the irrationality inherent in any belief but to discover the investment in that a-rationality. What precious object holds the discourse together, what is at stake if it is lost?
This diagnosis is a reminder of the political stakes of Lacanian psychoanalysis: Žižek’s question regards the social antagonism that is displaced in any ideological formation. Wood (2012) writes:
Instead of recognizing that Capital itself is the ultimate power of deterritorialization, we blame the disintegration of symbolic order on some (religious, racial, ethnic) Other. This “postmodern” racism is inherent to the multiculturalist and (allegedly) tolerant reduction of the sphere of politics proper to the clash of cultures. (p. 113)
This is not simply a (post-structuralist) language game but revolves around a specific social impossibility: the impossibility of the organic community absent class struggle. When post-structuralist thinkers, such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, posit the “arbitrariness of the signifier” in diagnosing contemporary ideological discourse, they are correct, to a point (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985). However, for Žižek, the signifier is arbitrary because the antagonism inherent within the capitalist mode of production is Real and, as such, unrepresentable. The signifier is arbitrary not because it is “plucked from nothing,” or accidental, but because no “thing” could “naturally” be assigned to its place, there is no natural connection between the social antagonism that the “Jew” represents and the figure thereof, but it had to be mediated in discourse anyway to cover over that Real fact. It is the signifier’s relation to its signified that is arbitrary, not the selection among signifiers.
Thus, Žižek’s critique of contemporary political theory can also be explained using the concept of enjoyment. Here, he takes direct aim at Laclau and Mouffe to explain why “enjoyment” structures even radical democratic projects. To begin, his theoretical problem-space is located historically, beginning with the end of the Cold War. Žižek’s diagnoses of contemporary politics begin by assuming the hegemony of the liberal-democratic tradition, and his diagnosis of the “permissive” superego is historically bound by this hegemonic relation. As he points out in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, liberal democracy itself functioned during the Cold War as simultaneously universal (as a project seemingly accessible to all, indicative of a basic human impulse) and particular (a partial, partisan struggle against the Soviet Union) (Žižek, 2002a). His move is to take the liberal-democratic hegemony at its word and thus to its limit. (To presume that his attacks on this democratic status quo are “universal,” or impartial, presumes precisely what his critique is all about—particularizing any attempts at empty universality.) His critique of contemporary political theory involves a double movement: first, “democracy” as such functions as a “sublime object” for its proponents. It becomes the name of an impossible relation, a point of investment that, paradoxically, names a displacement of a more fundamental (in crude Marxist terms, fetishizing “democracy,” making it more inclusive, responsive, and so on admits the powerlessness of changing the material conditions upon which “democracy” occurs). Second, thinkers like Laclau and Mouffe fully recognize that democracy itself is contingent and constructed—they are patient and subtle theorists. Their innovation is to posit the fundamental (deconstructive) notion that something must be constitutively excluded to make “democracy” function. To construct hegemony means positing an “antagonism-as-such.” Yet as a result, “democracy-to-come” becomes its own sublime object, in which theorists fetishize not the practical radical democracy but rather its impossibility—the impossible object acquires a status and thus becomes more ideological, not less. To realize a democratic project strictly through “floating signifiers” and not through the antagonism of the Real is to miss the radical project of Lacan. That is, Žižek’s safeguarding of the Lacanian tradition is political—it serves to reframe and refigure theoretical and political deadlocks.
Hegel’s (Radical) Dialectical Method, or Žižek, Explained
Žižek has consistently forwarded the Hegelian dialectic as a way to solve all manner of problems political, philosophical, and cultural. His provocative reading of Hegel as a thinker of absolute contingency and openness stands in stark contrast to the dominant reading of Hegel in the contemporary conjuncture as lifeless, static, unfashionable, and deluded. For Žižek, “Hegel’s logic is not a system of universal ontology, but simply a systematic deployment of all the ways available to us of making claims about what there is, and the inherent inconsistencies of these ways” (2006, p. 28). Admittedly, communication studies scholars do not engage with Žižek’s uptake of Hegel much on his own terms. However, understanding Žižek’s Hegelianism may explain what causes much of the political and intellectual disagreement with his work (from post-structuralists, deconstructionists, and so on). And more fruitfully, understanding his interpretation of Hegel explains much of his critical stance—and, indeed, even his method. As Žižek makes ever-clearer, the project of rehabilitating Hegel is his primary goal even beyond the other two thinkers in his orbit (he states this aloud in the documentary, Žižek!; Konnor & Taylor, 2005). In his doctoral thesis, later published as The Most Sublime Hysteric, Žižek (2014a) argues that Lacan was Hegelian, even if he did not know it. Later in Less than Nothing, Žižek (2012) takes the opposite route within the fashionable “materialist” trajectory in theory and argues that there must be a materialist reversal of Marx himself—but only through Hegel. Thus, understanding Žižek’s reading of Hegel is key to understanding much of his work: his idiosyncratic writing and argumentation style, his political engagement, and in particular the unity he sees with Marx and Lacan.
In Hegelian philosophy, thought advances by continually positing a stable moment of thought and subsequently negating it until it no longer resembles “itself.” Every concept for Hegel contains an inner distance, or dissimilarity; the task of philosophy is root out and explore/explode any stable concept. Sharpe and Boucher (2010) write:
Hegel’s founding notion is that “the truth is the whole.” Hegel holds that no phenomenon . . . can truly be grasped in isolation. In reality, Hegel argues, every phenomenon is formed through a network of relations that constitute-that is, give form and reason to—it. . . . For Hegel . . . it is necessary to see the “unity of opposites,” or how particular processes, events, or things—even enemies which might seem wholly opposed are actually shaped by their relations with their seeming opposites. (pp. 38–39)
For instance, in The Science of Logic, Hegel works the terms “being” and “nothing” over using his dialectical method until their hidden alliance, their dependence on one another, is brought to light. Throughout his work Hegel diligently and relentlessly dialectizes his concepts; he painstakingly reverses course each time a new thought has been reached. The concept of “sublation” (Aufhebung) means to cancel, preserve, and raise up; for Hegel, the dialectic genuinely advances philosophical thinking by this method. His famous dictum, the transformation of “substance into subject,” epitomizes his approach: no thing remains given for Hegel, and at any moment a “substance” must become partial, “subjectivized,” and put into motion. Hegel’s insistence on negativity as the motor force of thought brings him in contrast with vitalist, or immanent, philosophers like Spinoza and Nietzsche and thinkers who have taken up this mantle in recent times.
For Žižek, the philosophical operation of dialectics is worth defending not only because it stands opposed to the other dominant traditions of contemporary philosophy but because it solves certain irresolvable problems from within the horizon of liberal-democratic capitalism. Much of his trademark “style” of reversals—usually accompanied by the phrase “Is it not that . . .”—is proof of his dialectical thinking at work. As McGowan (2014) points out, Žižek’s use of “the example” in his analyses performs a fairly sophisticated task:
The example actually has the status of a concept in Zizek’s work, just as it does in Hegel’s. That is to say, we should think of the relation between example and concept as reversed: it is the example that provides the basis for the concept, and the concept that is founded on the example. The example has a conceptual priority over the concept. (p. 68)
For instance, on a single page in Tarrying with the Negative, Žižek describes the relation between Alien3 and It’s a Wonderful Life to explore the concept of feminine jouissance in Lacanian thought (1993, p. 62). Parker (2004) writes,
Zizek’s retrieval of Hegel is valuable because it shows why certain theoretical notions in his writing–Truth arising through error, the production of “substance as subject,” universality in the particular—are crucial to philosophy (and then to psychoanalysis and politics). . . . Negativity is at the heart of Hegel and it is Žižek’s task to keep that negativity at work while reading him. (p. 7)
Elsewhere he writes, “There are three main components in Hegel’s work that interest Žižek—universality, reflexivity and negativity” (Parker, 2004, p. 36). Since contemporary ideology functions as a universal masking itself as a particular, Žižek’s basic dialectical move is to discover the partiality inherent within any “infinite judgment.” The reflexivity means endlessly turning to find a partiality even within the dialectical process itself.
The critical move that Žižek accomplishes in nearly every one of his texts is to locate the point at which two seemingly opposed positions overlap and to see not an essential unity that must be “deconstructed” but rather, a hole or gap that is concealed. That is, from the outside, any “antagonistic” dyad (male/female, worker/capitalist, nationalist/migrant, even time/space and symbolic/imaginary) appears as mutually constitutive and “complementary.” Žižek’s move is to reject this conservative idea entirely and locate the antagonism in the w/hole generated by the two terms—not to see what underlying unity they adhere to but rather what Void or negativity is being displaced through the positioning of the two. Any positive entity, any solidity or foundation, is for Žižek a deadlock, a gesture at an inherent impossibility. The point of dialectical analysis is not to begin with the “One” but to see the One as a deadlock, to gesture to an inherent impossibility in a harmonious relation between multiple elements:
[T]here is no “primordial” duality of poles in the first place, only the inherent gap of the One. Equivalence is primordially not the opposite of difference; equivalence emerges only because no system of differences can ever complete itself, it “is” a structural effect of this incompleteness.
(Žižek, 2006, p. 36)
The result is to reconceptualize these multiple elements not as complementary wholes but as a problematic “one.” For instance, sexuality as such names the deadlock of sexed beings; class struggle names the inherent impossibility of capital’s smooth and eternal realization. This is his value in revivifying a radical form of dialectical thinking—beyond how “One becomes two,” rather how “One” is our name for a deadlock presented by the immanent contradiction of the “two.”
Even “the Real” for Lacan names a crack within the symbolic itself, not outside or between the symbolic/imaginary dyad:
At its most elementary, the Real is an anamorphic stain which pops up all of a sudden in the midst of reality; such a stain . . . does not function merely as part of reality; it is not a mere stain in reality—rather, it indicates a process of the ontological disintegration of reality itself.
(Žižek, 2002b, p. lxxxix)
The Lacanian Real resembles Hegel’s “night of the world,” or the absolute negativity that clings onto any positive substance, and he uses this framework to advocate for revolutionary political change. Žižek identifies the Real as the hole, or inconsistency at the heart of Being, that appears phenomenologically as a split within the imaginary and symbolic. An insistence on the Void as the ground of politics (and of his dialectical method) motivates his innovative readings of cultural texts as necessary but insufficient elements of a critical praxis. It is here that Hegel’s influence is deeply felt: as mentioned above, a Žižekian approach locates the void, or inconsistency, that is the locus of jouissance in any given cultural formation. While scholars in communication studies have not taken up this version of Hegelianism in any systematic way, it provides the basis for his thought and, to Žižek himself, is the strongest defense against criticism from the outside.
Critiques, Limitations, Controversies
Finally, the thinker has generated a wealth of criticism from within and without his intellectual traditions, from feminism, deconstruction, post-structuralism, vitalism, and political theory. Space does not allow for a full delineation of these debates, so the major contours of the limitations of his thought are provided. First, because he foregrounds ideology as the primary way in which people experience their reality, intellectual trends that downplay the role of discourse have a built-in suspicion of Žižek’s methods. Since ideology for Žižek is also seemingly all-encompassing, his work can be interpreted as downplaying the agency of groups and individuals who are subject to ideological messaging. And more precisely, within the Marxist tradition, Žižek may be rightly rebuked for equating “capitalism” with “the Real” at moments in his works. For instance, in The Ticklish Subject, Žižek posits that capitalism is the “symbolic Real” because of its power to condition the very ground upon which subjects operate (2008c, pp. 330–331). Because the Real, from within his own corpus, is radically unrepresentable and inaccessible, this may defang any radical critique of the mode of production. And as a result, some criticism is leveled at Žižek’s Marxism. Sharpe explains that Ernesto Laclau, a discursive materialist interested in hegemony, sees Žižek’s concepts as simultaneously shapeless, abstract, and nostalgic (2004, p. 17). Laclau has also criticized Žižek for universalizing certain categories (particularly the working class) when advocating for social change (2012, p. 396). Next, Žižek’s innovative Hegelian approach, partially due to its radicalism, contravenes the Derridean reading of Hegel and directly contrasts with an immanent ontology forwarded by Deleuze. (And in reply, within Organs without Bodies, his book on Deleuze, Žižek’s rebukes Deleuze for simply ignoring Hegel entirely, as if he never existed within the philosophical canon “Hegel is ‘thoroughly bad,’ unredeemable” (Žižek, 2004b, p. 42.) Žižek reads this intentional avoidance as a “resistance” in the psychoanalytic sense, one that must be overcome through analysis—such is the evergreen rebuke available to this tradition.) Further, the vitalist school of thought (such as those following Deleuze) summarily rejects the hypothesis that “lack” constitutes the human subject. Within an immanent ontology, “lack” as privation or negation is a category error, constructed out of thought, and is not conceptually rigorous, even regarding arenas (like language) where presence and absence appear to be a necessary feature.
Žižek’s model of criticism, of uncovering and extracting the “kernel of enjoyment” that sustains any discursive formation, can also be turned to view his own work as an ideological “performative contradiction.” Samuels accuses Žižek of ignoring the material reality of the contemporary academy in his diagnoses of contemporary capitalism, and rather, “enjoying” the act of critique itself in “abstract and universalizing” ways (2002, p. 328). That is, while the philosopher criticizes trends within the academy that problematize revolutionary social change, or fetishize academic work as revolutionary in and of itself, Žižek’s career owes much to the political-economic setup of modern intellectual work. (Rickert, in a reply, offers that Žižek’s theoretical innovations will help critical scholars produce a new mythos for academic work and that Žižek cannot be held responsible for the material conditions that preceded him; Rickert, 2002, p. 630.) From within the confines of his approach, the lure of jouissance in critical work is inescapable and turns on the question of what libidinal investment sustains the desire to critique and to find answers in his theory. From within his own philosophical apparatus, Žižek’s insistence on the Void, or the Real, as the ground of politics entails that at some level, gesturing to the that which cannot be contained in academic discourse (a supplement that exceeds) is what breaks the circuit of theoretical debate. Genuine revolutionary or earth-shattering events like September 11, the pummeling of Gaza, or the worldwide financial crisis answers the libidinal trap in ways that discourse cannot do on its own.
Finally, Žižek has invited public controversies of his own. As a “celebrity philosopher,” Žižek has commented on pressing political issues in editorials in major magazines and periodicals worldwide involving President Donald Trump, the Syrian refugee crisis, Brexit, and others (Euronews, 2016). Therein, Žižek’s “universalist” solutions may be seen as either incipiently reactionary or ultra-leftist, depending on the issue. For instance, in an interview with the BBC, Žižek provocatively claimed that were he American, he would have voted for Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton, precisely to force the American political system to face the horror of its own failures to contain such a candidate. He paraphrases T. S. Eliot, exclaiming, “The only way to save the orthodoxy is through radical heresy” (BBC News, 2017). Fundamentally, Žižek’s philosophical commitments take him to the limit of any issue: when faced with an impossible choice, choosing “the worse” is always a more ethical one. (Indeed, this attitude is how Žižek describes his uptake of Lacan, Marx, and Hegel in Sublime Object—one can only “rescue” an unfashionable thinker via an even more unfashionable one.) Thus, to vote for Democrats, support “humanitarian intervention” actions in the Middle East, or remain within the European Union is fundamentally unethical, for each “half-measure” keeps the existing order and the existing horizon of possibility in place. Žižek uses the examples of the US House of Representatives refusing to pass the initial version of the Troubled Assets Relief Program immediately following the death of Bear Stearns in 2008 and the Greek people rejecting the EU’s austerity terms with an emphatic “οχι” (no) vote in 2015 as true “acts” in the psychoanalytic sense, because the “no” was not simply rejection within a binary but a “no” to being forced to choose between two bad options. However personally distasteful these opinions may appear, from within Žižek’s own philosophical position, any contemporary horror we face comes from within the failures of liberal-capitalist democracy itself, that it cannot realize its own pretensions to universality, and inevitably produces unspeakable excesses. In his recent re-evaluation of Soviet political leader V. I. Lenin, Žižek provocatively uses his dialectical method to argue against what liberal democracy takes at face value, the necessity of a state: “The state is the limit of democracy, genuine politics pushes past the limit of ‘taking’ power, and instead, abolishing the organ of power itself” (2004a, p. 273).
Overall, Žižek’s work remains a pole of attraction for communication and critical/cultural studies thinkers for a variety of reasons, including his revivification of Lacanian psychoanalysis, his insistence on the continued relevance of ideological critique, and his defense of the Hegelian dialectical method. His blending of popular culture references in cinema, television, politics, and art have made these immensely complex thinkers more accessible to his readers. And because he has pushed the limits of these philosophies and provoked the existing political/economic order (and the thinkers that orbit each), his work continues to invite critical engagement.
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