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Summary Article: Žižek, Slavoj from The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory

Slavoj Žižek (b. 1949) is a Slovenian philosopher whose work has been increasingly popular and widely discussed since the publication of his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, in 1989, primarily for two reasons. The first is Žižek's unique ability to combine discussions on psychoanalysis, philosophy, and politics, and provide original reinterpretations of the work of intellectual figures such as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The second is his very characteristic and idiosyncratic writing style, which manages to combine references to “high theory” and popular culture, obscene jokes and Continental philosophy, personal anecdotes and political theory. A text by Žižek will easily move from a discussion of psychoanalysis to the video clips of Michael Jackson, from the nature of totalitarianism to the differences between European lavatories, and from German idealism to Marlboro ads. There has always been an iconoclastic element in his work and a tendency to challenge and subvert dominant assumptions about his topic, an attitude that has been seen as related to his own personal and professional background. For Terry Eagleton, for instance, it is the fact that Žižek comes from a former Communist country that explains his concern with challenging authority and the establishment: “No acolyte of Lacan from Paris or Pittsburgh would have anything like Žižek's political nous, a faculty you develop spontaneously in a place where the political is the color of everyday life” (Eagleton 2003: 201). Tony Myers, on the other hand, has seen Žižek's intellectual development as always characterized by “a distance or heterogeneity to the official culture within which he works”: “He has always been a stain or point of opacity within the ruling orthodoxy and is never fully integrated by the social or philosophical conventions against which he operates” (Myers 2003: 10).

Žižek was born in Ljubljana, in former Yugoslavia, now Slovenia. His upbringing within the political environment of the 1970s was formative for his work as he started studying at a time when the Communist regime was becoming more liberal, which allowed him to collaborate with dissident intellectuals and publish articles in journals such as Praxis, Tribuna, and Problemi, which he was also editing. The fairly liberal climate also allowed him to familiarize himself with the popular culture of the West that was later to become an important source of material for his discussions. At that period, he also became affiliated with one of a group of Slovenian intellectuals based at the Institute of Philosophy in Ljubljana who were particularly focused on the work of Jacques Lacan. It was also there that he obtained his PhD in German Idealism at the University of Ljubljana in 1981. Between 1981 and 1985 he studied psychoanalysis at the University of Paris VIII with Lacan's son-in-law Jacques-Alain Miller, who was to become a major influence on Žižek. With him, Žižek undertook a second doctorate on Hegel, Marx, and Kripke from the perspective of Lacanian psychoanalysis, and this was to provide a lot of the material of Žižek's first two books, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) and For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (1990). In the late 1980s, Žižek returned to Slovenia where he got involved in politics even more actively, as he ran for president in the first free elections of the Republic of Slovenia in 1990, finishing fifth for the four-person presidency. He has been a very prolific and versatile writer, with countless articles and lectures and more than 40 books since the late 1980s. He has also been the topic of two films, Slavoj Žižek: The Reality of the Virtual (2004) and Žižek (2005) and wrote the documentary A Pervert's Guide to Cinema (2006). Currently he holds various academic posts such as that of international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London, senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, and professor of the European Graduate School, among others.

Žižek was initially perceived as primarily a popularizer of the theory of Jacques Lacan, whose rewriting of the work of Sigmund Freud from the perspective of structuralist linguistics is often considered to be inaccessible to the point of obscurantism. For psychoanalysis, humans are primarily creatures of pleasure. “Desire,” to use Lacan's term, is what defines human identity after the individual's transition from what Lacan discusses as the prelinguistic “register” (or “order”) of the imaginary in which the newborn infant finds itself to the register of the symbolic. Unlike the imaginary, which is the register of “wholeness” where the child does not perceive itself as distinct from its mother or the environment, the register of the symbolic is the register of absence and lack, which the child experiences after the entry into language. Language brings about the sense of absence, because words, “signifiers,” stand for things, “signifieds,” which are not there. “Through the word,” as Lacan himself puts it, “which is already a presence made of absence, absence itself comes to be named” (Lacan 2001: 65). Once the individual enters the symbolic, everything is perceived and experienced in a mediated way, through language and signification, and “reality” itself is nothing but a fantasy, “a fragile, symbolic cobweb that” however “can at any moment be torn aside by an intrusion of the real” (Žižek 1991: 17): there is always something that is left out that cannot be assimilated or symbolized, something that threatens to collapse the fantasy of reality, which is what the third register of the real refers to, something that always returns to erupt within the symbolic order “in the form of a traumatic return, derailing the balance of our daily lives” (1991: 29). Žižek's reading and reworking of Lacanian theory has been original primarily in three ways. First, unlike previous approaches to Lacan's work, which were mostly focusing on the interactions between the registers of the symbolic and the imaginary, Žižek placed increasing emphasis on the significance of the dynamic between the symbolic and the real. In fact, it is probably the central concept around which Žižek's entire oeuvre oscillates, not least because it encapsulates a central premise of Žižek's philosophy, the argument that within any system there exists an element that threatens its disruption and yet is a prerequisite for its existence. Accordingly, Žižek has relied on this concept as a central point of reference in various of his discussions and identified the real with sexual difference (1994), capital (1999), and Christian grace - as opposed to symbolic law (2000). It is for this reason that he has been described as “the philosopher of the Real.”

Apart from the “turn to the Real”, there is a second sense in which Žižek has provided a novel interpretation of Lacan's work, and this is in relation to the work of the German idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. The novelty of Žižek's combined reading of the two theorists lies in his identification of Hegel's concept of the dialectic with Lacan's register of the real. Hegel's idealism relies on the founding premise that new ideas are formed out of the interaction of previously existing ones. According to the Hegelian dialectic, a given statement, a “thesis,” will interact with a conflicting or opposite statement, its “antithesis,” in order to form a new, more encompassing statement, a “synthesis.” The synthesis, in turn, forms a new thesis to be subjected to the same process, until the final achievement of an Absolute Idea that will enable the true understanding of the world in its “totality.” One may already identify a shared interest in the function and interaction of tripartite systems in both Hegel and Lacan; Lacan himself had acknowledged his indebtedness to the German philosopher. But he had also launched a severe critique of Hegelianism, as its belief in resolution and wholeness was in conflict with the psychoanalytic vision of a symbolic universe of conflict and split (see Lacan 2001). Žižek's interpretation of Hegel, however, has challenged the dominant view of his theory as one of synthesis and totality and focused on the significance of antithesis and negation, which he identified with the real. The dialectic process, for Žižek, does not eliminate contradiction for the sake of totality but rather foregrounds the existence of contradiction within totality, or, in Lacanian terms, the eruption of the real within the symbolic universe. The dialectic, for Žižek, is never finally resolved but rather its incessant development suggests, according to him, that once something reaches its identity it instantly turns into its opposite and thus confirms the existence of difference within identity. Žižek has always been fascinated with the dialectic inversion of something into its opposite to such an extent that he reproduces it in his writings. Often he will start by discussing a film, novel, theory, or anecdote; then he will proceed by offering the usual approach or interpretation to be expected toward the specific topic; and finally he will invert this interpretation, often with a negative interrogative sentence, in order to provide a different insight to the topic in question. The structure of his texts may therefore be seen as reproducing the dialectic process.

The third sense in which Žižek's rereading of Lacan has been considered to be original is the way in which he has combined psychoanalysis with Marxism in order to provide critiques of capitalism, racism, nationalism, and totalitarianism. In this way Žižek added a political twist to psychoanalysis, despite Lacan's own disdain for politics. This aspect of his work has been evident from the very beginning of The Sublime Object of Ideology, where he identifies structural analogies between Freud's theory of the dream-work and Marx's theory of the commodity-form, in order to suggest that capitalism is a pathological system of exploitation. More important, in this respect, however, is his project to reinterpret traditional Marxist conceptions of ideology from the perspective of psychoanalysis. The traditional Marxist definition of ideology as “false consciousness” refers to a set of beliefs, values, morals, and assumptions that are presented as “natural” and “commonsense” to citizens of a society when in reality they serve the interests of the dominant social groups. For Žižek, ideology functions through the social organization of what Lacan referred to as the transgressive experience of jouissance, the sexual enjoyment individuals have an irresistible urge toward yet have to compromise once they enter the socio-symbolic order. For Žižek, political regimes will only perpetuate their ideology by organizing their subjects’ relations to jouissance (for example, through music, drugs, alcohol, festivals, etc.). His discussions of popular culture therefore acquire a further meaning through this argument.

During the last few decades, several theorists have suggested that the concept of ideology is outdated in a world where citizens generally demonstrate a certain cynicism toward political authorities and public institutions. But Žižek has always been persistent in underlying its enduring currency. He sees this cynicism as deeply ideological in itself and perfect proof of the pervasiveness of ideology. From the days of The Sublime Object, he was relying on the German political theorist Sloterditj in order to suggest that the formula to convey the function of ideology is not “they do not know it, but they are doing it,” as Marx himself had put it, but “they know it, but they are doing it anyway” (Žižek 1989: 29). But from the late 1990s onward, the political aspect of his writings has become much more pronounced, as, for instance, in one of his most widely discussed books, The Ticklish Subject (1999), where he has examined the nature of totalitarianism, nationalism, capitalism, and globalization. In these writings, Žižek has increasingly emphasized the importance of what he calls “the act,” the action whereby individuals may escape from the confines of ideology and achieve a political version of what, in psychoanalysis, is termed “traversing the fantasy” of everyday life and perceive its illusory nature that hides the real, and therefore manage to build “reality” again. In this sense, his work has become even more relevant politically, especially as he has provided theoretical interventions on debates of events such as 9/11 and the Iraq War, among others.

SEE ALSO: Dialectics; Ideology; Imaginary/Symbolic/Real; Lacan, Jacques; Marx, Karl; Psychoanalysis (to 1966); Psychoanalysis (since 1966)

  • Eagleton, T. (2003). Slavoj Žižek. In Figures of Dissent. Verso London, pp. 196-206.
  • Lacan, J. (2001). Ecrits: A Selection (trans. Sheridan, A. ). Routledge London.
  • Myers, T. (2003). Slavoj Žižek. Routledge London.
  • Žižek, S. (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso London.
  • Žižek, S. (1990). For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. Verso London.
  • Žižek, S. (1991). Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. MIT Press Cambridge, MA.
  • Žižek, S. (1994). The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality. Verso London.
  • Žižek, S. (1999). The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. Verso London.
  • Žižek, S. (2000). The Fragile Absolute: Or Why the Christian Legacy Is Worth Fighting For. Verso London.
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