Key Theories of Slavoj Zizek

The Slovenian Lacanian Hegelian Slavoj Zizek  (1949– ) is the contemporary dialectician par excellence; the mapping of his identity via the three descriptors that open this sentence, which can be variously positioned and re-positioned, is one way of temporarily locating him. Born in Ljubljana in the former Yugoslavia, during the period of Communist rule, Zizek  studied for a degree in philosophy and sociology at the University of Ljubljana, which he was awarded in 1971, followed by postgraduate study in philosophy, and work as a translator. He gained his second doctorate from the Université de Paris, in 1985, writing on the philosopher Hegel and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Zizek ‘s major foray into politics culminated in an unsuccessful attempt to become a pro-reform presidential candidate, on a shared platform, in the 1990 Slovenian elections. Zizek  next concentrated on his academic research, with his post at the Institute for Social Studies at The University of Ljubljana and a number of visiting professorships at American universities.

It was two books based upon his Paris doctorate and published in English translation, that first rudely awoke the world to Zizekian discourse: The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) and For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (1990). Another key early text in the English speaking world is The Zizek Reader (1999), edited by Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright. Turning to Zizek ’s exhilarating prose also leads to an associated problem for many beginning readers: the mélange therein of Lacanian discourse and Hegelian methodology – which alternately are ‘illuminated’ by reference to popular culture, or ‘illuminate’ popular culture by reference to psychoanalysis/ philosophy – induces some anxiety and stress. The cure may be to not worry and to enjoy one’s symptom; this involves realizing two things: (1) that Zizek  writes dialectically, which means that any particular point in one of his arguments is a temporary stage that will eventually be transformed via its opposing argument (proceeding therefore via Hegelian negation), and (2) that Zizek  is part of the Slovene Lacanian School, which operates at a level of intellectual intensity rarely glimpsed in the West. But Zizek ‘s work is not impenetrable, rather, one simply needs to learn a few key Lacanian terms, watch a few Hitchcock movies, and then sit back and enjoy the Hegelian ride. Perhaps the key term to approach the Zizek  ian rollercoaster equipped with, is the ‘Real’. This is a Lacanian term that the editors of The Zizek   Reader describe as ‘that which is both inside and outside the subject, resisting the Symbolic’s endeavours to contain it’. This definition begs the question: what is the Symbolic? All Lacanian terms are understandable as part of a process of subject formation: sticking with simply the main coordinates, there are three relevant interrelated terms, the pre-linguistic Imaginary, the cultural and linguistic Symbolic, and the Real; the Imaginary is structured by needs and image-identifications; the Symbolic is structured by language and the law; the Real is that which can neither be pictured nor articulated through language. The Real is not reality, existing in opposition to it; it is that which is at the limits of language, and can only be partially and incompletely approached as, or via, trauma, lack or enjoyment.3 But the Real is constitutive and as such forms a ‘hard kernel’ at the heart of existence. Much of Zizek  ’s writing is an oblique approach to the Real.

Zizek ’s Hegelianism is highly self-reflexive and self-explanatory; in a chapter of The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (1999), Zizek   asks ‘What Is “Negation of Negation”?’. He answers via a range of examples: a ‘New Age airport pocketbook’ called From Atlantis to the Sphinx by Colin Wilson, an academic book called States of Injury by Wendy Brown, a brief reference to anthropology, then Marx’s Capital, and finally the ‘experience’ of the dissident struggle against Party rule in Slovenia. How does his argument proceed? First he notes the surprisingly Hegelian conclusion to From Atlantis to the Sphinx, where the historical transition from intuitive to logical types of knowledge, and the current phase of ‘reuniting the two halves’, is resolved not via some bland and balanced New Age synthesis of intuition/logic, but through recognition that it has already happened; as Zizek  says:

the unavoidable conclusion is that the moment of the Fall (the forgetting of the ancient wisdom) coincides with its exact opposite, with the longed-for next step in evolution. Here we have the properly Hegelian matrix of development: the Fall is already in itself its own self-sublation; the wound is already in itself its own healing, so that the perception that we are dealing with the Fall is ultimately a misperception, an effect of our skewed perspective – all we have to do is accomplish the move from In-itself to For-Itself: to change our perspective and recognize how the longed-for reversal is already operative in what is going on.

This is a slightly long-winded way of saying that the subject of ‘misperception’ is in need of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Except, of course, that Zizek  does not say this; he instead gives the reader another example, that of a ‘misperceived’ world devoid of oppressors, where such a perspective fails to realize that it is mediated by the oppressor in the first place. Zizek   thus poses two answers to his question that structure this chapter: first, negation of negation is a two-stage process, the first negation leaving the subject inside the symbolic domain she is rejecting, the second negation being that of the symbolic domain itself; this is then recognized by Zizek   to be a ‘pure repetition’. What is the point of this chapter? First, it reveals that the Hegelian dialect can be exposed or learnt through examples that have a certain narrative form; second, that a really good way of moving from In-itself to For-itself is via psychoanalysis (moving from ‘misperception’ to recognition); third it reveals how applying Hegel allows a rapid and smooth traversal of anthropological, cultural, political, philosophical and sexual domains of experience and knowledge; and fourth, it enables us to admire Zizek  himself, as the grand expositor of Hegel via unusual examples. Zizek  himself gets even more unusual with his explication of Christianity, but this must be understood to be part of his wider engagement with important twentieth-century thinkers in the humanities, in this instance the philosopher Alain Badiou. Zizek  is interested in Badiou’s ‘politics of truth’ or ‘theory of subjectivity as fidelity to the Truth-Event’. This theory is given full expression in Badiou’s reading of St Paul, but Zizek  also gives minor examples from moments of unexpected and unpredictable political change.

In The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (2003), Zizek‘s own reading of St Paul hinges on the recognition of a shared question between St Paul and Lacan: is there love beyond law? The answer is that only in the incomplete, imperfectability of subjectivity can there be love, and this elevation of imperfection is the Real of Christianity. Zizek  also engages extensively with the feminist and gender theorist Judith Butler. As Sarah Kay argues, in this engagement Zizek ’s fidelity to Lacan reveals a certain weakness in his earlier theorizing of ‘woman’, a weakness that Butler is aware of; further, by charting Zizek ’s reading of a single film – The Crying Game – his movement through multiple perspectives is revealed, thus Zizek  moves

from occupying a ‘heterosexist normative’ position condemned by Butler, via a ‘queer’ position that is quite Butlerian, to adroitly contending that it is, in reality, Butler who confers a content on sexual difference and thus normalizes it in a way Zizek  would reject.

Zizek  switches from the entire Oedipal scene of conflict to a new notion, drawn from Lacan, whereby sexual difference is constituted via a struggle with the death drive: Butler, in this instance, remains rooted in an orthodox notion of gender, with the logical impasse of positing gender identification and misidentification at a stage in subjective formation prior to the Symbolic – in other words, before there is such a thing as gender differentiation. It is in Zizek  ’s engagement with Deleuze, however, that he has received the most opprobrium: in this instance, Zizek  ’s shameful act is the book Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (2004), which Zizek calls ‘an encounter between two incompatible fields’. This encounter creates Lacanian and Hegelian equivalences to certain key terms, starting on the very first page, where Deleuze’s ‘excess of the pure flow of becoming’ or the reality of the virtual is posited as the Lacanian Real. In other words, there is not just a Lacanian/Hegelian critique of Deleuze at work in this book, but also a recuperation. A more important equivalence is that of Deleuze’s ‘quasi-cause’ with that of Lacan’s ‘objet petit a’; the former is an ‘excess’ in the emergence of the new, one that cannot be reduced in any way to historical context; Zizek  calls the ‘quasi-cause’ a ‘metacause’ whereby the effects already exceed the causal explanations. In a Lacanian shift, Zizek   postulates that the ‘cause’ of desire, which is the object and cause of desire at the same time, called ‘objet petit a’ functions in the same way as the ‘quasi-cause’:

the basic premise of Deleuze’s ontology is precisely that corporeal causality is not complete. In the emergence of the New, something occurs that cannot be properly described at the level of corporal causes and effects. Quasi cause is not the illusory theater of shadows, like a child who thinks he is magically making a toy run, unaware of the mechanic causality that effectively does the work – on the contrary, the quasi cause fills in the gap of corporeal causality.

The popular commentator on postmodernism and theory, Steven Shaviro, notes that Deleuze and Guattari foreground this link between their work and Lacan’s in a footnote in their Anti-Oedipus; Shaviro also sketches one of the ‘problems’ with Zizek  s book for many readers, that the recuperated Deleuze is reduced and constrained by the Lacanian-Hegelianism that charges Zizek  ’s writing. Zizek  ’s oblique approach to the Real, then, causes exhilaration and anxiety, creating simultaneously a feeling of intellectual freedom and oppression; the fact that so many commentators on his work express their own psychological and emotional state, is in itself, perhaps, indicative of a desire to be analysed by Zizek  , while simultaneously being horrified by the thought. Perhaps it is a Hegelian desire to move from the In-itself to For-itself, gaining the awareness as Zizek   argues in Organs Without Bodies that the ‘truly New is not simply a new content but the very shift of perspective by means of which the Old appears in a new light’.

Source: FIFTY KEY LITERARY THEORISTS by Richard J. Lane, Routledge Publication.

Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies


  1. Modernism, Postmodernism and Film Criticism – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  2. Cinema in the Age of New Media – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  3. egalit
  4. Fetishism and Commodity Fetishism – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  5. Slavoj Žižek and Film Theory – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: