Volume 4, Number 1 (January 2007)
Book Review: Traverse Your Žižek: An Explicit Confrontation With Our Political Deadlock
Geoff Boucher, Jason Glynos and Matthew Sharpe (Editors). Traversing the Fantasy: Critical Responses to Slavoj Žižek. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.
Reviewed by Benjamin Noys
(Department of English, School of Cultural Studies, The University of Chichester, United Kingdom).
Slavoj Žižek is renowned not only for his original articulation of Lacanian psychoanalysis, German Idealism, and Marxist politics but also for the rapidity of his theoretical production. As his contributors note in this volume: “he has published on average over one full length book per year, a swathe of journal and magazine articles, and edited several collections”.1 The only thing that threatens to outpace him, it seems, is the output of secondary material on his work. At the time of writing this includes four introductory guides, two monographs, a book of interviews, one special journal issue, a film, and numerous others essays and articles, as well as the widespread discussion of his work on the internet.2 Žižek has shown a sincere willingness to be involved in debate with his critics, including exchanges with Bruno Bosteels over the thought of Alain Badiou, and with Ernesto Laclau over the theory of hegemony.3 Now we have the first volume of critical essays in book form on Žižek, consisting of eleven essays and a response by Žižek. The hapless reader might well start to feel like the Flaubert scholar described in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, whose office becomes a “paper universe” to the point where she is “reduced to working from an easy-chair drawn more or less in the middle of her room”.4
Of the eleven essays in the collection three have been published previously, and two of these have already received responses by Žižek.5 That said, the collection does offer valuable material, particularly the one essay that is not critical, Robert Pfaller’s “Where is Your Hamster? The Concept of Ideology in Žižek’s Cultural Theory”. Pfaller argues that the concept of ideology does not require the alternative of a true knowledge or God’s eye view from which the critic operates. Instead ideology is actually a different sort of language-game altogether, belonging to the domain of what Freud called “illusion”, Spinoza named “imagination”, and Lacan the “imaginary”. In ideology when we speak of an object we are actually speaking of our own wishes or desires projected onto the object. This illusion is not dispelled by truth, as anyone who has encountered a person suffering from a delusion can attest, but has to be tracked to its true object – what Žižek talks about as the Real. Pfaller argues that Žižek’s significant contribution is his attention to ideology as an unconscious belief, not embodied in false consciousness but, instead, “objectively” in staged beliefs – in the various rituals of everyday life for example. This means we can “know” we are not in ideology, take our distance from it, but all the while still be acting ideologically. Žižek’s memorable example is that we might know full well that money is a symbolic fiction, the pieces of paper virtual representatives of value, but we do not, usually, set light to them. The American Yippies revealed this ideological function in the 1960s when they tipped dollars down on to the floor of the New York stock exchange and watched the brokers fight over them. Although they were dealing in far vaster sums the brokers could not resist their own interpellated desire to grab comparatively small amounts of “actual” money, revealing their own disavowed greed.
As Pfaller summarizes it is the distance towards belief itself that is the place of ideology today. Hence the tendency to reject the category of ideology is in fact the ideological attitude par excellence. To break with this distance we have to act on the “prop” by which the subject keeps ideology at a distance – this is the “hamster” of Pfaller’s title. It refers to a tragic story of Žižek’s about a friend whose wife died of breast cancer, leaving her beloved pet, a hamster. While the friend coped stoically with the loss of his wife when the hamster died six months later the friend collapsed. We have to ask those cynical subjects who accept the way things are where is your hamster that allows you accept “reality”? To abolish this distance requires an over-identification with symbolic rituals. Rather than “going along with” various ideological demands while retaining our “inner distance” it is those who take them seriously that threaten the system’s operation. In a way Pfaller’s own essay illustrates the power of taking Žižek’s work seriously, rather than maintaining critical distance from it as the other essays in this collection do. To “traverse” an influential thinker or position is not a matter of immediately forming criticisms, which will often actually end up repeating the conventions of existing positions or thinkers. Instead we must identify with the new position absolutely, all the way through, and in this way we may find our own position; this is exactly Žižek’s own attitude with Lacan for example.
Saying this suggests the problem of the other critical essays in the collection is that they “shoot too quickly” in jumping to critical positions on Žižek. While they do offer original articulations of particular difficulties in his position, and this is by no means a worthless activity, they also tend to place him within existing frames of debate. Hence if Žižek’s text is renowned for being repetitious then so also are many of the criticisms of his work. As Žižek himself notes in his reply “Concesso Non Dato” many of the essays argue that his work displays “oscillation” around one or other theme. He suggests that the real symptom here is “political deadlock”: the dominance of the concept of democracy, which merely “serves the goods” in Lacan’s phrase – that is to say, which itself functions as the standard of a “good” regime and which is also consonant with the “goods” of market capitalism. The attempt to imagine any alternative to this order, as Žižek does, finds itself accused of “totalitarianism”, “fascism”, “ultra-leftism”, etc. (the fact that these charges are contradictory serves to highlight their ideological function). This kind of criticism is evident in the essays by Geoff Boucher, Matthew Sharpe, and more in the register of ethics, in the essays by Yannis Stavrakakis and Russell Grigg. They all argue that Žižek’s attempt to move beyond this deadlock involves a “Year Zero” rhetoric that fails to deliver the promised leap out of the existing order (“this world we must leave” as Jacques Camatte put it); in short, Žižek never makes good his promises.
Perhaps a more interesting approach to the “political deadlock” Žižek attempts to negotiate is offered by Justin Clemens contribution to this collection. He treats the question of politics as a question of style. This oblique approach directs him towards the absence of lyric poetry in Žižek’s work as a crucial absence and symptom of Žižek’s many, well-known, “slips” in reading. Although Žižek is quite scathing about Clemens critical reading,6 it is noticeable that in his recent book The Parallax View (2006) he has started to discuss, somewhat obliquely, lyric poetry (particularly Wordsworth and Yeats). Yet Žižek turns round the question of reading onto his readers. While they take pleasure in pointing out the errors, antinomies, aporias, and, yes, oscillations, in his work, have they actually read Žižek? His texts are often taken as the model of accessible “pop” theorizing – a compliment that can easily turn into the criticism of sloppy writing. It is true his texts are accessible but if we try to faithfully follow and reconstruct the logic of Žižek’s arguments, after all the minimal definition of a close reading, then we find that a far more complicated path breaking is required (to use Heidegger’s terminology).
Bruno Bosteels has gone as far as too suggest that it is actually impossible to offer a coherent overall interpretation of Žižek’s work, due to its proliferation, re-doubling, shifts in position, and complex patterns of articulation in antagonistic polemic with other thinkers.7 This may be taking matters too far. Certainly, in true Lacanian style, Žižek is resistant to the discourse of the university; that discourse, which is not confined to actual universities, but which represents the dominance of knowledge over the function of the resistant object (the objet petit a). As Žižek points out those thinkers outside or on the margins of the university attract the university, which tries to convert their “raw” discourse into knowledge. In this process of smoothing or ordering something is lost.
The usefulness of Žižek’s lengthy and thorough reply to the essays in this collection is that he engages directly with this problem. If the essays respond to his provocative rhetoric then in replying to their provocative attempts to domesticate him then Žižek clarifies his own position in quite surprising ways. Contrary to the perception of Žižek as one carried away by radical Leninist, Maoist or Stalinist invocations of “Year Zero” revolutionary change, he states that he is actually a pessimist. In the current context Žižek argues that it is true that we cannot conceive “a clear project of global change” and so “today, it is more crucial than ever to continue to question the very foundations of capitalism as a global system, to clearly articulate the limitation of the democratic political project”.8 What this means is a tracking of the points of symptomal torsion, such as Palestine, and new universal individuals, such as the slum dweller existing as “bare life”. Of course his critics could reply, with some justification, why didn’t you do that then? Instead of making pleas for Cultural Revolution, where is the detailed analysis of these potential future “event-sites”? Žižek’s robust response is to stress the number of times he does offer both concrete and modest political proposals as well as, in his more recent work, explore the possibilities of potential “evental-sites”. In fact the best summary of his project as a whole comes from his friend Alain Badiou:
That is, in my opinion, why Žižek is not exactly in the field of philosophy, but in the field of a new topology, a new topology for the interpretation of concrete facts in a situation, political events and so on. Though, here, I mean interpretation not in the hermeneutic sense, but in the psychoanalytic sense. Žižek offers us something like a general psychoanalysis, a psychoanalysis that exceeds the question of clinics and becomes an absolutely general psychoanalysis. This is the first time that anyone has proposed to psychoanalyze our whole world.9
What Badiou appreciates is, precisely, the topological nature of Žižek’s writing in terms of its concreteness. This is a characteristic that would certainly not be evident from many of the critical responses to his work, including in this collection. Despite the distance between their conceptions of the task of thought Badiou shows more insight into Žižek’s project that many sympathizers and critics.His gesture suggests another mode in which we might “traverse” Žižek; not only through a kind of absolute identification but also from what we could call an engaged but sympathetic distance. This is not the cynical distance of ideology in which Žižek would become the latest object of academic appropriation with the usual patronizing gesture of drawing up a balance-sheet of his successes and failures (something like the written “feedback” inflicted on students). Instead it is the distance of mutual engagement, of what Badiou and Žižek would probably, and rightly, call “comrades”. This collection offers means to engage with this dimension of his work, to gauge his topology, his “word psychoanalysis”, at the multiple points of its deployment. In the editor’s insistence of the political valence of Žižek’s work, and the commitment of the essays to exploring the problems of this commitment, we find an explicit confrontation with what Žižek calls our “political deadlock”. In this way, despite, or because of, its continued marginality to academia, Žižek’s Lacanian analysis offers something new to our situation. He suggests the necessity of a topology of concrete situations, of political events, not as the replacement for actual political activity but as a means of situating the contours of a radical “Left” thinking today. What he also suggests is the patience necessary to this task, which involves a refusal to rush into praxis. The question that still remains is the degree to which Žižek will provide this analysis, although this is also a task for anyone committed to radical change.
1 Geoff Boucher, Jason Glynos and Matthew Sharpe (Editors). Traversing the Fantasy: Critical Responses to Slavoj Žižek. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005:ix. For a bibliography of Žižek’s work see Lacan.com (http://www.lacan.com/bibliographyzi.htm).
2 The four introductory guides are: Sarah Kay. Slavoj Žižek: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity, 2003; Tony Myers. Slavoj Žižek. London and New York: Routledge, 2003; Ian Parker. Slavoj Žižek: A Critical Introduction. London: Pluto, 2004; and Rex Butler. Slavoj Žižek: Live Theory. London: Continuum, 2005 (reviewed by Paul Murphy in International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, January, 2006: http://www.ubishops.ca/BaudrillardStudies/vol3_1/murphy.htm. The two monographs are: Matthew Sharpe. Slavoj Žižek: A Little Piece of the Real. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004; and Jodi Dean. Žižek’s Politics. London and New York: Routledge, 2005. The book of interviews is: Slavoj Žižek and Glyn Daly, Conversations with Žižek (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004). The special journal issue: Paragraph: A Journal of Modern Critical Theory 24 (2) (2001). The film is: Astra Taylor and Slavoj Žižek, Žižek! (2005).
Editor’s note: There is also discussion at present of forming an editorial board to launch an International Journal of Zizek Studies.
3 For the debate with Bosteels see: Bruno Bosteels, “Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject: Part I. The Recommencement of Dialectical Materialism?”, Pli 12 (2001): 200-229 (reprinted in a revised version as “Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject: The Recommencement of Dialectical Materialism?” in Slavoj Žižek (Editor). Lacan and the Silent Partners. London and New York: Verso, 2006: 115-168); Slavoj Žižek, “Foreword to the Second Edition: Enjoyment Within the Limits of Reason Alone”, For They Know Not What They Do (2nd Edition), London and New York: Verso, 2002: xi-cvii; Bruno Bosteels, “Badiou without Žižek” The Philosophy of Alain Badiou. Matthew Wilkens (Editor). Special issue of Polygraph: An International Journal of Culture & Politics 17 (2005): 223-246. For the debate with Laclau, see the sections by Laclau and Žižek in J. Butler, E, Laclau and S. Žižek. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London and New York: Verso, 2000. The debate is continuing around the question of populism, see Slavoj Žižek “Against the Populist Temptation” Critical Inquiry 32 (Spring 2006): 551-74 and Ernesto Laclau “Why Constructing a People Is the Main Task of Radical Politics”, Critical Inquiry 32 (Summer 2006): 646-680.
4 W. G. Sebald. The Rings of Saturn. London: Harvill, 1998: 9.
5 The three previously published essays are Yannis Stavrakakis, “The Lure of Antigone: Aporias of an Ethics of the Political”, Umbr(a) 1 (2003); Russell Grigg, “Absolute Freedom and Major Structural Change”, Paragraph 24 (2) (2001); and Peter Dews, “The Eclipse of Coincidence: Lacan, Merleu-Ponty and Žižek’s Misreading of Schelling”, Angelaki 4 (3) (1999). Žižek replied to Stavarakis “’What Some Would Call …’: A Response to Yannis Stavarakis”, Umbr(a) 1 (2003), and to Dews, “From Proto-Reality to the Act: A Reply to Peter Dews”, Angelaki 5 (3) (2000): 141-148, available at http://www.lacan.com/zizproto.htm.
6 Geoff Boucher, Jason Glynos and Matthew Sharpe (Editors). Traversing the Fantasy: Critical Responses to Slavoj Žižek. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005:227.
7 Bruno Bosteels. “Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject: The Recommencement of Dialectical Materialism?” in Slavoj Žižek (Editor). Lacan and the Silent Partners. London and New York: Verso, 2006:163 n29.
8 Geoff Boucher, Jason Glynos and Matthew Sharpe (Editors). Traversing the Fantasy: Critical Responses to Slavoj Žižek. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005:224.9 Alain Badiou. ”An Interview with Alain Badiou Universal Truths and the Question of Religion”. Adam S. Miller, Journal of Philosophy and Scripture 3 (1) (Fall 2006): 4. See: http://www.philosophyandscripture.org/Issue3-1/Badiou/Badiou.pdf
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)