Situating the Work of Slavoj Žižek
The recent debate between Peterson and Žižek was, in my opinion overhyped. I have read a great deal of Žižek. While I read but one of Peterson’s books, Twelve Rules for Life, I did not believe Peterson, while having a wide range of thought, had enough intellectual clout to fully address Žižek.
So of course, Žižek was, in some sense, kind of Peterson, asking for a productive discussion, rather than one that could humiliate the new star philosopher.
That media event seemed more of an opportunity for both Žižek and Peterson to virtue signal to their own fans. Although, I believe Žižek used it to introduce his own thought to a wider audience.
Since then, there have been some articles seeking to give further illumination to Žižek’s prolific and often confusing work. I haven’t found anything online that offers a rich enough reading of Žižek although Matt McManus’ essay The Politics of Slavoj Žižek is pretty good as he is able to summarize the relationship of Political Correctness with ideology and identity for Žižek.
I don’t need to repeat McManus’ arguments here as you can read his article. But I do want to add to it by first disagreeing with McManus. Finding a post-ideological identity is something that Žižek’s work cannot address. McManus is right with this:
Like Marx, Žižek is far more astute as a critic than as a constructive political theorist. This may be disappointing to those looking for concrete answers to the most pressing social problems, and it gives Žižek’s work a pessimistic air. According to Žižek, ideology plays such a determinative role in our lives that getting free of it can seem like pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.
In fact, developing a subjectivity that is free of ideology is exactly like pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Such an exercise would be an impossibility as Žižek does not make a distinction between subjectivity and ideology. In the Lacanian language, Žižek so favors, creating such a subjectivity would be to escape castration and engage in causa sui — self-creating. Žižek follows Lacan by defining self-awareness as the realization of self and other in terms of how limited our own agency is. Essentially becoming aware that we are agents in society means that we must kneel before the weight of symbolic declarations, e.g., the “Name of the Father” (which includes all the phallus talk that comes with it).
Žižek’s connection between ideology and subjectivity isn’t limited to psychoanalysis either. Unspoken by McManus, is the philosophical connection Žižek has been trying to articulate for decades, which is why he connects psychoanalysis with Hegel and Marxism/Althusser.
For Žižek, subjectivity and ideology, as a transcendental horizon, are two sides of the same coin. We cannot have one without the other. Implicit with subjectivity is the “petit object a,” “less than nothing,” “lost context,” or “zero ground” that we become blind to so that ideology as a transcendental framework can operate. Essentially where the subject “sits” the subject cannot see. Having a point of view means a loss of perspective that includes showing how the subject is situated.
This situation is exactly as McManus points out:
The secret of identity politics is that, in it, the white/male/hetero position remains a universal standard; everyone understands it and knows what it means, which is why it is the blind spot of identity politics, the one identity it is prohibited to assert.
Essentially this is the same critique as many others, including myself, have proclaimed: Political Correctness (and identity politics) is flawed because it determines identities based on given classifications of identity (usually Imperialistic and European in origin). As such, Political Correctness enables no transcendent overcoming of those classifications — allowing for no growth. Ironically, Žižek encounters a similar limitation in his own system of thought.
As McManus states, Žižek is pessimistic because he sees no way out. Žižek defines subjectivity in terms of a transcendental framework and vis versa. Seeing our own framework requires what Žižek calls parallax; seeing our transcendent in radically indirect ways via inconsistency in meanings. For Žižek, if we try to step out of ideological constraints we encounter with the Real, that which is outside of symbolization. Definitionally, we cannot be outside of the symbolic and still have coherency and understanding. With the Real, there is no possibility of subjectivity as there is no understanding and no world to understand.
Žižek also does not make an exception that this era is any more ideological than other eras. What is unique today is that the multicultural/capitalist context enables greater numbers of different ideologies to coexist — so we have more opportunity to see ideology in others. If we lived in pre-capitalist times, we would see meaning as a naked truth more often simply because we would be among others who would more than likely agree with our position as outliers would be ignored, exiled, burned at the stake or forced to drink hemlock.
Peterson was pretty spot on when he noticed that Žižek had his own philosophy.
There are alternate forms of subjectivity available through contemporary philosophy that is not transcendentally bound, although Žižek would argue that each of those expressions is included within his framework. This totalizing view is what is so damaging about Žižek’s thought — he is intolerant of anything that doesn’t centralize within his terminology.
In fact, when you read his work he often compares his frame with others’ frames and critiques them as “missing” aspects of his frame such as how Barad has no “transcendental” or Foucault has no “petit object a” or how Deleuze has a transcendental but doesn’t recognize it as such.
In that sense, Žižek is as bad as Ayn Rand. Rand’s reading of Kant in The Romantic Manifesto is often enough to make people throw her book at the wall until you realize that she’s not trying to explain Kant. Rand’s goal is to explain herself more. Žižek does the same thing. He doesn’t explain other people, he just uses their words to talk about how great his ideas are.
Now for the fun part: Classifying Žižek.
As I have stated before, Peterson doesn’t really understand what he is talking about regarding postmodernism and Marxism. In fact, Peterson’s remarks about neo-Marxist postmodernists say more about him than anything else.
However, Peterson has identified that Žižek is Marxist. Žižek has publically acknowledged as much. Yet Žižek actually isn’t postmodern at all. He’s almost meta-modern. I would say that he is secretly modern because he takes an absolute view of his terminologies. Stylistically Žižek is postmodern but the fact that Žižek includes a transcendentally bound organization in his thinking makes him not at all postmodern.
Žižek is a good example of what Deleuze would point at, saying that postmodernism is a sham, that it’s really just modernism in disguise.
Žižek does share things with postmodern philosophers though, like Baudrillard, such as providing deep readings but no real “solution” to the problems he discovers.
Essentially, this lack of goal is why I think postmodernism can’t be Marxist (or even socialist) — even if many postmodern thinkers tend to be socialist in terms of a political ideal. The fact is, postmodernism is complicit with both socialism and capitalism.
Just look at all the architecture, movies, literature, music and sculpture generated by postmodernism (such as Glenn Branca, Jeff Koons, Quentin Tarantino, and so on). Then look at all the positions of cultural and institutional authority held by those who practice postmodernism in the arts. (When you think of how elite and expensive postmodern architecture is, I think you’d be forced to realize that there is nothing socialist about the economics going into creating such buildings.) Most of the people who have created the most elite of arts are postmodern to date and thus participate strongly in capitalism.
Postmodernism follows the same formal structure as the endless ebb and flow of capitalism. Deleuze and Guattari in Volume 1 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Anti-Oedipus, would say, that it is a capitalist ideology because it parrots capitalism in form, enabling endless transactions without any greater telos, end or point.
In the same way, Žižek’s work is a generative and speculative realism. His work is speculative because we can’t prove any of it (the definitions are circular and qualitative, so there isn’t any quantitative metric we can use). His work is generative because the process of reading social phenomenon through his work generates more work. (Žižek has written well over 20 books and published over 200 articles.) His work is a realism because it is an attempt to get at reality truthfully, yet relies on a fixed set of tropes to frame phenomenon. Sometimes the frame is useful, sometimes it is not. But framing is not the same as understanding, as fitting phenomenon into a pre-given framework is not the same as understanding.
In that sense, Žižek’s philosophy is like, what Baudrillard calls hyperreality. Žižek attempts to create a map for the territory but instead mistakes the map for the territory, relying on philosophical simulacra as stand-ins for actual phenomena. This is why I think Žižek’s work, while interesting, is but a stepping stone to more useful philosophies.
Žižek can’t suggest solutions because his philosophy isn’t made to understand how the world works. Žižek can always talk about the meaning of something after the fact. Useful, but reactive.
His philosophy is made to explain why we experience the world the way we do, how our subjectivity and our experience are inverses of each other. And in that sense, his system of thought is necessarily limited to the domains of psychoanalysis and meaning. Essentially that covers everything but only insofar as how the world around us is a projection of our hopes, fears, and dreams which is not an examination of how the world is or how we could be better.
And this is why Žižek is a pessimist. He can’t find a way out of the deadlock of his philosophy. This is also why he’s a Marxist: not only does Althusser’s work on State Ideological Apparatuses inform his work, but Marx provides an explanation of subjectivity based on capitalism. Understanding subjectivity via the projections allowed by capitalist consumer decadence is why one of the movies featuring Žižek’s thought, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Žižek states that the way out of the deadlock to capitalism is more capitalism.
Žižek cannot imagine an end of our current ideological simulacra without an actual end. Žižek cannot further his own thought without an actual systemic collapse.
This begs the question as to the ideal role of philosophy.
Should a philosopher be able to examine the present to have us see into the future? Or should a philosopher only be able to examine the past to tell us about our present?
Žižek is the latter. In my opinion, we need the former.
Funny thing is maybe Jordan Peterson can help him, after all, Peterson has clinically helped many find meaning in their lives again.
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