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The Magician of Ljubljana

By Assaf Sagiv

The totalitarian dreams of Slavoj Žižek.


 Intellectuals possess a special kind of power. Unlike politicians, generals, or corporate bosses, they lack both the authority and the ability to impose their will directly on others. They must therefore rely on “symbolic capital,” a term the historian Shlomo Zand of Tel Aviv University explains this way:

The power of their presence in the consciousness of their colleagues, or in wider public circles, is what establishes their status. As an offshoot, their power source is predominantly the symbolic prestige capital they accumulate. This capital, in many ways similar to financial capital, is obviously not a “thing,” but an attitude. To a certain extent it may be said that the thought patterns of consumers of intellectual output are the banks in which this precious capital is accumulated. This symbolic power can be measured in academic degrees, in prizes, in the extent of mentions and attributions, in the number of publications, and in many other practices routinely employed in the stock exchange of respect and acclamation.1

By these standards, it is safe to say that a sizable quantity of “symbolic capital” is today concentrated in the hands of Slavoj Žižek, philosopher, cultural commentator, and abounding wordsmith. Since the 1989 publication of his first book in English, Žižek, a senior researcher in the faculty of social sciences at Ljubljana University, has become the hot name of the Western intellectual scene. His books, translated into dozens of languages, have earned near-unanimous acclaim: The New Yorker crowned him an “international star” and credited him with putting his mother country, Slovenia, on the world map of ideas.2 Sarah Kay, professor of French literature at the University of Cambridge and author of a critical introduction to Žižek’s work, maintains that his enormous influence on the humanities and social sciences is reminiscent of the profound impression made by French thinker Michel Foucault on these academic disciplines during the seventies and eighties.3 And Glyn Daly, a senior lecturer in politics at University College, Northampton, who published a book of conversations with Žižek, describes him as “the philosophical equivalent of a virulent plague.”4 For its part, The Chronicle of Higher Education employed a slightly less ominous metaphor to describe the unique status of the Slovenian theoretician: “Žižek,” it writes, “is the Elvis of cultural theory.”5

What is the secret of Žižek’s magic? It is not, as we might expect, his theoretical innovations—he himself, after all, shrinks from claims of originality. Rather, it must be traced to his unique, highly idiosyncratic style. Unlike philosophers and academics who are only too happy to ensconce themselves in an ivory tower, Žižek is a master at bridging the gap between sophisticated theoretical ideas and popular, “low” culture. Thus, one finds in his writings a psychoanalytical analysis of scenes from Hitchcock films or an erudite discussion of the philosophical significance behind the surprise in Kinder chocolate eggs. His stockpile of associations is both wide-ranging and inexhaustible; no cultural phenomenon, however vulgar or banal, escapes his theoretical scalpel. His essays are also awash in humor and irony—both of which he often directs against himself—and although it is often difficult to follow the convoluted course of his arguments, his books always make for rollicking good reads.

But Žižek’s cultural criticism is not merely an intellectual diversion. Rather, his thinking aims to make a political statement of practical significance. Žižek disdains intellectuals who renounce the ambition to alter reality; instead, he wholeheartedly adopts the old Marxist adage according to which it is not enough to interpret the world—one must also set it right.

In light of this pretension, and of Žižek’s celebrated status in intellectual discourse, some attempt should be made to clarify the political vision that guides him, and to determine how precisely he believes the world should be “set right.” The answer may be hard to swallow: Žižek is perhaps the most extreme and outspoken of those intellectuals who align themselves with what goes by the name of “radical” politics. He routinely defends repressive, totalitarian regimes, openly supports political terror tactics, and advocates the violent dismantlement of the existing order.

We should not make the mistake of dismissing these opinions as the inane provocations of an eccentric personality. After all, they are firmly rooted in Žižek’s theoretical beliefs, and derive from his interpretation of central concepts in philosophy and psychoanalysis. True, it is no simple matter to pin down Žižek’s political convictions, owing to his fondness for rhetorical pyrotechnics and intentional self-contradictions. Yet anyone who is held sway by the explosive power of ideas cannot ignore the arguments of the magician of Ljubljana, or remain indifferent in the face of the abyss to which he would lead us.

II

The sources of Žižek’s inspiration are many and varied. In particular, he is influenced by the idealistic philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel and F.W.J. von Schelling, by the writings of Marx and Lenin (to which he has returned more and more frequently in recent years), and by the radical philosophy of neo- and post-Marxist intellectuals such as Louis Althusser, Ernesto Laclau, and Alain Badiou. If Žižek can be said to have a true spiritual and intellectual mentor, however, it is undoubtedly the controversial French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Indeed, in many ways, Žižek’s writings are a sophisticated elaboration of Lacanian concepts. It might be helpful, then, to offer here a brief—if somewhat crude—clarification of these concepts.

It should be noted that Lacan himself never laid claim to an original theory, preferring instead to describe his work as a “return to Freud.” He insisted that Freud’s innovations had not been accurately understood by his disciples (especially those in the English-speaking world). In particular, they missed the truly subversive aspect of his investigations into the nature of sexuality and unconscious desire. Lacan was determined to correct this misconception, and to re-expose the radical potential of the Viennese genius’ insights.6 Yet Lacan could never be accused of blinkered loyalty to the source: On the contrary, he greatly extended the mantle of psychoanalytical discourse, bringing to it ideas and terms borrowed from the structuralist school of thought in linguistics and anthropology, European philosophy, and the Parisian avant-garde. Some consider Lacan’s ambitious synthesis a monumental intellectual accomplishment; others see in it an unmitigated presumptiveness that collapses under its own theoretical weight. Either way, no one can deny its prodigious effect, or its vast cultural importance.

At the core of Lacanian theory is the distinction between three different orders, or “registers,” that affect mental processes: The “imaginary,” the “symbolic,” and the “real.” Over the years, as Lacan’s thought evolved, the precise meaning these terms held for him changed, as well. For the purpose of our discussion, however, it is worth identifying their basic characteristics.7

The imaginary register began to engage Lacan’s attention early in his career, when he presented his research on the “mirror stage” at the fourteenth International Psychoanalytical Congress in 1936.8 The mirror stage denotes a specific period in an infant’s development (between the ages of six to eighteen months) during which he begins to identify his reflection in a mirror. Lacan asserts that this recognition provides the infant with something he has not previously experienced: A sense of selfhood and wholeness. Since the infant still lacks full control over his motor activities, Lacan explained, and since he continues to be dependent on others, his reflection in the mirror is essential to his conception of himself as a complete and coherent “I”—in other words, an ego.

The ego that evolves during the mirror stage is nonetheless based on distortion, or self-alienation. That is to say, the infant identifies with his reflection—something outside himself—to evade the internal fragmentation that characterizes his mental experience. This narcissistic process grants the infant an imaginary sense of control and autonomy, but it also requires that he attune himself to an external field of perception. This attunement continues to characterize the mature ego, as well: The imaginary register, created at the infantile development stage, becomes an inseparable part of our mental makeup, and impels us to seek recognition outside ourselves in order to bolster our desired self-image.9

Self-alienation also accompanies the child’s initiation into the symbolic register–the order of language, logic, and law. In Lacan’s view, this register is personified in the character of the father, who breaks the child’s imaginary unity with its mother—the first object of its love—and introduces him to a world of rules, prohibitions, and differentiations of culture.10 The entry into the symbolic register thus undermines the ego’s illusory sense of autonomy, since it subordinates man to social codes originating someplace outside himself. Lacan calls this external source “the big Other”11 in order to emphasize its radical alterity—that is, the impossibility of assimilating it into oneself through imagined identification—and its crucial importance to our constitution as thinking, speaking creatures in communication with our surroundings.

The bedrock of the symbolic order is the system of language signs into which we are born and from which we cannot extricate ourselves.12 Lacan’s view of language is strongly influenced by the theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structuralist linguistics. De Saussure held that language is made up of signs, and signs of two parts—the signifier, a mental picture created by a sound (such as a word), and the signified, which is not to be confused with the object itself, but is rather its psychological concept, or “idea.” The connection between these two components is arbitrary, the product of nothing more than social convention; nonetheless, de Saussure believed that the sign locks them together in a stable and permanent manner, like two sides of the same coin.13 Lacan contested this claim, however, insisting that the meaning of the signifier is not chained to the signified, but is rather derived from its relation to other signifiers. Thus, for example, the dictionary definition of a particular word uses other words in order to clarify its meaning.14 As a result, the search for the meaning of a particular sign inevitably leads us along a complex and dynamic chain of signifiers that is reminiscent, in Lacan’s words, of “rings of a necklace that is a ring in another necklace made of rings,”15 without our ever leaving the realm of the symbolic order.16



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