The Magician of Ljubljana

By Assaf Sagiv

The totalitarian dreams of Slavoj Žižek.

As long as the consciousness remains pure negativity, the mind is merely a jumble of blind instincts and random images without meaning or direction. It is rescued from madness only by virtue of the symbolic register, which provides it with stability. Through language, the fleeting glimpses of the “night of the world” become durable;34 from the psychotic abyss is born a personality with defined characteristics. In this way, man goes through a process of “subjectivization” in which he gains an identity and occupies a specific position in the social order. Only thus, claims Žižek, the “chaos of the encounter of the real is transformed into a meaningful narrative.”35

Yet, as Žižek emphasizes, even after we have been integrated into the symbolic register, a core of pure negativity remains hidden within us. Since it is impossible to represent this negativity, it must belong to the dimension of the Real. Žižek describes the “inner kernel of the Real” as the zero point of human consciousness—on the one hand, the ground upon which mental development is possible, but on the other, a subversive power that threatens to disrupt our psyche, drawing it into madness. A distinction must therefore be made between the pure, “real” subject, which is essentially a void, and the symbolic subjectivization that fills it with different narratives of “content.” As Žižek says:

The crucial point is to conceive the relationship between subject and subjectivization as an antagonistic one. By means of “subjectivization,” the subject (presup)poses the existence of a symbolic network which enables him to experience the universe as a meaningful totality, as well as to locate his place in it, i.e., to identify himself with a place in the symbolic space.... The counterpoint to this process of subjectivization, the encounter of the real in its senselessness, however, is not a “process without the subject,” but the subject itself: What the subjectivization renders invisible is… its void—subjectivization is a way to elude the void which “is” the subject, it is ultimately a defense mechanism against the subject.36

This distinction is what allows Žižek to provide an ingenious riposte to the post-structuralist critics of the Enlightenment narrative: He agrees that man’s identity is normally shaped by the cultural order in which he lives, but at the same time believes that a certain universal and ahistorical subjectivity lurks behind that particular identity. This may well be a hollow universality, but it is precisely because of its vacant nature that a diversity of symbolic constructs is able to agglomerate and disintegrate within it according to historical circumstances. According to Žižek, the difference between the Lacanian position and the views held by post-structuralists derives exactly from this point:

In “post-structuralism,” the subject is usually reduced to so-called subjectivization.… But with Lacan, we have quite another notion of the subject. To put it simply: If we make an abstraction, if we subtract all the richness of the different modes of subjectivization, all the fullness of experience present in the way the individuals are “living” their subject-positions, what remains is an empty place which was filled out with this richness; this original void, this lack of symbolic structure, is the subject.37

To demonstrate this idea, Žižek proposes a fascinating example from Hollywood. He points out the essential difference between the classic “film noir” genre of the forties and fifties and films like Blade Runner and Angel Heart, which belong to the wave of noir films made during the eighties. In the old Hollywood detective films, says Žižek, the hero would occasionally suffer from amnesia, which caused him temporarily to forget who he was or what he was doing. The problem was solved if and when he regained his memory with the aid of a psychological “exorcism,” and rediscovered his place in the symbolic order. In contrast, in the fictional universe of Blade Runner (at least in the director’s cut) or in the magical world of Angel Heart, the hero completely loses his identity and discovers, to his anguish, that he is living a lie with respect to who he is—that he is, in fact, someone or something completely different. In this respect, these films reflect the basic split between conscious personality, which is nothing more than a transient symbolic fiction, and its receptacle: The hidden, unconscious subjectivity.38

In this way, Žižek wrests the Lacanian subject from the post-structuralist bear hug. But at what cost? As he himself notes, it is difficult to accommodate both the model that he outlines and the conventional view of the subject in modern humanist philosophy. The Cartesian cogito at the heart of this philosophical tradition is characterized by the ability to know and understand oneself, whereas Žižek describes an existence that is impenetrable, and cannot be completely represented or rationally interpreted. Žižek admits that he did not intend “to return to the cogito in the guise in which this notion has dominated modern thought (the self-transparent thinking subject), but to bring to light its forgotten obverse, the excessive, unacknowledged kernel of the cogito, which is far from the pacifying image of the transparent Self.”39 Yet we cannot but wonder if it is in any way appropriate for the subject as described to be called cogito, “I think,” considering that its inclusion in the register of the Real demonstrates the very limitations of human thinking and its inability to recognize even those conditions that make it possible in the first place.40

The main problem, however, stems from the vast difference between the subject as described by Žižek and the modern ideal of autonomous man, capable of altering reality through the power of his intelligence and his moral capabilities. This ideal rests on a belief in the beneficent potential of the human subject and in the confidence that he is, in fact, an entity capable of rational and responsible behavior. It was in this spirit that Kant defined the Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” adding that “Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.”41 But in Žižek’s opinion, the universal subject, which grounds all symbolic identity, is not the embodiment of intellect or maturity, but its very opposite: “The ‘night of the world,’ the point of utter madness.”42 And since “the pure ‘subject of the Enlightenment’ is a monster,”43 any kind of autonomy is out of the question—not just because the subject is totally governed by the “big Other,” as Lacan maintained, but because, in Žižek’s understanding, it has no stable or enduring existence.

Thus, little of the idealist philosophers’ vision remains in Žižek’s interpretation. Kant, Hegel, and Schelling, each in his own way, believed that the human spirit was progressing towards a better future, one in which men would be able to rise above their differences and subdue their demons. Žižek, in contrast, is interested not in self-improvement, but in the fractiousness, terror, and madness that characterize the “authentic” state of the subject. Like Lacan, who exhorted his patients to confront their psychotic “inner kernel,” Žižek is convinced that the way to redemption is through hell. Basing the ambitious project of the Enlightenment on such a platform, however, is like building a castle on a fault line: A sure recipe for disaster.


Whereas Žižek’s concept of the subject aligns itself with German idealism, his social theory is strongly influenced by Marxism, a worldview traditionally located at the opposite pole. Accordingly, Žižek presents his work as a “critical” project that attempts to analyze and expose the sickness of the existing order. The main target of his criticism is global capitalism, which, after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, became (to Žižek, at least) an inexorable hegemony. Indeed, the proliferation of capitalism has, for many intellectuals, been a source of great distress these last hundred and fifty years: How can it be, they ask, that the masses permit the existence of such an oppressive system, and—even worse—seem perfectly happy to collaborate with it? Part of the answer, according to Marxists, lies in the ability of the ruling hegemony to make effective use of “ideology”—a word that, for them, paints a distorted picture of the world—to preserve the status quo.44 Žižek adopts this argument in principle, and so is likely to be portrayed, mistakenly, as a full-fledged neo-Marxist. A careful reading of his works, however, shows that the ideological criticism he proposes actually undermines the very foundations of Marxist thinking, sweeping it, along with the other doctrines that come under its scrutiny, into a philosophical black hole.

Žižek is aware that by insisting on using the word “ideology” as a tool of critical analysis he may appear slightly anachronistic. After all, there are many who believe that the attraction of the great “isms” has diminished considerably. Žižek himself notes that post-modern capitalist society is marked by a cynical attitude towards institutions and ideas.45 Yet, despite this outward show of cynicism, the overwhelming majority of people continue loyally to play their roles in the existing order; it does not occur to them to rebel against it. This conformity proves for Žižek that the classic conception of ideology as a naïve consciousness is no longer commensurate with reality. Therefore, he proposes a different concept of ideology, more attuned to the present reality:

The cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he nonetheless still insists upon the mask.... Cynical reason is no longer naïve, but is a paradox of an enlightened false consciousness: One knows the falsehood very well, one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still one does not renounce it.46

It follows, then, that the cynical attitude is not truly post-ideological. True, it arouses in us an illusion of sobriety, but it does very little to undermine our willingness to obey hegemonous mechanisms. “Cynical distance is just one way—one of many ways—to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: Even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.”47 We therefore need, Žižek claims, to reappraise the role of ideology in our time, and to expose the ingenious ways it makes us obedient—not through beliefs, as Marx believed, but by acts. On this point, Žižek adopts the conclusion of the neo-Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, according to which “the ‘ideas’ of a human subject exist in his actions.”48 Thus, it appears that the causal relationship between rituals and faith may be quite the opposite of what we initially thought: External actions performed out of a sense of formal obligation often generate “true” internal conviction only after the fact.49

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