The Magician of Ljubljana

By Assaf Sagiv

The totalitarian dreams of Slavoj Žižek.

Society, Žižek concludes, is therefore governed by ideological apparatuses, even—and perhaps especially—when the prevailing mood of cynicism leads us to believe otherwise. But Žižek is not satisfied merely to lift the veil from the covert involvement of ideology in every aspect of our lives; he also seeks to explain how ideology has become so essential to the perpetuation of the social order, and why there appears to be no refuge from it. To this end, he enlists the help of Lacanian theory. This time, however, the object under analysis is not the subject himself, but society as a whole.

Žižek maintains that it is possible to identify clear similarities between the circumstances in which the social order is created and the development of the human child. In both cases the unconscious—individual or collective—conceals within it traces of a formative traumatic experience, an internal split that cannot be healed. In the case of society, this trauma is the bitter conflict or antagonism between certain groups—that is, the crisis out of which a community is born, and that in one form or another remains with it forever.50 Since this trauma is so hard to bear, it is impossible to internalize or even acknowledge it consciously; thus, we choose to repress or deny it. In Lacanian terms, this trauma embodies the menacing presence of the Real in the social fabric.

Although this constitutive trauma does not lend itself to full representation, it is nevertheless possible to feel its side effects. For a “leftover” of the Real always remains to haunt the symbolic field, like some elusive, phantasmic apparition. According to Žižek, this surplus proves that our “reality,” created by the symbolic fiction, is never truly complete; rather, it contains an unprocessed aspect of which we cannot rid ourselves.51

The phantasmic remainder, then, embodies the failure of the symbolic order, and may well come to be regarded as a threat to it. But Žižek attributes to it quite a different function: Its spectral presence, which takes many forms, conceals the menacing abyss of the Real and so reinforces the illusion of permanence and coherence.52 Even though this “leftover” is not part of the symbolic order, it both completes it and facilitates its survival by acting as a buffer between order and the insufferable, traumatic “thing” itself.53 According to Lacanian theory, this is precisely how the psychological mechanism of fantasy operates: As a screen that keeps loathsome reality out of sight.54 Without the magic veil this vestige provides, sexual relations, for example, would be rendered impossible on account of the repulsive aspect of human physicality:

With so-called “real sex”: It also needs some phantasmic screen… any contact with a “real,” flesh-and-blood other, any sexual pleasure that we find in touching another human being, is not something evident but something inherently traumatic, and can be sustained only insofar as this other enters the subject’s fantasy-frame. What happens, then, when this screen dissolves? The act turns into ugliness—even horror.55

Ideology, says Žižek, operates in an identical fashion, acting in effect like a collective fantasy in the service of the hegemonic power. The picture it paints blurs the traumatic antagonism in the depths of the social order and, no less importantly, the fact that it is impossible to heal this internal split. To sustain the distorted image, ideology enlists the shadowy vestige of the Real, and offers it as the exception that proves the rule: “‘Fantasy’ designates an element which ‘sticks out,’ which cannot be integrated into the given symbolic structure, yet which, precisely as such, constitutes its identity.”56 Nazi ideology, for example, conjured up the specter of the Jew in order to foster the illusion that only this vestige prevented the establishment of a harmonious society:

What appears as the hindrance to society’s full identity with itself is actually its positive condition: By transposing onto the Jew the role of the foreign body which introduces in the social organism disintegration and antagonism, the fantasy-image of society qua consistent, harmonious whole is rendered possible.57

Racism is not the only form of ideological distortion in modern society. Another, perhaps even more important example is the democratic system. Žižek condemns liberal democracy as a typical ideological distortion that serves the capitalist order with frightening efficiency: “Democracy is today’s main political fetish, the disavowal of basic social antagonisms: In the electoral situation, the social hierarchy is momentarily suspended, the social body is reduced to a pure multitude which can be numbered, and here the antagonism is also suspended.”58 The right to vote in elections, Žižek contends, lends the masses the illusion that they have a part to play in determining society’s character, when in truth this character is governed wholly by apparatuses whose aim is the efficient management of the exploitative capitalist economy. The democratic system does not and will not change this reality; it only perpetuates it. Žižek offers an amusing metaphor to illuminate his argument:

It is a well-known fact that the close-the-door button in most elevators is a totally dysfunctional placebo which is placed there just to give individuals the impression that they are somehow participating, contributing to the speed of the elevator journey. When we push this button the door closes in exactly the same time as when we just press the floor button without speeding up the process by pressing also the close-the-door button. This extreme and clear case of fake participation is, I claim, an appropriate metaphor [for] the participation of individuals in our post-modern political process.59

In view of this, we should ask ourselves: If Žižek’s analysis is accurate, and “objective” social reality is shaped in practically every respect by ideological apparatuses aimed at reinforcing a collective illusion, why do so many—including some of the most eminent intellectuals of the Left60—believe that this criticism is no longer productive as a theoretical basis for political, social, and economic analysis? Žižek claims that the reason derives not from any dilution of ideology, but rather from the fact that it has become “too strong”: The presence of Ideology in our lives is so dominant that it has reached a point at which it “begins to embrace everything, inclusive of the very neutral… supposed to provide the standard by means of which one can measure ideological distortion.”61 There is no escaping this trap: “The stepping out of (what we experience as) ideology is the very form of our enslavement to it.”62

Yet if, as Žižek reminds us, it is impossible to identify any external vantage point free from the influence of Ideology, then there cannot be any objective position from which it is possible to critique the existing order. Nevertheless, Žižek insists on the need for this critique: “Although no clear line of demarcation separates ideology from reality, although ideology is already at work in everything we experience as ‘reality,’ we must nonetheless maintain the tension that keeps the critique of ideology alive.”63 As a way out of this impasse, he proposes a somewhat enigmatic formula:

Ideology is not all; it is possible to assume a place that enables us to maintain a distance from it, but this place from which one can denounce ideology must remain empty, it cannot be occupied by any positively determined reality—the moment we yield to this temptation, we are back in ideology.64

“The empty place” to which ideology is denied access is that of the repressed traumatic Real. Since the symbolic reality can neither represent nor assimilate the Real, it is experienced as a void or lack. Žižek insists that it must remain so if we want to hold on to it as an Archimedean point of resistance to the distortion wrought by ideological apparatuses.

All this seems terribly theoretical and not very practical at all. But Žižek identifies at least one example of the kind of critique required: The old notion of the class struggle. In contrast to capitalism and nationalism, which foster a sham social harmony, the concept of the class struggle succeeds, for Žižek, in penetrating the mask and exposing the original antagonism that lies beneath the surface.65 This is the reason we never really encounter this type of confrontation: Although the dynamic of the class struggle influences every aspect of life, since it contains the seed of society’s repressed trauma, it necessarily remains hidden. In simpler language, in the absence of the class struggle, the “objective social reality” is more or less required by the fact that it exists only in the pre-symbolic register of the Real.66

The Slovenian philosopher’s legerdemain is at its best here, breathing as it does new life into an idea that appears to have fallen by the wayside. Yet it is premature to celebrate the renaissance of Marxism in Žižek’s philosophy. From an epistemological point of view, after all, Marxist philosophy trod—and generally continues to tread—the path of optimistic realism: It believes in the existence of an objective truth that is discoverable, comprehensible, and expressible; as a whole, it attributes to itself the status of a scientific theory. Žižek’s approach, in contrast, is far removed from this, something he wholeheartedly admits: If the symbolic social structure is subject, as he describes it, to systematic ideological manipulations, and the kernel of the Real is, by its nature, beyond our conceptual grasp, then there is no prospect of acquiring positive and impartial knowledge about reality.67 Even the class struggle, a concept that directly impinges on the repressed social trauma, can be comprehended only from a subjective or ideological angle: “Class struggle is… the unfathomable limit that cannot be objectivized, located within the social totality, since it is itself that limit which prevents us from conceiving society as a closed totality.”68

Reading this description, we may rightfully wonder: Is Žižek, like everyone else, trapped in the net of ideology, or has he alone, inspired by a Lacanian revelation, been granted some insight into the nature of the unseen and evanescent “Real”? Žižek himself does not provide a satisfactory answer to this question. His critical theory is marked by displays of intellectual brilliance and the ability to describe and explain a wide variety of phenomena, but, like his concept of the subject, it is ultimately based on the “empty space.” We can only wonder how this negativism can possibly lead to positive political action, and how any actual deeds may be derived from it—that is, not just philosophical and psychoanalytical strokes of genius that catch our breath. Žižek is certainly aware of the problem, and tries to cope with it; but, as we will now see, the answer he proposes turns out to be more disturbing than the question itself.

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