The Magician of Ljubljana

By Assaf Sagiv

The totalitarian dreams of Slavoj Žižek.

Furthermore, since there is an unbridgeable gap between the signifier and the signified, and since language does not fully and completely manifest what lies outside itself, gaps are created in the symbolic order. This phenomenon induces the dynamic of “desire,” a word central to the Lacanian theory of the human psyche. Desire, as opposed to mere “need,” means the yearning for “something else” that will always be beyond our reach.17 The original object of our desire, usually associated with the mother, is lost to us. Left behind is a void that in time is filled with substitutes, or different signifiers, from which we derive only temporary gratification. The only way to come to terms with our desire is to decipher the way it is encoded in our unconscious, itself structured like a language and located in the symbolic order.18 This, in a nutshell, is the principal goal of psychoanalytical treatment.

The symbolic register is present in all areas of our lives, but it is neither total nor all-encompassing. Outside and underneath it lies the “Real,” which cannot be represented or signed. The register of the Real is identical not with reality, but instead with all that resists symbolization. It is the crude, threatening, and repellent aspect of our existence with which we must contend, like something “glued to the heel” of our shoes.19 Our encounter with the Real arouses fear and leaves traumas in its wake; it causes nightmares and delusions, and occasionally even leads to psychotic breakdowns. In Lacan’s words, it confronts us with the “impossible.”20

Lacanian psychoanalysis delineates an astonishingly intricate system of links between the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. These concepts serve as the foundation for a vast theoretical construct, embellished not only with a string of arcane terms, but also with algebraic symbols, equations, diagrams, and arguments couched in enigmatic and impenetrable language. Indeed, Lacan did not make it easy for his audience to comprehend his theories—nor, for that matter, did he particularly aspire to being understood. Just the opposite, in fact: His esoteric style enhanced the intellectual aura associated with his writing. For his part, Lacan reveled in his own obscurantism, as illustrated in a remark he once made to his students: “The less you understand, the better you listen.”21

In this way Lacan became a kind of guru, the charismatic leader of a sect of acolytes, his theories accepted, according to one scholar, as “the official philosophy of France” in the 1960s and 1970s.22 The acclaim he received from his coterie of admirers was equaled only by the indignation of fellow psychoanalysts, who considered him a charlatan, and a dangerous one, at that. The methods of treatment he introduced were indeed controversial: Unlike other practitioners, who believed that effective mental therapy should repair the patient’s damaged ego and make it whole, Lacan believed that the analyst had to steer precisely the opposite course—to jolt the patient and “liquidate” his illusionary ego so that he might confront his shattered self. To do so, Lacan would abruptly fall silent during sessions with his patients, sometimes even discontinuing them after only a few minutes.23 Obviously, such methods threatened to tip people already in a perilous state of mind over the edge of sanity.

Although the personality cult surrounding Lacan abated somewhat after his death in 1981, his allure has not entirely faded. His ideas have been eagerly taken up by academic disciplines such as literary studies, film studies, and gender theory,24 and his theoretical influence has extended beyond France to other European countries, the United States, and South America. In Slovenia, for instance, a flourishing Lacanian school formed around “The Society for Theoretical Psychoanalysis” founded in Ljubljana during the seventies. Among the society’s eminent members were philosophers and theorists such as Miran Božovi, Mladen Dolar, Renata Salecl, Alena Zupani, and, of course, Slavoj Žižek himself, who was introduced to Lacanian teachings by the master’s son-in-law and heir, the philosopher Jacques-Alain Miller.25

Over the last ten years, Žižek has consolidated his status as the outstanding—and certainly the most prolific—interpreter of Lacan. In twenty-seven books and countless articles, he has analyzed a broad spectrum of cultural phenomena through the lens of French psychoanalysis, in so doing restoring something of the intellectual attraction it held in its heyday. The most significant aspect of Žižek’s work, however, has been his attempt to formulate a political agenda with a Lacanian orientation,26 an enterprise with far-reaching repercussions: The “subversive” message of psychoanalysis prized by Lacan became, in Žižek’s hands, something far more ominous, whose implications extend far beyond the psychiatric clinic and the lecture halls of academia.


Žižek’s political philosophy is marked by a close identification with the humanist tradition of modernism and its aim of releasing humankind from the yoke of oppression and prejudice. This may at first seem surprising, given that Lacan is generally considered a post-modern thinker whose doctrine is far removed from the universal project of the Enlightenment. Žižek attempts to correct this allegedly erroneous impression through a sophisticated synthesis of Lacan’s ideas and German idealism, a cornerstone of the philosophy of modernity.27 Not surprisingly, this theoretical synthesis produces a captivating, if extremely problematic, view of the essence of man and his relationship to reality.

To understand just how bold Žižek’s assertions on this point are, it is worth recalling the intellectual legacy with which he has to contend. The Enlightenment, from Descartes on, pinned its hopes on the existence of a universal human cogito (“I think”), or, in other words, on the belief that in each and every one of us there exists a subject with self-awareness, the power to think rationally, and the potential for moral autonomy. Traditionally, the discovery and cultivation of this broad common ground was supposed to provide humanity with a way to overcome its internal divisions and establish a more enlightened and rational society. But Lacan paints a rather different picture: He insists that the human subject is a fractured and dependent being, ruled by the “big Other” of language and law. Unlike the ego, which belongs to the imaginary register, the subject exists only in the symbolic order; its existence and desires are the products of language, and it is in turn bound by language’s dictates. Since, according to Lacan, the subject is a “speaking being,” modulated by external codes and contact with its environment, it cannot possibly be perceived as an autonomous entity capable of free and independent action, as Enlightenment philosophers believed. It is clear, then, why this perception of the human subject earned Lacan honorary membership in the post-structuralist pantheon, along with the likes of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault, each of whom sought to invalidate the humanist notion of the subject as a universal “essence” and represent it instead as a derivative of cultural, social, and political structures.28

Žižek disputes this widely held perception of Lacan, however, viewing both himself and his mentor as the legitimate offspring of the Enlightenment, or at least of its philosophical mainstream. Indeed, he identifies striking points of similarity between Lacanian theory and certain ideas expounded by Kant, Schelling, and Hegel. Each of these philosophers, says Žižek, observed that human subjectivity has an aspect of emptiness, or lack. Kant, for example, saw the pure “I” exerting its powers of perception on reality as “an empty form of thought.” Its existence is a logical imperative, he conceded, but it cannot be sensed through inner experience or intuition. Kant therefore split the subject into the empirical, tangible “I” that we are able to comprehend, and the transcendental (i.e., prior to any experience) “I,” which is the precondition for the very possibility of this comprehension, yet lies, of necessity, beyond its reach.29 Žižek attaches great importance to this division. In his opinion, one of the main consequences of the Kantian revolution in philosophy was the loss of the illusion of the subject’s stability and its representation instead as a “void” or “vortex” moving under its own power.30

Žižek finds a more radical development of this notion in the philosophy of Schelling, in particular in the second draft of his essay The Ages of the World. In this ambitious work, Schelling describes the divine being before creation as a “chaotic-psychotic universe of blind drives”; in other words, utter chaos.31 But even the primordial chaos is not the real beginning, he says, for it was preceded by the “abyss” of the absolute Nothing, which is characterized by boundless freedom. This freedom is not the domain of any subject; rather, it expresses a pure, impersonal will that wants nothing. Under these conditions, the birth of the divine being as an actual persona is made possible only by a drastic self-contraction—an act of madness undertaken by a god who was, as Schelling put it, “out of his mind.”32 Žižek’s interest in all this is not religious, but psychological: He sees the process outlined by the German philosopher as an apt description of the emergence of subjectivity from a state of nothingness, or “pure negativity.”

In order to gain a more basic insight into the nature of this fundamental negativity, Žižek also draws on Hegelian philosophy, which attaches great importance to the concept of negation. He pays special attention to a section in an essay written by Hegel in 1805-1806, which sketches a graphic likeness of insanity:

The human being is this night, this empty nothing that contains everything in its simplicity—an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him—or which are not present. This night, the interior of nature, that exists here—pure self—in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head—there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye—into a night that becomes awful.33

Hegel regarded this madness of the “night of the world” as a morbid regression from reality to a lower, animalistic state. But Žižek considers it a necessary transitional state, one which enables the subject to emerge as a mediator between nature—identified with the Lacanian “Real”—and culture, which is embodied in the symbolic order. According to the theoretical model Žižek proposes, the subject originates in the traumatic detachment of human from nature, and in its “psychotic” withdrawal into itself. As a result of this rupture, man ceases to be an inseparable part of the material world and can no longer be considered a mere object, a thing without consciousness. From a psychological point of view, however, he still lacks a positive essence of his own. In the absence of a stable identity or defined attributes, he is a “pure negativity”: His consciousness is a gaping abyss, or, as Hegel puts it, an “empty nothing that contains everything in its simplicity.”

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