Slavoj Žižek

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Slavoj Žižek (born March 21, 1947) is a Slovenian sociologist, philosopher and cultural critic.

Žižek was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia). He received a Ph.D. in Philosophy in Ljubljana and studied Psychoanalysis at the University of Paris.

Žižek is a professor at the European Graduate School and a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is a visiting professor at Columbia, Princeton, New School for Social Research, New York, and the University of Michigan.

Žižek is well known for his use of the works of Jacques Lacan in a new reading of popular culture. In addition to his work as an interpreter of Lacanian psychoanalysis, he writes on countless topics, such as fundamentalism, tolerance, political correctness, globalization, subjectivity, human rights, Lenin, myth, cyberspace, postmodernism, multiculturalism, David Lynch, and Alfred Hitchcock.

In 1990 he was a candidate of LDS for president of the Republic of Slovenia. More recently, he caused a stir in the world of social theory by writing the text of a catalogue for Abercrombie & Fitch. He is widely regarded as a fiery and colorful lecturer who does not shy away from controversial remarks.

The formation of the subject

Žižek writes about identities -- his work borrows extensively from the explanation of identity formation offered by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan's account is articulated in terms of three concepts: the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real. Anxiety and desire - and similar processes in the realm of the invisible - generate meaning as well as guide action in constructing reality. The symbolic (the social order, for instance) is also called the big Other by Lacan, in the sense that the big Other organizes and deploys the symbolic order while itself remaining excluded from it. The universal reveals itself in the particular, in the symptom, as for example the verbal slip for Freud reveals some actual truth.

The unconscious, which is structured like a language, will orient itself towards particular objects of desire. Such objects are contingent, though they must find their place inside a frame for us to be able to desire them. They have certain qualities - one of these being that the object withdraws from us. Desire (one might say, following Luis Buñuel) is always about "obscure objects."

These objects constitute the symptom of the human being; but they can also become the opposite: its fetish. Žižek writes of the fetish that it is effectively the counterpart to the symptom; operating as a kind of sham life, it structures our entire life in order to support it. The fetish is the embodiment of a lie that enables us to endure an unbearable truth (Slavoj Žižek 2000). This is the real itself (in the Lacanian sense), an isolated object (the Lacanian objet petit a) whose fascinating and meaningful presence guarantees the structural real, the social order. This real enables one to gain a distance from everyday reality: one introduces an object that has no place inside it, that cannot be named or otherwise symbolized - the photo collage of the beloved in the film "The Truman Show," for example. What Žižek means is that every symbolic structure must contain an element that embodies the moment of its impossibility, around which it is organized. This is both impossible and real (in its effect) at the same time. The symptom on the other hand is the return of the repressed truth in a different form.

Žižek explains this objet petit a - what Hitchcock calls the MacGuffin - in the following way: "MacGuffin is objet petit a pure and simple: the lack, the remainder of the real that sets in motion the symbolic movement of interpretation, a hole at the center of the symbolic order, the mere appearance of some secret to be explained, interpreted, etc." (Love thy symptom as thyself).

The real, the symbolic and the imaginary

"The tabernacle is, as Philo and Josephus recognized, a microcosm, a small model of the universe in architectural form. "

The real

Here the real is a rather enigmatic term, and it is not to be equated with reality. For our reality is symbolically constructed; the real, however, is a hard kernel, the trauma that cannot be symbolized i.e. expressed in words. The real has no positive existence; it exists only as barred. "Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony that I will give you."

Not everything in reality can be unmasked as fiction; only the many things - indeterminate points - that have to do with social antagonism, life, death, and sexuality. These we have to endure if we are to symbolize them. The real is not a sort of reality behind reality, but rather the void or empty places that render reality incomplete and inconsistent. It is the screen of the phantasm, the very screen itself that distorts our perception of reality. "And he made a screen for the door of the Tent, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, the work of the embroiderer;" The triad of the symbolic/imaginary/real reproduces itself within each individual part of the subdivision. There are also three modalities of the real:

  • The symbolic real : the signifier reduced to a meaningless formula (as in quantum physics, which like every science grasps at the real but only produces barely comprehensible concepts)
  • The real real : a horrific thing, that which conveys the sense of horror in horror films
  • The imaginary real  : an unfathomable something that permeates things as a trace of the sublime. This form of the real becomes perceptible in the film The Full Monty, for instance, in the fact that in stripping the unemployed protagonists disrobe completely; in other words, through this extra gesture of voluntary degradation something else, of the order of the sublime, becomes visible.

Psychoanalysis teaches that (postmodern) reality is precisely not to be seen as just a narrative, but rather that the client must recognize, endure, and fictionalize the hard kernel of the real in his own fiction.

The symbolic

The symbolic is inaugurated with the acquisition of language; it is mutually relational. Thus it is that only he is a king towards whom others behave as underlings. At the same time, there always remains a certain distance towards the real (except in paranoia): not only is the beggar who thinks he is a king a madman, but so is the king who really believes he is a king. For effectively the latter has only the symbolic mandate of a king.

  • The real symbolic is the signifier reduced to a meaningless formula
  • The imaginary symbolic qua Jungian symbols
  • The symbolic symbolic qua speech and meaningful language itself.

The (monitor-) screen as a means of communication in cyberspace: as an interface it refers us to a symbolic mediation of communication, to a chasm between whoever speaks and the "position of speaking" itself (i.e. the nickname, the email address). I never in fact coincide exactly with the signifier, I do not invent myself; rather my virtual existence was in a certain respect already co-founded with the advent of cyberspace. Here one must come to terms with a certain insecurity, but one which cannot be resolved in postmodern, contingent simulacra. Here too, as in social life, symbolic networks circulate around kernels of the real. This is one answer to Žižek's (oft-practiced inversion of the) question: It is not "What can we learn from life about cyberspace, but rather what can we learn from cyberspace about life?" These inversions serve theoretical psychoanalysis: i.e. contrary to applied psychoanalysis, it does not merely seek to analyze works of art and make what is threatening comprehensible, but rather to create a new perspective on the ordinary, to renew a sense of the strangeness of everyday life, and by way of the object to further develop the theory.

Symbolic networks are our (social) reality.

The imaginary

The imaginary is located at the level of the subject's relation to itself. It is the gaze of the Other in the mirror stage, the illusory mis-recognition, as Lacan concludes citing Arthur Rimbaud: I is an other (Je est un autre). The imaginary is the fundamental fantasy that is inaccessible to our psychic experience and raises up the phantasmal screen in which we find objects of desire. Here we can also divide the imaginary into a real (the phantasm that assumes the place of the real), an imaginary (the image/screen itself that serves as a lure), and a symbolic imaginary (the archetypes of Jung and New Age thinking). The imaginary can never be definitively grasped, since any discourse on it will always already be located in the symbolic.

All the levels are interconnected, according to Lacan (from the Seminar XX on), in a kind of Borromean link, i.e. as three rings are linked together such that should any one of these be disconnected all the remaining ones would also come apart.


One theme in particular that Žižek addresses is postmodernism, which confronts psychoanalysis with new questions. By virtue of the demise of a patriarchally structured society and firmly established, authoritarian models of order, the Oedipus complex - one of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis - begins to falter.

Ideology constitutes itself, so to speak, from both sides of the coin: both from the values openly proclaimed by a political system and also its so-called hidden underside or dirty secret - that is, an ideology's implicitly deployed values and premises, which however must remain unspoken in order for an ideology to function and reproduce itself. To all these ideologically determined, phantasmal forms of lying or evasion, Žižek opposes the goal of psychoanalysis, which consists of traversing the fantasy, passing through the field of the deceptive image whose symptomatic formation brings about the construction of the subject, and to forge ahead to the kernel of enjoyment. A so-called authentic act destroys the phantasm.

Ideology is the distortion of non-ideology, the utopian moment (Fredric Jameson). This non-ideological component of our longing should be fully respected. In other words, the longing for community itself should not be regarded as proto-fascistic, or even its root - it becomes that only in its fascistic articulation.

In our current post-ideological times, ideology functions on the basis of an inner distance, where the symbolic mandate is not taken seriously; e.g., a father today is often one who ironically denigrates himself, together with the absurd fact itself of being a father today.

Zizek follows Althusser (among others) in jettisoning the Marxist equation: ideology=false consciousness. Ideology, to all intents and purposes, IS consciousness. Ideology does not "mask" the real--one cannot achieve true consciousness. This being the case, post-ideological postmodern "knowingness"--the wink wink nudge nudge cynicism and irony of postmodern cultural production--does not reveal the truth, the real, the hard kernel. Knowing that we are being "lied" to is hardly the stuff of revolution when ideology isn't, and never has been, simply a matter of consciousness (cynicism, irony, and so on), of subject positions, but is the very stuff of everyday praxis itself. The cynics and ironists, not to mention the deconstructionists et. al., may KNOW that reality is an "ideological construction"--some have even read their Lacan and Derrida--but in their daily practice, caught up in an apparently unalterable world of exchange-values (capital), they do their part to sustain that construction in any case. As Marx would say, it is their very life process that is ideological, what they know, or what they think they know, being neither here nor there. The postmodern cultural artifact--the "critique," the "incredulity"--is itself merely a symptom/commodity/fetish. Thus has capital commodified even the cynicism that purports to unmask its "reality," to "emancipate."


Today, in the aftermath of the end of ideology, Žižek is critical of the way political decisions are justified; the way, for example, reductions in social programs are sometimes presented as an apparently 'objective' necessity, though this is no longer a valid basis for political discourse. He sees the current talk about greater citizen involvement or political goals circumscribed within the rubric of the cultural as having little effectiveness as long as no substantial measures are devised for the long run. But measures such as the limitation of the freedom of capital and the subordination of the manufacturing processes to a mechanism of social control -- these Žižek calls a radical re-politicization of the economy (A Plea for Intolerance).

So at present Slavoj Žižek is arguing for a politicization of the economy. For indeed the tolerant multicultural impulse, as the dogma of today's liberal society, suppresses the crucial question: How can we reintroduce into the current conditions of globalization the genuine space of the political?? He also argues in favor of a politicization of politics as a counter balance to post-politics. In the area of political decision making in a democratic context he criticizes the two-party system that is dominant in some countries as a political form of a post-political era, as a manifestation of a possibility of choice that in reality does not exist.

Politicization is thus for him present whenever a particular demand begins to function as a representative of the impossible universal. Žižek sees class struggle not as localized objective determinations, as a social position vis-à-vis capital but rather as lying in a radically subjective position: the proletariat is the living, embodied contradiction. Only through particularism in the political struggle can any universalism emerge. Fighting for workers interests often appears discredited today (indeed in this domain the workers themselves only wish to implement their own interests, they fight only for themselves and not for the whole). The problem is how to foster a politicizing politics in the age of post-politics. Particular demands, acting as a metaphorical condensation, would thus aim at something transcendent, a genuine reconstruction of the social framework. Žižek sees the real political conflict as being that between an ordered structure of society and those without a place in it, the part that has no part in anything yet causes the structure to falter, because it refers to i.e. embodies an empty principle of the universal.

The very fact that a society is not easily divided into classes, that there is no simple structural trait for it, that for instance the middle class is also intensely fought over by a populism of the right, is a sign of this struggle otherwise class antagonism would be completely symbolized and no longer both impossible and real at the same time (impossible/real).


Žižek, who is occasionally also called a "philosopher-entertainer", applies his knowledge of psychoanalysis to contemporary society. One could view this in a problematic light, because among other things these theories have been designed amidst certain precarious situations (see Žižek's usage of terms like symptom, sinthomme, etc.). Change, for him, is thus always seen as a mere tipping point in the symbolic, as an "act of traversing the phantasm"; to that extent it is impossible in this line of thinking to speak of evolution, processes of learning while at the same time grasping social conditions and a social mode of taking action.


The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.
'Beyond Discourse Analysis', in E. Laclau, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, London: Verso, 1990.
For They Know Not What They Do, London: Verso, 1991.
Looking Awry, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.
Enjoy Your Symptom!, London: Routledge, 1992.
Tarrying with the Negative, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan...But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock, London: Verso, 1993.
The Metastases of Enjoyment, London: Verso, 1994.
The Individual Remainder: Essays on Schelling and Related Matters, London: Verso, 1996.
The Abyss of Freedom, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
The Plague of Fantasies, London: Verso, 1997.
The Ticklish Subject, London: Verso, 1999.
The Fragile Absolute, London: Verso, 2000.
Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, London: Verso, 2001.
The Fright of Real Tears: Kryzystof Kieslowski, London: BFI, 2001.
On Belief, London: Routledge, 2001.
Opera's Second Death, London: Routledge, 2001.
Welcome to the Desert of the Real, London: Verso, 2002.
Revolution at the Gates: Zizek on Lenin, the 1917 Writings, London: Verso, 2002.
Organs Without Bodies, London: Routledge, 2003.
The Puppet and the Dwarf, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.
Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, London: Verso, 2004.

Zizek in San Francisco, Apr 21, 2005.

External links

Articles by Žižek


This article is based on the article about Slavoj Žižek in the German Wikipedia.

bg:Славой Жижек de:Slavoj Žižek es:Slavoj Žižek fr:Slavoj Žižek he:סלבוי ז'יז'ק ja:スラヴォイ・ジジェク nl:Slavoj Žižek pl:Slavoj Žižek pt:Slavoj Zizek ru:Жижек, Славой sl:Slavoj Žižek fi:Slavoj Žižek