Slavoj Žižek

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Slavoj Žižek (/ˈslɑːvɔɪ ˈʒʒɛk/ (About this sound listen) SLAH-voy ZHEE-zhekSlovene: [ˈslaʋɔj ˈʒiʒɛk]; born 21 March 1949) is a Slovenian continental philosopher. He is a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University,[1] and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.[2] He works in subjects including continental philosophypolitical theorycultural studiespsychoanalysisfilm criticismMarxismHegelianism and theology.

In 1989, Žižek published his first English text, The Sublime Object of Ideology, in which he departed from traditional Marxist theory to develop a materialist conception of ideologythat drew heavily on Lacanian psychoanalysis and Hegelian idealism.[3][4] His early theoretical work became increasingly eclectic and political in the 1990s, dealing frequently in the critical analysis of disparate forms of popular culture and making him a popular figure of the academic left.[3][5] A critic of capitalismneoliberalism and political correctness, Žižek calls himself a political radical, and his work has been characterized as challenging orthodoxies of both the political right and the social-liberal universities.[4][6][7]

Žižek’s idiosyncratic style, popular academic works, frequent magazine op-eds, and critical assimilation of high and low culture have gained him international influence, controversy, criticism and a substantial audience outside academe.[6][8][9][10][11] In 2012, Foreign Policy listed Žižek on its list of Top 100 Global Thinkers, calling him “a celebrity philosopher”[12] while elsewhere he has been dubbed the “Elvis of cultural theory”[13] and “the most dangerous philosopher in the West“.[14] Žižek’s work was chronicled in a 2005 documentary film entitled Zizek! A scholarly journal, the International Journal of Žižek Studies, was founded to engage his work.[15]

Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool cropped.jpg

Žižek in Liverpool, England, 2008
Born 21 March 1949(age 69)
LjubljanaSlovenia,
Yugoslavia
Alma mater
Era 20th-/21st-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School
Institutions
Main interests
Notable ideas
Ideology as an unconscious fantasy that structures reality;
revival of dialectical materialism

Contents

Biography

Early life

Žižek was born in LjubljanaSR SloveniaYugoslavia, into a middle-class family.[16] His father Jože Žižek was an economist and civil servant from the region of Prekmurje in eastern Slovenia. His mother Vesna, native of the Gorizia Hills in the Slovenian Littoral, was an accountant in a state enterprise. His parents were atheists.[16][17] He spent most of his childhood in the coastal town of Portorož, where he was exposed to Western film, theory and popular culture.[4][18] When Slavoj was a teenager his family moved back to Ljubljana where he attended Bežigrad High School.[18] In the 1960s and early 1970s, Slavoj encountered western philosophy in Zagreb.[citation needed]

Education

In 1967, during an era of liberalization in Titoist Yugoslavia, Žižek enrolled at the University of Ljubljana and studied philosophy and sociology.[19]

He had already begun reading French structuralists prior to entering university, and in 1967 he published the first translation of a text by Jacques Derrida into Slovenian.[20][20]An early influence at university, Božidar Debenjak, taught the philosophy of German idealism and introduced the thought of the Frankfurt School to Slovenia.[21] Debenjak’s reading of Marx’s Das Kapital from the perspective of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spiritinfluenced many future Slovenian philosophers, including Žižek.[22]

Žižek frequented the circles of dissident intellectuals, including the Heideggerianphilosophers Tine Hribar and Ivo Urbančič,[20] and published articles in alternative magazines, such as PraxisTribuna and Problemi, which he also edited.[18] In 1971 he accepted a job as an assistant researcher with the promise of tenure, but was dismissed after his Master’s thesis was accused[by whom?] of being “non-Marxist”.[23] He graduated from the University of Ljubljana in 1981 with a Doctor of Arts in Philosophy for his dissertation entitled The Theoretical and Practical Relevance of French Structuralism.[19]

He spent the next few years undertaking national service in the Yugoslav army in Karlovac.[19]

Career

During the 1980s, Žižek edited and translated Jacques LacanSigmund Freud, and Louis Althusser.[24] He used Jacques Lacan’s work to interpret Hegelian and Marxist philosophy.

In 1985, Žižek completed a second doctorate (Doctor of Philosophy in psychoanalysis) at the University of Paris VIII[19] under Jacques-Alain Miller and François Regnault.

He wrote the introduction to Slovene translations of G. K. Chesterton‘s and John Le Carré‘s detective novels.[citation needed] In 1988, he published his first book dedicated entirely to film theory.[citation needed] He achieved international recognition as a social theorist with the 1989 publication of his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology.[citation needed]

Žižek has been publishing in journals such as Lacanian Ink and In These Times in the United States, the New Left Review and The London Review of Books in the United Kingdom, and with the Slovenian left-liberal magazine Mladina and newspapers Dnevnik and Delo. He also cooperates with the Polish leftist magazine Krytyka Polityczna, regional southeast European left-wing journal Novi Plamen, and serves on the editorial board of the psychoanalytical journal Problemi.[citation needed] Žižek is a series editor of the Northwestern University Press series Diaeresis that publishes works that “deal not only with philosophy, but also will intervene at the levels of ideology critique, politics, and art theory.”[25]

Politics

In the late 1980s, Žižek came to public attention as a columnist for the alternative youth magazine Mladina, which was critical of Tito’s policies, Yugoslav politics, especially the militarization of society. He was a member of the Communist Party of Slovenia until October 1988, when he quit in protest against the JBTZ trial together with 32 other Slovenian intellectuals.[26] Between 1988 and 1990, he was actively involved in several political and civil society movements which fought for the democratization of Slovenia, most notably the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights.[27] In the first free elections in 1990, he ran as the Liberal Democratic Party‘s candidate for Slovenian presidency (an office formally abolished in the 1991 constitution).[citation needed]

Despite his activity in liberal democratic projects, Žižek has remained committed to the communist ideal and has been critical of right-wing circles, such as nationalists, conservatives, and classical liberals both in Slovenia and worldwide. He wrote that the convention center in which nationalist Slovene writers hold their conventions should be blown up, adding, “Since we live in the time without any sense of irony, I must add I don’t mean it literally.”[28] Similarly, he jokingly made the following comment in May 2013, during Subversive Festival: “If they don’t support SYRIZA, then, in my vision of the democratic future, all these people will get from me [is] a first-class one-way ticket to [a] gulag.” In response, the right-wing New Democracy party claimed Žižek’s comments should be understood literally, not ironically.[29][30]

Žižek signing books in 2009

In a 2008 interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, he described himself as a “communist in a qualified sense,” and in another appearance in October 2009 he described himself as a “radical leftist.”[31][32] The following year Žižek appeared in the Arte documentary Marx Reloaded in which he defended the idea of communism.[citation needed]

In 2013, he corresponded with imprisoned Russian activist and Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.[33]

All hearts were beating for you as long as you were perceived as just another version of the liberal-democratic protest against the authoritarian state. The moment it became clear that you rejected global capitalism, reporting on Pussy Riot became much more ambiguous.

In 2016, during a conversation with Gary Younge at a Guardian Live event, Žižek endorsed Donald Trump for the US presidency. He described Trump as a paradox, basically a centrist liberal in most of his positions, desperately trying to mask this by dirty jokes and stupidities.[34] In an opinion piece, published e.g. in Die Zeit, he described Hillary Clinton as the much less suitable alternative.[35] [36] In an interview with the BBC, Žižek did however state that he thought Trump was “horrible” and his support would have been based on an attempt to encourage the Democratic Party to return to more centrist ideas and adopt more leftist ideas too.[37]

Just before the 2017 French presidential election, Žižek stated that one could not choose between Macron and Le Pen, arguing that the neoliberalism of Macron just gives rise to neofascism anyway. This was in response to many on the left calling for support for Macron to prevent a Le Pen victory.[38]

Public life

Žižek speaking in 2011

In 2003, Žižek wrote text to accompany Bruce Weber‘s photographs in a catalog for Abercrombie & Fitch. Questioned as to the seemliness of a major intellectual writing ad copy, Žižek told The Boston Globe, “If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post, I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!”[39]

Žižek and his thought have been the subject of several documentaries. The 1996 Liebe Dein Symptom wie Dich selbst! is a German documentary on him. In the 2004 The Reality of the Virtual, Žižek gave a one-hour lecture on his interpretation of Lacan’s tripartite thesis of the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real.[citation needed] Zizek! is a 2005 documentary by Astra Taylor on his philosophy. The 2006 The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and 2012 The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology also portray Žižek’s ideas and cultural criticism. Examined Life (2008) features Žižek speaking about his conception of ecology at a garbage dump. He was also featured in the 2011 Marx Reloaded, directed by Jason Barker.[citation needed]

Foreign Policy named Žižek one of its 2012 Top 100 Global Thinkers “for giving voice to an era of absurdity.”[12]

Personal life

Žižek has been married three times: firstly, to Renata Salecl,[40] another Slovene philosopher; secondly, to fashion model Analia Hounie, daughter of an Argentine Lacanian psychoanalyst; and thirdly, to the Slovene journalist Jela Krečič, daughter of the architectural historian Peter Krečič.[41][42] He has a son.[43]

He is a fluent speaker of SloveneSerbo-Croatian, French, German and English. He claims to be more or less fluent in Spanish.[44]

Impact

His body of writing spans dense theoretical polemics, academic tomes, and accessible introductory books; in addition, he has taken part in various film projects, including two documentary collaborations with director Sophie FiennesThe Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012). His work has impacted both academic and widespread public audiences (see for example his commentary in the 2003 Abercrombie and Fitch Quarterly).

Hundreds of academics have addressed aspects of Žižek’s work in professional papers,[45] and in 2007, the International Journal of Žižek Studies was established for the discussion of his work.

Thought

Ontology, ideology, and the Real

Žižek argues:[46][47][48]

  1. Against Karl Marx‘s concept of ideology as described in The German Ideologyfalse consciousness prevents people from seeing how things really are. Building upon Althusser, ideology is thoroughly unconscious and functions as a series of justifications and spontaneoussocio-symbolic rituals which support virtual authorities.
  2. The Real is not experienced as something which is ordered in a way that gives satisfactory meaning to all its parts in relation to one another. Instead the Real is experienced as through the lens of hegemonic systems of representation and reproduction, while resisting full inscription into ordering system ascribed to it. This in turn may lead subjects to experience the Real as generating political resistance.

Drawing on Lacan’s notion of the barred subject, the subject is a purely negative entity, a void of negativity (in the Hegelian sense), which allows for the flexibility and reflexivity of the Cartesian cogito (transcendental subject).[3][49] Though consciousness is opaque (following Hegel), the epistemological gap between the In-itself and For-itself is immanent to reality itself;.[50] The antinomies of Kant, quantum physics, and Badiou’s ‘materialist’ principle that ‘The One is Not’, point towards an inconsistent (“Barred”) Real itself (that Lacan conceptualized prior).[opaque language][51]

Although there are multiple Symbolic interpretations of the Real, they are not all relatively “true”. Two instances of the Real can be identified: the abject Real (or “real Real”), which cannot be wholly integrated into the symbolic order, and the symbolic Real, a set of signifiers that can never be properly integrated into the horizon of sense of a subject. The truth is revealed in the process of transiting the contradictions; or the real is a “minimal difference”, the gap between the infinite judgement of a reductionist materialism and experience as lived,[52] the “Parallax” of dialectical antagonisms are inherent to reality itself and dialectical materialism (contra Friedrich Engels) is a new materialist Hegelianism, incorporating the insights of Lacanian psychoanalysis, set theory, quantum physics, and contemporary continental philosophy.

Political thought and the postmodern subject

Žižek argues:

  • The state is a system of regulatory institutions that shape our behavior. Its power is purely symbolic and has no normative force outside of collective behavior. In this way, the term the law signifies society’s basic principles, which enable interaction by prohibiting certain acts.[53]
  • Political decisions have become depoliticized and accepted as natural conclusions. For example, controversial policy decisions (such as reductions in social welfare spending) are presented as apparently “objective” necessities. Although governments make claims about increased citizen participation and democracy, the important decisions are still made in the interests of capital. The two-party systemdominant in the United States and elsewhere produces a similar illusion.[54] It is still necessary to engage in particular conflicts – such as labor disputes – but the trick is to relate these individual events to the larger struggle. Particular demands, if executed well, might serve as metaphorical condensation for the system and its injustices. The real political conflict is between an ordered structure of society and those without a place in it.[55] In stark contrast to the intellectual tenets of the European “universalist Left” in general, and those Jürgen Habermas defined as postnational in particular, pro-sovereignty and pro-independence processes opened in Europe are good.[56]
  • The postmodern subject is cynical toward official institutions, yet at the same time believes in conspiracies. When we lost our shared belief in a single power, we constructed another of the Other in order to escape the unbearable freedom that we faced.[57] It is not enough to merely know that you are being lied to, particularly when continuing to live a normal life under capitalism. For example, that despite people being aware of ideology, they may continue to act as automata, mistakenly believing that they are thereby expressing their radical freedom. Although one may possess a self-awareness, just because one understands what one is doing does not mean that one is doing the right thing.[58]
  • Religion is not an enemy but rather one of the fields of struggle. Atheism is good. Religious fundamentalists are in a way no different from “godless Stalinist Communists”. They both value divine will and salvation over moral or ethical action.[59][60]

Criticism

There are two main themes of critique of Žižek’s ideas: his failure to articulate an alternative or program in the face of his denunciation of contemporary social, political, and economic arrangements, and his lack of rigor in argumentation.[61]

Ambiguity and unclear alternatives

Žižek’s philosophical and political positions are not always clear, and his work has been criticized for a failure to take a consistent stance.[62]While he has claimed to stand by a revolutionary Marxist project, his lack of vision concerning the possible circumstances which could lead to successful revolution makes it unclear what that project consists of. According to John Gray and John Holbo, his theoretical argument often lacks grounding in historical fact, which makes him more provocative than insightful.[61][63][64]

Roger Scruton has written in “Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left”, “To summarize Žižek’s position is not easy: he slips between philosophical and psychoanalytical ways of arguing, and is spell-bound by Lacan‘s gnomic utterances. He is a lover of paradox, and believes strongly in what Hegel called ‘the labour of the negative’ though taking the idea, as always, one stage further towards the brick wall of paradox”.[65]

Žižek’s refusal to present an alternative vision has led critics to accuse him of using unsustainable Marxist categories of analysis and having a 19th-century understanding of class.[66] For example, Ernesto Laclau argued that “Žižek uses class as a sort of deus ex machina to play the role of the good guy against the multicultural devils.”[67] The use of such analysis, however, is not systematic and draws on critical accounts of Stalinism and Maoism, as well as post-structuralism and Lacanian psychoanalysis.[68]

Žižek does not agree with critics who claim he believes in a historical necessity:

There is no such thing as the Communist big Other, there’s no historical necessity or teleology directing and guiding our actions. (In Slovene: “Ni komunističnega velikega Drugega, nobene zgodovinske nujnosti ali teleologije, ki bi usmerjala in vodila naša dejanja“.)[28]

In his book Living in the End Times, Žižek suggests that the criticism of his positions is itself ambiguous and multilateral:

[…] I am attacked for being anti-Semitic and for spreading Zionist lies, for being a covert Slovene nationalist andunpatriotic traitor to my nation, for being a crypto-Stalinist defending terror and for spreading Bourgeois lies about Communism… so maybe, just maybe I am on right path, the path of fidelity to freedom.”[69]

Unorthodox style and scholarship

Critics complain of a theoretical chaos in which questions and answers are confused and in which Žižek constantly recycles old ideas which were scientifically refuted long ago or which in reality have quite a different meaning than Žižek gives to them.[70] Harpham calls Žižek’s style “a stream of nonconsecutive units arranged in arbitrary sequences that solicit a sporadic and discontinuous attention.”[71] O’Neill concurs: “a dizzying array of wildly entertaining and often quite maddening rhetorical strategies are deployed in order to beguile, browbeat, dumbfound, dazzle, confuse, mislead, overwhelm, and generally subdue the reader into acceptance.”[72]

Such presentation has laid him open to accusations of misreading other philosophers, particularly Jacques Lacan and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Žižek carries over many concepts from Lacan’s teachings into the sphere of political and social theory, but has a tendency to do so in an extreme deviation from its psychoanalytic context.[73] Similarly, according to some critics, Žižek’s conflation of Lacan’s unconscious with Hegel’s unconscious is mistaken. Noah Horwitz, in an effort to dissociate Lacan from Hegel, interprets the Lacanian unconscious and the Hegelian unconscious as two totally different mechanisms. Horwitz points out, in Lacan and Hegel’s differing approaches to the topic of speech, that Lacan’s unconscious reveals itself to us in parapraxis, or “slips-of-the-tongue”. We are therefore, according to Lacan, alienated from language through the revelation of our desire (even if that desire originated with the Other, as he claims, it remains peculiar to us). In Hegel’s unconscious, however, we are alienated from language whenever we attempt to articulate a particular and end up articulating a universal. For example, if I say ‘the dog is with me’, although I am trying to say something about this particular dog at this particular time, I actually produce the universal category ‘dog’, and therefore express a generality, not the particularity I desire. Hegel’s argument implies that, at the level of sense-certainty, we can never express the true nature of reality. Lacan’s argument implies, to the contrary, that speech reveals the true structure of a particular unconscious mind.[74]

In a very negative review of Žižek’s magnum opus Less than Nothing, the British political philosopher John Gray attacked Žižek for his celebrations of violence, his failure to ground his theories in historical facts, and his ‘formless radicalism’ which, according to Gray, professes to be communist yet lacks the conviction that communism could ever be successfully realized. Gray concluded that Žižek’s work, though entertaining, is intellectually worthless: ‘Achieving a deceptive substance by endlessly reiterating an essentially empty vision, Žižek’s work amounts in the end to less than nothing.’[61]

Accusations of self-plagiarism in 2014

Žižek’s tendency to recycle portions of his own texts in subsequent works resulted in the accusation of self-plagiarism by The New York Times in 2014, after Žižek published an op-ed in the magazine which contained portions of his writing from an earlier book.[75] In response, Žižek expressed perplexity at the harsh tone of the denunciation, emphasizing that the recycled passages in question only acted as references from his theoretical books to supplement otherwise original writing.[75]

On 11 July 2014, American weekly newsmagazine Newsweek reported that in an article published in 2006 Žižek plagiarized substantial passages from an earlier review that first appeared in the journal American Renaissance, a publication condemned by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the organ of a “white nationalist hate group.”[76] However, in response to the allegations, Žižek stated:

When I was writing the text on Derrida which contains the problematic passages, a friend told me about Kevin Macdonald’s theories, and I asked him to send me a brief resume. The friend send [sic] it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another’s line of thought. Consequently, I did just that – and I sincerely apologize for not knowing that my friend’s resume was largely borrowed from Stanley Hornbeck’s review of Macdonald’s book. […] As any reader can quickly establish, the problematic passages are purely informative, a report on another’s theory for which I have no affinity whatsoever; all I do after this brief resume is quickly dismissing Macdonald’s theory as a new chapter in the long process of the destruction of Reason. In no way can I thus be accused of plagiarizing another’s line of thought, of “stealing ideas”. I nonetheless deeply regret the incident.[77]

Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is critical of Žižek saying Žižek is guilty of “using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever,” and also said that Žižek’s theories never go “beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old.”[78]

Published works

FilmographyEdit

 
Year Title Role
1996 Liebe Dein Symptom wie Dich selbst! Lecturer (as himself)
2004 The Reality of the Virtual Script author, lecturer (as himself)
2005 Zizek! Lecturer (as himself)
2006 The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema Screenwriter, presenter (as himself)
2012 The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology Screenwriter, presenter (as himself)

Bibliography

Žižek is a prolific writer and has published in numerous languages.

Works cited

  • Canning, P. “The Sublime Theorist of Slovenia: Peter Canning Interviews Slavoj Žižek” in Artforum, Issue 31, March 1993, pp. 84–9.
  • Sharpe, Matthew, Slavoj Žižek: A Little Piece of the Real, Hants: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Parker, Ian, Slavoj Žižek: A Critical Introduction, London: Pluto Press, 2004.
  • Butler, Rex, Slavoj Žižek: Live Theory, London: Continuum, 2004.
  • Kay, Sarah, Žižek: A Critical Introduction, London: Polity, 2003.
  • Myers, Tony, Slavoj Žižek (Routledge Critical Thinkers)London: Routledge, 2003.

External links

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