A Theory of What Constitutes the Heart of the Žižekian

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Here is the introduction of my essay for a new book on Žižek and Education edited by Antonio Garcia, with contributions from many of my favorite Žižek scholars.

In this piece, entitled “The Threshold of the Žižekian” I argue that the heart of the Žižekian, can be located in the way that Žižek modifies the discourse of the Master by putting the disciple (reader) into a new relation towards what I call “emancipatory knowledge.”

The threshold of the Žižekian consists first of a demand put onto the reader (subject) bringing them into a new relation to the Real – a process that makes any identity or reality inherently paradoxical, and thus the orientation towards the Žižekian is disorienting by its very nature.

After outlining the threshold, I develop a theory of Žižekian pedagogy that can be arranged like a musical score, reaching its crescendo at the point of the act, where the subject (disciple) becomes an agent in possession of emancipatory knowledge, possessing the ability to re-inscribe revolutionary potential into any socio-symbolic field: the pedagogical, the political and or the social.

The threshold of the Žižekian is also enabled by the way in which Žižek modifies Lacan’s four discourses, and introduces a new, “fifth discourse” (an argument made by Levi Bryant). The fifth discourse has an important effect on what constitutes the core of the Žižekian. Overall, I argue that if we can apply the precise way in which the Žižekian places the disciple towards emancipatory knowledge, we can also facilitate a shift from “Žižek studies” – the current reference point for scholars of Žižek – to the “Žižekian.” This movement consists of understanding and applying the subjective transformation of knowledge that underpins Žižek’s philosophical approach.

The Threshold of the Žižekian

Rarely do scholars of Žižek speak of themselves or their work as “Žižekian.” Most critical interventions into Žižek’s philosophy tend to examine a particular facet of the Žižekian, and the Žižekian as a mark of one’s own approach to philosophy is rarely cited in scholarly work on philosophy or critical theory more generally. Despite this deficit of the application of the Žižekian, there are notable works by Žižek scholars that seek to transcend this limitation by highlighting a particular aspect of the Žižekian that in turn illuminates his larger project.

In this category, several texts stand out, including Adrian Johnston’s work on Žižek’s ontology[1], Fabio Vighi’s work on Zizek’s use of the dialectic[2], Adam Kotsko’s invaluable work on Zizek’s “Christian materialist” theology[3], and the numerous interventions into aspects of the Žižekian critique of ideology, ethics, Hegel, and Lacan published by various thinkers in the journal dedicated to Žižek studies, the International Journal of Žižek Studies. The diversity and range of these studies certainly constitute and encompass major shades of the Žižekian, but there still exists an unwillingness to embrace the Žižekian in the same way many embrace philosophers whom we might place as contemporaries of Žižek, such as Badiou, and other major thinkers that Žižek sees as interlocutors to his own work such as Derrida, Deleuze or Heidegger.

At the level of Žižek’s philosophical project, we can understand the essence of his project from multiple angles. For example, Žižek himself has defined his work as revolving around the question of postmodernity and modernity, where his interventions ask, “is it still possible to pursue the Enlightenment goal of knowledge under conditions of late capitalism?[4]” But this approach to Žižek’s work falls short precisely in that his engagement with the modern out of a particular Freudian Marxist lineage, with unique refinements of Hegel, Lacan and thus all of continental philosophy, is only a shade of the Žižekian. This is what we might call the form of the Žižekian, but not the method of the Žižekian. Beginning with Žižek’s dissertation on Hegel and the end of analysis, we find the origins of his project, in terms of form, up to his more recent tomb, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism: to re-actualize the German idealist tradition through the application of Lacan’s meta-psychology and anti-philosophy. Perhaps then one of the reasons why the Žižekian has been difficult to locate is tied in part to Žižek’s own (sometimes dogmatic) affinities to this constellation of thought and history of philosophy. Added to the complexity of locating a central Žižekian position is the fact that Žižek’s work often lacks an intentionally rigorous explication of a distinct philosophical position.

The Žižekian is also difficult to locate for psychoanalytic reasons. Buried deep within the “act” of Žižek’s interventions, (writings and performative lectures) there is transference and a resistance that takes place with his readers. This transference between Žižek and his readers is tied to the way that Žižek’s writing functions similar to an analytic session in the Lacanian sense, where the “reader-as-analyst” participates in the working through of Žižek’s own symptom. In Leigh Claire La Berge’s account, the reader-as-analyst is constructed around the fundamental fantasy of Žižek, which she sees as his confrontation with the postmodern in dialectical relation to the modern. This dialectic presents a knot that prevents the transition that Žižek truly desires, which is a more informed critique of political economy, to move us out of late capitalism through theory[5]. But his interventions into postmodernism prevent such a movement, but this symptom, of a constant barrage of critiques on the postmodern serve as the hidden desire supplement that keeps the Žižekian forever stalled. What the reader-as-analyst is caught up in is Žižek’s transference with postmodern multiculturalism – which for however much application of Lacan-Hegel and Marx, Žižek himself remains unable to break the knot.

While Zizek himself very well could be caught in this transference relation to late capitalism, there is a qualitative issue that arises in regards to La Berge’s essay. It neglects the way in which the reader-as-analyst of Žižek is placed into a field of knowledge in a way that positions the reader towards what I would call “emancipatory knowledge.” As Žižek notes, the analyst’s discourse – for which the reader is placed into in the exchange with Žižek’s work, portends major consequences for developing a new relation to truth and to the role of emancipation:

The analyst’s discourse stands for the emergence of revolutionary emancipatory subjectivity that resolves the split of university and hysteria. In it, the revolutionary agent– a –addresses the subject from the position of knowledge that occupies the place of truth (i.e., which intervenes in at the “symptomal torsion” of the subject’s constellation), and the goal is to isolate, get rid of, the master signifier that structured the subjects (ideologico-political unconscious) (Žižek, 2006).

The threshold of the Žižekian

The threshold of the Žižekian is a positioning of the reader-as-analyst towards the real, facilitated by dialectical materialism and the parallax – arguably Žižek’s signature and most original methodology. Dialectical materialism is an approach that seeks through interpretation of phenomena of late capitalism (democracy, tolerance, imperialism, etc.) an identification with the repressed Real, which always returns in the form of a traumatic intervention into the social (symbolic). This return of the real is what reveals the inherent inconsistency of the Master-Signifier, or the figure that stands in for the real. As Lacan articulated, and as Žižek points out in his work, the empty Master-Signifier is the point whereby the signifier collapses into its signified. Žižek’s ontological position, because he sees all symbolic identity and all reality as inconsistent/incomplete (non-All), is premised on the notion that the subject has the potential to be radically autonomous, or free.

The Žižekian parallax also engages phenomena: an idea, a pop cultural reference, or even another philosopher, into a dialectical analysis of that thing with a social field or other problem and brings the two phenomena to a point of aporia whereby the reader is brought into a parallax with the Real which disrupts the entire basis of presuppositions that formerly sustained the field. Žižek’s unique brand of dialectical materialism is a careful revitalization of Marx, Hegel, and Lacan and it involves, like the parallax approach, a similar radical commitment to exposing the Real within any symbolic order. Once the real is exposed as an inconsistent network of signifiers defined by relations of difference with one another, the subject is able to face a certain he Zizekian thus consists of this radical displacement of the field of the symbolic and a positioning of the subject (disciple/reader) towards “emancipatory knowledge.”

The threshold of the Žižekian consists first of a demand put onto the reader (subject) bringing them into a new relation to the Real – a process that makes any identity or reality inherently paradoxical, and thus the orientation towards the Žižekian is disorienting by its very nature. There is something unheimlich about the Žižekian a priori, because one faces their own radical lack of support in any symbolic[1]. The way that Žižek confronts the Master’s discourse is seminal to the entire basis of the Žižekian as it consists of placing the subject in a new relation to knowledge, what I will refer to as “emancipatory knowledge.”

The way in which Žižek’s thought confronts the disciple (reader) is a philosophical method or orientation to doing philosophy that also puts a demand on the subject. The onus Žižek places onto the disciple is tied to a more general axiomatic position of philosophy in the precise moment of late capitalism today. As Žižek is fond of repeating, we must reverse Marx’s 11th thesis in his, Theses on Feuerbach, that “philosophers have only interpreted the world and have not yet changed it” – indeed interpretation as such holds the power in the Žižekian to change the world in so far as interpretation facilitates a shift in the perspectival field and a re-positioning of knowledge towards emancipation. This shift takes place at the threshold of the Žižekian, where the reader is faced with his or her own split subjectivity, and ultimately faced with his or her own un-freedom. As Žižek claims, “We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.[2]” Confronting one’s own relation to the Real and to reality is an a priori to the Žižekian, and it has pedagogical consequences, serving as a threshold or entry point to the heart of the Žižekian. Before considering whether there is a pedagogical consequence of the Žižekian, we will examine Žižek’s debate with Alain Badiou over the role of the Master and the Master’s discourse in relation to emancipatory political change today.

[1] Adrian Johnston’s text, Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity is notable in this regard as it draws out the unique constellation of Zizek’s appropriation of German idealism (Schelling and Hegel) with Lacan’s metapsychology – revealing a consistent thinking of materiality (nature, body, world) as internally inconsistent, shot through with antagonisms, despite the wide array of Zizek’s interrogations into popular culture, politics, etc.

[2] Fabio Vighi’s On Zizek’s Dialectics: Surplus, Subtraction, Sublimation develops a theory of Žižek application of the dialectic that places it into context with Marx, Foucault and psychoanalysis.

[3] Adam Kotsko’s Zizek’s Theology is an important companion to understanding how one can truly apply the Zizekian to the theological, but it does not provide us with a more all encompassing sense of the Zizekian.

[4] Quote from Truth of Zizek

[5] La Berge The Truth of Zizek

[1] Žižek interprets the symbolic as always alienated from itself, a position that was held by Lacan in his late work. For Žižek, the symbolic order does not have an order that controls it, and the problem lies around the existence of the big Other as such. By this stage of his work, the symbolic is itself alienated and thus its Laws function anonymously. Žižek notes that it is this anonymous order that is the big Other, particularly in the context of our postmodern and post totalitarian societies.

[2] “Introduction: The Missing Ink”, in Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (2002), p. 2

2 responses

  1. noir-realism

    Reblogged this on noir realism and commented:
    Daniel Tutt of spirit is a bone introduces a new book on Žižek, Žižek and Education. Nuanced and calibrated he lays out the parade of scholars succinctly and with his usual aplomb! Looking forward to the reading the new work.

  2. Idealism

    […] A Theory of What Constitutes the Heart of the Žižekian […]

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