Slavoj Žižek  

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"My work relies on the full acceptance of the notion of modern subjectivity elaborated by the great German Idealist from Kant to Hegel: for me, this tradition forms the unsurpassable horizon of our philosophical experience, and the core of my entire work is the endeavor to use Lacan as a privileged intellectual tool to reactualize German Idealism." --The Zizek Reader (1999)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Slavoj Žižek (born 21 March 1949) is a Slovenian sociologist, contemporary philosopher, filmosopher and cultural critic.

Žižek is well known for his use of the works of 20th century French theorist Jacques Lacan in a new reading of popular culture. He writes on countless topics including fundamentalism, tolerance, political correctness, globalization, subjectivity, human rights, Lenin, myth, cyberspace, postmodernism, multiculturalism, post-marxism, David Lynch, and Alfred Hitchcock.




Žižek's ontology posits a return to the category of the Cartesian subject; a return to the category of ideology; and a return to the notion of the Lacanian Real.

  1. The defense of the category of the subject involves first a vindication of the notion of subjectivity for an adequate descriptive political theory. Žižek argues that hegemonic regimes function by interpellating individuals into social roles and mandates within a given polity: we cannot understand how power functions without some account of the psychology of political subjects. Secondly, there is the vindication of the "category of the subject". Following Lacan, Žižek contends that subjectivity corresponds to a lack (manque) that always resists full inscription into the mandates prescribed to individuals by hegemonic regimes.
  2. In his deployment of the category of "ideology", Žižek finds the notions of ideology in Marx "The German Ideology" - which center on the notion of "false consciousness" - to be irrelevant in a period of unprecedented subjective reflexivity and cynicism as to the motives and workings of those in authority (see The Sublime Object of Ideology). It can be argued however that Žižek's most original aspect comes from its insistence that a Lacanian model of the barred or split subject, because of its stipulation that individuals' deepest motives are unconscious, can be used to demonstrate that ideology has less become irrelevant today than revealed its deeper truth (see Matthew Sharpe, Slavoj Žižek.)
  3. In a contentious extension of the referential scope of ideology, Žižek maintains that dominant ideologies wholly structure the subject's senses of reality. Yet, The Real is not equivalent to the reality experienced by the subjects as a meaningfully ordered totality. To him, the Real names points within the ontological fabric knitted by the hegemonic systems of representation and reproduction that nevertheless resist full inscription into its terms, and which may as such attempt to generate sites of active political resistance.

In The Parallax View (2005), Žižek stages confrontations between idealist and materialist understandings of various aspects of ontology. One such confrontation between idealism and materialism is expressed in Lacanian terms between an idealism's purported ability to theorize the All versus a Materialism's understanding that an apparent All is really a non-All. His penchant for staging a confrontation between idealism and materialism leads him to describe his work in such paradoxical terms as a "materialist theology." Žižek offers that reality is fundamentally open and a materialist "minimal difference" - the gap that appears in reality between a reductionist description of physical process and one's experience of existence - is the real of human life and the crucial domain that an ontology must attempt to theorize. Žižek equates the gap with the Freudian death drive, as the negative and mortifying "thing that thinks." Although biological psychology might one day be able to completely model a person's brain, there would still be something left over that could not be explained, and this something corresponds precisely with the Freudian death drive. It is the death drive precisely, which takes this role, not the pleasure principle, thus it is the negative aspect of consciousness that breaks and offers judgement on the unrepresentable totality. Žižek points to the fact that consciousness is opaque. A primary characteristic of consciousness is that you can't ever know if a thing is really conscious or merely mimicry.

Žižek's metaphysics are, to a certain extent an anti-metaphysics, because he believes it is absurd to theorize the All, because something will always remain untheorized. This can be explained in Lacanian terms, in terms of the relationship between the Symbolic and the Real. For Žižek, we can view a person in several ways, but these ways are mutually exclusive. For example, we can see a person as either an ethical being with free will or a determined biological creature but not both. These are the Symbolic interpretations of the Real, ways of using language to understand that which is non-All, that which cannot be totally understood by description. For Žižek, however, the Real is not a thing which is understood in different ways depending on how you decide to look at it (person as ethical being versus person as biological being); the Real is instead the movement from one vantage point to another - the "parallax view". Žižek sidesteps relativism by claiming that there is a diagonal ontological cut across apparently incommeasurable discourses, which points to their intersubjectivity. This means that although there are multiple Symbolic interpretations of the Real, they are not all relatively "true." Žižek identifies two instances of the Real; the abject Real, which cannot be symbolized, and the symbolic Real (see On Belief), 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.

The formation of the subject

Žižek argues that Descartes' cogito is the basis of the subject. However, whereas most thinkers read the cogito as a substantial, transparent and fully self-conscious "I" which is in complete command of its destiny, Žižek proposes that the cogito is an empty space, what is left when the rest of the world is expelled from itself. The Symbolic Order is what substitutes for the loss of the immediacy of the world and it is where the void of the subject is filled in by the process of subjectivization. The latter is where the subject is given an identity and where that identity is altered by the Self.

Once the Lacanian concepts of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are grasped, Žižek, in philosophical writings such as his discussion of Schelling, always interprets the work of other philosophers in terms of those concepts. This is so because "the core of my entire work is the endeavour to use Lacan as a privileged intellectual tool to reactualize German idealism". (See "The Žižek Reader") The reason Žižek thinks German idealism (the work of Hegel, Kant, Fichte and Schelling) needs reactualizing is that we are thought to understand it in one way, whereas the truth of it is something else. The term "reactualizing" refers to the fact that there are different possible ways to interpret German Idealism, and Žižek wishes to make "actual" one of those possibilities in distinction to the way it is currently realized. At its most basic, German Idealism believes that the truth of something could be found in itself. For Žižek, the fundamental insight of German Idealism is that the truth of something is always outside it. So the truth of our experience lies outside ourselves, in the Symbolic and the Real, rather than being buried deep within us. We cannot look into our selves and find out who we truly are, because who we truly are is always elsewhere.

Our selves are somewhere else in the Symbolic formations which always precede us and in the Real which we have to disavow if we are to enter the Symbolic order.

To Žižek, Lacan's proposition that self-identity is impossible becomes central in structuration of the subject. The identity of something, its singularity or "oneness", is always split. There is always too much of something, and indivisible remainder, or a bit left-over which means that it cannot be self-identical (e.g., the meaning of a word can never be found in the word itself, but rather in other words; its meaning therefore is not self-identical). This principle of the impossibility of self-identity is what informs Žižek's reading of the German idealists. In reading Schelling, for example, the Beginning is not actually the beginning at all - the truth of the Beginning lies elsewhere, it is split or not identical to itself.

How, precisely, does the Word discharge the tension of the rotary motion, how does it mediate the antagonism between the contractive and the expansive force? The Word is a contraction in the guise of its very opposite of an expansion - that is, in pronouncing a word, the subject contracts his being outside himself; he "coagulates" the core of his being in an external sign. In the (verbal) sign, I - as it were - find myself outside myself, I posit my unity outside myself, in a signifier which represents me ("The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters").

The subject of enunciation is the "I" who speaks, the individual doing the speaking; the subject of the enunciated is the "I" of the sentence. "I" is not identical to itself - it is split between the individual "I" (the subject of enunciation) and the grammatical "I" (the subject of the enunciated). Although we may experience them as unified, this is merely an Imaginary illusion, for the pronoun "I" is actually a substitute for the "I" of the subject. It does not account for me in my full specificity; it is, rather, a general term I share with everyone else. In order to do so, my empirical reality must be annihilated or, as Lacan avers, "the symbol manifests itself first of all as the murder of the thing". The subject can only enter language by negating the Real, murdering or substituting the blood-and-sinew reality of self for the concept of self expressed in words. For Lacan and Žižek, every word is a gravestone, marking the absence or corpse of the thing it represents and standing in for it. It is partly in the light of this that Lacan is able to refashion Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" as "I think where I am not, therefore I am where I think not".

The "I think" here is the subject of the enunciated (the Symbolic subject) whereas the "I am" is the subject of the enunciation (the Real subject). What Lacan aims to disclose by rewriting the Cartesian cogito in this way is that the subject is irrevocably split, torn asunder by language

The concept of vanishing mediator is one that Žižek has consistently employed since For They Know Not What They Do. A vanishing mediator is a concept which somehow negotiates and settles - hence mediating - the transition between two opposed concepts and thereafter disappears. Žižek draws attention to the fact that a vanishing mediator is produced by an asymmetry of content and form. As with Marx's analysis of revolution, form lags behind content, in the sense that content changes within the parameters of an existing form, until the logic of that content works its way out of the latter and throws off its husk, revealing a new form in its stead. "The passage from feudalism to Protestantism is not of the same nature as the passage from Protestantism to bourgeois everyday life with its privatized religion. The first passage concerns "content" (under the guise of preserving the religious form or even its strengthening, the crucial shift - the assertion of the ascetic acquisitive stance in economic activity as the domain of manifestation of Grace - takes place), whereas the second passage is a purely formal act, a change of form (as soon as Protestantism is realized as the ascetic acquisitive stance, it can fall off as form)" (For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor).

Žižek sees in this process evidence of Hegel's "negation of the negation", the third moment of the dialectic. The first negation is the mutation of the content within and in the name of the old form. The second negation is the obsolescence of the form itself. In this way, something becomes the opposite of itself, paradoxically, by seeming to strengthen itself. In the case of Protestantism, the universalization of religious attitudes ultimately led to its being sidelined as a matter of private contemplation. Which is to say that Protestantism, as a negation of feudalism, was itself negated by capitalism.

The Three Orders

The The Three Orders is a concept Zizek borrows from Lacan. They consist of The Real, The Symbolic and The Imaginary.

The Real

The Real is not only opposed to the imaginary but is also located beyond the symbolic.

Unlike the latter, which is constituted in terms of oppositions such as "presence" and "absence", there is no absence in the real. The symbolic opposition between "presence" and "absence" implies the possibility that something may be missing from the symbolic, the real is "always in its place: it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from there." If the symbolic is a set of differentiated signifiers, the real is in itself undifferentiated: "it is without fissure". The symbolic introduces "a cut in the real," in the process of signification: "it is the world of words that creates the world of things." Thus the real emerges as that which is outside language: "it is that which resists symbolization absolutely." The real is impossible because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order. This character of impossibility and resistance to symbolization lends the real its traumatic quality.

There are also three modalities of the real:

  • The "symbolic real" : the signifier reduced to a meaningless formula
  • 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.

The Symbolic

Although the Symbolic is an essentially linguistic dimension, Lacan does not simply equate the symbolic with language, since the latter is involved also in the imaginary and the real. The symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier, in which elements have no positive existence but are constituted by virtue of their mutual differences. It is the realm of radical alterity: the Other. The unconscious is the discourse of the Other and thus belongs to the symbolic order. Its is also the realm of the Law that regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. The symbolic is both the "pleasure principle" that regulates the distance from das Ding, and the "death drive" which goes beyond the pleasure principle by means of repetition: "the death drive is only the mask of the symbolic order." This register is determinant of subjectivity; for Lacan the symbolic is characterized by the absence of any fixed relations between signifier and signified.

The Imaginary

The basis of the Imaginary order is the formation of the ego in the "mirror stage". Since the ego is formed by identifying with the counterpart or specular image, "identification" is an important aspect of the imaginary. The relationship whereby the ego is constituted by identification is a locus of "alienation", which is another feature of the imaginary, and is fundamentally narcissistic. The imaginary, a realm of surface appearances which are deceptive, is structured by the symbolic order. It also involves a linguistic dimension: whereas the signifier is the foundation of the symbolic, the "signified" and "signification" belong to the imaginary. Thus language has both symbolic and imaginary aspects. Based on the specular image, the imaginary is rooted in the subject's relationship to the body (the image of the body).


One of the ways in which Žižek's understanding of the postmodern can be characterized is as an over-proximity of the Real. In postmodern art (or postmodernism) Žižek identifies various manifestations of this, such as the technique of "filling in the gaps." By way of "filling in the gaps" and "telling it all", what we retreat from is the void as such, which is ultimately none other than the void of subjectivity (the Lacanian "barred subject"). (See The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory.)

The Big Other

For Žižek, present society, or postmodernity, is based upon the demise in the authority of the big Other (see Jacques Lacan). Continuing the theorists of the contemporary risk society, who advocate the personal freedoms of choice or reflexivity, which have replaced this authority, Žižek argues that these theorists ignore the reflexivity at the heart of the subject. For Žižek, lacking the prohibitions of the big Other, in these conditions, the subject's inherent reflexivity manifests itself in attachments to forms of subjection, paranoia and narcissism. In order to ameliorate these pathologies, Žižek proposes the need for a political act or revolution - one that will alter the conditions of possibility of postmodernity (which he identifies as capitalism) and so give birth to a new type of Symbolic Order in which a new breed of subject can exist.

  1. The Law. Žižek refers to the law throughout his work. The term "the law" signifies the principles upon which society is based, designating a mode of collective conduct based upon a set of prohibitions. However, for Žižek, the rule of the law conceals an inherent unruliness which is precisely the violence by which it established itself as law in the first place. (See For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor.)
  2. The Demise of the big Other. One key aspect of the universalization of reflexivity is the resulting disintegration of the big Other, the communal network of social institutions, customs and laws. For Žižek, the big Other was always dead, in the sense that it never existed in the first place as a material thing. All it ever was (and is) is a purely symbolic order. It means that we all engage in a minimum of idealization, disavowing the brute fact of the Real in favor of another Symbolic world behind it. Žižek expresses this disavowal in terms of an "as if". In order to coexist with our neighbors we act "as if" they do not smell bad or look ridiculous. The big Other is then a kind of collective lie to which we all individually subscribe. (See Jacques Lacan on other/Other and Žižek's For They Know Not What They Do.)
  3. The Return of the big Other. Paradoxically, then, Žižek argues that the typical postmodern subject is one who displays an outright cynicism towards official institutions, yet at the same time believes in the existence of conspiracies and an unseen Other pulling the strings. This apparently contradictory coupling of cynicism and belief is strictly correlative to the demise of the big Other. Its disappearance causes us to construct an Other of the Other in order to escape the unbearable freedom its loss encumbers us with. (See Looking Awry: an Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture.)

There is no false consciousness

Žižek follows Louis Althusser in jettisoning the Marxist equation: "ideology equals 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 is not, 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, following Jacques Ranciere, 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 but nonetheless 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"). His solution to capitalism is a rapid repoliticization of the economy.

Public life

In 2003, Žižek wrote text to accompany Bruce Weber photos 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!"

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

Foreign Policy named Žižek one of its 2012 Top 100 Global Thinkers "for giving voice to an era of absurdity."

The British Royal Opera House announced on January 2013 that four new operas inspired by Žižek's writings have been commissioned.


Works of Slavoj Žižek

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