Žižek in Liverpool, England, 2008
21 March 1949|
Ideology as an unconscious fantasy that structures reality;|
revival of dialectical materialism
Slavoj Žižek (/ / ( listen) SLAH-voy ZHIZH-ek; Slovene: [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, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London. He works in subjects including continental philosophy, political theory, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, film criticism, Marxism, Hegelianism 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 ideology that drew heavily on Lacanian psychoanalysis and Hegelian idealism. 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. A critic of capitalism, neoliberalism 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.
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. In 2012, Foreign Policy listed Žižek on its list of Top 100 Global Thinkers, calling him "a celebrity philosopher" while elsewhere he has been dubbed the "Elvis of cultural theory" and "the most dangerous philosopher in the West". 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.
Žižek was born in Ljubljana, SR Slovenia, Yugoslavia, into a middle-class family. 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. He spent most of his childhood in the coastal town of Portorož, where he was exposed to Western film, theory and popular culture. When Slavoj was a teenager his family moved back to Ljubljana where he attended Bežigrad High School. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Slavoj was exposed to a lot of western philosophy in Zagreb.
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. An early influence at university, Božidar Debenjak, taught the philosophy of German idealism and introduced the thought of the Frankfurt School to Slovenia. Debenjak's reading of Marx's Das Kapital from the perspective of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit influenced many future Slovenian philosophers, including Žižek.
Žižek frequented the circles of dissident intellectuals, including the Heideggerian philosophers Tine Hribar and Ivo Urbančič, and published articles in alternative magazines, such as Praxis, Tribuna and Problemi, which he also edited. 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". 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.
He wrote the introduction to Slovene translations of G. K. Chesterton's and John Le Carré's detective novels. In 1988, he published his first book dedicated entirely to film theory. He achieved international recognition as a social theorist with the 1989 publication of his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology.
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. 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."
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. 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. 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).
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." 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.
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." The following year Žižek appeared in the Arte documentary Marx Reloaded in which he defended the idea of communism.
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. In an opinion piece, published e.g. in Die Zeit, he described Hillary Clinton as the much less suitable alternative. Some comments referred to Žižek not being too different to Trump – both thriving on their quotability, provoking outrage and both being, in their own very different ways, "big personalities" in the media with Slovenian spouses. 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.
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.
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!"
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. 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.
Žižek has been married three times: firstly, to Renata Salecl, 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 historian of architecture Peter Krečič.
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 Fiennes, The 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).
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(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). Though consciousness is opaque (following Hegel), the epistemological gap between the In-itself and For-itself is immanent to reality itself;. 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]
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, the "Parallax" of dialectical antagonisms are inherent to reality itself, and Dialectical Materialism (contra Engels) is a new materialist Hegelianism, incorporating the insights of Lacanian psychoanalysis, set theory, quantum physics, and contemporary continental philosophy.
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.
Žižek's philosophical and political positions are not always clear, and his work has been criticized for a failure to take a consistent stance. 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.
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".
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. 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." 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.
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".)
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 and unpatriotic 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."
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. Harpham calls Žižek's style "a stream of nonconsecutive units arranged in arbitrary sequences that solicit a sporadic and discontinuous attention." 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."
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. 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.
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.'
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. 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.
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." 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.
|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)|
Žižek is a prolific writer and has published in numerous languages.
This extraordinary analysis of the transcendental imagination, critique of Heidegger, and rereading of Hegelian 'night of the world,' together contribute to a reassertion of the radicality of the 'Cartesian subject'—that thoroughly repudiated theoretical spectre which nonetheless continues to 'haunt Western academia' (1999: 1–5). This unorthodox reading of the Hegelian 'night of the world'—the radical negativity that haunts subjectivity—is developed further in an explicitly political direction, which helps explain a critique of the 'Fukuyamaian' consensus, shared both by moral-religious conservatives and libertarian 'postmodernists', that global capitalism remains the 'unsurpassable horizon of our times'.
But the notion is undermined by the rise of what might be called 'Post-Modern racism', the surprising characteristic of which is its insensitivity to reflection – a neo-Nazi skinhead who beats up black people knows what he's doing, but does it anyway. Reflexivisation has transformed the structure of social dominance. Take the public image of Bill Gates....
...an unhealthy anti-liberal is one, like Z+iz=ek, who ticks and tocks in unreflective revulsion at liberalism, pantomiming that he is de Maistre (or Abraham) or Robespierre (or Lenin) by turns, lest he look like Mill.
To review: Zizek does this liberal = neoliberal thing. Which is no good. And he doesn't even have much to say about economics. And Zizek does this liberal = self-hating pc white intellectuals thing. Which is no good.
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