Speaking here at the University of Vermont last Friday, Slavoj Žižek responded to a student query about where to study Lacanianism by lauding our Film and Television Studies Program as the only one anywhere at which Lacanians are actually “in power” — the current chair, former chair, and at least one other faculty member, plus an overflow audience composed primarily of undergrads providing pretty good evidence of this — and then by characterizing the world of Lacanian theory as a kind of widely but thinly spread diaspora, in which the Lacanian had to craftily pretend to go along with the powers-that-be until they got into a secure position at which point they could turn around and “shoot,” i.e. do the real (Lacanian) stuff.
It’s nice to have one’s university marked out as a unique place in this way, not necessarily because of the Lacanianism (though some would say for that, too) as because having Žižek’s imprimatur adds some always-welcome cachet to it. Compared to the talk Žižek gave in Montreal recently, where his topic had been theology and the death of God, he was more on home turf here, both in terms of having the sympathetic packed-hall audience and because his topic was the more familiar one (for his fans) of ideology, film, and Jacques Lacan.
As I’ve related here before (to some extent), I admire Žižek’s passion, am awed by his energy and prolificacy, and strongly sympathize with his overall project, which he has loosely characterized as waking people up from their ideologically induced slumber, where the ‘waking’ is part of a Lacanian unmasking of psychologically driven illusions, and the ‘ideology’ is the one propping up capitalist injustice. But when it comes to the details of his arguments, I don’t always find them as convincing as I would like.
Specifically, he relies too much on a set of simple oppositions: in a world of manifest injustice, what Žižek looks for is a Leninist decisiveness in political action, which he has come to ally (in books like this) with a Pauline Christian love of “the act.” In opposition to these, he trots out a long line of caricatured opponents and ideological ersatzes, from complacent liberal multiculturalism to obsessive ecology to “New Age spiritualisms,” “neo-paganisms,” “Western Buddhism,” “gnosticism” (though that one plays a somewhat different role in his arguments), and some of the ideas of philosophical rivals like Gilles Deleuze and the “weak” onto-theologies of Gianni Vattimo and John Caputo — most of which he treats less in their own right than for the ways they are used and abused by the broader culture.
That long list of items sounds very much like the one that makes up the “relational” side of the relational/objectological debate, which I’ve written much about here before, except that Žižek comes to the defense of the “subject” rather than, as Graham Harman does, the “object.” The two, however — subject and object — go hand in hand in non-relational worldviews, as I’ll try to suggest in what follows.
In principle, a psychoanalytically inclined liberationist ethic could point to the relational flow that gives rise to both subject and object, and at times it seems that Žižek’s writing is oriented in this direction as well. But his more recent writings, such as First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, seem to be turning to a rather hard-edged “subject” and a willful “act” that embraces the possibility of an “egalitarian terror,” as he calls it, to put things right — as if ambiguity is for losers and decisive purity is what’s called for now. So I want to have a closer look at this turn, and at the fear of the relational that, to me, appears to underlie it.
Note: What follows are somewhat unfiltered thoughts, and they are based on my reading of what’s really just a fraction of his massive written output, so they may be revised as I dig deeper. I’m sharing them in part because I won’t be able to do that digging anytime soon, but I feel that getting these thoughts out can be healthy and potentially fruitful.
Žižek and ecology
I should reiterate here that I find Žižek’s point always a useful one to hear, and that I appreciate his willingness to respond to criticisms and to revise his views over time. An instance of this are his writings on ecology. These have tended to focus, over the years, on the point that the idea of “nature” with “its pattern of regular rhythms, the ultimate reference of order and stability” is really just a “big Other.” It is a fantasy we project onto reality in order to fill the gap, the Lacanian “lack,” that would tell us that we, and reality, are riven, torn open and fundamentally meaningless, lacking ultimately in any comforting balance and harmony.
(For Zizek’s ecological writings, see Of cells and selves, the “Nature does not exist” section of Looking Awry, “Censorship today: Violence, or ecology as a new opium for the masses,” and the closing chapter of In Defense of Lost Causes, much of it a repetition from “Nature and its discontents.”)
Much can be said about this Lacanian notion of a “constitutive lack,” a traumatic ontological absence or void at the center of the subject, the misrecognition of which prompts us to seek alternative ways to fill that gap — through identification with an ethnic group, a nation, or other ideologically enabled substitute ‘wholenesses’ and ‘plenitudes,’ which, at their extreme, result in the kinds of genocides and horrors we’ve become all too familiar with. At the very least, reminding ourselves that we live in an open and, on some level, mysterious and unknowable universe is generally a good thing to do.
But to go from the point that nature can take the role of a ‘big Other’ to the suggestion (as Žižek does) that ecology and environmentalism somehow, by definition, obsessively pursue an illusion, is not warranted. If anything, the history of environmental advocacy shows a longstanding tradition of writers and activists trying to break open the comforting illusions of bourgeois social reality, asking their readers to confront the mystery of the universe rather than merely assume that we are comfortably ensconced in a transcendent social or moral-religious realm locating us humans well “above” and outside of nature.
Environmental historians have often pointed to the history of human projections onto nature: as cosmic harmony, as goddess and mother, as “red in tooth and claw,” as cybernetic computer, and so on; and the more informed response to this history of ideas is neither to fixate on one episode of it (e.g., the Walt Disney Lion King version of nature as harmonious cosmic order, as Žižek seems to want to do) nor to reject them all as “social constructions,” but to ask what the changing relationship between them and their social and ecological contexts tells us about that relationship today. Žižek has, however, increasingly been acknowledging the extent of the ecological crisis in his writings, and if he has little original to offer about resolving them, at least he isn’t dismissing them.
Buddhists and other pagans
This kind of progress could be hoped for in his writing on Buddhism and some of the other -isms as well. Žižek has claimed that “Western Buddhism” is establishing itself as “the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism” (alongside other forms of “New Age ‘Asiatic’ thought”). His critique is that Buddhism, like neo-pagan “New Age” thinking in general, is embedded within flawed assumptions about the cosmic balance, the identification of violence with the sacred, and so on — which, for Žižek, Christianity somehow breaks out of (Mel Gibson notwithstanding?). But too often his writing seems to fall into the kinds of orientalist misconceptions about Buddhism that have colored its reception by the West for decades, if not centuries; and so it’s not surprising to find that the phenomena he points to conform to the misconceptions, but also that they have little to do with actual Buddhism.
A closer look would show many potential points of convergence between Buddhist philosophy and Lacanianism psychoanalysis. The Lacanian model of the psyche — a psyche built on an unassimilable “gap” between the bodily-material substrate on which subjectivity is built and the subject itself, clothed in a language of words and images and discourses that are imposed by society as the child becomes a “person” in a world of social others — is not all that different from the Buddhist notion of the self as a relational construct with no essence, whose underlying reality is only a flux of dependently-originative causal forces.
Both Lacanian psychoanalysis and Buddhist practice aim to help us face the emptiness or “gap” that is at our core, so that we can live with it rather than deflecting it into illusory and ultimately unsupportable fantasy-constructs — such as those of the ego (the subject, the “I”) or of ethnic, national, and other kinds of identity projects, each with their scapegoated “others” and ideological props. Confronting the emptiness, for Buddhists, allows an opening up to that which connects all sentient beings. Žižek’s Lacanianism, on the other hand, looks to Marx for that sense of connectedness and justice; but the parallels are instructive. (Eske Mollgaard has written incisively about Žižek’s flawed understanding of Buddhism, and some discussion of the Žižek-Buddhism debate can be found at And now for something completely different, culture monkey, and in scattered comments on this blog. I’ve referred before to efforts to compare and reconcile Buddhism with psychoanalysis, including the Lacanian sort; and see also here.)
I think it’s fair to say, then, that what Žižek is describing is not Buddhism but a kind of commodified “Buddhism” that has been rendered safe for bourgeois-bohemian lifestyles, which has as much to do with what the Buddha (and Nagarjuna, Dogen, et al) taught as suburban mega-church Evangelicalism has to do with Jesus or Žižek’s beloved St. Paul. Even Žižek’s own thinking can be criticized in a similar way as ideological, as John Gray does in his recent review of First as Tragedy, Then as Farce:
The media-confected communism of the present time [i.e., Zizek’s, Alain Badiou’s, et al, which had been making waves in the U.K. media of late] has as little connection with everyday life as does reality television — possibly even less. But precisely because of its unreality, the neo-Bolshevik spectacle has a definite function in contemporary society. The clowning cabaret of 21st-century communism does what entertainment has always been meant to do. It distracts those who watch it from thinking about their problems, which secretly they suspect may be insoluble.
Gray’s criticism is unfair, of course, but he shows how easy it is to play this game.
Fortunately, this dichotomy between St. Paul-Hegel-Marx-Lacan and Buddhism-Paganism-process-relationalism is amenable both to dialogue and to some measure of reconciliation. One of my favorite books of Zizekian theory is Adrian Johnston’s Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity, a book about which Žižek has stated that “While reading it, I often had the uncanny feeling of being confronted by a line of argumentation which fits better than my own texts what I am struggling to formulate — as if he is the original and I am a copy.”
Johnston articulates Žižek’s ontology as a form of “transcendental materialism” wherein “Cogito-like subjectivity” — which Zizek is a rare explicit defender of, among Continental philosophers (despite a style that seems to trick many readers into thinking the very opposite) — “ontogenetically emerges out of an originally corporeal condition as its anterior ground, although, once generated, this sort of subjectivity thereafter remains irreducible to its material sources” (xxiv).
Žižek’s “creative synthesis of German idealism and Lacanian psychoanalysis,” Johnston writes, “enables the argument to be advanced that certain properties of an asubjective, heteronomous libidinal-material foundation … function as fundamental conditions of possibility for the ontogenesis of subjective autonomy”; that is, “autonomy [or subjectivity] immanently emerges out of heteronomy [or the corporeal-material plurality of pre-subjective existence] as an excess or surplus that cannot be reinscribed back within the ontological register out of which it grew” (271). In other words, we are not born as subjects with anything like “freedom,” but once we’ve become subjects within a socio-linguistic system, we cannot go back, and we are left with an irreparable “gap, a non-dialecticizable parallax split” that haunts our being and, at the same time, makes some measure of freedom possible.
Johnston grounds Žižek’s project within the history of philosophy, especially Kant, Schelling, and Hegel, and he ventures some perceptive comparisons with theories found in analytic philosophy of mind and cognitive science — areas where Buddhist philosophy of mind has been making inroads and where Žižek’s and Lacan’s have, for the most part, not, but where they ought to be part of the dialogue. The “transcendental materialism” Johnston ascribes to Žižek sounds at times surprisingly compatible with William Connolly’s immanent naturalism or Deleuze’s “transcendental empiricism,” both of which perceive subjectivity as emergent out of material-libidinal interactions, but which do not reduce subjectivity to those pre-subjective interactions.
Johnston further describes Lacan’s model of “The material genesis of a non-epiphenomenal, more-than-material subject” this way:
One, the material constitution of the human organism propels this being into accepting and internalizing sets of foreign images and words [foreign because they come to the infant not from nature but from the social world]; Two, these sets of foreign images and words thereby open up the negativity of a gap in the human organism between actual materiality and virtual more-than-materiality; Three, this gap between the actual and the virtual is the course of both freedom and madness.
Being free [or autonomous subjectivity] is a transitory event arising at exceptional moments when the historical, psychical, and biological run of things breaks down, when the determining capacities of natural and cultural systems — these systems are never actually the seamless networks of unfaltering determination (i.e., big Others) they so often inaccurately appear to be — are temporarily suspended as a result of deadlocks and short-circuits being generated within and between these multifaceted, not-whole systems.
What can be more Deleuzian than this account of networked systems, productive organic-machinic assemblages out of which arise the capacity to act and, from one moment to another, to perpetually become? What can be more Whiteheadian than the gap that opens up in the event of every moment that makes up the (processual) universe?
But where Žižek and Lacan seem to limit the experience of subjectivity to the human, and Johnston to “exceptional moments” of humanity, Whitehead and Deleuze would extend it to all things — which in each of their systems are always events rather than object-things. And what can be more Buddhist than the recognition that the “gap” that opens up in each moment, between each thought or mental impulse, can be penetrated through meditative practice precisely to free us from the fantasy images and objects and “things” we think are real, so as to make it possible to experience the fluidity of life with some measure of liberated contentment? (I’m making these connections too hastily, I realize, but they are not inconceivable.)
Žižek’s critiques of Buddhism, paganism, and the rest, ascribe an indifference to them, a noninvolvement that allegedly comes from their shared ideal of “absorption” in a cosmic “balance of the One-All” (1999:2), a “balanced circuit of the universe” that, according to Žižek, Christianity throws off the rails. But when he criticizes the environmentalist obsessing over the ways in which “we” are destroying “nature’s balance” and acting to rectify things on behalf of that balance, isn’t this wanting to have it both ways: action and nonaction are both wrong when they’re done by X (environmentalists, Buddhists, et al), but right when they’re done by Y (Christians and Leninist revolutionaries)?
Towards the end of (First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Žižek writes:
I claim here that the communist Idea persists: it survives the failures of its realization as a specter which returns again and again, in an endless persistence best captured in the already-quoted words from Beckett’s Worstward Ho: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better:’ This brings us to the crux of the matter. One of the mantras of the postmodern Left has been that we should finally leave behind the “Jacobin-Leninist” paradigm of centralized dictatorial power.
But perhaps the time has now come to turn this mantra around and admit that a good dose of just that “Jacobin-Leninist” paradigm is precisely what the Left needs today. Now, more than ever, one should insist on what Badiou calls the “eternal” Idea of Communism, or the communist “invariants” — the “four fundamental concepts” at work from Plato through the medieval millenarian revolts and on to Jacobinism, Leninism and Maoism: strict egalitarian justice, disciplinary terror, political voluntarism, and trust in the people.
This matrix is not “superseded” by any new postmodern or postindustrial or post-whatever-you-want dynamic. However, up until the present historical moment, this eternal Idea functioned as, precisely, a Platonic Idea which persisted, returning again and again after every defeat. What is missing today is — to put it in philosophico-theological terms — a privileged link of the Idea to a Singular historical moment (in the same way that, in Christianity, the whole eternal divine edifice stands and falls with the contingent event of the birth and death of Christ). [p. 126, emphasis added]
Isn’t Žižek here losing the basic psychoanalytic (and Buddhist) insight that the gap will not be eradicated by any Great Act or Event, however unfashionably it is clothed (as Christian, Jacobin-Leninist, or whatever)? Such an Event of “disciplinary terror” would only perpetuate another several rounds of the same old thing…
Seeing him speak on home turf, however (mine at least, if not his), reassured me that he is at heart a lovable guy who can’t possibly mean what I wouldn’t want him to mean when he advocates on behalf of this terror, or at least that he doesn’t mean to mean that… He just means a certain level of provocation, which in current circumstances seems a healthy thing. Okay, then, be provocative, and even passionate about it, if that’s what it takes to have an impact these days. But I may have to take it with a grain of pagan salt.
[October 2012 note: I added some paragraph breaks, including in the last Zizek quote, and the subheadings in this article to make it more readable.]