Inside Story

And so on

A necessarily incomplete guide to the prolific philosopher Slavoj Žižek

Frank Yuan Books 22 May 2023 3035 words

Slavoj Žižek with Freud Museum director Monika Pessler (centre) after speaking at Vienna’s Burgtheater in May 2015. Terry Howard/Alamy

Never have so many understood so little of so much — so much writing, that is, in this case by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Most of his followers, as sociologist Eliran Bar-El discovered when he explored Žižek-related online communities, engage very little with his substantive philosophical works. I suspect the same can be said of many of his detractors.

Perhaps the sheer number of Žižek’s books — averaging about two each year since the early 2000s — makes it hard to find a definitive entry-point. Perhaps it is his free-flowing style, alternating between anecdotes and esoteric, jargon-laden philosophical argumentation. Or perhaps it’s a well-deserved dose of his own medicine: he confesses to not having seen half of the movies he criticises, with the latest offence being committed against Matrix Resurrections in 2022.

For some, his wide-ranging commentaries and humorous style signify a public intellectual par excellence; for others, they reveal a clownish charlatan. A podcast dedicated to discussing his ideas is called Žižek and So On, capturing his most famous signature phrase (“pure ideology” comes a close second). His personal idiosyncrasies include incessant nose-rubbing and sniffling and a studied refusal to wear a button-up shirt in public appearances.

Two YouTube videos, in juxtaposition, testify to Žižek’s internet-era pop-star status. The first is a nine-hour collage of a lecture series he delivered on Friedrich Hegel; the other, a seven-second clip, shows the philosopher obliviously enjoying hotdogs on the street, probably in his hometown of Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he still resides. Both have attracted hundreds of thousands of views and many adoring comments.

Although Žižek made his name interpreting Marx, Hegel and Jacques Lacan — and interpreting the world through them — he seems to have consciously renounced the position of authoritative intellectual. His eccentricities are the performative embodiment of this stance — as the philosopher himself insists, the truth of one’s belief is in one’s actions, not some elusive, self-deceiving inner life. Perhaps his nervous tics are a physiological manifestation of the imposter syndrome which he fully embraces.

Bar-El’s new book, How Slavoj Became Žižek: The Digital Making of a Public Intellectual, likewise embodies some of the qualities it ascribes to Žižek. As his title suggests, Bar-El is not concerned primarily with Žižek’s theories or politics, but the sociological and historical process by which he became a global phenomenon. The substance is in the form.

Zižek’s emergence from the political and intellectual crossroads that was Slovenia, where he was born in 1949, had a certain inevitability. As the west-most component of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Slovenia enjoyed a connection with the “free world” unmatched by other socialist states thanks to the relatively liberal rule of Josip Tito and his successors. A vibrant intellectual scene was facilitated by its soft border with Italy and thus the rest of Western Europe.

In the absence of a unified and rigid official Marxist doctrine, Yugoslavia’s door was open to various theoretical formations. The Frankfurt School, Existentialism and Structuralism all found audiences and interlocutors there. Žižek was reading “Marx at age fifteen, Heidegger at twenty, Derrida at twenty-five, and Lacan and Hegel at thirty,” writes Bar-El, and embarked on his second PhD in Paris in 1979, having worked briefly in the communist bureaucracy.

Žižek and his theoretical fellow-travellers formed the Ljubljana School in the early 1980s. Rather than submitting to Eastern Marxism or Western Structuralism, they appropriated the core insights of Hegelian dialectics and Lacanian psychoanalysis, and also drew on a mix of other traditions. It was an early example of Žižek’s “superpositioning,” a term from quantum mechanics that Bar-El uses to describe the creation of a third position from an existing opposition as a way of breaking out of theoretical and political deadlocks.

Žižek’s move to France had a crude materialist rationale too: he wanted to escape his uncertain prospects in an institution in which the Yugoslav party-state pickled its dissident intellectuals. Unemployed on returning from France, Žižek is no stranger to marginalisation.

Dissidents enjoyed much greater freedom in Yugoslavia than in any other self-proclaimed socialist countries. In fact, not only did the authorities tolerate cynicism about the country’s doctrine of “self-managed socialism” but also they regarded such cynicism as a prerequisite for continued compliance to the system. One of Žižek’s favourite anecdotes was how, in the mid 1970s, two of his acquaintances lost their party jobs for being true believers of official ideology.

The best way to challenge a purportedly tolerant, self-critical regime was therefore through self-conscious “overidentification,” which dissident art collectives, especially the punk movement, increasingly did in their public performances throughout the 1980s. While attacking an ideological edifice from without could unwittingly reproduce shared presuppositions, overidentification threatened to lay bare their hidden reversal in the regime’s operation.

Like Žižek’s other lessons from “real socialism,” this insight would be applied to his intellectual intervention in the liberal-democratic West. The torture carried out in Abu Ghraib prison, for instance, was not scandalous because it deviated from “American values” but because it was the “obscene supplement… the barbarism that sustains our civilisation” in the middle of a “pre-emptive war” that sacrificed the lives and livelihoods of Iraqis for the perceived security of America and its allies.

Žižek’s theories are always immanently political while seemingly easily discoverable in popular culture. Having himself undergone military service, he finds overidentification in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, in which the protagonist remains a proficient soldier because of his cynical distance, while “Private Pyle” is subsumed by the “voice of the superego [of military discipline]” and becomes (self-)destructive. Bar-El doesn’t include this example, but he does identify superpositioning between fact and fiction as another characteristic Žižekian move.

As “actually existing socialism” crumbled and the future of Slovenia became uncertain, pluralist left-wing movements vied for influence against neoliberal nationalists. The vision of a capitalist regime contained in an organic national community was the antithesis of the Ljubljana School’s theoretical lynchpin of the “split subject”: the inherently contradictory individual subjectivity within any politico-ideological system, which are themselves contradictory too.

Žižek narrowly lost the race to be one of four presidents of Slovenia in 1990, running as a candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party — a move intended, he explained, to claim the popular banner of liberalism before free-market proponents could. He seems to enjoy performing such politically charged linguistic manoeuvres. During the 2020 US election campaign he advised progressives to embrace the label “moral majority” on the basis of their commitment to equality and meeting human needs, in contrast to a political right that was increasingly resorting to “alternative facts,” brutality, and obscenity. It was the same reason he gave for his tame presentation — for some, frustratingly tame — in his famous 2019 debate with Jordan Peterson.

Bar-El details the contrast between Žižek’s lacklustre reception in France in the late 1980s and his subsequent phenomenal success in the Anglophone world. The making of a public intellectual is inexorably social. The French scene, with long-established and heavily fortified intellectual communities, left little room for a new entrant distinguished by his superpositioning between disciplines, between academic and politically engaged writing styles, and between French theories and German Idealism. Nor was Žižek helped by the controversial status of his PhD supervisor, Jacques-Alain Miller, or his own insistence on taking Lacanian psychoanalysis out of clinics and into the realm of philosophy (to the disapproval of Miller himself).

Helped by the “post-Marxist” political philosopher Ernesto Laclau, who also provided a preface, Žižek published his first English-language book, the theory-dense The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989). As Laclau articulated it, Zizek was positioned — by himself and others — “to address the problems of constructing a democratic socialist political project in a post-Marxist age.” Thus began his long association with the leftist non-academic publisher Verso, which would open up an international readership for others in the Ljubljana School.

Professional and personal networks brought Žižek and his theories into dialogue with Judith Butler, Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson and other prominent intellectuals. The fall of communism in Europe also created a space for him to, as Bar-El succinctly puts it, “explain the East to the West, in Western theoretical terms and channels.” An early example, not mentioned in the book, was a 1996 documentary that opens with Žižek standing on a bridge in Ljubljana and informing his audience that the river beneath him is the geographical boundary between Mitteleuropa (Central Europe) and the Balkans. On one side is “horror, oriental despotism,” where women are subject to horrendous violence and “like it”; on the other is “Europe, civilisation,” where women suffer likewise “but don’t like it.” The obvious materialist point aside, this was the quintessential Žižek: forsaking scholarly respectability for black humour; delving into “low culture” to reveal inherent, deep contradictions; questioning seemingly natural oppositions to gesture at what he sees as a true alternative.

Žižek’s rise in the global scene coincided with the onset of the digital revolution during the 1990s, a decade in which his unparalleled output and “copy-and-paste” quality (“self-plagiarism” for his critics) fitted perfectly. His “Hegelacanese” — as Bar-El calls his synthesis of Hegel and Lacan — proved remarkably apt at encoding key ideas in easily transmittable packages, regardless of whether the consumer has the wherewithal to decode them properly. If anyone was producing memes it was Žižek.

After the 9/11 attacks and during the war on terror his prolific and timely commentary propelled him into prominence, and here Bar-El provides an excellent summary of his counterintuitive arguments and their reception. From then on, Žižek would not let an international cataclysm go untheorised — the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the ongoing ecological crisis and (presumably too late to be included by Bar-El) the Covid-19 pandemic, publishing a book on the latter as early as March 2020. His growing intellectual and cultural impact is attested to by his growing associations, including with Julian Assange, Yanis Varoufakis and Sophie Fiennes, who directed two documentary films that brought Žižek and psychoanalysis into the cinema.

The public interventions came at the expense of Žižek’s scholarly credibility, with academics increasingly viewing his (often suspiciously) swift public interventions as regurgitative and crowd-pleasing. Some, such as the political philosopher John Gray, fault Žižek for “reproduc[ing] the compulsive, purposeless dynamism that he perceives in the operations of capitalism” and thus achieving a “deceptive substance.” His Hegelacanese has attracted controversy, and his ever-expanding interdisciplinary forays also led to further questions of his status as a philosopher. Indeed, Žižek positions himself as a member of the public that he addresses, with his subjective doubt resonating with that of his audience.

Bar-El is very precise here: “Žižek both assumes and rejects the position of an authoritative intellectual, enjoying its universal and general status while denying its elitism and exclusivity.” In this he follows Lacan in arguing that the “subject-supposed-to-know” — the benevolent, internally consistent authority, fully identified with the role conferred by the social order — does not exist. As Lacan famously put it, “The madman is not only a beggar who thinks he is a king, but also a king who thinks he is a king.”

Like the French, the Anglophone world has trouble determining what Žižek’s role really is. His work is often introduced in the context of literature studies rather than philosophy, and most of his followers discovered him outside the universities. And yet, as evidenced by the commercial success of his thousand-page doorstopper, Less Than Nothing (2012), there is a hunger in the reading public for a philosopher who brings the intellectual ivory tower and the masses to each other’s level, seemingly without compromising either philosophical niceties or socio-political relevance.

Žižek’s insistence on demonstrating philosophical ideas through examples, even mundane or vulgar ones, is not merely a pragmatic choice. He treats pop-culture artifacts as a window into the ideological unconscious that operates beneath visible social phenomena. In accordance with his reading of Hegel, he doesn’t regard theory as existing separately from its concrete manifestations. Indeed, examples can subvert the ideas they are supposed to reflect.

He thus rejects a common leftist refrain that Marxism was never truly practised in the communist countries, as if there was some “pure” spirit of Marxism on an astral plane invariably perverted by historical contingences. The failure of “actually existing socialism” must instead be traced to the blueprints and their authors — though without negating the necessity to continue to “fail better,” as Žižek’s favourite Samuel Beckett refrain goes.

This is one of most important keys to understanding Žižek. It isn’t mentioned by Bar-El, whose focus on the process and phenomenon of Žižek’s rise and fall within the confines of 189 pages inevitably requires trade-offs. Certain historical details, especially pertaining to the Slovenian scene of the 1980s, could also have clarified Žižek’s positions and performances. Bar-El might well have looked with understandable envy at Žižek’s freedom from constraints of contemporary academic publishing.

By the late 2010s, with his habitual “superpositioning” earning him increasing ire in progressive and leftist circles, Žižek had essentially vanished from publications like the Guardian and the London Review of Books. One controversy Bar-El briefly mentions is Žižek response to the refugee crisis, though his views on the 2016 US presidential election and transgenderism also rankled (and the latter continue to do so), and some further details here might be illustrative. Rejecting the mainstream humanitarian framing of the issue, Žižek argued that Europe has an obligation to resettle many more asylum-seekers because it was culpable in the destruction that generates mass dislocation. Resettlement must be conducted in a highly organised and coordinated way, he opined, rejecting the “open border” stance of many on the left. And the visible suffering of the drowning migrants shouldn’t obscure the plight of those who don’t even have the means to escape.

More controversial is Žižek’s critique of multiculturalism. He insists that irreducible differences exist between communities’ “ways of life,” the shared ethical frameworks and customs that enable them to function. Any polity that hopes to accommodate immigrant populations successfully must therefore openly renegotiate some of the basics so that discontent isn’t repressed and harnessed by xenophobic reactionaries.

True to his Hegelian bent, though, Žižek also contends that some struggles “cut across civilisations” to form the basis of universal solidarity — and who could deny that Europe and America are not themselves grappling with fundamentalism, of the Christian variety, and anti-feminist backlash? I leave it to the reader to judge for themselves whether Žižek’s suggested renegotiation is more practical than calls for “open borders.”

While Bar-El’s purpose largely precludes subjective judgements about Žižek, he doesn’t conceal his sympathy. And given his often-brief treatment of the content of Žižek’s various interventions, a reader needs to be somewhat familiar with the Žižek cannon and style in order to follow the narrative with ease. Fortunately, aside from Žižek’s voluminous writings and innumerable public appearances available online, there is also The Žižek Dictionary, published in 2017. (For his critics, its existence — and that of the International Journal of Žižek Studies, is further evidence of the self-indulgent posturing of the man and his disciples.)

Bar-El’s repeated invocation of terms like superpositioning can, at times, make his text feel mechanistic, although it does double as a tribute to Zizek’s own highly reiterative style. His sympathy extends to somewhat uncritically using the term “cancel culture” to describe Žižek’s intellectual marginalisation, a move that uncannily mirrors his subject’s insistence upon terms like “gender-identity ideology,” which risks lending credence to conservative rhetoric. As Bar-El points out, however, the function of Žižek’s transgressions has been to reveal the “normative social field” — the unquestioned presuppositions that have led to the ideological deadlocks in which the left too often finds itself.

Ultimately, Eliran Bar-El offers a useful framework with which to examine Žižek’s work in the past and present: as an intellectual who defies easy categorisation, as a one-man phenomenon made in a network of influences and for a digital age, and as a figure whose performances are inseparable from his philosophical insights.

His latest act of superpositioning, responding to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Žižek rang the alarm on Putin’s expansionist intent and called for a “stronger NATO — but not as a prolongation of US politics,” making him even more suspect among some leftists as well as alienating him from Moscow-controlled Russia Today, one of the few remaining outlets that still regularly published him and with a wide reach. On the other hand, his warning of Ukraine’s other “colonisation” by Western neoliberalism has not endeared him to the liberal or conservative mainstream either.

It is perhaps appropriate to consider how the term “superpositioning” serves as a signpost to a relatively recent iteration of Žižek’s philosophy. Explicitly borrowing from the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, Žižek posits “ontological incompleteness” — that our reality itself has an inherent incompleteness at its most fundamental level. This is Žižek at his purest, as Bar-El accurately describes: superpositioning himself as an (anti-)philosopher attempting to grapple with the horizon of understanding imposed by language. The Lacanian “lack” at the heart of the human subject and the “big Other” — the virtual symbolic order that guarantees meaning — is thus inscribed into existence itself, as if the universe rejects its own authority.

This incompleteness has a temporal dimension as well, in that the meaning of the past is determined by what transpires in the future. For Žižek, catastrophes like the failed communist experiment cannot be redeemed. But whether they remain meaningless deviations from progress or a manifestation of historical cycles, or whether they can be re-rendered into the first iterations of an emancipated world we can’t hope to foresee, is the stake of the universalist struggles being waged today. •

How Slavoj Became Žižek: The Digital Making of a Public Intellectual
By Eliran Bar-El | University of Chicago Press | $49.95 | 256 pages