Žižek – An Attempted Introduction

DISCLAIMER: It is my opinion that Žižek presents himself as more radical than he actually is because you have to be willing to imagine the impossible in order to challenge ideology.

Like all major philosophers, Žižek’s popularity strips him of his historical roots. The first categorization of Žižek I came across said he was a post-postmodernist. This sounds a bit ridiculous, but it actually means something. There really is no such group of philosophers that call themselves post-postmodernists (or even postmodernists, for that matter). Post-postmodernists are very diverse. What many of them have in common is a shared position that the postmodernist assault on “absolute truth” went too far. Žižek says he believes in absolute truth. In my opinion, Žižek is a postmodernist that finds some transcendent truth in Freud and Marx. Žižek would be entirely offended by being called a postmodernist. Now that we have gotten that out of the way, let us examine closer in order to get greater precision. Žižek’s roots reach to Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger, but I think the most important starting points are the Frankfurt school, Saussure, Kojève, and Lacan. All of which I know very little about. I’m going to offer brief descriptions of how their ideas influenced Žižek, though the things I say may be grossly inaccurate.

The Frankfurt School was formed by German Marxists after World War I. There was a moment in history when it looked like it was possible that Germany could follow Russia into Communism. The workers movement was growing. It was a surprise to the radical Left when the country’s momentum redirected toward the Fascist far right instead.

The Frankfurt school was a private Marxist organization formed in 1923 to research this phenomenon. By focusing on the “greatness of Germany,” the concerns of the common people, the workers, were not being addressed, and yet they were supporting the Nazis. Germany was not following the prediction of Marxism, that capitalism would self-destruct. Instead it was moving towards fascism before their eyes. These realities forced the Frankfurt School to make the first significant revisions to Marx’es theories.

Marx used the term “ideology” to explain why people support political systems that are in conflict with their interests. He described ideology like glasses that cause one to perceive reality distorted. The Frankfurt school mined the concept of ideology as if somewhere deep inside of it held the key that would remove the distorted glasses from the people. Many of the Frankfurt School’s ideas prefigured postmodernism, though the two branches of philosophy were essentially formed in isolation. As history progressed, and postmodernism raised in popularity, the discussion of ideology proved to be incoherent and fruitless, and was generally considered irrelevant. No key was every found, and the project was abandoned.

Unrelated to the Frankfurt School, a Swiss linguist named Saussure developed a theory of language that had deep philosophical implications, though he was not a philosopher himself. In short, humans experience the world entirely through language. Our senses experience the world, but our minds experience our senses through language. Philosophy and logic are describing concepts inherent in language, not necessarily the real world. Language is always used in a geographical and historical context. Words mean nothing outside of the context in which they are used. This role of language makes the concept of “absolute truth” nonsensical. If I say “God is good” as an 18th century aristocratic American, I am saying something different than a 9th century peasant from China. The concepts of “God” and “good” have dramatically different implications in the two different contexts. Language is comprised of a bunch of arbitrary words that derive their meaning through their relationship to other words within the language.

Kojève was a Russian born philosopher that brought to Europe a new way of understanding Hegel and Marx through a Saussurian understanding of language. In order to understand what this means, imagine if you could read Marx and ignore the absurd parts that, due to the historical view we now have, we can no longer take seriously. This allows one to say things like, “Marx said X, and he was wrong about X, but imbedded in the language Marx used is a deeper truth Y.” The same can be done for Hegel. By doing this Kojève inspired many thinkers including Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan.

Žižek calls himself a card carrying Lacanian. Lacan was a Freudian psychoanalyst that focused more on the theory than practice. Following Kojève’s example, Lacan completely reimagined Freud through Saussurean theory. When we think of Freud we think of the Oedipal Complex, fear of castration, and the interpretation of dreams as the expression of the unconscious. Lacan took the ridiculous, sexist, sex-obsessed things Freud said, and turned them into symbols, removed from Freud’s Victorianism. These symbols articulate deeper truths than Freud’s historically contextual examples. Lacan was rejected by the larger psychoanalyst community, but he was able to revive interest in Freud in academia, where Freud had otherwise been forgotten.

Lacan presupposes the Saussaurean claim that we experience the world through language. He uses the term “Symbolic Order” in order to describe the world of concepts through which we experience the world. The Symbolic Order is never entirely consistent, nor comprehensive. Nor is it our own. The Symbolic Order is communal. It is shared. It is predominately given to us by society. Because we are born into a language, we can only think about the world through the concepts inherent in that language. We cannot think a thought until language makes it possible to think it. We can never know the world apart from the Symbolic Order. Most postmodernists would accept this idea. Lacan is differentiated from his postmodernist peers because he also presupposes something called “the Real.” The Real is that which cannot be symbolized. The Real is that which is not articulated in the Symbolic Order, but is there anyways, and sometimes breaks through. In Hegel a moment exists, when people are living and thinking in a certain way. An internal contradiction in the way people live and believe matures and results in a violent rupture that brings about a new moment, that changes the way we speak and think. No one can predict where the internal contradiction will be. This violent rupture is the Real breaking into the Symbolic Order. This violent rupture is a kind of absolute truth.

Žižek appeared on the international scene in 1989 with his book The Sublime Object of Ideology. This book addressed several concerns of the political Left. As Žižek has become more popular, this book’s relevance, along with the rest of Žižek’s message, has only increased. Beyond the entertainment value of Žižek, take him seriously for the following reasons:

Žižek revived the Frankfurt discussion of ideology,

Žižek emphasized the philosophical link between Hegel, Marx, and Lacan in a previously unexplored way, and

Žižek is here to wake the political Left from their cynical slumber.

Žižek revived the Frankfurt discussion of ideology. Marx said that people operated under the distorted truth of ideology without their knowing. Žižek argues that today we are fully aware of the distortion of ideology, but we perpetuate it anyways. We see through the greed of Wall Street, and the harm this greed causes to democracy, healthcare, the environment, and the poor, but we believe a world with Wall Street is better than any world without it. Instead we try to write better regulations. But this is ideology. We are blind to the fact that no amount of reform will fix the problem. We must be willing to consider alternatives in order to understand the ways in which the existence of Wall Street is a problem.

Žižek says this is the purpose of philosophy- to critique ideology – to give us the opportunity to realize how the questions we are asking are a part of the problem. You may say that any coward can come up with criticisms, but it takes someone with courage to propose a solution. I think this is true, but if the problem as we understand it is part of the problem, then the problem will never be solved. In fact, this is the next thing that makes Žižek important.

Žižek emphasized the philosophical link between Hegel, Marx, and Lacan in a previously unexplored way. The concept of the internal contradiction in Hegel which brings about change, was fleshed out in Marx. Capitalism is behind war for oil, poor living conditions in sweatshops, and massive consumption of our natural resources in almost any industry. And all of this is just for some pieces of paper. These are the kinds of internal contradictions in capitalism that he thought, once people understood the history that brought us to the point of using paper in this way, would instigate the transition to communism. These internal contradictions are experienced by what Freud called “The Symptom.” By understanding the Symptom through Freud (or more accurately, Lacan) Žižek is enabled to understand Hegel and Marx with greater nuance. Freudian psychoanalysis gives us insights into why people hold onto their ideology with desperation, even when it is harmful to them. Allow me to explain this a bit more.

Freudian psychoanalysis says that when there is a really big problem we believe that we will be truly happy when we get rid of the problem, but in reality we rely on the problem in order to understand the world. Some Americans believe that if “the liberals” have their way Muslims will destroy the American way of life. Muslims are the problem. These people do not realize that their hatred of Muslims is ideology, that they use the Muslim to give their life meaning and purpose, to explain why everything that is wrong in the world is the way it is. They do not realize that they use the Muslim as a convenient scapegoat to cover the gap created by their ignorance. They do not realize that their hatred has, in fact, helped to create “the Muslim,” which is to say, their hatred of Muslims is part of the problem. Let me give a few examples: 1) Islamic Fundamentalism is a rejection of Western Modernism. 2) The United States financed Osama bin Laden and other Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan in order to defeat the USSR, giving them the training and structure they needed to carry out the attacks on 9/11. 3) Guantanamo, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib, during the days of torture, were recruiting tools for Al Qaida. 4) By overthrowing Saddam Husein and laying off massive amounts of military and public utility state employees the United States helped fan the anti-American flame, extended the war in Iraq, and possibly caused the proxy war currently going on in Syria. (Note: these are my examples, not Žižek’s.) Žižek argues that maybe we should not be asking how we can solve “the Muslim problem.” We should be asking how the ways in which we conceptualize the problem are part of the problem. Freudian psychoanalysis says that we all do this. We do this in order to protect ourselves from the truth because we can’t handle the truth. Hatred of “the Jew,” which exists still today in small parts of America, and many parts of the Middle East, has significant overlap. Although Jewish people were guilty of many of the criticisms the Germans had, ideology filled in the details that went far beyond the truth. In order to move forward we must learn the truth about ourselves.

Since all of us are guilty, it is accurate to say that we all see the world through ideology. After the fall of Soviet Russia it became popular to say that we live in a post-ideological world, but this is when ideology is operating at its purest. We cannot overcome our problem until we admit we have a problem. This is true whether you are a capitalist or a communist, on the left or on the right.

Žižek is here to wake the political Left from their cynical slumber. The Left dramatically changed the United States in the 30’s, and again in the 60’s and 70’s. Ever since Carter, aside from fringe groups and individual actions, the Left in America has been timid, defeated, directionless, and consumed by infighting. Without the support of the Left, Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, were only able to get anything done by making huge concessions to Republicans.

Žižek is an interesting voice for the Left. He is unlike anyone before him. First of all, he is not a “liberal.” A liberal is a capitalist, just like libertarians. The Democratic party is liberal. They believe in regulated capitalism. Žižek is a communist. But he isn’t really. Žižek says Marx committed the greatest sin against Hegel when he predicted the future. Most communists sound like each other. Žižek does not. Most communists want to forget that Russia ever happened, arguing that it was not true communism. True communism is much more egalitarian and peaceful. Žižek does not. He wants to learn from the mistakes of history.

Most importantly, though, Žižek is a critic of the left. The left has become exclusive. Two kinds of people are welcome in the club: NPR listeners with a liberal arts degrees, and minorities. The Left has allowed the Right to have the white working class. It is easy to forget, in the age of Sarah Palin, that in the past the working class was pro-union, and many voted Democrat. Žižek is calling upon the left to use philosophy, rather than populism, to appeal to the masses. If the left does not succeed, we may see the rise of fascism. Fascism may never take hold, but we should be alarmed that the prevalence of freedom and democracy in the world has not made fascism irrelevant. We can look at Europe today to see this battle on the surface in Greece and the Ukraine.

Žižek has a lot more things to say. He is an incredibly insightful, original thinker. Like any great philosopher, he stands on the shoulders of great thinkers, and makes them relevant for today.


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