Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

ZIZEK - notes and work in progress


According to Zizek:

Society consists of a symbolic Order (= the symbolic, big Other, Law, ethics, meaning, knowledge, social substance). However, while this is operational (symbolically efficient), it is also impossible (does not exist, is incomplete; "the nonexistence of the big Other").

It rests on the exclusion (= repression, disavowal, lack/loss) of a something/nothingness, an exclusion which is necessary to found the symbolic. The excluded part is the Real (Thing, jouissance).

The Real remains operative from outside the symbolic system; it crops up in a particular part of the system which is not fully symbolic: it seems to be part of the symbolic but actually is not. This means the symbolic always rests on a "forced choice", i.e. not choosing this part. This excluded part is the symptom (= synthome, social symptom, part of no part).

The way in which the forced choice is ensured is not via the symbolic but via a process where the imperative to found the symbolic is gentrified (= sublimated, quilted). The forced choice is guaranteed by the sphere of fantasy (= Imaginary, ideology), at the heart of which there is a core element which structures the entire field by excluding the Real: the extimate kernel of the subject (= fundamental fantasy, passionate attachment, nodal point, quilting point, point de capiton). This sphere of fantasy founds desire and designates an object of desire (= sublime object, objet petit a).

Social evils pertain to the existence of the social symptom and its necessary repression. Ethically, we have a choice between keeping our distance from the issue of the symptom by not getting too close to the object of desire, and pushing through to the end, identifying with the symptom and therefore the Real, and carrying out an Act (= Event, truth-event, Decision, ethical gesture). The Act necessarily shatters the actor's identity, leading to symbolic destitution (= aphanisis, excrementalisation, the worst, passage from desire to drive). An Act is necessary to overcome a particular symptom (eg. a social problem, a neurotic symptom).

The construction of the symbolic order through the exclusion of the real is a means to cover over a primordial antagonism (trauma, impossibility, sexuality, class struggle).


Zizek's work assumes the existence of this basic structure; he does not attempt to prove it or argue for it, and when faced to threats to it (eg. other belief-systems which do not accept it), he quickly resorts to anathemas, psychological labelling etc. His work is NOT an attempt to prove his general theory, but consists of:

1. attacks (exegetical and ontological/quasi-empirical) on 'misreadings' of Lacan, Freud, Kant, Hegel, Marx, etc., and on theoretical rivals (Laclau, poststructuralism, New Age theory, etc.), mostly carried out via anathemas and a purely external category (i.e. something is judged inadequate if it does not fit Zizek's existing concepts).
2. pedagogical/propagandist/evangelical attempts to convert others to his concepts and make them as comprehensible as possible through descriptive, demonstrative and poetic examples, used selectively so they always support Zizek's case. (This is the "drunk person leaning on a lamp-post" approach to examples: they are more for support than illumination). This explains why Zizek's examples are so weak as evidence (eg. examples from films and fiction, and even tautological examples).
3. application of each concept in different contexts, across the fields of theory, politics, art, film, etc. In this sense, Zizek is playing the same game as Kautsky et al: defending orthodoxy by constantly reinterpreting reality in terms of its categories, to avoid admitting that the categories may not be universally valid (cf. Zizek's fear of the loss of the Universal/sublime).

The most valuable parts of Zizek's work are the various individual cases and examples he introduces (discussions of western policy in the Balkans, the ideological function of toilets, etc.). However, these are a minor part of his overall project; they fall into category 2 (pedagogy or propaganda for Zizek's theory), and never occur except to back some theoretical claim. All Zizek's works are framed around theoretical issues, not specific cases. He also seems to get a lot of credit for introducing emotions (enjoyment etc.) into the study of ideology.


The theme of the Act (which is a particular structural position, occupied by different contents in different contexts) crops up repeatedly in Zizek's work. As far as I can tell, the following terms all refer to broadly the same category: Act; Event; Truth-Event; Decision; ethical gesture; authentic gesture; radical or ethical choice; symbolic destitution; excremental identification; traversing the fantasy; identifying with the symptom; choice of the worse/worst; leap into the void; heroism; agape; diabolical Evil; Ent-Scheidung; choice of or passage through madness; shooting at oneself; choosing the impossible. The Act is also linked to the sublime and sublimation, as well as Love and drive, and Zizek also sometimes treats the Act as identical with politics and ethics in the 'precise sense'. (NB Zizek may be projecting a false image that he is doing rather more than he is theoretically, by redefining these various words and phrases in terms of each other: the Act is an Event, the Decision is an Act, an Event leads to traversing the fantasy, etc.).


The Act is perhaps THE major concept in Zizek's theory, and the focus of his ethical and political theories. For Zizek, reasserting what he calls the "proper dimension of the act" is "The problem of today's philosophico-political scene" (CHU 127) - in other words, this issue is the crucial issue as far as Zizek is concerned. (Issues such as the content of politics are secondary). When Laclau criticises Zizek for being unclear on "what he understands by the global approach to politics" (CHU 198), he is missing the centrality of the concept of the Act, which for Zizek is precisely what his global approach involves. The problem is that the Act is a structural category, and so is easily missed by someone who is looking for a concrete politics.

Why does Zizek support the Act? Although he connects the Act to 'radicalism', he does not state anywhere that the Act accomplishes any fundamental change in the deep structure of existence; at best, it can temporarily suspend (for instance) exclusion. This is not an attempt to achieve a better world (still less a perfect one!) but a purely structural attempt to restore something which Zizek thinks is missing. In this sense, even in its 'radicalism', the Act is conservative. Zizek is concerned that the matrix of sublimation - the possibility of producing 'sublime' objects which seem to encapsulate the absolute - is under threat (FA 26; elsewhere, Zizek attacks postmodernists and other 'new sophists' for this). The Act in whatever form reproduces the possibility of sublimity; in this sense, it reproduces old certainties in new forms, undermining all the gains made by theories of historicity and contingency.

The purpose of the Act, which Zizek has transplanted from psychoanalytic practice (directed at individual psyches) to socio-political practice (directed at entire social systems) without considering whether this is possible or appropriate, is primarily therapeutic. The role of the Act is to solve the antinomy of the present by asserting a Real against the combined Imaginary and Real of simulacra, thereby reintroducing the impossibility that shatters the Imaginary, enabling us to traverse the fantasy (TS 374; the fantasy is the extimate kernel of libidinal investment which Zizek sees lurking almost everywhere). Zizek seems to be restoring to psychoanalysis a naive conception of psychological health: via the ex nihilo act, one can escape the logic of the symptom (DSST 178).

In Plague of Fantasies, Zizek sets up an ethical problem built around Lacanian theory. Faced with the nature of the world according to Zizek, one is faced with a choice between desire and drive. On the one hand, like Kant (according to Zizek's reading), one can stop short of the abyss and refuse to go to the end. In this approach, 'not compromising on one's desire' means maintaining a proper distance from the Thing (Real), with a principle of "no trespassing" - respecting secrets and limits to avoid the realm of jouissance (Thing, Real, diabolical Evil). [This ethics, incidentally, places an imperative to shut up on the thinker - as Kant briefly did when ordered to by the King]. However, there is another possible ethics which involves unconditionally going to the end regardless of extra-ethical considerations. Zizek terms the former of these options postmodern, the latter modern; and he says that Lacan was torn between the two (PF 238-9). Actually, Zizek is apparently torn between them also; many of his statements (see CONSERVATISM) imply accepting social structures. But more often, Zizek takes a strong stand for the latter option. For instance, by the time of Ticklish Subject, Zizek claims that his political line is the "only way open" (TS 211); and in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, Zizek counterposes his own position to Laclau's 'Kantianism', presumably referring back to the discussion of Kant's 'refusal to go to the end': Laclau maintains a proper distance from the Real by pushing the Absolute onto the horizon, respecting democratic freedoms, insisting on respect for the irreducible difference between people, etc. Zizek seems on the whole to have opted for the latter option (which does not alter the ontological structure of his thought at all, but alters his ethical stance considerably): going to the end regardless of consequences. It is important to realise, however, that the ambiguity remains - Zizek continues reproducing 'Kantian' formulations throughout his work.

Zizek locates his concept of the Act mainly exegetically. The concept is drawn from Lacan. In Lacan's later work, Zizek claims, the term 'act' is reserved for something much more "suicidal and real than a speech act" (PF 110). He also locates it in a narrative about German idealism, however. Take, for instance, his readings of Kant on the primacy of Law over the Good - an empty Law which necessarily leaves one guilty (PF 225-6). Also on Schelling: Schelling had an idea of a "primordial act of decision/differentiation (Ent-Scheidung)" which opens the gap between the Real and history. "The Act is... a quasi-transcendental unhistorical condition of possibility and... impossibility of historicization", and is re-enacted by every symbolisation (PF 53 - NB how this assumes a primordial absence of history, so it needs to be accounted for; NB also how Zizek's only proof of Schelling's claims is a vague appeal to the history of psychoanalysis).

Zizek sees the Act as necessary because of what appears to be a concept of closure of the social universe without it. Zizek believes any meaningful attempt to change, overcome or oppose the existing system is doomed to failure (cf. RESISTANCE). This is because, in his view of language, everything assumes its opposite: man as the centre of the universe assumes man as one object among many, de-instrumentalising nature involves establishing propertarian relations with it via the concept of protection, etc. The "synchronicity" of these opposites for Zizek negates all narratives of progress and fall (PF 12), which renders historical change all but impossible. How, then, does change happen? On a fundamental level, it apparently doesn't; but for Zizek, some change occurs via the Act. The lost quality emerges at the moment of its alleged loss. Change happens, therefore, not via comprehensible processes such as losses and gains, but via something "more radical than mere narrative deployments, since what changes in them is the entire constellation of emergence and loss", including the standards for assessing losses and gains (PF 13).

It is important to realise that the Act is not revolutionary in the sense of creating something new on the basis of an ideal, or an imaginary, or the restoration of an authentic pre-alienated state, or any other process which would allow one to create something on the basis of a project and praxis. The Act is radically nihilistic (see below). For Zizek, the subject can change nothing - all it can do is add itself to reality by an act of claiming responsibility for the given (SOI 221). Zizek is a little inconsistent on the relationship between the Act and the existing system, but on the whole, he seems to see Acts as occurring for the system, against imaginaries and especially the extimate kernel of fantasy. Christianity did not so much suspend the law, says Zizek, as suspend its obscene supplement (FA 130) (i.e. extimate kernel). Zizek thinks fantasy is fundamentally inconsistent, so it is an "ethical duty" to put this on display, in order to disrupt fantasy (PF 74; see CONSERVATISM on Zizek's tendency to conflate 'displaying' with 'doing', so that the boundary between being a sexist or a fascist and displaying sexism or fascism to disrupt it is unclear). Zizek is inconsistent, however, since there are also occasions when he seems to want to encourage fantasies (TS 51).

Crucially, the Act is also a form of decisiveness. Zizek wants to pin down vacillating signifiers without using a Master-Signifier or quilting-point, he says on one occasion (FA 139-40). Elsewhere (eg. on Chavez and Lenin), he seems to rather like the Master or "One" whose Act 'quilts' the field. Either way, the Act seems to give a certain focus to discourse, acting as a centre. As his discussions of the vanishing mediator show, he sees the Act establishing a new set of symbolic and imaginary discourses which restore the role of the master-signifier, by directly adopting the position of the extimate kernel.

Zizek also sees the Act as a resolution of a dilemma. According to Zizek, Good assumes (and therefore produces) Evil, and the Act escapes the resulting dilemma by breaking with Good (TS 382; this is also what distinguishes the Act as diabolical Evil from everyday evil - crime, the Holocaust and so on). For Zizek, denial of the possibility of the Act is the root of evil (TS 376).

see also below on the Act and betrayal.

What seems completely missing here is any case for the Act that in any way justifies ethically the terrible nature of the Act, both for its perpetrator and for others; one can only really accept Zizek's Act if one places at the core of one's belief-system the importance of resolving dilemmas in some supposed deep structure of existence, so what matters is not human or social consequences or any specific beliefs, but merely the adoption of a structural position which solves contradictions in and thereby overcomes the problems of a structure. Despite Zizek's repeated use of the term "ethics", therefore, this is in many ways not an ethical system at all, but a kind of model of structural problem-solving - a "therapy" for society, passed off as ethics.


The Act is a fundamentally negative occurrence in which one strips oneself of all human dignity and 'recognises' that one is nothing but excrement, that there is no 'little treasure' inside and that the subject is nothing but a void. (It is therefore utterly incompatible with approaches which involve action - eg. praxis - as a humanising phenomenon).

"By traversing the fantasy, the subject accepts the void of his nonexistence" (TS 281). Traversing the fantasy leads to subjective destitution: abandoning the notion of something 'in me more than myself' and recognising that the big Other is nothing but a semblance. This involves a change in one's worldview: the "analyst's desire" makes possible a community minus its phantasmic support, without any need for a 'subject supposed to...' (know, enjoy or believe) (TS 296). (In this passage Zizek portrays the Act as leading to a fundamental shift in character-structure, although this is not a claim he repeats consistently).

An Act is defined by the characteristic that it "surprises/transforms the agent itself" (CHU 124; a choice in the usual sense cannot therefore be an Act). It involves subjective destitution, a (supposedly) liberating moment, "the anti-ideological gesture par excellence by means of which I renounce the treasure within myself and fully admit my dependence on the externality of symbolic apparatuses - that is to say, fully assume the fact that my very self-experience of a subject who was already there prior to the external process of interpellation is a retrospective misrecognition brought about by the process of interpellation" (CHU 134; NB how this means endorsing control by the system, not opposing it; cf. MATERIALISM). The Act therefore involves an utter prostration before symbolic apparatuses: NOT the liberation of the human from the system, but the total victory of the system over humans (cf. Zizek's support for Big Brother-type surveillance; see MARX).

In an act, the actor redefines her or his identity to the very core, on the level of her or his relation to basic 'passionate attachments' (=extimate kernel) (CHU 123-4; NB the act is therefore individual in character).

Zizek charts an evolution of ethics: from the tragic (an act without knowledge) and the melodramatic (knowing and therefore being unable to act) to the 'contemporary' ethics where one knows but acts regardless: "although what I am about to do will have catastrophic consequences for my well-being and for the well-being of my nearest and dearest, none the less I simply have to do it, because of the inexorable ethical injunction" - an ethical necessity compels one to betray one's ethical substance (social position? concrete ethics?). This ethics is based on a strong distinction between an exceptional, unconditional injunction and usual ethical norms (DSST 14).

In an Act, "the subject makes the 'crazy', impossible choice of in a way shooting at himself, at that which is most precious to himself". According to Zizek, this act gains someone a "space of free decision" by "cutting himself loose from the precious object through whose possession the enemy kept him in check"; the example of killing one's family crops up (CHU 122; NB how concern for others and worldly, concrete concerns only occur in Zizek as ties through which one can be controlled - reproducing the idea of a lone subject tied ultimately only to the big Other/God). Such an act is "constitutive of subjectivity as such", and is particularly necessary "to clear the terrain for a new beginning" (CHU 123; NB strong palingenetic overtones). An Act therefore involves pursuing an empty freedom to act by destroying anything that gives one a reason to act - usually by risking, harming or killing others. In a sense, Zizek is making himself immune to being defeated by making himself immune to communication, and advocating this as a general model (cf. how Zizek's method works: here, too, Zizek avoids setting any standard whereby his claims can be assessed and moves the goalposts when challenged, identifying with accusations made against him - for instance, embracing self-contradictions as "paradoxes"; this cuts him off from the possibility of persuading the sceptical at the same time as buying himself a space of freedom from criticism by negating the possibility of being proven wrong). This is a rightist ethics incompatible with the leftist ethic of compassion for vulnerable others and solidarity with the struggles of the weak, echoing closely the survivalist ethos of right-wing films such as Rambo and overlapping with the ethos of, for instance, the US militia movement.

Zizek wants "to throw out the baby... in order to confront the patient with his 'dirty bathwater' ", because the latter supposedly reveals truth (PF 62-3).

The Act means accepting Zizek's claim that one is basically nothing. Traversing the fantasy means "an acceptance of the fact that there is no secret treasure in me, that the support of me (the subject) is purely phantasmic" (PF 10). Zizek wants us to stop being the 'nothing' we are today, only to become "a Nothing humbly aware of itself, a Nothing paradoxically made rich through the very awareness of its lack" (FA 146-7).

In relation to the structure of Zizek's model, he defines the act of 'shooting at oneself' feminine, despite openly admitting that all his examples are male, and despite having no evidence correlating Acts with femininity, merely another 'What if?' (FA 151). Subjective destitution is also a loss of a loss, passing into the realm of drive (PF 204 - i.e. passing beyond desire; cf. above on the choice of two ethics in Lacan).

Zizek's theory of the Act presupposes a belief that we are all basically worthless. "The ultimate level of the ethical experience" is found in the utterly broken victim of the Nazi or Stalinist camps (DSST 86), which means one "will be surprised to learn how even the darkest Stalinism harbours a redemptive dimension" (DSST 88). Humanity per se is reducible to the most brokwn concentration camp inmates (i.e. the ones who have gone beyond trying o reconstruct meaning through petty resistances; referred to in the camps as "Muslims" or "Musselmen" because of their resemblance to famine victims); these people were not dehumanised by the Nazis, but rather, express an inhuman kernel of humanity (DSST 76-7). This kind of person is the " 'zero-level' of humanity" which makes human symbolic engagement possible by wiping the slate of animal instincts (DSST 77; NB the strong binary operative here, which is totally flawed: dogs show similar modes of action when exposed to similar situations, such as Seligman's dogs in the 'learned helplessness' experiments). Zizek thinks we all have had to go through this experience (DSST 77-8). This experience also negates the concept of authenticity (though not enough to stop Zizek using it elsewhere): one can't say such victims are involved in an authentic existential project, but it would be cynical to say they are living an inauthentic existence since it is others, not themselves, who degrade them (DSST 78-9; I don't actually see why an external basis for subordination would affect the concept of authenticity in the slightest; perhaps it would affect the strongest versions which assume pure freedom, but it would not undermine, for instance, the later Sartre, since in this case the authenticity of the project has been defeated by the practico-inert, leading to a state of existence he terms "exis": a degraded existence without project). I think a Deleuzian analysis would be more appropriate here: the dehumanisation of these victims results from the (temporary) total victory of the Oedipal/authoritarian cage: flows and breaks are cut off or utterly contained within an order of power/knowledge, with the political conclusion being that freedom exists in a struggle with domination and that the struggle for freedom is necessary to prevent us being reduced to this level. But this would be partly a causal account, whereas Zizek seems to want a pure ethics. Where Zizek's account leads politically is far more sinister; Zizek cannot in all seriousness criticise the inhumanity of the concentration camps if they simply reveal our essence, and it is hard to see how one could oppose the Nazis if they did not dehumanise their victims or treat them inhumanely. Indeed, such an excremental reduction is something Zizek elsewhere praises, and his attempts to distance himself from Nazism have nothing to do with the inhumanity of the camps; rather, they revolve around nit-picking over whether the Nazis really traversed the fantasy or stopped short at a false act (see below).

The Act is a submission: revolutionaries should become "followers" of the truth-event and its call (TS 227; this reproduces with a reversed sign Vaneigem's concept of the Cause as a form of alienation. cf. Donald Rooum's cartoon Wildcat: "I don't just want freedom from the capitalists, I also want freedom from people fit to take over"). Love is "nothing but" an act of self-erasure which breaks the chain of justice (DSST 49-50). Zizek demands submission to radically exterior, meaningless injunctions, "experienced as a radically traumatic intrusion", which "a renewed Left should aim at fully endorsing"; "something violently imposed on me from the Outside through a traumatic encounter that shatters the very foundations of my being" (TS 212).

It also involves the negation of dignity: Zizek refers to "heroically renouncing the last vestiges of narcissistic dignity and accomplishing the act for which one is grotesquely inadequate" (TS 352). The heroism of the act is to openly endorse a transition "from Bad to Worse", and for this reason, a true act, which redefines the 'rules of the game', is "inherently 'terroristic' " (TS 377). Thus, instead of the "liberal trap" of respecting some rights and rejecting obligatory Party lines, one should seek the "good terror", i.e. choosing what one has to do (TS 378). Any qualms are dismissed by Zizek as "humanist hysterical shirking the act" (TS 380; NB this misuse of clinical categories in socio-ideological analysis quickly leads Zizek into problems: the Lacanian categories obsessional/hysterical/psychotic/perverse are strictly incompatible, whereas it is quite clear that a theorist who 'hysterically' rejects terror may easily also 'psychotically' believe in literality and 'perversely' believe in decoded flows). The Act involves accepting utter self-obliteration, and rejecting all compassion (TS 378).

This is a terror which ultimately terrorises itself out of existence: one becomes an executioner who will also be executed (TS 379). One should not merely accept one's death for the cause; one should also accept one's 'second death' and erasure from history (TS 379; the question of why therefore one should want to commit an Act is particularly starkly ignored in all this).

So Zizek wants a resolution of social problems in a single all-encompassing Terror which smashes all particularities. Perceiving the present as a "madness" similar to the combination of musical styles [NB again the conservative purism of Zizek's approach], he demands "the reversal that characterises the Hegelian dialectical process" - that this be turned into "its radical opposite: the revolutionary stance pursuing its goal with inexorable firmness", like the Jacobin Terror (which Zizek elsewhere denounces as hysterical). "today's 'mad dance', the dynamic shifting identities, also awaits its resolution in a new form of Terror". We need "to ground a new political universality by opting for the impossible, with no taboos, no a priori norms ('human rights', 'democracy'), respect for which would prevent us from 'resignifying' terror [though respect for science apparently wouldn't; see below], the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of sacrifice... [dots in original] if this radical choice is defined by some bleeding-heart liberals as Linksfaschismus, so be it!" (CHU 326).

The idea that the Act must involve the impossible crops up elsewhere: Zizek raises the demand "soyons realistes, demandons l'impossible!" (CHU 326), despite his hostility to France 68 as hysterical; and he also calls politics "the art of the impossible", i.e., of changing the boundaries of the possible (TS 199). This impossibility is not only from the standpoint of the system (as I suspect it was meant in France 68); it also involves an Act which is impossible to the subject (hence shooting at oneself).

Zizek's Act also seems to fit with Zizek's statement that St Paul wanted to circumcise the soul (TS 398). This particularly locates Zizek's Act in relation to Reichean theory: the Act is the reactionary-authoritarian-fascistic moment when human freedom ("work-democracy", sexual drives, etc.) is Oedipally trapped and transmuted into political phenomena such as the Cause, the Leader and so on; or at best, the corrupted version of freedom which is constituted by repression and which character-armour most immediately guards against. Zizek tries to get around the problem of expressing capitalism's repressed by drawing distinctions between true and false acts, but ultimately he remains constantly within the capitalist and Oedipal system, the territorialisation of society by alienating logics (even the case of 'identification with the symptom' shows this). Against this, one should stand up for human freedom: the possibility of direct action, without the need for mythical absolutes, irrational 'ethical' urges, psychological repression and castration, or Leaders or Causes.

It should also be noted that Zizek attaches a therapeutic value to excremental identification: excremental identification, and any other conscious identification of/with one's extimate kernel, already undoes such identification (PF 91). This might be how Zizek thinks he can get around the problem of the Act being both total submission and radical freedom, although it rests on belief in a looking-glass world where everything is really its opposite.

For Zizek, the Act is at once an utter prostration and submission, and the highest freedom. True Acts must be an erasure of the Self, "a foreign body, an intruder" which attracts the self yet also repulses it (TS 374). Acts elicit the response "Even I don't know how I was able to do that, it just happened!" (TS 375). The Act involves "the highest freedom" and also "the utmost passivity, with a reduction to a lifeless automaton who blindly performs its gestures" (TS 375; this seems similar to what is called in legal jargon 'temporary insanity'). It is hard to see how this "divine" Real (TS 376) is the same one Zizek elsewhere identifies with Alien and Norman Bates. An Act must also be something one feels both responsible for and free in doing, despite being an automaton (TS 376; contrast Matza's Delinquency and Drift on how exactly this kind of double-bind is the root of many delinquents' sense of being unjustly treated). The Act is also absolutely idiosnycratic (contrast Zizek's denouncement of idiosyncrasy elsewhere: see CONSERVATISM). It has its own inherent normativity lacking all simple external standards (TS 388).


Zizek's claim to "left" status for his concept of the Act relies largely on his concept of identifying with the social symptom. This is a version of the clinical concept of identifying with the symptom, expanded beyond its clinical context in a way that (wrongly) supposes the existence of a single ideological fantasy structuring society.

Identifying with the social symptom involves locating the group which is the excluded part of society (part of no part), and identifying with it. This involves a "statement of solidarity" which states "We are all them", the excluded non-part (TS 231). This illogical and quasi-substitutionist statement (of which Zizek gives examples, such as "we are all in Sarajevo") is in stark contrast to leftist forms of solidarity, which either involve that claim "I am oppressed" (a claim Zizek denies to anyone but the worst-off group), or "I should help x because x is oppressed" (which requires an ethics of concern for others which is alien to Zizek's ethics).

The reason for identifying with the excluded group does NOT involve the emancipation of this group itself, but rather, a personal act from the standpoint of this group (not necessarily BY the group in question). ("from the standpoint of this inherent impossibility" of the social system, which is the disavowed structuring principle of it: CHU 125). One MUST intervene at the one real "symptomal torsion" of the system to commit an Act, avoiding false acts based on some reference-point in the existing system of meaning. This means there is always ONE issue which determines whether one is an authentic radical (CHU 125). This rules out serious radical struggles, and shows clearly how the roots of Zizek's concept of the Act are metaphysical and therapeutic, rather than social or political.

By identifying with the excluded group, one becomes in Zizek's sense a "proletarian", a concept he clearly delineates from the excluded group itself (in Marx's day. the "working class"; today, "excluded" groups such as illegal immigrants). The "proletarian" is not a sociological being, but something more like Vaneigem's "militant": someone who has been "touched by Grace", i.e., the Event (TS 227).

cf. also on the leftist suspension of the ethical (POLITICS).


The Act is deeply nihilistic, albeit in a special sense. Zizek dedicates The Fragile Absolute "For nobody and nothing" (FA 1). He claims to be offering the "third way" between 'pathological' desires and immersion in the Void: the third way is desiring Nothingness (FA 166-7). This is a special type of nihilism because Zizek distances himself from nihilistic endorsement of projects one knows to be wrong (DSST 207); one has to be internally committed to an Act. But it is nihilist in the sense of eliminating meaning, causality and positive ethics.

Zizek identifies the Act - "symbolic death" - with situations where "nothing but the place takes place"- where pure form exists due to a content which is the radical negativity of form - excrement displayed as art, or Hegel's claim that the spirit is a bone (FA 30). This kind of situation is for Zizek "sublime", proving that the sacred place is still there (FA 31). Zizek also identifies sublimity with the role of Stalinist leaders as bearers of 'objective truth', beauty and wisdom regardless of their actual traits (FA 33-6; cf. on the judge as bearer of Law despite being nothing but a doddering old fool). Sublime acts of this kind are necessary in reaction to a situation where the "beautiful" has been made "trash" by commodification, and the capacity of sublimation is therefore threatened (FA 39).

Zizek believes in creation ex nihilo in the strong sense of emergence out of nothingness (not merely out of a nothingness in social reality plus a positivity somewhere else, as in Castoriadis). Zizek sides with Creationism (though not the "madness" of the Moral Majority version) against evolutionism, including Darwinism, on the basis that the latter supposedly obliterates the Act (i.e. does not believe in it). For Zizek, "something genuinely New can emerge ex nihilo, out of nowhere" (DSST 176). Zizek is determined that nobody must get away with taking away from Lacan the idea of a negativity out of which the New emerges (DSST 177).

Zizek also states that the universal can only express itself through utter arbitrariness (TS 96). It is self-grounding. The Law (identified with the ethical imperative which pushes one into an Act: 'you can because you must') is for Zizek experienced as a violent intrusion into the self-focused imagination (PF 220). According to Zizek's reading of Kant and Pascal, reasons given for Law and orders are always rationalisations; the "true secret" is that "the dogma of power is grounded only in itself"; we rationalise acts as resulting from 'pathological' (empirical, rational, or selfish) reasons "to avoid the traumatic fact that we did it 'for nothing' - that is, for the sake of duty alone" (PF 223). "The true horror of the act resides in this self-referential abyss"; "the act occurs as a 'crazy', unaccountable event which, precisely, is not 'willed' ", and the subject cannot fully assume it because it is at once attractive and repulsive, and therefore splits the will. One is then faced with a choice between heroically assuming the Act and attempting to disappear (the 'death drive') (PF 223). The Act is intertwined closely with the Real. Zizek wants "an ethics grounded in in reference to the traumatic Real which resists symbolisation, the Real which is experienced in the encounter with the abyss of the Other's desire... There is ethics - that is to say, an injunction which cannot be grounded in ontology - in so far as there is a crack in the ontological edifice of the universe: at its most elementary, ethics designates fidelity to this crack", and is linked to the Real, against reality (PF 213-4; Zizek differentiates this from an ethics of a substantial Good, formalist ethics and the postmodern renunciation of universality and adoption of purely negative ethical precepts). So from the very beginning, for Zizek ethics is necessarily a break with meaning - something from outside, beneath or beyond it.

Zizek sees the Act as a break with all existing legal, ethical and causal belief-systems. Something can emerge out of nothing which is irreducible to any causal chain (FA 93; Zizek is probably confusing subterranean causes with a lack of causes). To act is, Zizek implies, incompatible both with the present legal frame and with substantial ethics (TS 361). He reads St Paul's agape as "dying to the Law" (FA 100; NB how Zizek seems to use Law to refer both to the ex nihilo injunction which founds the Act, and the positive system which the Act rejects - suggesting perhaps that the two are identical, existing Law is founded in some past Act and the Act founds a new system like the present one), "a Yes! to life in its mysterious, synchronic multitude" (FA 103; a rare life-affirming statement). Traversing the fantasy breaks enjoyment/jouissance from meaning and understanding (PF 50). The precise sense of 'political' for Zizek is "an abyssal excessive gesture that can no longer be grounded in 'common human considerations' " (FA 155), and political Events involve people risking freedom and therefore momentarily suspending symbolic causality (TS 43; cf. 'suspension of the ethical'; contrast however the Act as submission to the big Other). Zizek believes that there is a " 'natural', innate ethics", but that it is possible to break with this ethics through an Act (DSST 55 - one of several occasions when the Act lets Zizek get away with conservative assumptions without reaching conservative conclusions).

Zizek's concept of the Act is exceedingly redemptive (although it is a negative 'redemption'). The Act is an uncoupling from society, a "symbolic death", a new creation, "the gesture of sublimation, of erasing the traces of one's past... and beginning afresh from a zero-point", via a "terrifying violence" Zizek identifies with the Freudian Death Drive. This Terror occurs in cases, such as Jacobinism and the Khmer Rouge, when a (pledged) group identifies itself with an entire society (FA 127). Zizek has a great deal of faith that the Act, by itself, can completely alter social reality (despite the fact that it seems to be purely individual). The Act redefines what counts as 'Good' by changing the coordinates of the reality principle (the possible) (DSST 167). For instance, Zizek celebrates politicians who defy the opinion polls, since opinion is always framed by conceptions of the possible, and such acts by politicians can change such conceptions (DSST 169; NB as Zizek half-admits in The Abyss of Freedom, such acts are as likely to leave the politician in question isolated; and Zizek does not investigate why some Acts change reality and others don't). The Act transgresses the legal and moral norm and redefines it, generating "a new shape of what counts as 'Good' ". It can be judged by rational criteria - but only those it forms itself, since it changes and recreates those standards which do not precede it (DSST 169-70).

Zizek's "Good News" is that "it is possible to suspend the burden of the past, to cut the ropes which tie us to our past deeds, to wipe the slate and begin again from zero", via a sidestep splitting ontology from ethics and causality from responsibility (DSST 53); he advocates the possibility of "starting a new life 'from nothing' " by replacing one symbolic fiction with another, on the basis of an impetus from the outside (TS 331). The Act is a "passage through (symbolic) death and subsequent rebirth", and a "suicidal dimension" of "the subject's self-obliteration which always accompanies the act" (PF 225; NB the palingenetic overtones of such statements; NB also how the Act cannot create a blank slate like Zizek wants, since it hardly allows people to forget their entire language or leave/transform their bodies; NB also how this necessarily involves refounded, not overcoming, the problems of the present). So Zizek's endorsement of being reduced to the status of a Holocaust victim (which is what he means by "zero": see above) is that it has a longer-term redemptive role (albeit one that the subject - a vanishing mediator who dies in the course of the transformation - does not live to see, and one which is clearly not redemptive for those - the victims of Terror, or the family shot in The Usual Suspects, for instance - who are sacrificed by it). (NB also the mathematical model: we are reduced to "zero" presumably so that a leader can take on the role of the "One" and refound the symbolic order - which, however, presumably remains structurally unchanged). Psychoanalysis is for Zizek a "(symbolic) rebirth" and "(re)creation ex nihilo", producing "a thoroughly new configuration" of being (TS 212).

On a similar subject: the negative nature of Zizek's category of the Act rules out the possibility of fighting for a particular positive content: "the only legitimization of a revolution is negative, the will to break with the Past", and revolutionaries cannot have a positive concept of the New Man or of something to be realised (CHU 131). As to where ethical projects come from, Zizek is reliant on the existence of a kind of positively-active negativity somewhete beyond human experience. In this context, it is worth noting that his ethical statements are nearly always passive-voice, eg. "the task today is precisely to..." (CHU 128).

I suspect Zizek is what Vaneigem calls an "active nihilist" - not a nihilist of the passive, accepting kind, but the kind of nihilist who throws a beer-glass against a wall, driven by a directionless refusal of the present (would Vaneigem's beer-glass thrower be committing a Zizekian Act? Quite possibly). Crucially, in Vaneigem's account active nihilists are only proto-revolutionary; to become revolutionary, they would have to take additional steps. Zizek seems to refuse such steps (which mostly involve identifying with and engaging in resistances in everyday life) on principle (see RESISTANCE), and therefore remains trapped permanently at the level of active nihilism.


Not surprisingly given that he sees the Act as shattering meaning, Zizek wants a commitment which is "dogmatic", "cannot be refuted by any 'argumentation' " and "does not ask for good reasons", and which is "indifferent" to the truth-status of the Event it refers to (TS ****; find reference). A Decision (Act) is circular, a shibboleth, and a creative act which nevertheless reveals a constitutive void which is invisible (TS 138; NB the slippage between epistemology and ontology here: how do we know the Act is revealing rather than creating the void?). Law is legitimated by transference: it is only convincing to those who already believe (SOI 38). The Act subverts a given field as such and achieves the apparently 'impossible' by retroactively creating the conditions of its possibility by changing its conditions (CHU 121). It has its own inherent normativity, lacking any simple external standards (TS 388)

As well as being problematic in itself, this kind of open advocation of irrationalism and dogmatism would seem to rule out the possibility of empirically or rationally assessing the validity of a particular Act: by definition an Act is not open to such assessment, so one cannot judge between a false (eg. Nazi) and a true Act, since this would involve precisely such a rational and empirical process of assessment ("good reasons" and truth-status). This raises problems for Zizek's attempts to distance himself from Nazism (see below, on false acts). Also, Zizek is being inconsistent in trying to defend such an attack on communication by communicative means (can one make a rational case against rationality?).

Zizek's approach is also self-contradictory both in theory and in practice. In theory, he states that only reactionary pseudo-Events are tautological (TS 243), despite earlier saying that all Events are circular. And in practice, Zizek's claim that direct involvement is the only way to understand an Event (TS 140) is undermined by his own "standpoint of enunciation" - at a distance from all the Events he discusses, neither a participant in them nor (in cases such as Leninism and Christianity) even a believer in their 'dogmas' and 'shibboleths'. (It is also not clear whether Lacanian theory also falls into this approach: whether to be a Lacanian/Zizekian, one has to make this kind of leap into dogmatism. This would certainly explain why he never tries to explain why we should accept the deep structure he posits; but it would tend to undermine his own belief in the necessity and universality of this structure).


Assuming an Act means rejecting all concern for others and making oneself, to all intents and purposes, a rock. In the Act, one "assumes... the full burden of freedom impervious to any call of the Other" (DSST 175). Whereas in Derrida and other postmodernists, argues Zizek, ethics is a response to the call of the Other, either abyssal or actual, in Zizek's Lacan the ethical act proper suspends both of these along with the rest of the 'big Other' (DSST 161).

Zizek loathes 'soft-heartedness' because it "blurs the subject's pure ethical stance". In this passage, he is referring to Stalinist views; but his criticism of them is not of this loathing; rather, he thinks "that they were not 'pure' enough" because they got caught in an emotional sense of duty (DSST 111). This according to Zizek is the difference between Lenin and Stalin: Zizek's Lenin did not become emotionally attached to his Act (DSST 113). Zizek's ethical anti-humanism goes so far that he advocates hating the beloved out of love (FA 126), because what one should love is not their human person.

Zizek also endorses Kant's attempt to purge ethics of historical contents, including compassion and concern for others (PF 232-3).


The Act is absolutist and universalist, but it rests on a particular element violently asserting itself as the universal (cf. METHOD: Zizek's short-circuit between universality and individual cases, surpassing the particular). The subject emerges in the event of exaggeration, by supplanting the Whole with the Part (PF 92). Zizek does not renounce the concept of balance (which, paradoxically, is necessary for his analysis), but rather, inverts the cult of balance into its opposite. Against the idea of synthesising different theories (PF 92-3; in this case he is discussing theories of meaning), Zizek asserts vehemently that "the moment of truth", i.e. what is enlightening and of interest [to whom?], in each theory is its 'exaggeration' - the assertion that meaning is "nothing but" and "can be reduced to" a particular cause (such as syntax or pragmatic context). "the enlightening 'truth-event' of each of these theories resides not in the reduced kernel of truth beneath the false exaggeration... but in the very 'unilateralist' reductionist exaggeration" (PF 93; the 'proof' for this whole argument rests on accepting what is clearly a subjective assessment of what is 'enlightening' and 'interesting' in each argument. The passage between different theories "occurs only and precisely when we fully assume the 'unilateral' reductionist gesture", pushing a theory so far that it inverts into its opposite (PF 93). NB how Zizek values in and of itself the dogmatic, reductionist and impositional gesture of insisting exclusively on one discourse to the exclusion of all others; NB also how Zizek portrays this as radical via the unfounded claim that this forces a theory to its limits and therefore into an inversion.

This particularism, therefore, is not about particulars but about the claim to universality. Zizek opposes "ethical particularism" (i.e. relativist, historical and tradition-based analyses of ethics), but not on behalf of a full universalism; instead, he counterposes "accepting that the ethical Universal is itself indeterminate, empty", and that it can be operationalised "only by means of my active engagement, for which I take full responsibility" - a universality impossible except via a contingent act of positing (PF 221; again this involves an ontology-epistemology slippage; it is unclear why this is actually universality as opposed to a particularity deluding itself that it is universal).

For Zizek, the subject is universal - but "I become 'universal' only through the violent effort of disengaging myself from the particularities of my situation, through conceiving this situation as contingent and limiting, through opening up in it the gap of indeterminacy filled in by my act. Subjectivity and universality are thus strictly correlative: the dimension of universality becomes 'for itself' only through the 'individualist' negation of the particular context which forms the subject's specific background". Duty cannot be an excuse for an action; nor can there be any excuse for not accomplishing one's duty - "You can, because you must!" (PF 222; NB how this assumes the individual as the sole focus of ethics and theory). The identification of the universal with the particular is an "act of abyssal decision" (PF 240). There are also for Zizek moments when "past and present directly overlap" - "the very moment of 'non-dialectical excess', of 'exaggeration', when 'one particular moment stands for it all' " (PF 91).

Zizek wants to use this idea of the absolute to distinguish between high and low art, i.e., to distinguish "ordinary escapism" from "this dimension of Otherness, this magic moment when the absolute appears in all its fragility" (FA 159; NB the elitism implicit in this claim). He sees the sublime as offering a "brief apparition of a future utopian Otherness to which every authentic revolutionary stance should cling" - and Otherness he sees occurring not only in art, but also in psychoanalysis and in revolutionary political collectives (pledged groups) (FA 160). Beauty opens up a hole or gap out of the present universe (FA 175) - although Zizek never implies that such utopias can actually be achieved rather than merely glimpsed (cf. his attacks on Marx for this; see MARXISM).


Zizek identifies the Act with thinking of oneself as the cause of social effects, even though it also involves prostration before ethical injunctions.

For Zizek, the Act is associated with conceiving oneself as a cause, and eschewing explanations which 'relativise' one's acts, which Zizek sees as compromising on one's desire (FA 156). In the case of a revolution, for instance, Zizek demands fidelity not to the principles behind a revolution (which he elsewhere states are necessarily betrayed in it), but "fidelity to the consequences entailed by the full actualisation of the (revolutionary) principles" (TS 377). This occurs in a context where one cannot possibly know in advance the consequences, since the Act is a leap into the void; it is therefore an extension of the closed, irrational character of the Act.


According to Zizek, "the impossible content of the moral Law as pure form is 'diabolical Evil' ", and diabolical Evil is necessary for the Law to function (PF 227). (Zizek is getting this concept from Kant; it involves an Evil chosen for its own sake and not for concrete reasons). The Thing (=Real) is the foreclosed content of Law; confronting it leads to aphanisis (i.e. self-obliteration) (PF 228). Diabolical Evil is the same thing as Good - depending only on one's standpoint (PF 228-9); it is God Himself as obscene superego Law and therefore as jouissance (PF 237). Both express the Real as vanishing mediator (PF 229). Diabolical Evil is distinct from the superficial phenomenon of people 'wanting to be evil' (PF 229), and phenomena such as the Holocaust are not diabolical Evil in the technical sense (PF 231). "the very formal structure of an act is 'diabolically' evil", because the Act is both impossible and unavoidable (PF 230). Diabolical Evil is something which is impossible, but must always-already have happened to found the ethical domain, as the "vanishing mediator" between nature and Law (PF 238).

Diabolical Evil is distinct from radical evil (NB the switch between capitals and small letters). Radical evil, in the sense of guilt arising from breaking the unknowable Law, is, Zizek implies, universal (PF 228). Radical evil is evil as an "anthropological constant... consubstantial with the very human condition" (PF 233 - Zizek forgets that psychosis is an exception).

The inadequacy of acts, the failure to achieve "the dreadful encounter with the Act", is central to ethical law; this is possible only by using 'pathological' motives to cover up the possibility that one may have achieved an Act (PF 230). Only by failing in one's acts can one become a Kantian ethical subject; otherwise, one becomes a being of diabolical Evil - "when I approach the ethical act too closely, it turns into its opposite, into diabolical Evil" (PF 230; this is why Zizek calls Laclau a 'Kantian' because of his belief in the impossibility of achieving the universal except as a horizon). (My own suspicion is that such attempts to avoid admitting one has carried out an ethical act have other motives: the clash of ethical action with widespread 'common sense' assumptions about human nature; and also a fear of not feeling satisfied at having carried out such an act).

Hegel and Lacan, Zizek claims, want to go beyond Law, constitutive guilt, Good, and Evil, into the realm of drive (PF 228). Absolute subjectivity requires an egotistical denial of dependence on irreducible Otherness (PF 234). Diabolical Evil is not pure, egoist evil but an ethical evil which blurs Good and Evil (PF 234-5). This is fundamentally different to Nazi evil which was based on a superior ethical principle, i.e. a Good (PF 235; actually, Zizek simplifies Nazi ethics here, since a lot of Nazi ideology glorified the empty form of action itself: war in itself, rather than for a particular purpose; decisiveness per se as a virtue; etc.).


The structural logic behind Zizek's advocacy of 'self-erasure' is that a "mediator" is needed to achieve any change; this mediator is the condition of possibility and also impossibility of such change, and to achieve it, "the mediator must erase himself from the picture" (DSST 50). The role of the vanishing mediator is redemptive/palingenetic rather than prefigurative: there is no room here for changing conceptions of the world except via a purely individual act (which cannot empirically reach others except maybe as pure imposition). Zizek merely asserts the necessity of such a mediator and makes little attempt to prove it (but cf. in TS on de Valera and Collins).

Spectrality involves repressing "the crime that founds the rule of the Law", "the violent gesture that brings about a regime which retroactively makes this gesture itself illegal/criminal", such as "a last cannibal abolishing the condition of cannibalism" by eating the last cannibal (FQA 63). This founding act, or vanishing mediator, then haunts symbolic history as a distinct "obscene other", a spectral or phantasmic history (FA 64). Transition between different historical regimes requires such a vanishing mediator which represses/forecloses its own violent imposition (FA 65; NB how this implies that, although Zizek wants to change from one 'historical regime' to another, this change would leave intact the deep structure in the sense of there still being a symbolic/big Other, fantasy, an extimate kernel, an excluded part and so on). Belonging to a community involves assuming not only the explicit symbolic tradition, but also the spectral dimension - the tradition's lacks, distortions, ghosts, and messages 'between the lines' (FA 64). (Spectrality is not quite the same as the Real; it involves an excess of reality which can't be reincorporated, eg. the Holocaust).

Zizek refers in his ethical theory to a "violent tearing up" of causality (PF 236). Presumably the mediator is necessary to go from such a tearing-up to a reconstruction. Examples Zizek gives include the Bolshevik Party when it 'committed suicide' and various characters in Brecht's plays who undergo symbolic as well as actual death.


Zizek's Acts appear to include some forms of overidentification and hyperconformism (although full overidentification is 'psychotic'). Zizek sees it as a subversive act to take the Law literally, since this turns it against its underlying fantasies - at least sometimes. This is one version, Zizek claims, of 'traversing the fantasy', and it has "catastrophic" effects for the system (PF 28-9). Since the role of fantasy is to close the gap between the formal symbolic frame of choices and a social reality where one choice is a forced choice (i.e. one of the choices, if taken the wrong way, would ruin the system, but the system wants to maintain the false opening, i.e. the appearance of free choice), one can undermine the system by traversing the fantasy, destroying the forced choice, and thereby replacing desire with drive (PF 29-30).

In the ethical Act, "the inner and the outer, inner intention and external consequences, coincide; they are two sides of the same coin" (DSST 172). Is it possible to have this kind of exact fit between motive and effect (cf. the concept of 'unity of motive and effect' in Mao and its equivalents in other totalitarian systems, such as Stalin's concept of 'objective truth')? If the motive is concrete, it is likely to be blocked by what Sartre calls the "practico-inert" (mat6ter, the inert effects of earlier projects, and other such barriers), unless this can be overcome through praxis (which hardly makes motive and effect "two sides of the same coin"). Probably Zizek gets out of this by the (irrational) device of advocating identification with the consequences (no matter what they are).

Zizek appears to be under the illusion that the Act is directly effective in changing everyday beliefs. Events, he suggests, themselves explode everyday alignments, because these result from the kind of imperatives which an Event negates (TS 48). Zizek is clearly short-circuiting between individuals here: one individual's Act need not have any such interior effect on others. Similarly: "That is the basic lesson of psychoanalysis: in our everyday life, we vegetate, deeply immersed in the universal Lie; then, all of a sudden, some contingent encounter - a casual remark during a conversation, an incident we witness - brings to light the repressed trauma which shatters our self-delusion" (PF 130). NB Zizek assumes common sense really is universal; NB also how he naively believes its false chacater to be interior and therefore explodable through an Act, without a need to change one's conception of the world in the slightest (the Act itself supposedly does this).

Despite the certainty he exudes, Zizek also implies that one can never be quite sure what is and is not an Act, since he says that one can never be sure when and how one can touch and disturb a fundamental fantasy (=extimate kernel) (PF 191).


How one locates the Act in relation to revolution depends just how fundamentally the change involved in a revolution is conceived. The Act according to Zizek disrupts/overthrows the existing order of Imaginary and Symbolic alignments (though this does not of course make it revolutionary in practice); however, his account seems to involve the restoration of the basic structure of the social system subsequently, so there is no possibility of meaningful change in terms of overcoming social oppression and exclusion or the irrationalities of ideology. (This also leaves the question of why an Act would lead to anything better; indeed, Zizek denies that it would. So why opt for an Act?).

In a sense, the Act is conservative. Traversing the fantasy involves the act of 'accepting' there is no way one can ever be satisfied: a direct relation to the objet petit a (i.e. desired object) minus the screen of fantasy, involving "a full acceptance of the pain... as inherent to the excess of pleasure which is jouissance" (PF 30). This means accepting "radical ontological closure" - i.e. 'accepting' that there is no radical difference - and also that "we renounce every opening, every belief in the messianic Otherness", including, for instance, Derridean and Levinasian concepts of being 'out-of-joint' (PF 31), especially the idea of jouissance being amassed elsewhere. This leads one into the realm of drive; one becomes "eternal-'undead' " (PF 31). (Zizek is here replacing an irrational belief that jouissance is amassed elsewhere with an irrational belief that it isn't; the existence or non-existence of difference and Otherness is an empirical question, and Zizek's refusal to accept that radical Otherness could exist renders his theory potentially extremely normalist and ethnocentric).

Crucially, the Act does not involve overcoming Law and the system. It involves suspending them, so they can be resurrected or resuscitated on a new basis. Although the Act is a 'shot in the dark' (preventing voluntary reconstruction/transformation of society), nevertheless it always involves a necessary betrayal (see TS) which reproduces the Oedipal/authoritarian structure of the world; the vanishing mediator always vanishes so as to restore the system.

It is interesting to note Zizek's insistence on using the word "suspension" (St Paul's suspension of the law, the leftist suspension of the ethics, and so on). The suspension of the Law, as shown in Zizek's quote from St Paul (TS 150-1), is clearly in fact something more: it is in a sense psychotic, breaking with both Law and desire. But it is a suspension because it resurrects Law in the more total form of the Cause. It is interesting that Zizek chooses the word "suspension". If Zizek has in mind a destruction or fundamental transformation of the Law or ethics, there are so many better terms he could have chosen: abolition, destruction, smashing, overcoming, transcending, sublating, surpassing and so on. That he (more-or-less consistently) uses the term "suspension" is therefore probably significant. This term implies a temporary absence of the phenomenon in question, as opposed to its permanent destruction, replacement, or even transformation. In other words: what is suspended (Law, ethics, etc.) nevertheless returns in the same basic form as before (which presumably means its structural nature is basically the same).

There are other places where Zizek states this explicitly. In his reading of Lacan on the Cause, he suggests that wiping the slate clean precedes identification with/enthusiasm for a Cause (TS 154). He also refers to the rise of a new normality, "proper symbolic Prohibition" (TS 368). Although the Act has its own inherent normativity (TS 388), its main role is on the level of psychology: it removes the "stupid" drive which constrains action, replacing it with a drive to disrupt by traversing the fantasy (TS 390).

The clearest example, however, crops up in "The Abyss of Freedom", on the subject of what a true leader or Master is. "The gesture constitutive of the Master is best exemplified by a tense political situation in which a leader is torn between two options: either to assert a proper position in its extreme purity or to formulate a position broadly enough in order to present it as a wide 'umbrella' able to embrace all current of the leader's party. The outcome is utterly 'undecidable': adopting the unreconcilable 'extreme' stance can isolate the leader, it can make him or her appear unacceptable, yet it can also be perceived as the resolute measure that clearly designates the desired Goal and thus attracts broad masses (see General de Gaulle's resolute "No!" to collaboration with Germans in 1940 that made him into a leader [this is oversimplified again: much of the resistance consisted of Stalinists and leftist dissidents of various kinds; de Gaulle meanwhile was hiding safely in London]); adopting the ill-defined 'umbrella' stance can lay ground for a broad coalition, yet it can also be perceived as a disappointing sign of irresolution. Sometimes it is better to limit oneself pragmatically to 'realistic', attainable goals; at other times, it is far more effective to say 'No, this is not enough, the true utopia is that, in the present state of our society, we can [? probably means can't] achieve even these modest goals - if we want truly to attain even these goals, we must aim much higher, we must change the general condition!' This, perhaps, is the feature which designates a 'true leader': the ability to risk the step into the extreme that, far from ostracising the leader, finds universal appeal and grounds the widest possible coalition. Such a gesture, of course, is extremely risky insofar as it is not decidable in advance: it
can succeed, yet it can also turn the leader into a figure of ridicule, a lone extremist nut. This is the risk a 'true leader' has to assume: one of the lessons of history is that, in the political struggle between the moderate pragmatic and the extremist, it was the extremist who (later, after taking over) was able effectively to realize the necessary pragmatic measures" (Abyss of Freedom p. 72-3).

This is full of flaws, from the "lesson of history" drawn from a single example to the unsupported and flawed nature of the example, and from the unfounded assertion that a single universal claim can suddenly mobilise masses from out of nowhere to Zizek's support for one of two choices in a situation he admits is utterly undeterminable. The crucial point, however, regards the purpose of the 'revolutionary' gesture: taking the extremist stance, demanding changes in the general condition, demanding the impossible and so on do not have the effect of changing the general condition or achieving the demanded utopia, or anything like it: they are merely ways of achieving pragmatic, reformist goals more effectively by taking power within the existing structures - "taking over" (cf. also his remarks on Lenin as the One who takes such a stance and accepts responsibility for taking power; see MARX. cf. also his remarks on Chavez; see CONSERVATISM).

Thus, the Act is not a way of changing the world, but merely a different, 'extremist' way of achieving the same kind of moderate, pragmatic small changes one could also achieve (though less effectively) by moderate, pragmatic means. Zizek no doubt has some psychological theory of why this works (probably because the 'extremist' gesture establishes the symbolic efficiency of the Master as a "One" who structures the social field, thereby assuring symbolic stability); nevertheless, this is not any kind of revolutionary project, since it involves taking over the existing system and doing the same kind of things the existing system already does. Furthermore, it is avowedly hierarchic, leader-centric and statist. Whoever you fight for in this account, the state always wins.

Zizek seems to be actually hostile to solving anything. In a passage about Viagra, Zizek suggests that solving a problem is merely a form of structural displacement; it does not really solve the problem but merely relocates it somewhere else - probably somewhere worse (TS 383-4). The Act is not really about even moderate change, therefore.

What Zizek is aiming for is not a particular social change, nor protection from leaders, but the efficiency of the system (cf. his remarks on SAP's in Critical Sense: if it works, why not try some? He has no ideological objection to neo-liberalism; he just dislikes its pseudo-neutrality). Zizek is in favour of something he calls "symbolic identification": when the social mask trumps the person underneath, therebu forcing people to do things they couldn't accomplish otherwise (FA 49-50; cf. "you can because you must"). Such a cult of efficiency is very anti-human: the 'things one couldn't do otherwise' could easily include all kinds of atrocities. In addition, the model assumes the utter, immediate malleability of the world (i.e. a very strong idealism): that what one can or cannot do is a secondary consequence of whether one feels one must. Zizek completely ignores the way in which a project or 'Act' - however imperative it seems to an actor - can be interfered with, distorted or defeated by the practico-inert, or by others' projects and Acts (see also below on how the examples Zizek gives of Acts actually collide with and potentially mutually defeat each other).

cf. also Zizek's statement that one starts a new life from nothing by replacing one symbolic fiction with another (TS 331) - i.e., not by overcoming symbolic fictions.

To the extent that the Act has a 'revolutionary' dimension at all, it is via the glimpse it supposedly gives of the sublime (see above). Zizek may well be some kind of mystic (in the strict sense), who believes we can directly apprehend the absolute via the non-ordinary (i.e. the Act). If mysticism is itself radical or revolutionary, then Zizek deserves these labels; but its historical role hardly suggests this.

NB also how the supposedly all-changing nature of the Act is also undermined by Zizek's insistence that it must not under any circumstances interfere with science (see below), despite its supposed self-positing nature.


Zizek gives a whole list of what he thinks are Acts. (Since the Act is a structural position, however, whether something fills this role is about its context as much as its content). These involve a whole list of different kinds of action, many taken from fictional settings:

* The hero in a noir film who cannot resist the allure of the femme fatale (DSST 14).

* Politicians who defy opinion polls by pursuing unpopular policies (DSST 168-9).

* Scientists who pursue discoveries, such as creating atom bombs and cloned sheep, regardless of consequences (DSST 172-3). Indeed, Zizek identifies science as a whole with traversing the fantasy, because of the closure and certainty it involves (in distinction to the element of the Beyond in pre-scientific beliefs). "The universe of modern science, in its very 'meaninglessness', involves the gesture of 'traversing the fantasy', of abolishing the dark spot, the domain of the Unexplained which harbours fantasies and thus guarantees Meaning: instead, we get the meaningless mechanism" (PF 160). For this reason, science is a danger to the universe of meaning (PF 160). (NB a whole misunderstanding of science built into Zizek's account which treats it as an unconstrained drive, ignoring links between scientists and capitalists, states, etc. The atom bomb programme was government-, not scientist-, driven).

* The Mary Kay Letourneau case. Letourneau sparked controversy in America by having a passionate affair with a schoolboy. According to Zizek, she acted in a way which showed her motives were coming from beyond her better judgement; she had to go through madness (she was accused in court of having "bipolar disorder") and suspend rational judgement. Zizek denounces the use of this as anathema: for him, the suspension of rational judgement through mania is a constituent part of authentic Love (TS 385-6). Zizek denounces medical discourses for brutally medicalising the capacity to act decisively and fearlessly - in his view, a new western version of the old Soviet practice of medicalising dissent (TS 387). (Zizek has indeed exposed a case where abuse - even "rape" - is alleged on little basis and where claims of love are oppressively invalidated, rather than examined, by the legal system; he has therefore uncovered one of the few remaining cases of a legal discourse not articulated to conceptions of harm. This is, however, not a usual phenomenon: the 'tragedy' involved here is only possible because of the persistence of an old-type taboo against an entire category of acts based on social status. Further, the use of psychiatric categories in defence of Letourneau against a rival invalidation, "evil", hardly has the implications Zizek gives it: it is a defensive response to a far worse invalidation. Furthermore, what is suspended by Letourneau's actions is not the ethical, as Zizek claims - Letourneau probably thought she was doing nothing wrong, that the law, not her actions, was at fault - but rather, a suspension of fear).

* Zizek misreads competition for places in the Stalinist bureaucracy as an ethical act. For Zizek, Stalinism in its full form needs plots and purges to cover unthinkable changes in its official consecrated History (to carry out opportunist changes in policy while maintaining the myth of a single, objective history of the Party) - so someone had to accept guilt in order to do "the highest service... to the Party" (DSST 98-9). For Zizek, "the true hero is the one who makes the necessary compromise, knowing that in a subsequent development this compromise will be denounced as treason and he personally will be liquidated" (DSST 99; NB again the reformism involved here). Zizek never actually shows that victims of the purges thought in this way (Bukharin, he shows, refused to do so); actually, I suspect he is over-psychologising what is actually a political phenomenon. Because of competition for resources and positions, combined with the expansive drive inherent in each wing of the bureaucracy, and the need in official discourse for scapegoats, each bureaucrat, for advantage in politico-bureaucratic power struggles tried to blame the others and thereby further his/her own position. Who is blamed depends on these struggles - the same struggles, incidentally, which produce the need for an opportunist 'compromise' in the first place. The bureaucrat who rewrites history knowing he will be liquidated is a product of Zizek's imagination; each bureaucrat hoped to survive by purging all the others before they purged him. (NB as soon as the bureaucracy became stable enough to set up a semi-permanent social system, they stopped actually killing each other and instead changed the penalty to exile or demotion - while maintaining the same basic dynamic of infighting, labelling and purging).

* One case of the Sublime: prisoners at Vorkuta Mine 29. Faced with military forces they could not defeat, they stood with arms linked while they were massacred, so for a time the line stood firm despite some dying (DSST 74-5). Zizek claims this shows the Soviet system was better than the Nazis (despite the system being the murderers, not the actors, in this case; and also despite the fact that Zizek's claim that this couldn't happen in Nazism is undermined by cases such as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising).

* An Act: in a drama (Max Opuls's melodrama Caught), a woman neglects her dying husband, causing his death, and gets rid of her child so she can start a new life with her true love. According to Zizek this "enacts the disjunction between the Good and the properly ethical stance, since it is the choice between the Good (human compassion and matrimonial ideology..) on the one hand and the ethical stance of the death drive on the other, and she chooses the death drive"; after this she undergoes aphanisis (immobilisation by guilt and inability to assume her own act); then "she is reborn, delivered of the pressure of guilt, and ready for a new beginning" (PF 224; NB the strong palingenetic element here; NB also that this is one of several cases where a Zizekian Act involves killing or harming others, and where this is not only ethically justified but the essence of ethics itself).

* The Act includes the extreme, self-destructive violence identified with the most ruthless Hollywood anti-heroes. For instance: Zizek celebrates one scene (in The Usual Suspects) where someone's family is being held hostage; the hero shoots his family dead, to give him a pretext to pursue and slaughter members of the rival gang and their families. Zizek calls this a 'crazy', impossible choice where the character strikes at himself via what is most precious to him (FA 149-50). This 'radical gesture' involves cutting himself free of all objects holding him in place, thereby giving him a "space of free action" (FA 150). This is for Zizek the "authentic act" and is "properly ethical" (FA 152, 153). He gives two similar examples also: one when the hero in Speed shoots his partner in the leg, another in Ransom when the Mel Gibson character offers a reward for the capture of his family's kidnappers instead of answering their ransom demands (FA 149).

* Similarly: Medea hitting back at Jason by killing their children; and Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in response to God's unconditional demand, but minus the angel which stays his hand (FA 151). Zizek demands submission to such radically exterior, non-internalisable, meaningless injunctions which are "experienced as a radically traumatic intrusion"; indeed, a submission such as Abraham's is something the Left should be aiming to endorse (TS 211-12).

* Another such case: the character Setle in Toni Morrison's Beloved, killing her children to save them from slavery (FA 152). For Zizek, this involves claiming one's role as a parent, by claiming the autonomy and freedom to protect one's children (FA 152-3; NB how the Act in this case only crops up because of a fictive situation of a pure choice between two evils, i.e., by artificially eliminating third options: fighting, hiding, running, etc.). One should not sacrifice something for something else; one should sacrifice this Thing also, out of one's fidelity to it. Without this "there is no ethical act proper" (FA 154). (As well as being self-contradictory, this is also a contentious reading; it is also possible that the act in question involves simple lexical ordering, i.e. deciding that life is less important than another good, freedom. This kind of "ordering" dilemma is very common in the social-realist genre Zizek is dipping into here; cf. Billy Elliott, etc.).

* Stalinism was an authentic truth-event. We know this because no-one was safe from its terror, showing that it was rooted in radical negativity and therefore was betraying something authentic (PF 59-60; NB how the fact that no-one was safe is a POSITIVE commendation according to Zizek).

* In "Repeating Lenin" Zizek portrays the Taleban as subversive because they actually fully believe.

* The Act ("passage … l'acte") in Full Metal Jacket contrasts according to Zizek with the ideological fantasy involved in other war films (i.e. their recognition of the continued humanity of soldiers). The Act in this film occurs when one soldier overidentifies with his position and resultantly kills both his drill sergeant and himself. According to Zizek, this shows that critical distance involves conformity in action whereas overidentification is subversive (PF 21; it is unclear, however, why this act - which may indeed restrict power's reach, but which also means that the 'resister' suffers and dies, with no change in the military structure - is politically progressive).

* The wrong object in the right place undermines sublime appearances from within (PF 69-70); eg. excrement as art.

* The Fall in the Bible is an Act which opens the space of decision: Adam loses erotic satisfaction by choosing it (PF 15).

* Forcibly extracting another's desire is also an Act. For instance: KKK gangs often forced black people to insult them so they had a pretext to beat and kill them. In another case, Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart forces Laura Dern's character to say "fuck me", and then adds "no thanks, I don't have time today". Zizek apparently sees the former as wrong because it follows through into action, and the latter as a full Act because it is followed by nothing but a statement (PF 185-7). Zizek thinks the absence of an action in the Dern case confronts the subject "with the innermost kernel of her jouissance" (PF 188). He wants to say, however, that this makes rape worse, not better, since violence realising its victim's fundamental fantasy "is the worst, most humiliating kind of violence", because it disintegrates the subject (PF 188). There is a problem with Zizek's wriggling here: elsewhere this violence (Terror) disintegrating the subject is identical with the Act, and something Zizek advocates. (cf. below, on false acts).

* On one occasion Zizek likens psychoanalysis to rape: rape victims only feel ashamed if and because they either enjoy it or fantasise about enjoying it; this is also true of all shame at being rendered passive. Such experiences are horrific because they approach the fantasmic kernel too closely. Zizek thinks psychoanalysis should perform this same operation, "the experience of losing face in the most radical sense of the term" (DSST 188-9). (One loses face because the social mask takes over completely).

*Goethe's "Elective Affinities" involve "the proper ethical attitude of 'not compromising on one's desire' " (PF 211).

* Darth Vader: According to Zizek, the rise of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films did restore the balance of the Force against the "suffocating" universe of pagan Good (FA 122; NB Zizek has a particular problem with any kind of New Age belief), by introducing "the dimension of radical Evil" (FA 122; presumably he means diabolical Evil, since radical Evil could not fill this role as he defines it in Plague of Fantasies).

* Robert Schumann's music is an event (PF 199-200).

* In Brecht, the Act crops up in the form of Versagung, i.e. self-obliterating sacrifice (FA 175).

* A scene in The Shawshank Redemption, where classical music had a "sublime" effect on prisoners showing a utopian 'ghost' of the future (FA 160);

* Politically, one commits an Act by identifying with the social symptom and thinking the unthinkable. This leads Zizek to support taking 'unthinkable' positions for the sake of it. For instance, in relation to Serbia, he thinks the crucial radical act is for Serbs to renounce their claim on Kosova - not because of the rights of Kosovars, but merely because it is politically unthinkable (FA 156-7).

* Zizek identifies subjective destitution with shots in porn films where a woman is in "ecstatic rapture, with half-closed eyes", which Zizek sees as denoting "identification with the object-cause of desire characteristic of the position of the analyst" (PF 177).

* In films, paralysed women who submit to men are really going through an Act, albeit the Act does not involve the submission itself (PF 225).

* One character in a novel who burns down towns to settle a petty score, an action Zizek sees as taking Law literally, minus its supplement (****).

* Christ's death - in which "he sacrificed himself" - was an Act (DSST 50). Through this Act, Christ negates God and humanity and creates a new community (the "Holy Spirit"), bringing God from the Beyond and into this community and thereby allowing "infinite joy" (PF 51-2). This destructive act erases sin, payment and so on - retrospectively (DSST 52). (NB how, in contrast to Reich's work, this is utterly abstract in relation to how the Church functions psychologically. NB also how Zizek is again assuming absolute effects arising from an act which is purely individual - which is impossible without some kind of mediation).

* He doesn't specifically call it an Act or something similar, but Zizek also refers sympathetically to a scene in Capra's film Meet John Doe where a character (nearly) commits suicide to prove his alignment/commitment to a cause (PF 144-5).

* In politics, Zizek refers to the Act as the refusal of Rightist blackmail and admitting to wanting more state funding (i.e. a social-democratic position). For instance, he refers to Clinton's healthcare reforms (!! - these were deeply inadequate) as an act and an event, perhaps the only event of the Clinton presidency (CHU 123).

* A scene in the film In and Out when the Kevin Kline character blurts out "I'm gay!" instead of "Yes!" (CHU 122).

* Acts in Zizek do not seem to require action; it can also involve taking a particular position in a debate or discussion (cf. Althusser's similar misuse of the concept of "struggle"). For instance: the radical gesture in theory is to say, not "you mustn't" or "you may", but instead an exortation to dare (TS 392). Also: according to Zizek, in a debate, an act involves not defending oneself against an accusation: "in contrast, we fully accept the reproach, changing the very terrain that made it unacceptable - an act occurs when our answer to the reproach is 'Yes, that is precisely what I am doing!' " (CHU 122). (This explains much of Zizek's method - his identification with 'totalitarianism', his claim to 'linksfaschismus', etc. - though he is inconsistent: he does not identify with accusations in relation to the core of his argument, i.e., theory; for instance, he refuses passionately to accept the label "idealist", no matter how many theoretical somersaults he must do to avoid it).

* The content of the category of the Act changes over time. In his early work, Zizek mystifies elections as an act: an eruption of the Real which dissolves society in a moment of irrational risk (SOI 147-8). This is contradicted by his later work, and he has presumably now dropped this view (which ignores the fact that elections only affect an elite group, and even then only marginally; and that they very rarely involve anything more than the most marginal element of risk for the powers-that-be). Since the Act is a structural category, it can move wherever Zizek's conjunctural concerns at a particular time happen to take it. The case of elections clearly shows the extent to which actual political issues are peripheral to Zizek's whole project: the basic theory remains the same, but its application to the world can alter almost endlessly.

Questions can also be asked about what other events are Acts. A destructive, terroristic or murderous action is not an act per se; its target has to be what is precious to the actor. Nevertheless, this still leaves open some disturbing possibilities (as if Zizek's own cases were not disturbing enough!). Serial killers are often involved in a process of the repeated destruction of a love-object and its substitutes. In his cultural writings, Zizek links the Real (and implicitly, the Act) to cases such as the monstrous alien in Alien and the part of Norman Bates which thinks it is "Mother" and therefore murders, in Hitchcock's Psycho (see "Everything You Wanted To Know About Lacan But Were Afraid To Ask Hitchcock"). There is also the question of the sudden 'snapping' involved in becoming a spree killer; if one takes seriously their claims to 'still love' the parents they often kill, and also factors in their depressive 'aphanisis' afterwards, many spree killers (especially of the juvenile American variety) could well fit the category of the Act. Then there is Timothy McVeigh. A bombing would not ordinarily be an Act; but McVeigh, described in Action for Solidarity as "Schwarzkopf's pupil", was clearly striking at what was most precious to him - America - for itself. Does this make his bombing an Act? If the Toni Morrison case is an Act, what about when Joseph Goebbels killed his children so they wouldn't grow up in a non-Nazi world? Is this an Act?

In fiction, there are also the various narratives of people turning to evil (Zizek directly mentions the Darth Vader case; actually, these kinds of examples pepper the sci-fi/cult/fantasy genres, from Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Raistlin in the Dragonlance saga). In many of these cases, the 'turn to evil' involves precisely the kind of elements Zizek associates with an Act: assuming anathemas; breaking with substantive conceptions of the Good; acting against 'what is most precious' (Faith's duty as Slayer to protect the innocent, Raistlin's relationship to his brother); passing beyond specific goals into a pure drive (eg. for power); often also a partial dissolution of the self (Raistlin ends up possessed by a dead character). The Act may well fit closely with the concept of evil. cf. also the tragic suicide sequence in Eminem's song Stan: this is an Act of sorts, since it involves Stan breaking with and 'shooting at' his passionate attachment (to Slim), but its role is purely negative: Stan kills himself, along with his girlfriend and unborn child; further, he does so tragically, unnecessarily, because he does not realise that Slim is about to reply to his letters. Zizek's approach would seem to compel us to endorse Stan's act despite its meaninglessness, pointlessness and destructiveness (indeed, because of these), as an authentic ethical gesture.

Furthermore: of the examples I have found in Zizek, 23 come from fictional, artistic and theological sources (14 from films and drama, 3 from literature, 1 from music, 1 from art, 1 from Greek myths and 3 from the Bible) and 4 from theory (2 in relation to Zizek's own theory and 2 in relation to the sciences), compared to 7 from politics and 1 from everyday life. Of the ones from politics, 5 are acts by leaders (leaders who defy polls; 2 references to aspects of Stalinism; Clinton's healthcare reforms; the Taliban: the number increases a little if we add in Chavez, de Gaulle and related cases on the periphery of the concept of the Act), which leaves a total of only 3 acts which are actually available to ordinary people (2 explicitly political, one less so). Of these, one is hypothetical (Serb dissidents supporting independence for Kosova) and the other two (Letourneau and the Vorkuta prisoners) both ended in the punishment of the actor and the Act being repressively interrupted from the outside. This suggests that the category of the Act is primarily a category of analysis of fiction, expressing a mythical purity impossible in actuality; or if it crops up in the world, that it is elitist, accessible in its full form only to leaders and elites, and largely inaccessible to ordinary people. This raises a whole set of issues about whether the ability to Act depends on prior power relations irreducible to the Act as such, i.e., whether possibility is irreducible to the Act and the Symbolic (in fiction and myth, an Act is always possible; it is also just about possible for those in insulated leadership positions; but power relations prevent ordinary people successfully achieving an Act).


Zizek's concept of a false act or event is apparently authorised by both Badiou and Lacan. However, it is highly problematic. An Act by definition is nihilistic, destroying existing standards (both ethical and rational/empirical) and retrospectively justifying itself in a dogmatic way (see above). But attempts to distinguish true and false Acts necessarily require a superior standard - a kind of neutral standpoint from which the Act can be assessed to judge whether it is true or false. The problem is that such a standard is in contradiction with the self-positing nature of the Act itself.

Anything which doesn't fit Zizek's version of an act is a "false act", i.e. untrue to itself (CHU 126). This concept only crops up occasionally - usually to let Zizek out of difficult fixes, especially about the issue of fascism. (Zizek is also inconsistent about when Bolshevism became a true Act - he asserts both that Lenin's authentic Act was falsely libidinally invested by Stalin (see above), and that Leninism was a false act which only became true via Stalinist collectivisation of agriculture (see STALINISM)).

The false act is not the only concept Zizek uses to wriggle out of supporting actions which appear to be Acts but of which Zizek disapproves. For instance, Zizek's denial that the Millennium Bug or another other disaster is emancipatory, on the grounds that it creates a wasteland (DSST 256), is in contradiction with his endorsement of the wasteland elsewhere. Similarly on the Unabomber and the Red Army Fraction: although Zizek distances himself, "of course" (!!), from them on the grounds that they are "psychotic", he endorses their catastrophism (TS 377) and doesn't really explain how his version of an Act differs from theirs, especially since the passage through madness is part of the Act anyway. One could also question his designation of Althusser's self-destruction as "tragic" (CHU 237) on similar grounds.

The main problem Zizek encounters, however, is with Nazism. Zizek wants to deny the status of the Act to Nazi actions, probably because he wants to retain credibility as a leftist. To achieve this, he introduces a second criterion (though he denies - CHU 127 - that it is a second, additional criterion), to do with 'traversing the fantasy' and "transforming the constellation that generates social symptoms". According to Zizek, an authentic act "disturbs the underlying fantasy, attacking it from the point of the 'social symptom' " (CHU 124). An Act is not authentic if it ensures that something - anything - does not change (CHU 125; NB this also rules out defensive struggles from the category of Act). The truth of an Act can be assessed by whether the Act/Event emerges from the actual void in the situation (TS 138-40); one can tell a true event by its negativity (TS 162-3). This effectively means reintroducing a criterion based on facts into assessments of Acts: there is a social symptom, which is knowable, and a real Act has to identify with the real social symptom. But this necessarily involves something more than a narrative construction of what the social symptom is; it must be open to assessment and testable. Indeed, Zizek writes as if it is - but without explaining how it is. It is also not clear how this is compatible with Zizek's opposition to the idea of neutral standpoints, let alone the self-positing character of the Act. If an Act can be assessed by reference to the real void of the situation or a standard of negativity, then it is not self-positing, but rests on fixed (a priori) criteria external to it, and equally visible before and after the Act (i.e. not retrospectively constructed by it - since any Act, including a false one, could retrospectively portray itself as solving a real problem - in the Nazi case, the problem of 'Jewish world conspiracy'); furthermore, the Act cannot be dogmatic and self-justifying since it rests on criteria external to it. Also, the introduction of such criteria is self-defeating. A true Act is such because it fits certain criteria (identifying with the symptom, embodying negativity, etc.); by definition, therefore, it leaves these criteria untouched. But if it does this, it cannot actually embody complete negativity or fully commit to the void; it is a false act, because there is indeed a 'something' which it leaves untouched (i.e. the standards for assessing whether it is a true Act).

Even if one ignores this problem, it still does not get Zizek off the hook with regard to fascism. To play this little game, Zizek has to maintain that negativity was greater in the Soviet case than in the Nazi case (as well as that Stalinism threatened everything, whereas Nazism retained fixed points). Hence, he claims that, whereas in Nazi Germany only Jews and dissidents were at risk, in Russia everyone was potentially at risk. This supposedly shows that Stalinism was a perverted version of an 'authentic' revolution [apparently in the Lacanian sense of perversion] but Nazism wasn't: the purges were a return of the repressed, i.e. of the betrayed revolutionary heritage (DSST 128-9). This is factually inaccurate. There were as many ideological fixed points in Stalinism as in fascism - possibly more, because its ideology was more definite. And Nazism also took random victims, including among its own supporters (the Night of the Long Knives, for instance). Although dissidents and Jews were always, necessarily at risk unless they could conceal themselves (as were dissidents and Tatars, Chechens, etc., in Stalinism), the Nazi threat could potentially bear on anyone. The extent of Nazi imperatives was virtually unmeetable, and the various factions in the regime wanted different things from the population. One could be declared a Gemeinschaftsfremde - enemy of the community - and potentially sent to the camps or executed for such trivial acts as listening to foreign radio stations. Also, individuals could falsely snitch on each other for their own reasons (like in Russia). If this is Zizek's criterion for seeing Nazism as a false Act, therefore, he is deeply mistaken.

The problem here is that Zizek wants to impose a particular requirement of content (i.e. not Nazi) on a category which is by definition empty and open (the Act). This exposes a fundamental contradiction in Zizek's work: he wants to draw on the appeal of leftist traditions, which means he must endorse some contents and avoid others; but the internal dynamics of his theory are entirely structural and empty, with a heavy tendency towards indifference to content and even to misanthropy. The Act is a leap into nothingness and therefore, as Zizek admits, could lead anywhere. For this reason, Zizek has no real basis for ruling out that the resultant recomposition of the subject may be fascist - which is why he has such trouble wriggling out of this implication. Certainly he cannot denounce fascism because of its barbaric practices, since this goes against his entire theoretical framework - anti-rights, pro-risk, against substantive ethics. So he tries to find back doors out of endorsing fascism - most of which do not really work. A purely structural theory cannot consistently reject (or endorse) particular contents (such as fascism), , since these contents are necessarily subject to metonymical slippage and can occupy any of the structural positions. Zizek has worked himself into a real corner over this.

(Actually, one sinister possibility is that Zizek's theory could actually be re-worked in pro-fascist directions. If the basic ethical imperative is to identify with the most forbidden enunciations and the most oppressed groups, then being a fascist is even more anathema than being a linksfascist. Some fascist views - "inciting racial hatred", Holocaust denial, etc. - are actually illegal in many countries - although the media seems more interested in silencing the left, fascism is the main taboo of 'public' discourse. Furthermore, many neo-Nazis come from among the 'socially excluded' - albeit they identify as supermen etc. One would have to twist Zizek's theory a bit to portray fascism as the social symptom - but not a great deal. There is a similar problem with the position of other anathematised oppressor-groups, such as paedophiles and serial killers. Clearly these groups are subject to a far more violent rejection by most people than, for instance, illegal immigrants. Usually this would be no problem for theorists because some degree of objection to such people is valid - while liberals, for instance, wouldn't advocate lynch mobs, they would nonetheless denounce the human harm caused by child abuse and murder. Zizek does not have this criterion - not only does he reject ethics based on preventing harm, he specifically sees harm - eg. terror and killing - as a legitimate or even necessary characteristic of the authentic ethical stance. So how does he get out of defending these groups? In relation to the Letourneau case, he is careful to distance himself from other examples of underage sex, distinguishing Letourneau from the father-figure character in Lolita. However, as in the case of Nazism, this rests on bringing particular contents into play, disturbing the structural character of his theory).

Also, a true Act has to involve a subjective dimension (which would seem to make it impossible to observe whether something is an Act from the outside). A proper ethical act is doubly formal: it not only obeys universal law, but this is its sole motive (DSST 170). This formal act is supposedly needed to redefine legal norms and found/release a new content (DSST 170).

On a similar note: Zizek's Act is supposedly immune to fixed imperatives, "with no taboos, no a priori norms ('human rights', 'democracy'), respect for which would prevent us from 'resignifying' terror" (CHU 326). The criteria for telling a true Act from a false one are not the only breach in this approach to the Act. Zizek also asserts definitively that science "cannot be undone", and that any contemporary truth-event must not challenge it (TS 142). If one can assert a priori that the Act must not touch science, there is no reason on principle why one should not also insist that it must respect human rights, democracy, or other such norms. If, on the contrary, respect for these prevents ethical action, then respect for science must do the same. Zizek on the one hand advocates academic censorship and a complete destruction of existing systems of meaning, and on the other, insists that much of these systems of meaning remain in place and presumably untouched by censorship! Regimes like the Stalinists and the Taliban, which refuse to respect human rights and democracy, also (surprise, surprise) frequently refuse to respect science either - as the Lysenko issue clearly shows. Also, since science is intertwined with the military-industrial complex, business and the state, and is central to technocracy and the silent dictatorship of 'experts', the imperative that science is per se untouchable rules out fundamental social change. (Most leftists today believe in the need to look seriously into the ecological and human impact of particular scientific practices; many support animal rights and oppose genetic modification). At the very least a revolutionary change would have to involve altering the relationship between scientists and society to overcome the elitist and anti-ethical character of the world of science today (and the widespread practices within it of faking results, exploiting junior scientists, etc. - see Martin, Strip the Experts).


* Zizek believes in the Act because it fits into his broader philosophy: it 'recognises' the non-existence of others (?!), the absence of a better or non-alienated world, that reality does not exist (is incomplete) but there is no 'true' society behind it, etc. (DSST 175). So believing Zizek about the Act rests on believing all these other (flawed) assumptions.

* The category of the Act involves extreme methodological individualism. The assumption that an individual Act can alter society as a whole, whatever its earth-shattering psychological consequences for a particular individual, is deeply flawed. This problem is related to Zizek's inappropriate expansion of what are at root clinical/therapeutic concepts into socio-political analysis.

* Individual Acts do not have direct social effects. The Mary Kay Letourneau case, for instance, has not substantially changed popular perceptions of non-abusive relations between legal- and illegal-age people; it certainly has not shattered the social structure. Rather, Letourneau has been anathematised and victimised by the state. On a social level, the Act is impotent and politically irrelevant; it has no transformative role and makes sense only in a closed analytical system.

* Even when Acts of Zizek's type do have social effects, there is no reason to believe that these effects shatter or reformulate entire social structures. Zizek's account here rests on psychologising social structures, imagining that these structures rest on the same basis as a Lacanian account of the psyche. Actually, a single act on the superficial level is unlikely to alter the social structure any more than a tiny amount. For instance: suppose Letourneau's Act worked; suppose the law was changed to make love a defence for consensual sex across the age-of-consent boundary. Would this have any deep-rooted social effects? Surely not. Such changes have not, for instance, taken us very far towards gay liberation; the situation is better than it was, but the social position of gay men has not been reshaped dramatically. Acts are impotent against deep prejudices.

* Since Acts do not have meaningful social effects, they cannot really help the worst-off group (social symptom). If the "cathartic moment" of a break with the dominant ideology only occurs in a single individual, the social system would not be harmed. To be effective, it would have to produce a new conception of the world which is expansive and convinces wide strata of the population. Zizek is missing the significance of revolutions such as in Russia when he sees them as pure Acts by leaders; this is an intentionalist delusion. As Gramsci rightly puts it, each revolution involves an "intense critical labour" whereby a new conception of the world is formulated, spread and used to create a collective will. The collective will does not simply spring miraculously from a leader's whim.

* Zizek pursues political change, the sublime, etc., solely through the individual. "The exclusive pursuit of subjectivity ensures its decline. Not against the drive of society but in tune with it, it judges a social product to be a private voice or utopia" (Russell Jacoby, ****, p. 105). Zizek is working in tandem with the bourgeois logic of misrepresenting social issues as individual neuroses.

* The unity of the category of the Act in Zizek's account rests on its structural position relative to the subject. But the term "the subject" has a double meaning here (and may even be functioning as a weasel-word). Zizek confuses a single person (or subject) with the abstract category of the subject-in-general. However, each single person does not relate to others via the abstract category of the subject-in-general, but rather, encounters other subjects. Especially since the Act is deaf to the call of others, this means that one subject's Act is not necessarily another's. One subject's Act is another's oppression; one subject's Decision is the 'blackmail' another rebels against. There is a particular problem here with Acts for and against the state, which both crop up on Zizek's list. On the one hand, Acts include sudden, uncompromising acts of resistance to laws or state power: the Letourneau case; Full Metal Jacket. But they also include occasions (such as terror, and politicians who ignore opinion polls) where leaders of the state ignore exterior pressures, imposing their will regardless. This is inevitable, as the position of "subject" shifts between state and non-state agents; but it renders a consistent ethics of the Act impossible. The state's Decision against relationships such as Letourneau's is a barrier to Letourneau's Act; Letourneau's Act is a barrier to the state's Decision. Zizek seems to want a coexistence of people who say "if I can't dance to it, it's not my revolution" (i.e. who don't compromise their desire), with states which use terror - "dance to my revolution or else"; and he doesn't see any contradiction in this. Even Zizek's own examples do not bear out his assumptions of a unitary subject traversing a single fantasy. The statist Acts involve imposition of and insistence on a Law regardless of others' willingness or ability to obey, while the individual Acts occur regardless of state insistence, often as a stance against it.

* Because of his extreme methodological individualism, Zizek ends up with a highly intentionalist, leader-fixated model of politics which is authoritarian and also exaggerates the role of leaders both in practice and potentially. Stalinism, for instance, was not a result of an Act by Stalin and Lenin; it was a social-structural phenomenon involving the actions of many individuals, with a "history of everyday life" and structural dynamics such as intrabureaucratic competition, resulting from the mode (or modes) of thought and action it involved.

* The extension of clinical categories into society requires the reduction of concepts which are usually diverse to singularity: one unconscious, symptom, fundamental fantasy, etc. for entire societies or even the whole of humanity. This is in contradiction with psychoanalytic practice and also is implausible.

* Zizek's politics are "a prescription for political quietism and sterility" (Laclau, CHU 293). I disagree with Laclau's reasons for claiming this, but the conclusion is valid: the Act has little practical political relevance, and Zizek's sectarianism (see RESISTANCE) leaves him aloof from actual political struggles.

* Zizek seems to have no real sense of what is important in politics. For Zizek, the main issue is reviving the category of the Act, to fill a supposed structural void. But there are many concrete issues which are many times more important: closing down the WTO, fighting back against the wave of police repression, stopping the wholesale commodification of society, stopping environmental destruction, stopping Bush's racist war, smashing capitalism, etc. 'Restoring the properly ethical dimension of the act' only matters to someone who is so trapped in his own theory that he thinks the whole world revolves around it. (What did Wittgenstein say about philosophy and masturbation?). Zizek should let the fly out the jar!

* The abstract and essentialist pursuit of the "act proper" is a distraction from contingent political struggles.

* Zizek lacks, and is presumably unable on principle to formulate, a positive conception of what should replace the present system. His suggestions are either vague and naive (socialising cyberspace, for instance), reproduce capitalism (the necessity of betrayal), or set up something worse (terror). Zizek's endorsement of "absolute negativity" is a barrier to his developing actual alternatives.

* Zizek-type "acts" never actually happen. Revolutions may appear to come from nowhere (cf. Scott's "moments of madness", but they always in fact involve a prior conception of the world (eg. a hidden transcript) which is already in Gramsci's terms "ideally active" and is prefigured in forms of activity before and during the revolution itself (evidence: Scott). In this sense, they emerge from an existing space of 'knowledge', 'meaning' etc. and not from some mythical absolute. The "big Other" of the dominant great tradition is confronted on the basis of a different system of meaning, a little tradition. Although revolutions are ex nihilo if only the dominant system is considered (i.e. they come from outside official "public" norms), they emerge out of definite systems of meaning (and they are certainly not the result of a Decision by a Lenin or a Christ: cf. Michael Adas on how messianic figures are coopted into the messianic role due to mass belief-systems); further, this system of meaning is discernible to a careful historian or sociologist who is able to "read" the hidden transcript and/or gain the trust of its adherents. The hidden transcript can often be found in alternative cultural products of various kinds.

* Zizek is assuming there is one focal point for libidinal investment/emotional commitment, which founds all others. But it is more plausible that libidinal investments are spread out across a number of fields and areas. If this is the case, drift can occur. This model fits more closely with how resistance actually emerges. (This lack of a primary issue means that petty resistances are not merely distractions, as Zizek seems to think). Also: is it really plausible that common sense, a philosophy which is incoherent and irreducible to unity, could be focused on a single emotional alignment which is consistent and which is consistently lexically prioritised?

* It is impossible to prove that a creatio ex nihilo Act/Event has actually occurred in any given case, since any apparently ex nihilo event may be the result of as yet undiscovered causes. Attempts to account for this psychologically (people try to convince themselves they have not committed an Act, etc.) simply shift to a different level of analysis without in the slightest solving this problem.

* Faced with the question of why ethics involves the Act (albeit misposed as ontology), Zizek pursues merely a description of the Act (DSST 170).

* Zizek is familiar with the objection: How can one tell an Act from a caprice? (How do we know Antigone's act overlaps with the insistence of the Other/Thing?), and also another about the Act bringing the noumenal into the phenomenal. However, Zizek does not answer such questions, but merely reads presuppositions into them so as to be able to dismiss them (DSST 173-4). He answers that "transcendental freedom" is a "mysterious 'fact' " (DSST 174-5) which can only be accounted for by Zizek's means, i.e. if reality is incomplete and has a gap at its heart. But the problem here is that the question contests whether transcendental freedom is a 'fact'; asserting that it is does not solve the problem that Zizek gives us little basis for telling an Act from a caprice. Further, this kind of argument assumes an objective external reality (where 'facts' exist) which Zizek appeals to against opponents. However, Zizek avoids empirical evidence, and so cannot prove that his 'facts' are 'facts'; nor does he provide any criterion for doing so. Indeed, he elsewhere denies that there is any objective reality or any neutral standpoint for assessing it - so he shouldn't really be using this kind of argument. Zizek hops between empirical and anti-empirical stances to insulate himself from both evidence and critique (see OTHERS).

* Zizek does not prove that Acts exist - he simply asserts "that there are acts, that they do occur and that we have to come to terms with them" (TS - find quote ****), as if italics substitute for evidence. He also suggests it would be more traumatic if they didn't exist - which no more proves that they do. His examples of Acts can be reinterpreted in all kinds of other ways

* It may be that political events appear as ex nihilo to Zizek because he perceives them minus their causes. In particular, he conflates far too many things into the concept of the "big Other", which he singularises. Often, an action rooted in one discourse or belief-system or imaginary can be a resistance to those originating in others.

* Political action does not involve a universal opposing particularities; it involves different particularities confronting each other. In Gramsci's account, for instance, each conception of the world claims to be and tries to be universal - but it meets other conceptions of the world, and is not in fact total (it can only be 'totalising').

* Zizek's dual relation to science: he dislikes its attack on ex nihilo and therefore opts for Creationism; but at the same time he wants to see science as an untouchable drive. This is another version of the problem that a totally unconstrained drive (or rather, an expansive conception of the world) eventually impinges on all others, including Zizek's.

* Zizek seems to be very confused about the symbolic efficiency of theory. He seems to think the metaphysical speculations of isolated intellectuals somehow alter the entire social system more-or-less directly. Perhaps he has been misled by the pseudo-intellectuality of Stalinist systems (which, however, never involved the actual effectiveness of intellectuals).

* One big problem with Zizek's ethics is his refusal of any value to others (separate from their usefulness to the self). Although this is necessary given his methodological individualism, it leads to an extremely barbaric politics which would, if applied, cause immense suffering.

* Zizek never pursues even a speculative examination of the structure of different kinds of political groups (an analysis which would require a self-other problematic of a kind he avoids like the plague, as well as a conception of power). For this reason, he counterposes two kinds of self-other relation - seriality (eg. capitalism) and what Sartre calls the "pledged group": groups which rest on terror (Sartre's "fraternity-terror") as their integrating focus, which territorialise society in a dogmatic way and which identify themselves directly with universality through a pure Decision. He ignores the possibility of other kinds of groups in both his empirical and ethical discussions. Particularly notable is the absence of the "fused group" - a group directly united by a shared goal, not by some variant on the Cause/leader/terror.

* The resignification of terror, eliminating all positive constraints, is undermined by continuing constraints, notably the criteria for assessing the truth of an Act and the imperative to keep one's hands off science; furthermore, it is itself a new core discourse. A commitment to Terror involves a signification attached to an existing element in the social field; it is therefore structurally no different to a commitment to democracy.

* Zizek is wrong about what is wrong with capitalism. The problem is not that we live in a world of suffocating Good, as Zizek implies (FA 122); the problem is that capitalism is "evil" to the core (however much it 'disavows' this). The present global system rests on famine, impoverishment, economic coercion to work, bullying bosses, armies of riot police, mass murder against 'rogue states', persecution, victimisation and exclusion. Yet Zizek is condemning it for too much Good!!!

* Palingenesis unites Zizek with the logic of capitalism and some of his worst enemies. Blair and Clinton have largely palingenetic mindsets (see Leo Abse, The Man Behind the Smile); in a certain sense, capitalism is also palingenetic (see Marshall Berman on modernity); and there have also been accusations that Nazism was palingenetic. The Act as something which destroys the Symbolic only to reproduce it in a slightly amended form fits almost exactly with Berman's logic of modernity, where capitalism destroys and reinvents itself repeatedly with minor, superficial modifications each time (a process which interferes with the possibility of revolution). Even the concept of symbolic destitution is compatible with the reconstruction/gleichschaltung of the self implied in the Blairite concept of making oneself fit for work.

* The resignification of terror and lack of concern for/assuming unconditional responsibility for consequences are indistinguishable from many rightist views - cf. for instance the remarks of the bourgeois economist Bill Eastlake: "If you believe in markets, you can't blanch at the sight of victims" (cited in Class Struggle, July/August 1002 p. 32). cf. also Rambo, supporters of the death penalty, Bush's carving of the social field into "us" and "the terrorists", etc. There is nothing leftist about supporting terror; Zizek's distinction between the (total) leftist suspension of ethics and the (partial) rightist suspension (see POLITICS) is deeply flawed. Rightist supporters of the market are vanishing mediators because they see themselves to be mere pawns of 'market forces'; the market could easily crush them as well.

* The ruthlessness of the Hollywood antihero-barbarian (Usual Suspects etc.) is NOT leftist but rightist; it is a capitalist logic - the final, fatal form of the frontier logic of "rugged individualism" where nothing matters but the self, and where one maintains a myth of disembodiment by renouncing links to others. It is a "success" at survival which courts death and ultimately "fails". Its political location is amid anarcho-capitalism and Militia Movement survivalism, i.e., on the confused periphery of capitalist ideology, somewhere between bourgeois libertarianism and fascism. It is not a rejection of capitalism's disavowed supplement; it is this supplement (i.e. the "leftist" suspension of the ethical is identical to the rightist one). It is a self-ideal providing the libidinal basis for the destructive practices of futures traders, loan sharks, sweatshop managers, drug barons and police chiefs ("when the innocent mix with the guilty, injuries such as these are inevitable" - the Met on the Poll Tax uprising; an excuse the state likes rather less from the mouth of McVeigh or bin Laden). Sometimes those at the bottom adopt this fantasy and take it literally, trying to live it out; this produces a few revolutionary street-fighters, but far more recruits to the S.A. or N.F., and re-runs of McVeigh and Columbine. Ruthless individualism is bourgeois ideology minus bourgeois preconscious "interests"; as Action for Solidarity rightly put it, McVeigh was Schwarzkopf's pupil to the end. (NB also the self-destructive character of Zizek's Acts is a myth: none of these is actually "shooting at oneself", which would involve actual suicide; rather, each is shooting at one's socio-historical links - rejecting one's historical organicity as a way to get a direct line to the universal Law or a pure subjectivity).

* The imperative "you can because you must" and its ilk are very strange when compared to the practice of resistances to the system. It is a capitalist device: the system uses unconditional obligations to create a sense of failure and indebtedness, and to legitimate exclusion and oppression (eg. imposing obligations - such as to defend one's property against crime - for which one is so inadequate they lead almost directly into alienation onto the state or capitalists; and making people feel inadequate and to blame because they cannot meet, for instance, criteria for getting a job; eg. Blair's imperative "those who can work should work" often actually involves saying "everyone must work so we should assume everyone can"). Even when people feel deeply driven to achieve something (eg. shutting down the Genoa G8 meeting), the balance of forces may prevent them doing so. Possibility/impossibility is not reducible to commitment; although the committed are more likely to achieve something than the uncommitted, the committed still come up against barriers (not only in the form of 'matter', both worked and unworked, but also from others with divergent projects; cf. Sartre), with the outcome not predetermined by individual commitment. The idea that people can achieve something because they must is blatant idealism.

* Zizek treats the occasional victory of optimism of the will over pessimism of the intellect via successful praxis as if it disproves the latter - because "miracles do happen" (TS 135). But there are also many more occasions where miracles do not happen; for every Mark Serwotka there are many failed candidates. Zizek's fixation on and faith in the miraculous moment prevents him looking at how one moves beyond such isolated instances to a more general change. 'Miracles' do happen, but not in conditions of their own choosing; we need to create a world where living is itself a permanent 'miracle'.

* "Yes, I am what you accuse!" is actually a reactionary submission to the bourgeois territorialisation of the field; it accepts the bourgeois (or state) significations, merely inverting the terms. It makes one a "massive collaborator" in Matza's terms (Becoming Deviant 179-80). For instance: the bourgeois state likes to have an enemy, 'criminals', who it can anathematise as evil; by doing this, it can extend repression with popular support. Identifying as a 'criminal', and taking on board the 'evil' practices this involves, is therefore a fundamentally pro-bourgeois mode of action, which helps make the world into something the police can handle. In contrast, being a "rebel who sometimes breaks the law" undermines the bourgeois/statist territorialisation and releases decoded flows: for instance, popular support for repression becomes more ambiguous. In relation to the anti-capitalist movement: should members of this movement really identify with the labels stuck on them by the state ("mindless thugs" with "spurious causes", "anti-democratic", "fascists", "terrorists", "hooligans", etc.)? If they did, it would turn the situation into what the state wants: a straight conflict between an isolated minority and the police, rather than a political struggle with overflow and drift into everyday struggles and concerns extending well beyond the participants themselves. Of course, one can and should appropriate some labels: the term "anarchist travelling circus" is now in regular usage in direct action movement circles, probably because of its ludic reference-point. But the crucial issue - the 'radical gesture', to use Zizek's term - is not to endorse other's labels; it is to keep open the space for drift and decoded flows. Instead of counterposing bourgeois boo-words to bourgeois hurrah-words, we should counterpose our own theoretical language and conception of the world to theirs.

* Zizek asserts the need for the dimension of the Act; he makes little attempt to show why we need it, since it has such horrific consequences both for the subject (symbolic destitution) and for others (terror), and since it achieves so little (i.e. the reconstruction of basically the same social structure). The need for the Act appears to be solely structural; Zizek is condemning society for not fitting his own theoretical categories. His argument tends to be circular, with the description of the Act functioning as the case for it.

* A lot of the time, Zizek's case rests on purely linguistic sidesteps. For instance, his accusation that evolutionism obliterates the Act (DSST 176) conflates a factual claim (evolutionism has no room for the concept of the Act) with a judgemental one (evolutionism is wrong to do this). One could just as easily say that evolutionism recognises the non-existence of the Act; Zizek is gaining an unfair advantage from wordplay.

* Zizek over-metaphysicalises empirical issues. Symbolic destitution is one of the situations which can lead to drift and open up a space for alternatives; it is not the only such situation, and it is not sufficient to do this. Zizek has spotted something which appears to have empirical reference-points: delinquents often deviate, violating their own commitment to official standards, because they feel controlled and overdetermined by their environment; their action restores a sense of control over their lives (Matza Delinquency and Drift p. 89; this account is distinct from Zizek's in that the sense of being abject before the system produces action as a rebellion against it, rather than, as in Zizek, as a part of the feeling of abjection).

* Zizek's (conservative) ontological claim that we are 'living dead' without the big Other may well involve some kind of learned helplessness. A radical view of the political would be more Deleuzian or Reichean: productive flows precede their territorialisation by the system and therefore, humanity precedes inhumanity (dehumanisation).

* Vaneigem - not exactly an opponent of nihilism - nevertheless critiques Zizek's kind of nihilism (The Revolution of Everyday Life p. 47, 178-9). Nihilism is a no-man's land of suicides and solitary killers; this 'passive' nihilism is counter-revolutionary, and even 'active' nihilism which sabotages the system is only pre-revolutionary. "nihilism can never be more than a transition, a shifting, ill-defined sphere, a period of wavering between two extremes, one leading to submission and subservience, the other to permanent revolt. Between the two poles stretches a no-man's land, the wasteland of the suicide and the solitary killer" (p. 178). "In a gloomy bar where everyone is bored to death, a drunken young man breaks his glass, then picks up a bottle and smashes it against the wall. Nobody gets excited; the disappointed young man lets himself be thrown out... Nobody responded to the sign which he thought was explicit. He remained alone, like the hooligan who burns down a church or kills a policeman, at one with himself, but condemned to exile as long as other people remain exiled from their existence. He has not escaped from the magnetic field of isolation; he is suspended in a zone of zero gravity" (p. 40). So much for the Act. Zizek's Act could only be revolutionary if it was politicised (in Vaneigem's terms, repeated in a different register); and this would change its nature so much as to make it unrecognisable. This alternative rests on actually trying to change the world, using the carnival spirit and the ability to dream, in response to a passionate desire for a better life (p. 111).

* Zizek gets very tied up when he tries to relate the Act to the subject and the big Other. The Act assumes a strong Self, who claims responsibility for an Act and is able to create out of nothing. But it is also the annihilation of the self - "subjective destitution". The Act traverses the fantasy, assuming the nonexistence of the big Other. But it is also a total submission to an imperative which comes from outside. This is contradictory.

* Zizek's ethics of the Act are barely compatible with his own practice. What would an Act by Zizek involve? (Perhaps, as a therapist, he thinks he lacks a fundamental fantasy. If so, this is a naive claim to a privileged standpoint). If Zizek really means what he says, it would have to involve a break with Lacanianism and a rejection of the category of the Act. In other words, the actuality of the Act negates its conceptuality...

* NB Zizek THINKS he is advocating changing actual conceptions of the world on a fundamental level than, for instance, Laclau (CHU 93). (But see above).

* As a description mainly of pledged (rather than fused) groups, Zizek's account of the Act is highly vulnerable to the Situationist critique of the Cause. One does not need faith, dogma, etc. if one is acting on subterranean knowledge/flows and hidden transcripts.

* The various critiques of Kant, Hegel etc. based on their a priori ahistoricism also apply to Zizek.

* Zizek defines ethics as if it occurs solely outside everyday life. But people are always-already involved in 'ethical' practices (everyone is a 'legislator' - Gramsci).

* Zizek is confused about whether the Act is for the symbolic order against the self, or for the self against the symbolic order (and the self's position in it). Suspension of the ethical, no compromise on desire, etc. imply the latter; but symbolic destitution implies the former. This leads to Acts which are diametrically opposed: taking Zizek's accounts of them, the Act in The Usual Suspects is a rejection of love and emotional attachment, for a greater good; Letourneau's Act is a rejection of the greater good for love and emotional attachment.

* Similarly, Zizek is confused about whether the Act is, as he puts it on one occasion, absolutely idiosyncratic (TS 388), or whether it is homogenizing (CHU 326).

* Zizek's theory is so fixated on the moment of negation that he is unable to move forward to any kind of hegemonic construction.

* Many of his "Acts" are simply misunderstandings of motives which allow Zizek to invent 'ex nihilo' acts. Infighting in the Stalinist bureaucracy is not a series of Acts; it involves structural dynamics wholly comprehensible symbolically. Similarly with Clinton's failed attempt to introduce modest healthcare reforms: Zizek is exaggerating the influence of the 'medical lobby' on the population in general (especially the Democrats' target voters), and creating an illusory image of a single dominant hegemony encompassing public opinion. Actually, the reverse is more the case: measures like healthcare reform are a play for popular support by politicians, to cover them against the unpopularity of their core neo-liberal ideology.

* Zizek thinks an Event is an emergence out of nothing irreducible to any causal chain (FA 93). It is unclear with such claims whether Zizek is simply positing a metaphysical or definitional principle (if it has causes, it isn't an Event), or whether he is making an empirical claim. If he is doing the latter, it is important to realise that sudden 'Events' do not emerge ex nihilo but involve a kind of 'transition from quantity to quality' of subterranean 'chains' and processes, with their own causal logic - i.e., they occur when a subterranean molecular flow gains sufficient force or confidence or desperation to confront or rebel against a molar aggregate, threatening, challenging, altering, forcing concessions from, or even shattering this aggregate. The subterranean flows may be elements ordinarily overcoded by the molar aggregate but which are only partially integrated, or a flow the system has produced by deterritorialising but has been unable to reterritorialise. For instance: the anti-capitalist movement erupted apparently ex nihilo into the media; but it had a causal basis in a process of growing resistances by NSM's which had been invisibly going on for decades. Similarly inner-city and prison uprisings: these often appear from the outside to be sudden eruptions from nowhere, or from clearly inadequate causes (Strangeways' governor called the Strangeways uprising an "explosion of evil"); actually, they result from a build-up of tensions which is quite perceptible once one looks at the oppressed group's own perceptions rather than elite rationalisations and the media's standards of news value (eg. Workers' Power prior to the Oldham uprising clearly documented the rising tensions, the provocations by Nazis, the police violence and so on, clearly belying the media perception that this was sudden and inexplicable).

* Sectarian "Acts" do not alter the fundamental alignments even of the person who holds them. An "Act" simply asserts one of these alignments to be above all others (eg. 'dictatorship of the proletariat' to be more important than 'democracy').

* An Act cannot change a dominant hegemony. Zizek seems to work with an assumption that the social system is basically linguistic and therefore open to purely subjective processes of change (see LANGUAGE; MATERIALISM). If he saw the "big Other" as not only language but truncheons, he would have to rethink his strategy for social change.


The concept of capitalism in Zizek seems to be a descriptive term (albeit a very vague one) rather than a structural concept. Capitalism moves between various structural positions in Zizek's theory, being identified at different times with the repressed Real and the imaginary supplement of the symbolic order. Zizek's model of capitalism closely echoes capitalist self-identifications, and Zizek attacks not the horrors capitalism causes but its liberal and reflexive identity (which suggests that Zizek's critique is conservative rather than radical). The concept of class, in contrast, is a structural concept.


Though he tends to call it a Real rather than symbolic, several of Zizek's formulations identify capitalism with the dominant, symbolically effective ideological structure and with the symbolic order. Ideological State Apparatuses are self-reproducing entities which exist in order to self-reproduce and which constantly alter their contents in order to 'survive' as ISA's (CHU 328; Zizek doesn't explain what this mythical quality of "ISA-ness" is which survives historical shifts). Zizek calls capitalism "a machine which follows its inherent 'natural' laws and is... completely ignorant of human affairs" (PF 79). In capitalism, form dictates to content: capitalism is the machine at the heart of the (ideological) ghost, and lurks at the heart of each cultural specificity, as in the cases of Freemasonry and multiculturalism where the organisational form belies its positive content and general ideas clash with their narrow class basis (TS 218-19; Zizek doesn't offer a great deal of evidence for this deep structure). Capitalist violence therefore does not occur through concrete individuals (FA 15; Zizek's refusal to challenge immediate subjective perceptions shows that he really does believe that capitalism is external, not a misperception of what are in fact individual acts; see MARX - Commodity Fetishism. Zizek chooses to spiral off into metaphysical claims about the symbolic order rather than dig deeper into processes of naturalisation). Capitalism is a Real in the sense of spectrality (see ACT); it is a spectral logic which determines and ignores 'reality' (FA 15-16; this appears to be an irregular use of the concept of the Real; usually, Zizek identifies the logic of spectrality with the Imaginary/fantasy).

Zizek also on one occasion calls capitalism the big Other that survives the collapse of the traditional big Other (TS 354; NB capitalism cannot be all the things Zizek wants it to be at once).


Zizek makes several claims about capitalism. Firstly, Zizek believes that capitalism is itself directly productive; it is a "mistake" to think productivity is ultimately independent of capitalism (FA 18-19). (This is an assertion, which Zizek appears to endorse because it fits his model of deep structures: a social system founded on an extimate kernel repressing a Real which returns in a symptom which is misperceived as outside. Evan Watkins provides a much more carefully thought out theory in his book Marketwork and Capitalist Common Sense: for him, capitalism does not produce; the "free market" consists in practice of a political process of endorsing or not endorsing production processes which actually occur elsewhere). Zizek associates capitalism with an ideology of thrift; for this reason, he thinks the Nazis "appropriately" sacrificed Jews in an attempt to return from capitalist thrift to older ideologies of sacrifice (DSST 44 - apart from being politically appalling, this statement completely misunderstands the Nazi genocide, which was not a ritual killing since it was half-concealed and mechanistic).

Zizek also makes the rather strange claim that, since modernisation generates new obscurantisms, the ruling ideology is NOT the ideology which SEEMS to dominate (RL 1: this is strange not only because Zizek sees an ideology rather than a system as really dominant, but also because an ideology is by definition what it 'seems'). Zizek then simply asserts what he thinks the real dominant ideology to be: for instance, sexual promiscuity rather than patriarchal repression (RL 1-2).

Zizek tends to overidentify capitalism with its ideological claims to be liberal, tolerant, inclusive and reflexive, without examining whether capitalism in practice actually fits these ideals or whether they are a cover for something wholly different. Zizek's reading of New Age theory as pro-capitalist rests on his (false) claim that capitalism already meets New Age ideals of a self-sufficient subject in everyday life (TS 385). He sees capitalism as a demythologising "global reflexivisation of society" (FA 9). It is gradually destroying particular life-worlds (TS 4), including oppressive ones; Nature no longer exists (TS 342) and patriarchy is dead (TS 344; many of Zizek's claims about the world depend on his assumption that we have moved completely beyond authoritarian, paternal and patriarchal institutions, since otherwise he could not maintain that the Institution has lost its symbolic efficiency). Zizek thinks that capitalism imposes universal reflexivity and destroys non-reflected being (TS 358). His criticism is not so much of the evils of capitalism as of the lack of evils: he denounces capitalism as "boring", "repetitive" and "perverse", lacking the "properly political" attitude of "Us against Them" and lacking a concept of a "radical antagonistic gap" (DSST 237-8). Capitalism deterritorialises and therefore is never rooted in specifics; one cannot ask "Which capitalism?" for this reason (DSST 2).

Zizek misunderstands capitalism as actually being liberal-democratic - a "liberal-democratic hegemony" (DSST 242). This "liberal consensus" includes ideas such as free education and progressive income tax (DSST 264). There is no longer according to Zizek any pressure to be normalised or Institutions trying to suppress inner idiosyncratic and creative impulses; companies instead rely on idiosyncrasies (TS 368-9). Zizek also suggests that even children are now full modern subjects (TS 343), although a few pages on he pulls back from this a little, conceding that Risk Society theorists have gone too far. Zizek fully buys into the capitalist myth that there is no elite in control in capitalist society: in capitalism as opposed to Stalinism, one can no longer blame Them for probems and joke about them "from an exempt, liberated position"; we are "utterly compelled" to assume responsibility for what "is no longer Theirs, it is ours" (TS 340). There is "no global strategy dominating and regulating [individuals'] interplay" (TS 340).

Zizek also leans on a strong human-animal binary to attack capitalism. Zizek's attack on postmodernity targets the 'animal' character of the rights it gives; he associates this with disavowed fantasies about solidarity and survival (RL 8). He objects to animalising because it eliminates the unconditional attachment to the Thing (RL 9). This is one of the few cases where Zizek recognises counter-arguments (WHY not animalise?), but he doesn't answer: his answer is 'because it eliminates the Thing', which leaves open the question 'WHY not eliminate the Thing?'.

Zizek uses his narrative on the supposed denkverbot against leftist thought (for which he provides no evidence) to try to turn the issue of what he terms the "liberal-democratic consensus" into the single core issue today (RL 1; NB, however, how this 'consensus' moves with Zizek's targets; in particular, he fails to distinguish the old welfare-state 'consensus' from neo-liberal claims there is 'no alternative' to the market).

Zizek uses the concept of "commodification" on a number of occasions, mainly to attack Cultural Studies. However, he does not define it. He seems to associate it with reflexivity and the expansion of the right to choose (TS 360), a usage which has little in common with Marxist uses of the term. Further, his use of such terms is ahistorical. For instance, when he reprimands the Jacobins for "hysterical acting out bearing witness to theri inability to disturb the very fundamentals of economic order (private property, etc.)" (DSST 139), he reads the problems of the present into a different conjuncture - as if the Jacobins were failed Leninists rather than people whose goal was precisely to establish the kind of society Zizek sees as capitalist (reasonable, with pursuit of happiness, etc.).

Zizek denies the existence of any dominant group or elite "pulling the strings", or even a dominant discourse or "Tradition" (TS ?336). Instead, he thinks the world is being " 'colonised' by reflexivity", so everything is "experienced as something to be chosen" (TS 336). He thinks "We" [?!] constantly have to decide fundamental matters but we lack a foundation in knowledge to do so - there is no longer a "forced choice" where the answer is presupposed (TS 337; Zizek is effectively attacking capitalism for not replicating authoritarian forms such as Stalinism, which is empirically as well as normatively problematic). This renders choice an "obscene gamble": "I am held accountable for decisions which I was forced to make without proper knowledge", leading to anxiety. This for Zizek is worse than relying on one infallible master (TS 338).

Zizek portrays capitalism as a pure deterritorialising logic, which, however, generates crises as its necessary inherent obstacle (RL 16-17). Capitalism now rests on self-propelling money begetting money, which needs people only as a dispensable embodiment (RL 17). This kind of argument misunderstands Deleuze (from whom Zizek is borrowing the concept of deterritorialisation): for Deleuze, pure deterritorialisation is "psychotic" (and psychosis is therefore progressive); capitalism in contrast relies on constantly reterritorialising the flows it liberates by incorporating them in axiomatics and relying on strong states and other forms of repression (including Oedipus).

In such statements, Zizek is accurately portraying capitalist ideology but not capitalist practice. Capitalism today is as repressive as ever, maybe more so. Global elites, such as the WTO and WEF, are more powerful than ever. Democracy is being corroded, turned into a hurrah-word while democratic rights are stripped away (on the recent Brighton demo, police admitted making preventing arrests!). The "liberal consensus" is being shattered; free education has been scrapped and progressive income tax undermined; the poor now pay more of their income in taxes than the rich. Capitalism is extremely normalising, and is escalating in this direction, especially via a concept of being "employable" which relies on normalist personality engineering (requirements of extroversy and gregariousness, enforced through training schemes and the use of benefit withdrawal as blackmail). There are a few groups of relatively privileged workers whose idiosyncrasies are tolerated, i.e. computer programmers (who are scarce, highly skilled, and have a sphere of specialised knowledge; for this reason, bosses have to be careful to attract them); there is no such tolerance of idiosyncrasies in Nike sweatshops (one can be fired for being a minute late, there is no maternity leave, etc.) or in call-centres; and a string of groups such as doctors and teachers are now expected to conform to more general standards than ever. There are also still a great many normalising institutions: from what Jock Young calls the new "gulag" in America (the rapidly expanding prison system), to compulsory schooling and "training". Also, "we" still make very few of the choices Zizek suggests (eg. roads policy is set by the government, not "us"); forced choice predominates (especially as regards the ideology of 'participation'); and there are plenty of would-be infallible masters for those who want them - in Britain there is talk of "presidentialisation" (NB Zizek calls for a master, but doesn't seem very happy either with his former Yugoslav overlords or with the nationalists in the Balkans). Zizek has invented an image of capitalism to fit his theoretical assumptions. (His entire conservative critique of capitalism would break down if he were to recognise authoritarian tendencies, since he could no longer claim that the decline of symbolic efficiency has led to the crisis in the Absolute which necessitates an Act). Zizek is also missing completely the limits of liberal tolerance (eg. liberalism accepts 'multicultural' diversity - but not to the point of leaving the Uwe on their land, supporting the OPM in West Papua, or even supporting self-determination for such potentially innocuous groups as the Kurds and the Chechens).

How does Zizek answer critics of his view of capitalism? He throws labels and clinical discourse at them: they are "caught in the traditional modernist paradigm" and looking for a psychological guarantee in a "Subject Supposed to Know" (TS 340-1). This does not solve the empirical problem that capitalism does not look like Zizek thinks it does. The fact that capitalism does not fit Zizek's model of it is very important, since it throws in doubt his entire political project; he is encouraging a return to a strong symbolic focus (the leader, the Cause, etc.), just when capitalism itself is lurching away from even the illusion of reflexivity, liberalism and tolerance.

Zizek also identifies "late-capitalist" subjectivity with what is more usually seen as typical of resistances to it. Capitalist subjectivity is not based on patriarchal identification but rather, involves "multiple identities, non-identity and critical distance"; so the likes of Butler are actually playing the capitalist game (CrS 41-2). The contemporary 'postmodern' subject of capitalism is Narcissistic and experiences all contact with others as a threat; the capitalist 'free' subject experiencing himself (sic) as ultimately responsible for his state is no longer widespread (OB 124), since people are more likely to make a claim for an audience on the basis of a victim-status.

Zizek merely ASSERTS that capitalit subjectivity is like this. This is clearly an empirical claim, and needs some backing. Actually, when Radical Philosophy tell him that he can't get away in a Marxist theory with claiming that capitalism's correlation/toleration of such subjectivities shows them to be a non-radical barrier to social change, Zizek states that the functioning of (for instance) political correctness as a barrier "can be shown in an empirical way" (CrS 42). But the only basis he ever provides is the use by the U.S. media of the label "fundamentalist" as an anathema (CrS 41). In other words: he cannot show empirically that they are a barrier. Further: the old model of the 'capitalist subject' is alive, well and living in Blair's welfare to work policy, his rhetoric on social exclusion, etc. (individuals must take responsibility for being employable, they cannot have rights without responsibilities, etc., etc.). Claiming victim-status in this context is a resistance of sorts: for instance, when black Americans claim to be poor due to white oppression (i.e. victim-status), this is necessary to contradict the (secretly but violently) racist discourse of the likes of Charles Murray and whoever wrote the Bell Curve, which involves blaming black people for being poor and punishing them by cutting services, imposing slave-labour workfare, cutting off benefits and generally intensifying victimisation. (What would Zizek's answer to Murray be? To say, "Yes, we are lazy and workshy and proud of it", even if they aren't lazy, or aren't proud of it?).

The reason Zizek dislikes this kind of 'capitalist' multiple identity situation is that it lacks a notion of the Real (CrS 41-2). In other words: it denies the existence of any essential antagonism.

Part of the confusion seems to arise from Zizek's conflation of capitalism with closed, suffocating Good. He conflates hierarchic society and the idea of cosmic unity as if they are indistinguishable (FA 119), and he calls for suffocating Good to be destroyed by diabolical Evil (FA 122). (This probably relates to his context: in Critical Sense he identifies such 'organic' versions of the social substance with nationalism in eastern Europe; I suspect he has yet again indulged his habit of overgeneralising, by painting a picture where all 'organic' social forms are reactionary and all reactionary forms, including capitalism, are 'organic' in Zizek's sense).

Zizek attacks capitalism because of its supposed lack of firm focuses of authority. For Zizek, the 'risk society' undermines the symbolic order by undermining the "performative dimension of symbolic trust and commitment". There is a disintegration of the "big Other" due to "universalised reflexivity" which leaves no room for non-reflected acceptance or trust of everything (TS 342; I'm inclined to think this distrust is a good thing!). People are "never really compelled to grow up" even while being given rights as children (TS 343; NB again Zizek's cult of conformism); this is leading to "new forms of dependency" as well as a shift from "other-oriented" to "narcissistic" personalities (TS 344). Zizek thinks (for solely theoretical reasons) that this new freedom is based on a "passionate attachment" (=fundamental fantasy, extimate kernel) to subjection as the transgression of the official world of free choice, similar to that operating in S&M slavery (TS 344-5). This situation also leads to a "brute Real of 'irrational' violence, impermeable and insensitive to reflexive interpretation" (TS 346; presumably as its symptom).

In contradiction to his remarks elsewhere that capitalism compels everyone to accept responsibility and not offload it onto the big Other, Zizek then claims that 'narcissistic' culture is producing a "culture of complaint" which involves blaming the system for inactivity. Instead of analysing the social basis for complaints (i.e. poverty, alienation, deprivation, etc.), Zizek psychologises it, seeing it as a feeling of being underprivileged resulting from a lack of surplus-enjoyment and a resultant hysterical attempt to make unmeetable demands to the Other to found oneself on this permanent complaint/misery (TS 361). (This is ambiguous, however, since Zizek denies on the previous page that the present situation is narcissistic).

Naively given the diversity of different types of consumerism, and in contradiction with his identification of capitalism with thrift, Zizek also thinks there is one logic of consumerism, based on the use of the illusion of constant sales and bargains to promote spending as the means of actualisation of saving (DSST **** - NB how this fits well with Zizek's productivism). Actually, consumerism involves many different logics of consumption, some of which even involve the use of high price to promote products, as an indulgence (eg. L¢real). Barthes takes a far more accurate approach of examining different kinds and layers of consumption stratified in a sociological way (eg. on food in magazines).

Zizek associates capitalism with the pursuit of happiness, which he sees as necessarily self-defeating. (This is problematic on both counts: capitalism does not give out happiness in general, but also tries to make the 'undeserving' suffer; also, one has to take on board a lot of metaphysical baggage to accept that pursuit of happiness is necessarily self-defeating. Nevertheless, I think Zizek has a point here in relation to consumerism especially; cf. Baudrillard, The Consumer Society). Capitalism has produced a repressive kind of happiness where one is expected to be happy, by removing restrictions to happiness and creating supplements such as Viagra which are supposed to deliver it. This leads to the view that if someone doesn't enjoy themselves, it's their own fault (FA 133-4; NB the use of "get a life" in this context). As a result, emancipation by capitalism means people are not freer than they were (NB again Zizek contradicts this elsewhere, on capitalism's 'gains'); they are caught in a "compulsion" by capital (TS 354). Zizek also complains that the idea of the market bringing happiness is a "utopia", but this is based on wordplay (for Zizek all mechanisms intended to bring about an optimal society are utopias) rather than evidence (CHU 324); again, his argument is a little conservative (i.e. that one should not try to create a better world).

Zizek sees capitalism as a kind of global empire subsuming and eliminating all differences. For instance, he claims that all faiths are under threat from the global imposition of American-style simulacra (RL 24).

Zizek also thinks capitalism now has a new "fundamental tendency to seek a clear line of demarcation" between those included (eg. in social security) and those excluded. For instance, there is in eastern Europe a "desperate struggle" to get into the category of 'western civlisation'. He sees this as generating a new "fundamental antagonism" which has replaced the bourgeoisie/proletariat one (CrS 37). This is more plausible, although whether such exclusionism really replaces (rather than supplements) the older divisions is debatable (NB use of 'crime' and suchlike to divide-and-rule the working class).

I'm also more sympathetic to Zizek's presentation in "On Belief" of capitalism as a 'risk society' which uses the ideology of "free choice" as a cover for an anxiety-producing instability (OB 116).

Zizek also claims that capitalism is pretty much as it was, except without individual capitalists as a last reference-point: 'capitalists' now lack property as such, often being heavily indebted and reliant on borrowing (RL 18). He thinks capitalism is becoming like Stalinism was (RL 20 - a new version of the old "managerial revolution" thesis; NB this claim - that capitalism now has a bureaucratic elite - implies there is an elite, which Zizek elsewhere denies).).

Incidentally, Zizek's history is as patchy as his sociology, and reproduces his conservative objections to enjoyment and tolerance as decadent. He describes the last days of Rome as "pallid and anemic, self-satisfied, tolerant peaceful daily life" (FA 122 - as if this would be a bad thing!), ignoring the increasing role of imperial despotism, the string of wars and the extension of the Gladiatorial obsession.

Zizek also states:

* Capitalism was initially a national phenomenon (TS 215) - this is problematic; actually, capitalism always involved a global dimension (mercantilism, piracy, etc.).

* In capitalist ideology, others only matter if they possess something the self wants or needs (SOI 25).

* Capital will implode when it runs out of substantial content to feed on (TS 358). Zizek therefore endorses a view that capitalism will self-destruct of its own accord. He also claims that capitalism generates its own gravediggers from its own internal "centrifugal potentials" (CHU 329).

Incidentally: Zizek does not see capitalism as unfolding from an "elementary conceptual matrix", as Laclau alleges (CHU 290-1; Laclau's critique of Zizek is undermined by his own pathological relationship to Marxism, and especially his tendency to assume that when Zizek says 'Marxist' things he must mean something recognisable from the history of Marxism) - although Laclau is right that Zizek sees articulation as occurring only within its parameters. Zizek's argument is rather that social systems naturalise themselves in such a way that they seem necessary after the event, and subsequently create the conceptual matrix. (I think this fits in with the issue of the Act: a system is founded by an utterly contingent Act which relates directly to the Real; it then gentrifies the Real through a new fundamental fantasy, so that it appears as a complete symbolic system based in a necessary Law/knowledge. It appears this way because the Act which founds it is a "vanishing mediator" and is disavowed by the new system, forming its extimate kernel). Zizek states that "the 'necessity' of a totality" such as capitalism arises from its contingent origins being made later to seem like they can be accounted for by an all-encompassing logic (CHU 190; cf. how the Act posits its own logic in this way). (Laclau then replies that this is inadequate for understanding hegemony - CHU 295. Actually, many of Zizek's concepts are too far stretched to understand a great deal; to be made useful they would have to be de-universalised and weakened).


There are several occasions where Zizek identifies capitalism with the Real (in the Lacanian sense), though thes seem to oscillate between the idea of capitalism as the repressed Real and capitalism as the fundamental fantasy. (There is some overlap between the two terms because the Act that founds each system comes from the Real and then represses this origin via its fundamental fantasy; nevertheless, there is considerable room for confusion since the term "Real" also refers to the social symptom and also 'that which cannot be symbolised'). Capitalism is the "disavowed 'fundamental fantasy' of postmodern politics" (TS 355). Capital functions "as the sublime unrepresentable Thing" (PF 103); it is a "spectral logic" which no-one is directly acting for (TS 276). It is "the 'neutral' Real accepted by all parties" (TS 351). Capital as Real is a nodal point for postmodernist discourse - a passionate attachment (=fundamental fantasy, extimate kernel) which is disavowed and never questioned (CHU 223). According to Zizek "we" [?!] assume liberal democracy is the final, 'natural' social regime (FA 10).

This is very problematic. Firstly, the problem of the disavowal of capitalism is largely limited to 'postmodernist' cultural theorists. (This is another example of the problems which result from Zizek's assumption of a single social psyche). Neo-liberals and their ilk openly defend capitalism even by this name (eg. Norman Lamont, "Why People Hate Capitalists", Radio 4, 02-07-01, 8-8.30 PM); even Blair-types will refer to it sometimes (eg. Blair's comments after Mayday 2000 and during the Nice conference referred to the supposed benefits of capitalism), and it crops up constantly if terms like "free market" and "globalisation" are taken as equivalent to the term "capitalism" (which is mainly associated with Marxism and "anti-capitalism" and has negative connotations). Even in the case of the cultural theorists who it does apply to to some extent, it is doubtful whether the issue is really one of disavowal in a recognisable psychoanalytic sense. Laclau can and does talk about capitalism; his discussion of articulations includes cases such as the Russian revolution. He defends some aspects of capitalism (especially if one counts liberal-democracy as capitalism) - but not on the basis of a naturalisation; he provides definite arguments for his positions. Zizek is therefore inferring very heavy conclusions (Laclau is passionately attached to capitalism - let alone the wider claim that this is typical of the modern world) from very light evidence (Laclau rarely refers to capitalism and defends some aspects of it). I suspect Zizek is over-psychologising the issue; he seems to treat every objection to his views as a psychological problem. (If Laclau has a neurotic relationship to anything in his theories, I suspect it is Marxism, given his unwillingness to apply his own standards fairly to it. He also has an unadmitted "essentialism" revolving around the concept of the "field of discursivity", which he treats in much the same way as Blair treats globalisation).

I am rather more sympathetic to the idea that capitalism is viewed as operating automatically (although I link it to commodity fetishism in the classical sense, rather than to symbolic categories). Certainly politicians etc. treat "the market" and "globalisation" as above challenge (see eg. Fairclough "New Labour, New Language"). However, it is not clear that this necessarily supports Zizek's theory; it could just as easily support other accounts of naturalisation, reification etc. I suspect there is a lot of difference between such naturalisation of capitalism and the psychoanalytical concept of "disavowal" in its strictly psychological sense. (I can't say for certain but I imagine the latter is similar to Freud's "repression", i.e., what is disavowed is not merely naturalised but is rendered beyond the possibility of thought in ordinary circumstances. This may well mean that supporters of capitalism who naturalise it are disavowing/repressing the actions, especially the violence, involved in setting up and maintaining it - but this is not the same as saying capitalism itself is disavowed/repressed).

The search for a single point at which capitalism is flawed is itself problematic. Zizek ignores the diversity of discourses which are used by capitalists and their allies - what Deleuze calls the axiomatics of capitalism and Alistair McIntyre calls responding to a chess move with a lob over the tennis net. Zizek works with an absolutist outlook (an "all" and "always"), and seeks one fundamental point on which capitalism can be broken (the social symptom, etc.). This parallels his approach to libidinal investment: the one fundamental fantasy. But if, as I suspect, libidinal investments are less total than this, the undermining of capitalism similarly cannot rely on an assault on one weak point, but would have to involve fighting with lots of micro-investments. In this sense, there is not either a patriarchal ideology or an alienated liberation; nor are particular resistances either simple moments of capitalism or pure negations of it. Traditional oppressions, amended transformist ones, and part-emancipatory struggles all exist, and one must tread a careful strategic path between them. Zizek's sledgehammer is of little use for this. For instance: his attacks on liberal 'permissiveness' as the ideology of capitalism leave open a serious risk of a rightist lurch; his approach ignores both the limits and strategic nature of transformism (capitalists allow 'liberal' reforms to defuse resistances, and reel them back when they are not necessary; further, what is conceded is usually distorted), and the threat of a worse solution which would nevertheless remain capitalist (the last thing we need is a lurch back into neo-patriarchal society under a new 'leader'; if Zizek sees this as a lesser evil, he needs to look more closely at Afghanistan and Iran).

CLASS (see also MARXISM: Class)

In contrast to the concept of capitalism, the concept of class in Zizek is a structural concept expressing particular positions in the social structure which can be filled by different contents at different times. Thus, while Zizek claims to be working with Marx's model of class struggle, he does not refer to the traditional proletariat and bourgeoisie. Rather, he invents his own account of the social structure of class. At times, this is a replication of Marx's structure with different contents; usually, however, it follows the logic of the 'social symptom' (see ACT), i.e. projects Lacanian models of the psyche onto society. Following (he claims) Hegel, Zizek asserts the need for a "symptom" of society, a rabble excluded from universal rights. This group today is the excluded "underclass" (PF 127). Zizek thinks society is always class-divided (SOI 126) - not surprising since he sees antagonism as constitutive.

Zizek's use of the concept of class has come under attack from Laclau. Laclau claims Zizek does not define capitalism, and introduces the concept of class to play the good guy, without giving it any definite features (CHU 205; this is exactly how structuralist figures operate). He claims this figure introduces a crude base/superstructure model which leaves Zizek's theory "schizophrenically split" (CHU 205; actually, the split is deep structure/actual content). He says Zizek's anti-capitalism means nothing (unless its meaning is concealed), because he doesn't explain what he means by it (CHU 205-6). Actually, Zizek's theory is far more padded out in this respect than Laclau is allowing - though nowhere near as well as would be necessary even for a minimally political engagement. Laclau also criticises Zizek for not engaging with the evidence against using the idea of class as an articulatory element (CHU 300-1; Zizek tebnds not to engage with evidence against any of his views, partly because of the role of the deep structure, which he thinks he knows perfectly).

Zizek formulates (possibly in response to Laclau's criticisms) a new model of classes based on the Lacanian triad of Symbolic, Imaginary and Real. The " 'symbolic class' " consists of "managers and bankers... academics, journalists, lawyers and so on", along with "all those who work in the virtual symbolic universe". Then there is "the excluded", which consists of "underprivileged ethnic and religious minorities", the permanently unemployed and the homeless, among others (CHU 322). Then there is a "middle class", which Zizek identifies with the older kind of worker. Zizek terms this group as conservative defenders of tradition, "passionately attached to the traditional modes of production and ideology" and defending these against the other two classes, which they see as " 'unpatriotic', 'rootless' deviations" (CHU 322-3). Zizek assumes these categories denote countable groups of real people, which can be or cease to be majorities (CHU 325).

This may well be one of the worst pieces of sociology ever (I'm reminded of Borges' famous case of the list of animals, with "mythical ones", "ones owned by the emperor", "ones which look like flies from a distance", etc.). Zizek only defines one of the categories (the symbolic class); the excluded are defined by a list with an open-ended "and so on", and the middle class is not even listed, but only referenced to one example.

Most of the categories in use here are not even measured on the same register. So the excluded include an ethnic/religious category, a residence category and an employment category (the "homeless" belong in a series with other categories of residence, such as "semi-detached"/"terraced" or "home owner"/"council tenant" etc.; whereas the unemployed are a category in a series with other employment groups, eg. skilled workers, unskilled workers, etc.). Furthermore, even the attempt at such a sociology of classes contradicts Zizek's claim that there isno neutral standpoint from which to describe class struggle (doubly problematic since Zizek's own model leaves him, as an academic, in the ruling-class category).

Because of the different registers in use, each category is not exclusive of the others, and many people fall, impossibly, into two classes. OJ Simpson is a member of the symbolic class because he is a celebrity; but he is also a member of the excluded class because he belongs to an oppressed ethnic group. Similarly with any member of a minority group who is employed in a traditional ("middle class") or symbolic sector. What about an unemployed worker formerly employed in a traditional industry, and still "passionately attached" to it? And so on.

This model also conflates some groups and ignores others. The "middle" (!) class in this model treats the sacked Liverpool dockers as if their struggle were identical with the reactionary support-base of Pat Buchanan. Sweatshop workers seem to go missing in this analysis, along with the rest of the Third World. The bourgeoisie as such is lost in a mass of far more numerous professionals, and Zizek, like most non-Marxist class sociologists, misses the gulf which separates an actual economic elite of multi-millionaires and top managers (who actually rule the world) from other 'elite' groups such as academics and journalists (who are pretty much powerless, and occupy a wholly different class position, no matter what services some of them do for capitalism).

The top category (symbolic class) is the most problematic. He introduces two claims which are separate: that this group consists of "all those who work in the virtual symbolic universe" and that it is identical with a narrower list of professionals. However, "all those who work in the virtual symbolic universe" potentially includes a whole range of other groups: call centre workers, workers in Nike sweatshops (since Nike is a symbolic product), TV repair crews, McDonald's and Disneyland employees, and even people who clean out the toilets in shopping centres. This is hardly the kind of picture Zizek is painting with his specific examples! Zizek has jumped onto the same bandwagon as Hardt and Negri, whose work he cites on several occasions about the nature of the global workforce. But Hardt and Negri are almost as empirically problematic as Zizek. At the WES conference, Jamie Owen Daniel presented a paper attacking Hardt and Negri's model of symbolic workers as relevant only to a tiny minority of scarce workers in new sectors (eg. computer programme designers). Most workers in the sector are of a traditional kind (eg. teachers, postal workers); many are not as in Hardt and Negri's book "affective workers", but are effectively "affectless": expected to vanish into the background (eg. janitors and security guards).

This account is not Marxist even in its structure. NB how the oppression of the excluded group rests on something wholly different: in Marx, on capitalism's material need for labour; in Zizek, on an abstract psychological need for an excluded group.

Notably, Zizek includes all intellectuals in the "symbolic" class. This leaves no space for "organic" intellectuals in the other groups, which raises the question of how they nevertheless generate political leaders etc. Also: this leaves Zizek in the symbolic (ruling) class category, which puts his standpoint in contradiction with his statements.

On closer inspection, these categories turn out not to be class categories at all; they are ideological categories (similar to the "classes" in Althusser). Zizek assumes them to be "agents" engaged in class antagonisms and "intricate interplay", entering into "shifting strategic alliances" with each other; he also claims they are the ONLY classes (CHU 323). He thinks - on the basis of no evidence - that there is even a direct fit between ideology and 'class' in his sense (!! - he goes further here even than the most dogmatic classical Marxists). "The split between them is becoming even more radical than traditional class divisions - one is tempted to claim that it is reaching almost ontological proportions, with each group evolving its own 'world-view', its own relation to reality: the 'symbolic class' is individualistic, ecologically sensitive and simultaneously 'postmodern', aware that reality itself is a contingent symbolic formation; the 'middle class' sticks to traditional stable ethics and a belief in 'real life', with which the symbolic classes are 'losing touch'; the excluded oscillate between hedonistic nihilism and radical (religious or ethnic) fundamentalism..." (CHU 323). Politics is also reducible to the three groups (CHU 323).

As well as the lack of evidence, the gaps again stand out here: what about 'individualistic' gangstas among the excluded? And excluded resisters who adopt ecological critiques of capitalism (eg. primitivists)? Clearly they are not part of the 'symbolic' class, but epitomise what Zizek sees as its ideology. Similarly, many 'fundamentalists' are recruited from groups other than the socially excluded. (It is by no means clear, for instance, that football hooligans are from the 'excluded' layer). Each group is internally divided. The ideological divisions over the recent uprisings by Asian communities against the Nazis and the police run THROUGH the group in question, not only between it and other groups. If journalists are in the symbolic class (which Zizek states), how come they do not all promote ecology and political correctness? How come many tabloid journalists (and not only them!) reproduce 'fundamentalist' and 'traditional' prejudices? How come the Canadian Postal Workers' Union is part of the People's Global Action network, fighting for the excluded? Many alliances cut across Zizek's barriers and are not between them: eg. doctors (symbolic class), nurses, patients (traditional class?) and revolutionary activists (excluded) against managers and the government, over the issue of health service closures and privatisation.

Also, is Zizek seriously suggesting that when a homeless person finds a temporary residence and gets a job, or a traditional worker gets the sack and ends up among the socially excluded, that they thereby alter their total conception of the world?

It is also interesting how Zizek is reproducing the categories of reactionaries: Blair's "forces of conservatism, left and right"; Murray's "underclass"; the "symbolic class" initally posited by pro-business media.

As if this were not bad enough, Zizek even wants to psychologise the classes, identifying them with the Symbolic, Imaginary and Real (the excluded as Real, the symbolic class as Symbolic, the middle class as Imaginary) (CHU 323). But for Lacanian theory to work, these categories have to occur within each person. Zizek's structural equivalences become problematic the moment their functioning in two fields becomes incompatible.

Later, Zizek portrays the working class as split between cyber-workers and material workers, with the unemployed taking the place of the "pure proletarian" prevented from either actualising or renouncing work (RL 19) - basically a restatement, but with the categories altered subtly (and still no ruling class). Elsewhere, he repeats the same basic categories, referring to a "middle class" (CHU 132), classing professionals in with the ruling class (TS 396), and counterposing the working class, not to bosses, but to "new privileged 'symbolic classes' (journalists, academics, managers...)" (DSST 240).

Zizek's confusion of capitalism with liberal ideology leads to some confusion about what social exclusion involves. Some of the 'disavowed' groups such as immigrant workers are disavowed by liberalism, not capitalism; they are exploited mercilessly by capitalists.

In another account, he articulates class very differently, though with a similar structure. This time, he speaks of nations occupying the former positions of the classes: the US as a whole has become Capital because its workers are mainly employed in the service sector (!! - workers in hell-holes like call-centres and Wal-Mart are hardly capitalists! Also, what does this mean about the New York massacre?). Meanwhile, "China fully deserves the title 'working-class state' ", because according to Zizek its population are all(?!) workers (DSST 134; NB here, the workers in service industries become "workers", whereas in the US, they are supposedly capitalists). Zizek also imagines there are "no strikes" in China (DSST 134)...

Zizek's concept of the proletarian (see also MARX) oscillates between a direct reference to the excluded 'class' and a political criterion. The category is an eternal structural one; against the false revolutions of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat is the 'non-class' which is " 'only' the gap of universality AS SUCH, irrecoverable by any positivity", and which can therefore carry out an Act: proletarian revolution can only happen if the normal order of successions of particulars (=the movement of desire between different stand-ins for the desired object) is disrupted, so this gap can emerge (RL 5). A proletarian is someone who is prepared to put everything at stake, as opposed to the organic rootedness Zizek attacks (see above), and the capitalists who are tied to possessions. This reading is taken directly from Hegel, with Zizek casting the proletariat as the Bondsman and the capitalist as the Lord. A proletarian is someone "ready to rsik everything, since he is the pure subject [!!] deprived of all roots" (DSST 140 - but such a subject is impossible: if one has a body, let alone language, one has roots...). Zizek's account shows more contempt for the vulnerability of the weak than for the barbarism of oppressors, and also misunderstands the succession of ruling classes in Marx (NOT a Lacanian cycle of desire with the proletarian revolution as an exceptional case, but a historical series of alternative modes of production succeeding each other).

Zizek claims that class division (class struggle?) is "always" displaced between. For instance, in fashion, one fashion (eg. stonewashed jeans) can be imitated across class lines (FA 94-5). This blurring does not seem to alter his core account, however.

As a structural category, Zizek's concept of class is dehistoricised. This leaves room for substitutionism. For instance, Zizek recognises that early Christianity was a movement of the oppressed, with a message addressed (? - what about involvement) to outcasts, beggars and prostitutes. But instead of looking into the specificity of such resistance, he draws ahistorical comparisons - here, with other communities of outcasts from lepers and circus freaks to early computer hacking groups (FA 123). There is nothing wrong in principle with such comparisons, but they must be histoircally founded, not merely asserted. Also, what is true for Christ is not necessarily true for St Paul; the church was very quickly taken over by dominant strata once established.

Also on class, and again showing Zizek's reduction of class issues to psychological ones: Zizek misperceives the failure of exact imitation to ensure access into a ruling class as showing that there is an unfathomable X within the ruling class, inaccessible to others (PF 23). Actually, it shows no such thing: in the kind of example Zizek is using here, the ruling class is a closed community, and its rules mainly function as legitimation - as a necessary but not sufficient criterion for community membership in a context where closure is the norm.


Zizek's attacks on Cultural Studies are based on flawed assumptions. He is assuming an immediate social effectiveness which such activities simply do not have (probably due to an assumption that structural equivalence is effective equivalence). His claim that Cultural Studies theorists are serving capitalism is also based on reinventing capitalism so as to make it look like Cultural Studies.

Zizek accuses Cultural Studies intellectuals of a "lie" in which they admit guilt for capitalism (?!) and this admission covers avoidance of this guilt - their confessions cover the fact that "he [i.e. the intellectual], as a 'radical' intellectual, perfectly embodies the existing power relations" (FA 46). Zizek makes this whole account seem very complex and daring; but it ultimately rests on a strong empirical truth-claim: that there is some basic logic of capitalism which is also detectable in Cultural Studies intellectuals. His approach is very different to that of previous critics of (other) intellectuals, such as Marcuse and Chomsky; whereas these authors are looking for evidence of complicity or at least demonstrable ideological links, Zizek assumes complicity based on an (imagined) ideological similarity (probably because he thinks capitalism is reducible to its ideology); further, he provides no evidence for this similarity. Zizek later admits that he is only relying on a general impression that radical academics secretly count on capitalist stabolity above all else, so their radicalism is an "empty gesture" which does not oblige "determinate action" (RL 2; when I see Zizek on the barricades, or at least actively supporting those who are, I will take such criticisms of others for inaction more seriously. How is Zizek's work less 'empty' than anyone else's? Is this a meaningful claim, or just an arrogant assertion of superiority? Presumably he thinks his own position is somehow active despite being solely theoretical).

Zizek also exaggerates the decline of anti-capitalism, and also the importance of Cultural Studies for capitalism (TS 218). He also attacks what he terms the "commodification" of Cultural Studies, by which he seems to mean 'trendy' patterns of alignment (TS 359). Fashion trends can be objectionable, but they are hardly a form of commodification (although Zizek is misusing this term anyway - see above). Trends in Cultural Studies are not market driven and do not relate primarily to production for sale; nor are there large multinationals setting trends through advertising or encouraging a rapid turnover of theories. Hierarchies of 'merit' are not necessarily capitalist; cf. Evan Watkins' Everyday Exchanges on show dogs and literary scholars. (There is also the issue of how Zizek will respond to being the latest 'fashion'. If he objects this much to fashions, surely he himself should stand aside from the whole process!).

Presumably because of his disavowed idealism (see MATERIALISM), Zizek thinks the main process of cooption is not financial but conceptual - which is very handy, since even by his own account, it means he is prepared to be 'bought' up to a point (RL 2).

He specifically targets Deleuze and Guattari's theory as "perverse" (in the Lacanian sense), so it "fits the existing power constellation perfectly" (TS 250-1). He doesn't explain how this can be the case, since Deleuze in the very quote he uses calls for the "fearless questioning of all presuppositions"; his only 'evidence' is a quote from Lacan used as authority, outside its original context (TS 250-1).

Zizek also attacks other intellectuals for "doing their progressive duty through the other", admiring Native Americans, Cuba, Yugoslavia or "multi-ethnic" Bosnia while continuing an "undisturbed upper-middle-class academic existence". Zizek thinks this kind of interpassivity makes people then respond aggressively if the Other disturbs their image of it (PF 113). (Of course Zizek's rivals are upper-middle-class academics whereas he is... a worker? a peasant?)

There are major problems with this account:
* Cultural Studies intellectuals are NOT involved in 'ideological apparatuses' even remotely connected to the core functioning of capitalist elites. Capitalists have organic intellectuals - business studies lecturers, journalists on the Economist and FT, managers, PR specialists, etc.; these people are directly involved in the production and distribution of capitalist ideology. Cultural Studies academics have no such connections - there are no corporate-funded centres of critical theory, no critical theorists hired by companies to "articulate" their workforces or "deconstruct" their management practices (or if there are, they are very few). Why would capitalists have so little to do with people who are supposed to be their perfect allies?

* Capitalists actually WANT RID of Cultural Studies-type theorists (whereas if they served the needs of capitalism perfectly, capitalism would want more of them). For instance, a European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT) complains about the "culture of laziness which continues in the European education system", where "human resources" (i.e. people) "take liberties to pursue subjects not directly related to industry. Instead they are pursuing subjects which have no practical application" (cited SchNews 24th November 2000). This is not the sort of thing one says about one's perfect bedfellows.

Contrary to Zizek's claims (FA 46), the "position of enunciation" of critical intellectuals is not the same as that of mainstream ones. Critical theorists tend to be politically isolated and not organic; but mainstream academics are often directly incorporated into capitalist power relations.

Zizek clearly lacks any kind of theory about the relationship between intellectuals and society, and therefore adopts unfounded assumptions: firstly, that intellectuals are directly and massively effective in holding up social systems (a view he probably gets from the peculiar role of ideology in Stalinism); and secondly, that structural equivalence proves complicity (i.e. if theorists are doing the same kind of thing Zizek thinks capitalists are doing, they must be complicit in capitalism). Indeed, he openly asserts the former: like Althusser, he asserts that intellectuals are already involved in the class struggle (RL 4 - this seems to relate to the role he gives intellectuals of revealing the deep structure of this struggle, which still doesn't show, however, that anyone but Zizek is 'involved').

Also, cf. Evan Watkins: intellectuals are within a social struggle since capitalism is trying to overcode universities. They should therefore manoeuvre towards progressive positions, i.e. for flows of production outside capitalist processes of endorsement, which are actually political processes of labelling which enable a political elite to colonise specific social spaces. Watkin's criticism of Cultural Studies is more valid: he thinks there is too much abstraction, too much standing aside from political struggle (which is very different to alleging actual complicity with capitalism).

Zizek also thinks the capitalist appropriation of ideas means one can identify hegemonic trends in radical academia by their 'radical' claims: "In our permissive times, when transgression itself is appropriated - even encouraged - by the dominant institutions [!! - like what? Tony Blair saying "fight back against the police"? The WTO saying "shut us down"?], the predominant doxa on the whole presents itself as a subversive transgression - if one wants to find the dominant intellectual trend, one should simply search for the trend that claims to pose an unprecedented threat to the hegemonic power structure" (DSST 141). Zizek is in a glass house about this, hurling very large boulders; his own claims to undermine capitalism and to be 'radical' are surely a reason for his popularity, which by his account would make him complicit in capitalism. Again, furthermore, he provides no reason for others to accept this account. In relation to official politics, business, etc., 'subversive' ideas have next to no impact; he is clearly hopping between fields in an inappropriate way again.

* Another problem: there is a "contradiction between the standpoint of enunciation and the standpoint of the statement" in Zizek's criticisms. He, too, more-or-less admits to having an "upper-middle-class academic existence" (in attacking his envious family: see CONSERVATISM); he too is living his struggles through others (he talks about Terror, Lenin, Mao and the rest from a safe distance even while denouncing this difference, and denounces political movements when they fall short of his standards). "Waving the bloody shirt... might be more impressive if [one] had
ever worn it" (Bob Black, Anarchy After Leftism p. 57). Zizek's only political commitment as far as I know has been to the dissident movement in Yugoslavia - a good example of the kind of New Social Movement he elsewhere denounces - and his participation in presidential elections and mainstream parties. I wouldn't usually use this as a criticism, except that Zizek's whole approach is about denouncing such distance and "interpassivity" and directly making an Act, and taking risks, whatever the cost, with no regard for one's own standing or for the effects for oneself or others. Zizekian politics is a lot easier to say than do; at least other theorists' political commitments are compatible with their theories.


Zizek's usual usage portrays democracy as part of the 'liberal-democratic consensus' and therefore as capitalist, and he portrays capitalism as tolerant and liberal. However, this fits badly with the idea of "class struggle"; and, as a result, Zizek ends up contradicting himself. On one (apparently isolated) occasion, Zizek claims the symbolic class is presently in control, but it will soon drop formal democracy the moment it loses control over the majority. It could then try anything, up to and including using genetic manipulation to make people docile (CHU 323; cf. Steve Booth's nightmare world of cyborg implants, truth drugs, hidden cameras in phone boxes, etc.). This is all very "Leninist" (and not necessarily unfounded - at least in relation to the ruling class as such) - but it runs entirely counter to Zizek's account of 'permissive', 'tolerant', 'liberal-democratic' capitalism. Zizek should decide which it is: either there is a sinister elite which manipulates society and will smash democracy in a moment if its power is threatened, or (see above) capitalism has no elite and just functions as a process of deterritorialisation and reflexivisation; either capitalism is democratic to the core - a 'liberal-democratic consensus' - or it is a threat to democracy. Zizek cannot have it both ways. (If democracy is under threat from the bourgeoisie - which I think it is - there is no reason on principle why it cannot be rearticulated to a radical project. Ditto with the other freedoms Zizek dismisses as permissiveness and narcissism).


In contrast to the increasing rejection of the capitalist cult of work (as embodied, for instance, in "welfare to work" processes and the arbeit macht frei ideology that goes with them) by radicals, Zizek leaps into endorsement of this cult of work, presenting it as radical by misrepresenting capitalism as anti-work.

In his praise of Soviet ideology, Zizek stresses his support for the privileging of work: "labour (material, industrial production) as the privileged site of community and solidarity: not only does engagement in the collective effort of production bring satisfaction in itself; private problems themselves (from divorce to illness) are put into their proper [!] perspective by being discussed in one's working collective" (DSST 133). (Zizek is endorsing the perspective Sartre found so offensive - the idea that 'tuberculosis harms production'. Contrast Marx, who stresses work precisely because it is so alienated under capitalism).

Zizek claims that the west now tries to hide work by locating it in sweatshops hidden beyond the western gaze (DSST 133-4). He misidentifies this (which is actually a way of hiding SUFFERING and exploitation, not work as such, so capitalism can avoid criticism) with an idea that capitalism sees "labour, hard work" as a "crime", "an indecent criminal activity to be hidden from the public eye" (DSST 134). Zizek is here inverting capitalism: from Hitler to Blair, via Spencer, Hayek, Murray, Reagan, Clinton, etc., capitalism has praised work, or in today's jargon, 'inclusion in the economy', as a good, duty, and virtue; this even leads to the apparent absurdity of people fighting for, or even (in Cambodia) buying, jobs (i.e. the right to work, to be 'included') - not to mention the idea of 'creating' jobs (in any other context, creating more work would be seen as a bad thing; we still have a reversed version of the slogan "create jobs": "making more work for oneself"). It is, rather, non-work, especially the refusal to work, which capitalism identifies with crime: the criminal who is too "lazy" to make an honest living, in contrast to "hard-working decent folk"; the "benefit scrounger"; victimisation of beggars; welfare to work; etc. - there is even a long tradition of re-education through labour, from the tread-mill to today's factory-prisons in America. (That some capitalists don't work is beside the point - though many of them are also workaholics nowadays. Capitalists who don't work pretend to work: hence Locke's idea that 'what my servant digs is mine', because money is exchangeable for labour-time; hence also the idea, parodied by Marx, that capitalists are being thrifty by putting their machines to work instead of eating them). Capitalism even generates pointless jobs because it cannot stand the idea of people not working! (Reimer etc.). Capitalism legitimates itself precisely through work: it claims to be the only system which can generate productivity (or do this without slavery)! This amounts to an entire cult (ritualisation) of work, almost deifying it as a sacred activity - though of course this is only possible by an entire process of hiding the counterevidence: the pointlessness of much work (hidden beneath growth figures), bullying by managers, injuries and illness resulting from work, exploitation, the social effects of the cult of work on people who can't or won't work, etc. (sweatshops being the perfect hidden counterexample). If Watkin is right that capitalism is a political logic which simply judges production which goes on outside it, furthermore, production has to be hidden to make it seem like 'the market' (exchange) is doing all the work, and to conceal capitalism's dependence on logics external to it.

Against all this, Zizek's counterexample - a hidden "production process" in a number of films, such as some James Bond films (which Zizek wrongly attributes to America) and Kusturica's Underground (DSST 134-5), is very weak. Zizek claims that what Bond blows up is really the utopian possibility of community through labour (DSST 135). But the problem is that Bond is doing a job, on behalf of a community of citizens conceived as 'hard-working decent folk'. The factories he blows up are not underground because they are invisible (NB the case he cites elsewhere of elves secretly making things is even less relevant), but because they involve some kind of 'immoral' - usually destructive - activity. What is blown up is a process, not a dream; and the process is the fabrication of some terrible evil to be unleashed catastrophically (eg. a factory full of weapons) - or rather, of something encoded in this way. Even if films did portray work this way, it would not prove anything about societal ideology; it could as easily be a reaction by workers against the cult of work. (Capitalism does also say two other, related but distinct, things: "work=suffering", which is necessary to produce tolerance of alienated work conditions: no work activity is fundamentally unenjoyable, but the relation of work is; and also "high status = low or zero work", which partly operates to conceal the functioning of "work" dynamics in consumerism also, and therefore to maintain the illusion of a sphere of enjoyment while ensuring continued consumption of signs - see Baudrillard's Consumer Society).

Zizek basically maintains the continuity of a process of production from the time of Lenin, a process built around the factory: somewhere which feels timeless, is separated from its environment and cultural 'background-noise' and from the substantive wealth of real life, which threatens memory and roots and threatens to turn workers into robots whose only utopia is the factory itself (RL 19; of course, Zizek is not attacking any of this, even though his source, Leslie Kaplan, is: see STALINISM).

Zizek contradicts himself over work. His usual position is that work is hidden; but on one occasion he claims that production is now shown, as in the case of "The making of..." programmes about films (PF 102). In the same book, he cites the Emir Kusturica example, in its usual context (PF 63; cf. also his Multiculturalism essay), along with examples from Richard Wagner (the Nibelungs in Rhinegold) and Fritz Land (enslaved workers beneath the earth, in Metropolis). (These examples, incidentally, all involve masters, and the invisibility is clearly related to the voicelessness of the workers). Clearly there is a contradiction between displaying work and hiding it.


Zizek has a few assumptions which fit the logic of capitalism. For instance:

* Zizek accepts fully the idea that one can show real love for someone with a "superfluous gesture of expenditure", something "we" supposedly do in "our daily lives" (DSST 52);

* Zizek also claims a person is more present in possessions than body, which is why a dead person's possessions are spooky (****)

CRISIS (see also above)

Zizek believes in a necessary final crisis of capitalism, "a moment of explosion, probably caused by some kind of economic crisis or whatever, and that we must prepare ourselves for that moment" (CrS 44). (NB WAITING for change; not BUILDING it).

To Marx's idea that capitalism is doomed to crisis by the gap between exchange- and use-value, i.e. social reality, Zizek adds an idea that capitalism also disavows this gap between itself and reality (RL 17-18). There are also still means/relations of production contradictions - eg. capitalism contradicts the World Wide Web (RL 19). NB the first of these two versions thoroughly Lacanises the theory of crisis.

He also claims that capitalism has genuine achievements (NB I only encounter him saying this once), such as freedom and the standard of living, but it is breeding explosive contradictions: productivity producing unemployment, decolonisation leading to all countries becoming colonies of capital, globalisation producing ghettoisation, the "disappearing working class" producing a new, invisible Third World working class. Capitalism is now a nightmare system where the fate of millions is decided by futures speculators; "The capitalist system is... approaching its inherent limit and self-cancellation" (CHU 322).

This entire model rests on (disavowed) faith in laws of history. Capitalism will not simply collapse of its own accord, because to collapse, people would have to start building something else. If there is a crisis, this shakes people's beliefs and increases the likelihood that they will opt for an alternative (NB it is neither sufficient nor necessary - some people become revolutionaries every single day); but it cannot create a new system if none is 'on offer'. If nobody builds an alternative of some kind, capitalism will carry on as a "living dead", decaying system indefinitely (or until it kills everyone). No matter how bad the crisis, how can people build socialism (or anarchism or primitive societies) unless it is in their heads? Expecting a crisis of capitalism to lead to socialism is like expecting the sinking of a ship to spontaneously generate the ability to swim. A sinking ship makes it more likely that people will swim - but only if they know how to, and want to. Capitalism will not collapse because it is ineffective or barbaric; it is already ineffective and barbaric, the world is already in permanent economic crisis for perhaps two-thirds of its population and still capitalism stands. The destruction of capitalism is an active process - waiting for History is necessarily in vain. (I suspect Zizek's theory needs the crisis - the 'trauma' - to provide the external impulse to generate an Act).



It is by no means clear that Zizek thinks alternatives to capitalism are possible, or that he wants them. He seems to want to destroy capitalism, on his definition of it (see CAPITALISM, CONSERVATISM), which sets up a rather conservative target (liberalism, permissiveness, decadence, 'flabbiness', etc.). It is less clear that he wants to destroy it by any other criterion: he endorses work ethics and authoritarianism, and he has posited so much of the deep structure of society as unchangeable as to render the space for change highly limited.

Laclau attacks Zizek on this subject. Despite "r-r-revolutionary zeal", Zizek is no more proposing a thoroughly different economic and political regime than Laclau. Zizek lets us know nothing about his alternative, Laclau says (actually, this is not strictly true, though he does tell us very little); he only tells us that it isn't liberal democracy or capitalism. Laclau is concerned it could mean Stalinism, despite Zizek's earlier resistance against this (NB Zizek dislikes late, post-Stalin Stalinism with a human face, but distinguishes this from the earlier Stalinism - what he resisted was the former); Laclau suspects Zizek simply doesn't know what his alternative is (CHU 289).

How does Zizek respond to this? He uses it to pathologise Laclau, claiming he cannot imagine an alternative and so thinks there isn't one (which Laclau actually never states). Zizek also claims that no-one (!!) questions capitalism, and that while Laclau's claims may be true, he should accept that it would mean the end of radical politics (CHU 321). He then states that capitalism is doomed to collapse because of its "inherent limits and self-cancellation" (CHU 322). He also adds that there is a block which prevents "us" from "imagining a fundamental social change" (CHU 324). Perhaps it prevents Zizek; it doesn't prevent activists the world over from thinking up alternatives to capitalism, and in many cases, starting to build them.


Zizek describes the anti-capitalist movement as a new unease. The media, he claims, scaremongers about "Marxists manipulating the crowd", though some supporters are from moderate NGO's. Zizek launches a call to "ACTUALISE the media's accusations" - a "strictly Leninist" problem of conferring a "FORM of the universal political demand" to prevent the movement becoming purely reformist. "In other words, the key Leninist lesson today is: politics without the organisational FORM of the party is politics without politics, so the answer to those who want the (quite adequately names) 'New SOCIAL Movements' is the same as the answer of the Jacobins to the Girondin compromisers: 'You want the revolution without a revolution!' ". There are for Zizek only two ways open now: play the game and get coopted, or join the NSM's and stay out of politics (NB Zizek's account rests on a strong politics/non-politics binary). Against this, Zizek asserts the need for a party. He defends this via a (false) binary in relation to the anti-capitalist movement: between Marxists who go to the end and have the "proper political sting", and liberals who do not and have not (RL 20).

NB how Zizek's narrative not only falsely simplifies - accepting among other things the bourgeois reification of politics into a separate field - but also misunderstands. The media scaremongers about 'anarchists', not 'Marxists'; the only mentions in the UK so far have been brief, and of the order of 'latter-day commissars who haven't realised the Cold War has ended' (C4 News, on Genoa). The scaremongering is all about the Black Block and the White Overalls: about terrorism, samurai swords, links to the far right, conspiracies to target the Queen, windows getting smashed, even a fear that Genoa would be burnt to the ground! This is a misrepresentation of this group (windows aside); nor should they try to 'assume' the stereotype (which would require them, among other things, to forge links with Nazis and international terrorists, let alone somehow to acquire helicopters to attack the police!). As for the nonsense about needing a party versus reformism: the movement is doing quite well without one; or rather, with many. How does Zizek think these anti-party radicals could be united in an authoritarian structure? If they could, it would be more vulnerable to cooption and to repression than the present, 'rhizomatic' movement. Zizek's insistence on a Party is mechanical and fetishist (far more so than the idea of "working class struggle" he attacks Trotskyists for), and furthermore, it is out of sync with those anti-capitalists who do want a Party (they are usually concerned about a lack of concern about the working class or a lack of organisation, rather than wanting a strong imposition of a 'political' line).

It is significant - perhaps even, to use his own rhetoric, 'symptomatic' - that Zizek ignores the question of anarchism completely. It breaks his stereotypes and undermines his binaries, because it is consistent about freedom. Authoritarian leftists have been for some time a little paranoid about anarchism, for the same reason Stalinists were paranoid about Trotskyism: their whole approach promises revolution, freedom, a better world, etc., and poses as the only alternative, using the flaws of liberalism in the same way as the "liberal blackmail" Zizek denounces but in reverse - it is used to justify the negative aspects, the "terror", the productivism and the various repressions, because there is no alternative but capitalism. (The cartoons, eg. in Wildcat, about "the arms industry, eastern and western divisions" are not far from the truth). . Because anarchism makes the same promises but without the horrific supplements, it poses a threat to the very existence of Stalinoid ideologies. (Trotskyism can sometimes do the same, to the extent that it emphasises direct democracy and workers' control/management).

To be sure, the anti-capitalist movement has some reformists in it, and the state is trying to recuperate them; it would also benefit from more collaboration between some of its participants. But the last thing it needs is a Stalinoid single party controlling it. This would only succeed in exacerbating the divisions in the movement and reducing its size, while negating its emancipatory potential by tying it to a new elite and a new hierarchic-authoritarian power structure. In a world of free people, we would not need a "political dimension" in Zizek's sense - not because conflct would magically vanish, but because there would be no need for substitution - activity could be based on direct action, mutual solidarity and mutual aid, self-activity and collective activity, non-violence and a principle of self-defence - without any need for states, politicians, Masters, bosses, or for that matter, exclusions, disavowed supplements, the obscene Law or forced choice. This is not a utopia: a common ideological gesture involves confusing practical social change with talk about self-identity, the immediate end to all conflicts and other such metaphysical promises. This is the way to build an alternative to capitalism - not through fetishising a party form or insisting on authoritarian regressions.


Zizek's claims to be a "radical" in any political sense fall down rather easily (see RADICALISM), which leaves open the question of what his political stance is. My suspicion is that he is some kind of conservative, with hints of nihilism (see ACT) amending a theory which is basically authoritarian, pro-hierarchy and against progressive changes.

One element of this conservatism is Zizek's belief in the universality of interpassivity, a condition in which one acts through another (see STALINISM). The conservatism of this is unmistakable but ambiguous; we have a "passive kernel", Zizek claims, in a more-or-less conservative way; but we can only reach it through "symbolic destitution" (PF 116) - a claim which weakens this conservatism. We are basically inert, but we can only become subjects by ridding ourselves of our basic inertia (PF 116). So one cannot settle on a position of submission like in classical conservatisms; one's submission to the Law, society, etc. can only be assumed directly by the quasi-nihilist Act. This qualifier aside, Zizek's theory has nearly all the hallmarks of a conservative outlook.


Perhaps the most widespread of the conservative elements to Zizek's theory is his reproduction of the idea of a need for a master to submit to. This approach, which is similar to Hobbes and also to the old theory of "working-class decadence", rules out any form of politics except for some form of hierarchic and impositional authoritarianism.

Zizek's belief in the 'need' for a Master is expressed repeatedly:

* A masterless reality without a Beyond leaves us "totally vulnerable and helpless", with our inner kernel laid bare (PF 164);

* Zizek bemoans the psychoanalyst's loss of authority and trust ("symbolic efficiency") due to others' knowledge of psychoanalysis (TS 346), suggesting he wants irrational trust based on others' ignorance;

* He endorses the fascist Carl Schmitt's support for violent imposition as the basis for law (TS 113-14), even going so far as to support Schmitt against liberals;

* Virtuality and relativity create the demand for a Master to collapse "virtual infinity into definitive reality" (PF 151);

* Power is not an imposition, but an exteriorisation of inner Law - people invent Power and norms to escape the inner moral law (TS 280; cf. SELF-OTHER)

* Stalinism was a "perverse kind of liberation" via shifting responsibility onto "the Other" (TS 340). One gains a breathing-space for freedom by putting responsibility onto the system (PF 109-10). This assumes one gains freedom by being subordinated;

* The lack of a Master plunges people into radical ambiguity - one is given the right to choose and even a command to choose, but no basis for choice, and one therefore becomes "thoroughly malleable". The "need for the Master" derives from this ambiguity - a need to be told what one wants (PF 153). [Is Zizek saying one's dependence on external reality can only be broken by a greater inner commitment to a Master? This would explain his use of Kant's illogical assertion "You can because you must"]. (NB how this refuses any possibility of people forming their own projects). So: (classic doublespeak:) freedom from a Master is really unfreedom. "What happens, then, in the situation of the decline of the Master, when the subject himself is repeatedly bombarded with the request to give a sign of what he wants? The exact opposite of what one would expect: it is when there is no one there to tell you what you really want, when all the burden of the choice is on you, that the big Other dominates you completely, and the choice effectively disappears - is replaced by its mere semblance... if no forced choice confines the field of free choice, the very freedom of choice disappears" (PF 153). (As usual, Zizek feels no need to account for this very strange deduction, which is probably logically incoherent since it equates direct opposites). (Nor does he explain why, in his words, "one is tempted" to claim this. "One" presumably means Zizek). So Internet freedom is really its opposite: "an unheard-of imposition of radical closure... far more suffocating than any actual confinement"; this is "the Real awaiting us", which Zizek arrogantly claims all other theories are an attempt to avoid (PF 154). This conclusion is partly based on the (again unsupported) claim that excessive choice is self-defeating because neighbours become spectres, though he also hints at a (wholly different) question of exclusion from political participation. (Zizek also has some strange logic whereby the denial that others are "unbearable" leads to its return in racism (PF 154)). Similarly: when the symbolic Law loses its efficiency, people act like automatons (FA 76).

* "The suspension of the Master, which reveals impotence, in no way gives rise to liberating effects: the knowledge that 'the Other doesn't exist' (that the Master is impotent, that Power is an imposture) imposes on the subject an even more radical servitude than the traditional subordination to the full authority of the Master"; for instance, in Lacan's analysis of tragedy, the death of God and fate does not free us but leaves us as "hostages of the Word" (PF 158). One result of this, for instance in Stalinism, involves hiding the impotence of the big Other behind others who are wiling to accept guilt. Ideology becomes necessary as pure semblance, and subjects can be blackmailed by the threat of the collapse of meaning (PF 158-9).

* Even resistance proves authoritarianism: hysterics want a 'true father' with renewed authority, and therefore rebel against the weakness and failure of the real father (TS 334; historical events such as France 68 are hysterical according to Zizek, as is capitalist accumulation).

* After Zizek's endorsement of the tragedy of Stalinism, it is only fitting that his next target should be farcical; and sure enough, up pops Chavez. Zizek tries to advocate General Chavez as a model, despite the fact that he is widely criticised by leftists (such as International Viewpoint) as a sell-out populist whose progressive programme is largely contentless, and despite the existence of far more progressive alternatives (the Porto Allegre PT, the Zapatistas, the CONAIE, etc.) in the area, which have more progressive approaches with fewer authoritarian overtones. For Zizek: "The main problem today is: how are we to break this cynical consensus? Formal democracy itself should not be fetishized here [for 'fetishized' read 'supported'] - its limit is perfectly illustrated by the situation in Venezuela after the election of General Chavez to the presidency in 1998. He is 'authoritarian' - a charismatic, anti-liberal populist - but one has to [?!] take this risk, in so far as traditional liberal democracy is unable to articulate a certain kind of radical popular demand. Liberal democracy tends towards 'rational' decisions within the limits of (what is perceived as) the possible; for more radical gestures, proto-'totalitarian' charismatic structures, with a plebiscitarian logic where one 'freely chooses the imposed solution', are more effective [Zizek claims this with no real evidence]. The paradox to accept is that in democracy, individuals do [Zizek seems to think italics are a substitute for evidence] tend to remain stuck on the level of 'servicing goods' - often, one does need a Leader in order to be able to 'do the impossible'. The authentic Leader is literally the One who enables me actually to choose myself - subordination to hum is the highest act of freedom" (DSST 246-7). This kind of argument is common in fascism, and is a mystification: there is no real reason why the presence of a Leader should make an action any more possible than it would otherwise be. To this, we should counterpose Reich's critique of the destructive restructuring of the libido which constructs the character-structure necessary for Masters and Leaders to flourish.

* Law creates possibility, not impossibility (PF 77).

* The Act also seems to be authoritarian in the sense that it involves an unfounded imposition of will which reshapes the symbolic edifice.

Perhaps even worse is Zizek's conception of human nature. Zizek thinks people are basically too chaotic to live without rulers, repeating the claims of the likes of Hobbes. He sees 'unruliness' and going to the end beyond every human measure as a primordial drive and part of human nature - a drive ethics tries to contain - a drive involving "clinging to wild egotistical freedom unbound by any constraints" which "has to be broken and 'gentrified' by the pressure of education" (PF 236-7). Humanity is as such unnaturally prone to excess, and has to be gentrified through institutions (PF 135). There is a basic drive to dis-attach from the world which fantasy is a protection against (TS 289). The role of paternal Law is to expose people to the harsh demands of social reality, demands which lead to entry into desire (FA 76; Zizek is presumably some kind of expectationist). He even seems to endorse Kant's view that people need a Master and (hierarchic) discipline to tame their 'unruly' insistence on their own will and force them to submit to being placed in subjection to "the laws of mankind and brought to feel their constraint" (TS 36 - clearly a substitutionist term). So Zizek endorses Kant's work on education, where he claims the role of schools is not for children to learn but to accustom them "to sitting still and doing exactly what they are told", to "counteract man's natural unruliness" (TS 36)! (Zizek also conflates social control with the unrelated issue of "venturing wildly and rashly into danger" in this discussion of Kant). Once accustomed to freedom, one will do anything for it, so this urge must be "smoothed down" (TS 36). Zizek calls this text of Kant's a "marvellous text" (TS 36). He also makes the (apparently contradictory with all the above, but equally conservative) claim that "a human being is... in need of firm roots" and that this basic need is the root of the symbolic order (CHU 250).

On the whole Zizek seems to be endorsing a conservative or even reactionary view of human nature; though this is not entirely clear. Often, he is indeed doing exactly this. But at other times (especially in relation to the Act and the imperative to dare), Zizek seems to be opting in spite of all this for egostistical freedom. For instance (PF 236-7) it is not entirely clear that Zizek supports the containment of the drive to 'go to the end' by ethics.

Zizek also sees Law (in his sense: the symbolic, etc.) as necessary to make peaceful coexistence possible (TS 280) and as creating the "minimal conditions for the tolerable coexistence of subjects" (TS 289). However, he sees it additionally as rooted in the pleasure principle, i.e., in an attempt to "gentrify/stabilise" the "gap" between the subject and "some excessive/traumatic jouissance" (TS 289). One can feel pleasure as long as the Master exists: one can get from power an inbetween state of not yet being refused, a suspension which can turn nightmares into pleasurable games (PF 151, 153).

The difficulty is how to relate all this to Zizek's concept of the Act, which seems to advocate breaking completely decisively with the symbolic Order/Law/ethics etc. (Zizek recognises the problem at the end of PF). Probably the answer is that, since the Master has collapsed in the contemporary world, an Act is necessary to reshape the world; the Act is taken by someone who becomes the new Master and re-integrates the social field. So the Act is not revolutionary in the sense of changing any fundamental structures (it cannot be, since in Zizek these structures are unchangeable); it is in a sense a way of resuscitating Power by recreating it around a new nodal point. The clearest demonstration of this is in The Abyss of Freedom, where Zizek says those who are prepared to be extreme achieve conventional, moderate goals more effectively than those who are not.


Zizek also mounts a repeated defence of repression and terror, and he also uses a kind of Newspeak where repression is freedom. For instance:

* Zizek advocates secret police and academic censorship (TS 236).

* He describes censorship as "the good old days" (PF 174). Apparently (PF 182) because attempts to get round censorship tended to add a "worse", perverted dimension to depictions of taboo subjects.

* Freedom in Zizekian doublespeak means not freedom to enjoy but freedom from enjoyment; and this is a basis for Zizek's advocating work as a good in itself (PF 174).

* For Zizek suffering=enjoyment (PF 116). Further: being forbidden enables pleasure; being encouraged destroys it (PF 114).

* We can only get to know/think moral freedom via a (repressive) Law which acts against "our pathological impulses" (TS 44); substitutionism is the basis for freedom (TS 52). Zizek calls this "concrete freedom" as opposed to "abstract freedom" (TS 44).

* Revolutionary Terror is necessary to surpass 'organic' forms of society, and Zizek supports it for this reason (TS 95; if this means nationalism, Zizek seems to be ignoring that nationalism itself rests not on decadence but on an ideology of sacrifice). Zizek celebrates conscription for the same reason - as if it were inclusion! (TS 95). (because it involves sharing risks and roles). Zizek later, on similar grounds, defends "blind meaningless 'mechanical' ritual" in education, which he says is necessary to create freedom because it mindlessly destroys rootedness and creates a "pure subject of enunciation" (TS 104-5; why Zizek wants to destroy rootedness so desperately he never explains. Contrast radical education theory which makes the same deductions about schooling but from an opposite perspective). He similarly endorses war because it "undermines the complacency of our daily routine" via "meaningless sacrifice and destruction" (TS 105). Zizek must have some irrational urge to destroy complacency for no better reason than that he hates people being complacent (since there is no sense here that such destruction has any function beyond this). Zizek's argument here - that the subject endures such things because of obtaining jouissance from them (TS 105-7; cf. also TS 306 when Zizek claims the servant is kept in servitude by "surplus enjoyment") - misses the point: it is quite possible that the system sometimes ends up conscripting or schooling people who are unable to gain jouissance in this way (eg. psychotics), so portraying it as a quasi-voluntary extension of the self is misplaced. Zizek writes as if soldiers, schoolchildren, servants and by implication, workers, prisoners and even Holocaust victims must be enjoying their situation (since they are not in total insurrection at a particular given moment), which is the same as if they had chosen it! (Zizek's term is "transcendental genesis of discipline" in the subject - TS 106-7). What Zizek misses is the role of emotions other than enjoyment (which may be due to the conflative nature of the concept of jouissance): in particular, the role of fear in subordination.

It strikes me that what Zizek calls the moment at which "I... 'dominate myself' " (TS 283) is precisely the moment when fear is internalised, i.e., when instead of confronting or evading objects which cause fear, one represses them and therefore removes the immediacy of fear of these objects by internalising a submission to them (something similar to Nietzsche's concept of ressentiment, or Adorno's snail which withdraws into its shell; or the closest theory, Reich's theory of the origins of authoritarian character-structures). That Zizek is in favour of the terrirorialisation-by-terror involved in this kind of process shows his complicity in the Oedipal logic of closing the social field, and that, when humanity comes into conflict with the system, Zizek is on the side of the latter - at least about libidinal issue.


Not surprisingly given this authoritarianism, Zizek is also highly, and uncritically, supportive of the state. Zizek claims that what he calls "demonization of the state" is primarily rightist (NB this is true of the cases he gives, i.e. rightist libertarians, who are, however, usually ambivalent about the state; but it is NOT true of criticism of the state in general). He thinks that such criticism is mostly directed at the state's attempts "to maintain a kind of minimal social balance and security". What is Zizek's reply to such critiques? That organic economic and Internet relations can only thrive within power-based/political/institutional conditions (PF 157). This is true; but political does not have to mean statist, and so this is no case for the state. The sneaky (or maybe unconscious) nature of Zizek's conservatism comes out clearly here: Zizek is mounting what seems to be a leftist critique, appropriating common leftist criticisms of New Right libertarianism and its naturalisation of the market; however, he is short-circuiting this into a critique of every attempt to attack the state, when all he has shown (if anything) is the necessity of a repressive state for capitalism.

Zizek also seems to endorse the mystification of the state, although his discussions of this are ambiguous (SOI 229-31). Zizek thinks people who dislike state intervention also call for such intervention to help their own cause (DSST 271) - a claim which may well be true of a certain kind of psuedo-libertarian liberal or social democrat, but which ignores the existence of consistent Marxist and anarchist outlooks (and which reproduces conservative prejudices against leftists). Furthermore, Zizek's psychologisation of issues disguises power in such a way as to defend the state: when Zizek reduces objections to lie-detectors being used in court to a defence of a right to the privacy of guilty thoughts (FA 171), he is ignoring crucial issues - notably the unreliability of lie detectors (i.e. it is easy to get a misleading result due to, for instance, high emotional arousal; such machinery is also open to manipulation). Zizek is repeating the old Rightist prejudice that people who don't like state intrusion only have anything to fear if they are guilty - which rests on the assumption that the state is only interested in objectively ascertaining guilt (a view which Zizek could not, however, directly endorse, since for him everything is always biased).


Zizek on sex, and on a number of issues relating to gender relations, is surprisingly conservative:

* It is not clear whether Zizek actually thinks biological men and women actually fit into masculine and feminine character-types. Conventional readings of Lacan usually suggest that one's subjective gender is unrelated to biology (eg. some biological men are psychological women); but Zizek sometimes writes as if he does think real men and women fit gender stereotypes: "Women, much more than men, are able to enjoy by proxy" (PF 119); women only enjoy by helping others to enjoy (FA 144-5). This does not necessarily mean biological women; but it is unclear why Zizek introduces the gender issue at all in this context unless he wants to make such a claim. Since for Zizek everything is a cliche (PF 126), such stereotyping is not necessarily in contradiction with his theory.

* Zizek is forever trying to wriggle out of feminist criticisms of his favourite films. For instance, he wants to make out that psychologically paralysed women who submit to men in films are actually going through an Act - though of course, this cannot be by submitting (PF 225).

* As also with racism (cf. Critical Sense interview, on Laibach), on sexism Zizek fails to draw a poper distinction between revealing and endorsing, so that it is possible for him to portray (for instance) a sexist film or joke as revealing sexism. Thus, for instance, Hitchcock's reproduction of sexist discourse in his films is treated by Zizek as something which "reveals the entire problematic of sexism" (PF 147). cf. also the dubious role of racist, sexist and anti-Semitic jokes in Zizek's work. It is often unclear whether these jokes are used to demonstrate features of the racist/sexist/anti-Semitic mindset (in which case his use is similar to that of any other critic of prejudice; he necessarily refers to what he is criticising), or whether these jokes are supposed to be funny, or even to reveal fundamental truths (in which case he is slipping across into an endorsement of prejudice). The problem here is: when does "revealing" become "doing"? What do Laibach have to do to go from being a progressive revelation of widespread disavowed fascist fantasies, to actually promoting fascism? At what point would films like Hitchcock's be sexist, rather than merely revealing sexism? Zizek never even asks this question.

* Just as problematically, Zizek insists on the necessity of harassment to sex. His conflation of sex with harassment (which seems to be based exegetically on Lacan's notion that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship, and which is probably confusing the kind of existential 'harassment' involved in encountering radical difference with the immediate violence of 'harassment' in the more usual sense) could easily be read as an abuser's charter. For Zizek, "there is no sex without an element of 'harassment' " and protest against sexual harassment and "violently imposed sex" is "the protest against sex as such" (TS 285). This is partly definitional: "sex as such" is presumably related to the existential meaning of the term "sexual" in Freudian and Lacanian discourse; sexual intercourse minus this dimension of the 'sexual' is quite possible, Zizek admits, but it is "desexualised" and "mechanic" (TS 285; this may relate in an inverted way to Deleuze and Guattari's positive references to machinic flows, and it is also worth noting a strong essentialist implication that a sex act should involve 'sexuality' in the Freudian sense). Zizek, who protests vehemently at the idea that Berkeley campus is a gulag, is nevertheless prepared to all but say that all sex is rape, and that there is no difference between sex and sexual harassment.

Zizek claims that political correctness renders all seduction and sexual approaches potentially harassment, and therefore a risk (he thinks women can retrospectively determine whether a particular act was harassment or not). He claims that it derives from a characteristic of women (a characteristic probably imagined by male chauvinists): that women hate 'weak' men and therefore put PC prohibitions in place to force men to take a risk (FA 111). Actually, Zizek is almost certainly exaggerating the extent of spread of the concept of harassment. Even in the most controversial cases, harassment has to date always involved either a repetition of unwanted approaches or their use in a setting (such as the workplace) overcoded with other concerns. In neither the legal nor conventional sense would (for instance) a chat-up line in a singles bar or nightclub be taken as "harassment" even if it is unwanted and unsolicited. Zizek's conflation provides a cover for actual abusers by implying that their practice is no different to anyone else's (they are merely unlucky or unskilled), and furthermore, by blaming women. Zizek misses the dimension of power (one of several themes which repeatedly vanishes in his account; cf. SELF-OTHER) which distinguishes actual abuse from mere unwanted advances.

Actually, Zizek goes even further than this in supporting sexual abuse. He claims that, if one takes away violent, financial, and other forms of coercion, "we may lose sexual attraction itself" (FA 72) - an argument which is clearly an attempt to defend sexual coercion (and one for which he provides no basis).

Zizek also claims that violent rapists trigger women's fantasies, which rest on belief in a morally superior but also monstrous superhuman figure directly linked to God (PF 185-6); though Zizek also tries to distance himself from the implication that this makes rape justified, since the suffering caused is as great if such a fantasy is acted out (he doesn't seem to have considered how this fits with his broader analysis of the Act).


On a few occasions, Zizek openly admits his affiliation with conservatism (cf. also his sympathy for communitarianism: see MARXISM). For instance: "One should adopt towards cyberspace a 'conservative' attitude" (PF 130). The populist Right is closer to working-class ideology than pseudo-left technocracy (CHU 129). Conservatism is "far more attractive" than the Third Way, since it brings to light the underlying repressed mechanisms of the ruling ideology (CHU 325) - this clearly shows the slippage involved in Zizek's failure to distinguish revealing something from endorsing it.

When Zizek answers conservatism, it is not from a very distant standpoint: "the way one should answer the conservative platitude according to which every honest man has a profound need to believe in something is to say that every honest man has a profound need to find another subject who will believe in his place" (PF 106). Which is hardly any less conservative.


One important strand of Zizek's approach (resulting largely from his excessive use of terms such as "all", "always", "never", etc.) is that he treats virtually everything which is wrong with the world as necessary and unavoidable (in the tradition of conservative ideas of "human nature" etc.), and rejects any belief-system which posits the possibility of changing or overcoming them (which Zizek usually reduces to an idea of final resolution). Zizek rarely provides any reason for believing his claims; necessitarianism is usually a short-circuit which infers "all" and "always" from the contemporary world, and critiques of "utopias" largely result from this. It is also important to realise that Zizek is the whole time tailing common sense.

Among the unavoidable characteristics of human existence according to Zizek are:

* SUBMISSION: One cannot escape submission, either to social norms or inner injunctions (TS 280).

* EXCLUSION: Something is always excluded, so there are forever bans and repression. There is always a disavowed set of "obscene rituals of violent humiliation of the subordinated" in any political system (CHU 102-3).

* VIOLENCE: Politics (which Zizek seems to see as unavoidable) involves power, not violence; but "violence... is the necessary supplement of power" (CHU 233-4) and so presumably is ever-present.

* NATURALISATION: The political needs naturalisation (CHU 100).

* MYTH: "philosophy needs recourse to myth... inherently, to 'suture' its own conceptual edifice when it fails to reach its innermost core" (DSST 38). Actually, this time Zizek does attempt to show the necessity of myth; though he never gets further than asserting its occurrence in Plato, Freud and Lacan (DSST 38-9) - who presumably stand in for the whole of philosophy...

* REIFICATION: Zizek effectively asserts the necessity and inevitability of reification (PF 106).

As for his denouncement of any transformative attempts, one could note his belief that one should try to hystericise perversion by introducing lack and questioning into enjoyment (TS 248); and his reliance on a quote from Churchill about democracy (it's the worst but everything else is worse; in SOI 5, 148; actually, I think Zizek is misquoting a little to Lacanise the quote). Zizek denounces resolution (of contradictions, conflicts, etc.) as ideology (PF 145). He claims that either a message is implicit and prone to misunderstanding or the attempts to render it explicit make it equally ambiguous (PF 180). He also sees any attempt to reconcile social differences and eliminate exclusion as "utopian" and doomed to "necessary failure" for structural reasons (PF 127-8). (His target here appears to be Laclau; he is claiming that Laclau is doomed to fail because he represses economics and therefore fails to see the necessity of exclusion in capitalism - although Zizek sees exclusion as always necessary). Zizek also claims on principle that what one person gives cannot in principle be what another wants - in sex and, by implication, elsewhere (PF 189). All of this is probably a result of Zizek's (essentialist) structuralist approach: the unchanging deep structure rules out fundamental change in any of these areas.


Some of Zizek's psychological assumptions also imply a conservative conception of 'human nature', or contribute to Zizek8s conservatism by conflating fear and pain with pleasure. For instance:

* Zizek fails to see pain/fear as distinct. Attention paid to a toothache is jouissance (enjoyment) (TS 308).

* Zizek believes in "pre-sexual aggressivity" (TS 283) (but only in children)

* Due to an empty general moral injunction (to do one's duty) Zizek thinks (but does not explain how he knows) all people feel internally, Zizek believes in a general, non-specific existential guilt (TS 47; elsewhere, Zizek sees this guilt as cover for unconscious knowledge that the big Other is lacking. I suspect such a feeling of guilt is rooted in social roles and, via these, in Oedipus).

* Not only is there one big Other, there is also one fundamental fantasy, which always involves submission (TS 267; Zizek is unclear on whether this is one per person or a single social fantasy).

* Zizek thinks we all believe existence is improbable and so are forever questioning it. This is why it is traumatic (PF 48). (Why should one think existence is improbable when belief in probability itself presupposes existence?).

* For Zizek, what constructivists take as given - the contingent construction of a life-world - is "at stake in a difficult uphill struggle". Historicity is never fully achieved. For Zizek, "historicity is not the zero-level state of things [whatever one of those is] secondarily obfuscated by ideological fixations and naturalizing misrecognitions; historicity itself, the space of contingent discursive constructions, must be sustained through an effort, assumed, regained again and again..." (PF 53; dots in original). This is basically a neo-Hobbesian position: we are primordially in a situation of chaos, from which we have to make a constant effort to construct social reality. (Except of course one cannot speak of chaos except from the standpoint of a symbolic structure; and it is hard to see how one could turn into the other: an Act, decision, phallus or whatever could only act as a nodal point if its territorialisation of the field was already comprehensible (at the point of territorialisation - NOT via retrospective interpellation), which presupposes a prior symbolic system. Yet for Zizek such a system is the product of precisely this effort).


Zizek mounts what is basically a conservative critique of the supposed permissiveness of capitalist society and of rights. This is distinct from previous critiques. Baudrillard in The Consumer Society attacked the cult of enjoyment in consumerism - but on the basis that it offered only signs of enjoyment, and Illich attacked it because it was escalatory and therefore insatiable; Zizek, however, attacks enjoyment per se, not its alienation or simulation. Similarly on rights: he is not attacking false liberal rights like Marcuse in "Repressive Tolerance"; he is hostile to the existence of rights as such.

Zizek pursues a conservative critique of 'permissive' society as actually based on an order to enjoy, with a resultant guilt complex about being sad (FA 133, 135), a claim for which he provides no evidence (though I suspect, partly based on Baudrillard's account and partly on my knowledge of deviant subcultures, that such fun-in-alterity does exist - though probably not as an absolute characteristic of 'permissive' enjoyment). Narcissism and hedonism necessarily lead to pleasure becoming an injunction to enjoy, an injunction which blocks the possibility of enjoyment (TS 367; Zizek does not explain why such counter-finality occurs, and it seems to be another act of faith that by definition an injunction blocks happiness).

NB the complete absence of concepts of alterity, alienation, simulation, etc. in Zizek - presumably because of the (conservative) concept of constitutive alienation. As a result, he cannot discuss myths of enjoyment, the constitution of signs of enjoyment separately from it, etc., and is left only with speculations about psychology.

Zizek has what appears to be a conservative critique of "our post-political liberal permissive society" on the basis that our values are "at their core, simply Rights to violate the Ten Commandments" - the right to privacy is a right to commit adultery, free press is a right to lie, right to bear arms=right to kill, right to pursue happiness via possessions=right to steal, freedom of religion=right to idolatry (FA 110). (This account is very selective. Firstly, Zizek misses out the extent to which "post-politics" ATTACKS all these rights: his assumption that the modern world involves a 'permissive', 'liberal', rights-based capitalism is undermined by everything from the Terrorism Act to ASBO's, the CJA to the Gandalf trial, etc. None of these rights fully violates the commandment in question - capitalists deny that property is theft, and the right to property is exclusive of legally-defined theft; freedom of the press does not include a right to commit libel, i.e. lie, in any capitalist legal system; the right to bear arms does not mean murder is legal in all cases; and Zizek also ignores a whole string of other rights which do not fit his account: which commandment is breached by freedom of movement or assembly, or the right to a fair trial, or the right to protection from torture? Furthermore, many of the rights are extensions of those in the Decalogue: the "right to life" is a rephrasing of "thou shalt not kill", and the "right to property" is in principle a rephrasing of "thou shalt not steal"). In Zizek's account, this creates a grey zone in which power cannot prevent transgressions (FA 110-11). Zizek is ambivalent; this is not entirely a critique: he sees this regime as surpassing the Decalogue via a general imperative to respect the Other as Real, untouchable, repugnant, etc., but which is unthinkable without it (FA 111-13). This account is amazingly naive about how conceptions of the world arise and spread, repeating almost exactly Hegel's model of the self-becoming of Reason: Zizek treats concepts as if they arise immanently from other concepts, ignoring the role of social action. For instance, the spread of human rights is largely due to resistance movements (eg. the Chartist demand for the right to vote, the civil rights movement in the US, pro-democracy movements in the Third World).

Zizek also uses concepts which clearly invoke conservative rather than radical criticisms of liberalism and capitalism. Not only does he use the word "permissive" (see above), he also uses the concept of decadence (eg. PF 193; Bob Black says this is merely an anathema for anyone who is having more fun than the person who uses it). He also uses the related word "flabby" (PF 204), clearly invoking health/illness metaphors for society in a very sinister way. Perhaps worst of all, however, is his use of the term "bleeding-heart liberals" (CHU 326) to anathematise opponents of his kind of Terror. This is a classic Rightist term, used by reactionaries to decry concern for other people and promote authoritarianism and bigotry. It clearly involves contempt for human beings and a belief in cold-heartedness. It strongly suggests that Zizek is not only a conservative, but some kind of misanthrope.


Zizek's misanthropy, plus his confusion of pain with pleasure, leads him to support a whole range of barbaric and exclusionary practices. For instance:

* Zizek supports social exclusion. He calls the separation of the Political from the non-Political the political gesture par excellence (CHU 95) and thinks there is such a thing as "non-society" (chaos, decadence, social dissolution), so one can divide the world between "society and anti-social forces", or "enemies of the people" (CHU 92).

* He denounces hostility to the death penalty as 'Eurocentric', a position he repeats in relation to clitoridectomy, the veil and torture (TS 219). The reason for this is that he misunderstands the role of discipline and punishment, because he confuses pleasure with pain. For Zizek, all these practices are "the way the Other regulates the specificity of its jouissance", and even the 'victim' experiences a "specific cultural jouissance" from apparently barbaric and cruel practices (TS 219). In other words: Zizek mistakes a negative practice, which attempts to territorialise by terror, to subordinate particular groups by subjecting them to painful and destructive practices, and generally to suppress, repress, brutalise and normalise, as something POSITIVE - a regulation of enjoyment for society as a whole. (Perpetrators may indeed enjoy such practices; Zizek has no basis for claiming that victims do). This mistaken perception of pain as pleasure allows Zizek to defend inhumanity in a way not dissimilar to the 'respect for cultural difference' which many rightists now preach (in order for rightists to claim cultural superiority, they need to retain an image of the barbaric Other, so are very sympathetic to floggers, hand choppers and public executors; besides, this strengthens their own hand in launching racist attacks on any group within their own society which refuses subordination on rights-based grounds). This is a testable issue: do dissidents and refugees from regimes such as Iran perceive these regimes' practices as a "regulation of jouissance" including for the victim, or as barbaric atrocities intended to terrorise? (Of course, the torturer or executer, and their silent supporters, may well get enjoyment from such practices; but this is no more a basis for defending them than in the case of, for instance, a serial killer).

* Zizek is in favour of discursive practices which carve the social field into "us and them" (i.e. exactly the kind of discourse George W Bush et al have been using recently). He endorses militarism as the only alternative to depoliticisation (FA 57). He also includes right-wing figures St Paul and de Gaulle as legitimate leftist militants because they endorse this logic: a "militant, divisive position" of "assertion of the Truth that enthuses them". Zizek praises St Paul for purging "deviations" and de Gaulle for making substitutionist claims to speak for France (TS 226-7).

* He calls for heresy to be "ruthlessly rejected" (TS 212). (This is a double standard: take risks, praise risk-takers, but denounce them if you don't like their views, and reject them ruthlessly...)

* To add insult to injury, Zizek blames liberalism for fascism - not for any direct reason, but because liberalism robs us of "devotion to a cause" and therefore leaves space for Nazi articulations! (TS 139). This is reminiscent of politicians who adopt racist policies to head off Nazis: Zizek endorses an element of Nazi ideology, then attacks others for letting Nazis win by lacking it. How does one tell the bits of Nazism which should be rejected from the ones one should compete with Nazis about?


* Zizek seems to have a veritable paranoia about metacommunication (probably because it threatens his ability to make sweeping claims and establish principles dogmatically). For Zizek, questioning is "obscene" and links closely to totalitarian subjectivity, as well as to the parental subordination of children (SOI 179). This irrationalist belief misunderstands such phenomena, which rest on the one way, non-reciprocal character of questioning. It also relies on a fallback to a mystical conception of identity and knowledge which expresses normalist, 'commonsensical' assumptions: the questioner already knows the answer which "should be left unspoken" (SOI 179). Zizek also inappropriately links this to the issue of responsibility (SOI 180).

What is left of communication if questioning is dismissed as "totalitarian"? One is left with dogmatic assertions which leave impossible any kind of self-other engagement. This isn't a problem for Zizek because he relies mainly on assertion and doesn't seem to admit the existence of empirical differences between people which can be resolved or made tolerable by intersubjective engagement (though he himself makes extensive use of questions, especially rhetorical ones). Questioning is not totalitarian; it is the basic feature of a discourse based on engagement between subjectivities, whereas assertion often involves an impositional discourse and an assumption of superiority which is far more sinister and threatening. Could it be that Zizek wants to avoid being questioned too much about his (mostly dogmatic) assumptions and assertions, and that he is hiding this behind anathemas?

(I call this view "conservative" because of its similarity to those arguments which suggest that tradition is best left unsaid and that common sense should not be questioned, which also rely on the totalitarian anathema).

* Exclusion is necessary if one is to act (TS 19).

* According to Zizek, life is a "repellent crawl" (PF 67). It is inherently monstrous unless mystified. Others are horrific if they get too close; what we are in the Realof our being is an "abhorrent cold Thing", and what we think of as our agalma (little treasure; cf. Heller's energaia) is actually excrement (PF 68). The world is also horrific until mystified (PF 66). It is very tempting to reply, "speak for yourself" - that Zizek is some kind of misanthrope who finds life repulsive, this does not necessarily mean it is objectively that way. NB the disappearance of the concept of "love" in Lacan's thought, in Zizek's version.

The logic here is again conservative: as in Hobbes, we are really brutes who threaten each other (though not, as in Hobbes, for rational reasons). This seems to lead to a Hobbesian or Burkean conclusion that we should avoid losing what we have, our traditions and mystifications, since what lurks underneath is hellish. Zizek wants to avoid this, however, and such an evasion requires an inversion of the implications of terms like "horrific". In Zizek's account the undesirability of horror is somehow negated by its supposed therapeutic function (traversing the fantasy is good for you).

* cf also the way in which the idea of sexual difference as Real leads Zizek into collision with Butler over the emphasis on the social construction of gender normativities (PF 214). Zizek may be sneaking towards re-naturalising gender differences as existential and inevitable, rather than as socially constructed.


On a few occasions, Zizek actually reproduces capitalist ways of arguing. In particular, faced with criticism of what he earns, Zizek (with no empirical basis, as usual) reduces such criticism to "envy of enjoyment" (PF 54), an argument which clearly echoes Thatcherite dismissals of socialism. His basis for this is a purely structural coincidence: in Lacan, envy of enjoyment involves the belief that the Other has both too much and too little enjoyment; Zizek thinks this combination crops up in the criticism he lists. (Actually, the criticism as Zizek recounts it involves only the criticism of "too much": though it also involves the criticism "even a little is too much", Zizek does not include any elements which actually suggest his critics also think he is earning/enjoying too little). On another occasion, Zizek uses Ayn Rand's critique of anti-trust laws (DSST 262) as evidence of what is wrong with Christian ethics, suggesting that he endorses Rand's claims. It is unclear how Zizek squares this with his 'Marxism' and 'radicalism'.


Zizek is inconsistent on the question of blame. On the one hand, he believes that all problems are basically subjective (or at least, he seems to think this). So he says one should never blame others for anything, or at least for anything psychological - and one should never pursue retribution (PF 33). This rules out a whole string of reactionary beliefs - but crucially also debars any analysis of the effects of social relations on psychology, and therefore cuts off any revolutionary possibilities of psychoanalysis. Zizek is inconsistent because elsewhere he openly advocates blame (PF 47).


Zizek's account is almost entirely composed of discussions about political theorists (usually DWEMs) and various cultural phenomena both "high" and "low". He rarely ventures into discussions about everyday life or everyday beliefs, although he frequently makes claims about them. One reason for this is a residual elitism in his work. He claims that "banalities" such as recognition of difference between people are "unworthy of being objects of thought" (TS 133). (which does not really explain why Zizek acts as if people are alike).


To the extent that Zizek's theory has a goal, this goal is conservative. He wants people to accept their subordinated, passive and excremental nature and also to fit entirely into the social structure.

* Zizek says that the goal of psychoanalysis is to enable patients to "acquire the capacity to enjoy doing one's duty" (FA 141).

* His version of a properly materialist line of psychological development is when an occupant of a symbolic position, who has to fake this position, can outgrow this fakery and become authentic: "since we all [!] live within ideology, the true enigma is how we can outgrow our 'corrupted' initial condition - hom something which was planned as ideological manipulation can all of a sudden miraculously start to lead an authentic life of its own" (PF 148). i.e. not resisting but fully accepting the dominant ideology!

* Zizek attacks perversion for a refusal to submit to being forced to die or to choose one of the two sexes (PF 34, DSST 84). i.e. for its life-affirming character and ability to resist imposition. His objection is also to comedy. This puts him on collision course with Deleuze about the importance of decoded flows. For Zizek, flows of life which escape barriers are no such thing; they are "the universe of the pure symbolic order", which Zizek dislikes because it ignores the "monstrous Thing" (DSST 84). (He also contrasts with Deleuze on the role of Oedipus; for Zizek, castration "keeps open" symbolisation - TS 275. All that exists beyond and before it is the death drive, "the endless repetitive cycle of wandering around in guilt and pain" - TS 292).

* Zizek's version of "maturity" involves a reactionary submission: taking illusions "on trust". For instance, Zizek advocates treating judges as if they are not fallible humans (or doddering old fools) but actually embody the Law (this is apparently something "we" do - a "we" which presumably excludes the politically aware, who Zizek implicitly condemns for childishness!) (TS 399). This is the opposite of a critical approach; Barthes etc. tried to debunk myths, precisely by revealing that the Law is a cover for the old fool, a mystifying illusion we should reject.

* Zizek attacks individual differences (probably because they make a mess of his neat schemas). He speaks as if idiosyncrasy is wrong, when contrasted to a "normal mature subject" (TS 369) - a clearly normalist binary. He attacks the "masculine" logic of "idiotic" self-satisfying activities (FA 143), and he even implies that one is not 'human' unless one is Oedipal (TS 288; this would dehumanise, for instance, psychotics - see PSYCHOSIS).


Zizek's arguments have a pervasive conservative structure. From Hobbes to Scruton, conservatives assume that we start of as, or with, nothing; then the system comes along and gives us something. This leads to indulgence towards the crimes of the system and paranoia about those who oppose, threaten or refuse to accept it. Radical theories in contrast generally posit either something prior to the system; something above or over it; or its guilt for the problems of the present - all of which deny any basis for gratitude to it. Zizek wants a structurally conservative theory with radical conclusions - something he cannot have.

Like other structure-obsessed "radicals" (eg. Bordiga), Zizek postures in a radical way, but his outlook is conservative: he can't stand the 'mess' of actual politics, the uncontrollable "crawl" of life, the "decadence" of an existence devoid of rigid structures, which lacks the simple structural neatness of a film script. For this reason, he retreats into formulae which cut him off from living forces, and resorts to writing (from the outside) narratives about the world based on selective evidence. His mindset is sectarian and his mode of engaging with the world is conservative: he has little openness to the world and seems mainly interested in deriving metaphysical absolutes from a selective reading of the present.

Furthermore, behind Zizek's "radical" aura lurks a conservative assumption that the big Other is unchangeable and beneficial. Even the quasi-nihilism of the Act does not really change this (especially since the Act is part of Zizek's structural account anyway). Zizek's theory is on balance quite conservative, though this conservatism is modified by the category of the Act. (see ACT; RESISTANCE).


Zizek's theory of truth is based on a rejection of any link between truth and knowledge; instead, he identifies truth with direct access to some kernel which is 'more real than reality'. Despite this, his account rests on a whole string of empirical claims. However, his rejection of any standards for assessing empirical claims means such claims are often little more than mere assertions, or are inadequately backed. Furthermore, Zizek's theory of truth is little more than an excuse for his own impositional discourse: for claiming that the world is really, objectively what Zizek says it is, regardless of evidence.

Zizek bitterly rejects 'empiricism' and especially any idea that reality could contain an exess which is not captured by theory. Having rejected empirical ways of assessing arguments, he then denounces discursive ones, attacking the idea that 'universal' ideas have to be translated between subjectivities to avoid being colonial and expansionist. Zizek claims that all cultures are already part of a single universality: every culture is always-already not particular and each has "already crossed the linguistic borders it claims" (CHU 216). Zizek seems to think that every universal is always-already actually universal. For him, "every assertion of particular identity always-already involves a disavowed reference to universality" (CHU 217). It is not clear how this could work in concrete cases. Take, for instance, a colonial context; a missionary arrives in an African country, convinced that belief in God is universal; locals, however, have never heard of Christianity before. In this context, Butler's view, which Zizek is here attacking, is right: the missionary either "translates" between his own views and those of the locals, or he acts in a colonial-expansionist way by insisting on his own 'truth'. Zizek's views here seem to rest on a deeper misunderstanding: Zizek thinks there is no gap between an individual mind and universal humanity (see SELF-OTHER).

Zizek wants to invert critical analysis. He thinks we are being over-run by "pseudo-concrete images" which "blur one's reasoning", a "plague of fantasies" spread by the media; therefore, he proposes reversing the usual approach and going from concrete to abstract (PF 1). Thus, his approach rests on a conception of reasoning as somehow prior to and outside "concrete images", and confused by them; he has a goal of purifying reason by purging it of such irritating concrete concerns. For Zizek, his theory outlines a "pre-ontological dimension which precedes and eludes the constitution of reality" (PF 208) - presumably through the role of the deep structure. His aim is not to produce meaning, but to disrupt it: science leads to 'knowing too much', which means losing the "impenetrable dark spot" and "imaginary radical Otherness" around which meaning is constructed (PF 161 - i.e. the big Other). Rather, he thinks thought can directly express reality: the failure of thought, he claims, shows that it can express the structure of reality itself (TS 99). Zizek frequently makes strong claims implying absolute certainty: DSST is sprinkled with chapter abstracts where Zizek promises special insight to his readers, eg. "to know the secret of the emergence of a beautiful woman" (DSST 8) - where Zizek assumes that he will convince his readers, as well as that he knows the world perfectly.

Zizek does NOT see it as his role to tell the truth in an empirical sense. For instance, an ethics of the Real aims not to tell the truth about (eg.) the Holocaust "but, above all, to confront the way we ourselves, by means of our subjective position of enunciation, are always-already involved, engaged in it" (PF 215). The approach here is a kind of socialised version of the psychoanalytic process, although it is unclear how Zizek deals with Lacan's insistence on the irreducible specificity of the analytic "experience". In CrS and RL, Zizek says that social pathologies result directly from psychological ones, pursuing a directly reductionist line (eg. capitalism is hysterical and generates symptoms because it is produced from hysterical individuals); in NRRT the argument is more structural: the fields of individual and social pathology are equivalent because they share a deep structure. The analyst's role is to "reveal" what is wrong with the world through analysis, although the relationship between revealing and endorsing is confused: for instance, Zizek portrays Hitchcock's reproduction of sexist discourse as something which "reveals the entire problematic of sexism" (PF 147). The method Zizek favours is examination of 'notions' (myths, language); the failure to realise a notion, Zizek says, signals its insufficiency (TS 73), revealing his reduction of reality to notions (i.e. the only thing which can block a notion's self-realisation is its own insufficiency!).

In spite of his apparent contempt for empirical evidence, Zizek sprinkles his works with empirical, and also discursive and exegetical, examples (including a few which rely on strong appeals to 'the way things really are', against others' views: see OTHERS). I suspect that, although he demonsrrates his theory with a string of examples, these are pedagogic or propagandistic rather than being intended to prove his analysis (althogh he never states whether his decisionist account of belief - see ACT - applies to his own commitment to psychoanalysis); the account itself is driven by an act of faith and involves a circular, apodictic certainty. (This is suggested by several cases where Zizek uses circular argument - see below).

When he uses evidence - and even the most circular theory necessarily relies on evidence at some point, if only because it needs to be applied practically - Zizek uses it exceedingly badly. He pursues arguments based on a single, selective piece of evidence. He uses single quotes from texts outside their context (eg. Hegel quotes minus panlogicism). He frequently asserts his own views against those of opponents, as if he can prove his case with no argumentation or evidence at all, i.e. as if mere reference to his system of beliefs can prove each of its parts, and as if his views are self-evident once one understands them. He constantly hops between different and widely separated fields of evidence (Hegel exegesis, the politics of ethnic cleansing, analysis of Hitchcock or film noir) as if they are unproblematically interchangeable; in doing so he blatantly tramples all over a great many empirical and exegetical specialisms, without any regard for the previous work in these fields. He makes all kinds of wild assertions, usually unbacked, in areas (exegesis on Marx and the working class, Green theory and technology, research into the motivations behind racist prejudice) where substantial work has been done and a considerable literature exists, sometimes with substantial counterevidence.

Zizek also gives objective status to his own whims. This is particularly the case with the cult of radicalism, which seems to result from Zizek's association of truth with an "effect" - an exciting insight. As a result, he uses the fact that he finds a literature, such as on the philosophy of science, "boring", as if this proves that it is wrong (CrS 22; cf. RL 5). In his longer works, he amends the language to conceal this, although this may well be what lurks behind his constant denouncement of "classic", "common", "orthodox", "usual", "standard" etc. criticisms (these could be euphemisms for "boring").


Truth (distinguished from knowledge or meaning) is the central positive concept of Zizek's gnoseology. Zizek replaces the right to narrate, which he opposes, with an "unashamed assertion of the right to truth", which he identifies with impositional partisanship (RL 9). He rejects the idea of neutral truth, instead defining truth as "the truth of an engaged subject" (RL 4), i.e. the deeply-held beliefs of someone committed to a cause (=Sartre's "pledge"). Universal truth and partisanship (taking sides) are necessary to each other; universal truth can only come from a partisan position (RL 4-5) and "truth is by definition one-sided" (RL 5). Truth is religious, a leap of faith visible only to insiders, not to neutral observers (RL 5). So what Zizek is demanding is a 'right' to take dogmatic and absolute positions and to claim a "universal" status for them - to the exclusion of others' right to their own discourse. In practice, of course, Zizek follows this through by pursuing the "most radical" view regardless of its accuracy (see RADICALISM) and by denouncing views merely because they are "boring" or widespread.

For Zizek, truth has nothing to do with truth-claims (which Zizek terms adequatio), but instead, is about "disclosedness" - "the thing itself must first be disclosed to us as what it is" (FA 79). Truth is an event which 'just happens' (FA 79-80; cf. ACT). And " 'truth' resides in the excess of exaggeration as such"; for instance, the truth of a balanced system is the exaggeration which distorts it (PF 92; in this sense Zizek also says the excluded are the truth of capitalism, the symptom is the truth of the subject, etc.).

Most blatantly, Zizek says: "Interpretation is [i.e. should be] thus conceived as a violent act of disfiguring the interpreted text; paradoxically [!! - Zizek uses the word "paradox" to cover his own self-contradictory positions], this disfiguration... comes much closer to the 'truth' of the interpreted text than its historicist contextualisation" (PF 95). Of Lacan's readings of Plato, the Antigone myth, and Kant, Zizek says: "These readings clearly represent a case of violent appropriation, irrespective of philological rules, sometimes anachronistic, often 'factually incorrect', displacing the work from its proper hermeneutic context; yet this very violent gesture brings about a breathtaking 'effect of truth', a shattering new insight... [in which] an entirely new dimension of Plato's and Kant's work is revealed... this 'effect of truth' is strictly co-dependent with the violent gesture of 'anachronistic' appropriation" (PF 95-6). Similarly, Zizek claims "a violent 'misreading' " of an opera "gives us a new perspective on the opera itself"; the "brutal rape" of a work "brings us closer to the work In-itself than any objective historicist approach", because the in-itself/for-us distinction is suspended (PF 96).

As usual, Zizek seems unaware that this truth-effect might be merely his own reaction to these texts, and that it may have no truth-value (as opposed to emotional resonance for Zizek) due to the flaws he admits - let alone that the "revealed" dimension might not have anything to do with Plato or Kant. Suspending the in-itself/for-us distinction simply means pretending that the world objectively is what it seems to be "for us" (or rather, for Zizek) - an attractive approach for totalisers because it lets them pretend to be universal, but hardly any kind of philosophical breakthrough. How can one know this suspension remains close to the work "in-itself"? And how can one tell whether an "effect of truth" is actually an "effect of falsity" - not a sudden, bright insight, but a will-o-the-wisp, a devastating distraction or misunderstanding? (The question "How can I make use of x author?" should be kept separate from the question "What did x mean/intend?", and asking the former does not at all require claiming to be representing the author's intentions or project; I don't see why Zizek sees the need to pretend to be actually expressing the work in-itself rather than admitting to creating his own theory. cf. Althusser's annoying refusal to admit having any ideas of his own). Zizek's claim to express the one truth of other authors leads to statements such as that he knows what Lacan was thinking (see OTHERS), and the repeated denigration of alternatives to his readings with labels such as "pseudo-Hegelian" (eg. PF 221) and "pseudo-Freudian" (PF 223).

Similarly: Zizek reads the process of myth-construction as retrospectively completing a work - a kind of reverse teleology where, instead of containing seeds for the future, the past "becomes readable only retroactively" (CHU 246). Zizek is clearly confusing creation (an effective syncretism which makes use of what is transmitted from the past by altering it) with discovery of essence (i.e. of the real meaning of past works - as if the present exists to complete past theories!). For Zizek, the realisation of a theory via misreading has more Truth than the original project and its historical basis (CHU 248). It is also, Zizek says, "much more radical" to say that we "have to" see ourselves as the stage on which past conflicts are acted out, rather than to claim that we read the past via the present (FA 90-1).

'Truth' in Zizek appears to be a kind of emotional reaction one should aim to provoke, though it also seems to mean 'fit with Zizek's beliefs'. Thus, Zizek claims that Goldhagen's book "brings about an undeniable truth-effect" (PF 56) - apparently because of the reaction it caused, plus its fit with Zizek's idea of surplus-enjoyment. This is despite serious problems with the book's evidence and argument which Zizek does not seem to address at all. Even a misreading can for Zizek have a truth-effect: for instance, the mistake of reading the concept of "dialectical materialism" into Marx and Engels has had a "truth-effect" (RL 27). (Here as elsewhere, it is unclear how one distinguishes a desirable "truth-effect" from an undesirable misreading or falsity-effect - couldn't such a reading into Marx and Engels instead be a disastrous misreading which has covered other, more crucial aspects of their work?). Zizek also states, following Hegel, that Truth occurs in form (SOI 190).

The reason Zizek confuses sudden creative innovations with truth in this way is that he confuses creation with discovery. For Zizek, creative acts actually reveal or discover; for instance, he says that an insight reveals repressed content (PF 152). Thus, he misinterprets the analyst's (including his own) projection of new ideas and interpretations into a worldview, exegesis or other phenomenon as being a revelation of something already there. This is what turns the undeniable creative originality of Zizek's theory into a threateningly impositional and arrogant approach: he will not admit that he is saying to others anything but their own truth (cf. the idea of "anamorphic" truth, returning others' views in their "true-inverted" form, etc.).

Zizek sometimes identifies Truth with the deep structure. For instance, in detective novels, he claims the story (the reconstruction of the crime) needs the plot (mystery); the tragedy inherent in the plot is revealed in a non-linear way, by comparing different time periods in the novel; the plot distorts the story. For Zizek, this makes the plot the truth of the novel; the story is used to convey the plot and requires the distortion it introduces (PF 41). (NB there is a big problem here: in fiction, a story may well be USED by an author to convey a message in this way; there is no such author conveying an intended message in reality).

Zizek also pursues a barely-concealed operationalist account of truth. For Zizek, it is its social effect which makes language true, not its sincerity; subjectivity is merely null and narcissistic (SOI 211); "the measure of the authenticity of the pathetic identification lies in its sociopolitical efficiency" (TS 230). Thus, Zizek defends his identification of universality with the worst-off group, not because of any factual accuracy, but because he thinks it is "productive, theoretically as well as politically" (TS 224 - but productive OF WHAT?). This kind of account involves an appeal to an empirical reality of a kind which Zizek's theory rules out in principle (i.e. an appeal to empirical social effects, as distinguished from subjective intent). In addition, operationalism has been criticised as tautological and circular, and as conservative and anti-critical (Marcuse, One Dimensional Man). Furthermore, concepts like 'theoretical productivity' and 'insight' are highly subjective, and so are incompatible with Zizek's claim (see below) that there is a single truth in each system.

Not only is truth for Zizek disconnected from the subjective; it is also disconnected from factual or empirical accuracy. For Zizek, factual truth can be a lie used to "conceal or disavow... desire" (cf. OTHERS); lies can be truth when they betray one's desire (FA 136). So for him, truth and falsehood in the conventional sense do not matter; what matters is how the alternation of truth and lies discloses desire (FA 137). (The claim here may have some validity: a lie is itself a "fact" in the sense of being a piece of evidence, although in politics as opposed to psychology, this is about propaganda and effectiveness, not political reality). Therefore, Zizek proposes a "notion of authentic subjective Truth as opposed to mere 'objective' knowledge", beyond which there is a further, even more fundamental knowledge (FA 137), in which the notion of truth is restored: "I can tell the truth without guilt... because it is only truth that matters, not my desires invested in it" (FA 142). This deeper level moves beyond guilt - which, however, Zizek identifies subjectively rather than objectively (one is guilty if one enjoys something, even if it is a duty: PF 223). Although the deeper level also eliminates subjective bases for assessing truth, Zizek's particular distaste is for 'objective' criteria, and he determinedly tries to separate truth from issues of empirical evidence. He says that even if a claim is empirically true, it is still (subjectively) false unless it involves an authentic act; otherwise it involves a disavowed libidinal investment (CHU 126-7). "True" seems to mean "pure of motive" in Zizek rather than having any reference to accuracy. (In practice, however, Zizek never fully follows through on his rejection of empirical evidence, since he happily uses it to found claims, especially against others, along the lines of 'that's not really the way the world is': see OTHERS, especially against Butler: Butler is wrong because her image of capitalism differs from what it really is).

Thus, Zizek relies on a hyper-empiricist mode of argument (a reality beyond subjectivity which he can appeal to as an ultimate authority), despite having a strongly and dogmatically anti-empiricist epistemology (lies are more true than truth because of what they reveal about subjectivity). The outcome is confused and rather dangerous, tailgating with the Stalinist idea of objective identity or intent independently of both facts and subjectivity (Stalin's "objective counterrevolutionaries"; Mao's "unity of motive and effect"). Indeed, Zizek openly uses "good old Stalinist terms" like "objectively true" (DSST 244; cf. also OTHERS).

Strangely given its irreducibility to evidence, Zizek also claims there is only one Truth in each historical situation (TS 131; cf. ACT - the one "touchy nodal point"), and everyone pursues a global notion of truth (CHU 235). Further, he invests this truth with mystical powers: "knowledge" can be "in itself an act of liberation" (FA ii).

Zizek relates truth to the Real, and therefore resists filling in gaps in knowledge (and solving problems - see CONSERVATISM). For Zizek, filling in gaps does not add truth; it detracts from it by removing "the real presence of the Other" (PF 155; i.e. the Real); such "excessive fullness" therefore leads to a loss of reality, because the "obscene ethereal presence" of the "Spectral" Real reverts to being an object of representation (PF 155). This is what Zizek sees happening in over-reflexive societies (see CAPITALISM). So Zizek does not believe that it is impossible for everything to be explained; but he is opposed to explanation, because it eliminates belief in the Real, which Zizek thinks we must retain to avoid some (largely unspecified) catastrophe. There is, Zizek says, a second level of existence: drive. Drive has nothing to do with the body, and subordinates it; it is " 'meta-physical' in the sense of involving another materiality beyond (or, rather, beneath) the materiality located in (what we experience as) spatio-temporal reality"; drive gives us access to "Matter... as such, outside its reference to Meaning", for instance, it gives us colour, shape and sound (PF 32). Except colour etc. are NOT beyond Meaning; I suspect Zizek's idea of matter in-itself beyond meaning is actually about meaning treated as the essence of matter, i.e. about mythical figures (see below).

It is important to emphasise that, while Zizek's theory rules out appeal to empirical claims, they are nevertheless necessary in his account: this is a major contradiction in his approach. For instance, Zizek's definition of the "proper object" of psychoanalysis presupposes an empirical claim: "the disintegration of traditional structures that regulated libidinal life" (TS 341). In practice, Zizek's resistance is not so much to making empirical claims as to backing them up properly. His account is full of empirical claims - but they are asserted, selective, or badly demonstrated (see below).

Word-labels are arbitrary; there is no reason "truth" needs to mean what it usually means, although Zizek's unusual definition could cause a lot of confusion. What is more problematic is that he utterly devalues all the concepts he brings in to define what would usually be called truth (empirical accuracy or verifiability; absence of deceit or dissimulation), even though he clearly relies on claims of this type in his own arguments. In relation to more usual uses, I would suggest that Zizek's truth is not really "true" at all; a "truth" is something which is strongly believed in, which is hardly a reason to attach validity to it. Zizek appears to be playing weasel-words: by defining strongly-held partisan beliefs as "truth", he wants to attach the positively-loaded adjective "true" to them, drawing on the legitimacy it gains from its more usual uses. But, since the meaning of the term has changed, such legitimacy cannot go with it; in the absence of such legitimacy, there is no reason why one should value "truth" as Zizek defines it (and Zizek provides little reason to value it).

Further, Zizek wants this "truth" to be singular - again he seems here to be drawing invalidly on the usual meanings of the word "truth". Clearly, strongly-held beliefs clash with each other; even Zizek's favourite examples, Christianity and Leninism, have frequently come to blows. If "truth" is defined exclusively as a strongly committed partisan belief, it cannot be singular. But Zizek is again using the term as a weasel-word: his claim that there is one truth implies that the truth fits with reality as it is, i.e. it draws on the conventional equation of truth with knowledge which Zizek specifically renounces. In this way, empirical claims slip in the back door, in such a way that Zizek can make them without having to defend them (since in principle he is against them).

Zizek's contempt for the empirical can go to quite some lengths. Take for instance the following discussion of Christianity: "any idiot can bring about simple stupid miracles like walking on water or making food fall down from heaven - the true miracle... is that of universal thought"; it takes St Paul's acts to "translate the idiosyncratic Christ-Event into the form of universal thought" (TS 158). Perhaps George W Bush can make food fall from heaven with a little help from warplanes; but I've yet to see "any idiot" walk on water... Presumably this contempt also extends to the practical effects of revolutions etc.

In contrast, once a belief is widespread, it apparently loses its truth: Zizek dismisses it as a "cliche" or "commonplace" (?TS? 104). Presumably, if it does not cause disturbing effects, and is not a startling new insight, it cannot be a truth-event and therefore cannot be true. This raises the problem of how Zizek's approach could ever be generalised to the extent that it would become "socially organic" in Gramsci's sense, and generate actual historical effects. Zizek seems to be exiling himself permanently to the ivory tower with such claims.


Zizek's approach to interpreting evidence, theories, etc. rests on a reduction of everything to prior psychoanalytic and metaphysical claims. Freud is reputed to have said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar (even though it can be a phallic symbol). For Zizek, in contrast, a cigar is never just a cigar; everything is an outgrowth of the concealed deep structure. For instance: phobic objects are always stand-ins for castration (PF 103); "socio-ideological phenomena never mean what they seem/purport to mean" (PF 216). This is not so much a hermeneutics of suspicion as a dogmatic belief that everything involves epiphenomena of a deeper reality Zizek has access to. Phenomena "never mean what they seem/purport to mean" (PF 216), and "apparently innocent" references to (eg.) utility "always" involve what I would term mythical references according to Zizek (PF 4).

Zizek believes in reading an ideological formation as if it were a dream, to uncover psychological phenomena of displacement and surplus-enjoyment which Zizek thinks operate in them (RL 7).

This approach is counterposed to seeking underlying causes for social effects, and therefore runs against much of the tradition of critique. For Zizek, any attempt to seek underlying causes in society is a "paranoiac stance" based on belief in an "Other of the Other" who "programmes" apparently random social effects (CHU 253). Discussing causes of (for instance) Nazism, Zizek dismisses the search for causes because he assumes in advance that the Fall is constituted simultaneously with what is lost (PF 14 - which provides a vague psychologising assertion, but does not bring us any closer to understanding how Nazism happened). Zizek goes even further than this, denouncing attempts to establish that catastrophic events are meaningful as a "temptation of the sacrifice", and demanding instead that we should view events such as the Holocaust as occurring "without a purpose, just as a blind effect" (DSST 65), reducible to "the abyss of the act itself: of the free decision, in all its monstrosity" (DSST 66). And how inconvenient it is when mere facts get in the way of such philosophising! No wonder Zizek wants them sent to the guillotine!

Zizek is also against the idea that ideology is an escape from reality. Rather, he sees it as an escape into reality, from the real of desire (SOI 45). This involves seeing reality as if it were an imaginary escape covering the actual level of existence (the Real) - so that empirical issues about reality are equivalent to issues around films or dreams.

For Zizek, reality is the cover for something else: every actual activity, he says, is the 'form of appearance' of something invisible and purely virtual; for instance, the penis is the form of appearance of the (structural) phallus (its potency depending on this absent-virtual entity), and the 'real power' of the judge depends on purely virtual insignia (PF 150-1). Materiality obscures an "immaterial virtual order which effectively runs the show" (?TS? 103). For Zizek, believing directly in reality is a sign of psychosis; believing one is a 'man' and that one directly has a body is mad (PF 142-3).

Reality as a field is for Zizek a way of hiding from the Real; narrative is basically circular, since it presupposes its conclusions, and it exists as a way of covering up trauma (=Real; PF 10-11). Reality is a universal Lie; the recurrence of failure happens because of a "necessity" and "absolute certainty" that the repressed truth will return in contingencies within this Lie (PF 130). Talking is at least partly a cover for preventing real awareness (PF 34). 'Our' ordinary reality is an inane exchange [NB link to the issue of "boring" ideas] which exists so we can avoid an encounter with the real trauma (DSST 196); reality exists to protect us from our dreams: "reality is for those who cannot sustain the dream" (DSST 198; cf. SOI 45). This is the case even if the remembered traumatic experience is hallucinated or imagined; it is still a Real disrupting reality (DSST 197). Scientific discourse (contrast Zizek's remarks elsewhere on science!) is "empty tittle-tattle" masking ignorance and distracting from "subjective truth" (DSST 23); for instance: miracles do occur, but subjectively, eg. pardon (DSST 25).

Meanwhile, virtual phenomena are real: cyberspace role-play may be "more real than reality" in that it expresses the true core of one's personality (DSST 198; contrast Scott and Reich on how the release of repressed phenomena is NOT a way of revealing a prior truth, because the expression is exaggerated by its repression elsewhere). Zizek even seems to support what Barthes calls myths (they have several names in Zizek, including "Hegelian notions"). For Zizek, myths are more real than reality even though they never happened, because of their role in founding the symbolic tradition (FA 64-5). For instance, a staged performance of perfection is "more real" than common, imperfect but actual acts (FA 66). For Zizek, "the Real is... on the side of fantasy", against reality (FA 67). Zizek treats Barthesian myths such as Americanness and goldness as structurally necessary (SOI 95-6), though they also have a critical role in, for instance, Zizek's account of anti-Semitism (SOI 96-7). Illusion, Zizek claims, is essential: without it, "we lose reality itself" (TS 78). " 'illusions' are sustained by... a drive which is more real than reality itself" (DSST 167), and the Real occurs, not in reality, but in illusions which 'irrationally' persist (DSST 166). Furthermore, an Act based on the Real changes the coordinates of the reality principle itself (DSST 167).

Zizek even goes as far as to say that "disregard for the facts had a certain paradoxical dignity", at least for Stalinism (DSST 110). His ethics also involves distorting facts as almost a good in itself: Zizek openly advocates faking photographs to ensure the victory of one's own side (TS 222). He does not believe in treating others' truth-claims as truth-claims, but rather, re-interprets them through the lens of his own theory, symptomatically (eg. TS 109).

The result of all this is an impositional approach to interpretation with little respect for evidence or for others' claims. Frequently, Zizek works through simple inversions; for instance, if 'our' experience is of Lenin as out-of-date, this really means we are 'out of sync' with the historical dimension and the idea of a centralised party. If this doesn't fit the facts, Zizek says, "so much worse for the facts"; "we should be ready to fully assume this paradox" (RL 26). Zizek has sufficient faith in the revelatory character of his own theory that he will posit its correctness even in the face of evidence against it.

Zizek also claims that something's objective significance has nothing to do with its empirical characteristics, thereby rendering his theory completely insulated from proof and falsification. For instance, he says that everything in psychoanalysis is free association even if it is carefully planned (PF 165). External obstacles are always for Zizek internal ones (eg. TS 240 on the Enlightenment). This is structuralism at its worst, affirming the deep structure even when evidence contradicts it.

A cynic could easily make a case that Zizek's theories of truth and meaning are a way of systematically removing every possible barrier, standard or control which could impede Zizek claiming absolute objective status for whatever beliefs, whims or dogmas he wants his readers to accept. It is hard to see how, on Zizek's terms, one can assess his own claims; he rejects equally the anti-essentialism of 'postmodernism' and appeals to evidence, he explicitly justifies selective and "brutal" exegesis", and he is prepared to say "so much for the facts" if his theories don't fit them. Certainly his theory shows all the signs of avoiding the possibility of being shown to be wrong.

Often, Zizek uses an approach of deducing disavowed intent from effects. He believes in a subjective guilt unconnected to intent, a guilt which is knowable (so it is, as far as I can see, identical to the Stalinist idea of "objective guilt" or the Maoist idea of "unity and motive and effect"): "one is responsible in so far as one enjoys doing it" (PF 57). He also believes there is such a thing as unknowing admission (PF 61). (see also OTHERS for more such cases of asserting a kind of second level of intent about implications which are not willed).

Indeed, Zizek openly advocates an impositional interpretive approach. He sees the analyst as holding a relational position of "absolute certainty" rather than being an "empiricist" - the analyst "embodies" this certainty "of the analysand's 'guilt', of his unconscious desire" (PF 107); Zizek extends this attitude into politics also. Zizek's identification (in RL) of the analyst with God and the Party is indicative: in Zizek's theory, everything is wrong, guilty, a cover, a lie, a denial or disavowal... except the standpoint of the analyst/theorist, which is somehow miraculously beyond criticism. Everyone else is driven by pathological motives to cover something up or hide from the Real - but we are never told what drives Zizek, and how he can avoid the problems which are so pervasive that they always affect everyone else. Zizek is clearly claiming an elite standpoint, and further, one which cannot be replicated in any kind of free and equal relation; others must always enter the relation in a subordinate position, as patients, since two omniscient figures would become entwined in an insoluble conflict. (cf. also the "anamorphic" character of truth: to be seen in its true form, something must be reflected back in distorted form. This idea gives an enormous intuitive role to the therapist/theorist to select the 'true' distortion).

Zizek tends to argue backwards when he uses evidence: instead of proving abstractions with evidence, he proves the supposed deeper truth or falsity of evidence by comparing it with his own abstractions - though this does not stop him also using appeals to 'how things really are' against other people's theories.

Faced with two opposing views he dislikes, Zizek treats them as "strictly correlative" (PF 165), i.e. treats them as two extremes of the same basic logic. At other times, Zizek simply reduces empirical questions to metaphysical ones - for instance, audience effects to jouissance (PF 53). He also turns his evidence upside down: if a patient says "I do not know who that [person in my dream] was, but it was not my mother!", this means that it was (TS 110; it may simply be that the patient realises this is the conclusion the analyst will jump to - hard luck if he thought he could head this off, Zizek will jump there anyway!).

Zizek's impositional approach to evidence sometimes leads to his distorting concepts totally so as to make them fit every eventuality. Take for instance his idea of "forced choice". Usually in Zizek, this means a choice which is portrayed (in the Symbolic) as free, but in which there are taboos and sanctions (in the Imaginary) against making one of the two choices - such as conscripted soldiers being ordered to voluntarily swear an oath of loyalty. But Nazism is a problem for his analysis. Nevertheless, he uses it as proof. The choice of soldiers and SS officers to take part in genocide was officially a free choice, and Zizek admits there were no sanctions against those who refused - there was an actually-effective right to refuse without sanction. Nevertheless, Zizek claims that this was a forced choice; the few who refused were allowed to do so "to maintain the semblance of a free choice" (PF 57). But if there was an actually-effective right to refuse which some took, this is not a semblance of free choice - it is a free choice, or at least, it is not a forced choice in Zizek's more usual sense (especially if one takes seriously his claim that making the wrong choice in a forced choice suspends the Imaginary and disrupts the social!). The basis for saying this was not a free choice is apparently that people felt immersed in obligation, "swimming in a collective will" (PF 58). But if Zizek is making out that this means they were obligated in the sense of his term "forced choice", he is contradicting the source (Goldhagen) whose evidence he is relying on; further, he is inverting his usual analysis, in which collective will RESULTS FROM forced choice (rather than constituting it, as here). Zizek seems to be trying to draw legitimacy for a very detailed theory from a very general admission (that Nazis took part in genocide out of a sense of commitment to a collective project) which is compatible with many possible readings (Gramscian, Reichean, Sartrean, etc.).

The range of 'forms of life' under critique by Zizek is exceedingly limited; it seems on the whole to be limited to the psychologically normal and relatively conventional, in European and North American societies. Furthermore, it rests on stereotypes of this narrow group. Take for instance Zizek's discussion of "the geographical triad Germany-France-England as expressing three different existential attitudes" (PF 5). It is a sign of Zizek's theoretical short-sightedness that he could read something as extensive as a difference in existential attitudes into the relatively small differences between England, France and Germany - and a sign of his stereotypical worldview that he could think such attributes are consistent enough in such cases to allow them to be compared so straightforwardly (Zizek is actually comparing MYTHS of Frenchness etc. here, but he thinks he is comparing the actual countries). This analysis is almost the REVERSE of Barthes's analysis of myths of national character: whereas Barthes treats myths as misperceptions of practically-rooted differences, Zizek denounces ideas like praxical utility and use-value as ideology (PF 2-3), and endorses the mythical images. (NB the reactionary effects this could have on struggles against racism, sexism etc. - this fits closely with Zizek's idea of identifying with anathemas). Zizek lays his entire emphasis on minute, trivial differences (similar to what Baudrillard in Consumer Society calls SMD, Smallest Marginal Difference) - toilets, dish-washing - which according to Zizek "index the fundamental perceptions of... national identity" (PF 5)! Zizek produces no evidence for this claim; I suspect it is unlikely that the mythical figures Zizek present are actually the focus for national identity, or even that members of the 'nations' concerned are aware of the differences in these fields (how many British people have seen a French toilet?). That toilets carry ideology is believable (especially if one contrasts substantial differences, e.g. between having them and not having them); that small differences play a part in national identity is also believable; but the whole account Zizek gives is too neat and simple.

Zizek's impositional approach minimises his critical potential. Take for instance his claim that the "non-historical kernel" of jouissance "permeates our daily lives - one needs only the eyes to see it" (PF 53). By "eyes" he means "selective discourse", but the important thing is that one already needs to accept his theory to see what he is seeing; his theory cannot have a critical effect because he cannot persuade someone who does not already have the right "eyes". Similarly with his claim that Hitchcock "practised the critique of ideology" - the question arises of why, if this is the case, the world has not been revolutionised, since Hitchcock's films were widely viewed. Zizek unwittingly provides the answer to this question: one has to be "versed in recognising the Hitchcockian shibboleth" to read him in this way (PF 147). So Hitchcock cannot have any ideological effect except on an elite few who already accept his critique (and on whom, therefore, he also cannot have a critical effect of changing beliefs). Any "criticism" such approaches pursue is necessarily ineffective except to the converted. This fits Zizek's model of truth (cf. ACT also): one only understands Christianity is one is a Christian; cannot be converted by Christianity's Truth (CHU 229).

Zizek wants to see fantasy as a third layer of existence: neither (externally) objective nor (internally) subjective (FA 83). This is all very well, but how, therefore, can one show that it exists, or what it contains, or how it works? The problem with a sphere which is neither subjective nor objective is that it cannot be verified or falsified either by subjective or objective means.

Another point that Zizek insists on (despite his equal insistence that truth is singular - see above) is that the Real (antagonism, etc.) creates a basic split which prevents any neutral or shared standpoint on the world emerging. Antagonism is not, Zizek claims, between two truth-claims, but rather, is seen differently, depending on which side one is on (CHU 215). One cannot take a neutral stand on a situation because one is always-already IN any situation into which one intervenes; circumstances are "always-already 'posited' by the practical context of our intervenions in them" (CHU 228-9). For Zizek "there is no 'neutral' universality that would serve as the medium for... particular positions" (CHU 316). On many issues, Zizek claims, one can only see things from one side or the other, like the image of two faces or a vase: one can see it as either, but not as both. Thus, one either sees the economy or politics; one cannot see both, "one has to make a choice"; they are so intertwined that there is no way one can see them together (RL 15-16). Similarly with sexual difference, class struggle, etc. (although Zizek's remarks on perversion suggest one CAN avoid choosing a sex: Zizek merely dislikes people so refusing). It is for Zizek NEVER possible to agree on a set of categories. The example he gives in this passage is Christians and Muslims: they are so different, they cannot even agree on what separates them (CHU 315); ditto with Left and Right (CHU 315-16). "for example, 'class struggle' is that on account of which every direct reference to universality (of 'humanity', of 'our nation', etc.) is, always in a specific way, 'biased', dislocated with regard to its literal meaning. 'Class struggle' is the Marxist name for this 'operator of dislocation'; as such, 'class struggle' means there is no neutral metalanguage allowing us to grasp society as a given 'objective' totality, since we always-already 'take sides'. The fact that there is no 'neutral', 'objective' concept of class struggle is thus the crucial constituent of this notion" (PF 216). When both sides accept a relation or a shared structure, this always means that one side has won (CHU 320). (cf. Althusser who also says something like this).

In RL Zizek also adds the Israel-Palestinian conflict to his list of irreducible conflicts.

There are several problems with this. Firstly: what relations are governed by irreducible antagonisms? Is it ALL social relations, in which case Zizek is making the untenable claim that all relationships are basically war? Or is it only some? Does it HAVE to include class, religion and gender, or is it displaced between them?

Secondly, this approach leads to a disastrous social and political pessimism: all conflicts are rendered insoluble by it.

Thirdly, there is a sneaky trick going on in all this: if there is no neutral universal standpoint, then there is no standpoint from which one can neutrally and universally say that there is no neutral universal standpoint. If one always-already HAS to choose, it is not clear how can avoid having always-already CHOSEN - which rules out actually seeing clearly enough that there is no neutral universality in order to be able to say as much. Clearly Zizek is claiming SOME space for neutral universality, in practice if not in theory; otherwise, general claims about antagonism, class struggle etc. could not be made. If there were no neutral space because every neutral position is contaminated with antagonism, each side in the antagonism would necessarily perceive its own side as "neutral universality", and it would be impossible to state that it does not exist even though such a statement would in principle be true.

Fourthly, if one has to choose sides without any neutral standpoint to compare them from, one cannot have a basis for choosing. Nevertheless, Zizek wants to privilege his own choices. He presents a general social theory which he portrays as neutral and universal (Lacan goes a step further and actually claims scientific status). Even in relation to specific issues such as class, Zizek wants to choose one side (the proletariat), and in order to do so, he reintroduces what is basically a 'neutral', 'universal' standard: i.e. the definition of an authentic Act, which renders a leftist Act authentic and a rightist one false. This includes an appeal to the 'world as it really is' (a distinction between the actual kernel and imagined stand-ins) which clearly involves appealing to a neutral universality which can be seen by all (see ACT). Zizek's approach is therefore basically a cop-out - he says "there is no universal standard" to get out of defending his chosen standards, but he nevertheless acts as if there IS a neutral universal standard - without feeling obliged to defend either the standard itself or the act of positing one.

Similarly, Zizek's theory cannot account for his own standpoint. He makes universal claims all over the place; his approach to examples rests on a claim to be able to select a particular example as perfectly expressing the universal, for instance (see METHOD). However, if there is "no neutral universal standpoint", such claims are impossible. So is the standpoint of the analyst: if there is no neutral standpoint, the analyst must be as awash with specific traumas, coping mechanisms, defences and transferences as the patient, and any result of analysis cannot be authentic - it can only involve two distant people talking past each other.

Fifthly, despite insisting on the necessity of choosing, Zizek himself nevertheless refuses to choose. He provides a general theory of truth-events, but this covers a number of ideologies which are incompatible, and Zizek refuses to choose between them, identifying at once with Lenin, St Paul, de Gaulle, Pope John Paul, Robespierre and Mao, depending on mood and exigency. (The claims he makes - such as that each theory is based on a dogmatic truth-event accessible only to insiders and that each is retrospectively constructed as a closed system - do not at all aid a choice between them; indeed, it makes such a choice more difficult).

Sixthly, while there is no neutral standpoint from which to assess rival claims (IN SOME CASES - not all conflicts are irreducible), there is nevertheless usually a space of overlap allowing negotiation of meaning. Israelis and Palestinians, for instance, have a shared discourse of anti-racism despite apparently irreducible conflict. Further: while two sides may express themselves in different words, it is by no means obvious that they are referring to something different. When leftists defend "universal solidarity and proletarian internationalism" against "flag-waving jingoism and nationalist bigotry", and rightists defend "respect and fidelity to nation and tradition" against "decadent cosmopolitan chaos and selfish sectional demands", what differs is only the choice of words - or, more specifically, the value-loading (the plus or minus sign) attached to the words. The terms used are strictly equivalent - only with a different loading (i.e. there IS agreement on what the disagreement is about; it is just that the agreed difference can be expressed in ways which favour each side). For instance, an analyst of the discourse above could say: "The two sides disagree about whether one should support the concept of the nation. The leftist articulates this concept negatively, connecting it to the negatively-coded concepts of 'illusion', 'stupidity' and 'ritual', and contrasts it to concepts coded to positive values of 'solidarity' and 'science'; the rightist articulates 'nation' to positively-coded concepts of 'propriety', 'loyalty' and 'tradition', against negatively-coded concepts of 'chaos', 'rootlessness' and 'selfishness' ". The more complex the cultural differences, the more complex the comparisons; Levi-Strauss needs more complex differentiations than those listed here to arrange myths into a system of comparison. Nevertheless, comparisons are possible. Even where each side has libidinally invested different aspects of an issue, this does not mean that one cannot find a conceptual unity on WHAT the struggle is about. There is no prior neutral universality; nevertheless, there is a possibility of creating something closer to a 'universality' by translating between different sets of concepts. Zizek pursues a conservative fatalism in refusing to consider such a translation even as a possibility. Furthermore, it is by no means evident that any conflict is intractable, for the same reason: construct a "translation" and the two sets of claims become interchangeable and in principle 'testable' against each other.

Actually, Zizek acts as if there IS neutral universality which he can appeal to against opponents, precisely because the framework provided by the neutral, universal statement that "there is no neutral universality" privileges the selection of whichever side rejects such universality more openly. Take for instance the following passage: "a true Leninism is not afraid... to assume all the consequences, unpleasant as they may be, of realising his political project... a Leninist, like a Conservative, is authentic [because]... fully aware of what it actually means to take power and to exert it" (OB 4). This is not the only case of Zizek referring to authenticity, which clearly requires an assumption of a neutral universal standpoint. This passage also involves factually asserted and singular concepts of 'the consequences', conceived as an externality, and "what it actually means to take power" - again, as if this is an external fact, a kind of 'law of power' which humans cannot affect. Without such claims, he could not denounce leftists who shirk such assumptions; however, he cannot hold such assumptions without implicitly positing a neutral universality as a basis for privileging particular assertions of 'the way things are' (what it is to assume power, authenticity, etc.).

Zizek also has an account of belief which is basically non-empirical: belief is always deferred to others, or more specifically, to a "subject supposed to believe". Further, true belief rests on a lack of positive verification, and a miracle is only a miracle if it is only visible to the converted (PF 106-9).


Zizek's approach involves making de facto empirical claims, even though he rejects such an approach in principle. In practice, therefore, Zizek's contempt for empiricity expresses itself, not in an avoidance of empirical claims, but in an evasion of the need to prove, show, or demonstrate these claims to be valid or accurate. This leads to a whole string of wild assertions, which obviously have the form of empirical truth-claims but which Zizek makes no attempt to back; many of these are highly problematic, either because of definite evidence to the contrary, or because they are implausible unless backed by evidence. A few of the wilder examples:

* We always have a voice telling us what to do (PF 65)

* "Today's neo-Fascism is more and more 'postmodern', civilised, playful, involving ironic self-distance" (PF 64; Zizek also says the opposite, i.e. that fascism is a return in the real of non-reflexive antagonism).

* Zizek simply asserts the "three lines of separation" he sees as constituting the "hermeneutic horizon of our [!!] everyday life" (PF 133).

* Zizek offers a hypothesis that Nazis like Eichmann were not as Arendt claims pure subjects of the signifier; they had a phantasmic support externalised in Nazi ideology (CHU 312) - a claim for which he provides no evidence.

* Drug abuse results from the externalisation of emotions in society (TS 373-4 - i.e. from people coming to see emotions as external to themselves, so they can be altered by artificial intevention). The timing is clearly wrong here: drug abuse (especially opium) was fairly widespread in the early twentieth century, before the period of 'postmodern' capitalism where Zizek locates the growth of reflexivity).

* Only humans have a problem with disposing of excrement (PF 5). So why do cats bury it?

* Whereas for animals the zero-point of sex is copulation, for people it is masturbating while fantasising (PF 65).

* If people were immortal, they would automatically be able to create by mere thought (TS 163-4)

* Gay men actually want to be criminalised, because the object-cause of gay desire is its secrecy and transgression. Gay men therefore oppose liberal 'inclusive' legislation (DSST 147-8). But gay men campaign against their own criminalisation!!!!!

* In TS, Zizek provides a string of exegetical claims about Hegel which are dramatically original: that he is a materialist, has no concept of telos, no end of history in either past or future, does not rely mainly on the triad, does not see history as the self-becoming of an Idea or Spirit, does not want people reduced to functions of the general good, etc. However, he does not engage with the literature on Hegel and uses only one or two quotes from Hegel's own works.

* Zizek claims that Pauline Christianity overthrew Rome (TS 24?). Pauline Christianity involved the adaptation of Christianity for Roman elites; the 'barbarian' pagans overthrew Rome...

* Blatant racist stereotyping: "the Japanese have added the touch of snobbery to capitalist functionalism" (PF 44).

* Zizek's account of the rise of ethnic and religious fundamentalisms (TS 214-15) portrays it entirely as an outgrowth of global capitalism and ignores the role of pre-capitalist local traditions (from the Chiapas indigenous peoples to the structure of the bazaar in Afghanistan) in it.

* Pornography is no longer primarily an aid to masturbation (PF 125)

* All pagans think, as the "kernel" of their worldview, that existence proves sin and is paid for in death (DSST 53)

* ALL images of heroes HAVE TO include a human flaw (FA 48)

* Sex always involves a third presence, a Gaze watching it, necessary to found enjoyment (PF 178-9)

* "We [!! - I don't] drink coke" because of an "auratic dimension" which is a pure commodity with no separate use-value (FA 22-3). Zizek has more of a case with this one; it echoes Baudrillard etc. But I doubt this is the ONLY reason people drink Coke: perhaps people like the taste; perhaps it is mildly addictive; perhaps people appropriate it to express subcultures and identities (in India, Coke and Pepsi are aligned with Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists and used as a sign of their difference!). Uses and gratifications is a legitimate research area; one cannot simply go around inventing uses and gratifications when one has no proof. At the very least we deserve a "maybe" instead of certain assertion.

* On several occasions, Zizek gives an account of skinheads' ironic detachment from their own acts. His evidence for this (apparently drawn from one book, which he does not bother to reference) is that, when pressed, they give reasons such as insecurity, bad parents and low social mobility (FA 9; TS 202-3; CrS). This does NOT fit the structure of neo-Nazi discourse; I've seen several documentaries myself, and most show a deep-rooted commitment which the Nazis feel to be absolutely natural; they rely to an incredible extent on naturalising discourses ("I just feel this way because it's natural; I don't need to give reasons", etc.); this also fits with the letter to Organise! (see POLITICS: Racism), as well as Reich's analyses of Nazi dicourse and my own knowledge of this. When Nazis give reasons, these are usually appeals to their pseudo-rational ideology, as Zizek is well aware; see TS 201 and CrS. If neo-fascists sometimes give self-legitimations from the world of social work and sociology, this is probably as a discursive negotiation: they do not believe in such terms, but know they can evade hassle or minimise punishment from social workers, judges, journalists, etc. if they use this kind of discourse.

Matza has studied this kind of issue (not in relation to neo-Nazis, but in relation to juvenile delinquents), and reaches quite different conclusions to Zizek. According to Matza, sad tales told to outsiders may not be part of the inner culture of a deviant community; they may be attempts to make fools of perceived opponents, or to justify themselves to others on others' terms (Becoming Deviant, 38-9 - NB again this raises the issue of Zizek's refusal to engage with relations between the self and others ; see SELF-OTHER). "Rarely, if ever, is the difference in [crime] rate between a category in which [the deviant subject] may be placed and a category in which he would be misplaced a relevant issue for him" (BD 91). Delinquents' use of ideas such as family troubles, adolescent angst and mental illness is, Matza claims, "exogenous", "probably coopted... from court and welfare agents", "especially tactical or Machiavellian", "incongruous with the delinquent's traditional self-image", and not presented plausibly: when they use it "they seem to reveal, perhaps purposefully, their disbelief and insincerity... giving the impression that they are 'putting you on' "; such use anyway only happens in official settings such as court (Delinquency and Drift p. 83-4). It occurs in a space of social negotiation and translation which Zizek unfortunately tries to deny exists (cf. his remarks on colonising worldviews - above). This is one case where evidence is definitely pointed directly against Zizek's assertions.

* Zizek thinks we will soon end up with purely virtual wars (PF 164).

* "the perceiving subject is always-already gazed ar from a point that eludes his eyes" (TS 79).

* Monty Python is "overconformist" (PF 174).

* Why are New Age critiques of science absurd? Because crises such as global warming are undetectable without science (TS 335). But do New Age critiques require such evidence as an absolute? Couldn't science be self-disproving in this way?

* Desire is reducible to what the other desires (from the self seen as an object) (TS 364).

Incidentally: Zizek half-admits in a few cases that the actual causality behind the evidence he is using has nothing to do with the way he conceptualises it; some of the devices he analyses in films have their actual origins in technical outcomes of censorship (PF 174-5). In the case of the Gaze, Zizek admits his concept cannot be found anywhere in spectators' experience (CHU 260), but he claims it is valid nevertheless because it is necessary to explain spectators' enjoyment (CHU 260-1).


Zizek's account is barely stronger when he provides argument and backing than when he merely asserts his claims. Often he provides a single conceptualisation of a phenomenon without giving any reasons why this explanation should be preferred to others. A few examples:

* Take for instance the claim that the foreclosure of the fact of social exclusion returns as racism (TS 199). This account is certainly causal, but it is problematic. The problem of foreclosure Zizek asserts, if it exists at all, applies equally to all individuals in contemporary societies. Nevertheless, racism, especially in the overt, violent forms Zizek stresses, is not universal; indeed, 'fundamentalist' race-hate gangs are a strictly minority phenomenon. So why does this foreclosure produce racism in some people but not others? How are the remainder of the population coping with a foreclosure which HAS TO return somewhere? (The problem here is again one of Zizek acting as if everyone is part of a single subject, so one person's acts can be the result of someone else's symptom - see SELF-OTHER).

* Zizek's account of false memory syndrome relates it to assumptions about someone receiving the fullness of enjoyment (FA 74). This is a mystification; Zizek's accounts are merely based on the fact that one CAN interpret it in this way, as if that means one SHOULD or even MUST. Alternatives are available; false memory syndrome could be linked to the juridicalisation of life and a resultant internalisation of ideas that problems must have an origin in someone else's abuses, for instance.

* A blatantly circular argument, to support his idea of fantasy functioning as an inherent transgression: Zizek argues that great art is able to expose this functioning of fantasy, manipulating it to show its radical falsity (PF 18-20). The circularity here is that the way one tells great art from whatever the other pole of the binary is, is for Zizek precisely that it has this effect. Similarly with the word "show": to whom does great art show radical falsity? Presumably, as with Hitchcock (see above), to those with eyes to see; i.e. great art is art which Zizek is able to reconceptualise in terms of his own categories...

Actually, Zizek's use of films, art, literature, jokes and so on as evidence relies constantly on this kind of tautology: comparing 'good' films to 'bad' ones, or 'progressive' from 'reactionary' ones, or 'art' from 'kitsch', etc., based on standards originating in Zizek's theory, and then using this as evidence in support of the theory (as if the accuracy of the attributions to films were beyond question, and as if this were some kind of objective claim, separate from the theory which it is derived from). For instance: his comparison of war films about which are subversive with ones which aren't, used to 'prove' his account of petty resistance and humanisation as non-subversive (in relation to MASH, Full Metal Jacket and others; see RESISTANCE). This reasserts his general claim in the context of a discussion of war films, but it does not add anything to it; as such, it shows the claim to be open to application, but does not do anything to prove it. Similarly with Zizek's accounts of 'why x work of art is sublime': it is unsuprising that this just happens to prove Zizek's theories, since he is choosing which works are sublime in the first place, apparently based on precisely the same theories. Similarly about which films, and theories, "miss the point"; which are "flabby", "decadent", or "New Age babble"; etc. This is classic operationalist logic (see above): the conclusion one aims to prove is identical with the analytical standards one uses to prove it, so claims become virtually self-proving (America is a democracy because "democracy", defined "realistically", is made to mean the system which exists in America; etc.).

* Zizek uses wordplay to dismiss opponents. For instance: defending what he terms 'occasionalism', he argues that the case against it is disproven because it is really a case for it (?!!!) - the argument that knowledge of truth contradicts "our sensible experience" is not really a case against occasionalism, because according to occasionalism, it has to contradict experience otherwise God would appear to be a horrifying tyrant (PF 80). Thus, we need to be unaware or (or in psychosis, to reify) overdetermination (PF 80-1). Actually, this proves nothing - a form of control which must do nothing to control anyone so it is not experienced as a control, is in terms of its effects equivalent to a total absence of control! NB how Zizek does not ANSWER the argument against his position; he simply reclassifies it as if it were not really a challenge in the first place.

* In Zizek's upside-down world, because Nazism is a return of the repressed, it therefore really does re-enact pagan rituals and Greens have no right to complain that it doesn't (PF 42). Here, a categorising device evades the empirical question of whether the Nazis re-enacted pagan rituals: they must do, because pagan rituals are what was repressed, and Nazism is a return of the repressed. But a repressed need not return in its original form; if repressed sexuality returns in violence against sexual transgressors, this does not prove that sexuality was always violent, for instance.

* Zizek uses labels as a substitute for arguments. For instance: we should "avoid both traps", of believing in direct access to external reality and of seeing reality as merely one more media channel. Why? Because both approaches foreclose the Real and are therefore a "stricto sensu ideological fantasy" (PF 132). But the point is that such claims are not directed to Zizek as symptoms; they are philosophical claims about reality. One could quite legitimately reply: So what if they fit Zizek's model of an ideological fantasy? One of these views is true nevertheless! Zizek simply assumes everyone follows his own schemas to the letter and that he has a right to classify without the slightest regard for why a claim is made or how it can be falsified.

* Zizek provides a (probably accurate) account of the role of repressed homosexuality in the army and its coexistence with homophobia (PF 24-5). However, the theoretical points Zizek wants to make based on this are problematic, because the evidence is not sufficient: there are explanations for this phenomenon other than those Zizek offers, eg. that the repression of sexuality and its transmutation into authoritarianism is necessary in authoritarian organisations. This suggests the phenomenon may not necessarily be part of the same continuum of phenomena Zizek locates it in.

For Zizek, this phenomenon is similar to instances of conscious cover-ups, for instance of abuses against army recruits, and of racism in conservative populist parties (PF 25). However, these are distinct. In the case of homosexuality in the army, the repression is internal: soldiers do not consciously develop homosexual practices which they then conceal (or at least, most don't); it is more a case of homoerotic references which are not direct, suggesting a 'repressed', unconscious origin. In the other cases, the issue is about concealing a practise, which one consciously knows about (i.e. NOT repressed or disavowed WITHIN one's psyche), from third parties who may disapprove of it, or whose tolerance of it continues only if it is covered-up (cf on Alibis, in RESISTANCE section; cf. also SELF-OTHER). Zizek is clearly confusing different phenomena. To take a case which is not on Zizek's list, but structurally similar to the second type: police brutality against black people is covered up, and usually tolerated (including being passively endured by black communities); its sudden explosion into public view can lead to insurrection. This is not because the black community accepts and is complicit in this violence so long as it is secret, as Zizek's account implies; it is because the publicisation of brutality acts as a galvanising focus for activity - a Sorelian myth, so to speak - whereas drip-feed brutality does not, and also because its publicisation neutralises deniability and all the intermediate groups usually used to head off rebellion (lawyers, politicians and other 'moderates' and 'community leaders'). For these reasons, it is beneficial, even necessary, for the system to cover up its brutality - not for some strange psychological reason that it needs a disavowed transgression, but because it is concerned about the reactions of others to some of its practices being revealed. (Zizek's psychologising accounts generally tend to reduce relations between different groups to internal psychological products of single individuals: see SELF-OTHER).

The point is that Zizek is drawing a parallel he has no basis for (on which he is founding theoretical claims). The disavowal in the army (and in lad culture, etc.) of its own homoeroticism is an unconscious process of concealing sexual possibilities from participants themselves, whereas conservatives who 'disavow' racism are concealing it only from others - they know they are racist, and may encode racist messages which their own supporters will be able to decode but others will not. Zizek conflates the two by relying on vague statements such as: both rely on "a mechanism which is operative only in so far as it remains censored" (PF 25): the crucial issue here is WHO the mechanism is censored from, and how this affects its operation. The censorship of racism by conservatives is used against a third party (liberals etc.), and could in principle be operative in an open way WITHIN conservatism were it to become a closed system; the censorship of homoeroticism in the army operates psychologically, within individual soldiers and within in-groups (which is why actually gay soldiers are feared rather than embraced).

* Zizek's hostility to humanitarianism is based on a purely theoretical claim: that it is wrong because it claims neutrality and therefore relies on an impossible gaze (PF 17-18). Here as elsewhere, there is slippage betwen this and more common political criticisms (the discourse of charity as a substitute for political action, based on seeing people as victims of politically insoluble circumstances - PF 18), as if the latter prove the former.

* Against Foucault, the 'proof' that he is merely inventing a pre-disciplinary world of sexuality is far lighter than such a claim warrants: Zizek's only evidence is that Foucault's two books on sexuality in Greece and Rome are written in a different style to his other books (PF 14).


* Zizek confuses truth with insight. Insight should be the starting-point of analysis, not its end-point, telos, or goal; the role of analysis should not be to reassert a particular insight by asserting it to be a "truth-event", but to find out whether a particular "insight" is true or not.

* Abstractions always derive from empiricity on some level, even if the level of abstraction is very high (or more accurately: abstractions are ways of perceiving empirical evidence, of perceiving, etc.). They should not, as in Zizek, function as a separate sphere with no reference-point in the world; they are not a "dimension" as in Zizek's concept of the Real, and they cannot exist if, like Zizek's concept of the Gaze (see above), they do not crop up anywhere in lived experience however it is perceived (see above). Abstractions "construct" reality, they alter perceptions and one's "universe of meaning"; however, abstractions cannot be sustained beyond a "universe of meaning" as Zizek wishes to do. Certainly one cannot test the "truth" of facts by comparing their fit with assertions ("so much the worse for the facts"); this is a terribly arrogant imposition of a particular conception of the world.

* Although there is no legitimate way of mechanically separating spheres, nevertheless there are limits as to how easily one can slip between them. Films do not automatically prove points about politics; horror films 'work' by being scary, not by being true, and so they cannot prove a great deal beyond issues of the mythical structure of fear. Films in general may well reveal a lot about mass beliefs, myths, attitudes, libidinal investments, etc. (provided one takes into account audience reactions, including differences between different people); they cannot, however, prove general metaphysical truths of the "all-always-none-never" kind, as if these would apply even in societies which do not watch films or which watch different films. The selective use of minute parts of films to pepper an account of how people's psyches always work is propaganda, not proof. Crucially, what is revealed in film-viewers' preferences is existing beliefs - NOT eternal truths, and NOT reality (Zizek risks tailing common sense with such confusion).

Incidentally: if Zizek is positing his accounts as a complete description of the internal structure of films, he is wrong. There are many themes in films which Zizek misses. I notice particularly the absence of those elements in films which are covered roughly by the Deleuzian concept of decoded flows (the love, heroism, etc. which saves the day, from out of nowhere; the flows of Otherness, such as the Force in Star Wars; the absurd in comedy; etc.). Presumably Zizek dismisses such elements as Romantic, New Age, etc.; nevertheless, his factual account is incomplete without them. This also undermines the claim, if he is making it, that his theory fits the structure of the psyche; clearly there is something else people's "psyches" are seeking in films which Zizek's theory is missing.

* There is no neutral standpoint, but that does not mean there is no possibility of persuasion. One persuades by opening a space of translation, usually around points of reference which happen to be the same for particular groups of people. One can also make sense of the logic of someone else's argument well enough to critique it immanently. The lack of a neutral standard should not therefore be any excuse for a lax attitude to evidence and exegesis, let alone for taking sectarian positions based on anathematising and on empty rhetoric about irreducible antagonisms.

* Zizek's standpoint is itself impossible according to his own theories. He claims, for instance, that Laclau's position is possible only due to capitalist deterritorialisation (CHU 319). So how can his own approach avoid being determined by capitalism? Subjective choice? In which case, why are some determined but not others? Just as crucially - is Zizek himself going through symbolic destitution in the process of producing his work? If not, he is disloyal to his own ethics.

* Zizek's conception of Truth is not reducible to singularity; there can be many apparent insights, not all of them necessarily consistent with each other (even in the case of an individual's work! - Zizek's own "insights" often clash with each other). Nevertheless, one cannot end up on both sides in a social struggle, especially if one is being as decisive, ruthless and partisan as Zizek wants us to be. So what happens when two Truths clash? How does one decide between them? Who to support: the Bolsheviks raiding the churches, or the Paulians defending them? The Leninists occupying factories, or the Gaullist police bashing them for it? Zizek's theory is structural - anything can in principle be a truth - but his politics are unitary and therefore require privileging one particular view as the only truth. This is an unbridgeable gap.

* The appeal of Zizek's theory is built around emotional reactions and intuition. As such, he cannot legitimately claim universal relevance for it, since such reactions vary. To claim universal validity for an intuition is normalist.

* Many of Zizek's arguments bear little resemblance to the conclusions they are supposed to demonstrate. Sometimes, they are basically unrelated; more often, the evidence is nowhere near sufficient for the massive claims it is used to found.

* Zizek is a surrealist in Matza's sense (Becoming Deviant p. 103): each abstraction in his system is loyal only to the other abstractions, not to the world.

* Zizek posits an extremely dark picture of the world, where everyone is always utterly prostrate before irredemably evil ideologies which they can only break with by choosing the even worse option of an Act. Zizek himself, however, is somehow aloft above this world, in a world of structural claims which he presumably thinks are extra-ideological and immune to his criticisms of the rest of existence.

* Even when evidence etc. is 'rationalisation', it is never 'mere rationalisation', as Zizek implies; its value as evidence is independent of its original psychological purpose.



Zizek's method generally operates as a closed, self-sufficient system. However, one question which does not seem to arise within Zizek's worldview is: WHY should any particular person support Zizek's approach? Zizek expends a great deal of effort in what can be called propaganda or pedagogical activities: explaining to readers HOW we can think like Zizek or using rhetorical devices to suggest WHAT we should think. He gives little if any effort, however, to suggesting WHY. Often, the "why" is concealed beneath what amounts to pontificating jargon - the 'tasks of today', what 'we' should do, 'our ethical duty' and so on - which does not specify reasons for choosing Zizek's theory. Indeed, much of the motivation behind Zizek's project remains obscure. What is he trying to prove? To whom? And for what purpose? Who does he think he can persuade, and why is he trying to do so? Does he intend for his theories to have some role in actually changing the world, and if so, how? If not, what purpose does theoretical activity have? How does theory relate to practice? What is Zizek fighting for, and what is he fighting against? Zizek discusses such issues rarely. When he does, the terms he uses are vague, usually cast in passive voice (such as 'the task today is to...'), and resolved on a definitional and theoretical level, often by mere assertion or tautology. For instance: 'what if the true task is precisely to conceive of the emerging New in the terms of collective material production?' (DSST 138). Zizek does not give reasons WHY the New should be conceived in such terms; his position is presented rhetorically. The particular way in which ethical choice is cast is such as to misrepresent it as a description of an object ('the task'), and furthermore, the gesture Zizek urges - as very often - is simply a reconception, i.e., the recategorisation of the world in "Zizekian" terms. (Philosophers have only interpreted the world...).

It should be noted that Zizek is a typical example of a 'traditional intellectual' (Gramsci's term) of the most blatant kind: interpretation substitutes for transformation, as if interpretation by individual theorists, separated from popular beliefs and with no direct political outcomes, can directly have world-historical effects. Zizek rarely examines everyday discourse at all; when he does, it is to raid it for examples with which to demonstrate principles. Clearly he sees himself as linked primarily to past intellectuals - St Paul, Lacan, Schiller, et al - rather than to his own historical context; he is not organic and does not aspire to be. As if this were not sufficient basis for criticism, however, he is also contemptuous of intellectuals, denouncing critical theory and counterposing the activity of a Christ or a Lenin. This suggests that he does want some kind of mass following, although he seems to be ridicuolously naive about how political movements come about (as if a radical gesture or Act can automatically generate a following and change the world). His theory is necessarily confined to a minority audience for several reasons: firstly, because he does not try to explain the philosophical concepts he uses, assuming a prior knowledge of a canon consisting of Lacan, Hegel and various other figures - so that Zizek relies on a prior formation of philosophical "literacy", rather than constructing one; indeed, his schemas and reference-points seem so crucial that it would be hard to conceive of how such a theory could be made accessible to most people, at least without a prior apprenticeship in other philosophies. Secondly, because he never attempts to demonstrate any of his principles or analyses in a way which could convince opponents or the undecided, i.e., he neglects the issue of "translation" between his own philosophy and others (probably because of the Act/carving the field problematic). Such issues are important, because they severely limit any radical potential that (for instance) his critique of multiculturalism may have. This critique cannot reach a mass audience; it also cannot have any effect on people who support multiculturalism.

Zizek offers the beginnings of a "why" in scattered remarks on how he sees his role. Zizek positions himself as constructing a meta-theory of why the liberation from tradition has not freed "the subject" (PF 86). Zizek seems to think this is a universal problem to which he is providing a solution, although its empirical premises (especially the death of tradition) are very questionable and the question seems to be entirely Zizek's own. He terms his work a variety of 'philosophico-transcendental reflection' (DSST 221) which operates to question implicit presuppositions without endorsing historical relativism (DSST 223). In other words, Zizek is reviving a traditional, pre-critical mode of philosophical reasoning similar to nineteenth-century German and Italian philosophy. Zizek sees himself as addressing eternal questions (SOI 213). He demands vehemently the right to ask old questions of philosophy, not as questions of exegesis, but directly, as direct questions such as 'What is the true status of the body?' (DSST 220). His attack on postmodernism is built around his claim that it evades questions such as 'what is the structure of the universe? How does the human psyche 'really' work?' (CHU 230-1). Such a restoration explains Zizek's reference-points better, although it still doesn't suggest WHY. Zizek writes as if "postmodernism" has naively discarded such issues, when such questions have actually been the subject of a substantial critique. Derrida in particular questions the use of "is" in such matters, and "postmodernists" in general distrust the idea of "the" psyche or body as opposed to "bodies" and "psyches"; one could reformulate Zizek's question as 'How do different psyches work?', and Zizek could not, apparently, explain why his version would be an improvement on this. Zizek is here as elsewhere introducing essentialism into his theory by absolutising; and he is making no attempt to account for such a reintroduction. Indeed, I can also detect traces here of a positivistic insistence that the functioning of the psyche is a "real" question, whereas exegesis is of a somewhat lower order: as if language can be divided into an authentic and a subsidiary type. (Worse: Zizek at other times relies on exegesis and uses it to answer, or discredit, the "real" questions; he is inconsistent). Furthermore, given the disturbing lack in Zizek of any criteria whatsoever for telling a true argument from a false one (a lack which does not stop Zizek regularly claiming to express an incontrovertible truth), it is hard to see how one can either identify or answer 'real' questions.

There is a sense of a "must" behind Zizek's theory: the "must" presumably explains "why". However, the "must" rarely rises above the level of rhetorical devices hinting at necessity (Lacan 'has to be interpreted...' - SOI 189, perceptions of guilt and responsibility are necessary for action - SOI 217); "necessity" is not backed by any explanation of the ethical drive which makes such instances "necessary". There is, to be sure, the ethics of the Real and the Act, but this itself is merely posited; Zizek is capable of accounting for the Act in exegetical terms and of showing examples of Acts, but he does not seem to be able to provide an account of why the concept is useful or why we (the audience) should favour Acts.

Often, indeed, rhetorical devices seem to be the driving-force behind the "why": a device is inserted where an argument should be. For instance, Zizek frequently plays with pronouns, asserting what 'one' can accept or what can engage 'us' (TS 142-3) in an entirely arrogant way, as if he speaks for everyone. This conveniently gets around the 'why': since Zizek has "established" that his audience already agree with him (being part of 'us' or 'one'), he does not have to persuade us/them of this theory. This, perhaps, is a consequence of his assumption that he is speaking for an abstract subject, rather than as a particular individual. (cf. Gramsci on 'human nature', in his notes on philosophy). While "I" becomes "we" or "one" when Zizek is expounding his own positions, he happily uses "I" when making claims about "people in general" (such as the Act as the gesture where "I shoot at myself"). In other cases, startling or controversial claims, rhetorical questions and the like (see below) are used as a substitute for any account of why one should endorse Zizek's position.

Since he does not provide a "Why", he can assert anything at any time as an ethical principle or as something to be rejected, without having to provide specific reasons. He can seem to be bravely carving out a new ethical path, when all he is actually doing is discarding all standards by which ethical principles can be assessed (eg. consistency, empirical basis for claims, etc.). To take an example: 'The first thing to do, therefore, is fearlessly to violate these liberal taboos: So what if one is accused of being "anti-democratic", "totalitarian"...' (DSST 3). Zizek has demonstrated that such "taboos" place a limit on what can be argued, but he provides no reasons why this limit is invalid; it is as if the mere presence of ethical positions he disagrees with seems to Zizek to be a terrible imposition. How can one assess the question "so what", when Zizek has provided no standards for telling a good ethical principle from a bad one? Zizek conceals the absence of any justification for his imperative behind crude rhetorical devices: in this instance, the assertion of an imperative as if describing; the attachment of rhetorical value and opprobrium ("fearlessly", "taboo") which is exterior to the substance of his argument; and to rely on simple assertion (liberals could actually provide a whole list of "so what's", and if one wishes to overcome liberalism, one would have to answer each of these points). Indeed, the form of polemically asserting seems to be more important to Zizek than the substance of what is asserted (see ACT) - although this cannot excuse the absence of any substantive argument for valuing such polemical assertion.

Zizek is a purist. He writes as if he does not need to convince anyone; if someone disagrees with his theory, it merely shows their own inadequacy (see below on Deleuze etc.). In some cases he sets out to create a desert around himself by throwing anathemas and insults at anyone who disagrees with him (under the guise, of course, of telling unpalatable truths: a handy cover for what is clearly a functionless and therefore, presumably, libidinally invested activity). Zizek seems to share the US Spartacists' view that unless he can convince people of his WHOLE theory, everything is lost; he therefore uses small areas of possible agreement to bully people into accepting his entire theory (eg. in WDR). While he is utterly unscrupulous when it comes to trampling on anyone else's demands, scruples, vulnerabilities and sensitivities (which are simply evidence of psychopathology or putty for building a New Man), he demands absolute purity, perfect respect and dignity, and extensive hyper-"scruples" about his own standards and principles (so that his general claim to be unscrupulous and therefore realistic is hypocritical). For instance, the purity of the Act must not be compromised in the slightest by the non-excremental subject or by fantasy - otherwise it is a false Act. In this sense, no matter how "dirty" Zizek gets his hands by others' standards, he works very hard to keep them clean by his own. He is NOT, therefore, some kind of critical-minded post-ethical theorist; he is simply able to condemn any ethics but his own, because of the fundamentalism of his own position (in the same way a Stalinist can attack capitalism or vice-versa). Zizek wants to convince his readers that he can somehow escape the libidinal investments involved in fantasy by endorsing positions which are bare, harsh and stark. This merely shows, however, that his particular fantasy and ethics places a central value on bareness, harshness and starkness - in similar with older purist and ascetic ideologies (cf. some versions of Buddhism, 'submission to the Party', Calvinism, etc.). Zizek actually has a strong "ideology" (in his own sense) with a strong fantasmatic supplement: his own repressed elements include psychosis, New Age thought, the "boring", and anything which rules out daring or "the Real". This "ideology" constructs a set of positions one has to endorse in order to buy into Zizek's theory: for instance, "daring" as a basis for supporting claims and "boredom" as a basis for rejecting them; "radicalism" and the Act as values in themselves; and a heuristic preference for all-encompassing and all-negating statements (versus reconciliation and sobriety).


One of the recurring weaknesses of Zizek's theory is his tendency to constantly short-circuit between ultra-specific examples (a seconds-long section in a film;a minor political debate - for instance, over whether radicals should vote for Clinton; a joke; an instance plucked from everyday life, such as Zizek's discussions of his career with his relatives; etc.) and highly abstract theories, relying on the use of terms such as "absolute", "always", "all", "never" and "none". The specific instances are rarely dealt with carefully enough to warrant Zizek's drawing clear conclusions (see EMPIRICITY); furthermore, they are hardly ever sufficiently wide-ranging to justify the kind of general outcomes Zizek wishes to infer from them. From evidence of this level of specificity, it would be possible to "prove" almost any general theory; Zizek neither considers counterevidence nor justifies his selection of material. The general impression is of a theory which "proves" itself by using itself as a criterion of selection - i.e., Zizek only ever discusses material which tends to confirm his perspective, as a result of which it becomes self-proving.

Amazingly enough, this is not simply an undeclared rhetorical flaw which has sneaked into Zizek's theory. He openly asserts it as a methodological principle (apparently on grounds internal to his structuralist schematics, i.e. his theory of the relationship between the universal, the particular and the subject). He openly calls for 'a direct jump from the singular to the universal, bypassing the mid-level of particularity' (CHU 239). His excuse is that this is routine in (Lacanian?) psychoanalysis: 'In its dialectic of a clinical case, psychoanalysis is a field in which the singular and the universal collide without passing through the particular' (CHU 239). Thus, Zizek praises Freud for making what amount to illogical leaps - for instance, from one case of fantasy to fantasy as such, and the search for an always singular cause of neurosis (CHU 240). Zizek terms such blatantly flawed conclusions 'this properly dialectical direct mix of a special case and sweeping generalisation' (CHU 241). Thus, for Zizek, for instance, one can draw sweeping 'general conclusions' about patriarchy on the basis of a 'detailed analysis of a scene from a noir melodrama' (CHU 241).

This entirely flawed method is NOT in any way radical or subversive. It is, rather, the standard method of the tabloid press and their ilk: the way in which they can prove ill-founded ideological dogmas on the basis of a single case: if, for instance, one asylum seeker is caught committing benefit fraud, this can become evidence that asylum seekers in general are 'scroungers', when logically it shows no such thing - precisely because of the kind of short-circuit advocated by Zizek. Similarly, Nazis could construct a figure of 'the Jew' based on some particular actions by individual Jews, or even conceivably based on sections out of films which are then projected onto actual Jews (since one can supposedly read patriarchy off from melodramas). To take a more mundane case: what Zizek advocates would mean that if (for instance) a dog named Rover were in the room, one should say 'Rover the mammal is in the room' or even 'there is a living being in the room', evading the 'particularity' of the concept of 'dog'. Trevor Pateman criticises the media for precisely this kind of gesture, switching from immediate 'facts' to high-level abstractions without the necessary mediating layers of analytical concepts. This is a central part of the construction of myth in Barthes's sense: one can for instance identify an actor with "evil", instead of carrying out an analysis of class, political, social, etc. factor which could cause her/his action. The result, according to Pateman, is to impede the development of conceptual abilities - i.e. to trap people in a limited and schematic universe where they are unable to conceive of alternatives because they cannot construct conceptual distinctions. Zizek, indeed, is in a sense doing precisely this: trapping his supporters in a closed universe structured around impossibility.

As regards the clinical excuse, it shows a common problem in Zizek: he ignores Lacan's warnings regarding the sphere-specificity of the claims of psychoanalytic practice, and writes as if one can simply extend clinical principles (which operate on the assumption of a one-to-one dialogue between analyst and analysand) into social analysis (where the relationship between the analyst and others is far more distant and mediated). Lacan would no doubt flinch terribly at Zizek's bandying-about of labels such as 'hysteric', as if he can read off Laclau's or Kant's psychological structure from their theories: Lacan, of all analysts, was the most fervent in insisting on the specificity of each analysand and the need to focus on the individuality of their reference-points (for instance, the meaning of a symptom cannot be read off in ways such as "coprophilia is a perversion"; one must explore in detail the meaning of the symptom for the analysand, who it is "staged" for, etc.). In a sense, in extending clinical principles into politics, Zizek has already entered the level of particularity and nullified his claim to insight into individuality.

Actually, Lacan's account of clinical practice is disurbing. Firstly, he is attributing a gnostic status to clinical knowledge, as if it somehow reveals a purified relation of immediate access to truth, i.e. as if the analysand did not bring "society" (social relations) onto the couch with her/himself. What Zizek appears to be advocating is an impositional clinical practice which violently individuates the analysand's experience, trapping the patient within a restricted symbolic field (the Oedipal cage?) by pushing social issues away. I am reminded of Ugrasic's criticisms of psychotherapists for only being concerned about individual experiences and causes of trauma, rather than social ones; and for Deleuze's remarks as to how the "derived" outcomes of analysis are often planted by therapists themselves.

Zizek's position also involves a great deal of essentialism. This becomes clear when Zizek anticipates the question, which he libels as "empiricist", of how we can know that a particular instance is representative. He does not provide a counter-argument; he simply asserts a principle that 'all particular examples of a certain universality do not entertain the same relationship towards this universality' (CHU 240) - i.e. some express it 'as such' whereas others displace it. This is essentialism of the clearest kind: there is an essence of (for instance) treeness, or fantasy-ness, which is better embodied in some instances than others; the only difference from Plato is that Zizek seems to think that the generative form actually exists in this world. Thus, universals are apparently invariant - what varies between cultures is their relationship to culturally specific features (CHU 241; the "universals" are presumably Lacanian categories such as jouissance, the name-of-the-father and the Thing). There is, for instance, no essence of 'treeness' present in the world; there is only a fictive category projected by a labelling agent which is applied to all entities which meet certain criteria (selected by the agent and not essential to the entities themselves), and if some 'trees' fit the label better than others, this is a characteristic of the selector's "discrimination" and not of the 'trees': they do not as a result become inadequate sub-trees or 'displaced' trees. What also goes missing (again a common Zizekian omission) is any awareness of EPISTEMOLOGICAL problems: how can one KNOW that a particular case expresses the universal, rather than being a displacement of it?

How does one know (to use Zizek's example) that a particular scene of a noir melodrama expresses patriarchy? It could be a direct expression, a displacement, or even a subversion; it could be affected in all kinds of ways by the 'particularity' of the film-maker and of other factors (including the remainder of the same film and the diachronic function of the scene in the overall film), and to the selection of one scene from one melodrama could be counterposed one of thousands of different scenes from the same or other melodramas, or even to a different interpretation of the same scene (eg. the scene Zizek uses from Blue Velvet could be taken as an instance of violent territorialisation, i.e. the means whereby dominant groups impose on subordinate groups the former's conception of their essence or desire). The model of patriarchy derived from one such scene could therefore be counterposed to entirely different models derived from different scenes, without the slightest hint of a means of choosing between them emerging from Zizek's approach. To take another example: the standard of "Good" which would emerge from a close reading of Yoda the Jedi Master would be at strong variance with that which would emerge from Thelma and Louise; and a model of political participation based on Wag the Dog would not be the same as one developed from Land and Freedom. Zizek does not introduce any standard of selection, though he clearly thinks that selection is significant (i.e. that some instances demonstrate true positions whereas others do not). It may be that he identifies the standard of selection of cases with the theory he wishes to use the cases to demonstrate (cf. a criticism of Lacan in Sturrock's "Structuralism and Since"). In any case, the actual choice he makes as to what is universal and what is a displacement seems entirely arbitrary. Often, indeed, he reads 'essential' significance retrospectively, as if (for instance) "Christianness" is a property which can be bestowed by St. Paul in his "formalisation" of Christ, even when he misreads or is selective. (Incidentally, Zizek is here at odds with the careful approach of even the most essentialist of the older structuralists, who are careful to examine and list every variant - eg. Levi-Strauss on kinship systems or totems or masks - precisely as a necessary prerequisite for making essentialist "universal" claims).

Such a problem is not only theoretical: it has actually emerged. Zizek and Laclau disagree sharply over the structure of ideology. Zizek posits the Nazis' use of the figure of 'the Jew' as a typical case of the functioning of ideology; Laclau suggests that it is a special (displaced?) case, since ideology usually operates through articulation and an enemy-figure only occurs in some versions of ideology. There is no way Zizek can argue on this point, because his selection is posited and arbitrary.

To take another example of an actual instance used by Zizek, he claims (CHU 251-2) that the insistence of a number of James Bond villains in delaying Bond's death in order to explain their plans shows that Bond plays the role of the big Other, an ideal Witness one endeavours to fascinate. This reading itself is highly problematic. Firstly, the actual reason could simply be "technical": Bond films need good endings, and while it is exciting for Bond to be captured, it is structurally necessary (if the film is to remain within genre limits) for Bond to escape. Another possibility is that the myth of Evil in Bond films revolves around megalomania: the villain is not a rational egotist, but wants total/totalitarian power, and forcing Bond to admit his powerlessness and submit is equivalent to the Stalinist insistence that show-trial victims confess. This second reading in particular would allow an entirely different set of "sweeping generalisations" to those Zizek makes: for instance, a Deleuzian account of the relationship between territorialising assemblages and escape, or a theory of the universally megalomaniacal nature of power, so that power requires a total subsumption of the powerless. This would invert Zizek's conclusions in important ways: for instance, Bond could no longer be seen as a reactionary figure fighting the return of the repressed Real: he would be a representative of a Deleuzian nomadic/war/metamorphosis-machine engaging in resistance to a totalitarian enemy (albeit one conceived in liberal terms). Also, the nature of resistance would change: the 'illusion' of escape would not be, as Zizek (see RESISTANCE) claims, a fantasmatic supplement, but rather would be a crucial part of Bond's resistance to the villains' attempts at total subsumption. The crucial point here, however, is not the relative validity of these claims vis-a-vis Zizek's (if, indeed, either is valid: cultural products are read by their audiences in diverse ways), but the fact that Zizek gives his readers no reason to prefer his reading over possible alternatives. He has not examined the films closely; he has not located this element of the films in their broader textual context; he has not related films in any detailed way to genre norms or wider ideologies; he has not examined audience understandings of the films. Worse: he refuses on principle the possibility of resolving any such disagreement in any of these ways; to do so would be to break the basic principle of "sweeping generalisation", introducing particularities. Ultimately, Zizek can only POSIT the validity or significance of his reading of the films, in which case, the justificatory force of the reading is next to nothing: he has simply read his existing theory through the films, which cannot prove it since they rely on it both for its meaning (Zizek's reading) and its relevance (the selection of this detail of this series of films rather than a different detail).

The closest Zizek comes to giving a reason for his selections is a suggestion that the validity of a concept is shown by its appeal to common sense. The concept of film noir, for instance, has 'haunted our imagination for decades' (CHU 244), anf therefore, although it is nonexistent on the level of facts, it must express something real: when such 'notions' (a technical term Zizek has borrowed from Hegel) do not exist in reality, 'instead of rejecting this notion, we should risk the notorious Hegelian rejoinder "So much the worse for reality" ' (CHU 244). (Zizek also calls "notions" 'a real concept', presumably in distinction from an inauthentic one, and an Althusserian 'articulation' - CHU 244). What Zizek calls a notion is very close to what Barthes calls a myth, with the difference that Barthes sees the reactionary role of myths whereas Zizek celebrates them as more real than the real. His prostration before widespread prejudices - myths elevated to "notions", which express a universal which is "always" true - could not be greater, but for the fact that he is not actually expressing common sense or anything like it; he is selecting a few portions he likes and elevating them in the same way as individual scenes from films or particular political actions. Zizek is here engaged in yet another sleight-of-hand, for it is not 'our' imagination which is haunted by the concept of film noir; presumably it is Zizek's own, and he is arrogantly asserting this to be equivalent to everyone's views in classic substitutionist fashion. Zizek ends up, therefore, in further tautology: Zizek thinks the concept of noir is important because it has haunted our imagination, i.e. Zizek's imagination, i.e. because Zizek thinks it is important.

The enormity of Zizek's sleight-of-hand becomes clear when one adds in the RANGE of Zizek's analyses, which knows few limits; one can find in his accounts, among other things: examples from both "high" and "low" culture, both present and past, and covering a wide range of genres and media (art, sculpture, melodrama, classical music, pornography, opera, action films, horror films, computer games, 'arthouse' films, sci-fi, TV serials, propaganda films, punk music, etc.); theoretical exegeses (Hegel, Marx, Lenin, the Bible, Schelling, Kant, Benjamin, Althusser, Lacan, Freud, etc.); political and "news" events from around the world, past and present, and covering both massive processes and localised instances (the Clinton welfare bill, the Letourneau case, the conflict over Kosova, the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, the similarity between Blair and Haider, cloned sheep, CCTV, the structure of liberal-democratic elections, the status of President Chavez, de Gaulle's refusal to collaborate with the Nazis, etc.); clinical evidence from psychoanalysis (Schreber, Rat Man, etc.); social and everyday references (jokes, stereotypes, cliches, differences between toilets in different countries, Zizek's discussions with his relatives, aphorisms from the old Soviet Union, etc.); positivistic evidence (eg. the experiment cited in OB, about performing unpleasant acts on command); myth (eg. Antigone); theology in relation to several faiths (Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc.); general ethical and political issues (the ethics of science, political correctness, etc.); and more besides. The selections are often extremely specific, introduced almost randomly, and rarely justified; however, the conclusions drawn from them are sweeping. As a result, it becomes clear that the potential material available to Zizek could be broken down into literally millions of potentially usable snippets, from which he selects fairly few. (The snippets arise every few pages, not in any great intensity, so one could find perhaps one per page on average; perhaps 2000 in six books would be my estimate).

Zizek is clearly counterposing his brusque conflations of individual and universal to careful, gradual and empirical approaches to generalisation, although he does not see any need to provide much basis for preferring his own approach. Again, I suspect tautology: Zizek's theory posits that some instances are essential whereas others are displaced; he selects his material on the basis of this distinction; the material, in turn, demonstrates the existence of the essence, and this confirms the theory.

Zizek calls his approach "dialectical". The problem, as so often, with this label is that it relies on a selective reading (this time, of Hegel) - a selectiveness which is entirely justified on Zizek's own terms, but which he then wishes to mobilise - again tautologically - as if it provides exegetical evidence. Zizek's approach is not dialectical; it involves a simple instance of overgeneralisation and category-error. There is no sublation of specific instances, because too much is left on the outside of Zizek's theory as irrelevant examples, because he cannot absorb (as opposed to anathematising) opponents' positions, and because the term 'sublation' would usually be counterposed to simple assertion of identicality. A does not equal not-A in Zizek's method, except when Zizek wants it to; A is usually posited as self-present: for instance, a true Act is ABSOLUTELY exclusive of fantasy and vice-versa. Furthermore, I find it hard to see how the tabloids could be labelled "dialectical" papers or the Nazis a "dialectical" party.


Zizek has a strong tendency to treat his alignments as their own proof, i.e. to create standards of (for instance) which films 'work', based on his subjective perceptions, which he then uses to demonstrate the validity of his own theories (even though these theories may be the reason the film 'works' for him). For instance,

* An "eye-opening" and "breathtaking" theory occurs not from careful anthropological reflection, but when (as in Schelling) everyday instances are used as metaphors or illustrations of "theoretical ruminations" (FA 105-6). Remarkably similar to Zizek's own clumsy approach to evidence - no surprise, therefore, that he admires other theories which do this, but hardly a proof that it makes them "eye-opening" to anyone but Zizek. Such an inaccurate use of evidence would, anyway, tend to make them "eye-closing" instead;

* An argument is "stronger" (a term Zizek does not define) if it is rooted not in a return but in an excess, so that (eg.) the demise of a system is seen as inherent in the system itself (TS 255-6). Zizek treats this assertion as if it PROVES the truth of this kind of analysis, even though "stronger" seems merely to mean "more convincing to Zizek", who already shares this type of analysis.

A lot of Zizek's appeal depends on readers giving him a large margin of leeway and being prepared to accept the "breathtaking" character of his innovativeness as a substitute for any kind of analysis or evidence. It is interesting to note how much of Eagleton's praise for Zizek revolves around personal and ad hominem characteristics (he is intelligent, witty, has a "conversational" style, can cite Lacan backwards in his sleep, can shock the reader with new ways of viewing things, can speak about Hegel and Hitchcock in the same sentence, etc., etc.) rather than anything he has said substantively.

Zizek never explains what his mode of argument involves. However, the following dubious methods occur repeatedly:

* The 'mental experiment' (eg. PF 19, 191). This pseudo-scientific term refers to a process where Zizek, who already believes something, attempts to 'prove' it by correlating it to others of his beliefs. (This method relies on an assumption, unfounded in Lacanian terms, that everyone has the same psyche and therefore will reproduce the "experiment" exactly); also, it is hard to see how Zizek can fall back on intuition in this way when his theory is so strongly counter-intuitive;

* Surreptitious appeals to tradition, either as foundation or basis for supersession. He frequently uses the term "it is well known that..." (eg. TS 254) to preface all kinds of wild assertions, and also has frequent use for terms such as "classical", "standard", "traditional", "the old adage", "the well-known joke", etc. - either as a substitute for evidence or as a way of setting up a straw-man opponent. (In recent works such as OB, the word "boring" has replaced some of these terms, as if Zizek actually thinks that being more exuberant than rivals is the same as being right). The use of terms such as "standard" is used to construct the illusion of a canon which often either does not exist or is not sa Zizek constructs it. This is used either 1) to pose as a radical undermining an orthodoxy which may not even exist, or 2) to draw authority from a canon of Zizek's own devising, effacing his own role in its construction. (eg. Lacan is a source of authority, Derrida is not; Hegel is, Stirner is not; etc.).

* Use of "What if?" as an argument (eg. TS 332). The usual procedure is to assert an allegedly "standard" argument, then posit an alternative or turn it on its head ("The standard view is x. But what if y?"). The problem is that he does not proceed to demonstrate that y rather than x is true; rather, he begins from the very next sentence to write as if y were proven true.

* The impression (with "What if..." and elsewhere) is often that Zizek is playing a masculine "chicken" game with opponents, trying to DARE them into accepting his views rather than to persuade them. This is probably because he never problematises his assumption that he has direct access to others' hidden motives.

* Giving answers to questions he has set for himself and to deadlocks he has constructed. Zizek's account is strongly monologic in this way. See for instance PF 11-12.

* In a farcical reworking of the Hegelian dialectic, Zizek often sets up two opponents - who may be simplifications, or two among a larger number of rivals, or may not even be engaged in the same debate - usually as straw men, so he can pose as the way out of the resultant impasse (eg. TS 382-5).

* Zizek assumes the direct self-evidence of some claims, either by asserting them as a "fact" without providing evidence (eg. PF 191), or by use of "the old", "the classical", etc. He also commonly prefaces contentious phrases with the words "of course..." for the same reason.

* Zizek relies frequently on what Jules Henry calls "irrelevant association". Henry sees this as a flaw in western education and as common in advertisements and other manipulative communicative genres: its basic function is to create support for the propagandist's position by positing a link between unrelated phenomena based on superficial characteristics.

* Zizek plays a kind of cuckoo's-nest propaganda: he lulls readers into a false sense of security with insights, discussions of current events, exegeses, film analyses, etc., and then springs a Lacanian or other category out of nowhere, sometimes by articulation/atidesa ("Norman Bates is the Thing"), sometimes via a "What if...?". In Zizek's prose the transition from specific instance to analytical interpretation seems automatic but actually involves a large leap of faith structured around leaps between single instances and "all", specific cases and abstract categories, theory and actuality, and/or fiction and fact. By tagging a contentious claim on the end of an uncontentious analysis - especially one which contains, in its own rights, original insights - Zizek effectively naturalises his process of analytical abstraction. This process is oiled by empirical half-truths and gross oversimplifications.

* Various kinds of tautology. Basically, a film or theory or political slogan expresses a truth if it accords with Zizekian, Lacanian and related positions. These instances are thereby privileged with a positively-loaded signifier (eg. "truth"). Then, however, the link of this signifier to the film is used to prove the validity of the initial position: after all, it accords with all the "true" instances.

* Zizek says "is" when he means "ought". For instance, his account of what "psychoanalysis is" is specifically contrasted to Jung's work (PF 86), i.e. to a variant of psychoanalysis. This is reminiscent of Stalinism and involves a possessive attitude to language and a resultant self-appointed gatekeeper role. He also hops between description and prescription via words such as "all", treating proof of existence as proof of inevitability and therefore of being beyond criticism.

* Use of paradox-mongering - asserting rather than resolving paradoxes - and blatant self-contradiction to avoid unwanted conclusions of his own arguments; eg. to avoid undermining his faith in the state (SOI 147). The expression 'assuming the paradox' is used to give a pseudo-radical veil to the refusal to admit to self-contradiction or to alter contradictory views. (Pateman describes this kind of argument as a form of slipperiness used to rob one's speech partner of any possibility of saying anything meaningful by constantly changing position). For instance, he responds to Butler's criticism about his vacillating use of concepts be urging that we should "assume the paradox" (CHU 314). This basically involves projecting Zizek's self-contradictions into reality.

* Excessive use of rhetorical questions. Isn't it true that Zizek uses rhetorical questions constantly? And, isn't it true that, by doing so, he tries to trick the reader into thinking that they have reached a conclusion on their own behalf? And, doesn't this mode of expression preclude Zizek backing, or even admitting, the claim which is disguised as a question?

* Use of selective readings and "everyday" examples, ignoring counter-evidence.

* Using everyday terms in dramatically technical ways, then acting as if everyday uses of the terms express the technical concept.

* "Takes one to know one": opponent x says person y is anathema z. Actually, this is because opponent x is anathema z. Usually, this approach is used without evidence.

* Instead of saying x is z and y is not, we should say y is z, because this would be "more radical".


Zizek does not enter into debate with opponents except on his own terms; polemics crop up in an almost random way among the mass of other material. The only exception is in CHU where he is forced to engage directly with Laclau's and Butler's work. Even here, he is unable to resist the temptation to comment on their remarks rather than replying to them. His remarks show, firstly, that he believes any difference with them to be reducible to either a simple misunderstanding (they really agree with him) or a radical incompatibility, and secondly, that his purpose in entering the discussion is simply to clarify or reformulate his own position (CHU 213-14). He treats dialogue and persuasion as impossible a priori; further, the way he invokes the Real in such discussions shows that he is determined to subsume the discussion itself entirely in his own categories. His style is reminiscent of Thatcher's claim that anyone who disagreed with her must not have been listening properly.

Zizek's various rhetorical ploys add up to the impression that, instead of trying to convince the reader to agree with him, he is trying to trick the reader into thinking they already agree with him. In particular, he seems to be trying to foreclose the possibility that he could be right about some things without being right about everything. He wants people who accept some of his specific insights to accept his entire programme on this basis. This is presumably because he believes he knows others' unconscious already. Thus, he writes as if the truth of his postulates is known prior to his analyses of examples (eg. the chapter headings in DSST starting "the reader will find...").

Indeed, Zizek's version of persuasion is not based on the intellect at all; he thinks he can appeal directly to the unconscious: convince people that their resistance to an idea is due to their passions not their reason, then have them concentrate not on evidence but on taming their passions and prejudices, so they act as if they believe until eventually they are stupefied into believing (SOI 38-40). But how does Zizek know that his own beliefs are based on reason not passion?

Zizek's entire mode of discourse is based on an a priori construction of two counterposed standpoints: Zizek, as "therapist", is above suspicion and his own motives are therefore treated unreflexively; he assumes himself to know all the answers (or rather, to know the void which serves as a pseudo-non-answer) and therefore appears to feel no duty to defend either his standpoint or his claims. He is cast as authoritarian power-holder in a discourse with a reader placed in the position of patient, whose role is to be astounded, guided into the correct thought-experiments, and touched in her/his unconscious. In any debate, the "cure" of the rival or reader becomes the sole focus; Zizek does not appear to see himself as requiring correction except in his mode of expression. Is this linked to authoritarian assumptions in psychoanalysis as an institution, or maybe to authoritarianism in eastern European education systems?


Eagleton's claim that Zizek undermines common sense is valid only if Eagleton's prior views are treated as the standard of "common sense". Zizek does not, whatever the appearances, engage in critiques of everyday beliefs and practices. Indeed, he openly admits to avoiding contact with non-theorists and to seeing everyday beliefs as having "nothing to do with... theory" (PF 53), reaffirming his stance as a "traditional" intellectual.


Zizek wants to perform a number of philosophical gestures which are impossible in the literal sense of this term. See above on "assuming the paradox": this simply leads to positions which cancel each other out and to analyses which are unproductive of meaning.

Compare also:

* "Stalin's immortal lines": two evils can be "both worst" (PF 188).

* The denksverbot: while notoriously attacking this in some cases (including some controversial ones - claims about child sexuality and, most contentiously - CHU 326 - about totalitarianism), he also uses it, for instance against Nazis ("there are some things which are simply not legitimate subjects for discussion"). cf. also PF 226 against Kant, and in general Zizek's taboos against clinical categories and modes of thought (effective prohibitions on "perverse" enjoyment, "hysterical shirking of the Act", etc.). Is there any difference between the "denksverbot" and "proper symbolic Prohibition"? cf. also his use of guilt-by-association by (wrongly) calling Hitler an ironist: DSST 62-4.

* "Objectively subjective": this little bit of doublespeak refers to an attempt to establish the existence of phenomena, such as the big Other, which are not truly objective but do not exist in subjects' experience either (PF 119-20), the net result of which is that they are neither objective nor subjective, i.e. do not exist.

* Metaphor as literal: "Haider's clinching of Blair (and the term 'clinching' is used here in the precise sense it has in boxing)" (DSST 244). Actually, this instance seems to express an inability to differentiate between STRUCTURAL similarities/equivalences ("the same role", "occupying the same position") and literal identicality. Hence the claim "bin Laden IS Blofeld" (as opposed to "bin Laden occupies the same position in the western imaginary as Blofeld does in Bond films").

* Speaking of the Real even though it is by definition inaccessible to language.

* "For an authentic philosopher, everything has always-already happened" (OB 125). Repressive elimination of the future;

* Speaking for the dead and the nonexistent: asking not how Schelling stands for us but how we stand for him, and what man is for God not vice-versa (FA 106-7). This means adopting an inaccessible standpoint.


Perhaps Zizek's favourite manoeuvre is the establishment of closure by turning unfamiliar concepts into synonyms of Lacanian ones, or denouncing concepts because they do not allow such conversion. Zizek writes as if the incompatibility of a theory with his own is directly a disproof of it.

* Different figures are united by their "speculative identity" (PF 162). This term means that different objects can be treated as interchangeable: 'they are one and the same object conceived in a different modality' (PF 125). This hyper-structuralism relies on an assumption of a recurring structure present in all phenomena. Zizek's work has an almost paranoiac subtext of searching out these hidden structures everywhere. This leads to reduction of all cases of something to a single set of categories: for instance, extreme nationalism is THE SAME AS any other way of excluding an impure Other (PF 62); Eisenstein's concept of ecstasy is "his name for jouissance" (PF 50). The structural model is also imposed directly: for instance, all anathemas are "hegemonised" by one of their contents (CHU 224-5), an argument used to portray the "metaphysics of presence" as irrelevant to Zizek because it only really refers to Husserl. (NB how Zizek uses sceptical and relativist arguments of this kind very selectively, i.e. never against his own positions).

* The concept of "essentialism" is bad because it does not fit neatly into the Lacanian triad imaginary/symbolic/real (CHU 223-4).

* Deleuze's idea of rhizomatic structures must be wrong because it does not recognise the need for an excluded element (PF 206-7).

Zizek even uses opposition to an ideology as proof of its prevalence as a consensus! Take the following passage: 'This consensus [i.e. post-politics] can assume different guises, from the neoconservative or Socialist refusal to accept it and consummate the loss of grand ideological projects by means of a proper "work of mourning"... up to the neoliberal option' (CHU 323-4). Crucially, the "consensus" character is derived from Zizek's assumption that rejections of post-politics derive from a refusal to mourn, rather than that there is nothing to mourn - an attempt, however, he does not give any basis for.


Zizek frequently relies on little more than assertion to back his arguments. Often, he uses appeals to theoretical orthodoxy or even to his own prior views as if it proved the case for something. Take for instance the following cases:

* Zizek attacks Schindler's List on the basis that, in his opinion, one scene was not staged "correctly". The reason for this is that involved a monologue based on an internal dilemma, which Zizek considers to be an "impossible" position (DSST 70). Notwithstanding Zizek's insistence elsewhere that one SHOULD stage the impossible, this account falls into problems because dilemmas and resultant "monologues" do in fact occur. (I feel the scene in question is interesting because it shows how oppressors claim to speak on behalf of those they oppress and therefore can have "dialogues" with them on an entirely monologic basis). Most importantly, this incorrectness - surmised subjectively - is taken as FINAL.

* The excessive use of "always" adds a dogmatic mode. Actually, this is used sneakily, because minus the various "always"-claims Zizek's account reads very like a hermeneutics of suspicion (eg. that claims may be "rationalisations", that the "neutral universal" covers a particular interest, that "facts" have been discursively constructed, etc.). However, the suspicion, followed by an affirmation of the necessity of what is suspected, becomes an alibi for its dogmatic reaffirmation.

* It is "the subject's primordial, constitutive position" to want to be the object of another's desire; we are, in effect, born submissive (PF 8-9). This is simply asserted and then used to interpret motives.

* Zizek uses the old trick of using two words for the same thing, so as to create a supposedly crystal-clear division into good and bad instances: here, "concepts" and "theoretical stopgaps" (DSST 138). He does not give a basis for distinguishing the two, except that the latter remove the duty to think; his basis for designating particular ideas into each camp is arbitrary. cf. also his distinction between jokes and humour (PF 171).

* "precise sense" means Lacanian sense. See eg. PF 15: "precise sense" of incest.


NB how Zizek's barely disguised dogmatism helps explain his hostility to deconstruction and anti-essentialism. NB also a possible link to the structure of eastern European education systems and of psychoanalysis (see above).

For a demonstration, take the case of Zizek's account of the relationship between ideology and enjoyment: there is always a "surplus-enjoyment" in transgressive acts such as genocide and torture, whenever these are motivated by an ideology; this means there is always guilt regardless of declared motives. His evidence is that Himmler says that one shows one's devotion to the Fatherland by putting it before other ethical concerns (PF 57-8). This clearly shows no such thing; all it means is that ideology produces an expansive commitment and that Nazi ideology lexically ordered "the Fatherland" ahead of other principles. It does NOT prove "enjoyment" of the act itself (as Zizek assumes and as his particular concept of guilt implies), even though it proves the existence of a commitment which can be read as libidinal. The enjoyment may, for instance, be a result of the sense of "historic mission" or of belonging to an ideological community, or to the desired future situation, ratehr than directly resulting from atrocities. There are almost certainly cases where people obey orders they definitely do NOT enjoy, out of loyalty or to avoid pain etc.


Zizek mainly pursues abstract discussions, usually built around some combination of personal reflection, assertion, exegesis and myth. He admits himself that the concepts he is using do not express anything which appears in everyday life - this is always "overdetermined" in its particularity so that universality as such is never reached in it (TS 102-3). This surely means that Zizek is discussing pure fictions, similar to Platonic forms.


Zizek believes among other things that things have an "ultimate name" (CHU 256), that there is such a thing as a "transcendental a priori" (DSST 209), that the world can be divided between Society and non-Society rather than a multitude of social practices (DSST 239), that general categories such as Eternity and the Sublime can be glimpsed through contingent forces and found the Symbolic (FA 104-5), etc. This absolutism differs from older forms only in Zizek's 'paradoxical' insistence that the Whole can only be constructed by elevating a Part to the principleof the Whole (PF 92). In other words, Zizek does not believe that the absolute is really absolute, but insists on saying it is anyway.

Zizek is a blatant essentialist. He writes of the "tension between a historically specified act and its "eternal" metaphysical dimension" (PF 51). He thinks he can justify this prescription by description: film noir combines "a properly 'metaphysical' vision of the corruption of the universe as such" with a specific historical moment, 1940s America (PF 51). (This is true, but it is so because film noir is a MYTHICAL genre in the Barthesian sense, NOT because such a combination is necessary). Zizek tries to dismiss the possibility that this is simply a misrepresentation in a few words which remain entirely on the level of exegesis, in this case, of Kierkegaard: "the properly Kierkegaardian paradox, according to which Eternity is grounded in a concrete temporal, historical deed, must be fully assumed - in spite of its 'historicisation', Eternity remains true Eternity, not just an illusion" (PF 83); so he endorses phrases such as that human nature, which really is eternal and universal, nevertheless changed around 1910 (PF 83). Again, Zizek's distaste for the idea of being meaningful emerges: clearly if something has the characteristics he gives it (i.e. historical malleability), it cannot by definition be "true Eternity", unless Zizek defines this in a radically new way; Zizek is not "assuming the paradox" but is blatantly contradicting himself. This is a classic mythical gesture in the Barthesian sense (see "The Fashion System" where he says that the counterposition of opposites is a way to eliminate the differential role of language and gain euphoria based on the assumption of sameness; such a euphoria may well be the libidinal basis of Zizek's essentialism. cf. also Orwell: Zizek is saying "finitude is infinity"). What Zizek is attempting here is little more than an insistence on a right to use essentialist language while accepting critiques of essentialism. (A similar gesture would be to say, for instance, "even though a cat does not bark, even though it is genetically different from other dogs, cannot mate with other dogs and does not look or act like a dog, it nevertheless remains a dog; we must assume the paradox that it is a dog despite its lack of dog-like characteristics"). Further, the entire passage is based on an unbacked assertion of fact and an unsupported "must" (WHY must we?).

cf. also on the idea of humanity as constituted by simultaneous necessity and impossibility (CHU 235): necessity plus impossibility cannot constitute anything. Rather, their combination leads to failure and nonexistence. For instance: if food is "necessary" for x to live but "impossible" to obtain, x starves and dies; if a piece of knowledge if "necessary" to pass a test but "impossible" to learn, one fails the test; etc. In classic sophist fashion, Zizek has succeeded in proving that human beings do not exist! (NB also Zizek's use of the concept of "necessity" is clumsy. "Necessity" requires something which it is "necessary FOR", but Zizek does not specify this, using "necessity" in an intensional way).

David Matza (Becoming Deviant p. 172-3) attacks the kind of approach Zizek uses as "sophist" and as based on a misunderstanding. Zizek wishesto derive essentials, i.e. an "entire unity of being", from surface appearances. But the inference of truth from surface appearances is a sophist solution (non-essentialist, superficial/levelling), whereas the question of seeking an essence is a Platonic problem (anti-surface etc.). ("everything is ultimately a clich‚" - PF 126). Essentialism necessarily involves looking beneath surfaces (otherwise, "essence" loses its Other of "appearance") and so cannot exist directly in contingency as Zizek suggests.

How Zizek's anti-essentialist essentialism plays out in practice shows how it simply papers over and does not solve the problem. Take for instance the problem: do masculine and feminine "types" actually refer to characteristics of real men and women, or are they myths or stereotypes? At times, Zizek writes as if they apply to real people; "Women, much more than men, are able to enjoy by proxy... This, then, is how reference to interpassivity allows us to complicate the standard opposition of man versus woman as active versus passive... woman can remain passive while being active through her other; man can be active while suffering through his other" (PF 119). Zizek's account here affirms male chauvinism: women really are capable of enjoying by being passive and submitting to men; further, they are reducible to the ahistorical essence "Woman". Yet elsewhere, Zizek writes differently (which is presumably why his incipient chauvinism has not been spotted): the subject is female, but not all Acts are accomplished by women (see ACT).

Zizek also manages to carry out entire discussions of essentialism (eg. CHU 224-5) without once defining it; he seems especially unaware of the Barthesian approach.

Another instance of essentialism: all consciousness is reducible to finitude (CHU 256 - this raises the problem than an immortal being would cease thinking). So all consciousness is reducible to something like the Barthesian alibi: "I know very well, but..." (CHU 256). This position is a priori, which does not stop Zizek constantly trying to prove it; he never deals with the problem that this phrase requires PRIOR categories of the self ("I") and knowledge ("know"). So consciousness always involves awareness of some fact the affective impact of which is suspended (CHU 257).

Another example: choice. We never choose - we always find that we have already chosen, retrospectively (PF 15).

Zizek's absolutism and essentialism are authoritarian because they necessarily require an elite who see the "real" notions in distinction to others who only see "false" ones. It should also be noted that Zizek's concept of "the subject" is not universal. "The subject" appears to exclude:
1. psychotics (for whom his entire account of repression etc. is irrelevant) and
2. anyone who does not have an urge to dare or who otherwise lacks the will or equipment to "get better".


Zizek's problematic appears to conflate social analysis with psychoanalysis. In distinction from other psychoanalytic theorists including most Lacanians, he does not recognise any distinction between clinical and social theorising, and the clinical has little direct role in his perspective (he sees psychoanalysis primarily as located in the history of ideas and downplays the significance of specifically clinical concerns in its genesis). He is, however, prepared to use clinical categories as anathemas, denouncing opponents as "perverse" (CHU 222 for instance), hysterical, obsessional, psychotic, melancholic etc. His account of the decline of ideologies treats them as a direct extension of the issue of treating people for grief-based depression (the need for a "proper work of mourning" etc.), and on a number of occasions his diagnosis of social problems reads as an almost exact duplicate of clinical Lacanian discourse (eg. the "loss of the master-signifier" in capitalism producing a "plague of fantasies" replicates the Lacanian account of the origins of psychosis).

Laclau: the structure of Zizek's theory "is not organised around a truly political reflection but is, rather, a psychoanalytic discourse which draws its examples from the politico-ideological field" (CHU 289). As a result, his politics is built around meaningless injunctions (eg. to overthrow liberal-capitalism) and lacks a "political perspective" in the "true" sense of "strategic reflection", i.e. reflection "about strategic problems people encounter in their actual struggles" (CHU 290).

There are several other problems with Zizek's use of psychoanalysis:

* Lacanian psychoanalysis, in common with most variants, insists on the irreudcible individuality of each patient. Hence, assumptions about repressed material, defence mechanisms and the therapeutic process should vary in each case; they should not be read off directly from superficial examinations or from a symptom. Lacan emphasises, for instance, that someone who eats shit is not necessarily a pervert; they may be a hysteric or an obsessional, depending on the meaning their symptom has for them, and this meaning must be unravelled through careful analytic work in the case of a particular patient (roughly speaking: a pervert identifies with the master-signifier, a hysteric provokes others into acting as Master, and an obsessional wards off an insoluble conflict by incessant activity). Yet Zizek's social critiques do not stop long enough to carry out any such detailed analyses; further, he reads off single psychological categories from superficial readings of entire movements (eg. all fundamentalists are acting out a return of the Real for the gaze of the western multiculturalist). He classifies Mary Kay Letourneau's activity as an Act without having treated her directly; he is relying on long-distance accounts and does not have access to her "unconscious". He reads off ideological traditionalism as a melancholic failure of mourning when it could also be a hysterical provocation, an obsessive repetition of ideological rituals, etc. In short: he does not analyse carefully enough.

* Even assuming he has analysed correctly, his account never goes beyond revealing repressed material directly. He does not deal with the problem of defence-mechanisms and his insistent, often arrogant style seems to invite transferences, either false-positive (eg. the way Marxists see Zizek as providing the justification for their Marxism, without adopting his other theories) or negative (IF he is revealing the repressed material - and this is a big IF - he is guaranteeing a full reaction of all defence mechanisms and potentially triggering a strong transference).

* "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" (Freud). Western psychoanalysts made mistakes reading guns and horses as phallic symbols and symbolic fathers, when, in the context of Madagascar, they referred directly to the colonial war (Fanon). Zizek's entire approach relies on claims of the type "guns and cigars are always phallic symbols", and he gives no basis for knowing when something is "just a cigar" and when it has analytical significance.

* Reading is not psychoanalysis. There are several key differences, notably: the reader does not typically pick up Zizek's works with the goal of being psychoanalysed, and those he discusses have not usually consented to analysis even consciously; Zizek has no knowledge of the individual reader's reactions or specific symptoms, and so cannot analyse these (eg. he cannot draw on the reader's dreams, Freudian slips, free associations, etc.); he has to write works which are GENERAL, and therefore necessarily not tailored to any individual's psyche; he is not getting feedback from the reader and so cannot engage in dialogue or react to defence-mechanisms. Zizek tends to cover over these problems - partly because his use of essentialist categories such as "the subject" and "the psyche" covers over differences between individual readers, partly because his arrogant assumptions to know others' truth a priori precludes any necessity for feedback, caution or dialogue, and partly because he uses mass movements, media frenzies and popular culture as substitutes for evidence from individual cases (ignoring the fact that he has little access to what such phenomena mean for the participant or audience and also the fact that one movement may subsume people with different motives).

The world is not a couch potato.


For Zizek, philosophy means metaphysics, high-level abstraction with no extensional reference-points, and essentialism linked to the idea of a basic structure.

Zizek conceives of metaphysics as primary and constitutive. Thus, there is a "gap between necessity and impossibility which is constitutive of the human condition" (CHU 235): humanity is constituted by metaphysical categories outside us.

Zizek constantly claims to have solved complex, long-standing philosophical problems by what turns out to be wordplay or doublespeak ("assuming the paradox"). cf. above on necessity and impossibility, and on universality and contingency. Zizek also thinks he's resolved determinism versus constructivism by reference to "the causality of the traumatic encounter", "the enigmatic sexualised message from the Other" (DSST 58) - which resolves nothing, since this message must be either socially constructed or causally determined.

Zizek's account of Acts leads to a strong intentionalist predisposition - eg. "only Lenin was the one at the level of the opening", standing alone (RL 12-13).

What is constantly missing from Zizek's philosophy - and from his polemical style - is any MOTIVATIONAL basis - he does not say why any reader should want to accomplish an Act or take rather than leave his theories. The closest he comes is in a discussion where he counterposes, to the totalitarian "you may!" and the anti-psychoanalytic "you mustn't", an exhortation to DARE (TS 391-2). Zizek's macho emphasis on "daring", courage, etc. is reminiscent of Reich's account of the phallic-narcissistic type of defence-mechanism; it is reminiscent of a hooligan ethos ("Come into my theory if you think you're hard enough!", "Your subjectivity is going home in a big red ambulance") and would seem to rely on a certain masculine desire not to be shown up as "chicken" for its appeal. This concept of "daring" may explain why Zizek replaces evidence with "What if...?" and why he presumes the most "radical" perspective to be the best, though it does not resolve the contradiction he counterposes it to since it is of a different order: "daring" is a content whereas "may" and "must" are formal, and one could reformulate Zizek's imperative as "You may dare" or "You mustn't be boring". In an ethics of "daring", furthermore, (cf. ACT on survivalism etc.), relations BETWEEN people lose all significance; others occur only as BARRIER. Further, "daring" is "phantasmatic" in Zizek's sense: in order to "dare", there must be a threat; overcome the threat through "daring" and one loses the capacity to "dare". What is also missing here is any understanding of the relationship between the psychological capacity to dare and the destructive impact of events such as the Stalinist Terror and far lessor terrors. (Incidentally: didn't the first Terror, during the Civil War, mark the point where Lenin stopped "daring", became "realistic" and emphasised the conservative virtue of security over the "utopian" and "sublime" hopes of the revolutionary "Act"?). Daring has a partial emancipatory edge, but Zizek treats it in a metaphysical way, as a pure (and empty) act of will.

Zizek does not state one way or the other what the relationship is between his own theory and the anti-foundational decisionism he advocates (see ACT). He does not say explicitly whether he exempts Lacanian theory (perhaps under his prohibition on Acts undermining "science") or whether his own approach is based on an irrational Decision. If the latter (which would explain the assertive, imperative, authoritarian aspects of his style, his extensive use of "must", etc.) then he should say so; otherwise he is engaged in "fetishism" (he "knows very well" that his theory is based on an arbitrary decision, "but still" he writes as if it is absolute and objective). But if he did admit it, there would be no reason for readers to accept his theory above any other - including, there would be no reason to accept its decisionism. In practice, however, Zizek puts his own ideology beyond all his critiques, without giving any basis for putting it there.

Zizek and Laclau both claim to have derived their politics directly from their theories. In both cases, this claim is rendered non-viable by the way the constitutive lack forces a choice. Laclau's version of this thesis rules out purisms and fundamentalisms; Zizek's version rules out moderation and compromise. But neither version leads directly to a specific politics. Zizek in fact flits between Christianity, Stalinism, Gaullism, populism and other political stances, while Laclau never explains why radical democracy necessarily emerges as the only political option from antagonism.


There are strong similarities between Zizek's theory and Althusser's:
Exegesis posited as fact;
Dogmatism as necessary and praiseworthy;
a position where one MUST choose (and there is no middle position, no neutrality, no drift and no basis for choosing) between two or three options divided on an a priori basis (= imposition of own schemas on everything): prol. vs. bourgeoisie; Act vs. fantasy
a creativity in exegesis based on an almost obsessive avoidance of explicitly original claims and a refusal of any standards to limit what can be read from a text;
resultant unconventional use of terms such as "materialism", as hurrah-words
a nihilistic foundation (since the choice cannot be made rationally)
concern with universality and particularity

One major difference is that Althusser had a definite political orientation whereas Zizek is a quasi-nihilist sectarian-without-a-sect.

In both cases, a surface theoretical rigidity covers over the originality of the theorist's ideas and places a limit on them. The need to believe in the necessity of dogmas, masters, a primary choice etc. is probably psychological - a "counter-transference" - in both cases.

If Zizek writes like an Althusserian, this explains at least part of his impact, because Althusser was highly influential among the kind of neo-Marxists who are now rallying to Zizek, and his personal history led to his plunging from the stage before his influence was finished; in other words, some people may have dropped Althusser without a "proper work of mourning" and have now found a substitute.


Is Zizek a materialist? He certainly wants us to think so; he even claims to be giving "The materialist answer" on some issues (CHU 328). However, this does not seem to have anything to do with anyone else's version of the materialism/idealism distinction. Zizek defines materialism twice, and the two definitions vary. On the one hand, he defines it negatively, in relation to idealism, and links it to determination in the last instance (while dialectics means trying to account for phenomena which "break the framework of common-sense realism") (DSST 193-4). On another occasion he differentiates them according to whether they stress the intrusion of ethical Law or of the 'mathematical antinomy' as the main barrier to the success of imagination: idealism relies on an external guarantee to save phenomena, whereas materialism sees this guarantee as a special case of the mathematical antinomy. Zizek also completely endorses the view, ascribed to Lenin, that the history of philosophy is an endless/repetitive tracing of the materialism/idealism struggle (an Althusserian view). But for Zizek the "materialist choice" hinges on a "seemingly secondary alternative" (PF 219-20). In other words, Zizek wants to retain the 'Marxist' idea of a history of struggle between two fixed worldviews, but to drop any connection to the mind/matter distinction or any other, earlier version of what the difference between materialism and idealism is. Zizek manages to be a 'materialist' by redefining (or, more accurately, asserting) 'materialism' to mean whatever Zizek happens to believe.

The two main uses he has of the term "materialism" are: 1. A more-or-less invertive use of "materialism" to refer to belief in an overpowering external network of 'unconscious' beliefs and ideologies embedded in matter and social practices, which, despite their not existing physically, Zizek wishes to label "material"; and 2. An identification of materialism with the "real" in the Lacanian sense, i.e., a belief in some element of irreducible conflict or antagonism or an active void which prevents satisfaction and disrupts the symbolic system.

MATERIALITY AS IDEOLOGY: Examples of this use of the terms "material/materialism" and similar formulations include the following:
* Ideological apparatuses are material (CHU 312);
* "belief is... real" (CHU 262);
* "every materialist" thinks "subjective experience is regulated by objective unconscious mechanisms" (FA 84);
* "The Unconscious is outside, not hidden in any unfathomable depths", and is therefore "material externality" (PF 3).

Elsewhere, Zizek repeats this kind of analysis, which is not conventionally materialist but seems to involve a belief in a determining role for an external but nonexistent 'ideology' built into social practice and worked matter:
* The unconscious is displayed in objects (eg. architecture) (PF 1-3) and consists primarily of "an ideological perception of how the subject should relate" to objects (PF 5);
* Ideology is present in action not belief/knowledge; people know, for instance, that money isn't magical but act as if it is (SOI 31), "They know very well how things really are, but still they are doing it as if they did not know" (SOI 32). This means for Zizek that there must be an illusion, an "ideological fantasy", which structures active relations; ideology works ar this level and does not veil reality (SOI 32-3). Zizek also mentions bureaucracy, the Party and so on as examples of this effect (SOI 36).
* Fantasy, says Zizek, is about trying to cope with being part of an apparently meaningless "opaque network" (PF 9);
* Appearances are never merely appearances, since they profoundly affect people's actual position (PF 26);
* "My subjective experience is regulated by unconscious mechanisms which are 'decentred' with regard to my self-experience and, as such, beyond my control (a point asserted by every materialist" (PF 120-1) (!!)
* We are automatons of common sense: Zizek approvingly cites Blaise Pascal: "Proofs only convince the mind; habit provides the strongest proofs and those that are most believed. It inclines the automaton, which leads the mind unconsciously along with it" (SOI 36)
* Ideology is self-regulating, "a ciphered formulation of the unconscious" (PF 52)
* The "materialist answer" to why Ideological State Apparatuses exist is, according to Zizek, that they exist to self-reproduce (CHU 328)
* Zizek thinks the "truth" of an ideological system is revealed in 'fantastic' representations such as architecture. These often express what is officially repressed - for instance, the statues of the monstrous New Man crushing workers in Russia showed an officially prohibited truth about the role of the Party. Ideologies express their antagonisms, which they can't acknowledge, in their material representations (PF 3-4).
* The human being beneath the "ideological mask" is "itself false"; "it is here to obfuscate the fact that the ideological mask effectively runs the show" and that people are reducible to their ideological mask (PF 77)

In the process of Zizek's redefinition of materialism, both matter and mind go missing. Although Zizek stresses material structures such as architecture, their materiality is irrelevant; what is significant is the meanings they carry (i.e. the statue of the New Man only means anything if someone projects something onto it; as 'matter' it is simply a lump of rock - if even that can be said. Zizek is not interested in the statue as lump of rock but in the meanings it carries, which are a product of the working of matter and therefore not material as such at all). However, 'mind', project, praxis etc. also go missing in Zizek. Zizek in particular is trying to cover up the fact that the meaning of the statue (or the different toilets he discusses in PF 4-5, or a particular passage from a film, etc.) is relative to perceptions which an interpreter brings to it. If Zizek sees the statue crushing workers, this is because of an interpretation he brings to the statue and relates to it, or projects onto it; it is not a feature of official ideology ("disavowed" or "unconscious", or not); still less of the statue as such. Zizek seems to think his own perceptions necessarily show something about existence in general, when actually they are only his perceptions. The fact that someone else doesn't see what Zizek sees in a statue does not mean they know unconsciously but won't admit it; it means they interpret the statue differently (cf. section on OTHERS).

As a result, all human subjectivity in the usual sense (intentionality, etc.) disappears (though of course, Zizek has his own version of the passive 'subject'). What appears to be subjective perception is turned into an epiphenomenon of an external opaque network, which, however, has nothing to do with matter (the statue-as-such, or as a worked lump of rock). His account is implausible because he provides no evidence for the existence of this network; indeed, he admits 'the big Other does not exist'. He simply asserts that it must have this role for action to occur, though he seems to simply ignore or dismiss the alternative thesis that action occurs as human praxis.

In this context, his use of the label "materialist" can only be some kind of word-play for rhetorical advantage, or maybe a very creative exegesis. NB also how classical idealists such as Hegel and Schelling are 'materialists' according to Zizek (FA 71 - Zizek says that Schelling is on the right, materialist, side of the division with "obscurantist idealism"). By some definitions, Zizek is a particularly obvious idealist. For instance: Henry Arvon (Marxist Aesthetics, **** p. 27-8) associates idealism with having a theoretical focus on the isolated individual.

NB also, Zizek's approach rests on the assumption that the external network of ideological meanings operates without regard for people: "the Anglo-Saxon lavatory acquires its meaning only through its differential relation to French and German lavatories" (PF 5). But Zizek does not seem to realise that the operative nature of this 'meaning' is relative to whether it is perceived by the users of lavatories. A user of an English lavatory who is entirely unaware of the differences with French and German lavatories is hardly likely to be affected by these differences even on an unconscious level (NB how most readings of the unconscious assume a part of the mind which contains some kind of repressed memory, desire etc. which, however, has to have come from experience, whereas Zizek's unconscious is purely external). There is a whole question here of ethnocentrism and normalism: meanings for members of different cultures are radically variant, and the psychologically different often do not "read" the same significance from their environment as the "normal". Furthermore, even "normal", western people do not read many of the meanings Zizek sees as built into the structure of the world. This would not be a problem if Zizek was pursuing a classic Marxist-type critique (structures of worked matter, images etc. naturalise or reify ideological suppositions so as to make other ways of doing things seem wrong, unnatural, etc.), but he isn't - he thinks the external system of meanings is primary, not a product of something which is on an analytical level politico-cultural but is misperceived as natural or moral or administrative etc. In this kind of analysis, the non-universality of particular meanings is a fatal flaw. (cf. classical structuralism: Zizek is in many ways a structuralist rather than a post-structuralist. NB how the classical structuralist problematic came into problems with differences which seemed to overflow each reformulation of its idea of a "deep structure". Zizek is nevertheless reviving such an approach).

NB also political effects: Zizek thinks "knowledge" can be "in itself an act of liberation" (FA ii).

cf. also EMPIRICITY.

MATERIALITY AS THE REAL: This kind of approach also crops up fairly frequently, suggesting Zizek is rather confused about where he wants to draw the materialism/idealism division: between theories which believe in an external/symbolic/ideological order and those which don't, or between theories which believe this order is complete and those which believe in an element of necessary incompleteness in it. (NB the Lacanian Real on Zizek's reading is an active void and has nothing to do with positive objects; see REAL).

* Zizek says his "materialism" is distinguished by treating "the symbolic Order as the answer to some monstrous excess in the Real" rather than the reverse (FA 92);
* He endorses the idealist theme of a reality constituted by transcendental synthesis, adding only a Ground for this in a preceding, elusive Real (PF 208);
* He links the concept of materialism to the idea that the social field is always "already sustained by an invisible antagonistic split" (DSST 241);
* He wants to claim, paradoxically, that ex nihilo is a radically materialist notion (DSST 177);
* " 'illusions' are sustained by... a drive which is more real than reality itself" (DSST 167);
* Perhaps the ultimate line of separation between materialism and idealism is that, whereas idealism locates the horison of human experience in the gap between the ontological Void and reality, materialism sees the Void/lack as the indicator of the primordial repression of antagonism, and therefore tries to enter the dimension beyond/beneath the Void (PF 240). Being materialist in ethics has nothing to do with statements about the historical specificity of ethical beliefs (PF 221).
* The "unsurmountable divide that forever separates dialectical materialism from discursive idealism", as well as from vulgar materialism, is that "for the latter subjective perception is a distorted... 'reflection' of 'objective' reality" outside it; for idealism, " 'objective' reality is itself constituted through the subjective act of transcendental synthesis" (i.e. the subject makes sense of representations and turns them into 'objective reality'); "Lacan (dialectical materialism) accepts idealism's basic premiss (the transcendental subjective constitution of 'objective reality'), and supplements it with the premiss that this very act of ontological positing of 'objective reality' is always-already 'stained', 'tainted' by a particular object which confers upon the subject's 'universal' view of reality a particular 'pathological' twist", a radically subjective object necessary for subjectivisation and objectification (PF 214-15).

I'm not sure if Lacan claimed to be a dialectical materialist (I doubt it); I'm also not sure why such a "materialism" has the same label in Zizek's work as the "vulgar" materialism he denounces, when he admits it is closer to idealism. It is clearly in sharp contradiction with more conventional definitions of materialism: for instance, Zizek claims that someone who believes she/he directly has a body is mad (PF 142-3). As with other concepts around the idea of the Real, one has to buy quite a heavy load of metaphysics to buy into Zizek's approach.

OTHER USES: Zizek's use of the concept of materialism is wildly variant. For instance: he calls Malebranche's theory of Grace "materialist" depite its otherworldly language, because Grace in Malebranche is contingent, random and arbitrary. In this passage, Zizek identifies materialism with the idea that the world "is a blind natural process with no inherent meaning" (DSST 79). This is at odds with both his main uses of the term, though it may be related to the first if one ignores the physical connotations of the term "natural".

In another passage, Zizek refers to "the properly materialist response" to the alleged threat of the posed by "the Other's gaze" (i.e. Zizek's psychologised version of CCTV, police surveillance, the Millennium Bug and so on). (DSST 252). Again, the reference seems to be indirectly to the first of Zizek's two uses (i.e. the big Other as external symbolic system): the materialist approach according to Zizek ignores the sociological origins of these phenomena, their technological component and whether there is evidence for treating them as a threat, stressing instead how such phenomena are (supposedly) stand-ins for the big Other.

What does a materialist politics involve? A properly materialist line of development, according to Zizek, occurs when an occupant in symbolic position, who has to fake participation in their role, can outgrow her/himself and become authentic: "since we all live within ideology, the true enigma is how we can outgrow our 'corrupted' initial condition - how something which was planned as ideological manipulation can all of a sudden miraculously start to lead an authentic life of its own" (PF 148). In other words: when something conforms to its role instead of rejecting or resisting it, so the role itself outgrows its position. Of course, this conservative position depends on seeing a single dominant ideological structure as total and absolute.

Zizek's idea of materiality as an external system of meanings leads him to a Stalinist/Althusserian attempt to infer a kind of consciousness-without-consciousness: "the most intimate attitude towards one's body is used [by whom? - AR] to make an ideological statement. So how does this material existence of ideology relate to our conscious convictions?" (PF 6). Zizek is here clearly planting HIS OWN interpretation of 'worked matter' in material reality in such a way as to cover up his own interpretation/intentionality (probably the sneaky idea of retrospective or anamorphic constitution of truth is operative here). He assumes that, because he can infer meaning from something, this meaning is therefore really, materially there. (NB this is very threatening in the case of eg. child abuse: see OTHERS). He does not make the slightest attempt to show that the meanings he infers are present to anyone except him. The role of the concept of "materiality" here is to cover Zizek against the possibility that he is reading meanings into people's actions which are not present in their own intentions. For Zizek, if you act as if you believe (in commodity fetishism, or in God, etc.), you come to believe you do (PF 6). "the subject who maintains his distance towards the ritual is unaware of the fact that the ritual already dominates him from within" (PF 6). However: this "within" is seen only by Zizek, not by the subject; it is therefore not a "within" at all, but an impression Zizek gets by wrongly interpreting acts as NECESSARILY involving the meanings he attaches to them (to "act as if you believe" is in effect "to act in such a way as to convince Zizek that you believe, which, since Zizek knows the objective truth of everything, means you must really believe no matter what you think"). External action is for Zizek a subjective essence (locus) and fantasy: "This 'purely material sincerity' of the external ideological ritual, not the depth of the subject's inner convictions and desires, is the true locus of the fantasy which sustains the ideological edifice" (PF 6).

This distortion of concepts relating to consciousness is in a way an extension of psychoanalytic theory; but most psychoanalysts use such distortions in a limited way: a sphere of unconscious/repressed belief/desire/memory etc. is assumed to explain internally motivated but apparently motiveless actions. Zizek takes this dimension far further, introducing an idea of external, material essence which seems to involve the arrogant claim that an act's significance for Zizek is its real significance regardless of what the actor thinks. I'm not sure the idea of a "true locus" is even meaningful; certainly a purely exterior ritual performance need not involve any inner fantasy or motivation whether conscious or unconscious, and can actually involve exactly what the participant believes: a manipulation of ritual to pursue 'deeper' goals known to the subject (eg. the case of a secret agent, police infiltrator, undercover journalist, etc.). The meaning of ritual is NOT fixed by its relevance to the "ideological edifice" but can vary on a continuum between total submersion/immersion in the ideology and purely external, instrumental (even dishonest) use, via various forms of syncretic, "drifting", reinterpretive and transformative participations (a youth who conforms while at school but not on the street; an entryist who wants to re-work the good bits of Labour ideology but drop the rest; a peasant who projects her/his own concerns into dominant belief-systems; etc.). So Zizek cannot pinpoint a 'real' meaning which participation necessarily always has, because there is no such necessary meaning.

In CHU, Zizek and his co-thinkers (eg. Mladen Dolar) come under attack from Judith Butler for what she considers to be an idealist conception of the objet petit a, big Other and Self (cited CHU 115-16). Zizek tries to defend himself by saying that the big Other doesn't exist but has to be presupposed (CHU 116), a claim which borders on self-contradiction. (Furthermore, one can also ask WHY it must be presupposed: if the answer is speculative rather than 'material', Zizek has hardly defended himself against being accused of idealism). The objet petit a is not idealist because it has a " 'materiality'... of the trauma" (CHU 117) - a trauma which, however, is presumably psychological-ideational. Zizek further tries to define materialism away from concepts of matter: there is no equivalence between materiality and so-called 'external reality' (CHU 117); a "stain within the 'ideal' sphere of psychic life" is "material" - indeed, the heart of "true materiality" (CHU 118) - and Zizek is then surprised that he is misunderstood!

In short: Zizek thinks he can defend himself against the accusation of idealism by redefining ideas as material.


Zizek wants not only to claim to be a Marxist but also a claim to orthodoxy: he is an "old-fashioned dialectical materialist" (DSST 216; cf. his remarks on Hegel, Descartes, etc.). His readings are idiosyncratic and he gets praise for this but his own aim throughout is orthodoxy.

CRITICISMS: Zizek has come under intense criticism for his "Marxist" ideas from Laclau: he uses Marxism in an "acritical" way with no discussion of its history, nothing on key thinkers eg. Gramsci, Trotsky and Austro-Marxism and little fit with the rest of his theory (CHU 204-5). "Zizek's reference to classes is just a succession of dogmatic assertions without the slightest effort to explain the centrality of the category" (CHU205). His concepts of class and capitalism are "fetishes devoid of any precise meaning" (CHU 201). Zizek uses a Hegelian aprioristic principle to wipe out 50 years of development of Marxist theory (CHU 291). He inscribes Marxism "in a semi-metaphysical horizon" and if his reading spreads (which is unlikely) it will set Marxism back 50 years (CHU 290). Laclau of course now rejects Marxism, but his criticisms here are largely valid: Zizek avoids taking seriously the concepts he uses, accounting for his selection of these concepts or extending them beyond the level of dogmas and fetishes.

POINT IS TO CHANGE IT: Marx's Thesis on this is specifically against philosophy-as-interpretation: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it" - Theses on Feuerbach, in Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, Student Edition, London:Lawrence and Wishart 1970, p. 123). Suggests Marxists should orient to changing the world and avoid speculative philosophy. But contrast Zizek's reading: according to Zizek the Thesis proves that interpretation itself intervenes in its object, so the statement that the point is to change it becomes a perceptual claim with no imperative character in relation to the process of speculation (PF 90-1; cf. 124, note 15). On another occasion Zizek interprets "the point is to change it" to mean that the point is to change Hegel: to violently reinterpret his works. Compare also his version of Lenin's question "What is to be done?" (i.e. which repeats Marx's concern with action): Zizek's version is abstract: What is to be done? means "how do we reassert, on the political terrain, the proper dimension of the act?" (CHU 127).

It is as if practical political issues do not exist for Zizek. Marx's thesis becomes "the point is to change interpretations" and Lenin's becomes "what is to be written?" - completely inverting their political characteristics.

COMMODITY FETISHISM: This is by far the most important of Zizek's attempts to appropriate Marx, the only one which recurs regularly throughout his works.

In SOI, Zizek is actually critical of Marx's concept (which raises the issue of how he can nevertheless be claiming to use it). Following Alfred Sohn-Rethel, he claims Marx's concept of commodity-form shows an "abstract conceptual mode of thinking" involving a division between intellectual and manual labour (SOI 16). Sohn-Rethel claims quantitativisation is already present in Being (commodities) BEFORE it is present in science (SOI 17). The market is not based on belief in commodities but on acting AS IF falsehoods were true (SOI 18). Repression of the social dimension of exchange means it returns in the guise of instrumental Reason (SOI 20). Reality itself is ideological (SOI 20-1; cf. notes on MATERIALISM) and depends on its essence not being seen, so explaining it dissolves it (?!?! - dissolves it for whom?). However, Zizek endorses Marx's idea that commodity fetishism involves misrecognition of relations as properties of elements, because this fits with his broader, psychoanalytic concept of fetishism as misrecognition of relations as elements (Lacan on Kingship as property of relation, not the individual who is King) via a repression of knowledge of domination via naturalisation (SOI 24-6). He is later to become rather less open about how his concept of commodity fetishism differs from Marx's.

Zizek wants to remove the element of critique from the concept of fetishism. According to Zizek, Marx was not attacking present society's fetishism on the basis of what he saw as a higher type of belief or society, but was merely obtaining a critical distance from his own society by comparing it to 'primitive' societies (PF 99; I have no idea how Z. has deduced this from Marx). When he comes across Marx's critique of the naturalisation of socially-constructed qualities of people and objects, he accuses him of teleology and believing in progress towards the transparency of the social (PF 99-100) - issues which are clearly irrelevant here. The division between Zizek and Marx is very important here: Marx's hostility to fetishism relates precisely to the kind of assumptions Zizek is making, i.e. that ideology is an "always", active in the external world, which can be deduced speculatively.

Zizek wants to see the concept of commodity fetishism as describing how people are determined by the ideological structure of the world: not how people misperceive human acts as naturalised objects, but as how people act in line with the real, ideological structure of objects while seeing themselves as not believing in this structure. In contrast to Sartre's denouncement of anti-human formulations such as "tuberculosis harms production" (CDR ****), Zizek believes the social structure really does operate in this way.

Commodity fetishism in Zizek is about how an abstraction becomes "a direct feature of social life" (CHU 105 - minus the praxis whereby action projects abstractions into the world). The human agent is missing from Zizek's account entirely - a Universal becomes 'for itself' via individuals (CHU 105-6) who have no role except as carriers apparently. Universality according to Zizek rests on people feeling alienated and "out of joint" with a particular situation (CHU 106). Zizek here transmutes Marx's critique of capitalist alienation into Lacan's wholly different concept of constitutive alienation. The operation of self-becoming of the universal is experienced by those who lack a proper place in it as "an extremely violent move of disrupting the preceding organic balance" (CHU 106).

Zizek's reading of Marx on commodity fetishism is NOT that a commodity is a relation between people which seems to be a thing, but that while the bourgeois subject may think he/she sees it as relational, they must really think (on the level of fantasy) that it is a thing, since this is how they act towards it (FA 83-4). NB here, intersubjectivity goes missing; action is assumed to express INDIVIDUAL beliefs, and furthermore, to carry whatever meaning Zizek chooses to read into a particular action as 'what must be believed for this act to occur'. As if the 'objective significance' of someone's act is exactly what the system, or Zizek as observer, makes of it; as if this is the 'real' intent regardless of what actual people actually think. NB this is a recurrence of the Althusserian/Stalinist/Maoist principle of "unity of motive and effect": that the act 'really' involves an 'objective' belief or intent regardless of its subjective dimension.

Again: "It is easy to fall prey to the nominalist reduction of an institution to its individuals or their acts, in which and through which this institution exists: when one says 'America bombed Iraq', what this actually means is that President Bush's orders set in motion the chain of command which led to the takeoff of bombers... [dots in original] However, not is such a reduction also misleading? What 'actually took place' were, of course, merely individual acts; however, in order for individual acts, which are in their materiality negligible... to have such enormous consequences... a symbolic order has to be operative, an order which is purely 'virtual' (it does not 'actually exist' anywhere), yet determines the fate of things. So the misrecognition at work is... [not only reification but] also the one exemplified by the very nominalist reduction (as if... we were dealing with direct 'relations between people' - that is to say: as if, in order to explain what 'actually took place', one is not compelled to take into account the efficiency of the symbolic institution...)" (PF 100-1). Zizek is himself fetishising here, albeit in a roundabout way, without saying that the symbolic institution actually exists in the world (whereas it must exist in the world to be "efficient" in the way he says). The 'efficiency of the symbolic institution' is ultimately nothing but the social effects of a set of beliefs in people's heads, i.e. of a "conception of the world" which produces a particular "collective will". This phenomenological approach is more than able to handle the apparent effectiveness of symbolic pseudo-externalities; cf. not only Gramsci but also Sartre (CDR on institutions). The problem is that the pilots who drop the bombs think the symbolic institution exists; and one cannot disillusion them if one maintains the mystical delusion that this institution really exists and really is effective without individuals.

"an even more tricky 'fetishist refification' is at work when we (mis)perceive the situation as simply involving 'relations between people', and fail to take into account the invisible symbolic structure which regulates these relations" (PF 101). Zizek never explains why he thinks these terms are appropriate here; relationalism does not involve a naturalised real and so cannot be a reification. Zizek is getting onto very unstable ground here: the symbolic order doesn't exist anywhere yet he wants to treat it as somehow existing beyond human relations. But surely this order can only exist within human relations, as a belief or misperception (of relations between people as reified things), since Zizek admits it doesn't exist anywhere else. A group of villagers won't enter a cave because they think there is a dragon there, even though there is no dragon in the cave. What this means is that the dragon does not exist; it is mistakenly believed to exist. It is not really any different with commodity fetishism. Zizek's argument suggests that the massive effects of such widespread misconceptions shows they cannot be mere individual beliefs. But the massive effects would be just the same in the case of the dragon, without making it exist any the more. The effects are those of multiplying a mistaken belief across millions of agents, who can then be mobilised collectively - and nothing more. (Note also the abuse of the term "bourgeois" as a simple boo-word, meaning "conformist").

On this occasion Zizek wants to pass his version of fetishism off as Marx's (PF 101). But surely Marx is carrying out the opposite operation: denouncing the misperception of relations as things? NB also Zizek thinks materiality obscures an "immaterial virtual act which effectively runs the show" (PF 103). So the dragon not only exists but is in charge - despite also not existing anwhere. Zizek is surely here dragging himself into hopeless self-contradiction.

cf. also PF 172: "he knows there are really two women, yet he acts as if there is only one, since his fantasy determines his acts irrespective of his conscious knowledge. What we encounter here is the fundamental paradox of commodity fetishism" (PF 172). This is I suspect a revival of Althusser's old dogma that people are really acting in the class struggle regardless of what they think they are doing, which is equivalent to saying that Althusser knows what everything really means regardless of what anyone else thinks. Contrast Gramsci: implicit assumptions underlying practice express a second "organic ideology" or conception of the world; there is no need to retreat from argument just because this conception is undeveloped. (Gramsci, and others such as Jim Scott, are quite able to handle such contradictions in beliefs and action without requiring the entire metaphysical edifice Zizek seems to need: fantasy, disavowed supplement, subject presumed to believe, etc., etc.).

Elsewhere, Zizek comes closer to classical Marxist economic determinism, by directly inverting Marx's claims: according to Zizek on this occasion, relations between things are misperceived as relations between people rather than the other way around (TS 349-50). It is therefore supposedly possible to 'behead' these relations of things with no effect. This claim is reminiscent of Engels' naive assertion that much of capitalism is merely administration of things, which can continue as before without the capitalists - a claim which has had a lot of harmful effects in terms of failing to see the everyday dimensions of capitalist ideology and how these are built into the work process etc.

On another occasion Zizek wants to claim, implausibly, that Marx shares his view that ideology cannot exist without disbelieving participants (PF 149).

Zizek's version of fetishism is that it is a short-circuit between the (absent) structure [presumably meaning the dragon above, the thing which does not exist but is nevertheless "virtually" active, i.e. Zizek's misperception of how mistaken beliefs can nevertheless produce widespread effects] and its positive elements [i.e. real people and objects] (PF 104-5). Zizek actually wants to use the concept to express two opposite mistakes, naturalisation and humanisation, which are diametrically opposed (PF 105). (This kind of device is common in Zizek, partly because of his faith in the Lacanian view that the two extremes somehow produce each other, and partly because he tends to treat different usages of the same word as expressing a single concept: as if different usages of the same word must refer to a single object!).

The problem is that Zizek wants to read misperceptions into reality, so an epistemological claim automatically finds its way into ontology. Zizek sees the question not as how an illusion makes things able to relate to each other through people, but of "how it is ontologically possible that the innermost 'relations between people' can be displaced on to (or substituted by) 'relations between things'? That is to say: is it not a basic feature of the Marxian notion of commodity fetishism that 'things believe instead of us, in place of us'? The point worth repeating again and again is that in Marx's notion of fetishism the place of the fetishist inversion is not in what people think they are doing, but in their social activity itself... [P]eople are well aware of how things really stand; they know very well that the commodity-money is nothing but a reified form of the appearance of social relations... the paradox is that in their social activity they act as if they do not know this, and follow the fetishist illusion" (PF 105). Which is simple enough to account for: people act as if they believe for the same reason an infiltrator acts like a member of some cult they disbelieve: because they want to get something from, or feel threatened by, somebody else who does believe, or who wants others to believe. The fact that fetishist inversions make it look like things are acting does not mean that they actually are. Plus, Zizek is grossly underestimating the spread of actual belief that the 'laws' of economics are an external, objective structure of the world. Zizek may well know better; but a great many economists, in Marx's day and now (NB Marx introduces the concept in critique partly of capitalists and partly of Smith etc.), as well as their conformist supporters, give a very strong impression that they do believe that such 'laws' are a property of things not human relations. For instance: Channel 4 News tells us that capitalism is "like the weather - and you can't change the weather" (after Mayday 2001). cf. also the book "New Labour, New Language" (****): globalisation is an "it" which cannot be resisted.

Zizek however wants to reject "the properly 'humanist' notion" that human relations are displaced onto things (which is in all probability what Marx meant). As if this wasn't bad enough, Zizek also wants to give this relation constitutive status, thus eliminating any residual critical potential his concept of fetishism may have had: "The paradox to be maintained is that displacement is original and constitutive... There are some beliefs which are from the very outset 'decentred' beliefs of the Other; the phenomenon of the 'subject supposed to believe' is thus universal and structurally necessary" (PF 106). There is no direct belief which is then displaced onto things and which can be revealed as belief by critique (PF 108). So Zizek is carrying out the opposite manoeuvre to Marx: Marx asserts the historically-specific and ideological (in the usual sense) character of commodity fetishism and then tries to overthrow it; Zizek asserts its character as absolute, claims that it is neither illusory nor historical, and makes it impossible to overthrow (though as usual, one has to reckon with Zizek's faith that the Act can change everything). Zizek claims that belief is always displaced: belief is belief that others believe. The subject supposed to believe need not exist, but must merely be presupposed to exist; it is enough "to believe in it" (PF 108; cf. 125). Even if this is so, however, one would still need a primary belief which is directly one's own: to believe that another believes in x, one must adopt directly the belief that this other believes, even if one does not directly adopt the belief in x.

NB important shifts in Zizek's position. In his early work, he is prepared to pose as critic of Marx; in his later work, he wants to pretend to be actually expressing what Marx is saying. NB also the inconsistency of his position. He wants to say that the critical gesture is to say that the Self not the Other believes in a fetish (PF 114), even though his entire account seems directed against this conclusion. He also wants to maintain that the master says to the bondsman 'be my body but do not let me know that your body is my body' (TS 257), a process of "double disavowal" he identifies in bureaucracies (TS 258) and also sees operating in commodity fetishism (TS 306). But this surely implies a classical conception of alienation, of a reification of subordination into a perception of something else.

NB how the concept "x acts as if y is true despite not believing y is true" only makes sense if one assumes that "belief that y is true" is the only basis for x's action. It is far more likely that "x acts in a way that appears to q to imply x believes that y is true, but does not believe that y is true, because q has misinterpreted x's act and x acts in this way because of reason z which q is unaware of".

CLASS STRUGGLE: Class struggle in Zizek has next to nothing to do with sociologically conceived classes (despite the fact that Zizek elsewhere plays with such class categories). The concept crops up fairly recently in Zizek's work, at around the time of his falling-out with Laclau. Its structural position is very close to that formerly reserved for Laclau's concept of antagonism, suggesting Zizek simply switched the terms over. His reading of the concept of class struggle as expressing something like a Lacanian Real or Laclauian antagonism is actually derived from Laclau's own work ("Marxism and Psychoanalysis", in NRRT).

For Zizek, class struggle is a "Real of antagonism" - as such, it is not an "ultimate referent" (or, it seems, any kind of referent) but rather, the "force of... constant displacement" of "socio-ideological phenomena" - a contentless but irreducible kernel which means phenomena "never mean what they seem/purport to mean" (PF 216; note: things NEVER mean what they seem to mean). It is knowable only via its effects: "for example, 'class struggle' is that on account of which every direct reference to universality (of 'humanity', of 'our nation', etc.) is always in a specific way, 'biased', dislocated with regard to its literal meaning. 'Class struggle' is the Marxist name for this basic 'operator of dislocation'... [ensuring we] always-already 'take sides'. The fact that there is no 'neutral', 'objective' concept of class struggle is thus the crucial constituent of this notion" (PF 216). Of course, this means there can be no end to class struggle. This is quite close to a Maoist usage of the concept, but it is hard to see how it can be traced to Marx. As a "contentless" concept, it clearly has nothing to do with any attempt to explain anything or engage in social action on the basis of a concept of "classes" conceived sociologically, in relation to the productive process or whatever. Indeed, it is frankly confusing to even use this phrasing in this context, since this concept seems to mean something like "irreducible difference between people" and has nothing to do with "class" at all.

Zizek also claims that (presumably because of its character as a Real kernel) class struggle is an "oppositional determination" which assigns importance to and predominates over other issues. Again a repetition of Mao (here, the concept of "primary contradiction"). But where is Zizek's basis? He is involved at the time in a polemic with Laclau over Marxist theory, so one would expect some evidence against Laclau's claim that all subjectivities have equal social standing. However, the best Zizek can do is to assert that the proliferation of multiple subjectivities "is the result of the class struggle" (CHU 320). This makes perfect sense if one understands class struggle as meaning the Lacanian Real (the symbol representing the Real distorts the entire system of symbols, generating the plural attachments to different objets petit a); but it hardly addresses Laclau's concern, and clearly shows that Zizek assumes the concept has something to do with class even though his conception of it rules this out. The only vaguely similar use of concepts of class I have encountered is in autonomist theory, where "capital" is identified with social control in general and the "proletariat" with resistances to it. But the crucial difference that that autonomism does not involve any privileged sphere of action, precisely because all struggles are by its definition class struggles, whereas Zizek does seem to want some kind of privilege (though not of sociological classes).

Zizek also claims that if everyone saw themselves as involved in class struggle, there would be a "harmonious structure with no struggle" (TS 187). He asserts this with no backing; it is not clear whether this is a serious claim at all, since it contradicts his view that antagonism is necessary and irreducible. It is very implausible: certainly there are many situations where two sides see themselves as being at war, where this does not lead to a "harmonious structure".

CLASS: As well as removing "class" from "class struggle", Zizek also makes an attempt to remove actually-existing social groups from the concept of "class". (Laclau - CHU 292 - incidentally, misunderstands Zizek on this, making the understandable mistake of assuming that Zizek's concept of "class" has some remote connection to Marx's). Zizek silently drops in particular the idea that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself (which conflicts with Zizek's concept of "identifying with the symptom") and the identification of the proletariat with an empirical group of workers however defined. He contrasts the "mythical Marxin proletariat" with actual workers (TS 173) as if Marx shared his distinction, for which I am unaware of any precedents in Marx. cf. also 141: proletariat is an ascriptive term, working class a descriptive term. This clearly authorises substitutionist manoeuvres. Zizek also specifically denies that the claim that history is the history of class struggle is an empirical claim, insisting - on no basis whatsoever - that it is openly grounded on a Decision (TS 141), i.e. a choice to view the world through this particular theory. (Laclau is right that Zizek wants a privileged locus of struggle and a related 'base-superstructure'-type model, however).

Zizek is inconsistent on this: see section on CAPITALISM. He also makes an attempt to discuss classes as particular social groups.

ZIZEK THE ALTHUSSERIAN: Several of Zizek's readings of Marxism seem to have come straight out of Althusser. This is not surprising given that he shares Althusser's idea of the subject as a misrecognition, where one recognises after the event that one already is (for instance) a proletarian (TS 2-3). It is interesting in this respect that Zizek wants to de-Stalinise perceptions of Althusser (DSST 90).

Take for instance the following reading of Marx. The "predominant agency of social life" is "not, as a rule, the economy" but this "determines social life 'in the last instance'", so "the economy is at one and the same time the genus and one of its species" (DSST 193). Zizek also repeats the Althusserian formulations of ideological state apparatuses (DSST 227) and class struggle in theory (DSST 228). cf. also his view that Marxism interprets disagreements with it as a part of what it is accounting for (DSST 228) and his claim that class struggle cannot be viewed neutrally but only from one side or the other.

SOCIALISATION: This is a very problematic area of Zizek's theory, because he does not define what 'socialising' something actually involves. Furthermore, much of what he wants to socialise should not be socialised at all, it should be abolished or smashed! His concept of socialisation is probably linked to his naive view (see above) that institutions of capitalism can work of its own accord without needing anyone at the head. Zizek is on one level an extremely crude productivist. Crucially, Zizek does not make clear whether socialisation is state control (and if so, what kind of control and what kind of state), some kind of direct control, or something else. The slogan "socialise x" is entirely compatible with, for instance, Stalinism or even social democracy if treated in a certain way.

The most direct reference to Marxism in this matter actually tails the worst kinds of productivist teleology. We should, he claims, socialise the production process and put it under the control of "the entire collective of the people affected" (TS 351; he details neither what this control involves nor how it is possible since he also claims exclusion is constitutive). This demand, Zizek tells us, is not a positive demand but is imposed by the situation itself, an example of the forces of production and relations of production coming into conflict, since the information revolution has ended scarcity in the field of information and rendered the market in information "absurd" (TS 357). This set of claims is the least problematic but nevertheless highly so; it reproduces the strong claims of classical economic determinism, and worse still, does so in the context of a theory which has no room for the kind of external realities this determinism requires.

Nevertheless, Zizek is at this point following a certain brand of Marxism. His other uses of the concept of socialisation are more problematic, both politically and exegetically. How for instance can one socialise gene patenting, information monopolies and commodified scientific knowledge (TS 356-7)? Most Marxists in this sphere would say that such monopolies and controls should not exist, i.e. that they should be smashed/abolished. What is socialised gene patenting? Hand over the patents to the state so it can pursue eugenic policies? Put every individual's genes under the 'democratic' control of the collective, subordinating all reproductive decisions to a Workers' Committee or some such? Even the most 'democratic' forms of socialisation of such matters can only be exceedingly authoritarian and barbaric.

Similarly on the threat of "Big Brother control". Zizek's answer to this is to socialize (again undefined) the digital network. This means, Zizek openly admits, accepting once and for all that this control has destroyed privacy. For Zizek, "the proper answer to this threat is not retreat into islands of privacy, but an even stronger socialisation of cyberspace" (DSST 256). Though Zizek calls this a "modest Marxist point", Marx never called for the 'socialisation' of every minute detail of life; he called for the socialisation of the means of production. Zizek's project of utter compulsory subordination to an all-pervasive digitalised society - collectively controlled or otherwise - has more in common with the worst nightmares of neo-Marxists such as Marcuse than with anything Marx ever advocated. Besides which - Zizek ignores the crucial problem of the role of technocrats in high-tech societies, a role which tends to render socialisation merely formal. A Marxist approach to high technology may well call for workers' management (see Maurice Brinton on the crucial distinction between management and control, "The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control" ****) of the production and distribution of hardware and software, plus universal access - but nothing more. Zizek has more in common with the wild Stalinist fetish which tried to break the resistance of peasants by insisting on the ideological principle of 'collectivising' every last tool and every last inch of land!

Another problem: in order to socialise something, it is necessary for the big Other (society) to exist; it is also necessary for it to be (potentially) complete (i.e. with no excluded part, no "symptom" or "kernel") - since otherwise one would have control by a particular class, not socialisation. However, this runs against the whole trend across Zizek's work towards insisting on the necessity of an excluded part, as well as the less frequently affirmed and only inconsistently maintained claim that the big Other does not exist.

MARXISM OR COMMUNITARIANISM?: Zizek seems determined to confuse Marxism with communitarianism. Marx was in many ways the opposite of a communitarian, maintaining for instance that "the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all" whereas communitarians want each to submit to all. But Zizek says that Marxism shares with communitarians "the essentials" (but only those) (TS 241). And he doesn't tell us what 'the essentials' are.

The partial support that Zizek offers to progressive struggles such as the Miners' Strike rests mainly on his communitarian inclinations (TS 351). Despite this support, he still wants a (reformist) process of "acceptance of the loss" through an empty Act. He states that it may not even be possible to overthrow capitalism; we are faced according to him with a choice between casting off radical discourse a la Tony Blair, or hanging onto empty forms we know to be outdated (TS 352-3).

OTHER BITS OF MARX: Zizek also picks up occasionally on other bits of Marx: unearthing the political beneath reification (TS 169); the form of productive forces drives the content (SOI 51); a need to repoliticise the economy (TS 353). Also seeing Marx on globalisation as prophetic (FA 13) - though this is hardly less than George Soros will concede, and it is also worth noting that he wants capital to be Real and constitutive in this process, not something which operates on people or objects.

ZIZEK AGAINST MARX: Despite his claims to be a Marxist, it is by no means clear that he supports Marx's beliefs. For instance: he thinks it is an "illusion" to believe one can isolate the surplus work a worker does for a boss from necessary work (DSST 150). He criticises 'Marxist-Leninists' for treating the worker as an Other supposed to know (CHU 251).

Also, attacking the revolutionary core of Marxism, he states that "Marx's fundamental mistake" was to believe in the possibility of a better world. The reason Zizek says this is that he thinks capitalism's inherent obstacles are constitutive of its productivity (FA 17-18). So "the critics of Communism were right when they claimed that Marxian Communism is an impossible fantasy"; worse still, it is a capitalist fantasy, since it wants capitalism's benefits minus its obstacles (FA 18). It is not clear why Zizek identifies Marx unambiguously with productivism in this passage. His entire account rests on affording a mystical status to 'capital' as a Real rather than a set of social practices. It is worth contrasting his claim that capitalism's obstacles constitute its productivity with Evan Watkin's work ("Marketwork and Capitalist Common Sense", ****) where he shows how capitalism overcodes productive processes and how it is actually a political logic located outside production proper. Whereas Watkin bases his work on empirical examples (dog shows, literary scholarship, and Southern alternative economies, for instance), Zizek's entire analysis is abstract; his claim that productivity can't happen minus capitalism relies solely on analogies with Lacan and Hitchcock (FA 20-1). It is also not clear how this meshes with Zizek's socialisation problematic. Zizek wants here to repeat Marx's critique minus the "utopian-ideological notion" of communism (FA 19), and to break the capitalist horizon but without any notion of a better society beyond it (FA 20). But elsewhere he praises the utopian moment and suggests a better world can exist on the basis of socialisation.

It is also crucial to notice that Marx's critique of capitalism minus the idea of building (NB NOT merely mechanically achieving) a better world is no longer anything akin to Marx's critique of capitalism; it has ceased to be a radical-transformative critique and become a conservative interpretation.

MISREADINGS: There are other occasions where Zizek grossly misreads Marx or simply contradicts Marxian claims, or at best offers readings for which he provides no basis. For instance, he thinks that Society is impossible in Marxism due to antagonism and the constitutive division between the social and the non-social (CHU 120-1). He thinks there are neither objective relations of production nor individuals within them who struggle; in Marx, he claims, economic 'objectivities result from reification (CHU 320) - presumably defined in his unusual way. Then there is the whole "work=crime" issue (see CAPITALISM). Zizek also claims that Marx celebrated the corrosive power of capitalism (TS 355) - ignoring his ambiguities and ambivalence. On labour-power, he misreads Marx's humanist condemnation of capitalism for compelling workers to sell their creative power as an anti-humanist view of this alienation as constitutive of subjectivity (TS 157).

There is also the whole issue of "oppositional determination". This is a concept Zizek has lifted from Hegel, which he claims applies to all language; it is marked by the existence of one species within a genus which is identical with the genus itself. Zizek admits that he only found this concept twice in Marx's work (once in the relationship between economics and production, and again in the relation between finance capital and capital as a whole) (CHU 314-15; cf. 96), but he nevertheless treats it as if it is unproblematically Marxist. Indeed, he goes so far as to try to use Marx as an authority to justify Zizek's expansion of the concept into other areas, eg. desire as one of a series and also the genus. Zizek claims that Marx saw production in this way, in a passage in which he also criticises Marx for being insufficiently psychological and mythological about the economy (DSST 40-1).

Zizek also claims that Marxism means reducing intellectual claims to the dynamics of capitalism (CHU 106 - clearly a characteristic only of crude mechanistic Marxisms); that Marx reads the whole of history via its exception, capitalism (TS 314 - Marx does not seem to distinguish capitalism from other modes of production in this way); and that Marx saw capitalism as a "vicious superego cycle" expressing the truth of previous history and universal human development because of its 'excessive' character (CHU 240; this is hardly plausible since the concept of the 'superego' was invented much later, by Freud). Zizek provides no textual evidence for these readings of Marxism, and, with the partial exception of the first, it is hard to see where in Marx's work he sees anything like this cropping up.

Compare also on essence/appearance. Zizek's version of appearance covering something is specifically "not the old Marxist one" about ideological appearance covering particular interests; it is the "much more subversive" (?!) idea that the appearance is also effective (DSST 245), plus a new idea that the official ideology today is a postmodern cynicism which takes account of the particular interests it supposedly covers, so "ideology retains its hold through... false transparency" and what is missing today is appearance (DSST 246). This leaves several questions - not least about the blatant nature of Zizek's own endorsement of terror and other Stalinoid tactics, which equally lacks 'appearance'. He also does not tell us how he has reached his conclusion about 'official ideology' today; or why his kind of critique is in the slightest bit 'subversive'. In this case he is openly breaking with Marxist analyses.

So why does Zizek insist on claiming to be a Marxist, despite so clearly relying on selective readings, misreadings and open opposition to Marxist approaches, which leaves him with probably less Marxism in his theory than post-Marxists like Laclau? The answer may well be his mystifying conception of truth as retrospectively and anamorphically produced. According to Zizek, defence of the authentic Marx or Christ is "the most perfidious mode of its betrayal"; Marxism and Christianity only exist via their ossification, and cannot bypass Lenin and St Paul (FA 2). Zizek is here operating in a contradictory way: first he relativises Marx (we cannot have access to the authentic Marx, but only via interpretations); then he essentialises him again (the interpretation has to go through orthodoxy). This is a double misreading. This whole problematic clearly lets Zizek get away with appropriating labels he has no claim to. NB also how views which crop up in SOI as post- or even anti-Marxist (eg. on fetishism) suddenly become Marx's views in later works.

LENINISM OR STALINISM?: Zizek's readings of Lenin are as contentious as his readings of Marx. For instance, Zizek claims that Lenin's intervention in 1917 was a gamble that subjective action could radically change objective conditions, based on Lenin's rejection of the idea of an objective logic of stages of development and Lenin's recognition that the "big Other" of historical development does not exist (DSST 114-16). This is despite the fact that one of his two quotes from Lenin refers explicitly to a History-as-judge which gives or withholds forgiveness! Actually Lenin believed in historical stages and all the rest; if his action appeared subjective this was only because Lenin's standpoint was international not national. Zizek's exegetical basis for viewing Lenin in this way comes from Lukacs, not Lenin himself.

What Zizek celebrates in Lenin is what one might call a transition from progressive to reactionary modes of action: from a politics of direct action which Zizek misunderstands as narcissism and permanent opposition, to "the burden of taking over" and taking "responsibility for the smooth running of the social edifice" (TS 237). Zizek therefore clearly sees the authoritarian state as a good thing, if not an ahistorical absolute. He is right that to change the world one must switch from subversion to a new positive mode of thinking, acting and being; but he is reifying this new form of life into an act of a Master, an "order" and a "State". Clearly Zizek's radicalism of content, his advocation of an urgently ultra-revolutionary style and total change in leaders and so on, covers a conservatism of form, which refuses to contemplate the possibility of a revolution in the form of social relations which would overcome the ruthless, statist, master-based hierarchies of contemporary social forms. In Zizek, whichever side you fight for, the state always wins. (NB also Zizek wants a new centre, not decentring). Again: Zizek does not seem to care that Lenin did not intend to take on such a role, that it emerged out of historical exigencies and was perceived by the Bolsheviks as adaptation to necessity.

Furthermore, Zizek's cult of Lenin also depends on a celebration of his (supposed) ruthlessness. He glorifies being 'responsible', which means "accepting all the consequences", however "cruel", of one's politics, "like an authentic conservative". This whole problematic is silly: one cannot know the results of an act since it is a leap into the void (see ACT); nevertheless, consequences, which are not chosen, should be assumed: one is double-bound to take responsibility for something one cannot originate or control. This for Zizek is "what it actually means to take power and to exert it" (TS 236).

Zizek also embraces 'Lenin's' idea that the history of all philosophy is a history of the struggle between idealism and materialism (TS 38-9). Actually, I question the origin of this idea. It could be derived either from Stalinism, which made a big deal of such matters, or Althusser, who was obsessed with this issue. Of course, Zizek's materialism is not quite like anyone else's, and the concept of materialism just happens to overlap with what Zizek happens to think (see MATERIALISM).

Actually, Zizek's exegesis from Lenin is so crude and based on so few actual references as to suggest he is using Lenin as a cover for something different. His "Marxism" is unrecognisable in relation to either Marx or Lenin; however, it is recognisable in relation to the eastern European and Soviet regimes, i.e., Stalinism. Zizek's "Marxism" may well be a nostalgia for the 'good old days' of Stalinist rule, refracted through fragments of old compulsory half-digested "socialist ideology" courses. Take for instance his instrumentalist view of the state: it is "mutually dependent" with capitalism, which in effect uses the state to stop dysfunctional monopolies (CHU 329). Jessop (Marxism and the State ****) lists instrumentalism as one of several theories of the state which crop up in Marx's work. Zizek's version is distinctly Stalinist because of the way he sees the state acting on behalf of the real interests of a class by repressing its actually-existing members.

Similarly, Zizek's version of a "revolutionary definition of man": "man is what is to be crushed, stamped on, mercilessly worked over, in order to produce a new man", and "the revolutionary subject - Party - is the 'vanishing mediator' between 'normal' corrupted men and the emerging New Man: it represents the New Man for the series of ordinary men" (CHU 131). This is clearly nothing to do with Marx, Lenin, or any other kind of revolutionary - save the Stalinist states, which seem to operate with this kind of idea of a "new man" and the Party as expressing 'him'. Zizek is not only conflating this reactionary authoritarian/totalitarian ideology of social engineering with "revolutionary" views - he is claiming it is the one and only revolutionary view!

Similarly Zizek's reading of Lenin as some kind of fhrer - way in excess of any role Lenin assigned himself, but certainly in keeping with the Stalinist cult of Lenin. For Zizek "there must be One who assumes the ultimate responsibility, inclusive of a ruthless readiness to break the letter of the law in order to guarantee the system's survival" (TS 237). This only makes sense if the ultimate good is the system, and Zizek here unwittingly confirms Reich, Deleuze and Guattari in linking authoritarianism to the structural role of the phallus (I think the One is the phallus in Lacanian theory). Zizek effectively admits the fascist origins of this view of "this unconditional will to assume responsibility" as the "kernel of political authority" when he attributes it to Carl Schmitt.

Compare elsewhere. Zizek's definition of meta-politics clearly conflates Marxism with Stalinism (TS 190-2); for instance, he claims Marx advocated the mass slaughter of the bourgeoisie because he said the class was doomed to disappear (192)!!!!! Zizek also tries to wriggle out of the issue of whether Marxism was the same as Stalinism. He parodies debates on this as "play[ing] the game of finding the culprit, blaming the Party, Stalin, Lenin, ultimately Marx himself" (TS 242). This parody enables him to wriggle out of discussing this issue seriously. Actually, he seems to blame Marx for Stalinism: because he (wrongly) believes Marx thought social life should be controlled by "humanity's 'collective intellect'", it is "no wonder this project found its perverted realisation in actually existing Socialism" (TS 339) - which of course assumes that Stalinism is 'perverted' Marxism, rather than non-Marxist. (Did Marx ever even use the phrase "humanity's collective intellect"?).

Strangely, Zizek admits that virtually all the Trotskyist accusations against Stalinism are true: the revolution was betrayed, and the nomenklatura became a new capitalist class. However, he still seems to want to endorse Stalinism, because he sees the alternative - workers' revolution - as part of the process whereby this new elite emerged. The purges were the vanishing mediator between revolution and counter-revolution (DSST 130). I suspect this happens because of Zizek's category of the Act (see ACT). An Act does not lead to authentic change; it is a radical break which shatters the existing symbolic order and (I suspect) refounds it. Despite endorsing most of Trotskyism, therefore, Zizek still dismisses it as "nostalgia" for the early, pre-Thermidorian revolution when faced with a "regrettable but unavoidable later betrayal" (TS 377). In Zizek's theory, one should "endorse the act fully in all its consequences" (TS 377) - including its inevitable betrayal and degeneration. Further, a revolution is achieved, not betrayed, when it eats its children (TS 379).

As if this kowtowing to Stalinism were not enough, Zizek also identifies the revolutionary moment in Russia with Stalinism, not Leninism. The 1917 Revolution was according to Zizek not a proper revolution but a fake event, "similar to the Fascist revolution"; the real revolution was the Stalinist collectivisation of agriculture (TS 194 - i.e. the first big purge and the beginning of the Stalinist mass murders). He claims this because he thinks 1917 left social relations intact.

So where does Zizek differ from Stalin? Apparently because he rejects the idea that the proletariat is an empirically-existing class (TS 226). Actually (see Mandel, Power and Money ****) Stalin's operational usage of terms like "proletariat" is far from empirical and has a lot in common with Zizek's (especially when one adds in categories such as "ideological kulaks"). Zizek's proletarian is somebody "touched by Grace", i.e., by the Act/Event (TS 227).


PRODUCTIVISM: Zizek is quite right that contemporary theory tends to ignore production, but he bends the stick so far back the other way that he ends up as a fully-fledged productivist. Zizek's Marx is a narrow productivist who thinks technological innovations are more important than politics and transform the whole of social being almost automatically (DSST 136-7).

Zizek wants to portray productivism as the root of all good and anti-productivism as the root of all evil. He claims that all political 'terror', such as the Maoist Cultural Revolution, is anti-productivist [contrast his endorsement of terror elsewhere]. "the foreclosure of production proper" leads to "its reduction to the terrain of a political battle" (DSST 139). I can only assume Zizek is conflating production with capitalist methods, since Maoism and Stalinism were in a sense deeply productivist (and Stalinist Poland is the origin of the notoroius slogan "tuberculosis harms production").

Zizek wants, not to reduce or end work (eg. "physical labour"), but to "generate an authentic sense of community and solidarity" in it, to "find fulfilment in it as a collective experience" (DSST 135) - a clear regurgitation of Stalinist (not to mention Kraft durch Freude) ideology, including its preference for changing interpretations rather than the world (and in apparent ignorance of its utter failure). Zizek seems to be an old Fordist reacting in shock to post-Fordist economics. He doesn't explain his own role here (if physical labour is so wonderful, why isn't he in a factory?), nor does he locate other groups (eg. people with disabilities) who would not fit into his productivist order. Marx, incidentally, specifically rejects such views (see his critique of other versions of the 'labour theory of value' in his Critique of the Gotha Programme).

Zizek believes productivism is the redeeming feature of Stalinism. "there is something even more crucial at stake in the failed 'real Socialist' venture: the idea - whose impact was at its strongest in the German Democratic Republic - of labour (material, industrial production) as the privileged site of community and solidarity: not only does engagement in the collective effort of production bring satisfaction in itself; private problems themselves (from divorce to illness) are put into their proper perspective by being discussed in one's working collective" (DSST 132-3). Zizek therefore endorses a core idea of Stalinist ideology, as well as claiming that the inhuman slogan "tuberculosis harms production" is the "proper" way of conceiving illness. He actually thinks that labour in Stalinist workplaces is satisfying (!!) and that other problems should be reduced to production, to 'privilege' it - and all this without the slightest attempt to account for his claims! Contrast Marx, who stresses work precisely because it is alienating, and calls for the revolutionary transformation of the world of production, away from the repressive community favoured by Zizek and towards some kind of free productive activity (cf. also the critique of work in Situationism, primitivism etc.).


Zizek seems pervasively unable to offer a reasoned critique or analysis of others' views. His reactions to others are split between a vicious rejection based on anathemas, labels and wild claims about people's "objective" significance or the psychological or metaphysical basis for their claims; and a beatification based on misreading a particular author as saying what Zizek wants them to say.

Zizek actually rarely deigns to reply to criticisms at all; most of his work is focussed on his own problematic, with nothing and nobody else allowed in unless it fits neatly into his general theorising. When he does offer replies, they are in the shape of what Geras terms a "politician's answer": they have the form of a reply without answering the content of the criticisms. Usually, Zizek either throws anathemas at an opponent, subjects her/him to an analysis from inside Zizek's own categories, or simply reasserts that his own views are true, fit the facts, or are objective.


Zizek does not even claim to be aiming for fair debate. Instead, he effectively admits to trying to reduce his opponents to a status of voicelessness, so that he can discover (or invent) the objective significance of their acts (based on an assumption that Zizek's analytical framework expresses objectivity).

He wants to "put in parethesis the multitude of meanings", "avoid the trap of 'trying to understand' " and "resist the temptation to 'understand', and accomplish a gesture analogous to turning off the sound of a TV". By doing this, he claims, one can "reveal what is at stake", "the political calculuses and strategic decisions", bypassing the need to analyse discourses such as 'Orientalism' (PF 62). Analysis according to Zizek assumes, not that the analyst is always right, but that the patient is by definition always in the wrong (PF 35 - cf. how Zizek does the same thing to for instance humanitarians: he attacks humanitarian militarist interventions but also attacks inaction).

This is very problematic. This kind of voicelessness is the kind of relation from which oppression is built: an invalidatory repressive discourse which denies others a voice (Trevor Pateman); or, in Freire's terms, a colonising logic which insists on imposing Zizek's terms on others, who are thereby reduced to objects or receptacles for a set of schemas constructed by Zizek himself (which, however, he pretends are their objective truth - hardly an original sidestep, since it also crops up in everything from Stalinism to neo-liberalism that colonising discourses claim to represent truth and human nature). Voicelessness is central to oppression in Sartre, Said, Fanon, Foucault, etc.; perhaps Zizek's approach is an extension of the logic of the mental asylum into political analysis.

In addition, Zizek seems to naively believe that he can 'cure' society's problems in the same way an analyst treats a patient; he seems to think that asserting what he believes to be the repressed symptoms of society, he can trigger a subjective reaction which will on some level be therapeutic.

Zizek's work leads to a similarly oppressive approach to interaction with others. For Zizek, the analyst should do the opposite of what patients want: the patient wants the analyst to get rid of the symptom, but instead the analyst should destroy the Self to force a confrontation with the symptom (PF 83). This clearly implies a dictatorial relationship and a sense of superiority. Zizek extends this into politics, as for instance when he advocates using mass demands, which are often particular in nature, for the higher purpose of triggering an open space in which an Act can occur, before the system can accommodate the demand (DSST 117). Zizek also thinks the analyst has access to a logical presupposition which the patient can never subjectivise but which the analyst knows to be the "kernel of his [i.e. the patient's] being" (PF 36).

NB also Zizek's confused and contradictory relationship to empirical claims. On the one hand, his attacks on others frequently appeal to the standard of 'the way things really are' or to a higher reality others are failing to recognise; he also presents his exegeses as the one true reading of each text. On the other hand he believes everything results from construction: the role of interpretation is to "construct what retrospectively will have been" (CrS 26). (see EMPIRICITY).

At times, however, Zizek's appeals to empiricity are very strong. He says: "for me, the best way to analyse somebody is to ask, not what he or she asserts, but what is the image of the enemy the work implies?" Pick the wrong enemy and one hasn't got a good analysis (NB impositional approach: perhaps enemies don't matter as much to others as to Zizek). For Zizek, therefore, Butler is wrong because capitalist subjectivity is no longer patriarchal and identitarian, as she assumes (CrS 40). This implies a very strong 'empiricist' appeal to an identifiable "real" enemy which can be compared to specific interpretations in such a way as to prove or disprove them (with Zizek's account of this real enemy falling back on his own assumptions). This runs strongly against Zizek's ontology, and he takes the opposite line when faced with criticism based on facts (see EMPIRICITY: the truth of a statement has nothing to do with factual accuracy; even a true claim is a lie if it is based on subjective 'dishonesty', and truth can emerge in falsehood, i.e. 'truth has the structure of a fiction').

On the basis of all of this, Zizek thinks he knows one's true position, which he can then counterpose to what one thinks (PF 115). "Truth has the structure of a fiction" (CHU 246), and someone can be unaware of how things seem to them (PF 119). This authorises an impositional approach to others' views in which he can claim to know their real intent, politics or significance without engaging with their intent or conscious claims - a handy way of bypassing argument.

In classic sectarian style, Zizek tries to create a desert around himself by whatever means possible, and admits as much: he pursues the greatest possible differentiation of his own positions from those of others (CHU 91). Worse still, even agreeing with Zizek is no basis for his endorsement, since even true views are false: "An authentic Leftist should therefore ask the postmodern politicians... 'Why are you saying that one should politicize the economy, when one should in fact politicize the economy?" (CHU 97).


Zizek makes frequent claims about others' beliefs, motives, psychological character, philosophical suppositions, social position, etc., which often form the entirety of his critique of particular authors and even entire literatures. In contrast to Lacan's analysis, which stresses the need to avoid 'diagnosing' from symptoms, the need to look carefully at every detail of every unique case, and the contingency and specificity of the analytic relation, Zizek's social analysis is carried out peremptorily and bluntly, on the basis of minimal or sometimes no evidence, imposing broad analytical and metaphysical categories to make sweeping claims about others' views which are at a very high level of generality and clearly unfounded. This often involves highly implausible claims about what people 'really' want, such as that people who are terrified of or traumatised by something actually enjoy it. These claims are so unfounded, so arbitrary, and so obviously imposed from the outside onto writings and actions Zizek has little knowledge of, as to suggest that Zizek's absolute certainty about his own theoretical framework rules out for him the possibility of the world not fitting his categories. Often these claims are merely asserted out of thin air; at best their validity rests on the structural similarity of the act or writings in question to some example discussed in Lacan or elsewhere. Nevertheless, Zizek does not hesitate in asserting such claims with absolute certainty. His accounts involve an arrogant, foolish and unfounded belief that he knows, from the outside and on a basis of his own devising, what everyone else is thinking
and feeling (and without any caution in saying so).

A few examples:

* Victims of Stalinist show trials were using the pursuit of meaning to cover their jouissance (enjoyment) of being instruments of the big Other (PF 159);

* At least in compulsive people, fear of death is always a cover for fear of life (PF 123);

* Peter Handke's reactions to events in eastern Europe are a direct result of his own interpassive libidinal investment of it (PF 125-6);

* The Holocaust is a "shield" people use to protect themselves against the real horror, i.e. the lack of enjoyment (FA 74-5).

* Violence (face-to-face combat, sexual violence) is a shield against recognising the deadlock of the Real; for instance, 'we' fear having a protective father and therefore fantasise about having a rapist father, and real warfare to protect us from objectified war (FA 77-8). (Zizek only just stops short of claiming that the Holocaust is a fantasy in these two passages).

* On the flimsiest of evidence (an alleged lack of engagement with Stalinism), Zizek accuses the Frankfurt School of having an "unacknowledged basic commitment" of "underlying solidarity with Western liberal democracy", hidden beneath a " 'radical' aura" (DSST 93). Also, radical intellectuals allegedly only want Stalinist Otherness in the form of an "idealized Other" for "ideological dreams", which they "explode against" in crises; they want this Other as a basis for a "passive authentic experience" alongside "well-paid academic careers" (DSST 95).

* Shostakovich's irony towards Stalinism was actually a perverse, obscene enjoyment of the Stalinist injunction to be happy (DSST 127).

* People watch 'wrongly-accused'-type dramas because they take pleasure in the forbidden crimes of which the person is accused, and this type of narrative allows one to have such pleasure without facing the penalties of identifying with a wrongdoer. For Zizek, this shows a "libidinal truth"; "truth has the structure of a fiction" (CHU 246). NB two evasions here which recur constantly elsewhere: an emphasis on enjoyment which denies a significant place to fear in motivations (in this case, fear of "crime" and fear of being wrongly accused); and assertions about a group (audiences) which ignores research on the group (audience studies) and which do not have any basis beyond speculation and assertion.

* People who think they are acting for the big Other are really just covering their enjoyment of destructive acts (TS 380).

* Everyone except psychoanalysts secretly believes in God. According to Zizek "it is natural for the human being to succumb to the temptation of belief" (DSST 88), and "only the psychoanalyst who endorses the nonexistence of the big Other is a true atheist" (DSST 89).

* Saints and humanitarians really want others to suffer so they can help them (PF 78). (But is the existence of suffering reducible to whether it is "willed" in this way or not? If not, such considerations of psychological motives are largely insignificant to social issues).

* Any fear of anything apart from the primordial void is merely a means of avoiding confrontation with this void; for instance, conspiracy theories are a way of concealing blind social mechanisms (PF 40).


Zizek frequently relies on insulting terminology, sometimes as a substitute for arguing against others' positions. For instance:

* Green concerns are "scaremongering" (TS 336);

* All ideas that people have interior values are "nihilistic babble" (TS 48); structuralism is "babble" (DSST 163).

* New Age thought taints things (DSST 180).

NB the double standard here: Zizek hates 'denkverbots' when he is on the receiving end, but is quite happy to dish them out.


Zizek frequently uses psychoanalytic terms as a substitute for arguments; he tries to classify opponents in terms of defence-mechanisms and the like, implying the psychopathological nature of their views. In particular, he makes claims that others are repressing, avoiding, displacing, etc., the truths which Zizek is expressing - a very arrogant claim which interprets disagreement between Zizek and others as necessarily meaning that the Zizek is right and the others are avoiding his insights. If someone disagrees with Zizek, they disagree - he has no right to claim that this is avoidance, displacement or whatever - at least not without some substantial evidence of these.

Examples of this kind of discourse:

* Disagreements between readers of Schreber are "a symptom worth interpreting" (PF 73)

* Feminists' unfamiliarity with an obscure article by Joan Copjec is "symptomatic" (CHU 327)

* Disagreements between Zizek and others about what is real are actually others' "attempts to avoid" the real (PF ????)

* Zizek claims Habermas "represses" Lacan's version of intersubjectivity (PF 10) - actually, he rejects it

* Kant is "not ready to accept" Zizek's conclusions (PF 230)

* Disagreement with Zizek is a failure to accept: "What Nietzsche cannot accept..." (TS 108)

* Zizek's case against Foucault and Deleuze on ethics is merely that they supposedly rely on a "disavowal of the Unconscious" (TS 366) - i.e. they are wrong because they disagree with Zizek

* "Political 'extremism' or 'excessive radicalism' should always be read as phenomena of ideologico-political displacement: as indices of their opposite, of a limitation, of a refusal actually to 'go to the end' " (DSST 138-9). For instance, Jacobinism was a "hysterical acting out" (DSST 139; cf. on France 68). All ultra-radicalism and political 'extremism' is displacement, a refusal to go to the end (CHU 130).

* The postmodernist refusal to emphasise class is a "displacement" in Freud's sense, i.e. a psychological defence-mechanism which denies an original truth by moving it into a different content (CHU 97).

* Regarding the threat of implosion posed by 'suffocating' lack of antagonism: "This... is the Real awaiting us", which all other theories are "attempts to avoid" (PF 154).

* Fascists are paranoiac and Stalinists perverse, because fascists actually believe in a Jewish conspiracy whereas Stalinists invent counterrevolutionaries (PF 58 - on an empirical level, clearly a gross oversimplification). (cf. POLITICS: section on imposing psychological assumptions).

Throughout all of this, the arguments are tautological. A view is declared wrong because it involves a psychological defence. But this 'diagnosis' rests on its being wrong and Zizek being right. But how can we, or Zizek, know that postmodernism is a displacement of class politics, rather than the other way round? Or that Jacobinism is a "refusal to go to the end" whereas Leninism is not? If Zizek provides any basis for ascertaining this (eg. on the criteria of a true Act), he does so only by reference to his own theory's correctness (traversing the real fundamental fantasy, not a faked one).

NB again the double standard on empiricity: on the one hand, Zizek claims to be able to know and assert a "Real" awaiting us, as if this is a trump card in relation to others' theories; on the other, in critiquing feminism Zizek ignores evidence and goes straight for his own categories (symptoms etc.).


* Zizek mounts a critique of postcolonial theory based on the Stalinist-sounding idea of "objective cynicism". For Zizek, "the whole project of 'postcolonial studies' " is guilty of "objective cynicism" because what he sees as a melancholic outlook allows it to combine claims of faithfulness to ethnic roots with participation in the "global capitalist game" (DSST 142). This account is confused on various grounds. Not only is postcolonial theory hardly at the forefront of the global neo-liberal offensive - the idea of "objective cynicism" is barely tenable since cynicism is by definition reflexive. Zizek is not accusing these theorists of knowingly deceiving anyone or perpetrating a deliberately hypocritical set of actions; he is making vague claims about the psychological basis of their beliefs, which he claims demonstrates their 'objective' truth - assuming as usual that Zizek has direct access to this. (NB - see DSST 141 - Zizek's account relies on a strong normalising binary opposition - a Freudian distinction between 'normal' mourning which is good and 'melancholy' which is bad. Without this, his critique wouldn't work).

* Zizek also introduces against postcolonial theory, Queer theory and postmodernism the idea that the object of desire is always lacking and so cannot be 'lost' (DSST 142); all concepts of loss are therefore "a deceitful translation of lack into loss" (DSST 143). Again, Zizek is using a term which implies intent in a wholly inappropriate way: a misrecognition of lack as loss is not at all the same as a "deceitful translation". (This kind of confusion is very Stalinist, echoing the idea of "objective guilt" and the "unity of motive and effect"). Zizek's account only holds together if other theories are wholly reducible to Lacanian categories; clearly it is possible for an actual object to be lost, and the threat of loss involved in the struggles of the Zapatistas and the OPM are not at all about abstract "objects of desire" which are lacking; they are about actual objects and people being threatened by capitalism.

* He parodies 'postmodernism' (which he never defines): his opposition to it rests partly on the claim that it is against "applying fundamental cognitive insights" (TS 132). This unbelievably vague claim probably means that those Zizek labels postmodernist refrain from gestures of absolutism ("all", "always" etc.). If this is the case, they are not failing to apply insights - they are merely refusing to exaggerate their significance. (Zizek's relation to insights is itself problematic: he seems to treat the insight itself as self-justifying, and does not see the need to justify, test, assess and counterbalance an insight, openly advocating exaggerated and excessive use of insights).

* Why does Zizek think we should oppose New Age 'obscurantism' "as ferociously as possible"? He gives two reasons: firstly, because he is an "old-fashioned dialectical materialist" (which does not account for anything, and besides which, he isn't one), and secondly, because any parallels between New Age and science result from the "spontaneous ideology" of science which is a mere supplement to operational proceduralism (DSST 216) - i.e. a crude theory of false consciousness.

* Another reductive/impositional critique of an opponent which reduces the latter to Zizek's categories rather than engaging with their ideas: this time of Deleuze. With no textual basis (and as far as I can tell no support in the texts at all), Zizek portrays Deleuze as a philosopher of the One that pervades all differences. The reason is that his style is patterned whereas the content of his work is rhizomatic. On the basis of structural similarity (capitalism is also the One structured system which permits rhizomatic contents), Zizek wants to use this to suggest that Deleuze is linked to capitalism (DSST 269).

* At times, Zizek's model clearly rests on denkverbots of his own: prohibitions directed against certain kinds of 'deviation'. For instance, he labels Butler: she "comes dangerously close" to "regress[ing]" to "an empiricist problematic" (CHU 215-16), as if that is some terrible crime. This contradicts his work elsewhere: he says one should dare to take unpopular positions, identify with anathemas, etc.; for instance, he doesn't care if people call his theory linksfaschismus. It is a strange kind of political theory which does not care whether or not it is fascist, but is driven to desperation at the threat of 'empiricism'. Further: Zizek's logic of the "dare" clearly extends to such unpopular figures in the western tradition as Hegel, Kant, Descartes, and even St Paul and Lenin. Why should the empiricists still be such a taboo? On Zizek's own logic, Butler could quite legitimately reply "Yes, I'm an empiricist", and claim a few brownie-points for radicalism into the bargain! Zizek's attitude to taboos, labelling and denkverbots is clearly contradictory (cf. POLITICS - Fascism).

* In another case, Zizek explicitly (though with no evidence) alleges deliberate political manipulation: behind the depoliticisation of accounts of the Holocaust, he claims, there is "a political act of cynical manipulation"; it is used to encourage postmodern depoliticisation and victim-based discourses, to downplay western violence in LDC's and to render radical theory unthinkable (DSST 67). He then, however, pulls back from this by playing a little Althusserian or Stalinist game: politics according to Zizek has nothing to do with intent; "notwithstanding the unquestionable sincerity of some of its proponents, the objective ideologico-political content of the depoliticisation of the Holocaust, of its elevation into the abyssal absolute Evil, is the political pact of aggressive Zionists and Western Rightist anti-Semites at the expense of today's radical political possibilities" (DSST 68).
What Zizek is missing here is:
1. This 'objective' significance only exists in a particular register, which Zizek has chosen by an act of will - it is therefore not at all separable from intent (and even less from intentionality);
2. The effects of a politics organised minus concern for intent would be simply impositional and barbaric. The logic here is carceral: everyone 'is' objectively whatever their significance is according to Zizek (or Stalin, or Althusser, etc.).
3. One can't persuade people via their 'objective' role in one's own schemas; to change their actions, one would have to appeal to their intent. (Does Zizek have faith that 'objectivity' is so absolute that it will be obvious to everyone once he asserts it? Or does he merely wish to create a desert around himself?).
4. Also NB how this is all merely assertion; a leftist radicalism need not worry about anathemas directed at the right, and indeed, substantial radical possibilities stem from the rejection of the Holocaust (cf. the role of anti-fascist ideas in German and Italian autonomous activism). The 'radical possibilities' Zizek sees blocked are basically reducible to Zizek's own perspective.


One common technique Zizek uses to evade argument is to respond to a criticism of his theories by simply reasserting the theories in question, or by asserting that they are valid or true. He seems incapable of actually providing arguments demonstrating why one should support his theories rather than alternatives.

* Faced with the criticism that the role of the bar (=void, etc.) in Lacan is ahistorical (CHU 109-10), Zizek replies by reasserting that the bar is prior to historicity - it "sustains the very terrain of historicity" (CHU 110). In other words: we should see the bar as ahistorical because it is ahistorical. As in several of these cases, Zizek then introduces subtle distinctions to distance himself from criticisms - in this case, he claims that his approach is "the very opposite of Kantian formalism" because for Zizek the form is constituted by an exclusion (CHU 111-12). It is not clear how criticisms of Kantian formalism are negated by supplementing it with an excluded kernel.

* In On Belief, Zizek replies to Jonathan Lear's criticisms of Lacan, notably on the Death Drive. Zizek simply asserts that what Lear accuses Lacan of wrongly believing is in fact true; he merely asserts that this is the case, as if this automatically dispels the opposing case. Again, he supplements this with extremely (over-)subtle distinctions (OB 100-1).

* Zizek also attempts to answer the criticism: how can one tell an Act from a caprice? (How does one know that, for instance, Antigone's actions overlap with the insistence of the Other/Thing?), and also the question: Doesn't the concept of the Act bring the noumenal into the phenomenal? Zizek does not, however, make any attempt to reply to the questions; he simply reads presuppositions into them so as to be able to dismiss them (DSST 173-4). He then asserts dogmatically that "transcendental freedom" is a "mysterious 'fact' " which can only be accounted for by Zizek's approach (DSST 174-5). He also asserts that we know and therefore have to explain subjectivity to be self-positing and 'spontaneous' (DSST 175) and that we know Antigone's actions to be an Act (DSST 176).

* Faced with accusations of Lacanising thinkers, Zizek's main response is simply to reassert his reading of what is essential in these thinkers (CHU 226-7).


On a number of occasions Zizek sets up straw-men, attacking views other than those held by the opponents he is criticising. Indeed, on one occasion Zizek admits that he is not arguing with actual opponents but only with a "watered-down popular version" of them (CHU 91).

* Zizek attacks Deleuze and Guattari for holding ideas of a pre-Oedipal sexuality which should be freed, counterposing his own idea of sublation (TS 72). This is not entirely inaccurate, but Zizek is missing the way in which Oedipus in Deleuze and Guattari also constitutes what it represses; in a sense they are also pursuing a "sublation".

* He makes the claim that ALL Green critiques of technical destruction of nature lead to the recurrence of capitalism in the alternatives they offer, via the idea of green technologies (TS 11-12, 14). This actually only applies to SOME varieties of Green thought.

* Zizek's attacks on Laclau and Mouffe for anathematising and prohibiting reference to capitalism are not strictly valid, and involve their being conflated into a general straw-man figure, "the postmodern political theory" (CHU 108). Laclau and Mouffe REFER to capitalism on several occasions (indeed, Laclau refers to it in concrete terms on several occasions in CHU), so any critique of them cannot start from the premise that they refuse to mention it. (I'm rather more inclined to think they are failing to discuss state repression, which is a serious problem vis-a-vis a "democratic" project which defends the existing form of the state). Zizek is avoiding critiquing WHAT Laclau and Mouffe say about capitalism by wrongly claiming that they say nothing about it.

* Falsely conflated unitary collective subjects crop up constantly in Zizek's arguments, often serving as straw-man figures. Take for instance Zizek's use of the wide-net category "multiculturalist liberalism" as if it were an irreducible whole (TS 218). This allows Zizek to portray divisions (eg. BETWEEN those liberals who think tolerance of difference should be limited by concern for human rights and those who think concern for human rights should be limited by tolerance of difference, i.e., between two distinct groups over a question of lexical ordering of liberal principles) as if they are inconsistencies within the discourse of a single subject (TS 219).

* Zizek also often does not specify who exactly he is arguing with. Often he refers to a "common" (or "standard" or "orthodox" or even "boring") argument without giving the slightest idea where such ideas come from (eg. TS 47).


Zizek likes to present earlier thinkers (Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Descartes, St Paul, etc.) as if they were actually Lacanians, or at least addressing Lacanian questions. Laclau has spotted this problem: that Zizek robs theorists of their own theoretical projects - for instance, misreading Hegel and others in a Lacanian way so as to create a false genealogy (CHU 73, 75), and presenting a Cartesian manifesto which is actually directed AGAINST the Cartesian self, since the latter by definition has no obverse side (CHU 73).

Contrary to his extremely creative readings (and often simple misreadings) of thinkers, which are often based on a single quote or a general impression, Zizek nevertheless claims to express their true or essential theory. For instance, he claims to know "what Lacan had in mind" (CHU 246). The basis may well be the idea of the retrospective construction of the necessity of the present (a principle Zizek has picked up from Hegel). (cf. also his remark "the point is to change Hegel").

Zizek's approach works well enough with dead thinkers, but it has led him into some difficulties with living ones; although he can use labels like "pseudo-Freudian" and "pseudo-Hegelian" to avoid engaging with the parts of these authors he represses, it is not so easy to do this with Laclau or Butler. Actually, despite an early mutual identification of projects (perhaps aided by the fact that Laclau is also prone to selective readings and metaphysicalisation), Zizek's use of Laclau is as appropriative, selective and impositional as his other exegeses; I have only yet found references to Laclau in the context of the idea of "antagonism", presented by Zizek as equivalent to the Lacanian Real. Zizek does not seem to take Laclau's politics at all seriously, which has understandably left the real Laclau a little frustrated (i.e. in his remarks that Zizek won't talk politics or strategy).

Zizek's positive exegeses confirm rather than contradict the general pattern of his exegeses as creative, selective, label-based and impositional.


* Zizek tends to stick flags in things which he agrees with, replacing "should" with "is", especially where theoretical labels are concerned; he thereby short-circuits the issue of the spread of a label (eg. Marxism, psychoanalysis, radicalism) with the issue of what people who adopt the label should believe (eg. which type of psychoanalysis is most effective or useful or valid). For instance, Zizek specifies that "psychoanalysis is neither" of one of two things - one of which is "the Jungian version" (TS 341). Instead of arguing for his own version of psychoanalysis, Zizek simply tries to define other versions outside the concept.

* Zizek is clearly operating with a repressive "we" of some kind. He also frequently claims to speak for everyone. For instance, on Shostakovich: "Even to a listener with minimal sensitivity, it is clear..." (DSST 125) - a statement which fails to explain why alternatives to Zizek's account exist (does every listener have "minimal sensitivity" except the ones who disagree with Zizek?). He also claims to speak for "the spectator" (PF 184).

* Explicitly following the absolutist logic of Robespierre, Zizek claims that anyone who feels any discomfort with certain of Zizek's views (in this case, his accusation that western 'pacifists' are racist) is thereby shown to be a racist (DSST 235-6)! This tar-brush approach is clearly an attempt to insulate himself from criticism: by definition, opponents prove Zizek right. This is a very dangerous logic: there is a whole set of discourses of this kind used by the police, to the effect that 'only the guilty complain about police repression' (I've heard it recently about ID cards; notoriously, Special Branch's excuse after the murder of Blair Peach was that the innocent who stay at home and don't cause trouble have nothing to fear from Special Branch). This kind of claim is based on the appallingly arrogant certainty of the speaker, who is in effect claiming to be infallible and incapable of mistakes. Such assertions invalidate 'guilty' and 'innocent' alike: maybe some of those defending 'western pacifism' are NOT racists, and are simply anti-war; maybe some of those who feel uncomfortable with Zizek's statements are not racist OR western-pacifists, but are merely concerned by its totalitarian overtones, its non-falsifiability or its apparent factual inaccuracy.

* Zizek simply asserts that Laclau has regressed in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy from his earlier (Althusserian) work, by embracing post-structuralism (NRRT 250). Zizek makes no attempt here or elsewhere to defend his ordering of 'stages'.

* Zizek answers New Age theory merely by assertion: "In contrast to this cliche, one should assert..." (TS 132) - but WHY should one assert it?! Zizek then follows this with denouncement (of "false" humility - apparently false because it contradicts Zizek's Truth, i.e. opinion); labelling (Derrida is like Stalin and New Age and postmodern theories are "cliches", "banalities" and "philosophical common sense"), and appeals to authority (of "the entire Western stance" - a stance Zizek derives solely from a small elite of theorists; clearly western peasants and workers have little place in this "Western" great-tradition stance) (TS 132-3). Zizek is basically relying on his own authority, backed by that of the thinkers he refers to and by a string of anathemas and anathematising categories. NB also how stating a widely held view is itself almost anathema for Zizek regardless of the validity of the view in question, as if being unpopular or standing out were a goal in itself.

* Zizek dismisses feminist criticisms of the figure of the femme fatale very peremptorily: such analyses "seem somehow to miss the point", because feminists criticise precisely the elements 'we' enjoy in the figure; such theory therefore becomes "an alibi for our enjoyment" (PF 51). NB how Zizek assumes here that everyone shares his reactions: what SEEMS to be the case, what WE enjoy, etc. Also, criticising a figure for being sexist is not in the slightest undermined by the fact that some people 'enjoy' precisely the aspects which make it sexist (whether in a Lacanian or an everyday sense) - this merely shows that sexism is built into particular people's structures of enjoyment. (What is Zizek's alternative, anyway? He seems to want to promote mythical figures, but push them to 'radical' conclusions via overidentification - which is hardly a viable strategy for overcoming sexist beliefs).

* Zizek plays labelling games when dealing with the issue of why others do not share his emphasis on the Act: according to him, there is a prohibition of thought about radical change based on the bogeymen of the Gulag and Holocaust. How does Zizek attack this 'prohibition'? With his own historical bogey (the berumfsverbot), and another claim of sabotage - this is the work of "conformist liberal scoundrels" defending the status quo (CHU 127) - though as stated above, this does not necessarily mean Zizek is alleging intentional bad faith (this may be another example of Zizek's version of objective guilt).

* NB also the following critique: "Alain Juranville... opposes the superego qua the obscene law which imposes enjoyment, to the 'true' symbolic Law by means of which we open ourselves to the Call of the authentic Other beyond narcissistic distortions. In this perspective, the 'Oedipus complex' (whose outcome is superego) is no longer the necessary matrix of 'socialisation' (of the subject's integration into a sociosymbolic universe), but a paradigmatic pathological distortion of the normative process of the subject's entry into the symbolic order. From our perspective, however, such an opposition between the 'proper' symbolic Law and its 'pathological' superego distortion is the very ideological operation (or 'idealist falsification') to be avoided: the fundamental lesson of psychoanalysis is precisely that there is no Law without superego - the superego is the obscene stain which is structurally unavoidable, it is the shadowy supplement to the 'pure' symbolic Law which provides its necessary phantasmic support" (PF 241). This argument contains several key invalidations and impositions (and not one valid argument): a direct assertion (this is what should be avoided), a repressive "we", a few anathemas (ideological, idealist), a naturalisation (structurally unavoidable) and a vague appeal to unspecified experience (the "lesson of psychoanalysis"). Zizek has not given any basis for preferring his own argument over Juranville's.

* Zizek realises that his account of capitalism/postmodernism as giving only 'animal' rights to humans is vulnerable to the question 'Why not reduce humans to animals?', so he tries to reply to it. His reply is that such a reduction eliminates the unconditional attachment to the Thing (RL 9). This hardly solves anything: WHY should we accept this attachment to the Thing, either as a statement of fact or as a basis for ethics?


One approach Zizek uses is to impose his own categories and claims on others, as if simply counterposing his own concerns to someone else's is enough to prove him right. For instance:

* His attack on Laclau's hegemony problematic is not based on claiming that it is wrong, but on claiming that it is not "the ultimate question" (CHU 110).

* He treats other theoretical 'languages' as distortions of his own: for instance, he terms the concept of 'paradigm' a "codename" for 'worldview' (DSST 213).

* Zizek simply ASSERTS that it is "theoretically productive and politically salient to stick to Judeo-Christian logic", against the "onslaught of New Age neo-paganism" (FA ****; note the loaded term "onslaught").

* Invertive responses come far too easily to Zizek. For instance: when Butler criticises Laclau for being too transcendental, Zizek says she is really criticising him for not being transcendental enough (CHU 109).


Several of Zizek's criticisms of others would also catch his own positions. For instance:

* He denounces Butler and Laclau for claiming that it is impossible to occupy the empty space of the universal/Real, even though it is inevitable that people will try, as Kantianism (CHU 257), despite using similar formulations elsewhere himself.

* Zizek criticises poststructuralism for setting up a completeness which knows everyting by signifying the supposedly unsignifiable (lack, jouissance, etc.) (TS 154-5) - yet Zizek also does this - terms like "lack", "signifier", "Real", "Act", etc. are themselves signifiers which signify the supposedly unsignifiable.

* Zizek attacks Laclau for the Hegelian approach of retrospective totalisation (CHU 318-19), despite elsewhere in the same book adopting this approach himself.


Zizek's politics contain at least 3 distinct currents:

1. a "radical", redemptive current advocating intransigence, daring and unscrupulousness to revive a utopian, universal dimension of politics;
2. a totalitarian current, defending Stalin, Mao and a Stalinised Lenin, advocating a strong Master and an authoritarian state, and wanting total submission to or fusion in an Event constructed around a Cause;
3. a conservative element demanding "maturity", fearing "psychosis" and maintaining the constitutivity and necessity of conflict, exclusion and other social problems.

Zizek's politics is constantly trapped in the contradictions between these elements, which he usually 'reconciles' merely by asserting them to be dimensions of each other (eg. in RL he maintains an identity between total submission to a leader and not compromising on one's desire).

Zizek's political method is not one of critique, but one of speculation. For instance: for Zizek, the aim of an ethics of the Real is not to tell the truth about (eg.) the Holocaust "but, above all, to confront the way we ourselves, by means of our subjective position of enunciation, are always-already involved, engaged in it" - for instance, through persisting prejudices (PF 215). This is different from the usual critique of the roots of racism (Sartre, Gramsci, Reich, Hartmann and Husband, Errol Lawrence, etc.) in ways which show how Zizek's ethics and politics as a whole operate:
1. it conflates all subjects into one, ruling out a dialogue whereby "we" the anti-racists persuade "them" the racists, because "we" are anyway complicit (plus, "our" and "their" beliefs are not open to rational persuasion);
2. it posits the purely theoretical gesture of exposure to be the WHOLE of a progressive ethics, minus a separate transformative dimension (or with the two rendered indistinguishable);
3. the critique is not specifically political, but involves theoretical questions on a relatively high level of abstraction ('our' guilt for the Holocaust);
4. The views it embodies are at best uncompromising and controversial, and at worst sectarian and naively exaggerated;
5. The politics involves are embedded from the earliest stage in a discourse of speculative theory (here, Lacanian; elsewhere, Hegelian, Kantian, etc.);
6. The transformative dimension of Zizek's politics is thrown into doubt by the use of speculative terminology which establishes present problems as necessary or universal.


What does Zizek mean when he calls himself "left" or "leftist"? He uses it in different ways at different times and it is tempting to suggest that it means whatever Zizek's view happens to be at a particular time. However, some themes also emerge:

* LEFTISM AS SUSPENSION OF THE ETHICAL. Zizek wants to "reassert the old leftist motif of the necessity to suspend the neutral space of law" (TS 222). Zizek then defines 'left' as "political suspension of the ethical", identifying leftism with teleology: "the Left legitimates its suspension of the Ethical precisely by means of the true Universality to come" (TS 223). In practice this means, for instance, that one should fake photographs to ensure one's own side wins (TS 222).

This is not, however, an entirely consistent position; in his essay on multiculturalism he distinguishes leftist and rightist subvariants of the "suspension of the ethical". (NB also he doesn't really show why he thinks this motif is traditionally leftist; his only examples come from films, and recent ones at that. The historical left involves a counter-ethics far more often than a suspension of the ethical, eg. Gramsci, Marx etc.). This is in addition to the various problems with his position (you can't fight the fascists by being a fascist - Reich; also, "suspension" implies that bourgeois law will be restored in the future; see below on betrayal). Furthermore, the logic of this ethics breaks down the moment the "Universality to come" proves unreachable (and Zizek never even hints that it can be reached); the image of Universality functions as a moment of the sublime (the fragile absolute) which Zizek values in itself (see ACT), and its betrayal is inevitable (see below), so what Zizek ends up with is a goal-rationality oriented towards an unachievable goal.

* Zizek calls for a relationship with the oppressed built around the idea of "identifying with the symptom" (TS 224). The idea behind this is an analogy with Lacanian clinical practice: the symptom is the part of a subject's alignments which she/he is unable to assume; in society this is the social symptom, the group with no place in the present hierarchy (TS 225; see also ACT). (NB this involves, not self-activity by this group, but a substitutionist identification with it).

This is a substitutionist claim which specifically distances Zizek from the more usual leftist approach of opposing one's own oppressed status. Zizek will not permit anyone except the worst-off to see themselves as oppressed or to liken their own, milder oppressions to more serious ones (eg. seeing Berkeley campus as a Gulag); Zizek claims this is "fundamentally faked" (TS 229). Zizek's "leftism" is therefore a long way from any conception of self-emancipation, and he may even be endorsing the (rightist) claim that, aside from a particular oppressed minority, people are not really oppressed.

* Zizek sometimes adopts leftist causes, such as the Miners' Strike (TS 351), though usually for reasons of his own. He calls for the defeated miners to accept their loss (TS 352), although he also seems to think they should maintain the empty form (of socialism?) as fidelity to the lost content, especially if the only other choice is casting off radicalism like Blair (TS 353).

* MILITARISM: (cf. CONSERVATISM). Zizek identifies leftism with a military-style splitting of the social into antagonistic sides (which would render Bush and Bin Laden leftists!); hence, his list of 'leftist' militants include such unlikely names as St Paul and Charles de Gaulle (TS 227). In this passage, Zizek defines leftism as what I would term sectarian devotion to a Cause in Vaneigem's sense (a "militant, divisive position" of "assertion of the Truth that enthuses them" - TS 226). (Zizek praises St Paul for purging 'deviations' and de Gaulle for his substitutionist claim to speak for France - TS 226; elsewhere he calls for heresy to be "ruthlessly rejected" - TS 212).

On the St Paul issue (which crops up several times, eg. TS 142-3), it is worth contrasting Vaneigem's quasi-Nietzschean analysis of Christianity (REL 118-19), and also Bob Black's view, dealing with the same issue as Zizek: "unless ideology withers away, it eventually hardens into dogma. After Jesus comes Paul, and eventually some Pope, Innocent in name only" (Anarchy After Leftism p. 138). I suspect St Paul is the Stalin of Christianity, who hijacked it on behalf of the Roman oligarchy by destroying the original revolutionary group.

Elsewhere, Zizek praises the "exclusionary" logic of the army, "prone to annihilate the other"; he interprets Freud's "wo es war, soll ich werden" (where it/id was, I/ego shall be) as "where the Church was, the Army shall arrive" (FA 124). He wants an Army because he wants to replace compromise and projects of global inclusion (his bogeyman of 'organic' alignments) with "antagonism", "Us versus Them" and the "egalitarian universalism" this supposedly creates in the in-group (FA 124). (It is not clear how this is supposed to fit with his rejection of war in his discussion of films such as MASH and Full Metal Jacket; see RESISTANCE). He also establishes a structural equivalence between the Army/Church binary, the Lacanians versus the International Psychoanalytic Association, monastic orders versus the Church, and other supposedly subversive counter-communities (FA 124). Zizek also directly endorses militarism as the only alternative to depoliticisation (FA 57).

Zizek's biggest fear seems to be peace. Although he makes a valid point that a capitalist unity underlies much of today's affirmation of plurality, he then shows why he dislikes this so much. It is, he says, "boring", "repetitive" and "perverse"; it lacks the "properly political" attitude of "Us against Them", except in the unusual case of fascism; it therefore lacks a "radical antagonistic gap" and obliterates the "notion" (=structural figure/place) of antagonism (DSST 237-8). So Zizek is effectively attacking capitalism for being too peaceful.

That this position is primarily ethical, not ontological, is shown by Zizek's claim that it is possible to have a directly democratic society with no excluded part: such societies existed in "tribal, pre-State societies". But he objects to this situation because it is not "properly political" or, therefore, fully democratic (TS 240).

* He does not link this explicitly to leftism, but he also takes a sectarian position similar to the adventurism and purism of small sects when he adopts the view that "in each concrete constellation, there is one touchy nodal point of contention which decides where one 'truly stands' " (CHU 125). There is therefore in any setting a single political line one has to adopt to be radical. If one does not take the right position on this issue, "no matter how much one 'reinscribes' it and whatever else one believes, one is on the enemy's terrain" (CHU 126).

NB like many of Zizek's ideas, he expects us to take this claim on faith, presumably because it crops up in Lacanian theory (in relation to the psyche). See also RESISTANCE (notes on drift, Scott, etc.). In practice, politics does not hinge on one issue in this way; there are intermediate positions on fundamental issues (eg. anti-corporate in relation to anti-capitalist positions), and a great many possible issues of contention which are not necessarily pinned down to a single core issue. Insistence on one core position as the sole way of assessing if others are possible allies is a recipe for political isolation and creating a desert; for instance, Zizek on anti-capitalism wants an insistence on the revolutionary party (RL), which would undermine the movement disastrously if applied. Similarly on his own case, that Serb radicals should support self-determination for Kosova: Serb radicals should indeed be persuaded to adopt this view, but there are other struggles (eg. for media freedom, against Milosevic, etc.) which are/were just as important, and which may well be preconditions for creating the space of drift in which the question of Kosova can be dealt with seriously.

* On a few, rare, occasions, Zizek does hint at the possibility of an alternative. Authentic communication can occur - but "only" via "solidarity in a common struggle", when the deadlock of the Self and the Other is discovered to be the same (TS 220). Therefore, we can have a "work of love" directed against the inertia of institutions, which requires an uncritical adoration of the Other as it is, not an idealised version (FA 128). Such a work of love can create an alternative community (FA 130). Zizek seems to identify this community with socialisation and with submersion in manual labour (see MARX, STALINISM, CAPITALISM).


Zizek maintains that it is necessary for every Great Man to be betrayed so he can assume his fame (TS 316). For instance, he seems to support the moment of degeneration of Christianity, when it became compatible with adopting one's place in the status quo (TS 90-1). He says the same thing about de Valera and Lenin (see TS; ****).


A number of Zizek's philosophical concepts are important in relation to his politics. For instance:

* The concept of the "typical" figure (without which the idea of a "social symptom" would be difficult to maintain). Zizek is getting this term from Socialist Realist art: heroes, situations, etc. in this art were supposed to be "typical" and were criticised if they were not, and this assessment was relative to their relevance to the supposed essence of the USSR (TS 174-5). Zizek thinks all ideological notions, including universal ones, always rely for their "specific efficiency" on a single mythical figure who embodies the "typical": for instance, US welfare reform ideology rests on a figure of the 'single black mother' as typical claimant, and anti-abortionism relies on the figure of the 'typical' woman who aborts as a promiscuous career woman; this mythical 'typicality' has nothing to do with whether the figure is empirically typical of the category or not (TS 175). Fantasies are made up of such figures: the typical figure is "the element of fantasy" (TS 175), and all ideological battles are fought between different mythical figures (TS 175).

This is somewhat similar to the use of the terms "myth" and "figure" in Barthes. However, Barthes specifically rejects the idea that such figures are necessary, since the mythologist's role is to expose them. The figure is for Barthes a misrepresentation of a historical person or group (eg. Germans) as an essence (German-ness). Zizek's step towards naturalisation tends to deradicalise the concept, and is largely unfounded: there are plenty of concepts in language which do not involve a typical figure, eg. the "reptile" (see also METHOD: the philosophical basis for Zizek's idea of the "typical" is the idea that every concept contains one species which is identical with the genus itself - "oppositional determination"). Even within the sphere of myth/fantasy, not all figures have a 'typical' case: it is difficult, for instance, to come up with an idea of the typical "criminal" (there are a series of myths of criminality, from the racist figure of the violent black street mugger to the Hollywood image of mafiosis in brown suits smoking cigars, via the Crimewatch werewolf-man, the armed robber in a mask, the drug dealer in expensive jewellery with a big car, the scary loner who serial- or spree-kills, etc.); rather, the very discourse operates by a confusion anf conflation of the different types of "crime". Also, while he wants to use his concept in relation to ethico-political concepts, all his examples come from the 'middle level' of analytical concepts. Clearly there is a difference in the political function of a myth of 'the welfare claimant' and the role of an ethico-political (pseudo-)universal such as "justice", "rights" or "freedom".

* Ideology as such always involves an empty gesture of authentic commitment, "a self-referential assertion of authenticity, a kind of hollow container open to a multitude of incompatible readings" (PF 149).

* Ideology always establishes itself in distinction to what is sees as 'mere ideology' (PF 167). It also always relies on a "constitutive blindness" which it can't admit (TS 15).

* Different political stances involve different formulations of problems, not merely different answers (CrS 27-8). Rivals such as Palestinians and Israelis have "absolutely no common horizon (RL 28). (This is linked to the idea of antagonism/Real as constitutive/primordial). (NB this is not strictly true even of Palestinians and Israelis: both use a similar anti-racist rhetoric, for instance).

* Law and custom are basically tautological; they are "constitutively senseless", depending for their existence on purely 'external' obedience. Rationalisation is subversive of law because it grounds it in a higher, internal standard. Law exists because it is obeyed, and "custom is the whole of equity for the sole reason that it is accepted". They are traumatic and irrational, and this is a positive condition for their existence (SOI 37). Law is authority without truth; but this basis must be repressed by linking it to ideas such as Justice, Truth, functionality or other values (SOI 38).

* Because the symbolic is incomplete, it frees people from castration and leaves room for synthomes (=symptoms), significations permeated with jouissance/enjoyment. The incompleteness/inconsistency of the symbolic is covered over by fantasy, and the social system operates on the basis of a final support in this very "surplus" it has not included (SOI 123-4). Ideology "holds" its adherents through enjoyment/jouissance. As well as articulating/decontesting discourse, an ideology "implies, manipulates, produces a pre-ideological enjoyment structured in fantasy" (SOI 125).

* The law is itself permeated with jouissance. Thus, "the sublime Law is the same as the Monstrous - all that changes is the subject's perspective on it". Approach the ethical Law too closely and it becomes "the monstrosity of a crazy sadistic God"; the appearance of law comes from the "pacifying distortion" of this "divine monstrosity" by the mind. All perception is already violent (PF 219). (This leaves the problem of what it is violating. There is a central difficulty with Zizek's work, probably inherited from Lacan, that it involves a string of concepts which refer to a sphere before/outside language/existence which it simultaneously denies: the big Other which "doesn not exist", the Real which "cannot be symbolised", etc.).

* Fantasy in Zizek's account does NOT merely mean daydreams; daydreams sometimes operate to veil a fundamental fantasy (PF 191).

* Zizek psychanalyses the present conjuncture as being characterised by a retreat of the big Other. This has two effects: the rise of imaginary simulacra, and a need for violence (especially against the self) in the Real (TS 369).


Zizek's analysis of racism, 'fundamentalism' and ethnic identity is that these are a 'disavowed supplement' produced by liberal multiculturalist tolerance and/or an excluded element repressed by it. For Zizek, racism functions via fantasy: the identification of (ethnic, gender) others produces the question "What does the Other want?" and fantasmic answers to this question (Jewish conspiracies; "no means yes") (SOI 112, 114). For Zizek, this question is a result of giving way on one's desire, and it puts in question" the Good embodied in the State and common morals" (SOI 119).

Zizek therefore blames liberalism for fundamentalism. Fundamentalism attracts people because it has a "perverse, pseudo-liberating effect" by saying "You may!" with regard to the transgression of politically-correct and lifestyle codes even to the point of hating, killings, fighting and raping (FA 132). For Zizek, one should not merely reject phenomena such as anti-Semitism; nor should one fall back on 'reality' to rebut them, because this only reinforces the prejudices [?!]. Rather, for Zizek, such prejudice is invalid (a rationalisation) even if every one of its aspects is true. Instead of looking for evidence, one should confront anti-Semitists with the view that the anti-Semitic idea of the Jew is an ideological construct which has nothing to do with Jews (SOI 48). Zizek says this because he thinks a true ideology fully determines everyday experience, so one cannot appeal to everyday experience to contradict it; it only fails to do this when it has not been fully grasped. "An ideology really succeeds when even the facts which at first sight contradict it start to function as arguments in its favour" (SOI 49). (This is a naive strategy: racists etc. are as likely to reject outright the idea that their prejudice has nothing to do with the target group as they are to reject evidence against it; indeed, more so, since they can claim the empirical ground as their own against the mystifying psychoanalyst! Plus, one can never know whether one is in a given case dealing with a full ideologue or one who has 'not fully grasped' the ideology and therefore is open to rational persuasion even in Zizek's account). Furthermore, Zizek claims that multiculturalism reproduces the structure of older, explicitly racist discourses: it is a racist form (western patronising colonial discourse) minus its racist content (imposing one's own culture) (TS 216; cf. below on PC language).

A couple of cases put Zizek's account in doubt. Firstly: "A most helpful squealer in this case has been Djamel Beghal... a veteran of al-Qaeda training camps... At first Beghal would not cooperate with U.A.E. police. So they sent moderate Islamic scholars to convince him that the murderous objectives of bin Laden and his ilk violate Islam's true tenets. It took a month, but eventually Beghal began cooperating" (TIME Magazine, October 15 2001 p. 57). cf. also the following letter: "I feel that all lefty groups, even the ACF, have a 'holier than thou' attitude to fascism/racism. I am white, young, unemployed, angry, and working class and used to be in the army. In the mid-1980s I used to be very racist/fascist because I was sick to the back teeth of being unemployed or on a low wage and the BNP/NF told me and white lads in similar circumstances that immigrants were the cause of all the problems faced by the white working class... If you don't counter the reason why white working class [people] turn to fascism it will grow and grow in this country and we will be in deep shit. White working class lads turn to fascism because of ignorance. If you educate us about blacks' culture etc., then you will destroy the BNP's ability to recruit... The ability of the BNP to break into the mainstream of white working class culture is limited, as most of us listen to black music, have black mates and ain't as ignorant as our predecessors... Me and Tim Scargill of Class War are both ex-racist fash which just shows that people can change" (FK, in Organise! 31, July/September 1993, p. 14). There is a similar article in a back issue of TIME somewhere about German neo-Nazis being hired by a museum to build a Holocaust exhibit, and how it opened their minds: they had never even thought about what the Nazis did to the Jews. Perhaps Zizek would reply that Beghal, FK, Scargill and the German youths weren't 'really' committed fascists and fundamentalists (is anyone?), but nevertheless, this shows the way to beat fascism. (Along with counter-demonstrations and fightbacks, of course).

For Zizek, racism is the necessary effect of a universalised tolerance, because in such a context, such irrational alignments are the only way to mark Difference (TS 201-2; i.e. the Real - this is linked to Zizek's idea that we have lost the dimension of the Real - see above). Zizek has nothing but contempt for liberal criticisms of such 'fundamentalisms'. For instance, he sees denouncement of the Taliban destruction of statues as a "hypocritical" way of hiding from the issue of one's own relationship to faith (RL 23; NB Zizek's account of this is flawed: he ignores the possibility that the action was intended to shock the west, perhaps a way of blackmailing them into recognising the Taleban). Zizek thinks we cannot counter ethnic hatred with its counterpart, ethnic tolerance, but only through political hatred (FA 11).

This is flawed in several respects. Firstly, the empirical process whereby a flaw in dominant liberal ideas translates into racism and fundamentalism remains obscure. Secondly, Zizek's account of the necessity of racism in a multiculturalist context ignores the fact that many people do not react in this way to the context. How comes some people can live without antagonism but others need it so much they become racist? Thirdly, the whole account rests on a metaphysical claim drawn from outside the issue under discussion: the lack of a 'dimension of the Real'. Fourthly, fundamentalism is formed through identity-communities. Zizek's idea that one can solve it by counterposing a politicla hatred is as naive as the view that one can wish away the national question in Ireland by concentrating on class issues like strikes.

Zizek claims that the "excluded" group on whom the centre-left liberal spectrum "depends on" is the "new populist Right" (who Zizek is averse to labelling fascists) (DSST 241-2, 270). For Zizek, this exclusion is a displacement of the true struggle against the left onto a unity against the right (DSST 242). On the basis of this displacement, the right is able to gain ground, mainly via an anti-capitalist rhetoric directed against MNC's (DSST 242), while the moderate Right is able to hegemonise and discipline the Left by means of unity against the far Right (DSST 242-3).

This account is problematic in several ways. Firstly, the use of the concept of 'displacement' is very convenient. This is presumably how Zizek is wriggling out of his own position that one should identify with and support the "excluded" group, which would otherwise commit him to support the Right. However, such claims are only tentatively demonstrated by Zizek, and it is unclear whether they are verifiable/falsifiable at all; they also rest on the idea that particular articulations have a 'natural' place (eg. criticism of MNC's belongs to the left and is displaced onto the right), rather than resulting from a contingent process. Thirdly, the idea that the growth of the far right results from displaced leftist anti-capitalism is flawed. Anti-capitalism is only one mobilising tool of the right, and by no means the most important; it did not appear to play any significant role in the vote received by the Nazis in Oldham, which had more to do with widespread racist prejudices and generalised (undirected) hostility to thr government. Except for the anti-Semitic groups who target the Bilderburg Group, there are to my knowledge few cases of fascists using anti-capitalism as a core mobilising strategy; they are more likely to use immigration, racism, homophobia, nationalism, or crime (eg. anti-paedophile issues). In some cases (eg. their use as undercover provocateurs and spies in Genoa), the Nazis collaborate closely with global capitalism. Fourthly, has the right hegemonised the left using anti-fascism? Actually, the centre is more hostile to leftist anti-Nazism than to Nazism: the state banned the ANL carnival in Burnley but not the Nazi carnival in Welshpool; cf. also Mayday in Germany. Leftist anti-fascists mostly (a few exceptions - SWP?) avoid statist liberal anti-fascism because they see the state as more of a threat to the left than the right, and because they see statist anti-racism as hypocritical given the mainstream's vilification of immigrants. Official anti-racism is no different to the numerous other cases of whitewash, greenwash etc.: an attempt by the system to coopt or head off leftist and disident struggles by adopting a 'moderate' version of their rhetoric and demands.

On occasions, Zizek goes further. On one occasion he identifies dedicated racism with the "a priori excluded" and as an an 'actual' free choice which should be taken instead of liberalism's false choices (OB 122). cf. also his claim that black nationalist 'Marxist-Leninist' Leonora Fulani supported Patrick Buchanan because Buchanan is the inverted-true form of the Third Way project (DSST 237, 244).

Zizek treats the Balkans as if they are nothing but a field where the west projects its imagination. In his terms, they are a place of exception where tolerant multiculturalists can act out their repressed racism, using stereotypes and discourse they would no longer dare use against Africans or Asians (FA 5-6). In contrast to Sa‹d, Zizek doesn't seem to see the Balkans discourse being projected onto an actual, empirical area or people; it is a purely "imaginary cartography" which in his account seems only to express Europe's Otherness, its past and a displacement of these (FA 4). In relation to the Balkans and other conflicts (including inner-city uprisings), Zizek pursues an extremely one-dimensional 'return of the repressed'-type analysis: these conflicts are "Id-Evil, a violence grounded in no utilitarian or ideological cause", and are therefore reducible to the tension between the Ego, jouissance and the Real; they express "nothing but a pure and naked, 'non-sublimated' hatred of Otherness" (FA 8). For this reason, they have a "speculative identity" [which seems to mean an identity imagined/imposed by the theorist] with "the global reflexivization of society" (FA 8-9).

This approach is surprisingly crude and reductionist. I find it hard to believe that such complex phenomena as western intervention in the Balkans can be reduced to a single cause, and an internally western one at that. Zizek gives us no evidence for his account; I suspect he thinks the superficial similarity between his description of the present situation and Lacanian clinical theory is enough to prove it. There is also counter-evidence. For instance, why would the west engage in psychosocial interventions in a society it sees in racialised terms? Zizek does not seem to have seriously examined the motives of participants in racist and fundamentalist movements, or in urban uprisings; his total evidence is reducible to a film reference to the motives of Serbs (in Kusturica; see his Multiculturalism essay) and a reference to an obscure German book which he does not give us the title of, and which actually suggests that neo-Nazis are motivated by ego, superego AND id. Zizek says the neo-Nazis interviewed in the book showed motives derived from the ego (eg. about people stealing our jobs), superego (ideological principles, eg. about miscegenation), and statements related to the traumatic id (=Thing/Real?). However, because he doesn't believe the first two set of claims, he asserts that the third element is "fundamental". His basis for claiming that discourse is motivated by the id is structural similarity: the Nazis use language about other ethnic groups (eg. expelling) which is similar to the terms with which Freud described traumatic enjoyment (CrS 38). This is a sleight-of-hand: the source does not show what Zizek claims; he selects which parts are 'fundamental' in it. Further, the "id" element emerges on top for an arbitrary reason: Zizek recognises an empirical dimension in the other claims, which he can then dismiss as implausible (NB it is not necessarily implausible for Nazis, who are often ill-informed and not very intelligent). Reich has a far more layered account of the psychological roots of fascism; as for what Zizek calls "the 'senseless' outbursts of violence by adolescents and the homeless in our [sic] megalopolises" (FA 8), these emerge from subterranean flows and resistances and are not in the main related to new fundamentalisms at all.

(If Zizek wants to push the idea that the far right is a disavowed supplement which helps liberalism, I'm surprised he hasn't referred to the very straightforward complicity between the two in Colombia, Mexico, Russia, Nigeria, Algeria, and even Sweden, Italy and the Czech Republic. I suspect this implies he doesn't see fascism in these terms - as a political ally liberalism relies on and uses, but does not publicly support - but sees the complicity as more psychological: liberalism causes fascism as a 'symptom' but cannot 'assume' it. If so, then the evidence of real complicity is a problem for Zizek's account).

Zizek sees a glimmer of hope that the different Yugoslav ethnicities may unite together against the west (which he wrongly identifies as "stupid" pacifism), because the two sides have more to say to each other than to the so-called mediators. I think he has a point here - and also with the claim that policing organisations which enter a conflict to mediate can make it worse by setting up a strong state for the sides to compete for. However, Zizek's basis for this account - that no-one but the west takes the ethnic movements' myths seriously (DSST 234-5) is very problematic. How does Zizek know such movements do not take themselves seriously? Surely they have not told him this; nor does he have any evidence he can use to show it. In interviews on the TV, ethnic and religious fundamentalists come across as very serious about their claims: one Israeli settler on News 24 seemed unable to discuss the case against the settlements without instantly going into a very emotional state about 'fascist' threats to the Jews; Zizek also has to account for how fundamentalists who 'do not really believe' can engage in suicide bombings.

Zizek's relationship to racism, sexism and anti-Semitism is complicated by the recurrence in his work of racist, sexist and anti-Semitic jokes (the "secret of how the Jews..." joke; the gypsy who can't think of anything but sex; etc.). It is unclear what the status of these jokes is (partly because it is unclear in general what the status of Zizek's evidence is: I suspect he is not actually trying to 'prove' his claims by means of evidence, but rather that he is 'showing' how his analysis works, pedagogically). Of course, theorists who are analysing racism, sexism etc. have good reason to include such jokes in order to analyse the structure of these prejudices. But the problem is that it is by no means clear that this is what Zizek is doing. If he is trying to extract comedic value or even political/theoretical points from them, then there is a serious question over whether he is prejudiced himself, or at least complicit in reproducing prejudice (espcially if one cross-references this with his claim that new populists are more exciting than liberals, that racism is an excluded 'authentic choice', and that minorities should identify with stereotypes against them rather than reject these stereotypes). And there is certainly at least one point where Zizek extracts what he sees as a "theoretically correct point" from what he admits is a "racist and sexist myth" (PF 65).

A point which raises problems more generally for Zizek's theory is his support for a 'dogmatic' position of refusing to discuss fascist claims: "the position here should be quite unashamedly 'dogmatic' and 'terrorist': this is not a matter for 'open, rational, democratic discussion' " (PF 26). This is well beyond the "no platform" positions of some anti-fascists; few such anti-fascists would claim that one should neverreply to fascist 'rational' claims, even in propaganda or in discussions with the fascists' periphery. Also, Zizek gives no reason why fascists should be subject to such 'terrorism' whereas other groups should not: he cannot invoke the harm resulting from fascists taking power, since he supports purges himself; he also does not refer to fascist beliefs as exceptionally unanswerable (all ideologies have such a phantasmic structure for Zizek); and he seems entirely uninterested in fascist tactics, organisational forms, etc. as a basis for such approaches to them. I suspect, therefore, that Zizek is simply claiming a right to exclude and invalidate whoever he likes, under the cover of a superficial similarity to liberal and left positions. If the fascists use 'rational' arguments, it is necessary to answer these; otherwise, it is our own side which seems irrational, and the fascists are strengthened. One cannot persuade the fascist periphery away from fascism by being 'dogmatic' and 'terrorist'. Zizek's claim about "the ideologico-political significance of keeping up appearances" (PF 26) is true but irrelevant; it could as easily be used the other way (i.e. the importance of not appearing to be restricting free speech). Several leftist groups denounce "no platform" as strengthening the state against the left. The left is itself necessarily beyond the mainstream consensus, so is playing a dangerous game in using this consensus as a basis to ban others. "No platform" is fundamentally interconnected with identity politics and PC (which Zizek loathes) and nearly always rebounds against the left.

Even more importantly: Zizek is here contradicting his entire analysis of the Act and "actual freedom". Zizek hates denkverbots when they are directed against him, and he also urges us to identify with anathematising labels; he even takes this to the point of saying he doesn't care if he's a left-fascist (CHU 326). So it is inconsistent of him then to advocate suppressing some views. Incidentally, he elsewhere (see above) attacks liberalism for establishing racists as a suppressed group; and he even says there should be no taboos about sex with children (see RL). Either Zizek demands that we smash all taboos, or he doesn't; on this as on so many things, he should make his mind up. (Perhaps taboos are OK as long as they are Zizek's own...).

Sometimes, Zizek directly associates liberalism with the right, via the idea of a repressed kernel in ideology. Zizek thinks every "good liberal harbours and secretly enjoys in the depths of his 'privacy' " a string of "nasty fantasies" of violence and repression (CHU 217-18); Zizek provides no evidence for this; nevertheless, this idea of liberals having private wet dreams about fascism recurs throughout his work (eg. vs. Laclau). (Zizek is in effect endorsing the Jack Nicholson diatribe from A Few Good Men: he really does think liberals want evil rightists 'on the wall', and not only for practical reasons). This is why Zizek loathes any (honest) liberal critique of such violence: he always senses behind it - for no empirically or textually justified reason - a hypocrisy of 'having one's cake and eating it', which combines such condemnation with fantasising about the violence one is condemning (CHU 218). So for Zizek, a film like The Siege portrays "the phantasmic 'inherent transgression' of the tolerant liberal" (CHU 218).

All this is cynical and unfounded. Zizek's accurate insight seems to be that liberals often support or tolerate rightist actions which strictly speaking they should condemn. This is true - but it does not prove the existence of some phantasmic ghost, for which Zizek provides no evidence but which he treats as if it is proven and solid. I suspect there is indeed a reactionary and fascistic kernel in liberalism/rightism, but it is not phantasmic in Zizek's sense. The roots are discursive: liberals rely strongly on the alibi (see RESISTANCE); they have near the centre of their theory a set of undefined, 'irrational' concepts (such as order) and an arrogant claim to a right to invalidate; they are paranoid about "chaos" and other bogeymen; some rightists such as Blair are heavily palingenetic, so their own violence is a vain attempt to ward off the conflictual tendencies they see in others; liberalism also loves dilemma-mongering, greater and lesser evils, etc. The Siege, for instance, as far as I can tell is a liberal "dilemma" film, which if anything is directed against the threat of a rightist suspension of the ethical. All this flawed discourse means that liberals often end up supporting or tolerating rightist violence even though their own 'ideals' and fantasies are directed elsewhere. This is a long way from Zizek's claim that liberals actually fantasise about and enjoy this violence - a claim which relies on a substitutionist claim to know people's essence, and which is unfounded. (Also, rightist phenomena of the Oliver North kind do not involve a single kind of subject; there is instead an unstable balance between the rightists and their centrist allies, who have different kinds of character-structure; NB also the problem that the grouping of concepts such as "fantasy", "extimate kernel", "disavowal", "supplement", etc. involve a dual usage: in relation to the 'disavowal' of rightist violence, and in relation to petty leftist resistances as a 'disavowed supplement' of the system. Clearly these phenomena have a different social logic.

NB all Zizek's discussion of 'liberalism' and the right is notable for the absence of any discussion of liberal theory itself. This is particularly notable in the discussion on free choice (OB 122). Zizek's claim that liberal freedom has limits which involve the repression of some choices is not really as mould-breaking and radical as Zizek seems to think. Liberals openly admit the 'limits' of their theory, which they usually identify with the issue of "harm" or with reciprocity (i.e. they either advocate free choice on condition it is "self-regarding", or free choice on condition it does not interfere unfairly with the free choice of others). Such exceptions to liberal logics are often hypocritically applied, and I suspect the doublespeak surrounding the application of concepts such as "harm" (especially the justification of harm caused by states) is part of the fascistic kernel I mentioned above (i.e. such principles are used by rightists to expand their power in ways liberalism is powerless to resist; indeed, they inspire liberals themselves to act fascistically when their fundamental assumptions come under threat). There is an immense difference, however, between something being hypocritical or inconsistent, and it being a disavowed 'forced choice'. The dependence of free choice on the absence of certain choices (to restrict it) is not disavowed by liberalism; it is openly announced. If Zizek wants to use this against liberalism, he needs to do rather more to answer liberals' claim that they are only opposing 'harm'.

The necessity of the return of the repressed in the Real seems to be derivative from Lacanian clinical theory, about psychosis (in psychosis, the repressed trauma returns in the real because the master-signifier is foreclosed).

Zizek sees the denial that others are unbearable as necessarily producing its violent return in racism. Such denial is self-defeating: the neighbours, stripped of their traumatic (=Real) dimension, become spectres. Zizek also seems to be conflating the discursive exclusion of this Real dimension with the exclusion of some people from political participation. Also:"The feature which disturbs the racist in his Other (the way they laugh, the smell of their food...) is thus precisely the little bit of the Real which bears witness to their presence beyond the symbolic order" (PF 154). Racists emerge out of an awareness of the Real in others (i.e. their excremental core) which tolerant liberal multiculturalism 'forecloses'.


Because he celebrates conflict (see above), Zizek denounces any belief-system he sees as removing antagonism from politics. For instance, he accuses liberalism of resting on an exclusion of the two extremes constitutive of class antagonism and constituting itself on a 'lie' - the denial of antagonism (TS 186-7). He denounces Rawls and Habermas as "the attempt to de-antagonise politics by formulating clear rules to be obeyed so that the organic procedure of litigation does not explode into politics proper"; he calls this attempt "para-politics" (TS 241).

It is for the same reason that he is so hostile to New Age thought. For Zizek, this approach means the idea of a traumatic Real resisting rewriting "disappears" (DSST 181; NB for Zizek, absence is interpreted as disappearance; he is here constructing his own discourse of a loss). Zizek also denounces readings of Christianity which take away its harsh, unconditional commandments (DSST 180-1). He prefers Pope John Paul II, with his refusal to bow on issues like abortion even in extreme cases, to the Dalai Lama, who "presents us with a vague feel-good spiritualism without any specific obligations" - because "The Pope... reminds us that there is a price to pay for a proper ethical attitude [NB Zizek turns "believes" into "reminds"...] - it is in his very stubborn clinging to 'old values', his ignoring the 'realistic' demands of our time even when the arguments seem 'obvious'... that makes him an authentic ethical figure" (DSST 181-2). Zizek's pro-conflict ethics therefore involves celebrating conservative hardness and unrealism.

Zizek is here conflating several different characteristics of "ethics": ethics as incompatible with a "money-grabbing promiscuous lifestyle"; the broader sense that it must involve some commitment to something; the idea that it should deliberately ignore all specific claims and demands except its own (i.e. that it should be an expectationist, unreal impositional discourse which does not socially 'organicise' or 'embody' itself in actual people); and ethics as necessarily a critique of narrow realism, pragmatic compromise and 'obvious' arguments. Zizek is shifting in quite a weaselly way between these meanings, as if to render them identical. The first of these clearly identifies ethics per se with traditional conservative-authoritarian ethics; there is no reason in principle why an ethical system could not encourage greed and frenetic sexual activity. For instance, street gangsters have their own ethical system which positively values sexual 'conquest' and acquisitiveness. The third is also reactionary: such an ethics is psychologically destructive, rendering everyone permanently guilty; it is normalist, imposing standards of assessment external to social agents which necessarily suit some agents more than others, and which may be impossible for some to obey; such an ethics also usually casts a shadow, producing the kind of evil it tries to eliminate; socially, this kind of ethics makes ethics a pawn of oppression and dehumanisation and a means of manufacturing popular self-denigration, submission and guilt-based passivity. The second is tautologically true in the sense that a theory involving no commitment would probably not be labelled an "ethic", although this does nothing to prove either that "ethics" defined in this way are desirable, or that it is desirable to have more commitment, or more specific commitments, rather than less or vaguer ones. (Zizek is falling into the essentialist trap of thinking purely linguistic designations actually express deeper goods). The fourth claim is also interesting, and I think one could perhaps designate a progressive ethics in this way; definitionally, ethics is usually differentiated from pragmatics, although it is quite possible also to have a pragmatist ethics in the sense of using pragmatics as a valued guide to action/life.

Incidentally: Zizek seems to feel threatened by New Age thought. He alleges (presumably on the basis of a personal feeling) that "we often feel a real terroristic pressure beneath the compliant tolerance of New Age preachers" (FA 134). I would hazard a guess that Zizek feels this because they threaten his right to dare, and take away the conflicts and antagonisms he likes so much. Here, it is Zizek who is repeating the Kantian term "you cannot, because you must not", about the resolution of antagonisms.

Zizek also by the time of DSST denounces the two-party system as "a semblance of choice where there is basically none", a pseudo-choice between multicultural 'openness' and 'family values', which is as insignificant as a choice between brand labels or a placebo button in a lift which says "close doors" but doesn't make them close any faster (DSST 240-1).


Zizek's analysis of Nazism has a number of aspects. It is a false act (see ACT); it has something to do with the hidden kernel of liberalism (see above); and ZIzek's account of it also contains several elements:

* Zizek's analysis of fascism is highly intentionalist. For instance, his discussion of the Holocaust (as a simple case of Hitler acting) evades the issue of structure entirely (DSST 61). This is despite the fact that he elsewhere distances himself from the idea that the Nazis' psychological profile is unusual or can explain the Holocaust (DSST 70).

* Despite this qualifier, Zizek frequently treats fascism as a psychological phenomenon. For instance, he claims Hitler played on identification with his impotent rage (SOI 106), and that fascism/totalitarianism is not authoritarian, involving instead a "You may!" permitting transgression. He uses this to liken it to postmodern capitalism (TS 391). (He ignores the problem of fascism's own taboos).

* Fascism is utterly devoid of content ("the utterly void, formal character of its appeal"); it is based on obedience for its own sake (SOI 82). It is the obscene side of Kantain formalism. What it (and other forms of ideology) offer is a certainty of going in one direction and therefore getting somewhere (SOI 83), although the moment one realises this is all it rests on, the ideological effect is spoilt. Ideology serves nothing but itself (SOI 84). Fascism relies on an empty gesture of belonging and sacrifice for the cause, which is however irrelevant (PF 149).

* Because it is empty, fascism has no goals. There is nothing 'fascist' or 'reactionary' about fascist or populist goals; the fascism and populism is in how they are articulated (TS 185). There are no fascist elements, only fascist articulations; fascism's distinctness is as a "global project" (DSST 243). (This is problematic: fascism is more form than content, but it also has some goals which render a project fascist: the desire to suppress all conflict, eugenics, normalist totalising, etc.; even the idea of community solidarity, Zizek's main example of a 'good' fascist goal, is from the start overcoded with repressive ideas of the volksgemeinschaft as exclusionary in-group and as a kind of womb-substitute. One these goals are present, one almost has a full fascism; the only ideological "work" needed is to select targets. NB Reich understands the reactionary origins of goals of forming a totalising community, whereas Zizek celebrates such goals).

Fascism therefore included "fully justified" goals, such as the rejection of capitalist 'irrationality' (TS 185). (Zizek is here confusing the fascist critique of capitalism as too free and insufficiently territorialised with the leftist critique of it as insufficiently deterritorialised - probably because his own tendency is as much towards the former as the latter). Another on his list of justified goals, taken from a Hitler speech, is that Nazism was perceptible only to insiders (?TS 23) - as if this were a good thing in itself.

* Zizek distances fascism from his own approach because he denies that it politicised life: instead of politicising aesthetics, it aestheticised life (?TS 21).

* Zizek sneaks dangerously close to endorsing fascism at times, as when he claims that the Nazis "appropriately" sacrificed Jews in an attempt to return from capitalism to older ideologies of sacrifice (DSST 44), and when he treats "Fascist populist violence against 'Them' " as a sub-type of "democratic destabilisation" and " 'spontaneous' or 'direct' democracy" (TS 121-2).

* Zizek tends to conflate fascism with his opponents. He links it to paganism because paganism involves the same principle of "rejecting the love of one's enemy" (FA 129), despite the fact that only a few pages earlier, he desribed paganism as the opposite: suffocating wholeness (FA ?122). He also tries to link fascism to Carnivalesque (FA 130) and "some extremely conservative ecological circles" (FA 130).

* For Zizek, one is not totalitarian or fascist as long as one is inconsistent [!! - how consistent
were the Nazis?], because all power rests on characteristics seen in totalitarianism and fascism. Displaying the entire inconsistency of power, including its fascistic elements (as in the cases of the film Dune and the post-punk band Laibach, is according to Zizek "subversive" (PF 72). (Is Zizek openly advocating inconsistent arguments?).

* A Jew should attack Nazis, not by defending the Jews from Nazi criticisms, but by (supposedly) undermining the Nazis' legitimacy basis by attacking the Jews. Zizek's example here is Freud's book on Moses, which Zizek claims made Nazism unthinkable (FA 150-1). This approach is actually potentially disastrous; it involves identifying with Nazi territorialisations and doing their propaganda work for them. Also, Freud's book clearly did NOT destroy Nazism or prevent the Holocaust...


Zizek's politics tends to lack relevance to actual political issues, in the sense of the strategic and tactical choices facing political actors and movements. His remarks about how to defeat fascism are only one example of this. On the rare occasions where he addresses a political issue, he either fails to take a position on it, or he takes a position dogmatically. Hence, Laclau says Zizek fails to leave "the theological terrain" and "start talking politics" (CHU 289). He adds: "Tzarism and the apartheid regime were actual obstacles, and not just arbitrary targets positivizing an inherent impossibility" (CHU 199).

* It is all very well answering the question 'should one support centre-left parties as the lesser evil, or treat them as being as bad as or worse than the right?' by stating that "the proper dialectical paradox" is that "THEY ARE BOTH WORSE" (RL 3), whatever that is supposed to mean; if a political actor or party faces an actual situation (for example: a general election, or a referendum), they have to do one or the other: support the centre-left (eg. vote Labour) or refuse to do so (eg. don't vote). Zizek's 'dialectical' let-out only works on paper.

* Zizek is further from actual political ideas than even such abstract theorists as Laclau and Butler. Compare the quote Zizek takes from Butler and Zizek's reply. Butler says the government is haunted by "a 'will' that is excluded from the representative function", i.e. excluded social groups; Zizek's reply is "also to emphasise the opposite aspect: what universality excludes is not primarily the underprivileged Other... but its own permanent founding gesture" (CHU 217). Butler is therefore relying on an account stressing relations between groups; Zizek is reliant on general claims about the psychology of the dominant group itself. Further, Zizek calls this repression the "ultimate support" of government (217). But, while it is quite believable that a government might rest on the exclusion of particular groups or claims, and that this would lead it to break its own rules (as in Butler's account; this, I suspect, is the logic of Oliver North and his ilk also), I don't see why it should inherently need repression aside from its relationship with excluded others. Zizek's claim amounts to saying that the "ultimate support" for human beings exists on an entirely different, metaphysical plane.

* Concrete political proposals are so peripheral to Zizek's account that he is more-or-less unconcerned about the content of politics, as long as it fits his structural model. For instance, on neo-liberal economics, Zizek fails to take a principled position at all. "I'm a pragmatist in this area. If it works, why not try a dose of it?" However, Zizek does object to the same policy being treated in a different way, i.e., neo-liberal economics being seen as a neutral scientific instrument, ignoring the fact that it involves particular subject-positions (CrS 32). This clearly shows Zizek's commitments: practical politics are peripheral and Zizek is not greatly concerned what contents a political project has; however, he becomes very concerned once the issue is about theory, especially the structural position of politics.

* When Zizek makes concrete proposals, they are usually related to the past. Hence, in one statement about a past situation, Zizek wants to reject the empty ideological gesture of populist authenticity and orient to "organising a labour movement - changing the very material condition in which people like [proto-fascist capitalist] Norton can thrive", creating a political communist movement committed to the overthrow of people like Norton (PF 149-50). It is not clear that Zizek has actually moved beyond an empty gesture even here, however, since he makes no specific proposals about what such a party should demand or campaign for.

* cf. also Zizek on democracy. For Zizek, democracy is so discredited that we should abandon it to "the enemy". What matters is whether "global social issues" are made in a "public space" by a "majority" - it doesn't matter if there is a one-party system (OB 123). Again, Zizek is emphasising empty phrases over concrete political issues: how can one have a majority making decisions in a public space in a one-party system? Zizek presumably means such terms in the vaguest possible sense.

* Instead of concrete proposals, Zizek gives us general discursive imperatives. For instance, either the left accepts the "liberal democratic horizon" or it "risks the opposite gesture of refusing its very terms, of flatly rejecting today's liberal blackmail" (CHU 326). This is related to Zizek's sectarian insistence that there is always one important issue which overshadows all others (see above).

* A rare exception: Zizek does make a concrete proposal in relation to anti-racism (he also makes a couple more suggestions in this area: that one should accept and endorse criticisms of oppressed groups, and that one should confront racists with their own irrationality and not try to argue rationally; he also supports "no platform" - see above. Crucially, all his examples crop up in the sphere of argument with racists, not in relation to political campaigning against racism). Zizek distrusts politically-correct (PC) phrases because he thinks they may involve "an excess of humiliating aggressivity", i.e. a politely patronising tone, which is worse than the original insults (TS 254). He suggests that if one replaces 'incorrect' with 'PC' language, one leaves the structure unchanged and merely transfers the aggression into the 'PC' version. Zizek thinks one should instead aim to restore the original, offensive term but minus its aggression; he cites the use of "nigger" by some African-Americans to back this claim (PF 162).

There are problems with this proposal, related to Zizek's model of language. The structure of a concept is not only connected to other concepts in its immediate discourse, as Zizek seems to think; it also has other, implicit connections which introduce implications. Certainly the use of different terms cannot change anything by itself; the BNP can put the same bile into "culturally different" that they would put into "nigger". Nevertheless, the terms have different connotations, which may influence others: referring to "difference" establishes an equivalence of 'race'/ethnicity with other legitimate differences, whereas terms such as "Negro" involve explicit, totalising race-typing. It is the same with other cases: the use of "disabled", or better still, "people with a disability", (or, if it could ever be established, "differently able"), removes the implication of inner, biological roots of the status of having a disability which the term "handicapped" (or, worse, "cripple") definitely has. If one restores but identifies with the original term, one also restores the scientifically inaccurate and socially demeaning implications: that black people are a distinct biological type genetically inferior to white people, that the difficulties arising from disabilities are biological rather than social, in origin, etc. In Zizekian terms: while the exclusion of black people and people with disabilities shows that they are being used as a "social symptom", this awareness is blunted when one uses terms which imply that they are outsiders constructed by biological difference, placing one back within the 'social fantasy' which causes the discrimination. (The patronising aggressivity in some PC language may well be a product of Zizek's imagination - at least some of the time).

There are various special cases where restoring older terms has positive effects. The use of "nigger" by black people fits into a series of similar reappropriations which typify "street life" in ghettos and similar areas. My suspicion is that it is deviants who use such discourse. Due to the ambiguities of deviant identities, it is frequently the case that a term has both positive and negative connotations; as such, it is a badge of pride when uttered by a oneself, but an insult when uttered by others. Matza (Delinquency and Drift) mentions this with respect to terms such as "bad" and attributes of oneself and one's family (eg. someone who has a brother in jail will openly admit it, but would take it as an insult if someone else pointed it out). This is reflected in gangsta rap and related music: one often hears artists refer to themselves with derogatory labels ("I'm a real motherfucker from round the way" - Limp Bizkit and XZibit; "What you gonna do about... [us] thugs?" - Black Samurai; "Trina is a better ho than you" - Trina and others; etc.), but these labels retain their bite when used against others, as they frequently are. This use of words is partly to do with the 'etiquette' of gang life: one proves one's masculinity by 'dissing' or 'sounding' others and by making sure one doesn't get 'dissed' or 'sounded'; at the same time, the deviant identity suspends the negative connotations of such terms when used in a purely self-referential way. When words like "nigger" are reclaimed, it is in this kind of context; calling someone else a "nigger" is a (racist or general) insult, but using it of oneself or one's own gang is a badge of pride. (Public Enemy is one of the groups which uses the term; but they still insist "I don't wanna be called 'Yo nigger' " in one track). This claim to an exclusive 'right' to use a particular word of oneself may well be a badge of dignity and pride, a claim to 'own' one's social position in such a way as to deny others equivalent access to it; it is a bit like the various taboos surrounding authorities which insist that only certain people may use a first name, or that subordinates call a superior by their title rather than their name, except that it is used in a subversive way, by oppressed groups, with anathemas rather than names. It is a kind of badge of confidence: "I'm so confident that I will use this label, because I am secure in the knowledge that nobody would dare turn it against me; nobody would dare call me this name, and my own use of it proves how harmless I have rendered it". Of course, the harmlessness is not conveyed by the label itself; it involves a reference to wider power relations (although in a culture of showing off, the badge may be used to 'fake' such power relations). It also serves as a reminder of the oppression one suffers which can integrate one's group: the term is inoffensive within the group because of the suspension of exterior power-relations, so its use can confirm the group's distinctness against the wider society. (I've come across a similar process with the denigration "Trot": while it is considered offensive when used by enemies, because of its character as an anathema used to rob leftists of their voice, it is sometimes used between Trotskyists, in a semi-ironic way; it serves to remind the group of their unity against the wider world which calls them "Trots"). Again, the situation is more complicated than Zizek is allowing; the reclaiming of offensive terms does not mean they have lost their offensive bite, or that it would be progressive to restore their use across society as a whole.


Zizek tends to confuse society with political phenomena, including the state and elite politics - as if everyday life were not distinguishable from these. For instance:

* Zizek thinks perestroika made "the entire social edifice" disintegrate (CHU 327; actually, it made the political system disintegrate; the social and economic processes either remained in the hands of the nomenklatura or remained in the hands of everyday networks).

* He sees elections as being an 'unplugging' of the social system (FA 126). This is the illusion the Manchester anti-election protest was highlighting: the social system basically remains the same; elections simply change superficial details. (If a truly subversive party was elected, the fact that it would have to contend with hostile social forces and the threat of a coup shows that elections do not at all dissolve society).

* Zizek thinks Stalinist films actually reshaped the field of social meaning (CHU 132).

* He refers to a "Third World collapse of social life" (RL 17), as if the ethnic and other movements of the Third World were not 'social'.

* Similarly on the Yezhov execution: Zizek refers to this as "reaching the limits of the social", where "the socio-symbolic link itself is approaching its self-destructive dissolution" (DSST 121). The reason apparently is to do with the significance Zizek attaches to excremental designations of enemies (DSST 127).

NB without this assumption (that what goes on in elite politics or with regard to state power is identical with the social as a whole), Zizek could not apply concepts like the Act in the political sphere, or maintain his various other claims about politics (eg. the Yezhov claim is central to his idea that Bolshevism actually traversed the fantasy; if Bolshevism and Stalinism had little effect on everyday beliefs and practices, or if their effect was limited to partial changes, no symbolic destitution occurred and Zizek's account falls apart).

Some related points on Zizek and the state/society:

* Zizek wants to play up elite politics and downplay popular politics. For instance, he terms the revolution against Ceaucescu a "coup staged by the nomenklatura itself" (DSST 7). cf. also his versions of the rise of Christianity, of Lenin and the Russian Revolution, etc. Zizek is clearly an "intentionalist" in the sense of attributing historical and political occurrences to individual leaders and small elites rather than to mass movements or social structures. This approach to history stands in stark contrast to histories of everyday life and social-structural examinations, and usually involves right-wing approaches to history.

* It is interesting that, in relation to international interventions and discourse on human rights, Zizek is suddenly very concerned about the rights of states, and about coherence (FA 55-6). He also becomes suddenly concerned about the "rule of law" (DSST ?230).

* Zizek claims that society does not exist (eg. CHU 88). His whole account of society not only identifies it with the state, but also reduces it to the symbolic order (although he also sees society as libidinally invested - see TS 261). He ignores the role of physical force in relation to the state.

* Over a number of issues, including freedom and the state and also the issue of Evil, Zizek seems determined to defend liberal double-binds (SOI 165, 166-8) despite his hostility to liberalism.


On the question of depoliticisation, Zizek comes closer than usual to earlier critical approaches (although one should keep in mind that he identifies 'the political proper' with the Act and constitutive antagonism).

* For Zizek, depoliticisation of various kinds always involves a return to one's place, whereas politics involves a demand to be heard (TS 188). Depoliticisation includes the silence surrounding some oppressed groups (eg. the burakumin caste in Japan; I suspect this also happens in the case of disability) in a "politically correct" attempt not to offend the group in question, combined with their being offered voices to speak on their behalf (TS 189). There are several types of depoliticisation according to Zizek: arche-politics (communitarian attempts to achieve political closure and homogeneity), para-politics (administrative politics involving a separate, reified political space), meta-politics (as in the USSR: politics as a "shadow theatre" for conflicts elsewhere, eg. in economics), ultra-politics (militarisation into "Us" and "Them") (TS 190), and post-politics (this is the one Zizek usually invokes, and the most problematic; it involves the foreclosure of the return of the repressed, so that it returns in the Real - TS 198). In this context, Zizek is reversing his usual position on militarism (see above).

These forms of depoliticisation use different metaphors: ultra-politics uses warfare metaphors, arche-politics medical (i.e. organic) ones, para-politics uses ones from agonistic competition and sport, meta-politics relies on scientific-technological instrumental procedure, post-politics is modelled on business negotiation and strategic compromise (TS 242-3).

* Zizek also has a (rudimentary) theory of repressive tolerance: Kant and Descartes both maintained that one should reason about anything, but still obey (SOI 80-1 - though Zizek plays his usual games, claiming that this was necessary for their activity of critique).

* Another of Zizek's (unfounded) sweeping assertions: the "moralization of politics necessarily ends up in the no less radical politicization of morals" (TS 75). Zizek provides no evidence or even analysis of this claim, but introduces it as a proof or example (implying he has a lot of faith that it is true) of the Hegelian idea of a "cunning of reason" (he also uses it to attack the idea that "the personal is political"). Zizek is writing as if politics is a radioactive entity or some kind of Midas, which contaminates all it touches. I don't see any reason why holding a politician to account by an ethical criterion would always and automatically pass over into identifying the ethical standard with whatever the politician happens to do. This only happens if one treats ethical principles in an "operationalist" way, defining them tautologically in relation to the existing system.


To Zizek's five kinds of depoliticisation, one could add a sixth: psycho-politics, which evades political issues by couching them in psychological terms, and which relies on analogies from psychology. Zizek would fall into this category. (Laclau criticises Zizek similarly for deducing politics from generalities rather than vice-versa, and therefore working backwards: CHU 295). take for instance the following examples:

* Zizek reduces power to psychology. He thinks masters arise because people hand the power over to them [!] so they can then make demands on the master; "petty narcissistic demands" are made possible by a (misguided) faith in a master guaranteeing that the system will not disintegrate (TS 236-7). This ignores both the role of fear and violence in power and the actual structure of negotiation between the powerful and the oppressed.

* Zizek's account of the nation is psychologised: he sees it as a zero-institution filfilling a 'need' for a naturalised sense of social belonging (CHU 114). Contrast the accounts provided by Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm: the origins of the 'nation' are historically-specific, and even involve direct political construction.

* Zizek's discussions of duty and the way it generates a sense of guilt are heavily reliant on the Lacanian concept of perversion (PF 222-3). Similarly his attack on the Jacobins rests on an analysis of their actions as a "hysterical acting-out" (PF 139).

In his interview with Radical Philosophy (reproduced in Critical Sense), Zizek is questioned on his use of psychoanalytic categories outside their usual clinical setting, in social analysis (for instance, he apparently calls capitalist accumulation 'hysterical'). Zizek's response is effectively to affirm that he thinks the social is reducible to psychology: his use of such terms is not merely analogical; discourse is "not simply another fashionable term" but "refers to the social bond"; since a psychological theory of hysteresis involves a certain structuring of "the social bond", it structures "the whole intersubjective space" (CrS 32).

The interviewer is unable to get a straight answer out of Zizek on why he thinks the social is reducible to the psychological. The "semantic charge" of these concepts, the interviewer points out, is derived from a clinical setting; Zizek is pursuing a "hypertrophy of ideological analysis": "political practice, surely is not just a matter of ideological struggle" (CrS 33). Zizek's response is first defintional (he wants to "avoid the very terms of [the] question", CrS 32), and then exegetical (Marx is already using concepts similar to Zizek's, i.e. the concept of class struggle - CrS 33).

Finally, the interviewer asks Zizek about psychologising and overgeneralising social antagonism. Zizek's reply is to insist that antagonism operates at a fundamental level, but to recognise the danger of overgeneralising (CrS 38). He then proceeds to do exactly what he was asked about: to psychologise neo-Nazism (CrS 38).

In addition to its hopeless reductionism and essentialism, there is a big problem with Zizek's applying clinical categories (similar to the problem with the statist and anti-statist examples of Acts): it negates the very field it is founded on. If, for instance, capitalist accumulation was "hysterical", or Stalinism was "perverse", or the postmodern world is "psychotic", then this presumably affects all the individuals involved in these formations, which raises the question of how particular individuals can also exhibit a different character-type (eg. how some people in postmodern capitalism can remain hysterical or obsessive or perverse, when the system is psychotic). Similarly: if there is a shared social fantasy, or a social Real founded on an exclusion at the social level, the question arises of how different individuals can nevertheless have different fantasies, different stand-ins for the Real, etc. But such differences are central to Lacanian clinical practice.


In addition to psychologising, Zizek also metaphysicalises. In particular, he claims to know with certainty things he cannot possibly know so easily. For instance:

* In relation to his assertion that the lack of a Master leads to a return of the repressed in the Real (i.e. a social application of the Lacanian theory of psychosis), Zizek asserts: "This... is the Real awaiting us", and other theories are merely "attempts to avoid" it (PF 154).

* Also on Laclau's "secret Kantianism" (a phrase which conjures again the image of liberals hiding their copy of Grounding in the Metaphysics of Morals under the bed where daddy won't find it, along with their swastika armbands and Oliver North speeches - a mistaken portrayal since it is hardly likely that Laclau secretly cites Kant when no-one is listening). Although there are a number of overlapping issues involved (i.e. some of Zizek's discussions of Kant are clearly targeted at Laclau even though he isn't named in them), when Zizek explicitly makes the allegation, the context is a disagreement about whether negotiation between belief-systems is possible. Zizek thinks it isn't, because 'concrete universality' is necessarily internal to a belief-system and articulation occurs within it or not at all; Laclau thinks it is, which is why Zizek uses the label 'Kantian' (CHU 315-16), apparently as a substitute for addressing the political and empirical issue involved. Laclau's analysis, Zizek also tells us, is Kantian because of Laclau's idea of a necessary gap between sublime enthusiasm and modest results, which means we either have to act naively or cynically (CHU 316-17); and also because Laclau thinks total emancipation would eliminate freedom, which is similar to something Kant said (CHU 317).

cf. also Zizek's insistence that it is "false" to undermine unitary concepts ('woman', 'capitalism') by asking for specifics (Which woman? Which capitalism?): this is based solely on an assertion that capitalism deterritorialises and therefore cannot be rooted in specifics (DSST 2).

It is more than possible that Zizek exaggerates the social effectiveness of speculative theory due to the peculiarities of Yugoslav politics. In an interview, he reveals that theory was used constantly in Yugoslavia during its 'socialist' period: even generals couched their writings in Heideggerian terms; elsewhere, Frankfurt School critique was official; etc. (CrS 22-3). If Zizek misunderstood this use of theory as legitimation as an actual effectiveness of it, and if he further generalised this from the Stalinist system to the relationship between theory and politics in all societies, he could well have ended up under all kinds of illusions about the effect that pure theory can have.


A couple of additional points:

* To ethically orient to the excluded part of society, one must already have a positive ethics which says something like 'this group should not be excluded' - otherwise, the existence of this group has no ethical importance. Zizek's theory involves what he terms "meta-politics" when attacking others: he disguises a set of positive ethical imperatives (to traverse the fantasy, etc.) as empirical and analytical (structural) claims.

* Zizek is constantly contradicting himself on free speech. He calls for freedom to think (RL 13), but also for Terror; he denounces denkverbots, but then calls for "dogmatic and terrorist" repression; he denounces political correctness, but wants racists silenced; and so on. This parallels the contradiction in his theory between the desire for submission to an imperative, Cause, Truth or Master and the desire to "go to the end", for "absolute freedom", etc. (see ACT).


Is Slavoj Zizek a radical? One of the problems here is that this term has a number of meanings which are quite distinct. I would suggest there are at least three distinct uses:

* In the literal sense, "radical" can mean "to the roots". In this sense, the term is applicable in any context and has no necessary political connotations. So advertisers can refer to a "radical new hair-care product" and a philosopher of science might call Chaos Theory or quantum physics a "radical shift in our approach to science". In this sense, the term is roughly interchangeable with "foundationalist", "essentialist" and "reductionist": it refers to any theory which posits or alters conceptions of "roots".

* It can refer to any political project which is highly transformative or which pursues the reshaping of society in important ways, especially if this transformation is not limited by respect for tradition or for established rights/rules/norms/standards etc. In this sense, one can refer to "radical Islamic groups", "southern American Christian radicals" and the "radical right". In this sense, the term is interchangeable with "extreme/extremist", "intransigent" or "fundamentalist", but without the same anathematising implications. This usage does not require that 'radical' change be operative in a particular direction; it is enough that the change be far-reaching and more-or-less unlimited.

* It is often used to specifically designate leftist and progressive political tendencies, especially in a binary contrasting them to conservatives, reactionaries and conformists. In this sense, the term "radical", unqualified, can be applied to an individual or group. For instance, one may say "Thomas Paine was a leading eighteenth-century radical", refer to "student radicals" or to the Radical Party (in France). In this usage, "radical" is roughly equivalent to "dissident", "nonconformist", "subversive" and "critical"; it implies a definite political direction (towards the political left, or, in some uses, a specific kind of intransigent left-libertarian liberalism).

Unfortunately, the term tends to be used as a hurrah-word (see Pateman: a word with little or no meaning content used in a quasi-phatic way by politicians). Such usage may turn it into a weasel-word, using one of its various senses to wrongly attribute radicalism in one of the other senses, or flitting between the senses without regard for the distinctions between them. (There is a similar problem with Laclau and Mouffe's "radical democracy": is the "radicalism" a property of the term "democracy", so that Laclau and Mouffe are following democracy through consistently, as opposed to inconsistent democrats; or is it a qualifier specifying the form of democracy they are in favour of, so that "radical democracy" is distinct from "social democracy", "liberal democracy" or "people's democracy" as a different sub-type of the genre?). Zizek uses the word repeatedly as if it is absolutely clear what he means by it, when in fact, his usage slips constantly. In particular, he seems to be drawing a certain political credibility (as a leftist, "Marxist", etc.) from his radicalism in the first two senses, by using the term as a weasel-word. (He also uses the term "subversive" in a related way).

Sometimes, Zizek's use of the term "radical" does not extend beyond the first, broadest usage: Zizek is "radical" in a generic, non-political way because he makes sweeping claims about foundations. For instance, he uses the phrase "a more radical level" (PF 141). This clearly suggests that there are various levels of analysis, some of which are foundational (roots), so that one can pursue analysis in a superficial or a radical way. In this sense, Zizek uses "radical" as a euphemism for "foundationalist" or "essentialist", in such a way as to hide these from any postmodern eyes which may be watching. In this use, "radicalism" does not imply any kind of directly political element, even of a rightist kind. For instance, Zizek's use of the term "radicalize the relationship of substitution" (PF 111) involves an endorsement of its necessity and universality - i.e. a conservative and conformist position which refuses the possibility of any kind of fundamental change (of any political kind).

At other times, "radicalism" means proudly intransigent and 'extremist'/'fundamentalist' (but again avoiding terms which carry anathematising baggage). For instance, Zizek's attack on Derrida's 'radicalism' is that it lacks "radical" political measures such as the Khmer Rouge terror (DSST 154). Elsewhere, Zizek identifies the 'radical' choice with a choice of terror, the 'impossible' and a kind of normlessness (CHU 326). In such uses, Zizek's radicalism is very like Bordiga's: a cover for a non-radical resignedness which retreats into support for extreme measures partly to cut itself off from the possibility of meaningful debate with any other tendency. (In this usage, "radicalism" is clearly related to the 'dimension of the Act'; see ACT. This link, of course, does not solve the problem: why should this particular abstract concept be more 'radical' than any other?).

Most often, "radicalism" is simply a hurrah-word, with no distinguishable meaning-content beyond being identified with Zizek's personal opinions. For instance: Marx "was not radical enough" (FA 18); being "radical" means acknowledging impossibility (FA 71); it is "more radical" to say, not that we can't generate sublime objects any more, but that the matrix of sublimation is under threat (FA 26); it is supposed to be "much more radical and unprecedented" to say that the Act directly identifies a particular decision with the call of the Other, rather than to say that the symbolic system speaks through us (DSST 163); and it is supposed to be more radical to say that modern chaos is directly experienced as a return of barbarian myths, rather than that myth is a way of controlling such chaos and making sense of it (DSST 38). In the last two of these, neither option is politically radical even in the more limited sense of involving sweeping change; and it is hard to see how one is more radical in the broadest sense than the other. I suspect that what is operating here is Zizek's arrogant faith that his own approach in general is actually getting to the root of what is wrong with the world and is sweeping away all existing alignments and beliefs in a wave of 'symbolic destitution'. If one accepts this faith, it is also true that all Zizek's claims are "radical" in the first and second senses: they understand society to its roots (in contrast with other approaches), and they advocate or even directly carry out a total social transformation. I don't see much reason, however, for accepting that this is the case, especially since most of Zizek's claims to understand society involve a naive epistemology and little more than asserted claims. Perhaps his use of the word "unprecedented" suggests something further: that Zizek identifies "radicalism" with the (superficial) gesture of adopting an unpopular, unusual or avant-garde position, in opposition to widespread views in a particular field.

Certainly I don't see any reason why Zizek's use of the term "radical" in any of these contexts would render him a "radical" in the sense of being a leftist or a progressive. Zizek surrounds his theoretically 'radical' claims with conservative and fatalist devices (such as the use of absolutising rhetoric: "all", "always", "never", "necessary", "inevitable") and beliefs (eg. in masters and hierarchy; see CONSERVATISM), and also by the irrationalist concept of the Act, in such a way as to efface any "symbolic efficiency" it may have (which makes him in Lacanian terms a "fool"). (For instance: it is radical and subversive to expose the ideological effects of substitution in capitalist society; but this is effaced if one adds that substitution is necessary in all societies). For instance: Zizek carries out what could be a subversive critique of administrative violence as the reduction of the political via reification (TS 191 - a critique similar to those associated with Marcuse, Gramsci, Barthes, etc.). But he then spoils it by adding that politics "always" rests on "'pre-political' violence" which is irrational and arbitrary (TS 191). This blunts the political implications of Zizek's previous statement, which therefore becomes no more politically radical than the claim that violence is inevitable due to human nature.

The category of the Act in particular gives Zizek the ability to construct a theoretical hyper-radicalism which does not force him to break with conservative or conformist beliefs and practices (since the Act, as a structural position, is more-or-less content-neutral). So Zizek can carry on supporting structural adjustment policies, Clinton and Chavez while calling himself a 'radical'. Zizek's comments (in Critical Sense) about SAP's prefigures his later stances eerily: he has no objection on principle to such neo-liberal practices (if it works, why not try a dose of it?, he reasons, completely ignoring the contestability of the concept of "to work" in this phrase, and the barbaric effects of neo-liberalism); his only problem is with the structural position of the policy: the fact that many of its advocates see it as involving an apolitical administrative solution via the market conceived as an absolute. This shows that Zizek's commitment is focused on a purely linguistic dogmatism and is neutral towards the content of ethics, politics, etc. (and completely lacks a positive ethics of any kind). The policy is neither good nor bad; everything depends on whether it is couched in the right slogans.

If Zizek seriously wants a radical politics (in the third sense), he is trapped by his own mode of thinking and writing. He tends to treat every specific claim in a metaphysical and absolutist way, turning the functioning of the present system, or even a single instance from a film or novel, into "all", "always", "none", or "never", or into metaphysical absolutes, necessities, impossibilities, essences and existential conditions of possibility of Being itself. This renders Zizek precisely the kind of thinker Marx attacked for only interpreting the world: the linguistic devices he uses render him incapable of thinking beyond the present and its limits. At times, Zizek gives the impression that he is battling with himself over this issue: he wants a radical politics but can't have one due to his own approach, leading to a constant conflict in his work as the radical elements try to break through the conservative exterior (cf. Althusser). In this sense, the irrational/nihilist Act (and also dogmas and shibboleths, Events, absolute negativity, diabolical Evil, refusal, the leftist suspension of the ethical and so on) may well be the last place radicalism can hide in a system of meaning which denies it a place.

At other times, however, Zizek seems downright hostile to radical politics, however militant, because for him, true radicalism necessarily involves his own conservative assumptions. Hence: "Political 'extremism' or 'excesive radicalism' should always be read as phenomena of ideologico-political displacement: as indices of their opposite, of a limitation, of a refusal actually to 'go to the end'." (DSST 138-9). The 'end', of course, means Zizek's own (conservative) conclusions; this is another example of his arrogance towards others (see OTHERS). "What was the Jacobins' recourse to radical 'terror' if not a kind of hysterical acting out bearing witness to their inability to disturb the very fundamentals of the economic order (private property, etc.)?" (DSST 139). Except private property WAS NOT a fundamental tenet of pre-Jacobin France (with its 'feudal' absolutist structure): Zizek is reading capitalism backwards, as if it was ALWAYS the dominant system (and there are of course many things the Jacobins may have been besides this, for instance, a bourgeois/bureaucratic force which used terror to usurp and simultaneously repress the sans-coulottes and the peasantry, precisely because they had absolutely no desire to see their own property threatened by these strata).

I also feel it is important to make two other criticisms of Zizek's 'radicalism':

* Political radicalism (even the rightist versions) is usually associated with beliefs that the 'roots' are somehow healthier, more benevolent, or otherwise better than the present system (eg. 'radicals' like Ivan Illich are often romantics who think humanity is capable of much more than the present system allows; the radical right thinks the market will set social problems right; etc.). Zizek, however, has a horrifying idea of what the 'roots' of people and society actually are (eg. we are basically excrement; see REAL, ACT). In this case, it is not at all clear why we should wish to be "radical" in the first place.

* Zizek's little game of more-radical-than-thou is easy to parody. For instance: How superficial it is to think that the way to defeat capitalism is to fight it! What if the anti-capitalist movement is really the flip-side of capitalism? Perhaps it is more radical to support capitalism and campaign for free trade, so that capitalism explodes from within! So the real anti-capitalists are not outside, trying to shut down the mettings; they are inside, driving limos and attending meetings! Unlikely perhaps, but structurally no different to many of Zizek's arguments. Clearly an effective radicalism requires more than merely a desire to transgress widespread assumptions.

To conclude, Zizek may be "radical" in the first sense (foundationalist), and inconsistently radical in the second ('extreme'), but he is not really very radical in the third sense (politically progressive). On the whole, Zizek uses the word "radicalism" as a cover for a theoretical approach which is effectively conservative and conformist.


Zizek takes an extremely sectarian position towards resistance, especially petty resistances of the resistenz variety. For Zizek, anything which stops short of an Act is not only inadequate (not far enough), but is actually complicit in the power-structure itself (serves as its supplement, etc.).


The reason for Zizek's labelling of resistance as complicity is his theory of ideology - notably, his belief that explicit alignments rest on a disavowed supplement which is not similar to them, so all ideology rests on 'false disidentification'. For Zizek, "an ideological identification exerts a true hold on us precisely when we maintain an awareness that we are not fully identical to it, that there is a rich human person beneath it: 'not all is ideology, beneath the ideological mask, I am also a human person' is the very form of ideology, of its practical efficiency" (PF 21). Ideologies always rest on a "trans-ideological 'authentic' kernel" which he appears to see as expressing a universal - something everyone wants (PF 21).

Therefore, for Zizek, disidentification is not subversive. Zizek's basis for this claim is that disidentification coexists with conformity (PF 22; NB Zizek only shows that it coexists in some cases, which is not the same as his claim that it is in principle never subversive). Zizek also refers to the case of ideology-as-alibi (forgiving a leader's flaws or crimes can itself function as a factor fusing a group) - a misidentification which according to Zizek identity occurs because of, not in spite of (PF 22-3; cf. CHU 132). Zizek understands alibis (eg. 'Hitler killed the Jews but he also did good things like making trains run on time') as a displacement; the act of comparison is itself anti-Semitic and is covertly praising Hitler's anti-Semitism (FA 130; this is again a step too far: the statement is perhaps anti-Semitic to the extent that it treats genocide as if it can be traded off for faster trains; I don't see how one can know with any degree of reliability that a deep psychological process is going on which actually involves anti-Semitic motives being displaced or concealed).

In contrast, "an ideological edifice can be undermined by a too-literal identification, which is why its successful functioning requires a minimal distance from its explicit rules" (PF 22). Taking a power discourse at its public word can effective disturb it, since it negates its disavowed obscene underside (CHU 220). Sometimes, if one displays publicly the unspoken phantasmic kernel of an ideology, this "maybe... can block the functioning of the ideology" (CrS 39). This kind of action, which Zizek terms "publicity", is the "social equivalent to the cure" (CrS 39). The worst thing one can do from the law's perspective is to obey the law for the wrong reasons, since this undermines its dignity (DSST 172). The basis for these claims is Zizek's belief that power censors not its radical opponents which subvert it, but its own message (PF 25), i.e., its phantasmic kernel. Zizek gives as an example of this kind of resistance the use of religion by subject populations against the powerful, a process he interprets as authentic identification with an initially faked position (PF 148). Another example he gives (which he references to Laclau, Ranci‚re and L‚vi-Strauss) is that concepts such as equality and freedom, initially introduced as ideological appearances, can then become politicised and 'symbolically effective' via expressive contestation (TS 195). (My suspicion is that the first of these is syncretism not overidentification, and the latter involves the expansion of an imaginary, not a symbolic position - and also, it has to contend with repressive rolerance, limits built into the system - eg taboos against 'too much' freedom, i.e. 'anarchy', 'license', 'permissiveness' - and so on; democracy taken to mean direct activity is constructed necessarily against the official meaning of 'democracy as voting', i.e. as a substitute for direct activity).

For Zizek, ideology involves, not misidentification with social roles [=Althusser's concpt of interpellation], but "false disidentification", "false distance towards... social existence" (CHU 103). So for Zizek, ideology is identical with escapism and autonomy - the idea of a self beyond the social system. Such escapism reinforces the system by making life in intolerable conditions 'liveable' (CHU 104).

Zizek effectively denies the possibility of 'organic ideology' in Gramsci's sense. For Zizek, ideology rests on a 'distance' between the ideology and 'who one is'; this distance is necessary for its functioning, and it is therefore according to Zizek subversive to follow through an ideology consistently, thereby rendering it "unacceptable to the existing order" (PF 77). For Zizek, "codified transgressions" are themselves part of the big Other (=system) (TS 264); postmodern ludic subversion of the existing order "actually served as its supplement" (CHU 325).

These claims are based on Zizek's model of social fantasy. For Zizek, "Power is always-already its own transgression" - it needs an "obscene supplement" to function. Zizek is careful to distance his analysis here from similar, weaker accounts which maintain that power always produces resistances. Power does not merely produce an uncontrollable resistance, he says; nor does it merely act as necessary for resistance (i.e. a resistance needs a power it is resisting to be a resistance); nor does it merely eroticise its own repression of the erotic. It actually rests on a founding "constitutive crime" (=Act?) necessary to found power but which must remain invisible for it to function (PF 26-7; Zizek demonstrates this principle with empirical examples, although these clearly are not proof for his claims, since they depend on the claim itself). The symbolic Law necessarily involves a traumatic, impenetrable Real (FA 110; cf. NRRT). Fantasy does not realise prohibited desires; it realises the act of installation of the Law (PF 13-14; this seems to be one of Zizek's leaps of faith, involving a deep structure he simply posits). Perversion also is not a resistance since it involves enacting the foundation of law (PF 34-5). The metaphysics behind Zizek's account are fairly heavy: the idea of publicising the phantasmic kernel rests on the belief that this kernel is not susceptible to interpretation or translation, and therefore needs a different operation - due to an inconsistency in language itself (CrS 39-40). Zizek's rejection also relies on his belief in a part of the psychological 'economy' which "forever resists its symbolic rewriting" (FA 109), i.e., the Real, and which can therefore produce an Act from out of nowhere, without relying on imaginaries. Zizek also claims that resistance cannot occur without a philosophical 'grounding' in a theory of the subject (TS 9-10).

On very little basis, Zizek claims, therefore, that liberals secretly fantasise about repression (CHU 218). This analysis rests on a confusion or conflation of motive and effect. For instance: Zizek claims Lacan thinks resistance is imaginary; it thwarts but cannot alter, redirect or carry out a reformulation of the symbolic law, and therefore contributes to the status quo (CHU 219-20; there is actually a gulf of difference between the first claim and the second; something which tries but fails to resist effectively is NOT the same as something which does not resist at all).(see also POLITICS). Zizek's reading seems to be taking the conservative self-legitimation ("deep down, the liberals want people like us to rule, but they are too indecisive to admit it"; cf. Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men: "deep down, you want me on the wall") as gospel. Actually, this is a self-legitimation; it does not fit liberal identity and is similar in form to other oppressor-groups (sexual abusers' idea that victims "really" want it, Federici's wild claims that children are "really" happy and secure when undergoing his brutal therapies, etc.). It is part of the oppressive mindset: only the oppressor's own view is comprehensible to the oppressor, so he/she assumes others must secretly share this view. This is a misperception even of conformist liberals such as Rawls (who do indeed want Jack Nicholson on the wall, provided he holds back a little; however, they do not 'disavow' this but hide it under euphemisms like "order" and "just war"); it is completely mistaken in relation to radicals like Laclau (radical democracy precisely means extending democracy into institutions like the military!), let alone the rebels in France 68 (who were trying their best to knock Jack Nicholson off his wall).

To operate, fantasy has to remain 'implicit', with a distance towards the symbolic texture it sustains, functioning as its inherent transgression (PF 18; again on this occasion Zizek uses a 'proof' - to do with art and its 'place' - which is circular: it depends on Zizek imposing criteria of "greatness" on art which are themselves derived from the conclusion he aims to infer).

The basis for this analysis seems to be the Lacanian idea that alienation in the big Other is followed by separation from it, with fantasy emerging as an attempt to fill the lack "of the Other, not of the subject" (CHU 253).

Zizek identifies all violations and transgressions of laws with the murders and terrorism used to defend the status quo: as "violating the explicit ruling ideology... in order to sustain the existing order", all such violationsare equivalent to the US training murderers in Latin America (FA 147; NB again Zizek is confusing motive and effect, and further, is only asserting the effect that all transgressions aid the status quo). It is "Much more subversive... simply to do what is allowed", which actually involves transgressing "implicit unwritten prohibitions" (FA 147; NB ZIzek is almost saying conformity is really resistance and resistance is really conformity). One is caught 'in' power only when at a distance from it; full identification undermines it (FA 148), and power only operates via its own disidentification or failure to totalise (CHU 218).. His basis for such claims consists of one case in a novel (when literal insistence on the letter of the law caused havoc), a creative reading of the role of Christ and appeals to the authority of Brecht and Kierkegaard (FA 147-8). Politically, the conclusion Zizek reaches is that authentic resistance has nothing to do with disidentification (CHU 218). Rather, the "much more radical" alternative to (eg.) Butler Zizek thinks Lacan offers is the possibility of a change the Imaginary can't offer, via an Act which radically transforms the "universal structuring principle of the existing symbolic order" (CHU 220).

Zizek is not criticising Laclau merely for not going far enough, i.e., he is not merely stating that capitalism limits hegemonic displacements in a way Laclau fails to recognise (a criticism I would probably endorse, if this were all he was saying). Rather, he wants to say that this is directly pro-capitalist: that capitalism itself causes the emergence of the displacements Laclau writes about. He tries to use Marx and Deleuze selectively to show this (CHU 108; NB here as elsewhere Zizek stresses Deleuze's concept of capitalism as deterritorialisation without mentioning the other aspect: capitalism as reterritorialisation). The gap between "complaint" and revolutionary acts is for Zizek an "insurmountable gap" (TS 361). Furthermore, any use of the system's language or structures actually confirms and reinforces it (TS 361). Only gestures which traverse the fundamental fantasy are Acts (TS 266); other subversive displacements, transgressions and resistances ultimately support the status quo (TS 264). Also, "a dproduct whose explicit attitude is very critical towards the dominant relation of production often fits the frame of these relations perfectly" (PF 83). Ideas which remain within a dominant public transcript and attack a regime on its own terms are "hypocritical" because the regime is necessarily the best expression of this transcript (TS 73; NB this is not strictly true). For Zizek, attempts to prevent capitalism becoming worse than it is should be eschewed as "half-hearted", "an escape from the inner truth of the system", "the worst way to remain within its horizon [!! - as if liberalism is worse than fascism!] and a psychological attempt to avoid admitting the truth (TS 12). Pretence actually realises what it fakes. Feigning flattery, for instance, nevertheless makes this 'true', since what makes something true is its social effect not its sincerity; subjectivity is dull and narcissistic (SOI 211). So "in order effectively to liberate oneself from the grip of an existing social reality, one should first renounce the transgressive fantasmic supplement that attaches us to it" (FA 149). Petty resistance is a "condition of possibility" of the system (PF 20). Leftist intellectuals serve as supplements of the system because of their ineffectiveness (in Zizek's terms, their mode of expression suspends the performative efficiency of their speech) (PF 45-6 - NB there is a gulf between ineffectiveness and complicity). Petty resistances which steal a bit of enjoyment back from the Master can never be progressive according to Zizek, because they are a payment for service; therefore, "breaking the chains of servitude" requires as a "crucial precondition" that one traverses the fantasy and breaks with this relationship to the Master (PF 48). Zizek also attacks resistances themselves: for Zizek, the 'political' is under siege from the spread of multiple identities (TS 196). (It is unclear whether Zizek actually wants to resist the symbolic anyway, since the Act is for the symbolic and involves subordination to it; see ACT).

There is actually a contradiction here between two uses of terms like "supplement", "disavowed kernel" etc. On the one hand, Zizek is positing - in my view accurately - that systems like capitalism contain a kernel or supplement of rightist violence which they do not officially admit - i.e. Oliver North etc. On the other, he is also using the same formulations in relation to petty resistances and postmodern cultural strategies. This is untenable, since the structural role of postmodern ludic resistances is very different to that of Oliver North, and if the supplement is identical with the "constitutive crime", it has little to do with ineffective resistances at all. I would suggest that the idea of "extimate kernel" or "disavowed supplement" should be retained, but stripped of its metaphysical connotations, as a description of the relationship between some forms of official liberalism and the right; however, it is completely inappropriate in relation to practices which, however limited and ineffective, are conceived as resistances. Zizek also seems to be playing with weasel-words in his use of the concept of fantasy: strictly speaking, this concept as Zizek defines it only applies to ideological attachments embedded in ISA's and ritual; but his use of the term seems to conflate into the concept all the everyday meanings of the term, from daydreams and utopianism to sexual fantasies. Zizek often uses such conflations to cover the fact that the world is too diverse to fit his limited range of structural categories.

Zizek's sectarianism relates to his concept of the Act, and his purely subjective focus (going to the end, not compromising on desire, etc.), which ignores partial resistances, hidden transcripts etc. (see below). The fantasy is fundamental (ONE nodal point: see ACT, POLITICS) and the most Zizek will allow any third alternatives between conformism and the Act is a pretence that they could make the world better (FA 165, ?61).

Zizek is contemptuous of the idea of hidden transcripts: "The idea is that this true message was absolutely transparent to all fellow dissidents, even to the thousands of ordinary people who reacted enthusiastically to this music (to anyone 'with ears to hear', as it is usually put); yet at the same time, in some mysterious way, absolutely opaque to those in power, to the cultural and political nomenklatura. Were the nomenklatura really so incredibly stupid that they did not get what hundreds and thousands of ordinary people got? What if the solution is much simpler, and we should merely conclude that one and the same listener was able to move on both levels" (DSST 124) - an argument which leads to the conclusion that "Every party functionary, right up to Stalin himself, was in a way a 'closet dissident', talking privately about themes prohibited in public" (DSST 125; this ignores Scott's crucial distinction between hidden transcripts of the dominant and those of the oppressed). Actually, Zizek's account is most definitely not a simplification; it is quite plausible that a message encoded in a way not accessible to the elite - or ambiguous enough to avoid repression - could mean one group understand and another doesn't; whereas Zizek's 'simplification' involves reducing all the diverse social groups to a single mythical 'subject'.

There is a contradiction in Zizek's account. Zizek at times suggests that anything which produces a direct reaction from Power subverts it. Power is necessarily virtual, held in reserve, so that when it involves direct force or even anger, it becomes by definition impotent (PF 150). Symbolic power is "effective only as virtual, as a promise or threat of its full display", so "Power is really impotent, helpless" and empty, and it is lost the moment its content is seen accurately, leading to the loss of the Master-Signifier (PF 158). Apart from the empirical problems here (i.e. the role of the truncheon in Power), this contradicts at least two other parts of Zizek's theory. Firstly, he here implies that the loss of the Master-Signifier is a good thing. But elsewhere, he denounces this loss (see CONSERVATISM); perhaps he merely wants to replace one Master-Signifier with another. Secondly, and even more crucially, it seems to imply that hysterical actions, which 'provoke' power into showing itself, are not (as Zizek elsewhere suggests) its supplement, but do in fact have a central subversive role, i.e., they force power to show its impotence.

There is another contradiction in that Zizek does not always go the whole way of saying resistance actually serves the system; sometimes, he holds back, only asserting the weaker position that present resistances are inadequate. For instance, under pressure from Laclau, Zizek claims that his objection to identity politics is not due to its particularism but only to its attempt to validate authenticity from experience. He then adds that such struggles have a limited, progressive role against patronising liberal attitudes, even though such claims also undermine emancipatory politics (CHU 328). Some of his claims about the Act (especially about returning intellectuals' claims in their inverted-true form: see CAPITALISM) also imply that ludic postmodern strategies and the limited radicalism of Cultural Studies are a necessary part of the process of generating an Act, even though the Act itself must break with them. However, such instances are rare exceptions, and their context suggests they involve little more than Zizek moving his goalposts when his stronger claims are undermined.


Zizek attacks various specific resistances as 'really' being supplements of the system. For instance:

* Following Havel, Zizek takes a sectarian stance of refusing even superficial participation in public transcripts, because he thinks such a stance produces the morally bankrupt subject late-Stalinist societies needed (DSST 90-1). "With the terrorism that characterises every authentic ethical stance, Havel mercilessly cuts off and denounces all false exits, all false modes of distance towards the ruling ideology, including cynicism and seeking refuge in the apolitical niche of the 'small pleasures of everyday life' - such acts of indifference, of making fun of official rituals in private circles, are the very mode of reproduction of the official ideology. A 'sincere' believer in the official Socialist ideology was potentially much more dangerous than the cynic: he was already one step from dissidence" (DSST 91). Zizek even tries to wish away the counter-evidence of official exhortations to participate by calling it a "paradox"and claiming it was really an injunction NOT to participate (DSST 91-2). One cannot be a closet dissident, says Zizek, because a dissident necessarily acts publicly (DSST 124-5 - a definitional opt-out).

* He also launches into a similar polemic against Shostakovich: "So it is Shostakovich's very inner distance towards the 'official' Socialist reading of his symphonies that makes him a prototypical Soviet composer - this distance is fully constitutive of ideology", whereas overidentification led others (eg. Alexander Medvedkin) into trouble (DSST 125). He blatantly ignores something of which he is well aware: that the regime was NOT supportive of Shostakovich: his work "does not by any means display all the healthy symptoms for the development of Soviet Symphony Music" (cited DSST 100; the quote is from Isaac Dunayevsky, an arch-Stalinist), and also his view expressed in the same book that Stalinism refused to allow its victims an inner distance from official ideology (on Bukharin's trial: DSST 102-11). Zizek also has to utterly contradict Shostakovich's own statements to reach his conclusion, turning Shostakovich's claim that he is ironically portraying official ideology into a perverse, "obscene" enjoyment of the Stalinist injunction to be happy (DSST 127) - turning relations to others inwards.

* Zizek thinks servants who steal small pleasures from masters they see as hoarding them, is not only not a threat to masters but is a "libidinal bribery" maintaining servitude (PF 34).

* Amazingly, Zizek claims that protesters in the France 1968 uprising were actually trying to provoke the Master so he would reassert himself more strongly (TS 247) - a direct repetition of the system's discourse ('they're asking to be repressed). As hysterics, the participants function perfectly within and reinforce the structures they grumble about (TS 244).

* Zizek also claims that protesters are never demanding anything: "In demanding that you really do this, I am actually demanding that you do not do it, because that's not it". This is "a hysterical gesture made to avoid the decision [=Act?] by postponing its satisfaction indefinitely" (TS 230). Protest politics is therefore "pseudo-radicalization, which fits the existing power relations much better than a modest reformist proposal" (TS 230). !!

* In prison, Zizek says, the person the prison system has a hold over is not the institutionalised person, but the person who uses fantasy to maintain "inner distance towards it" (FA 148). Accepting prison, minus fantasy, opens a "space for true hope" in finding ways to beat the rules (FA 149).

* Zizek endorses a statement by Lenin involving a 'merciless' attitude to music (Lenin doesn't listen to music because he can't afford sentiment, it makes him soft on enemies; NB the rightist authoritarianism involved here), in contrast to the Nazis' (supposed) love of it. He thinks music involves turning present miseries into an eternal fate, that any linking of the present to an idea of a miserable fate is an escape, and that this escape - an ideological gesture of repression - is at the root of the 'universal' appeal of music and other arts. This even leads him to condemn emotions: "emotions are ABSTRACT, an escape from the concrete socio-political networks accessible only to THINKING" (RL 12; actually, emotions are just as plugged-in to the world as thought, and some thought is used to cover up emotions and hide from them).

* On MASH and armies: for Zizek, attempts by soldiers to humanise their experience are not subversive; the distance involved is ideology. "Contrary to its misleading appearance, Robert Altman's MASH is a perfectly conformist film - for all their mockery of authority, practical jokes and sexual escapades, the members of the MASH crew perform their job exemplarily, and this present absolutely no threat to the smooth running of the military machine [NB Z. fuses id. subversion with distance in action; NB he also doesn't understand where actual threats to the military machine come from - see below]. In other words, the clich‚ which regards MASH as an anti-militarist film, depicting the horrors of the meaningless military slaughter which can be endured only through a healthy measure of cynicism, practical jokes, laughing at pompous official rituals, and so on, misses the point - this very difference is ideology" (PF 20). Zizek's problem with MASH is that it humanises conformist soldiers and is therefore (superficially) like romantic pro-war films (PF 20).

* For Zizek, escapism "actually provided a realistic literary equivalent of the ideal GDR subject", and was "much more successful... in... securing political conformity than... open na‹ve propaganidist fiction" (CHU 104).

* Zizek claims (but does not show) that carnivals and carnivalesque are not subversive. For Zizek, "ritualized carnivals which temporarily suspend power relations" are "a false transgression which stabilizes the power edifice" (PF 73). He also claims that the Nazis treated genocide as a "carnivalesque" activity (PF 57). This latter claim is based on an impression he gets from Goldhagen, but which he admits runs contrary to Goldhagen's claim (that the Nazis' ideological commitment is shown by an absence of shame); again, Zizek lacks specific proof and there is substantial counterevidence (eg. Himmler's speeches call the Holocaust a grim but necessary duty; it is plugged in to the cult of seriousness of the bourgeois state, not carnivalesque). Similarly, Zizek claims that Serb paramilitaries involved in ethnic slaughter were participating in a "pseudo-Bataillean trance of excessive expenditure", i.e. a poetry by other means (PF 64); this is not backed by any evidence from Serb paramilitaries and rests wholly on a single film reference.

* Zizek thinks schoolchildren make a noise when the teacher is out of the room "to set in motion the teacher's disciplinary reprimand" (PF 80)! (This is supposedly shown by a reference to Monty Python, which, aside from the fact that this is a fictional account and may not apply to real schoolchildren, does not involve what Zizek states; he is relying on what he thinks this scene 'reveals', i.e. on a circular imposition of meaning).

* Zizek denounces Frank Capra as a "fool" in the Lacanian sense (=someone who uses 'radical' discourse in a setting which negates its impact) because he did not break with the studio system and therefore was allowed to continue (PF 150).


* Zizek's attacks on fantasy seem to do away also with all possibilities of intentionality and the project. What Zizek rejects - escapism/belief in escape, and a sense of a human self separate from one's ideological significance - is necessary for resistance as such. Zizek's idea of resistance coming directly from the Real is almost certainly a myth; emancipatory potential nearly always comes from the imaginary. There are many possible arguments from this view; eg. Sartre, Castoriadis; also China Mi‚ville p. 161: "human productive activity is predicated on a consciousness of the not-real... [fantasy] allows us a kind of sleight of mind, because redefine the impossible and you're changing the categories within the not-real... change the not-real and that allows you differently to think the potentialities in the real" (ISJ 88 p. 161; NB this article specifically draws on Marx: human labour is defined by its involving realising a project which is already ideally active). cf. also Gramsci: the new society must already be ideally active in the minds of those who set out to build it. If an architect thinks up a design for a building, is this really just a fantasy covering up the absence of the building and therefore acting as the extimate kernel of this absence? If so, how comes buildings get built?

* The Imaginary is not merely a supplement of the system; it is also the field in which new ideas are formulated and in which repressed revolutionary and creative impulses re-emerge. It is also the field in which radical projects survive inbetween different uprisings. For instance, the peasant belief-system which periodically exploded in 'moments of madness' was kept going in the meantime in the imaginary structures of peasant life (folklore, songs, peasant religion, storytelling, carnivals, inversion woodcuts, etc. - see Scott).

* An interesting comparison/contrast: Zizek denies the possibility of organic ideology because ideology necessarily rests on distance. Gramsci also attacks existing ideologies for this kind of inconsistency: Catholicism condemns itself, because it is never fully applied, and if it were, the resulting 'consistent Catholic' would seem a monster (SPN ????). The difference here is that Gramsci attacks only Catholicism and other particular ideologies, whereas Zizek starts using absolutising talk about ideology "as such". This leaves the question: why should someone want to distance themself from an official ideology? Why pretend to be a "human person" rather than merely admitting to being an ideologue? Gramsci's answer would be: the alignment to the official ideology is assessed by the standards of another, "organic" ideology, to which the subject does not relate in terms of distance, but directly (i.e. in this case, a "humanist" ideology). This second ideology is revealed in the work of Matza, Scott, etc. Zizek doesn't give an answer (and if he did, it would probably be speculative). I suspect it is not actually meaningful to discuss "distance" from something unless this involves being "somewhere else"; one may only stand at a distance from official ideology if one identifies with some other ideological construct (as a "worker", "human being", "ordinary folk", or whatever), and if this second identification is direct and does not involve distance, false or otherwise. If this is the case, then not all ideology/belief functions via distance, and therefore, we can transform everyday beliefs in an effective way by critique of ideology - provided we do this in relation to the 'right' set of beliefs (i.e. common sense, not - or as well as - official ideologies), in the 'right' context (i.e. in a way which relates directly, in a dialogical process, with those who hold such beliefs).

* The supposed complicity of everyday resistances is a misunderstanding. Capitalism overcodes or axiomatises everyday practices; it often does not directly constitute them, but rather, subordinates them to its own social form ("real subsumption" in autonomist language; cf. also Deleuze and Guattari; Evan Watkin).

* Is the distance between one's social position and the human beneath it avoidable? Zizek's approach is viable only if he is right that there is no human underneath (no agalma etc.). Even if it is avoidable, such avoidance produces horrific systems: Zizek's examples of people who really believe in their ideology are Red Guards in China and the Afghan Taleban (see RL). Is Zizek really saying that belief plus human face is as barbaric as this kind of anti-humanism? If not, then the human face is clearly more than a supplement which allows people to continue acting as if they are fully committed; it has real effects in moderating their actions.

* As Zizek admits in the case of the South African cop (see ACT), the "human face" is not mere illusion but is directly effective. (cf. the situation in Italy: the difference between the police who tortured protesters and those who snitched on this first group to La Republica was probably that the former had no concept of a "human face" whereas the latter did). This directly contradicts Zizek's more usual claims (about MASH etc.).

* If systems don't want direct conformity to their rules, but instead want a figure like Havel's grocer (i.e. someone whose private grumblings and petty resistance 'sustain' their public conformity), how does one account forthe hosility of leaders to such 'closet dissidence'? Take for instance Mao's essay "Combat Liberalism" (in Selected Works Vol. II p. 31-3). "liberalism... [is] giving rise to a decadent, philistine attitude and bringing about political degeneration... Liberalism manifests itself in various ways... To indulge in irresponsible criticism in private instead of actively putting forward one's suggestions to the organisation... to say as little as possible which knowing perfectly well what is wrong, to be worldly wise and play safe and seek only to avoid blame... to hear incorrect views without rebutting them and even to hear counter-revolutionary remarks without reporting them... to work peremptorily and muddle along - 'So long as one remains a monk, one goes on tolling the bell'... They are all manifestations of liberalism. Liberalism is extremely harmful in a revolutionary collective. It is a corrosive which eats away unity, undermines cohesion, causes apathy and creates dissension. It robs the revolutionary ranks of compact organisation and strict discipline... People who are liberals... approve of Marxism, but are not prepared to practise it or to practise it to the full... It is negative and objectively has the effect of helping the enemy... [T]here should be no place for it in the ranks of the revolution". Clearly actual Stalinists have the opposite attitude to such partial conformity and petty resistance to the one Zizek attributes to them.

In case Zizek's sympathies with Mao let him wriggle out of this, it should be added that identical hostility arises in the case of Nazism: official reports criticised the population's lack of "psychological readiness" for war (Kershaw, The Hitler Myth p. 136). The regime did not want what it got - a Hitler myth in a separate sphere of ideology, with everyday beliefs hostile to the regime (which Kershaw analyses the reverse way to Zizek - for Kershaw, it is the ideological commitment which is a "subconscious mechanism to compensate for the perceived shortcomings of 'everyday life' " (p. 97), i.e., conformist imagination is a cover for a real 'position of enunciation' of opposition and passive resistance; it wanted to enter and Nazify the everyday sphere also. Hitler's speeches tried to undermine the separation into everyday grumbling and public conformity by casting disdain on it: "the Fhrer is the Party and the Party is the Fhrer". Kershaw emphasised that the separation continued to exist "[d]espite such disclaimers" (p. 104).

* Zizek's sectarianism rests on a fetishism of words. Zizek thinks using the right words is itself radical (see MARX: he thinks the name Lenin is directly 'radical', even if no Leninist content is attached to it). For this reason, he commits himself time and again to using unpopular formulations and taboo-breaking phrases for no better reason than that they are unpopular and taboo-breaking. (Zizek's views are very dissimilar to Lenin's. So why does he adopt a label which is so unpopular? It seems such identification with anathemas is part of his basic method: see ACT). Social change, however, involves actions, not words; or rather: a radical action can be expressed by many different sets of words, since the word-label is ultimately arbitrary and does not relate directly to a 'thing'. It is therefore entirely justified in principle to try to maximise drift by presenting one's views in the most potentially popular way, i.e. by changing words (provided this does not involve deceit, which cannot produce organic commitment). It is entirely justified to try to bypass prejudices and "character-armour" by altering terminology - by a war of position, so to speak, rather than a frontal assault. For instance: there is little to be said for the term "dictatorship of the proletariat", even though its meaning in Marx was largely benign; if necessary, one should explain that Marx did not mean a dictatorship in the sense this has today, but most often it would be better to simply avoid the term (if one really feels obliged to refer to "workers" at all, then "workers' democracy" would serve just as well). Similarly: it matters not a jot if communities which defend themselves against the police choose to use labels other than "workers' militia", or if grassroots self-organising and/or directly democratic bodies use labels other than "soviet" or "workers' council" (just as it doesn't matter that the soviets didn't call themselves "communes"). In one actual case, the Anarchist Communist Federation changed its name to the Anarchist Federation because its members felt they were spending too little time dealing with the outgrowth of two anathemas and their incompatibility (communism as Stalinist total control, anarchism as chaos), and too little dealing with important issues!

* It is also not the case that resistance has to start from a conception of the subject; philosophies in everyday life do not necessarily directly reproduce the categories of specialist philosophies.

* I also don't think there can be a general duty to act "subversively" all the time. Provided this does not become an excuse for inactivity, I don't see what is wrong with trying to deceive people who are out for panoptical control, such as McCarthyites, secret police, or someone who is out to ban one's activities (contrast Zizek: eg. on the Letourneau case). Social relations are complex, and not reducible to outgrowths of one's own psycho-pathologies; one may sometimes resist more effectively by propagandising outside the earshot of the powerful. There is more to political activity than a narrow, purist process of personal psychotherapeutic redemption. It is important to confront anathematisation as a modality of discourse, but this does not simply mean going around randomly identifying with any anathemas one happens to land one's hands on (or even, in some cases, the more-or-less accurate ones). For instance: if a Marxist identifies with the label "communist", and ends up being viewed as a police-state totalitarian despite being in fact a revolutionary democrat, this serves truth rather less than if the same Marxist uses the label "socialist". The ability to evade power and its control over language and anathemas is one of the most important of what Jim Scott calls "weapons of the weak". Zizek must not be allowed to decommission these "weapons"!

* Contrast Vaneigem: for Vaneigem distance from the system creates a space for disruption (REL 137-8). The more detached one is from a role, the easier it is to use it against an enemy (REL 141). The last thing we need is overidentification! If a role leaves any space whatsoever for choice (whether officially or surreptitiously), it is absolutely vital to use this space to struggle against the system, should one ever find oneself occupying the role.

* If even the worst ideologies (eg. Nazism) appeal to a trans-ideological 'universal' kernel of non-political claims (as Zizek states), this undermines his general approach; it becomes possible to 'translate' between different belief-systems on the basis of this 'kernel' (eg. to argue that socialism will provide authentic community whereas fascism won't). Also: this view is problematic because Zizek quasi-naturalises the 'universal' belief; he does not examine how a false 'universal' can be created by common sense.

* In discussions of the transition to a new social system, and in (for instance) his comments on the difference between ineffective intellectual critique and its revolutionary truth/inversion, Zizek concentrates solely on the moment of break (in Gramscian terms, the "cathartic moment" in individuals and the "war of movement" in society), ignoring the even more important element of the processwhereby people's libidinal investments, conceptions of the world and modes of thought and action shift from the present system to an alternative (in Gramsci, the "intense critical labour" and the "war of position"). Zizek's metaphysical method reifies the moment of the break into an abstract category (the Act), ignoring its historical emergence. Probably, Zizek is misperceiving the break due to viewing it synchronically instead of diachronically. It is for this reason that Zizek wrongly sees petty resistances and the moment of the break (Act) as incompatible opposites, rather than as fusing imperceptibly into each other.

* cf. Matza's concept of drift (developed in Delinquency and Drift). Matza's work shows how 'delinquent' acts result, not from an element of radical difference pertaining to a group of deviants (as Zizek's concept of the Act would seem to imply), but from a process of drift in which the basic tie to mainstream ethics remains intact in principle (but with various exceptions invoked and extended). In Becoming Deviant, Matza adds that one can become part of a deviant community in this way: a person who is initially libidinally invested in (in Matza's terms, emotionally committed to) the status quo can, through a multiple-step process, weaken and finally break this alignment, becoming committed to a deviant identity. The political implications are clear: sudden breaks based on refusal or an Act do not occur; petty resistances and the subtle undermining of faith in dominant beliefs and commitments is essential in generating a process of drift; such a process is necessary for someone to move from being a conformist to being a dissident (even in Zizek's narrow sense).

* Also on drift: Laclau criticises Zizek for not allowing for the possibility of displacement of the relation between elements inside and outside capitalism (CHU 293). For Laclau, particular demands are not directly complicit in capitalism; they are absorbed by capitalism via a process of transformism (CHU 203; this concept is drawn from Gramsci). This position allows the (weaker) claim that some demands are recuperable, while leaving open the possibility that some demands are not (though in practice Laclau seems to deny this); Zikek in contrast takes a strong line that such demands are an imaginary support for capitalism. In the latter version, the model assumes a fixed identity of each element and is therefore 'essentialist'; it also treats diachronic relations as if they are synchronic.

* Zizek's account ignores the whole dimension of "drift" between everyday life and macrosocial struggles; the whole issue of public and hidden transcripts; and the issue of 'transitional' politics - as if everything except total refusal is totally reformist and useless.

* A moment of total negation is not needed for revolution. Rather, all one needs is a process of drift culminating in a cathartic moment. The process is diachronic (and occurs over time), not instantaneous. Denaturalisation can occur on the basis of the distance between one's subjective position and one's role; the former can be used to generate new modes of action incompatible with the latter.

* Given his concept of the fantasmic kernel, it is questionable whether Zizek can really rely on films as a part of his analysis of (for instance) the Act. Though a character may engage in an Act within a subcreational reality, this clearly has no bearing on real people; the actor, director and audience all relate to films as 'fantasy', with a critical distance from what occurs in them. Film has the same character in this respect as music. This is a serious problem given Zizek's extensive reliance on films.

* There are a number of problems with the idea that 'participation is complicity' or 'petty resistance is complicity'. There are many cases where people engage in superficial participation in an organisation they are opposed to, without theirby undergoing the process of identification of becoming effective participants in the organisation in question. (It may simply be that Zizek's sources on this, such as Pascal, are naive; or it may be that someone can consciously insulate her or himself from developing a commitment; either way, it undermines Zizek's opposition to petty resistance). A secret agent or spy (or in paramilitar groups, a 'sleeper': some reports allege the New York attackers had been 'underground' in the west for years) is a particularly good example of this. A spy infiltrates an enemy force and participates in all its rituals. She/he probably swears an oath of allegiance, participates superficially in political and military operations, and speaks in the language of the organisation he/she has infiltrated. Nevertheless, a spy does not become nothing but another member of the organisation whose activity really supports this organisation and whose original, hostile motives are nothing but the organisation's disavowed supplement. The spy is also secretly active in sabotaging the organisation, revealing its secrets, disrupting its activities, etc. There are other similar situations: police undercover agents (who participate in a gang or subculture in order to smash it), investigative journalists, political infiltrators, 'entryists', and even dissenting minorities (an 'entryist' group in Labour is far more than merely a loyal conformist group which creates a false distance by imagining it is Marxist; it is often anything but "loyal" and "conformist", using its position within the party to fight its leadership), and Oskar Schindler-type figures who use official positions to pursue other goals. If the "distance" from the official rituals can be effective in these cases, why not others? In other cases, Zizek is (nearly) right; black people who join the police to counterbalance racism end up in fact acting on behalf of the racist police against black people (eg. on the Welling demo). A lot depends, however, on the balance or lexical ordering of the alignments: a spy has a clear sense that her/his loyalty to her/his original organisation is greater than her/his superficial commitment to the organisation she/he has infiltrated. A lot also depends on how the commitments convert into action: an anti-racist who joins the police but is not prepared to refuse to participate in racist operations is effectively prioritising the police commitment over the commitment to anti-racism, which may well indeed mean one can call the latter a legitimating "supplement". In most cases, the balance of commitments is not clearly stated. For instance: there were a number of industrialists who were prepared to help Schindler, but would not themselves oppose the Nazis in the same way. The situation is far more complex and layered than Zizek allows for.

Zizek's citing of Havel's "greengrocer" as the typical conformist, for instance, ignores an important counter-point: the "good German" who plays the Nazi game in public but hides Jews in his/her attic or cellar. Such a person can hardly be termed 'morally bankrupt' or the 'kind of subject Nazism requires'. There is also a drift between resistenz (closet dissidence) and resistance (active resistance): resistenz creates a space for drift which makes resistance possible and 'thinkable', and is thus a big step forward from literal identification with the system (NB it is also very different to complicity in the system's "supplement", i.e., Oliver North etc.). In the case of eastern Europe, Echikson's account (in Lighting the Night) is diametrically opposed to Zizek's: even the actual functioning of social life was already outside the regime's control, occurring via informal exchange, family relations and connections (197-8). Although this was compatible with public conformity, it also created a space for resistance. "I often encountered parents and children on different sides of the ideological barricades who nevertheless remained close at home. Janine Wedel told one poignant story of how a Communist Party member invited her to march in the government-sponsored May Day parade. 'When I met him several weeks later, he told me proudly that his daughter participated in the Solidarity May Day demonstration', she recalled. 'I learned that he secured the release of several of her friends, arrested on suspicion of having engaged in planning the illegal May Day demonstration' " (p. 196-7). My query here is why he calls this "different sides" - clearly the parent was really supporting the opposition (since he "proudly" admits his daughter is a dissident); his conformity was a public display which contributed to defending and creating the actual space of opposition which was constituted at the actual locus of everyday relations, bypassing official channels and discourse.

* Zizek's model of publicly exposing and thereby blocking the functioning of the fantasmic kernel presupposes very precise knowledge both that the kernel exists and of what it is in a particular ideology. Zizek is also unclear about when 'exposing' a system's message becomes 'endorsing' it (see CONSERVATISM). Further, the act of exposing 'what someone really believes' instead of trying to persuade them to change their mind is authoritarian and impositional, and could easily lead to new oppressions.

* I agree with the idea of extimate kernels to some extent, provided it is limited to a critical analysis of particular systems (not a metaphysical/structural absolute) and is empirically demonstrated. I don't agree with many of Zizek's uses of the term. For instance, Zizek's view that a shared lie or crime directly integrates a group (PF 22-3; NB this links closely to the Act as suspension of the ethical) is problematic. I suspect it is more likely that cases of this (eg. in the KKK, gang rituals such as requiring members to kill someone to join, etc.) are a result of lexical ordering: the primary element of integration is the pledge (i.e. Sartre's "pledged group"), which involves some kind of lexical ordering of ethical standards: the pledge involves prioritising the group and its cause above other ethical standards; for instance, a true Stalinist is prepared to "Sacrifice [his/her] view for that of the Party" (Vittorio Vidali, cited Mandel, Power and Money" p. 129). This also requires that one must not attack show trials, prison camps, purges, etc.; but the acceptance of these is not a primary motive itself, but a necessary outgrowth of the primary pledge to accept the viewpoint of the Party as final (and no correspondence will be entered into). In this sense, one should distinguish between different groups of agents in a way Zizek is not prepared to: the "extimate kernel" crops up in pro-system liberals and reformists, to defend their complicity with rightists who act against liberal standards; this is different to the motives of participants in rightist projects, who "suspend" liberal ethics because they do not really believe in them, and who are driven by the pledge or cause or similar drive of a particular organisation (eg. the military by the so-called "necessities of war").

* Barthes (in Mythologies) understands the alibi far better than Zizek. Zizek, on very little basis, suggests that, in an alibi, one is really committed to the project one is relativistically defending (eg. on anti-Semitism: FA 130). This may indeed be true of some leaders and actors who use alibis to win support (a corrupt politician might present this as a human flaw supplementing their political greatness, to cover the fact that this greatness is nothing but a means of continuing corrupt activities), but not for all those who support them. The alibi, which Barthes also terms inoculation, functions by admitting minor evils so as to conceal big ones (or, I would add, admitting a bit of a big evil to conceal its full extent); it is an "inoculation" because it immunises people (i.e. a second group, not the original actors) against the evils of a particular course of action. "One immunizes the contents of the collective imagination by means of a small inoculation of acknowledged evil; one thus protects it against the risk of a generalized subversion" (Mythologies p. 150). One thereby saves an institution by admitting an institution's blemishes. Barthes's examples are: the Army and the Church, in which cases appeal to their benevolence is used to allow admission of their faults (p. 41). "A little 'confessed' evil saves one from acknowledging a lot of hidden evil" (p. 42). For Barthes, the function of the inoculation is to head off resistance: it is a way of weaning people off 'prejudices' which lead them to reject supposedly beneficial institutions (p. 42). The difference between Barthes's model and Zizek's is that Barthes actually follows the pattern of this kind of argument quite closely, whereas Zizek appeals to assertions about psychology which are external to it, and near-impossible to verify. Also, Barthes allows for the possibility that the 'evils' of a system can also discredit it - it all depends whether people believe the story about the 'greater good' and the relative insignificance of the evil.

Take for instance the relationship of liberals to police brutality (eg. the question of the treatment of black people). I find it very hard to believe that liberals are on some level really committed to extreme police violence and only pretend to oppose it. This is true of a limited number of hardened politicians, but their passive supporters get sufficiently restless as to suggest that this is not the case (eg. Monbiot's recent drift due to Genoa etc.). Those agents involved directly in brutality know exactly what is happening; but if they have to conceal it from other groups to avoid coming under attack. Hence the construction of the alibi/inoculation: advocates of the police decide there are a few "rotten apples", or a "corrupt and racist minority" (Livingstone), but that this is overshadowed by the "good job" the police do and the majority of "honest" officers. A layer of liberals believe this explanation; they are thereby relieved of the duty to oppose the police. That there is more to this than mere disavowal is shown by the phenomenon of official inquiries (Scarman report, McPherson report, etc.). Admittedly, these are sometimes used to cover up; but they do also have something of an investigative function. Besides: why should anyone want to cover up something, or create an illusion that something is being done, to conceal it from a population who are already predisposed to believe any lie due to their libidinal investments? Clearly there must be some space for movement here - a layer of people who at present support the police, but who the police or their allies feel could become opponents - or else the inquiries would not serve any useful function (they would merely pose a dangerous threat to the disavowal of a kernel of violence which will remain endorsed as long as it remains hidden). This layer of people are not presently involved in outright opposition (since this would again render the inquiries superfluous), but also are not attached to a fundamental fantasy which unconditionally endorses police violence. Rather, this group tolerates police violence due to some combination of ignorance, ideological legitimations (such as alibis), and minor measures to combat it; the group would potentially become dangerous to the system if its demands for legitimations and minor measures were not met; therefore, the system has to keep up appearances, not for its own sake, but to retain an "articulation" into its fold of a group whose primary libidinal investments lie elsewhere (i.e. NOT in police brutality, but in the surface features of the status quo, eg. democracy, human rights, etc.). (Since many of those I have in mind are oriented to proof - eg. lawyers and journalists - the question of whether this group suspects something is going on may be less important than making sure the system has plausible deniability: this layer will not react against, say, police racism as long as it remains invisible, even if they suspect it is going on, because they are primarily committed to norms of proof rather than actual events. Furthermore, this group may be necessary/beneficial to the system less for any direct threat it poses than because it is an important ally in preventing rebellion by a third group, i.e. workers etc. For instance: the LA uprising party resulted from perceptions of the failure of the elite of black moderates, lawyers and so on - the "community leaders" who would otherwise have acted as a break on insurrection had been discredited by their failure to guarantee basic standards in the Rodney King case).

Alibis do not exist so one can disavow one's own (eg.) racism or anti-Semitism; they exist to draw someone who is precisely not (eg.) racist or anti-Semitic into a project which is, by covering up or relativising this aspect. It is used by someone who is (consciously) racist or anti-Semitic to gain the partial support of someone who isn't. cf. the conflation of capitalism with production. Zizek's line on this involves a typically Stalinist confusion of motive and effect.

* It is quite possible to make 'moderate' particular demands which are not meetable by capitalism and are therefore radical, despite cropping up entirely within the space of "identity politics". For instance: workers' management of production; workers' militias; abolition of private ownership of means of production; direct action, direct democracy, or even effective delegate democracy (i.e. right to recall, etc.); a demand that capitalists follow 'democratic' objectives; an end to the cult of growth; an end to the exploitation of nature for profit; a symbiotic rather than instrumental relation to nature; a demand that the psychologically different must not be judged by normal standards, rules, conventions, procedures or laws; qualitative rather than quantitative logics; care rather than justice ethics; smashing/abolishing the state. These are all concrete and on principle realisable demands (nothing whatsoever to do with all Zizek's talk of utopias and impossible fullness, nor with Acts and breaks with meaning); but they are all more-or-less unmeetable within a capitalist framework; they either contradict the logic of capitalism or they create dual power. Or, to take an actual example: since the police are supposed to be present by the consent of the governed, it is quite possible and legitimate for a community which has suffered at their hands to demand the removal of the police from their areas. This is one of the de facto demands of virtually all the urban uprisings, from L.A. to Oldham to Free Derry to Brixton (expressed in an immediate way via a praxis: the physical removal of the police from these areas by the use of force). However, neither the police nor the politicians nor their conformist supporters find this demand even thinkable. In this sense, although rooted in 'identity-politics' and everyday issues, this demand is "radical" and "subversive" in a very real sense. Or to put it another war: the Paris Commune is ultimately proletarian/popular identity-politics taken beyond the limits of nineteenth century capitalism. Uprisings always involve a struggle for concrete outcomes, not an abstract universalism; the most radical occur when a particular project confronts barriers on the level of the form of social relations. (Universalism tends to crop up precisely when a set of practices are no longer socially actual - eg. the rise of Integralism precisely when the church's claim to actual universality was fatally undermined by contacts with other cultures).

* I'm not sure there are many - if any - examples of taking a law literally leading to subversion; Zizek's basis for this claim is mostly a priori (i.e. his faith that law has an obscene underside). There are three kinds of cases which I suspect concord with Zizek's view to some extent. Firstly, political and legal systems often rely on a degree of goodwill from those who obey them, rather than merely mechanical obedience (the so-called "spirit" of a law or rule). In such cases, one can cause problems by taking a rule literally, without any goodwill: for instance, the use of work-to-rule as a form of industrial action, or insistence on one's exact legal rights in custody. Secondly, 'literality' in an incoherent belief-system can disrupt the system by playing up one of its elements; so can emphasising a particular order or slogan outside its assumed context. For instance: taking "political correctness" "too far" can undermine it; another case would be when Chinese peasants obeyed a Maoist slogan to kill birds, in such a way that they were so busy killing birds that they didn't grow crops. Thirdly, various forms of psychological difference make obedience to the intent behind rules impossible, because the literal 'letter of the law' is located in a different discursive context. This can produce subversive beliefs about society, because the experience of repeated failures to 'obey' effectively produce a contempt for the irrationality and incomprehensibility of normality and its rules. This is the probable root of Kafka's work on the law. However, none of these cases precisely fit Zizek's account. A work-to-rule involves being well aware of what goodwill would involve, and temporarily suspending it; it is motivated by a transcript outside that of the employer-employee relation which it asserts over and above this, i.e. it is an example of the hidden transcript/public transcript relation. Besides, it is hardly a revolutionary strategy, and it is hard to see how it varies greatly from other such "humanising" tactics. The second type of overidentification disrupts the system but tends to harm the interpreter more than the system: the Chinese case did not lead to the fall of Maoism, but it did lead to a famine which killed many peasants. All these cases, and especially the third, can lead to cynicism about the system by the individuals involved, but there would have to be a further effort to turn this into anything which would disrupt the system itself. Literality can contribute to exposing the irrationality of a particular set of rules to particular people, but this does not lead to the collapse of the system itself, which rests on more than individual support and more individuals than participate in such literality.

* If one takes Zizek literally, that obeying the law for the wrong reasons is the worst one can do against it (DSST 172), this contradicts his views on closet dissidence.

* How does one interpret the idea that identifying with Power's obscene supplement is subversive (PF 73)? A lot depends on where the line falls between displaying this supplement and acting on it: Zizek claims that the punk band Laibach, which 'displays' 'disavowed' fascist fantasies, is subversive (CrS), but presumably he would resist the conclusion that fascists are subversive (even the more 'extreme' ones, such as Combat 18, who refuse the "respectable" face of other fascist groups), since he wants fascism banned (see POLITICS; I'm not saying the boundary can't be drawn, only that Zizek doesn't seem to see a problem here. C18 is a clear-cut case; Laibach less so, but I agree on the whole about rightist symbolism in punk; but I have problems with Zizek's attitude to sexist films and racist, sexist and anti-Semitic jokes). Presumably this is related to the idea of leftist versus rightists suspensions of the ethical; but Zizek's statements in different places are contradictory. There is a big difference between identifying with the symptom and taking the law literally. Incidentally: Zizek's discussions on this subject (on Laibach in CrS; on Schreber's hallucinations and noir films in PF 74) suggest one subject can directly relate as symptom to entirely different subjects, and force them to recognise their disavowed kernel. But Zizek opposes such imposition of truth in his discussions on rape (see ACT).

* To take a few cases cases: James Tooley's defence of neo-liberalism in education is so staunch and unflinching that it exposes exactly what this project involves if taken seriously: both its policies (massive privatisation) and its basis (illusions of a capitalist utopia). Similarly, A.J. Ayer's work on positivism can put people off it: one lecturer has described it as looking like a "reductio ad absurdum" of positivism. The effect of both these works is therefore 'radical' and 'subversive' - but in neither case does it mean that this overidentification is itself 'radical' or 'subversive'. Ayer and Tooley would follow through on their beliefs; they are not therefore 'putting them on display' in a subversive way, but are actually propagandising for them. In contrast, Norman Spinrad's novel The Iron Dream puts a hidden dimension on display in a subversive way, exposing fascistic subtexts in some science-fiction literature by writing a sci-fi novel from the viewpoint of Hitler. This is subversive precisely because Spinrad is not a fascist, i.e. because of his distance from the standpoint of the work; if he were a fascist, the work would be subversive in effect but would not in any sense be a radical work itself. (Spinrad displays the drift between fascism and a particular kind of sci-fi, whereas a real fascist would be acting on this drift). To take a slightly different example: Laclau is in a sense doing what Zizek suggests: the idea of radical democracy involves logically following through the official principles of liberal-democracy, minus their disavowed supplement. But Zizek wants to deny Laclau the status of a "radical".

* Zizek doesn't seem to be able to make his mind up whether being radical/subversive involves identifying with the symbolic order minus its extimate kernel, identifying with its extimate kernel (social symptom, obscene underside) minus the symbolic order, or exposing (putting on display) the underside to undermine both the underside and the symbolic order. This confusion partly results from a contradictory use of the group of concepts such as underside, kernel, supplement and Real (which sometimes mean a repressed group, sometimes the fantasy of its repression, and sometimes the 'suspension of the ethical' involveed in this repression: eg. illegal immigrants, the illusion of global equality, and fascist violence against immigrants). If one defines these separately, all three of Zizek's positions would be tenable and compatible (identify with immigrants, follow through global equality minus racist fantasies, display and discredit disavowed racism) - but this would mean breaking up the Lacanian model of the deep structure and introducing new conceptual distinctions.

* Zizek's account of peasant use of religion against masters (as an authentic identification which emerged out of initial faked participation - PF 148) is a misunderstanding: Scott's evidence clearly shows such use to be NOT a full identification, let alone one which goes beyond the masters in its attachment to the official symbolic position; rather, it is a phenomenon of syncretism: the meaning of the "great tradition" of religion is filled in by and cross-fertilised with the beliefs of the "little tradition" of existing peasant beliefs, so that the claims of the latter can be - and are - articulated in terms of the latter. Religion is rarely more than an 'overcoding' of older peasant beliefs (the concept is Deleuze and Guattari's). (I have an article somewhere which says the Catholic church's spread in Europe rested on convincing peasants the "saints" were identical with the minor deities of traditional peasant paganism!).

* Zizek's own position in all this is unclear. Presumably he sees himself as immune from his attacks on symbolically ineffective "fools" like Butler, Laclau and Capra (probably, he identifies himself with the "discourse of the analyst"). However, it is by no means clear that his claims are directly symbolically effective; he is not as far as I can tell personally involved in the struggle against capitalism, and he is not even likely to be influential except on intellectuals, given his complex language and purely intellectual reference-points. Zizek presumably thinks his critique of capitalism exposes its kernel and is therefore directly effective, even though it is a purely intellectual attack. This is problematic, however, since his work is unlikely to reach more than a tiny number of capitalism's "subjects", i.e. academics - most of whom he sees as too complicit to be of much use anyway (they are part of the ruling "symbolic class" in his class schema). Therefore, Zizek (and probably Lacan too) epitomises the Lacanian concept of a "fool" - he talks 'radically', but his pronunciation has no symbolic effectiveness. Therefore, he cannot validly attack others for this; if they are complicit in capitalism, so is he.

* Zizek on hidden transcripts is confused by the singularity of the "big Other" and the "subject" in his Lacanian theory. At one time, he suggests that the big Other is a public transcipt: knowledge only becomes socially operative when 'registered' by the big Other (TS 326-7). But this leaves space for hidden transcripts (and for what Lucidio Bianchetti calls "workers' space of tacit knowledge" - knowledge inaccessible to dominant groups).

* Zizek's attacks on resistance completely contradict the evidence available. For instance:

SCHOOL: Zizek's idea that deviants deviate to make the teacher act is disproven by Matza's evidence on delinquency. Delinquents are able to act precisely because they believe authorities are stupid and unable to stop them, or because some other factor makes them not care about being caught. See also Marsh et al, The Rules of Disorder: classroom deviance is part of a pattern of discursive negotiation, i.e. attaining a voice vis-a-vis the teacher, not provoking unconditional power; provocations (which do crop up in Marsh et al's account) occur as part of this process of negotiation.

PETTY THEFT: The idea of petty theft and the like as libidinal bribery (PF 34) is undermined by Scott's work. On its own, petty theft is no more than an irritant (NB however the gap between an irritant and a supplement); however, it is built into conceptions of the world which can easily lead to more extensive resistances. If masters push too hard, or refuse to respect the limits of their power, petty theft becomes systematic redistribution of property (eg. in The Moral Economy of the Peasant, it may pass over into grain seizures); stealing little bits of pleasure becomes an attempt to reclaim the entire symbolism of the masters from them.

CAPRA: This case is more complicated. There does seem to be some degree of limited acceptance of the system's limits going on here, although Zizek does not have much of an answer to how one can put out messages against the system when it controls the means of distribution (which also raises the question of how Zizek himself can be outside the system). Also: there is "drift" in film-making, as elsewhere. Film companies like to maintain an appearance of free speech and absence of political interference; they also often don't know which films are subversive or transgress standards which they themselves have worked out only partially, and it is by no means clear that the hierarchy of film production is itself consistently hostile to particular kinds of message. This may well mean there is a space for radicals of various kinds to achieve something within film-making (although I don't know what the detailed situation is in this area). "Fools" may well be necessary to open up an "escapist" space in which "escape" becomes thinkable; this may well be necessary to render it possible. Enough "fools", or the right ones, could easily take us over from carnival to insurrection (NB the controversy about the film La Heine: French police wanted it banned because they thought it encouraged urban uprisings).

STATE PROTECTION: Zizek's claim that anti-state radicals also want protection from the state is undermined by various phenomena of insurrection (eg. urban uprisings), as well as by more radical political groups (eg. the Black Panthers). Demands for state protection are often implicitly a critique of the state for incoherence, which covers a rejection of the state on a deeper level (i.e. demands for protection for black people from racist violence arise as an expression of hostility to the state for its racism: the demand 'protect us' involves a claim 'by your own standards, you must protect us', which involves saying 'you are inconsistent by your own standards, and therefore racist').

* What is the alternative to making intolerable conditions livable (MASH etc.)? It is not always a choice between escapism and rebellion; it is often a choice between escapism and utter desperation (as Zizek on concentration camp inmates admits). Zizek is exaggerating the extent to which breaking with escapism is itself 'subversive', probably because he sees desperation (symbolic destitution) as almost desirable. In practice, renunciation of escapism is more likely to lead to depression, hopelessness, despair, breakdown and suicide, or perhaps to random lashing-out of the Columbine type, than to any more active form of resistance (cf. Vaneigem on "passive nihilism").

* "So long as we have not managed to abolish any of the causes of human despair we have no right to try and abolish the means whereby men attempt to get rid of despair" (Vaneigem, REL p. 163).

* Zizek sees one side only of petty resistance: he sees its role as a "condition of possibility" of the system (PF 20), but he does not see the other side, i.e. as a condition of possibility of resistance, opening up a space outside the system's control. Similarly on escapism: there is a gulf between Zizek's accurate observation that escapism makes life in intolerable conditions 'liveable' (CHU 104), and his political conclusion that it is therefore nothing but a supplement of the status quo. Vaneigem expresses the paradox perfectly: "Anything that does not kill power reinforces it, but anything which power does not itself kill weakens power" (REL 165). Zizek sees only the first part of this statement, and proceeds to portray petty resistances and escapism as supplements of power; he therefore ends up with a one-dimensional account which misses their additional effect, i.e. weakening power.

* When revolutions happen, it is only via escapism. Escapism makes escape thinkable; that is precisely why it makes the present system 'liveable' (for some people). Thus, its realisation-actualisation occurs in an act of escape, eg. a revolution. Utter submersion in ideology, in contrast, blocks the possibility of escape, since, even when it becomes possible (or even necessary), it is thereby rendered unthinkable and "impossible". cf. Trevor Pateman on "Impossible Discourse": certain kinds of discursive construction make some kinds of political project so impossible to "think" that they place these projects beyond consideration by anyone who holds such a construct. cf. also Seligman's studies on "learned helplessness": an animal or person conditioned to expect a situation where it is suffering but unable to escape ceases to look for opportunities to do so. As a result, it passively tolerates suffering instead of running out of an open cage. Zizek's model of complete identification involves the same kind of situation; it is fundamentally anti-radical. Accepting the territorialisation of the world by prisons and the like makes resistance unthinkable.

* Zizek's views on petty resistance and tolerated transgressions - especially in relation to carnivals and the like, but also more generally (on petty theft from masters, cynicism in the military, etc.) - are undermined completely by Jim Scott's work on resistance and hidden transcripts. In Scott's account, resistances form part of a second set of discourses separate from the dominant one and concealed from it by careful acts of subterfuge. This does not mean that the dominant are stupid, but that the oppressed are sometimes clever: "This requires an experimental spirit and a capacity to test and exploit all the loopholes, ambiguities, silences, and lapses available to them. It means somehow setting a course for the very perimeter of what the authorities are obliged to permit or unable to prevent" (Domination and the Arts of Resistance p. 138-9); "By the subtle use of codes one can insinuate into a ritual, a pattern of dress, a song, a story, meanings that are accessible to one intended audience and opaque to another audience the actors wish to exclude" (158). In this account, the 'dimension of the act' - a tendency to revolt and radicalism "ready to curse God and die" - exists in a subterranean way alongside and concealed from its supposed opposite, cynicism and concealment beneath a conformist exterior ( p. 44). The resistances involved include parodic performances. In an example from Zizek's favourite area - eastern Europe under Stalinism - Scott quotes an example of prisoners who, knowing they were expected to lose a race to the guards, "spoiled the performance by purposely losing while acting an elaborate pantomime of excess effort". Contrary to Zizek's claim that this is exactly the same, or worse than, if they had merely submitted, Scott tells us: "Their small symbolic victory had real political consequences. As Kundera noted, 'The good-natured sabotage of the relay race strengthened our sense of solidarity and led to a flurry of activity' " (p. 139-40). Even apparent overidentification usually involves a single sign being given different meanings for different groups - for instance, the role of the passion play in the Phillipines: "As Reymond Ileto has deftly shown, a cultural form that might have been taken to represent the submission of the Filipinos... was infused with quite divergent meaning" (159), and "the ideology implicit in the [plays] appears in militant garb in a large number of violent uprisings" (159).

There is thus drift between direct resistance and parodic performances. This is especially notable in the case of carnival: the masking and ludic dress often used in uprisings was borrowed directly from the carnival tradition (p. 149). Scott's reading of carnivals is similar to Zizek's in some respects: they emerge because of the repression of particular acts and statements in public speech; in this sense they arise alongside and make sense because of the usual power relations the rest of the time (176). Many scholars see carnivals as a safety valve for social tensions (i.e. similar to Zizek's position), and this was indeed the basis on which they were tolerated and on which their supporters lobbied the powerful (177; though as Scott earlier pointed out, this is not the same as being a supplement to the power of the dominant;; it is more of a necessary concession). Scott thinks this account is "not entirely wrong" but is "seriously misleading". On principle, he says, such views involve an "untenable essentialism"; a complex social event such as carnival is not merely a carrier of "a given, genetically programmed function" (178). Also, "one wonders what sort of psychological law lies behind the safety-valve theory. Why is it that a ritual modeling of revolt should necessarily diminish the likelihood of actual revolt? Why couldn't it just as easily serve as a dress rehearsal or a provocation for actual defiance? A ritual feint at revolt is surely less dangerous than actual revolt, but what warrant have we for assuming it is a substitute, let alone a satisfactory one?" (178). cf. the escapism issue: an imaginary feint at escape is less dangerous than a real one, but it is as likely a dress rehearsal as a substitute.

Crucially, Scott also insists on looking into the social history of carnival. Here, Scott contradicts Zizek's model: "For much of its history the church and secular elites have seen carnival as a potential if not actual site of disorder and sedition that required constant surveillance". The church frequently tried to replace or even proscribe some carnival activities, and there have been attempts to prohibit carnivals in France, England and even in Franco's Spain (179). In one study of the town of Romans, near Lyons, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, "carnival became... a site of conflict" between elite and popular strata. The popular participants did not stick to designated channels and refused to hand over to the elite participants at the designated time; the elite responded by assassinating a leader, which sparked a small civil war (180). Furthermore, the 'moments of madness' when peasants etc. rose up were very like carnivals (182). This ambiguity still emerges today in mass ludic events (both political, such as anti-capitalist carnivals, ANL festivals, etc., and less so, such as rock concerts, festivals, the Stonehenge celebration, raves, the Notting Hill Carnival, and for a period football): the innocuous transgression fuses across into insurrection. Outside actual insurrection, subaltern groups nearly always disguise their message. "[the peasants] worked underground the way moles do" (Balzac, cited Scott 183).

Writing about world-turned-upside-down woodcuts (showing scenes such as a bull killing a butcher), which were common in peasant societies, Scott attacks approaches like Zizek's: such inversions can be seen as "a trick of the playful imagination", a safety valve or even "a conspiracy of the dominant, actually devised... as a symbolic substitute for the real thing" (168; Zizek's version involves some combination of these three views, especially the third; NB Scott terms such arguments "functionalist"). Scott suggests such views are impossible to refute, but can be shown to be implausible. "Inversions... play an important imaginative function... [and] create an imaginative breathing space in which the normal categories of order and hierarchy are less than completely inevitable. It is not obvious why dominant groups would want to encourage anything that didn't entirely reify or naturalize the existing social distinctions they benefit from. And if it is claimed that this is a cultural concession they must make to ensure order, it sugests that such inversions are less something granted than something insisted on from below. When we manipulate any social classification imaginatively - turning it inside out and upside down - we are forcibly reminded that it is to some degree an arbitrary human creation" (168).

Further: "Far from encouraging the production and circulation of world-upside-down broadsheets, the authorities did what they could to limit their circulation: French occupying troops in Holland seized the publisher and stock of prints of a "rats against the cat" print; tsarist officials prohibited both this and another print involving an ox killing a butcher (168). Far from being the "disavowed supplement" of the system, as Zizek would put it, such prints were seen as threatening by those in authority. In contrast, their own preferred popular culture involved books of proverbs containing conformist statements such as "Hunger costs little, anger much", and "Each should behave according to his rank" (169). The inversion prints were usually disguised to prevent reprisals (169), but they had a clear subversive ("seditious") significance; they cropped up frequently in the imagery of peasant uprisings (171). Their role, therefore, is not as a disavowed support for Power, but as a disavowed form of what is elsewhere expressed as active resistance.

Even the figure of the fool is ambiguous: Rabelais was exiled for writing in carnivalesque vein; Etienne Dolot was burned at the stake for saying the same kind of thing more explicitly (179). The relationship between tolerated transgressions and effective resistances is an ambiguous and constantly contested one; it is nowhere near as simple as Zizek would have us believe.

* Contrary to Zizek's idea of "the Symbolic" whose outside is only an "Imaginary", in fact there are several symbolic systems which relate antagonistically to each other (and which are not reducible to one core point). For instance: in addition to the public discourse of law, there is a hidden discourse which records law's ineptitudes and stupidities, or rather, at least two such discourses, one in the oral culture of street gangs (Matza, Delinquency and Drift) and another, not so hidden, in the dissident press.

* cf. China Mi‚ville's discussions of fantasy literature (Mi‚ville is a fantasy author; I think, however, that his defence of the genre actually does not go far enough, especially relating to the progressive content of conservative works) serves as a counterpoint to Zizek on fantasy. "Terry Pratchett puts it very simply: 'Jailers don't like escapism'. The trouble is that, as Michael Moorcock pointed out, jailers love escapism - what they don't like is escape" (John Newsinger, "Fantasy and revolution: an interview with China Mi‚ville", in International Socialism 88, Autumn 2000, p. 159). The problem is, however, that escape requires an imaginary of escapism to make it thinkable, as Mi‚ville half-admits: "You have to know how the world isn't in order to transform it" (p. 161). Thus, Mi‚ville rejects the idea that escapism in the broad sense is reactionary; it all depends how far it goes. "Precisely because you read and write books with society in your head, the 'escape' that Tolkien and others aspire to is doomed to fail... The problem with most genre fantasy is that it's not nearly fantastic enough. It's escapist, but it can't escape" - because it brings real-world commitments along with it (159). Mi‚ville therefore denies that all fantasy is escapist (which he identifies with operating as an escape into imagination to deal with reality) - but it always has a function of escape - so it is simply a matter of how far the drive to escape is taken.

Where I think Mi‚ville does not go far enough is in relation to the radical character of the genre in general. Even for very conservative people, there is more space for manoeuvre in imaginary forms than real, or realistic, ones; the very illusion of a break with the world allows people to bypass their own and others' character-armour, because this relates mainly to "real-world" issues. In a fantasy or unreal setting, one can explore issues or break taboos which would otherwise run up against mental blocks. For instance: because he is using a fantastic setting (dystopia), Orwell is able to say things about the police and has actually gained an audience for these views (terms like Newspeak, doublethink, Room 101, Big Brother, etc. have even entered everyday language, usually in a progressive context - i.e. directed against CCTV, DNA databases, hidden cameras, MI5, New Labour's "newspeak", and so on); 1984 and a string of similar works by others have created images in the popular imagination which have bypassed the usual anathemas against criticising the police. It is unimaginable that the same could have been achieved with a realist or real-world novel against the police; it would instantly be faced with criticisms that the police are 'not really like that', that the author is 'making propaganda', etc. On a similar note: is it a coincidence that the first interracial kiss on US television was in a sci-fi series (Star Trek)? Of course, removing taboos does not necessarily mean being progressive, because it can also mean releasing te underside of the system; this is particularly noticeable in action films (Die Hard, Under Siege, Rambo, etc.). But even in the case of conservative and reactionary authors, the removal of taboos reveals subversive dimensions: cf. especially Fiedler on the "frontier novel" and the way it exposes homoerotic alignments. This is the reason I think Mi‚ville is being too one-sided about Tolkien: as well as the fact that his 'utopia' is not solely conservative, that it is ludic and relies on symbolic exchange, his work involves an inadequacy of this 'utopia', as well as a complex interrelation between "good" and "evil" which confounds the usual Manichean readings.

* The creation of alternative spaces is absolutely crucial to the possibility of building alternatives (the "revolutionary party" is only an outgrowth, or even a special case, of this). Alternatives involve the release of flows which are blocked or hidden by the dominant system; they arise initially on the periphery, and shade across into petty resistances; and it is in the construction of an alternative space that specific grievances shade across into revolutionary challenges (i.e. there is no gulf between the two). Two articles (both taken from International Viewpoint 332, June 2001) show this. Referring to the roadblocks in Argentina, Ariel Ogando, an Argentine activist, writes: "in these struggles, many in the micro-political social movements who have very precise grievances... express the idea that it is possible to resist and win, at least partially, for now". The excluded, "a population that almost does not believe in anything", but is "tired of the answer 'nothing is possible' " (p. 28), learns to struggle and to overcome its beaten-down status, "outside of what has been predicted", "on the margins" (p. 26). Similarly with the Zapatistas: "they are the other legitimacy, the indigenous legitimacy... The legitimacy of those at the bottom who dream of changing the world and deserve this change" (p. 25; Sergio Rodriguez Lascano of FZLN). Comparing the two shows clearly how the construction of a politics of alternatives - of an answer to the statement 'nothing is possible', constructed out of partial struggles on the periphery of the existing system - passes over into the revolutionary 'act' of establishing an alternative legitimacy involving a project of changing the world fundamentally. These are not separated by a gulf; they are two sides of the same coin. Fantasy, utopia, and tolerated "mild" or ritual transgression are the means of constructing the alternative imaginary which allows the development of resistance.

* Contrast also Deleuze: though Deleuze shares Zizek's view that liberalism involves disavowed fascistic libidinal investments, he also believes that these can be replaced by different, revolutionary libidinal investments committed to the release of flows, whereas in Zizek the only alternative seems to be a temporary break through an Act.

* Zizek's hostility to protest politics as "pseudo-radicalization" (TS 230) repeats Stalinist arguments against anarchists, "ultra-lefts", Trotskyists and so on - any radicalism which does not fit one's own 'really' serves capitalism. This is a circular logic: that which falls outside one's own theory is treated, not as a truth-claim, but as something to be categorised by one's own theory; as a result, one's own claims can never be challenged or rebutted on terms which one's own theory recognises.

* Demand is not reducible to psychological pathologies, as Zizek seems to think (TS 230). Though the kind of 'hysterical' demand Zizek describes here may indeed occur, Zizek seems to be reducing all demand to hysteria, which ignores the possibility that some acts may be "just a cigar" so to speak: that some demands arise directly from a need or desire for some object which arises in a manner external to the process of demanding, with demand occurring as a means to an end. I think Zizek (and Lacan) are making an enormous mistaken applying the concept of hysterical demand to protesters. When people take to the streets opposing the closure of a local school, this does not involve, as Zizek implies it does, a demand that the state insist on closing the school because 'that's not it'. They are demanding the school stay open because they have an attachment to the school itself. One can argue that this is because schooling meets a basically legitimate need for education; or one can argue that the desire for schooling is itself 'pathological', arising from the culture of growth or a trust in teachers as professional authority-figures (for instance); or one can argue some combination of the two: for instance, that schooling as a system is pathological, but this group must demand decent schooling to remain equal to, or avoid slipping further behind, others. One can even argue that they are misguided, that the replacement school is really better, etc. But in any of these cases, the goal (the school) arises externally in relation to demand; demand is a seconary element, chosen strategically due to the concentration of resources in contemporary society and an ideology of state provision. Zizek's account inappropriately psychologises issues of social and power relations.

* Lacan's mistaken analysis of France 68 almost certainly arises from the same source: Lacan and Zizek cannot accept that such a fundamental challenge can emerge from outside their own ideology, and so have to wish it away with references to hysteria. Crucial questions come up: What is the difference between a hysterical uprising from an authentic one, and how does one tell them apart in an actual case? The latter question returns to the problem of evidence and 'truth' which crops up throughout Zizek's work. My suspicion is that Zizek (I'm not sure about Lacan) is relying on circular impositional tautologies in relation to the former issue: he is establishing some kind of definitional short-circuit between authenticity and a particular structural model (in RL, for instance, the Party as necessary organising element), so by definition an insurrection which lacks a party (or a Master) is inauthentic. This argument is entirely closed and, as far as I'm concerned, unconvincing; Zizek has not established an effective way of assessing uprisings, but only a set of categories he can impose from the outside. This is just as arbitrary as a liberal who insists that authentic revolutions must use exclusively democratic discourse.

* re overidentification: Dr Strangelove is a good example of a film which shows the dangers of overidentification (as well as showing that Zizek's choice of films is as selective as his choice of quotes and evidence). The survival of the world depends on critical distance from ideology: the general who takes official ideology absolutely literally actually goes to the point of starting a nuclear war.

* Drift: If capitalism operates mainly as an overcoding/axiomatising and therefore as a limit, there is no reason why partial processes of drift, metonymic slippage, and resignification necessarily remain within it. A conformist orientation (eg. to a variety of "identity politics") can in principle drift away from the core discourse even to the extent of rejecting capitalism as a limit and thereby coming into conflict with it (in practice, for instance, the Black Panthers).

* Zizek's denouncement of MASH is purely definitional. What Zizek is missing here relates, as so often, to the question of relations between different groups. By showing that militarism depends on critical distance from its soldiers, i.e. that is does not create the organic unity pro-war films portray (eg. The Green Berets), films such as MASH are anti-war (cf. also films such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Les Carabiniers which take this approach much further in an anti-war direction). Even if soldiers know already that war is only sustainable via escapist and humanist cynicism, the existence of war depends on far more than soldiers: it also requires a pro-war support base in the general population; if this is lacking, one gets a Vietnam effect which harms efforts at recruitment and threatens the political basis for war. This second group are often naive about the nature of war, and their libidinal investment in it may well depend on a glorification which portrays war as something fulfilling and heroic - in Zizekian terminology, as an Act or Event. Films which show war as "alienated", requiring a cynical distance, are therefore potentially highly subversive of the emotional basis for pro-war attitudes.

* Zizek's problem seems to be that films like MASH humanise people who engage in inhuman acts. However, the response to this paradox should not be to deny people's humanity; it should be to show how this humanity is alienated. Regarding the old structuralist-"Marxist" claim (originally Althusserian, which Zizek endorses) that humanism is itself ideologically bourgeois: bourgeois ideology tends to inhumanise even the most 'human' acts (eg. to reduce love to genetic selfishness, altruism to a learnt or innate desire to get something back, etc.), whereas leftists usually humanise even inhuman actions (NB how, after the killing of Carlo Giuliani, the bourgeois media did not really look into the causes; the anarchist paper Freedom, however, ran an editorial explaining that they thought the cop who fired the shot was merely a frightened recruit; though it is unfortunately necessary to fight such people, they are in the last instance ordinary people forced ot fooled into fighting for the wrong side).

* It is also worth noting that where soldiers engage in active resistance to war (mutiny, fragging, desertion, defection, petty and serious disobedience, sabotage), it usually emerges from precisely the sphere of humanist and escapist cynicism Zizek denounces. There is a process of drift between the two, not a barrier: someone who is prepared to make fun of a senior officer may also be prepared to act against the spirit of an order from this officer; if they do this, they may also decide it is alright to break minor orders, since the officer is a fool; minor orders shade across into major ones; eventually, the officer concerned may lose his 'symbolic efficiency', provoking an actual uprising or mutiny. Furthermore, the border between quasi-tolerated petty deviance and deviance which the military machine represses is not fixed, and is always open to movement and struggle; if a particular officer in Vietnam tried to crack down on petty escapist deviances, the result may well be a more seriously threatening action (eg. fragging or desertion), so the status of the petty resistances as "supplement" is not inherent but depends on negotiation (with a threat of generalised disobedience lurking behind each demand for petty tolerances). NB also the gulf between two kinds of "supplement" of war: the kind shown in MASH, and the kind of ideological supplement which (for instance) involved wanton violence against Vietnamese civilians in spite of official declarations against this. I would say that only the latter is really a "supplement".

* cf. also at work: workers' space of action is created by survival mechanisms, usually petty resistances such as anti-boss humour, camaraderie, and distinct ethics directed against excessive conformity (eg. against working too quickly, and against "ass licking"). In 'normal' circumstances, this serves as a "supplement": it makes the world of work liveable by supplementing mechanical conformity with an oppositional cynicism involving a distance towards one's own acts. The alternative to this "supplement", however, is breakdown: in workplaces where this tacit oppositional space does not exist, workers' 'resistance' to the production process is internalised and expresses itself in actual breakdown: stress, anxiety, vulnerability to illness and injury, neurotic symptoms, etc. This harms the workers rather than the bosses, since the workers who break down are simply sacked or otherwise removed. Resistance does not come from this breakdown (although it can be motivated by a desire to avoid it, or the threat of it): it comes from the space of oppositional cynicism. In periods of conflict, cynical jokes at the bosses' expense ("he values work so much, he never does any himself, out of respect for the rest of us") becomes serious points of disagreement ("why does the boss earn so much when he does no work?"); camaraderie passes over into solidarity in struggle (wildcat strikes in particular are organised through such informal networks); workers' ethics become a basis for collective action (eg. resistance to scabbing). This is true even of the most revolutionary versions of working-class action, as Zizek's supposed ally Lenin realised: "trade union consciousness" is not enough, but it is the basis from which socialist ideology must be built. This is equally true of any radical project (in Gramsci's terms, the overcoming of common sense requires the mobilising and elaboration of a part of it which contains an immanent critique of the rest, i.e. "good sense").

* Escapism has the same general logic as a military hospital: it heals the people capitalism has damaged so as to put them back in the fray. (Another example is humanitarian aid: it is now a "supplement" to military interventions, used to allow them to continue). However, the situation would be worse without it: one would not, as Zizek seems to think, lose the fray (or the intervention); one would simply sharpen its edge and make it even more horrific. This is not a progressive logic but some kind of naive catastrophism.


Zizek's concept of the Real is derived from Lacan's. Like several of his most important concepts, it is a structural category, apparently defined by its relations to the symbolic, the imaginary, the subject, etc. Also like other such concepts, Zizek gives it a number of names. I suspect the following basically mean the same: Real, Thing, void, impossible, trauma, stain, gap, alien, negative, abyss, absolute negativity, lack, antagonism, sexual difference, class struggle (see MARX), the political, the obscene - plus combinations of these (the Real Thing, the impossible void, the abyss of negativity, the alien Thing, the void of the Real, etc.). The concept of jouissance/enjoyment is also related to these quite closely; so is "drive" (especially "Death Drive"), and "extimate kernel" and related terms, and "neighbour" (the Real in others).

There is, however, a certain confusion even in this structural model: the concept "Real" is used to refer to the unity prior to symbolisation, to what is repressed by symbolisation, and also to the signifier or fantasy which covers or represents this repressed element. Hence, capitalism is a "real" because the signifier "capitalism" signifies something repressed in Laclau's work; fundamentalist violence is "real" because it exists in the liberal world system despite this system being unable to assume it; etc. These uses of the term clearly involve different structural positions or conceptual uses, despite being closely linked; and this can lead to some confusion (Laclau objects to the term "capitalism is the real" because capitalism is a symbolic system; further, the phrase "capitalism is the Real" could lend itself to support for capitalism on the same grounds that "science is a Real" does - see below; except that Zizek seems to see capitalism as a symbolic element carrying or covering the Real in Laclau's theory when he says "capitalism is the real", i.e. he uses the concept in a different sense). Like other structural concepts, the basic structure ("matrix" in Zizek-speak) remains forever unchanged, but its contents can move constantly (i.e. are subject to metonymical slippage), so specific elements can become identified with the Real at a particular time without being forever Real. (This leaves the problem, which Zizek never addresses, of why SOMETHING always fills the space of the Real).

On the Real as structural category, Zizek's most explicit remark is in his interview with Radical Philosophy: no element is real per se, but at the same time one should not say that everything is cultural, because that would be idealist and therefore remains within liberal democracy (CrS 41.2; cf. MATERIALISM - in some contexts Zizek sees belief in the Real as necessary to be a materialist). In other words: one has to say that the Real exists out of belief (faith?) in the existence of the deep structure, even though the word has no definite reference-point.

Since the Real by definition resists symbolisation, it is not surprising that Zizek does not give a clear account of what it is (NB this does not solve the problem that if it cannot be signified, it cannot be signified any more by inconsistent or undefined language than by a more careful concept). Here are a few of the ways Zizek defines it:

* It occurs in, or is, pure thought. The Thing-in Itself is a thing of pure thought (TS 68). The Real is not a substance; it is a "pure semblance" (PF 199).

* It is a kind of primordial chaos prior to symbolisation (TS 55), consisting of "proto-speech" such as body language and other non-verbal communication (TS 54, 57). It is a "constitutive nonsense" (PF 218; cf. also SOI 75).

* The Real is something we can neither remain within nor leave (PF 165).

* Jouissance is "the non-historical kernel of the process of historicization" (PF 49).

* The Real is something mathematical (PF 160).

* Class struggle, antagonism etc. is "that on account of which every direct reference to universality... is, always in a specific way 'biased', dislocated with regard to its literal meaning". It is not the point which pins down the drift of signifiers "but the very force of their constant displacement" (PF 216). It is "the objective factor of subjectivization itself", not an external referent but that which PREVENTS neutral external referents (PF 214).

* The Real is "traumatic social antagonisms, power relations, and so on" (PF 156). It includes any remembered traumatic experience, even if it is hallucinated or imagined, provided it disrupts reality (DSST 197).

* There is a prior universality - the pre-symbolic Real Thing - but we can never return to it, even when we fail to symbolise (CHU 257).

* The Real is outside society, but not pre-social or a social effect; it is what is excluded by a "negative founding gesture" (CHU 311).

* The "real kernel" is something extra-historical, which always returns (SOI 50).

* Psychoanalysis, Zizek states, is "Jewish", and so it believes in a lack or trauma which is beyond redemption (FA 98).

* It is a deeper level beneath the others (imaginary, symbolic): beneath the multitude of masks and appearances, there is a raw, substanceless, ghostlike and excremental Real (PF 208).

* The real is the 'something' which exists prior to symbolisation, "a certain gap or void... which 'is' the subject itself" (TS 288-9).

* What is repressed/foreclosed to found language is the Thing or lamella, i.e. irrepressible life (CHU 327).

* The Real can never be encountered (TS 33).

* Once a dark spot in the Beyond is suspended (i.e. fundamental fantasy), we lose our 'sense of reality' and the world becomes a "depthless surface" (PF 163).


The Lacanian concept of the Real may or may not be related to empirical conceptions of an external real, depending on which period of Lacan's writings is the interpretive focus. There is little evidence that Zizek sees the Real as having anything to do with this kind of 'empiricist deviation'; however, he sometimes identifies the Real with particular empirical objects (which is not incompatible with my reading of the Real as a structural category, since these may just happen to fill this place). As on many issues, however, Zizek is a little inconsistent on this subject. A few examples where Zizek identifies the Real with something empirical:

* The exterior, 'natural' Real is an inert, continuous totality, but is perceived only by the disruptions in it caused by imagination (TS 33).

* Zizek makes one reference to what he terms a Deleuzian concept of an "external Real" (CHU 213).

* The genetic code is a Real (DSST 199)

* Prehuman nature is the Real (FA 82)

* Bytes, "the digital series", and computer hardware are the Real behind postmodern cyberspace (PF 132; cf. 163).

* Zizek claims Lacan thinks "modern science touches the Real" in a way that is totally absent from premodern discourses (DSST 219). Zizek celebrates the blind progress of science and its disregard for ethics (in cases such as genetic manipulation and vivisection), against the attempts to "reinscribe this inexorable drive-progress" within confines set by human goals (PF 37). The two can never be reconciled, and attempts to reconcile them are a pure - possibly fascist - fantasy (PF 38). "Any limitation of this kind is utterly foreign to the inherent logic of science: science belongs to the Real and, as a mode of the Real of jouissance, it is indifferent to the modalities of its symbolization, to the way it will affect social life" (PF 38). Because science is a Real which remains the same in every possible universe, accusations of bias (cultural, gender, anti-nature, etc.) are not really about science itself, i.e., science as drive; science is non-historical and indifferent to historical horizons (PF 38). Zizek pursues an irrationalist defence of scientific knowledge: "Precisely in so far as science 'doesn't think', it knows, ignoring the dimension of truth" (PF 38). Zizek therefore celebrates science as having a " 'liberating' dimension" through a "suspension of ontological Truth in [its] unfettered functioning", a dimension which traverses the fantasy of metaphysical closure (PF 38). For Zizek, science "does relate to the (mathematical) Real beneath the symbolic universe" (PF 160).

Zizek's usual use, however, identifies the Real as a gap or void, or as some unspeakable part of oneself or of others which cannot be 'assumed'. (This is quite compatible with, for instance, the idea of incomprehensible bytes as the Real of computers, and a praise of science based on its inhuman 'drive').


Zizek believes passionately in a horrifying/fascinating dimension in others which cannot be reconciled and is not expressible in language, and he identifies this dimension with the Real. This is the other we are supposed to 'hate out of love', which makes antagonism (sexual difference, class struggle, etc.) necessary, and which Zizek attacks multicultural liberalism for denying.

A few examples of Zizek saying this kind of thing:

* Against Habermas, Zizek states that there is a basic level at which the Other is an object/Thing, prior to symbolic communication (PF 10).

* The Real, identified in this passage with an 'object' (a beautiful woman), is always horrific; reality (=the Symbolic) is constructed by adding a "minimum of idealisation" to this Real. Fantasy sustains, and therefore is on the side of, reality (PF 66; this is probably why Zizek is so sectarian about it - see RESISTANCE). Deprived of fantasy, reality becomes an " 'irreal', nightmarish universe with no ontological foundation" (PF 66). This universe beyond the present reality is not pure fantasy; it is the Real minus fantasy, and it leaves us as "desubjectivized living dead", deprived of material substance (PF 66-7). To remain sublime, the Other has to be kept at a "proper distance" and be kept from becoming a "true neighbour"; if the latter happens, one sees directly the "repellent crawl of Life" which the Other really is in "the Real of her presence" (PF 67). A balancing of closeness with distance is therefore constitutive of desire (PF 67); this is also true of friendship, which rests on NOT revealing everything (PF 69).

* One CAN actually encounter the Other behind language, via some "tiny detail... which signals the intensity of the Real" (PF 49). (This is what Zizek sees happening in racism).

The Real makes a final unity impossible. The Political and class struggle (i.e. the Real) are inscribed into the foundations of society, which therefore doesn't exist (RL 16).


The Symbolic is founded on the Real, according to Zizek:

* Form is always repressed content. Form , including the symbolic form, can only emerge via the "repression of some traumatic kernel of 'content' " which such a form can never express (PF 227).

* "the series of objects in reality is structured around (or, rather, involves) a void; if this void becomes visible 'as such', reality disintegrates" (DSST 149).

* Because just about everything (desire, the subject, etc.) is founded on a "constitutive lack", symbolisation requires misrecognising a void as a positive entity, to ward off the Thing as an "absolute void" and "lethal abyss" (PF 81).

* Beneath phenomena, there is nothing to conceal; nevertheless, this void is covered by an appearance (TS 198).

* Symbolisation makes the Real survivable. Experiences such as torture are survivable because of the desire to bear witness, i.e. to reinscribe the trauma symbolically (PF 215-16).

The Real is both the barrier to symbolisation and what is barred by it. It is inherent to the symbolic, not a Beyond (PF 217). It is NOT an external entity resisting symbolisation, but rather, the Real is absolutely internal to the Symbolic (CHU ?????). Belief in a sacred or spiritual Beyond is a fetish, but there is a beyond, or rather, a beneath: "the dimension of drive attained when one 'traverses the fundamental fantasy' " (PF 124).

We cannot protect ourselves against the threat of the Real by defences because it is 'ex-timate', i.e. its locus is intimate/inside (PF 240). To maintain a minimum of consistency, the subject needs an "ex-timate" (external and intimate) "little piece of the Real" which is contingent but also stands for one's whole being - a presupposition which is posited and resultantly adopted (PF 205). This kernel resists symbolisation, but it is a retroactive product of the process of symbolisation (PF 206). Enjoyment results from an "impossible command" from the superego, which originates in the pre-symbolic Real/Thing (FA 131-2). "Desire emerges when drive gets caught in the cobweb of Law/prohibition"; it involves misperceiving the constitutive void as a loss (PF 32).

FANTASY: Fantasy emerges from the need to cover up the Real; it is a way to cover (or gentrify) the Real/Thing. For instance, plane safety routines gentrify the risk of a crash. However, this gentrification also produces a worsened version of what it represses. In the case of aeroplanes, the threat of a crash is worsened by fears of sea monsters such as giant squids (PF 6-7); in the case of power, the conservative refusal to discuss its origins produces a horrific version of these origins (PF 40).

The Real is internal (or rather extimate), but ideology (=fantasy) often projects it into external figures in a desperate attempt to create social fullness (PF 217). Ideology is a "surface structure whose function is to conceal the underlying... structure" (PF 82), i.e. the Real. The fixation of a phantasmic 'scene' of a beloved object wrenches this object from its context, disrupts the balanced flow of things and constitutes the "violent cut of anamorphosis" which splits reality (=the Symbolic) from the Real (PF 91). Presences in fantasy are "positivizations of a void"; "the elementary procedure of the critique of ideology" is therefore uncovering the fact that ideology's object is not an object but rather, fills the gap of a "constitutive impossibility" (PF 76). The appearance of the Real in the symbolic is the synthome: a signifying formulation penetrated with enjoyment (SOI 75).

Zizek's main example of this is anti-Semitism. For Zizek, anti-Semitism is actually about a structural position, the conceptual Jew (something like a mythical figure in Barthes), onto whom the internal antagonism is projected. For Zizek, therefore, it is an anti-Semitic "trap" to assume that anti-Semitism is directed against real Jews (PF 76-7); he is hostile to arguments of the "Jews aren't really like that" type. Because the series of objects is structured around a void which must be kept invisible, or else reality disintegrates, people need misperception and prejudice, in which one of the series of objects is identified with this void: for instance, perceiving the Jew as more than merely one more group, as the secret Master (DSST 149). Through this device of extenalisation, one's own gaze is read into 'objective reality' which is therefore rendered coherent (DSST 150).

The repressed (Real) returns in a catch-all category added to a series (CHU 237-8). When antagonism is repressed, it returns in the Real of experience: in the case of racism, "the... foreclosed political... returns in the Real" (PF 163; this is a reproduction in a different context of Lacanian theory on psychosis, in which the pinning-down of the constitutive void in the name-of-the-father is foreclosed so that this void returns in the real, via hallucinations etc.).

Also, every political power is based on a Real of excessive violence, even though every excessive violence also contains a symbolic politics (CHU 234).

ROLE OF THE REAL IN ANALYSING THE WORLD: In Zizek's account, the deep structure in which the Real is located is treated as if it is generative and fundamental in relation to everything else which exists; in this way, other phenomena can be reduced to expressions of, stand-ins for or attempts to avoid the Real. This has an insidious effect on Zizek's arguments against opponents (see OTHERS). It also allows him to analyse social phenomena as outgrowths of the deep structure (again, with essentialist and impositional overtones): for instance, fear is always fear of the void behind an object (TS 363). Such conceptualisations are highly problematic, but give Zizk a certain insulation against discourses about external enemies (cf. his article on Sept.11). Disasters have the effect they have because (and presumably, therefore, only when) the social imaginary is already expecting them (SOI 69-70), because they involve the Real/Thing emerging.

For Zizek, it is possible to use one's knowledge of the deep structure for valid purposes. He establishes an equivalence between God, the Party and the Analyst. All three, he claims, stand for the foreign kernel of the self, in its guise of the 'subject supposed to know' - a kernel whcih is necessary for the subject to actualise itself (RL 5).

The traumatic kernel also according to Zizek opens up a space for freedom via the possibility of failed endeavours to symbolise it (DSST 58). It is also the foundation on which Zizek builds his ethical and political theory: see ACT. However, all of this relies on the validity of Zizek's ontological/metaphysical model, including the concept of the Real, the model of the deep structure and its primacy, and also the exclusivity of Zizek's concepts. This aspect of Zizek's theory is absolutely foundational in relation to the rest, with only occasional attempts to prove his account in any other way. For instance, Zizek's sectarianism towards petty resistance rests entirely on his reduction of such resistance to the gentrifying attempts to fantasy; his concept of the Act is only thinkable if one accepts the idea of a Real which can return ex nihilo; etc.

Sexual difference is "the name... of something that resists every attempt ay its symbolisation", and this resistance opens up contestation of it (CHU 110-11). Zizek has a great deal of faith (a cynic might suggest, a need to believe) in a part of the psychological economy which "forever resists its symbolic rewriting" (FA 109). This may explain Zizek's hostility to persuasion: if one's essence cannot be symbolised, this effectively rules out achieving greater happiness through articulation and textual rewriting. His belief in the Real also explains his hostility to causal arguments: Zizek thinks we invent causes because they are easier to endure than the abyssal act (DSST 266).


Zizek identifies the subject with the Real. Against the cognitivist and Buddhist criticism of the Self/subject as empirically non-existent, Zizek defines the subject as precisely this non-existence - as a "void in the incessant vortex/whirlpool of elusive mental events" which is "nothing in itself, has no substantive positive identity" but "serves as the unrepresentable point of reference", as a "craving/grasping" for a Self (DSST 206-7). "the faces we wear are inherently a deceptive lure... the subject's 'true face' beneath the mask is nothing but shapeless, skinned, raw red flesh" (DSST 186). The core of our being is identical with the Alien Thing (TS 303). The subject/spirit is only possible due to a leftover which resists it - "the subject... exists only through its own radical impossibility" (FA 28-9). It requires a subjective content which is paradoxically inaccessible to the subject (PF 121). Referring to similar ideas he claims to have drawn from Hegel, Schelling and Descartes as well as Lacan, Zizek tells us that the subject is radical madness and the night-of-the-world (PF 196-7).

As a result of this image of the subject, Zizek counterposes the subject to its representation in the symbolic system (its "face"). For Zizek, there is an insurmountable gap between the subject (who is a void) and the subject's symbolic position (PF 40). The "subject and face are to be opposed" - the role of the face (official roles etc.) is to gentrify the abyssal Thing, and one encounters the Other only via its defacement (DSST 187). For Zizek, people are subhumanised in essence by being outside the symbolic system, as is shown in the 'limit-experience' of extreme situations (TS 157, 160-1). Without the big Other, we are left not with natural life, but with "the unbearable wasteland" (DSST 254). The subject is a gap in a structure; (CHU 119); "the 'subject' is nothing but the failure of symbolization, of its own symbolic representation" (CHU 120). (This implies that a linguistic system pre-exists a subject who is then constituted by it as a gap; it is unclear how this fits with the claim that "the big Other does not exist").

There is therefore something "in the subject more than the subject itself", an object, i.e. what the self thinks the Other sees in the self - this object is "the lost object that the subject 'is' " (PF 9-10) - though Zizek always insists that this object is a lamella, a repulsive crawl of life, rather than an agalma, a secret treasure. For Zizek, this dark side must exist in everyone: even God must have a "dark side", in God more than God (DSST 56-7). (I assume "in the subject more than the subject" means "in the subject more than the symbolic position").

Zizek also claims that people actually want the Nothingness which they really are (though he also claims that they fear it: see above; Zizek often confuses fear with desire). Everything people want is a stand-in for Nothingness; people actually want Nothingness, and this want for Nothingness is always operative in the will (TS 107-8).

This model of the subject accounts for some of Zizek's other positions. He dislikes 'postmodernism' because he thinks it rejects the idea of a beyond/beneath (TS 196). He asserts that Stalinism and the Holocaust are NOT the Void/Evil behind Good, Truth, etc., but rather, are attempts to avoid confronting it (TS 161). And he objects to the 'postmodernist' injunction to "be yourself" because the Self "behind the mask is ultimately nothing, a horrifying void"; for Zizek, therefore, one can only be oneself by accepting alienation in the socio-symbolic system (TS 373).

Crucially in relation to the Act: the Real is inside a subject's being, but it cannot be subjectivised; a subject can only assume it via symbolic destitution and desubjectivisation, which reveals the Real in the fundamental fantasy. Otherwise, the Real is only accessible as " 'acephalous', non-subjectivized knowledge" (PF 36).


The Real is a structural category, and a confused one at that; different positive elements can be identified with each of its meanings. Here are a few examples of expressions of the Real according to Zizek (cf. also ACT):

* The socially-excluded are the Real (CHU 323);

* Capital is the Real (TS 276); conscience is also Real, and so is identified with Capital (TS 280 - NB Zizek's guilt-by-association trick: for Zizek, structural similarity means two things are the same);

* The vanishing big Other (which Zizek sees as vanishing due to capitalism's encouragement of reflexivity) returns in the Real via the spread of paranoiac fantasies and via a belief in a real imbalance in the universe (TS 362-3). Zizek speaks of people "taking refuge" in antagonism (TS 363) and "desperate attempts" to reaffirm the existence of the big Other via conspiracy theorising (TS 364). cf. also on racism as a return in the real; also in inner-city 'violence', etc.

Zizek's social Real seems to have several contradictory meanings: the disavowed transgression and related fantasies which Zizek sees as the point in the system where the Real is encoded (eg. Oliver North); the socially-excluded groups who Zizek terms the "part of no part", i.e. who are part of the society capitalism generates but who capitalism cannot incorporate and assume (illegal immigrants, the unemployed, etc.); the single worst-off group or nodal issue which Zizek thinks contains the 'truth' of an entire situation (Sarajevo for the west, Kosova for Serbs, etc.), or others who take the stance "we are all x group" (Zizek's "proletariat"); social logics which occur or appear as inexorable, inhuman drives, structuring the rest of society and only appearing as part of the series of social practices, being in fact above history - logics which can be coded in Zizek with a plus or minus sign (science, capital); a drive from completely beyond the social system which generates an Act (eg. in the Letourneau case, the drive of love).


* Laclau says Zizek "knows as well as I do what the Lacanian Real is; so he should be aware that capitalism cannot be the Lacanian Real". The Lacanian Real cannot be symbolised and is visible only via its disruptive effects, whereas capitalism is a set of institutions, practices, etc. and so needs to be symbolic. Capitalism can cause Real effects over other areas, but this is not (for Laclau, whose use of concepts is stricter than Zizek's) the same as being the Real. Also, as a totality, Laclau argues, capitalism must itself be have holes and be dislocated BY the Real, which rules out its BEING the Real; further, if it has holes it can be rearticulated and must be a result of articulation, not a general matrix or framework (CHU 291).

* Sartre has a better idea than Zizek about where the effects Zizek calls "Real" come from (eg. distortion and defeat of projects, social conflict, frustrated effort, etc.). They come from the effects on activity of its passing through matter; or from social relations which turn people against each other. Manicheanism - the horrifying Thing in others, or in oneself - is a result of serial relations where the self exists within an alterity in which people are pitted against each other. Different social relations produce different self-other relations also. (cf. both Critique of Dialectical Reason and Prisoner of Altona).

* Zizek's account is to all intents and purposes self-contradictory: he wants to make out that the subject both exists and is impossible, and also to say that it is founded on a content which is subjective but is inaccessible to the subject. In both cases Zizek uses the term "paradox" (or in the latter case "paradoxically") as a let-out (PF (FA 28, PF 121; cf. also OTHERS: Zizek regularly makes claims such as "the truth occurs as a fiction" and "someone's real intent has nothing to do with what they intend"). This is a misuse of the term. A "paradox" is a fact inexplicable by existing theories; it is usually used in science as the basis for rethinking paradigms. What we are dealing with in Zizek's case is a straightforward self-contradictory claim. (There is no basis for wriggling out here in appeals to facts, because Zizek provides none; nor are his claims even factual in form). Further, Zizek does not want theoretical revisions to deal with the 'paradox'; he simply wants his readers to accept blatantly self-contradictory claims. He is using words to cover up the illogicality of his own theory.

Zizek's claims sound clever and "paradoxical", but they are actually untenable. Take for instance his claim, "the subject... exists only through its own radical impossibility" (FA 28). Can something exist through its own impossibility? Zizek's point seems to be that the striving for a stable self sustains activity even though this stability has not been achieved. Nevertheless, there must already be some kind of stable self for the striving to occur. To take a different example: suppose a group of scientists were trying to make a time machine. Suppose, however, that this were totally impossible due to the laws of physics; this impossibility sustained the activity of the scientists in repeatedly trying and failing to make the machine (and maybe even a few Acts: apparently sublime and exciting breakthroughs which, however, ultimately fail). Could one say in such a case that "it is paradoxically the case that the time machine exists only through its radical impossibility"? The time machine in such a case does not exist, so such a statement would be patently false. Impossibility can sustain a striving for a time machine or a stable subject - but it cannot make it exist; indeed, precisely the opposite (which is what, after all, impossibility means).

* An unachievable impossibility is an illusion and so cannot exist. In other cases this would not prevent people "craving/grasping" for it (DSST 207); but in order for someone to be craving and grasping for Self, there must be a Self who is doing the craving and grasping.

* Similarly, a lack or void cannot have active effects. The lack of a chair can have an effect on actions (eg. making someone sit on the floor, stand up, or go looking for a chair); however, this effect only occurs because it involves a lack of a positive element. In this sense, the activities are distinguished as effects by being different from the actions which would occur in the case of a chair being present. Asserting that these acts result from the lack of a chair requires knowledge (and implicitly, therefore, the possibility - and, in other cases, actualisation) of the presence of a chair. Further, the actions only occur because of a POSITIVE pre-alienated fallback position not itself constituted by the lack of a chair, i.e. either the presence of a chair (in the case of looking for one) or non-chair modes of action (standing, etc.). In Zizek's version, the object which we are supposedly seeking is primordially lacking. So he wants to claim that we are always looking for a chair, so to speak, even though there is no prior position of having one; and also that an observer can deduce that we are looking for a chair even though there are no cases of anyone having one to compare this action to!

* The active void in Zizek's account may well be a myth in Barthes's sense: it is an abstract concept of essence (a "voidness" - a positive, absolute negativity) deriving from the fetishisation of language, in which the historical basis for the emergence of the concept of "void" is ignored. It is interesting in this respect how often Zizek identifies the Real, Thing etc. with various monsters and monstrous people in sci-fi and horror films (the alien in Alien, Norman Bates in Psycho, etc.). In this case, one is clearly dealing with a Barthesian myth, i.e. a kind of "evil-ness" expressed in an algebraic figure (though whether of the kind Barthes approves or disapproves of is less clear). Some of the other characteristics of this kind of Thing are technical, and have none of the significance Zizek gives them: the camera-angles from the viewpoint of the Thing are necessary to give spectacular views of victims, as well as to conceal the Thing's identity; and the mysterious quality of the Thing is often necessary to narratives in which its defeat is involved. 'Thingness' is a mythical quality resulting from the as-yet-unclassified; in films like Alien, the film involves encoding and understanding the thing (cf. also the use ofthe term "thing" as a substitute for a positive word which one forgets, as in "thingy"; or to refer to objects one lacks the data to identify, eg. "there is something in the dark corner"; or to refer to objects at a high level of abstraction: "my things"). A Thing is not a gap in reality itself, but a temporary epistemological gap in a particular set of categories.

The Real, furthermore, has a frequently mystificatory role: it is part of what Zizek terms fantasy. For instance, as Fiedler shows, the sphere of necessary antagonism in frontier novels and, by implication, westerns and action films (the wild area beyond the frontier) exists to allow fantasies of a deeper, reconstituted unity between oppressors and oppressed to coexist with conservative beliefs.

* If the Real is a prior condition destroyed by an alienation, it is in principle achievable. If it is the product of a gesture of exclusion, it must be a positive something, which is in principle recoverable. In either case, Zizek's account is undermined by occasions where the irrepressible life force breaks through the Oedipal cage: in madness, in revolution and insurrection, in play, in utopianism, etc. (cf. Vaneigem, Deleuze). Indeed, there is a major problem that Zizek refuses to leave any space for "decoded flows" outside the Oedipal cage, which he wrongly assumes is universal.

* In order to carry out a primary exclusion, or to identify a traumatic kernel of jouissance in one's parents, one would have to already have conceptual, linguistic and/or embodied schemas to interpret it (or, to put it another way: a stone would not recognise the same traumatic kernel if exposd to the same relations). This is a particular problem for Zizek's claim that the traumatic kernel opens a space for freedom (DSST 58-9) and for symbolisation. This is clear from the analogy he uses (a reference by Laplanche to the digestive system, which can hardly be seen as a space of freedom within determinism). One would already have to have a subjectivity with intentionality and interpretive (symbolic) abilities to carry out the cognitive gestures Zizek sees as constituting subjectivity.

* Similarly, Zizek's account of the emergence of form from the repression of content (PF 227) is untenable, since there would have to be a previous situation of contents-without-forms.

* If there is a void in people's lives, this is not a constitutive void; it is a result of capitalist and similar processes of alienation. (The gap is due to the Gap).

* Belief in the void relies on other metaphysical beliefs. For instance, the barring of the subject rests on the idea that the big Other can substitute for any activity (PF 122), a problematic claim. Similarly, the subject is a void in the symbolic in Zizek only because the symbolic exists prior to the subject - a problematic claim (no subjects means nobody to symbolise).

* On one occasion, Zizek gives two examples of ideology covering the gap of constitutive impossibility, both deeply flawed (PF 76). The claim that Zizek's point is demonstrated by the use of an incorrect concept in natural science fills the void of the lack of a correct one is simply tautological - plus, one can only state it from the standpoint of knowing the correct concept; the example of anti-Semitism is flawed because, although this presumably covers something, what it covers need not be a Zizekian void (it could be class relations, etc.).

* The crucial point about anti-Semitism is: although it is not a result of empirical evidence about actual Jews, anti-Semitists believe that it is about actual Jews - otherwise their entire mode of thought and action is objectless. Even if "the Jew" is only filling a structural space, this is no reason to assume it to be impossible that the empirical gap between this space and actual Jews could be used to undermine this particular articulation of the space with a real group. It is, after all, actual Jews who anti-Semitists kill, beat up, jail or exclude - not only a mythical figure. (Perhaps the problem is that Zizek thinks the element of horrific inhumanity anti-Semitists see in Jews is an aspect of Jews, because it is an aspect of everyone?).

* Even if the Real exists, how does one tell a forever-failed articulation resulting from a Real from purely contingent failures owing to temporary limits in articulation (such as when one finds a new species of animal which does not yet have a name)? If there is no way to know except tentatively, i.e. by the failure of existing symbolisations, then we come up against the Alistair McIntyre problem: we never know our inability to solve a problem isn't merely a temporary failure to solve it, because we don't know if a solution will crop up tomorrow. (Actually, Zizek seems hostile to such practical solutions BECAUSE they eliminate the element of the Real, eg. in the case of Viagra - see CONSERVATISM). Zizek tends to emphasise experiences and events which are difficult to express in words (torture, gulags, revolutions, "sublime" aesthetic experiences, orgasms, etc.) - though this hardly proves that they are necessarily inexpressible. Zizek puts us at extreme risk of fatalism: of missing out on potential solutions by mistakenly asserting that a particular problem is insoluble.

* Zizek's theory rests on a contradiction between theory and practice: if the Real (void, class struggle, antagonism, sexual difference, etc.) "resists every attempt at its symbolisation" (CHU 110-11), it cannot therefore be named. However, Zizek's theory rests on capturing it within a structural schema, under labels such as "real", "void", etc. If it resists symbolisation, it cannot by definition be expressed in such terms; if such terms can express it, it is symbolisable. Zizek is assuming the existence of a privileged second layer of knowledge possessed by people with the correct psychoanalytic theory, which somehow breaks the rules of the deep structure it posits. The Real operates as a kind of mana-word, invalidly allowing the combination of the claim that no conceptual system can be complete and final with claims to have a complete, final conceptual system.

* If attempts to fill the void are necessary as well as impossible, what is to be achieved by pointing out their impossibility?

* It is hard to see how Zizek's account of enjoyment fits people's experience of it. I don't see a great deal of evidence for the idea that most people see enjoyment as a command, or that this command to enjoy is identified with the law. Indeed, Baudrillard (in The Consumer Society) specifically contrasts the kind of enjoyment-in-alterity involved in status-based displays of pleasure or consumption with actual subjective enjoyment.

* Amid Zizek's accounts of the Real, reality as viewed in more conventional accounts disappears: we have the invented gentrification involved in crash procedures, and the equally invented threat of sea squids (PF 6-7), but where is the actual risk of a crash?

* Zizek admits psychosis manages to avoid the Thing by actually including the objet petit a in reality (PF 81-2). This means the Thing/Real cannot be necessary or primordial; it is specific to particular historically-constructed character-types. Also, it means that Zizek's ethics applies only to neurotics; it cannot have a universal scope. (In general Zizek tends to evade discussion of psychosis, which functions in his own theory in a way he wound probably label as "symptomatic" in anyone else's: he does not take it seriously, mentions it only in passing, etc.).

* Zizek's analysis of the Real is essentialist, even though the essence it posits is negative. Zizek seems to think he can wriggle out of critiques of other essentialisms, which on the whole he endorses (eg. the impossibility of final suture, etc.), by positing a kind of positive negativity as an essence. This is mistaken, not only because the negativity (Real) functions in his theory as if it were a positive element like any other essence, but also because the positivity of essences is not necessarily central to critiques of essentialism. Zizek's essentialism remains vulnerable to criticisms based on metonymic slippage, differance, historical constitution of discourse, etc.

* Zizek's Real appears to be a non-falsifiable and non-verifiable concept, because any attempt to either falsify or verify it would be discredited as a "symbolisation" which it necessarily "resists". How therefore can one accept it as a true claim? There is no way of knowing if it is true or false. To confuse matters further, it does not even have a positive identity; specific carriers of the Real can shift elsewhere, without the primordial antagonism disappearing according to Zizek. But how does one know if it has shifted elsewhere, rather than being solved? The whole account is metaphysical and can only be accepted if taken on faith.


Zizek can't really make up his mind whether he is for Stalinism or not. On balance, however, the nostalgia for 'good old' Stalinist practices and his view that Stalinism involved some kind of authentic Act, however distorted, seems to push him towards supporting it (especially relative to his bogeyman, liberal capitalism). This is not an orthodox allegiance but, as usual in Zizek's thought, rests on the creative application of Lacanian categories (the Party 'went through the fantasy' by committing suicide in the purges; the Party elite was a "vanishing mediator" because it was not only killed but discredited; etc.). Nevertheless, the allegiance emerges as a clear pattern, differentiating Zizek from neo-Marxism and non-Stalinist Marxisms (libertarian, Trotskyist, etc.) as well as post-Marxism.

DEGENERATION (see also MARX): Zizek does not take this issue at all seriously. For Zizek, the thesis of betrayal is a kind of self-disproving myth because of the way one supposedly has to trace it back to Stalin, Lenin, ultimately Marx. In this way, which mistakes the actual structure of arguments on this subject (some commentators blame Lenin, others Marx, others Stalin; there is no linear process of deduction backwards between them, but a set of different theories of breaks - which, incidentally, can be traced even further back, into critiques of "instrumental reason" and primitivist polemics against "civilisation"), Zizek evades the empirical question of whether (eg.) Stalin actually pursued a project related to (eg.) Marx's. Zizek further builds barricades around the possibility of such examination with various claims about (eg.) the necessity of betrayal, the retrospective construction of authenticity, etc. Despite this evasion, Zizek nevertheless on one occasion comes down clearly against Trotskyite, left-communist and related critiques of Stalinism by asserting that the transition from Leninism to Stalinism was necessary (SOI 211).

TOTALITARIAN OR WOT?: Zizek tries to sneak out of committing himself to a "totalitarian" or "Stalinist" position (in a series of manoeuvres which contradict his imperative to identify with anathematising labels). He doesn't like the label "totalitarian" - partly for valid reasons, eg. that it conflates Stalinism with fascism and downplays the differences between them, and that it is an "ideological antioxidant" - Zizek's term for a boo-word or anathema used to silence debate and place limits on radicalism. Nevertheless, he seems to imply in DSST that "totalitarianism" is a liberal misnomer for something which is really a precondition or necessity for radical politics (and that there is no Third Camp possible). He is therefore taking a stance for "totalitarianism" and against liberalism within a binary he largely accepts, but while contesting the use of the word "totalitarian" (which he either rejects or puts in quote-marks).

Zizek seems unable to conceive that "totalitarianism" might be a rejected for any reason other than liberal "blackmail". To be sure, Zizek's rhetoric supporting Stalin, advocating terror and so on is a liability in attempts at political persuasion for this kind of reason. But there are also other, unrelated problems which Zizek parodies by assuming the liberal blackmail to be primary. Stalinism does NOT provide a progressive alternative to capitalism; it reproduces many of its oppressive, hierarchic, militaristic, anti-human, destructive, productivist, ecocidal and impositional logics. It is self-defeating: it negates its own goal of a free society of equals because it produces a self-reproducing bureaucracy which tends to become a new ruling class. The victory of Stalin in Russia, combined with the 'Bolshevisation' of Communist Parties, set the left back fifty years; Stalinists repeatedly betrayed, misled or abandoned progressive struggles (from the Spanish Revolution to France '68), and were a block on the development of other opposition movements. Is this likely to affect Zizek? No, because he doesn't really want a better world - indeed, he doesn't think we can have one. His radicalism is purely verbal and superficial and his basic assumptions are conservative. His sole interest in revolution relates to a purely speculative concern for the Act, which necessarily negates itself and restores the symbolic order, or else ends up in a 'worse' domain (see RADICALISM, CONSERVATISM, ACT). Stalinism therefore stands with such farcical examples as President Chavez' presidency and Bill Clinton's welfare reforms, because Zizek connects it with this destructive-resuscitatory 'dimension of the Act'.

Zizek doesn't like the term Stalinism except to refer to the period of Stalin's personal rule, preferring the term "actually existing Socialism" or "real Socialism" (DSST 93, 96). The term Stalinism isn't perfect, but Zizek's alternatives are worse. These are regime terms, passively accepting the self-definition the regimes offer and thereby sneaking us inside their horizon of meaning. Plus, Zizek is presupposing that what "actually existed" was "Socialism" in some sense. Zizek can argue this if he wishes, but he shouldn't simply assume it, let alone establish it by a simple linguistic sidestep. I would suggest that people who call Stalinist societies "actually existing socialism" are either Stalinists or anti-socialists.

Zizek denies the accusation of being totalitarian, but his basis for this is very problematic. Zizek claims that totalitarianism wants to fight unwanted desires whereas Zizek wants to destroy the vicious cycle which causes the desire to transgress (FA 134-5). This may be linked to his distinction between the totalitarian "You may!" and his own imperative to dare. However: an imperative to dare presumably takes a form such as "You may dare!" which hardly provides a basis for Zizek's distinction. In any case, this distinction, written before DSST, contradicts Zizek's statements elsewhere (eg. that totalitarianism involves Bataillean carnivalesque and permissiveness) and is problematised by the utopian horizon of both fascism and Stalinism (which would probably say they wanted to eliminate the vicious cycle causing transgression).

ZIZEK'S PRAISE OF STALINISM: Zizek makes a whole string of directly or indirectly celebratory statements about Stalinist societies, including:

* The belief that Stalinism or something similar is the only alternative to capitalism. Zizek establishes this on the flimsiest of evidence. Because of a supposed lack of engagement by the Frankfurt School with the problem of Stalinism (a questionable statement which, if true, could be explained in a hundred ways, from a repressed/disavowed pro-Stalinism to a tendency to focus on the west exclusive of other systems - there is little in Marcuse or Adorno on the 'Third World' either; to an attempt to cover the holes in a theory which ties capitalism to bureaucracy rather too inexorably), Zizek tries to accuse them of having an "underlying basic commitment" of "underlying solidarity with Western liberal democracy" hidden beneath a " 'radical' aura" (DSST 93). Actually, Marcuse launches several blistering attacks on capitalism (notably his "Essay on Liberation", his attack on Repressive Tolerance, and his various critiques of capitalist Newspeak, operationalism and so on) which clearly show that he has no such libidinal investment; if anything, his essay on Soviet Marxism suggests the reverse (a semi-disavowed investment in Stalinist approaches of one kind or another). Zizek admits some western radicals offered some support to the Stalinist regimes, but he says this was only because they wanted an "idealized Other" of Stalinism for "ideological dreams" which, in crises, they "explode against", as a basis for a "passive authentic experience" within "well-paid academic careers" (DSST 95). To buy this account, one would have to accept Zizek's inference of 'objectively' cynical motives which are alien to what the Frankfurt School themselves believed; one would also have to accept that Zizek himself is somehow motivated by nobler, more authentic motives ("well-paid academic career" or not). Nevertheless, the implication is clear: there is no possibility of formulating a third alternative to capitalism and Stalinism. One either supports Stalinism on some level, or one is actually unconsciously complicit in capitalism. Zizek has absolutely no basis for claiming this, which simply resuscitates the old Cold War dogmas which were of so much use to political elites (both eastern and western). The only 'third' position he discusses in this context is the Prague Spring, which he asserts (how can he know this?) that it would have inevitably returned to either Stalinism or capitalist social-democracy. So Zizek is pursuing an inverse blackmail: against liberals who (he claims) say "support liberal capitalism or else you are a totalitarian", he counterposes "support totalitarianism or else you are a liberal capitalist". Which is hardly an improvement, either in form or content.

* Stalinism contains a fantasy of being (in Stalin's words) "made of special stuff", excluded from everyday passions and weakness. This makes them, Zizek claims, almost undead (SOI 145). This may not seem to be praise - but it fits closely with the idea of passing beneath the processes of desire and into the realm of drive, which Zizek consistently identifies with undeath.

* Zizek also claims that Stalinism had a redeeming feature of encouraging solidarity at work. Zizek's account is based on very weak evidence: a second-hand fictional account, i.e., not even Solzhenitsyn's own work but a reading of Solzhenitsyn by Lukacs. From this, Zizek concludes that Stalinism even at its worst (in the Gulag) encouraged a sense of satisfaction in and enjoyment of work (DSST 135-6). This is flawed on many grounds. Firstly, it misreads Solzhenitsyn: in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the commandant shoots the hardest-working as well as the least hard-working prisoners. The camp hierarchy tries to prevent the development of a pride in work which could restore prisoners' sense of self. Secondly, if one compares Zizek's claims to evidence from the U.S.S.R. or other Stalinist societies, the disparity is immense. Satisfaction in work is an official ideology; in practice, workers were thoroughly dissatisfied, as is shown by the petty resistance, shoddy workmanship, alcoholism, absenteeism and so on that it present in most empirical accounts. (Here we see the consequences of Zizek's foolish assumption - see MATERIALISM - that ideological ritual is directly effective, and that pursuing an act consistent with a belief makes one believe. In this case, ideology was definitely "mere ideology" - the regime may be able to extract some work from workers, but it most definitiely was not able to generate satisfaction. Perhaps Zizek has some clever opt-out where workers were really, 'objectively' satisfied despite their subjective experiences?). Thirdly, this kind of ideological commitment to satisfaction at work is not unique to Stalinism (cf. section on work, CAPITALISM; Zizek wrongly assumes that capitalism sees work as a 'crime'). From Kraft durch Freude in Nazi Germany, through Fordism and Taylorism, to the (post)modern ideology of work as something one wants to do (Blair) and 'employees' as 'partners', 'participants' and so on, capitalist society abounds with examples of people trying to portray work as enjoyable, either to indoctrinate workers or to fool third-parties about the nature of particular kinds of work (cf. nineteenth-century defences of child labour; NB how in this context the radical, critical response of eg. Engels is precisely to demolish this ideology by showing the actual working conditions and recounting the experiences of actual workers). Why is the Stalinist case any different? Zizek does not tell us.

* Zizek claims that the Stalinist revolutions in China and Cambodia really were peasant revolutions (CHU 129) - despite the fact that the Communist Party was in both cases in the driving seat from the start ("peasant-supported revolutions" would be more appropriate).

* Zizek claims that Stalinism involves "a perverse kind of liberation" through shifting responsibility onto "the Other" (TS 340), a liberation unavailable in (allegedly hyper-reflexive) capitalism. Because reality belonged to Them, They could be blamed for problems. If this is liberating, it would also confer emancipatory status on a variety of rightist despots. ("When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and we knew exactly who 'They' were. It was 'Us versus 'Them', and it was clear who the 'Them' was. Today, we're not so sure who the 'They' are, but we know 'They're' there" - George W. Bush, 2001, cited Direct Action20, Autumn 2001, p. 26. Since he said this, Bush seems to have decontested the structural position of Them, filling it with Bin Laden and other so-called international terrorists). This may explain certain of Zizek's more conservative statements, such as that de Gaulle is a leftist and his support for militarism (see CONSERVATISM). This security provided by an elite "Them" - a new version of the nineteenth-century reactionary thesis of "working-class deference" - is probably the reason for the overlap between the labels 'communist' and 'conservative' in Russia from the 1970s to today (eg. the media often called Gorbachev's rivals "conservatives"; cf. the usage in Iran: militant fundamentalists are "conservatives" versus Khatami's "reformists").

* Zizek claims that Stalinism was authentically revolutionary for the (seemingly arbitrarily-selected) reason that its victims are not defined solely by their social status: for Zizek, genocide is fine as long as it is based on the imperative to take sides, rather than (as in fascism) on biological properties (TS 227-8). Actually, apart from being a very strange criterion, this is a problematic claim. Maoism, and occasionally Russian Stalinism too, did operate on the basis of assigning guilt by class or even national/racial origin (NB eg. the deportation of entire groups such as the Chechens for alleged collaboration), as well as actions; while fascism supplemented biological criteria with side-based ones (volksgenossen versus gemeinschaftsfremde). Both also had a definite need to invent enemies to explain shortcomings, which led them to victimise people who were 'on their side' and others who were not actively against them. In particular, doctrines such as the "unity of motive and effect" were used to victimise people, ignoring the complexity of human action (one can be on the "right" side and fail; one can also be in "drift", on neither side, without necessarily being an enemy). NB also how the insistence on taking sides is itself an oppressive bureaucratic impositional discourse. In Deleuze and Guattari's language, it is "territorialisation"; in practice, there are always "4+n" sides, not merely two ("If I can't dance to it, it's not my revolution" - Goldmann). Also, the great enemy figure of Stalinism was not some capitalist but Trotsky - i.e. the spectre of Bolshevism (and the spectre of decoded flows, of the possibility of "4+n" sides overflowing the Stalinist territorialisation, including the possibility of being socialist, pro-working-class and revolutionary without toeing the line and obeying the discipline of the One Party, the possibility of breaking the triad Uncle Joe/Mother Russia/infantile worker through flows not trapped in such an Oedipal structure. But Zizek is an Oedipalist - he thinks we need the trap, and the master).

* Zizek also claims that societies under "actually existing Socialism" were "a kind of 'liberated territory' ". Actually, he is playing games here: the "Space" was liberated but the "positive content that fills it" was mostly a "dismal failure", "terror and misery". Zizek thinks the former is more important because of the "utopian expectations" it generated - expectations without which the humanist dreams of (eg.) Havel would have been impossible (DSST 131). The dissidents did not understand that "the very space from which they themselves criticized and denounced the day-to-day terror and misery was opened and sustained by the Communist breakthrough, by its attempt to escape the logic of Capital" (DSST 131). This is deeply flawed on several levels. Firstly, it only has any validity if one assumes that capitalism is the only oppressive system, so that escape from it is always 'liberation'. This involves reading the present (partial) triumph of global capitalism in totalising the field backwards into a historical period when two oppressive systems were vying for global supremacy, i.e., when capitalism was not a sole oppressive system encompassing the whole world. Citizens of Stalinist states are no more "liberated" than someone who is rescued from a dungeon to be thrown into a jail. In a war - including a Cold War - both sides could in a sense claim to be 'resistances' to each other: one could equally portray liberal capitalism as a "resistance" to the Stalinist Evil Empire and its attempts to totalise the field (NB how Bush is portraying his threats against Afghanistan as "self-defence" and a resistance to world terrorism, while his enemies equally claim to be resisting US imperialism; NB also how all armies in World War II claimed to be "liberating" countries they entered, so that for instance Lithuania was "liberated" by the Nazis and then "liberated" back by the Russians). In any such case, the perception of liberation is merely a prior bias towards one side (in contrast to situations where one force has effectively totalised the field; in this sense, the position of Islamic rebels is a borderline case). Furthermore, Zizek is here reproducing system-conformist nonsense most often seen on the other side - Blair on Mayday 2000 said something like "these idiots only have the freedom to protest because of capitalism", as if this somehow invalidated their attempts to use it. The point this misses is that freedom is only ever won over and against the system: neither capitalism nor Stalinism will give an inch of freedom unless its rulers feel for some reason that they have to, or that they have an advantage in it (the right to protest was not delivered from above by capitalism, but was won in bitter battles by movements such as the Chartists whose methods did not vary substantially from today's anti-capitalists or eastern Europe's dissidents). Further, I would like to see Zizek try to explain to Chinese dissidents who are jailed in huge numbers, beaten, tortured, shot and exiled, that the space from which they criticise was opened up by the regime they are criticising! Stalinist regimes left very little space indeed for any kind of criticism - rather, they tried to close down such space through repression, and dissidents only managed to maintain a critical space by various resistances exploiting spaces outside the regime's control.

On the basis of seeing Stalinism as 'liberated' merely because it was not capitalist, Zizek wants "to confront the radical ambiguity of Stalinist ideology which, even at its most 'totalitarian', still exudes an emancipatory potential" (DSST 131). The reason Zizek can reach such conclusions is that he treats Stalinism in a purely culturalist way (presumably this also applies to his concept of "space", which must be cultural rather than political): he praises Stalinism for its "new ethical standards", such as the idea of being tough on social circumstances rather than people (DSST 132). As a result of such themes, Zizek claims with his usual arrogance that Stalinist films "cannot fail to produce" a "sublime effect" (DSST 132). Actually, any ideological effect of such films - which appear to draw mainly on Bolshevik ideas which are strictly incompatible with Stalinist practice (eg. Stalinism blamed its own failings on individual "saboteurs", not social circumstances) - was probably undermined by their association with the actual practices of Stalinism. Zizek's claim that such films reshaped the field of social meaning (DSST 132) is unsupported and probably unfounded, and it is interesting that he claims such things of Stalinism when he dismisses the same kind of phenomena in capitalism (utopian imaginaries, etc.) as a disavowed supplement which is not socially effective and therefore supports the system. NB also the lack fo any discussion of audience effects or of what social imaginaries actually involved (At the Work, Economy and Society conference, one participant read a paper on representations of the new town of Nowa Huta, which was intended to embody the "new man" and the new industrial society of 'Communist' Poland. In fact, its residents, drawn mainly from rural areas, retained peasant identities for a long period after moving to the town, and it later became a hotbed of the Solidarity movement - hardly proof of the effectiveness of official ideological representations, even when these were spread across the entire social field! Nowa Huta was wholly Stalinised: its name means New Steelworks, its architecture was a flagship for Poland and it had no church; yet it still was nowhere near integrated!).

* Zizek describes a process in eastern Europe which is a classic case of Kitsonist transformism: a division between 'honest critics' of the regime and 'extremist provocateurs' in pre-1989 eastern Europe. But Zizek mis-perceivesthis as the workers 'winning' by achieving a voice (TS 206-7). The point about this kind of process is that the regime chooses what voice its opponents are allowed, so this is hardly a case of the workers winning.

* Stalinism for Zizek is a "violent return of the repressed political dimension" (TS 241) - in other words, Zizek blames Marxist economism for Stalinism because it repressed the political which was therefore forced to return in this way. Zizek provides no explanation for this, which would probably not hold up to a more careful examination of the relationship between economics and politics in Marxism (for instance, Stalin was more economistic in certain respects than Lenin, eg. on the issue of collectivisation).

* Zizek makes a defence of the show trials and purges based on an endorsement of the concept of objective guilt. For Zizek, the process involves the party acting as vanishing mediator and fulfilling the suicidal role of a subject which commits an Act.

According to Zizek, the Stalinist show trials expressed a "true guilt" of the accused (probably an anamorphic truth: see EMPIRICITY) for "the system which rejected them"; this system returned "their own true message in its inverted-true form" (CHU 255). Those on trial were guilty of "abstract individuality" for failing to submit to the Party's need to sacrifice them (CHU 255). Though this guilt is 'true', it is also, like all guilt, a cover for anxiety, i.e., one feels a guilt because of awareness of a lack in the (big) Other (CHU 255-6). In Stalinism as in Christianitym, one is always 'objectively guilty' unless touched by something outside oneself, the Grace of communist necessity (DSST 101).

Communist Parties need purges. The reason for this, claims Zizek, is that their legitimacy is based on their official, consecrated History. However, this official History is altered opportunistically, as the Party changes its line. However, the Party claims to be infallible, so it cannot admit to such opportunist xhanges. As a result, plots are invented: the original 'fact' is explained as the product of an enemy agent (DSST 98-9).

This leads to a demand on Party members to sacrifice themselves in a way that not only kills them but also erases their symbolic self from history: a double death (see Zizek on Brecht). This process of subjective destitution fits Zizek's requirements of an Act.

Stalinism also leaves "no place for even the most formal and empty right of subjectivity". Bukharin for instance insisted on his subjective innocence and criticised how "such an atmosphere arose that no one believes human feelings", where emotions and their expression "have today lost their validity and force" (DSST 105-6). Stalinism is not interested either in subjective guilt or in objective truth-value, but only in what 'signal' is sent by someone's supposed acts to other possible deviants (DSST 106) - in other words, guilt is solely interpreted via the imposed assumption of it. Stalin refuses to accept a second level of subjective innocence: Bukharin insists on the "subjective autonomy from which one's guilt can be discussed on the level of facts", but for Stalin, subjective autonomy is guilt (DSST 110). In this discussion it is not entirely clear if Zizek is criticising or praising Stalinism; my suspicion is the latter, since this process of the rejection of subjective autonomy fits the idea of submission to a big Other and also the desubjectivising dimension of the Act.

STALINOID LANGUAGE: It is also interesting how often Stalinist-type formulations slip into Zizek's own language. Zizek openly admits to using "good old Stalinist terms" such as the idea of "objectively true" claims (DSST 244). Elsewhere he also attacks "the Jungian deviation" (DSST 89), and uses the term "self-criticism" (DSST 260).

Zizek's method also involves Stalinistic elements. Take for instance Zizek's defence of his self-admitted bias (which is actually self-contradictory: this reflexive bias does not stop Zizek making universal claims). Zizek openly endorses bias and circular argument on the basis that the "allegedly 'objective', 'impartial gaze" of pseudo-neutral writers actually contains an unadmitted bias (TS 137) - which is hardly a defence (see Barrington Moore ****).

Zizek's substitutionist claim to know people's essence also affects his reading of Marx. "So when a critical Marxist encounters a bourgeois [sic] subject immersed in commodity fetishism, the Marxist's comment to him [note the inappropriate use of description in what is a prescriptive statement] is not 'Commodity may seem to you a magical object endowed with special powers, but it is really just a reified expression of relations between people'; the actual Marxist comment is, rather, 'You may think that the commodity appears to you as a simple embodiment of social relations (that, for example, money is just a kind of voucher...) but this is not how things really seem to you - in your social reality, by means of your participation in social exchange, you bear witness to the uncanny fact that a commodity really appears to you as a magical object endowed with special powers' " (PF 120). Zizek wants the 'Marxist' gesture to involve substituting for people's beliefs and perceptions - claiming, from a pseudo-objective standpoint, to know what people really believe regardless of what they 'think' they believe. The parallels with Stalinist ideas such as "objective class identity" are significant. (NB again this is based on the arrogant assumption that Zizek's perception of what beliefs an act must involve expresses the real underlying beliefs whatever actual people think - see MATERIALISM. NB also: perceptions are culturally relative: a western missionary is standing by the shore waiting for his ship to arrive. "Aha!" says an indigenous animist; "You are worshipping the sea god, awaiting his coming". The missionary carefully explains that he does not believe in sea gods; the ship is a machine, he says. "Oh", says the native, "that might be what you believe, but your action is that of waiting in prayer for the coming of a sea god; you do really believe the ship is a sea god, even if you don't consciously admit this". A proof of cultural difference; but would this really prove that the missionary really does believe the ship is a sea god, whatever he consciously believes?)

INTERPRETING THE TERROR: Here we see a combination of common problems with Zizek's method: ignoring unfortunate evidence (role of grassroots grievances in fuelling the Terror), establishing a structural role which he admits is not founded on (his own version of) the evidence available, selectively using a tiny number of sources, etc. Despite saying that Stalin or the Politburo unleashed the second stage of the Terror (i.e. when it was directed at random victims and within the nomenklatura) (DSST 118-19), Zizek wants to make out that its structural significance is as a phenomenon resulting from an incapacity to totally master the situation, an extra-discursive (Real?) phenomenon which was applied in a negotiated, interpretive, syncretic way (DSST 121). Zizek mystifies it as a (structural) "suicide", and therefore "an authentic act by the collective subject" (DSST 120). He reads similar significance into Stalin's advice on everyday matters (DSST 120), which actually is NOT about impotence as Zizek claims, but about gleichschaltung and attempts to control everyday life.

Actually, such phenomena (Cultural Revolution in China, etc.) may well result from the contradictions of the Party and its way of explaining failure (i.e. the need for scapegoats combined with intra-regime competition, with some competitors mobilising the frustrations of other strata to eliminate rivals), but this is not because the 'Party' as collective subject commits suicide; it is because it is not a coherent subject in the first place, but rather, a set of competing subjects who easily turn on each other (psychoanalysis can hardly support the idea of a collective subject anyway). Crucially, the purge is the only response to failure available within an official discourse which refuses to recognise any reason for failure except sabotage or 'objective' treachery of one form or another (NB how Stalinist and Maoist ideology corrode all other possible explanations: someone who is really in touch with the proletariat never fails to represent it, the proletariat is infallible, human capacity to control nature is endless once 'Socialism' is triumphant, etc.).

STALINISM AND THE BIG OTHER: Zizek gives enormous significance to incidents where Stalinists rewrite history in such a way that the process of rewriting is clear for all to see. Zizek thinks such instances (eg. the elimination of Beria from the official encyclopedia after he was purged) are an attempt to fool the big Other and thereby prove its existence (SOI 198). Actually, while this is one possible explanation, it is not the only one: perhaps the exercise was intended to fool some other group (foreigners, or future generations) who are not 'in the know'; perhaps it was an act by a bureaucrat who, driven by a need to seem to be acting against 'traitors', felt obliged to remove the reference to make clear his loyalty and orthodoxy; maybe it was a kind of snubbing of Beria, a symbolic rejection which had nothing to do with fooling anyone, a bit like book-burning and so on.

ZIZEK THE SUBSTITUTIONIST: According to Ernest Mandel (Power and Money ****; drawing on Trotsky), the main characteristic of Stalinism is "substitutionism": a metonymical process which displaces the meaning of terms like "working class" onto the ruling elite in such a way, for instance, that "the party=the workers" and "the actually-existing workers=the bourgeoisie". Substitutionism is also a central characteristic of Zizek's work.

Zizek can't tell the state from society, using a set of categories (big Other, symbolic Law, etc.) which tend to conflate the two (the symbolic Law means socially effective systems such as language, and ALSO the law in the statist sense, for instance). Zizek claims for instance that the state determines concrete social relations (SOI 229). He also claims that today, "Leftists support a strong state" (TS 356; he seems to mean Bourdieu).

There are also a number of substitutionist statements resulting from Zizek's position that the subject is basically passive. For example:

* For Zizek, people are afraid, not of being watched, but of not being watched (DSST 249). Zizek is against the idea that CCTV poses a totalitarian threat because he thinks Big Brother is "always-already there" as an imagined gaze (DSST 252). Because we are at root passive (fatalistic, obsessed with what we are for others), we are therefore dependent on imagining an impossible gaze, which is necessary to be able to feel desire or anything moral (PF 16). Which leaves the 'paradox' of the role of masks in anti-capitalism.

* Zizek thinks that, while the Leader (eg. king) is only Leader through the people, the people is also only the 'real people' through the Leader (SOI 146). On a factual level, Zizek clearly sees substitutionism: lurking behind factual statements such as that "the whole People supports the Party", there is a circular definition of the people: "the People always support the Party because any member of the People who opposes Party rule automatically excludes himself from the People" (SOI 147). However, Zizek seems to be defending this kind of phenomenon (SOI 165-6).

* For Zizek, all feelings and beliegs are regularly substituted (PF 106), a process which is original and constitutive (PF 108). For Zizek (grossly exaggerating the significance of phenomena such as hired mourners and canned laughter), "my most intimate feelings can be radically externalised; I can literally 'laugh and cry through another' " (PF 109). (My own analysis would be: canned laughter is not laughting through another, but a sign or myth of 'humorousness'. It serves a function in decontesting what goes on in a particular TV programme or film as comedic, a kind of aural version of the Carmichael effect: the embarassment of many sitcoms, for instance, is 'decontested' by the canned laughter as funny rather than awkward or disturbing. If it directly relieves people, it is not as laughter, but via libidinal investments in the myth of humorousness or the sign-system in which it is a part, which may be related to inclusion in particular groups or conformity to a particular subject position, or even fear of rejection). For Zizek, mechanisms up to and including another being killed for one's sins actually involve acting through another (PF 110). One can "literally enjoy through the Other's enjoyment" also for Zizek (PF 114) (the "through" here is inappropriate: it may indeed be true that one can take pleasure in another's apparent pleasure, but this is a subjective reaction; it does not pass through the Other). This leads Zizek directly into a defence of the substitutionist practices of Stalinism: the idea that the people can ride in limousines through the representatives of the people; the "redeeming" value of compulsory labour service for intellectuals; etc. (PF 110). For Zizek, this is how one gains a breathing-space for freedom: by putting responsibility onto the system! (PF 109-10).

* Zizek endorses a very Stalinist-sounding view that the "highest freedom" is acting freely while seeing oneself as an agent of a greater force (PF 126) (because this eliminates the need for interactivity/interpassivity). In the Stalinist case, for instance, leaders saw themselves as acting on behalf of History, the proletariat and so on. This 'highest' freedom, of course, gives no protection for others in either direction (nor for the self against others): neither a greater force which effectively constrains, nor a reflexivity which could limit harmful actions.

* Similarly in relation to a few instances of apparently substituted speech: for Zizek these mean that the 'big Other' is speaking through us (PF 110). He also claims a similar device is operational in phatic discourse (PF 111). He also has us literally enjoying through a slogan on a beer can; suffering through reports from Bosnia; a mad family member suffering for the family as a whole; Christ suffering on behalf of humanity - all examples of what Zizek terms "interpassivity" (PF 112). (A particular point of contrast here is Baudrillard's Consumer Society: Baudrillard says in the case of slogans on beer cans that one is NOT enjoying, but rather, one is consuming signs of enjoyment, which are a simulation or alienation). Zizek actually goes as far as to say that the 'critical gesture' is to admit it is the Other not the Self who is enjoying (PF 115)!

* Zizek sees substitution of this kind as primary, i.e. the gesture constitutive of subjectivity is the transmutation of 'someone else doing something for me, in my place' into 'I am doing it through the Other' (PF 117-19). Interpassivity is "the fundamental attitude which defines the subject" (PF 115). (But surely this requires a second person - an Other - who does act autonomously? - for instance, the Stalinist substitution is only possible so long as the bureaucracy, which claims to act for the workers, is actually doing something and is NOT passive). The theoretical basis for all this is: the subject (everyone?) feels being transfixed/fascinated by an object (cf. Baudrillard's concept of fascination - Baudrillard would deny that the masses are repulsed by fascination) to be unbearable, shameful and undignified (PF 115). Interpassivity is therefore necessary as a defence against this jouissance. (But this doesn't necessarily mean Zizek defends such substitution. Again - see PF 116 - the Act/therapy has a gnostic/revelatory dimension which somehow bypasses this necessity).

* Zizek claims that a disavowed (double-bound?) substitutionism is essential to communities/institutions (Zizek treats these as identical) (TS 266-7).

* Zizek also supports a substitutionist view of Heidegger's that people choose a "resolute acceptance" of their "habitat" and that such a (forced) choice is presupposed by all involvement in one's context (TS 16, 18). (It is only, I think, meaningful to speak of such a choice if one is effectively and actually able to choose zero involvement in one's context: otherwise, one is speaking of compulsion or determinism, not choice. NB this further undermines Zizek's claims to be a "materialist": the role of material needs vanishes, with the relationship to one's environment reduced in the last instance to an existential choice). Zizek's only reason for this claim is an anathema: the only alternative to "freely choosing one's imposed destiny" is liberal vulgarity (TS 18). For instance, a revolutionary sees himself (sic) as "chosen by History" (TS 18). Always, says Zizek, due to the foundational basis for choice, "I have a (free) hoice only on condition that I make the proper choice... I am told what I must choose freely" (TS 19). There is another anathema lurking here too: for Zizek the forced choice isn't totalitarian; rather, its absence is "psychotic" (TS 19). This kind of statements are clearly possible only within some kind of totalitarian of neo-totalitarian Newspeak/doublethink, given that they are strictly logically inconsistent (a choice which is forced is by definition not free). And if the alternative is psychosis, then Zizek is giving an unwitting boost to schizoanalysis by rendering psychosis the only resistance to totalitarian doublethink! (NB also one example given in SOI, a Yugoslav student ordered to freely take an oath when conscripted, is specifically Stalinist).

* For Zizek we can only get to know or think moral freedom via a repressive Law which acts against "our pathological impulses". Zizek calls this "concrete freedom" as opposed to "abstract freedom" (TS 44). He comes close to saying that subordination to the law is the basis for freedom (TS 52).

* Again: "Every belonging to a society [note the absolute terminology - AR] involves a paradoxical point at which the subject is ordered to embrace freely, as a result of his own choice, what is anyway imposed on him (we must all love our country, our parents... [dots in original]. This paradox of willing (choosing freely) what is in any case necessary, of pretending (maintaining the appearance) that there is a free choice although in fact there isn't, is strictly co-dependent with the notion of an empty symbolic gesture - an offer - which is meant to be rejected: what the empty gesture offers is the option to choose the impossible, that which inevitably will not happen" (PF 27; I seem to remember Zizek somewhere advocating that we should act as if the choice were real by choosing the impossible). On PF 28 Zizek repeats the same idea in relation to 'symbolic exchange' and "our [!!] everyday mores" (he seems to mean phatic discourse). So for Zizek, every system needs unwritten rules ensuring that some formally possible choices are never made, rules which are expressed in fantasy (PF 28-9 - this may be descriptively accurate in relation to existing systems, but Zizek is wrongly assuming phaticity and ritual as the sole basis for social activity and interaction; there is also the possibility of the shared project and therefore the "fused group"). Zizek sees it as "subversive" to take the Law literally, minus its underlying fantasies (at least sometimes); this is one version of traversing the fantasy, which has catastrophic effects on the system (PF 28-9). (though how one can overthrow such irrationalism if it is necessary to every society, Zizek doesn't explain).

APPENDIX: Additional quotes from other works
p. 120 - the subject is nothing but the gap in symbolisation (implies PRIOR symbolic str.)
p. 117 - the materiality of the trauma
Empiricity is irrelevant to truth: even a claim that is empirically true is subjectively false unless it involves an authentic act (126-7).
p. 262 - belief is real
252 - "the symbolic order is thus the ultimate guarantor of truth towards which no external distance is ever possible" (!!!) - "constitutive alienation", "the big Other pulls the strings; the subject does not speak, he 'is spoken' by the symbolic str." (253)
The Stal. show trials expressed a "true guilt" of the accused for "the system which rejected them" and for an "abstract individuality" refusing to submit to the Party's need to sacrifice them (255) - guilt comes from anxiety about the lack in the big Other
Id. = ISA's (328) - Z's claim that he is mat. depends on the mat. of ISA's.

p. 122 an act in a debate occurs when one says "Yes, that is exactly what I am doing" (in response to an accusation). (So an act is FORMAL and wrongness is imposs.)
Act: an act is when "the subject makes the 'crazy', imposs. choice of... striking at himself, at that which is most precious to himself", thereby gaining a "space of free action" by cutting ties to "the precious object through whose possession the enemy held him in check" (122), therebu clearing the terrain for a new beginning. THIS IS A RIGHTIST INDIVIDUALISM - a militia movement survivalism which rejects concern for others as a bar against ethics

One can't change a hostile hegem. simply by an act which breaks with it: Mary Kay Letourneau did not alter attitudes to sex but was repressed (due to a failure to change attitudes). This confusion arises from Z's bypassing particularity (direct self-universal link) and his view of others as one's own limbs.
Z thinks circumstances are "always-already posited by the practical context of our intervention in them" (229) - so one never acts on someone or something else but on one's own beliefs or psychology!!!!!

Z inverts analysis of id. - id. is not misidentification with roles but false disidentification, "false distance towards... social existence" (103) - i.e. escapism and belief in autonomy. This renders resistance imposs. since one can never stand back from and assess one's roles. (We are reducible to our symbolic positions).
Z. claims - no evidence as usual - that escapism provides the ideal GDR subject whereas naive prop. didn't. NB Scott on carnivals, bulls killing butchers etc.; also, what is the alternative to making intolerable conditions liveable? Z. half admits it is the hopelessness of the most wretched concentration-camp victims; but in what sense is this BETTER? Escapism is necessary to prevent learned helplessness.
The positive claim supporting Z's attacks on distance is that every lib, PM etc fantasised about and wants repression
Z. thinks actually taking power at its word (rather than resisting it) is subversive because it negates the disavowed underside (220) (but influences no-one!!!!)
A block supposedly prevents "us" from imagining radical change (324).

Z bitterly rejects the idea that reality could contain an excess over theory and also bitterly rejects the idea that ideas may require intersubjective translation to avoid colonialism. Z thinks language is already universal and has "crossed the linguistic borders it claims" (216; but how can eg. a missionary have done this?).
ONE throwaway reference to an external Deleuzian Real (213).
Capital as Real (223) is not an external reality for Z. but a disavowed nodal point or passionate attachment. But Laclau does mention cap. ...
NB the Symbolic is founded on the repression of a different kind of Real: the Thing or lamella i.e. irrepressible life. (327) But where Z differs from Deleuze, Vaneigem, Reich etc. - and why he cannot be rev. - is that this cannot be recovered...

Here Z and Butler collide (217) - Butler is concrete in govt. basis: govts. are based on people whereas Z. uses abstract phrases about the "ultimate support" without explaining in what entity this support resides or why it is needed. Disavowed transgressions in reality and film are far more likely to be defences vs. hostile forces than an inherent need ("we" "need" the dirty cop because the crims don't play the game clean etc.).
On Lenin's "What is to be done?" (a CONCRETE q. for Lenin), Z's version is "how do we reassert, on the polit. terrain, the proper dimension of the act?" (127).
Aren't there actual unmeetable particular demands eg. workers councils and militias? (and also in other spheres eg. revaluing the feminine beyond a certain point, bars on normalising assessment of the diff., smash the state, direct action rather than reps./law, etc.) - all 'achievable', no "imposs. fullness' or 'absolutes'.

Why no other people in Z's theory? Because "I am from the very outset outside myself" - we don't project parts of ourselves onto others, they ARE parts of us (250)
Claim that PM evades q's like "what is the str. of the universe? How does the human psyche really work?" (230-1) is dodgy: PM denies A structure of psyche
In favour of "a direct jump from the singular to the universal, bypassing the mid-level of particularity" (239). Jumping from one case of (fantasy, ideology, etc.) to fantasy, id., etc. as such - a "properly dialectical mix of a special case and sweeping generalisations" (241; cf. oppositional determinations) - some special cases express the universal as such whereas others are displacements (240) - eg. can draw "general conclusions" about patriarchy from "detailed analysis of a scene from a noir melodrama"
NB this is myth/essentialism in the Barthesian sense; parallels exactly the method of the Sun and so is not 'radical'; involves an Oedipal trap; is unprovable (how can we show that this one eg. rather than another one eg. is typical?).
To show how useless this method is: Z extrapolates from Bond villains delaying Bond's death to explain their plans, a dubious idea that Bond is the big Other or ideal witness who exists for all of us and who we all endeavour to fascinate (251-2). Read it instead as involving a myth of evil as megalomania (the villain like torturers wants to break Bond to secure total control which is his real goal) could lead to a wholly different set of generalisations (eg. that Power is always megalomaniac and requires total power, i.e. the reverse of Z's approach to power and resistance)! It is probably a technical need anyway (so Bond can escape)...
How can one tell a universal from something that isn't? Apparently from C.S. (or rather from Z's cs.) - a concept which "has haunted our imagination" (244). And when it doesn'texist, we should say "So much the worse for reality"! (244). This is Barthesian second-order significations i.e. myths, elevated into something real. NB Z somewhere says the Nazi figure of the Jew had a real validity even though no Jews fitted it...
Z. is determined to smash the poss. of coherent thought: see his discussion of how rich men are divided into rich rich men and poor rich men (131). Which is sophistry: it either involves a real/illusion distinction or 2 separate registers (rich/poor and status).
Humanity is constituted by metaphysics outside it: "gap between necessity and imposs." is "constitutive of the human condition" (235).
Z thinks it is NEVER possible (315) for two opponents to express their differences through shared categories - this is a new version of Althusser's view that one cannot rationally choose a side. There is no 'neutral universality' but there is a space of translation so we can identify particular concepts/issues over which there are disagreements both sides recognise (eg. that socialists are anti-nation and cons. pro-nation).

A victim of child abuse is not really a passive victim (135)
CON. claim about human nature: "a human being is.. in need of firm roots" and this is why the symbolic order exists (250)
A Stal. 'rev.' definition of Man: "Man is what is to be crushed, stamped on, mercilessly worked over, in order to produce a new man" (131), with the Party as vanishing mediator between new and old man!!!
Z's answer to the ahistoricity of the Lacanian bar (109-10) is merely that it founds historicity... Z. admits an "ahist. kernel" and it is unclear how his addition of an exclusion negates Butler's (as opposed to Z's) criticisms of Kantianism.
The polit. needs naturalisation !!!!!! (100)

Z plays labelling games with others who don't share his conception of the Act: Z reads a conspiracy into it ("conformist liberal scoundrels" defending the status quo) and treats it as based in a Holocaust/Gulag bogey - which he then tries to discredit with a Holocaust bogey (it is like Nazi employment bans) (127).
Tries to diagnose the PM advoidance of class as a displacement in the sense of a defence mechanism supplanting an original truth into a new content (97), similarly all 'extremism' is a displacement, a refusal to go to the end (130) (why can't Z accept that people disagree with ?!?!?)
Z uses OPPOSITION to an id. to prove its prevalence as a "consensus"!!!!! 323-4 - "This consensus takes many forms, from the neo-con. or Socialist refusal to accept it and consummate the loss of grand id. projects by means of a proper 'work of mourning'... up to the neo-lib. option". How can one tell a refusal to mourn from an absence of death - and how is this consensus?!?!

"Symbolic class" includes Zizek and all ints., org. or trad., regardless of social position and alignment; "all those who work in the symbolic universe" would include McDonalds, Disney and call centre employees, computer programmers, TV repair teams and floor cleaners in TV stations; "excluded" class is not a class at all: the "unemployed" are an occupational grouping, the "homeless" a residential grouping, and "underprivileged ethnic and religious minorities" are not a class group by any stretch; then there is a "MC" which Z doesn't even delineate but which he seems to imply includes all the old WC, who he portrays as universally reactionary, "passionately attached to the trad. modes of prod. and id." and defending these vs. the other 2! Only class 1 has even a Weberian definition; class 2 is a list with an "and so on"; and class 3 has only an example!!!!!

The RC as such vanishes; the WC is split between the 3 groups and mainly dismissed as reactionary; the 3rd world WC which Z elsewhere emphasises is wholly absent. The groups overlap (a black call centre worker for instance)

But Z also thinks these categories overlap perfectly with actual beliefs! They are polit. "agents" each with an id. which directly fits it! So a homeless person who gets a flat and a job at McDonald's thereby changes their entire worldview?!?! No journalists are fundamentalist bigots? No old-fashioned workers are progressive or identify with the excluded? Z even wants to identify the groups with the Symbolic, Real and Imaginary (323), which are categories supposedly existing in the head of each person!!!!

Z. is not satisfied to say that Laclau does not go far enough; he wants to say that Laclau actually expresses cap.'s own displacements (108).
Laclau's so-called "secret Kantianism" (315-16 - which I'm sure isn't a "secret" anything - as if L. like Haider does "Heil Kant's" in private!) - seems to be a combination of L's rejection of Z's 'Hegelian' view that no negotiation between distinct positions is every poss., and L's idea that one can pursue knowably unreachable horizons.
* Despite rev. zeal, Z is not providing an alternative, lets us know nothing about what he has in mind, fears it may be Stal. and suspects Z doesn't know (289)
* Z fails to leave "the theological terrain" and talk politics (289); his theory is not str. around pol. but is a analytic discourse which uses politico-id. examples (289); His pol. is limited to "meaningless injunctions" and does not ask truly polit. q's about "strategic problems people encounter in their actual struggles" (290). Throws light on pol. via examples but has no polit. perspective/strategic reflection (290).
* Has a semi-metaphysical Marxism which is 50 years out of date (290), wipes out 50 years of progress with one Hegel quote (291)
* Z sees cap. as the becoming of an elementary conceptual matrix (290-1) (WRONG)
* Cap. can't be the Lacanian Real because cap. is symbolised and needs symbolisation (291)
* Z privileges the WC (292) (WRONG)
* Distinction between system/anti-system and in-system conflicts is a new base-superstr. model (292-3)



THE POINT IS TO CHANGE IT: In Repeating Lenin, Zizek openly rejects Marx's views on this subject. Zizek rejects "the temptation to act" and "is...tempted to turn around Marx's thesis 11" - for Zizek, trying to 'change it' "inevitably ends in... debilitating impossibility", and activism is simply a frenetic activity used to cover one's real desire to keep things the same. Zizek thinks one should instead question dominant ideological coordinates (RL 2). Zizek clearly shows his idealist (in the literal sense) confusion here: he does not explain how abstractly challenging ideas and swearing off action can bring about social change; he also exaggerates the complicity of activism (which capitalism only tolerates, as Zizek admits, up to a point).

COMMODITY FETISHISM: Zizek sees commodities and capital in Marx, not as an empirical sphere, but as the matrix (deep structure) of society (RL 15-16). For this reason, Zizek thinks it is impossible to think politics and economics at the same time (RL 16).

In his interview with Radical Philosophy, Zizek specifically calls for alienation. He thinks what went wrong in Yugoslavia was an attempt at total disalienation, which produced extreme alienation instead; so he says dissidents turned to Lacan because "We want more alienation", "accepting certain limits and renouncing certain utopian conditions" (CrS 25). Again: "We should then reverse the usual metaphorics of 'alienation' where the dead, formal letter sucks out, as a kind of parasite or vampire, the living present force; i.e. where the living subjects are prisoners of a dead cobweb. The dead, formal character of the Law is a sine qua non of our freedom: the real totalitarian danger arises when the Law no longer wants to stay dead" (NRRT 258). These are both from early works, however. They involve a more conventional reading of Lacan than Zizek usually provides, and there may be a shift in his later work (i.e. a rehabilitation of the "utopian" dimension) - although this remains self-contradictory, with the impossibility of a better world coexisting precariously with the redemptive dimension of the concept of the Act.

cf also on Marx's reference to nineteenth-century Royalists: in this case, the hidden 'real' message is a cover for their real conformity to the public, Republican system (TS 217). Zizek wants to turn this into a general principle (see RESISTANCE).

To confuse matters further, Zizek says that the critical gesture is to say that the Self not the Other believes in a fetish (PF 114). This does not seem to mean, however, that Zizek himself thinks that the Self not the Other believes: see ACT; the Self should assume responsibility despite really being driven by an outer force.

SOCIALISATION: Zizek is now calling for socialisation of the World Wide Web, with free access, as well as gene and seed patents (RL 19). He also believes there is a need for strict state control of agriculture (RL 23) - since this is in a footnote to the earlier point, he presumably means "state control" when he says "socialisation". (Free Internet access is a progressive demand, but hardly a revolutionary one - even Blair wants free web access for the poor; state control of the Internet poses many of the same problems as state control of the media. There is already a huge problem with Web censorship: eg. the RIP Act).

CLASS STRUGGLE: Each of the classes prevents the other achieving self-identity, so the idea of a resolution of class antagonism by overcoming the ruling class is an "illusion" (NRRT 251). The outside entity (enemy class) is merely a piece of reality on which "we 'project' or 'externalise' this intrinsic, immanent impossibility" (NRRT 252; cf. on the Balkans as "imaginary cartography"). Thus, for Zizek, the ruling class did not seize power; it is an outgrowth of the psychological needs of the working class: "the Lord is ultimately an invention of the Bondsman", a psychological projection, necessary to appear to be stealing something which was never possessed in the first place (NRRT 252). Victory in the struggle is therefore the greatest loss: the defeat of the Lord means one comes to experience the Lord as merely the auto-blockage of one's own desire (NRRT 252). So the Lord "is in his positivity, in his fascinating presence, just the positivisation of our own - Bondsman's -negative relationship towards ourselves, the positive embodiment of our own self-blockage" (NRRT 253).

ALTHUSSER: Zizek endorses Althusser's views on class struggle in the field of ideology (RL 4).

LENINISM OR STALINISM?: Zizek insists that Leninism and Stalinism are the same process: "The moment of truth... is that one cannot separate the unique constellation which enabled the revolutionary takeover in October 1917 [NB the reversal of his earlier position that Stalinism was the real revolution] from its later 'Stalinist' turn: the very constellation that rendered the revolution possible... led to the 'Stalinist' turn in its aftermath" (RL 10). This is despite admitting that it involved a Stalinist takeover, that it was linked to the civil war, etc.

Zizek also thinks 'our' [!] experience of Lenin as out-of-date is actually its reverse: our time is 'out of sync', i.e., missing a historical dimension, a dimension Zizek specifically identifies with the idea of a centralised Party. And if the facts don't fit this account, "so much the worse for the facts" (RL 26).

Zizek admits that he is taking next to nothing from Lenin's own work; he is just appropriating Lenin's name/signifier. However, he 'justifies' doing this on the basis that this signifier is still subversive [!! - what subverts, names or actions?]. His evidence is the negative reaction which references to Lenin can still elicit (RL 27; NB the name "Hitler" would lead to an even more negative response, but surely is not subversive). Zizek actually thinks that the name on its own can make his theory subversive (RL 27), and he specifically denounces the actual content of Lenin's particular solution to the problem of the Act (RL 26).

Zizek endorses Lenin because he thinks he read the situation of his day well: He sees what he calls Lenin's "utopia" (of smashing the bourgeois state, and the state per se, immediately) emerging as a result of the "catastrophe" of the cooption of the Second International (RL 12-13). He appears to be associating Lenin with his own structural category of the Act.

In RL, Zizek's line on Stalinism actually shifts a little. Now he denounces Stalinism: it rests on a primordial repression (of permanent revolution, signified by the name of Trotsky); the Stalinists were trying to stabilise the Soviet state and make it a state like any other, and their use of terror was [not revolutionary but] 2 "defense reaction" (RL 25). Although he apparently sees Lenin and Stalin as equally terroristic, furthermore, he thinks terror had a different structural role in each system - Lenin and Trotsky admitted using it (well that's OK then...), whereas for Stalin it was a "shadowy supplement". Stalinism depoliticised Leninism, replacing the constitutive antagonism of class struggle with a gentrified reference to the people, and the enemies of the people were no longer seen as class enemies but as subhuman scum (RL 22). This is a revision of his earlier positions (and, I think, an improvement).

However, he continues to attack anyone who sticks by the content of Lenin's views ('Leninists', Trotskyists) for having an unclear subjective position of enunciation, for jargonism and forthe cardinal sin of "fetishist fixation" (i.e. they interpret the present by looking for an authentic working class which Zizek thinks doesn't exist), which Zizek thinks they use to "avoid the effort to THINK the New" (RL 25). (There is a big problem here. Firstly, whether or not the working class exists is not an abstract issue of sticking psychological labels, but an empirical question. Secondly, how can Zizek criticise others for imposing ahistorical categories to understand the present, when he patently does the same? Can't Zizek be accused of a "fetishist fixation" on the 'lost' dimension of the Act?).

REVOLUTION: Zizek is now trying to identify revolution with the Act, identifying it with fearless excesses (RL 23) rather than social change.


Zizek denies any permanent content to the materialism/idealism distinction; he seems to treat it as a structural concept which is embodied by different contents at different times (RL 4).

MATERIALITY AS IDEOLOGY: Zizek insists there is no objective external reality; the external obstacle which prevents thought attaining self-identity is absolutely inherent to it. Zizek attacks Lenin's and Popper's materialism as containing an "implicit idealism" which accepts the separation of mind from matter but privileges matter via a "symptomatic displacement" (RL 3)

According to Zizek, the materialist view is not that God doesn't exist; it is that God is unconscious (RL 23).

MATERIALITY AS THE REAL: The materialism/idealism division runs between theories which think truth is within us and those which see the need to identify an "EXTERNAL traumatic encounter which shatters the subject's balance" (RL 4) (i.e. an Act).


TOTALITARIAN OR WOT?: Zizek specifically likens Lacan to Mao, as a leader who uses his young followers to defeat his 'mandarins'. He also endorses this kind of practice, exemplified according to him by the Cultural Revolution; he calls it "the paradoxical overlapping of extreme dictatorship and extreme emancipation of the masses" (RL 21-2; !! - the Cultural Revolution and the like are not an emancipation; they involved the masses being used by one faction in the leadership against another, and in this sense are not really any more emancipation than all the other pseudo-participatory rituals, except perhaps in their potential to overflow. NB Mao managed via the Cultural Revolution to render China's regime virtually the only major state not to be rocked by student/youth uprisings in the 60s. cf. also Deutscher's critique, in Marxism, Wars and Revolutions).

Zizek rather likes the dehumanisation ("thorough depsychologisation") of people in post-revolutionary art in Russia, i.e. an image of the "New Man" with no "sentimental passions and roots in traditions", "who gladly accepts his role as a bolt or screw in the gigantic coordinated industrial machine"; where (for instance) actors undergo "ruthless bodily training aimed at cold bodily discipline" and "mechanized movements" (OB 123). Zizek attacks Stalinism for betraying this via the "human face" of the "traditional psychological individual" in Socialist Realist art (RL 124).

It is questionable what exactly Zizek means by a distinction between 'formal' and 'actual' freedom (OB 116), since he has two working usages. Claiming authority from Lenin (which appears fairly spurious to me), he claims 'formal' freedom only occurs when one chooses the coordinates of one's situation itself; this requires doing the impossible (i.e. an Act) (OB 121). At first this seems emancipatory: Zizek is opposing false liberal ('formal') freedom by exposing the fact that it is limited (although his use of racism as an example seems strange). But Zizek seems to want to limit the concept of ('actual') freedom so that it only refers to choosing the impossible, and so everything else has to be treated relative to this "fundamental revolutionary choice", asking of a given freedom whether it helps or hinders this choice (OB 122). However, this does not mean replacing limited freedom with actual freedom; it means replacing one limit with another. Zizek wants to deny that this limits freedom of choice (121), but it would clearly mean fewer tolerated choices than in capitalism. Zizek is drawing a reactionary conclusion from a progressive argument: how can the insufficient, limited character of free choice (i.e. too little) legitimate the further reduction of this freedom (i.e. less)? Furthermore, presumably this "revolutionary choice" does not mean a choice to Act or not Act; Zizek wants to make it imperative to Act. In this sense, it is not a choice at all. An imperative to choose the impossible to no more a case of free choice than an imperative not to. Furthermore, the relativisation of choices to a core 'revolutionary' principle is structurally no different to the existing situation according to Zizek (i.e. relativisation of choices to a core principle not to destabilise the status quo).

STALINOID LANGUAGE: Zizek openly endorses a term he admits he has plucked from Stalin, that two deviations are "both worse" (RL 3; I don't quite see why he can't say "just as bad"). Again: "to use the good old Stalinist expression - 'a dizziness from too much success' (NRRT 250).

ZIZEK THE SUBSTITUTIONIST: Zizek praises Lenin because he "accepted the paradox of the party organising-creating its own base, its working class" (RL 27)!

On the basis of a reference to the role of the Real in Lacan, Zizek decides he wants socialism brought to the working class from the outside (RL 4), because traumatic events always come from outside the subject in Lacanian theory. Because the working class, like any subject, is not fully itself, it needs the Party as a reference point - the subject supposed to know (who is therefore "always right" (RL 5).

Zizek is also a self-professed statist, denouncing Badiou's "anti-statism" as "dangerously close to an apolitical politics", and counterposing "Lenin's ruthless readiness to seize power and impose a new political order" (OB 126). Zizek celebrates a (probably unrepresentative) statement where Lenin echoed later Stalinist statements about opposition, condemning critics as "White Guards" and posing in Zizek's terms a choice of "life or critique!", as well as showing what Zizek calls his "dismissive attitude towards the 'liberal' notion of freedom" (OB 114). The reason Zizek likes such views is that he supports the impositional territorialisation of situations by stamping one's own position authoritatively on them: "to 'posit the presuppositions' of one's activity... to redefine the very situation within which one is active" (OB 115).


For Zizek, it is less 'subversive' to reject sexist stereotypes than to wholly accept them but then insert them in the wrong place, eg. Law (NRRT 257).



* Interpretation is to "construct what retroactively will have been" (and therefore presumably involves creative reading) (CrS 26); nevertheless, Zizek wants to attack opponents for misreading: the western concept of suture is "precisely the reverse of Lacan" (CrS 27) - as if there is one meaning which can be directly read from a text.

* Zizek's answer to Dominic la Capra's criticism that Lacan conflates the structural category of lack with specific, preventable events, thereby naturalising the latter, is to say: structural lack is experienced as contingent, and the contingent events are therefore necessary (RL 30). This merely proves that Zizek also naturalises specific, preventable events as outgrowths of structural lack.

THE REAL: FANTASY (SYMBOLIC, IMAGINARY, REAL): Zizek sees fantasy as constituting links between positive objects and the formal symbolic structure, thereby founding desire. This is because he thinks we need symbolic formulae to understand anything (PF 7), but nevertheless sees the symbolic system as external and prior to the subject (see MATERIALISM). Zizek thinks one is so enslaved to the fantasy that "it somehow 'depossesses' the subject, reducing him or her to a puppet-like level 'beyond dignity and freedom' " (PF 9).

NB there is a certain confusion in Zizek about whether his concept of fantasy is the same as the everyday use of the term. He defines it as if it is not: fantasy does not mean daydreaming (PF ?7). Nevertheless, he writes as if his usage is identical with everyday usages (eg. PF 14-15).


For Zizek, victims who ENDURE oppression actively sustain the social network which creates their role, because it involves identifying with intersubjective structures (SOI 216; his example is women who sacrifice themselves for their family). This is extremely naive, since it assumes being part of social relations is a simple matter of subjective choice.


AGAINST MARX: In SOI, Zizek says Marx "failed to cope" (he means that he disagrees with him), and also throws the totalitarian bogeyman at him (SOI 53).

LENIN: Zizek admits he is taking little from Lenin but the name/signifier, but he thinks this is still subversive because of the shock it causes; the name alone makes Zizek's theory subversive (RL 27)! But Lenin's name is 'subversive' because of the politics it is associated with; Zizek is here pursuing a terrible fetishism of language.

Zizek thinks that 'our' experience of Lenin as out-of-date is really its opposite: it means our time is 'out of sync', it is missing a historical dimension (a dimension Zizek specifically identifies with the idea of a centralised party) (RL 26). (How does one assess if this is tha case?).


MATERIALITY AS SYMBOLIC: For Zizek, materiality obscures an "immaterial virtual order which effectively runs the show" (?TS? 103).


DOGMATISM: One understands a truth such as Christianity only from the inside, by being a Christian; one can't be converted by the truth of Christianity (CHU 229).

NIHILISM: Zizek thinks we try to invent causes of our actions because they are easier to endure than the abyssal act (DSST 266). He denounces attempts to establish that catastrophic events are meaningful as a "temptation of the sacrifice"; instead, he wants to view events such as the Holocaust as occurring "without a purpose, just as a blind effect", reducible to "the abyss of the act itself, the free decision, in all its monstrosity" (DSST 66).

* The Sublime is epitomised by an incident in which a manager is seen copulating with his secretary. He receives a phone call telling him he has been seen, and nearly has a heart attack. This is sublime because for Zizek it expresses his innermost fantasy (DSST 247-8). (Surely it is more likely to be a fear than a fantasy if it nearly gave him a heart attack?).

TRUE AND FALSE ACTS: Actually, the Nazi Holocaust would lead to the 'symbolic destitution' of Nazism, since one cannot scapegoat Jews once they are all dead...

Stalinism and the Holocaust are NOT the Void/Evil behind Good, Truth etc.; they are attempts to avoid confronting it (TS 161).

DIABOLICAL EVIL: Diabolical Evil, doing the 'wrong' thing for the sake of it, is according to Zizek "formally indistinguishable from the Good" (DSST 172).

IS THE ACT REVOLUTIONARY?: The number of times Zizek refers to the loss of the dimension of the Real as possible but undesirable (eg. PF 156), there is reason to suspect his argument against the possibility of overcoming antagonism covers a deeper belief, related to his positive ethics (see POLITICS: Leftism): he DOES NOT WANT the elimination of antagonism, because he sees it as a good in itself; he feels threatened by "suffocating Good". Therefore, he would be against a revolution actually changing anything substantial, because this would put the Real at risk.


WHAT IS CAPITALISM?: Capital is Real in the sense of being a "spectral logic" driving the system (TS 276), i.e. a constitutive crime founding the Law and therefore desire (and all the games etc. which Zizek identifies with desire). Conscience is also Real, which for Zizek identifies it with capitalism (TS 280).

Zizek also borrows from Deleuze a concept of capitalist deterritorialisation (eg. CHU 319), meaning that he views capitalism as destroying fixed codes and fixed certainties. Crucially, he always uses this concept without its supplement in Deleuze: capitalist reterritorialisation, i.e. the violent attempts to keep the released flows inside capitalist control through axiomatics and through state violence.

ACADEMICS/CULTURAL STUDIES: Through conflative terminology such as "public discourse", Zizek mistakenly conflates tendencies in the mainstream, such as the transmutation of politics into administration, with tendencies specific to particular critical tendencies in cultural theory, eg. hostility to science (TS 166). The administrativisation of politics is closely linked to a cult of science (cf. Blair on Huntington "Life" Sciences); the rejection of science has not really entered the mainstream even now.

Zizek is determined to take his attack on Cultural Studies beyond mere inadequacy; he wants to say that such studies "fit the framework [of contemporary domination] perfectly", and "betrays an ambiguous fascination" with (for instance) patriarchy "rather than an actual will to undermine it" (DSST 226). Zizek admits, however, that he is only talking about American cultural studies; and he also admits that this field, especially its psychoanalytic variants, do not at all fit the demands of the contemporary state, being at odds with other branches of knowledge, involving sects and groupuscles rather than an academic 'community', and failing to provide empirically tested objective knowledge of the kind demanded by medical insurers, states, and psychology departments (DSST 226-8)! So how can he say Cultural Studies AS A WHOLE fits capitalism perfectly?! cf. also Zizek's remarks that Laclau's position is only possible due to capitalist deterritorialisation (CHU 319).


THE MASTER: "the fascinating figure of external Authority" functions to make antagonism invisible (NRRT 252?.

Zizek also thinks masters derive from the psychology of their followers, as an externalisation of their inner blockage (see MARX: CLASS).

For Zizek, the tautological command ("because I say so") is seductive because it has no 'why'; different legitimations of obedience (liberal, totalitarian, authoritarian) "are nothing but ways of covering up, of blinding us to the seductive power of the abyss of the empty call" (OB 120; so for Zizek, we all seek a tyrant). Of these legitimations, liberalism is the worst "since it NATURALISES the reasons for obedience" into individual psychology (OB 120).

SEX AND GENDER: In his interview, Zizek gets into problems due to feminist criticisms of Lacan's Oedipal assumptions (CrS 40-2).

NECESSITY AND ANTI-PERFECTIONISM: Zizek calls for people to "recognise the irrationality of the world", "accept it" by "renouncing your narcissistic self" and "accepting some basic 'irreconcilability' " (CrS 25).

ATTACKS ON PERMISSIVENESS ETC.: Zizek claims that "emotions are ABSTRACT, an escape from the concrete socio-political network accessible only to THINKING" (RL 12). (This line is identical to Sartre's in his early period). So why not just replace human beings with robots?! NB there is also a contradiction here. The feeling of 'sublime' enthusiasm (see ACT) is necessarily an emotional referent inaccessible to thought, yet it is essential to Zizek's theory (especially since he wavers on the issue of whether fundamental change is actually possible).

CONSERVATIVE PHILOSOPHICAL VIEWS: For all his 'radicalism', Zizek falls back on very conservative assumptions. For instance: we mustn't equalise humans and animals (RL 8-9); science is fundamentally superior to aboriginal knowledge (RL 9).

Zizek inverts conservatism by claiming that repeated attempts to reach an impossible object are conservative (RL 9). This claim only works if one is certain the object is impossible; there is also the problem of whether Zizek is also doing this (see ACT: Is the Act Revolutionary?). Zizek is short-circuiting between epistemology and ontology.

Zizek thinks free choice is an illusion covering absolute determinism. In support of this, he cites an experiment by Beauvois: participants were asked to perform an unpleasant task; some were told they could choose to drop out, others weren't; the experiment found that 'free choice' made no difference to what proportion of people took part. Zizek thinks this shows that free choice simply involves endorsement of one's actions after the event (or command), and only affects one's rationalisations of the action (OB 117-18). Zizek is, however, missing important points here:
* This is a (positivistic) experiment; as such, it cannot back metaphysical claims of Zizek's kind - it involves positive-sum measurements, not absolutes.
* Some of the participants dropped out in each case, i.e. did not obey the command. This group cannot be accounted for in Zizek's terms.
* The 'free choice' was not really free choice: the territorialisation of the situation made free choice an illusion; the participants had already 'chosen' their situational status (i.e. as experimental subjects), and the addition of a verbal option of opting-out would make little difference to this initial 'choice' (or sense of compulsion). A few people had the will to disobey regardless; for these people, the addition of a direct element of choice was equally irrelevant. The experiment was simply testing an irrelevant variable: the addition of absence of a formal choice to a situation mostly encoded as coercive is a superficial change of no real significance.
* The people involved are specific, historical people; their actions are not necessarily representative of people in other times and places, let alone possible future people.
* The general coding of the situation is more important. cf. the various replications of the Milgram study: the number of signifiers of authority which are present is highly effective on whether or not people obey; given the 'wrong' combination of signifiers, people nearly all refuse to obey.
* If people come to PERCEIVE themselves as overdetermined in Matza's sense, they respond with actions which restore their sense of choice: see Matza, Delinquency and Drift.

SUBMISSION AND MATURITY: Zizek calls for trusting others over one's own eyes. This is how trust for (for instance) the state operates: people trust the word of the state over their own eyes (eg. the judge as embodiment of Law over the real judge being an old fool) (TS 323). Zizek calls this "symbolic efficiency". Zizek thinks this has weakened (TS 350), and his account of this is at the root of his idea of the need for an Act.

Zizek repeats the modernist line that "truth requires an effort in which we have to fight our 'spontaneous' tendency" (RL 4). Reich has clearly shown how this kind of 'fight' is bound up with psychological repression

QUESTIONS: Zizek replaces the right to question with a right to truth, which he defines as impositional partisanship (RL 9).


In RL, Zizek has taken to identifying the Act with the word Revolution (RL 22-3).

WHAT IS THE ACT?: The Event (=Act) is for Zizek (unlike Badiou) something which emerges, not outside Being, but from "emerges 'out of nowhere' within a specific constellation of Being", as the dimension shining through the gap between two realms of Being (RL 16).

It is also "the paradoxical overlapping of extreme dictatorship and extreme emancipation of the masses" (RL 21-2; cf. SUBSTITUTIONISM).

"the criterion of the political act" is not success or abstract norms but "that of the ENACTED UTOPIA"; this is an "INHERENT criterion". This means something which is neither achieved nor present on the horizon but something which is briefly seen as "just there to be grabbed" - so that one feels happy and free when fighting for this future, no matter how hard the circumstances (RL 20-1). Further, an action is only a true Act if it traverses the fundamental fantasy (TS 266).

It involves the complete removal of taboos. For instance, Zizek suggests it should involve a removal of taboos on the discussion of adult-child sex - though Zizek, in breach of his own principle of taking sides, stops short of "taking sides" on the issue itself (RL 22-3). (In a sense he is right - we need empirical discussion, not taboos - but we also need to take experiences of sexual abuse seriously, not merely reduce them to phantasmic products of political correctness!).

In an Act, one should act (and stand) alone, but nevertheless act as if God alone is acting - recognising that everything has always-already happened, but so this sustains rather than prevents engaged activity (OB 125).

Although Zizek elsewhere calls the Act ludic, he suggests in one passage that it means "the games are over" ("games" apparently meaning intellectuals producing shocking 'radical' ideas with no actual effectiveness, which entertain rulers). The Act repeats and feeds this message back "in its inverted/true form" [!!] to intellectuals who would be shocked by such a literal applicaton of it in action (RL 26). (This is still almost as problematic as before, but Zizek now seems to have recognised a progressive role for 'moderate' radicalism prior to the Act, implying more room for processes of drift).

Zizek also links the Act to what Sartre calls the 'fused group' (though his usual model involves the 'pledged group'): authentic communication "only" occurs via "solidarity in a common struggle", when the deadlock of self and other is discovered to be the same (TS 220).

SUBJECTIVE DESTITUTION: For Zizek, making a theory 'public' is not about actually persuading anything but about an inner act of self-negation: "You must be able to externalise your innermost experience" to qualify as an analyst; one "must recognize the irrationality of the world", "accept it", by "renouncing your narcissistic self" and "accepting some basic 'irreconcilability' " (CrS 25). It is the experience of 'resignation', of a certain impossibility, which "incites enthusiasm", i.e. a direct experience of the object through the failure of its representations (NRRT 259).

The Act also recognises others as the 'are' according to Zizek; he wants a "work of love" directed against the inertia of institutions, which requires an uncritical adoration of the Other as it is, not an idealised version (FA 128). This work according to Zizek creates an authentic community (FA 130; see CAPITALISM: Zizek identifies authentic community directly with work).

IDENTIFYING WITH THE SOCIAL SYMPTOM: Zizek sees proclamations like "we all live in Chernobyl" as "traversing the phantasy" by identifying with a symptom, i.e. "the exception where the repressed truth of the totality emerges" (CrS 34). The symptom to be identified with is for Zizek always a single point: "in each concrete constellation, there is one touchy nodal point of contention which decides where one 'truly stands' " (CHU 125), and one should demand the correct line on this issue as a prerequisite of the authentic act: anything else leaves one still on the enemy's terrain (CHU 126).

"I think the condition of being active politically is precisely to be unilateral: the structure of the political act as such is 'essentialist' " (CrS 34).

THE ACT AND THE ABSOLUTE/UNIVERSAL: The "universal function of 'humanity' " (RL 13), which is unrelated to humanism, occurs in sudden events where people realise the meaninglessness of their conflicts and it is as if an ethereal, spectral hand reaches across two utterly opposed symbolic realities, or across the gap between reality and dreams (RL 14-15).

Zizek connects the Act to redemption, although this is not the usual version of this: redemption is linked to lack, sadness and melancholy, not creation or aspiration. The past "bears within it its proper utopian promise of a future Redemption" (FA 89). Nature itself, especially animals, is aware of a lack in itself that humanity fills via language, so Zizek says nature has "the emergence of logos as its redemption" (FA 88). Following Benjamin, Zizek says that historians side with the bourgeoisie by using homogeneous empty time; there is a different temporal modality of the oppressed, which is 'filled' and discontinuous, consisting of the dark underside of 'civilisation' and the 'failures' which made the present possible. In this time of the oppressed, previous insurrections foresaw the present revolution, and the past and future are open due to a "yearning for redemption" (SOI 138). This time emerges, not in totalities, but by isolating details (SOI 139).

However, Zizek seems to be against redemption as such (DSST 71-2). I suspect it is the experience of being on the brink of redemption Zizek celebrates, not any possibility of it. Not only does he say betrayal is inevitable, he also says that recognising oneself in a call is always misrecognition (TS 259; "interpellation"). All projects necessarily fail due to the revenge of the "big Other", because the project is a presumption and a "crime" against this Other itself (TS 76-7). But for Zizek, the impossibility of a harmonious society does NOT lead to anti-utopian reformism or require us to "renounce any project of a global social transformation" (CHU 101). Apparently this is because one can still have the sublime experience even if the project is doomed to failure - though I don't see how this avoids his reproach to Laclau that the participant has to be either naive or cynical.

The Act as Universal relates mainly to its 'sublime' emotional dimension. For ZIzek, if one sees through appearances cynically, one is deceived; the believer believes in the appearance and therefore sees the dimension which shines through it - the fragile absolute, which appears only in "fleeting experiences" and "must be handled as carefully as a butterfly" (FA 128).

Ideology is based ultimately only on itself; what it offers is the certainty of going in one direction and therefore getting somewhere. But the moment one becomes aware of this, the ideological effect is spoilt (SOI 83-4).

IS THE ACT REVOLUTIONARY?: In RL, Zizek is now invoking a hope that history will eventually be on the side of those struggling against domination (RL 26) - although this hope doesn't necessarily mean Zizek thinks such a rearrangement is possible (it may be that he thinks it is the dimension of hope itself that we need). Zizek does appear, however, to be moving closer to a position that the Act really can change the world fundamentally in this essay.

Zizek wants "to hold this utopian place of a global alternative open, even if it remains empty [place=structural position], living off borrowed time, awaiting the content to fill it in". In the meantime, socialism and the welfare state are outdated [!], so we need "a new imaginary (a new mobilising global vision)" (CHU 325).

Zizek seems to think that a direct democracy with no excluded part is possible - it existed in "tribal pre-state societies" - but he opposes it because it is "not political" and therefore not fully "democratic" (TS 240). (i.e. presumably, because it lacks the dimension of the Act).

VANISHING MEDIATOR: A movement requires 2 figures: a founding figure and a later figure who formalises the movement (NB formalise=apply to the deep structure) - Marx and Lenin, Christ and St Paul, Freud and Lacan (RL 6; cf. on de Valera and Collins). (cf also "Betrayal").

EXAMPLES OF ACTS: Zizek seems to see Lenin as going through an Act. He was symbolically destituted by the sell-out by the 2nd International over WW1, and therefore was able to articulate the Truth of the catastrophe the world was going through, producing "the Leninist event" (RL 12). Lenin resultantly took a 'mad' stance for revolution, standing alone despite being dubbed as mad by those around him (RL 13).

* A series of related cases: when rival soldiers in the trenches suddenly start fraternising (RL 13); an incident where a cop chasing a protester in South Africa stops to pick up her shoe when it comes off and there is then an exchange of gazes - the superficial training in politeness has overcome deeper racism (RL 14 - NB the recurrence of the theme of self-overcoming and productivism etc., like in old 'civilisation' problematics); a song broadcast to the Russian troops in the war against Germany, which the Germans also heard and which briefly stopped the war (RL 14); a scene in a film where a rich person reaches out to a poor one from the dreamlike world of a passing train (RL 14). These are all apparently Acts - as opposed to a case where Hitler drew his curtains to avoid meeting wounded soldiers (RL 14-15).

* The experience of workers taking part as actors in a film in 1920, who felt that they were taking part in a world where films and life merged (RL 21).

* Baccanalean violence in Eisenstein films (RL 21)

* The Cultural Revolution in China, especially its destructive dimension; and a similar process in Lacanian theory, when Lacan dissolved his theoretical school by turning his younger followers against the 'mandarins' (RL 21-2).

* CORRECTION: Zizek is calling the Taleban monument-smashing a false Act, not an Act (an impotent passage l'acte - RL 32).

* CORRECTION: Passage l'acte is a FALSE ACT not an Act.

AGAINST THE ACT: Zizek specifically counterposes the Act to the project of overcoming common sense (in this case couched in 'Maoist' terminology): "This is how a true 'cultural revolution' should be conducted: not by directly targeting individuals, endeavouring to 'reeducate' them, to 'change their reactionary attitudes', but by depriving individuals of the support in the 'big Other', in the insitutional symbolic order" (RL 23). So instead of trying to persuade anyone of anything, Zizek wants to bypass human beings and impose an alternative society, which forces people to undergo change by depriving them of their social reference-points! As well as being totalitarian, this is also impractical; it would only work if all Zizek's assumptions about the deep structure are absolutely true. (Actually, faced with this kind of situation, people are more resilient than Zizek thinks: they reproduce their social structures through their own practice, and politically. eg. the case of Nowa Huta).

* Don't some Acts contradict each other? For instance: one can be found in the situation of having to choose between Leninism and de Gaulle in France; or the Bolsheviks and the church in Russia; or Tito (Stalinist/"Leninist") and the Chetniks (Gaulle-type reactionary resisters) in Yugoslavia.

* Zizek portrays the Act as anti-ethical, and as if this stance will miraculously produce mass support out of nowhere. This rules out the possibility of effetively changing anything.

* A founding 'Act' need not be against all ethical schemas, or in particular, against the founding of a new ethics (as Zizek on the Act as violence/terror suggests); the new social system is produced by actions, not motives, and so terror and the like cannot emancipate. There is no reason why having a positive ethics should prevent an effective confrontation with and overthrow of global capitalism and the state. For instance: if a group believes in the right to freedom of movement and the right to self-defence, it could end up in an irreducible conflict with the state and capitalism: to reclaim spaces, it would take direct action, for instance pushing through police lines; if the state tried to repress this, the group would use force to defeat the state. These tactics would not have to involve baccanalean excess (as Zizek thinks 'revolution' must); yet they could in principle (i.e. with a wide enough support-base) lead to the revolutionary overthrow of the present social system. If one's ethics diverge sufficiently from those of the system, one can end up in revolutionary situations without having to deviate in the slightest from one's own ethics (and without the need for ruthlessness, terror, an unconditional decision, etc., etc.). Such a transformation would also eliminate the 'need' for a vanishing mediator or a new emergence of psychological repression (since there would be no founding act which would not be comprehensible in terms of the new form of life/mode of thought and action). (NB not even the Black Block generally pursue the wanton tactics Zizek advocates - though police and fascist infiltrators employed to discredit the movement do).

* ZIzek's imperative to assume responsibility for something which one feels to come from an external imperative is similar to the process which Matza (in Delinquency and Drift) sees as producing delinquents' sense of unjust treatment; it is also probably a double-bind.

* I don't see how the imperative to identify with anathemas could apply all the time. Certainly one should not be blackmailed into dropping a well-founded view by anathemas; if you have discovered in historical research that states are unreliable and dangerous, and someone says "You can't say that, it's an anarchist position", then there is some value in replying "If the balaclava fits..." so to speak (ditto Marxism, etc.; there is also the ironic use of anathemas, eg. "anarchist travelling circus"; see also POLITICS on the special case of race-hate speech). However, this changes with the position being defended, and the interrogator. If the questioner happens to be Senator McCarthy, the reply to "Are you a Marxist?" may be quite different to the reply to a political ally. It also changes with the anathema. For instance, I don't see why someone with civil-libertarian concerns should identify with the label "anarchist", or someone in favour of social-democracy with the label "Marxist". In this case, the discrediting anathema is inappropriate, and identifying with it has the effect of adding an unnecessary minus-sign; further, it is easy to spread confusion this way, undermining both one's own cause and that of the group one inappropriately steals a label from (as in the case of Zizek's misuse of the "Lenin" signifier). Also, anathemas directed against dissidents are not limited to labels of dissidence; they also include general-purpose boo-words and political slanders: "fascist", "hooligan", "mindless thug", "spurious cause", "anti-democratic", "hell-bent on violence", "terrorist" and so on. These may be open to ironic reappropriation (cf. the term "fluffy terrorist" which subverts by its very incoherence); but it would be petty, pointless and counterproductive to in all seriousness declare "Yes, I'm a mindless thug with a spurious cause, and proud of it!", even when one's position is well-thought-out and one's cause is far from spurious.

This is linked into Zizek's sectarianism (ONE decisive issue, etc.). Neither subterfuge in relation to oppressors nor united fronts around partial issues are wrong on principle (Lenin is with me rather than Zizek on this one, also). Even with labels which are appropriate, one has to be careful not to be misunderstood by them (Marxism as Stalinism, socialism as state control, anarchism as mindless violence, etc.). In such cases the reply should be something like "Yes, I'm a Marxist/socialist/anarchist, but not what you mean by it" - and go hand-in-hand with an explanation. Zizek has confused many people (including Laclau) with his failure to explain what he means in caling himself a "Marxist" or a "Leninist"; he has also I suspect confused himself: his relationship to Stalinism remains perpetually unclear and ambiguous.

* Zizek is na‹ve. If Terror ends all the games, then it surely would end Zizek's games too. Would Stalin tolerate psychoanalysis? Even in a "liberal, tolerant" bourgeois court, Zizek would have difficulty passing off "true-inverted" statements as "the whole truth and nothing but the truth". (Imagine the scene: "I am telling the truth: objectively, structurally, I was not at the scene of the crime; I intended to help, not kill, this person. This may not have been my will at the time, but it was the content of the kernel of my subjectivity which I was then unable to assume. The evidence placing me at the scene of the crime is just a rationalisation, covering the prosecution from its own denial of the truth that I was not there. My innocence is a Heglian notion: it has a sublime Truth, and if in reality I did kill this person, then so much the worse for reality". One could repeat this with Bill Clinton's impeachment: "I could not have had sexual relations with that woman; according to Lacan there is no such thing as a sexual relationship". The point is not to show Zizek to be absurd; the point is that either the procedures of state control are justified, in which case Zizek's theory is absurd; or Zizek's theory and method are valid, in which case the state procedures are oppressive and Zizek has no place defending them). The recreation of 'authentic community' through manual labour might be a bit less attractive to Zizek if it meant he was forced to give up his job and go and work in a factory; the ruthless Master laying down the law would be less attractive if the law forebade Zizek to "dare" or to "go too far" in criticising the Master; the 'revolutionary' reconstruction of 'man' by mercilessly destroying the existing 'man' would be less attractive if Zizek was the 'man' being re-educated. The problem here is partly with the two levels of Zizek's analysis: he wants to pose as a quasi-scientific objective analyst of the deep structure of all societies, who at the level of his theory captures everything which exists (including the unspeakable: the Real, jouissance, etc.); but he also wants to treat all ideas as arbitrarily constructed by a master-signifier, so the whole of the field of meaning should be overturned. He provides no basis for this separation and it leads to problems between the form and content of his analysis (or between the standpoint of enunciation and the standpoint of the statement).


  • At July 29, 2008 at 10:32 AM, Blogger ejypt said…

    I think your intro is spot on: Zizek doesn't defend his framework, only cites selective examples that affirm it. As a Deluezian (whose concept of desire is practically the inverse of Lacan's) I have trouble accepting many of his most basic arguments, but I am frequently seduced by his pop culture examples (i.e. Diet Coke as objet petit a and such).


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