SLAVOJ ZIZEK, the Giant of Ljubljana, is like the great brain of Goethe’s fairytale “The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily”. In this revolutionary and allegorical tale (reputedly inspired by Mozart’s Magic Flute) there are two lands separated by a river. There are only two ways to cross the river. One is by ferry, and the boatman is a kind of sadist that exacts bizarre tribute for the occasion. The other is to wait for the giant to appear and appropriate his shadow as a type of liminal bridge — perhaps a metaphor for the umbra (or penumbra) of semi-consciousness and imagination.
Zizek, as this giant (or giant brain), has cast a very long shadow indeed in what can only be termed “cultural studies” (though he would despise the characterization). He is effectively the most brilliant purveyor of Lacanian mischief, and, as a follower of the French “liberator” of Freud, Zizek’s Lacan is almost exclusively transcribed in mesmerizing language games or intellectual parables. That he has an encyclopedic grasp of political, philosophical, literary, artistic, cinematic, and pop cultural currents — and that he has no qualms about throwing all of them into the stockpot of his imagination — is the prime reason he has dazzled his peers and confounded his critics for over ten years. He is also a legendary trickster (having learned his craft as part of the communist nomenklatura in Slovenia), a kind of Don Quixote for unrepentant Marxists and scourge of liberals, social democrats, new-age “obscurantists”, multi-culturalists, and … You get the picture.
I first sat through a Lacanian conference at NYU in the late 1990s and understood 10% of the language. It was, however, 110% thrilling. The sheer bravado of the performances by the French-inflected intellectuals was delightful and sexy. It was only later, in 2001, that I had an opportunity to hear Slavoj Zizek speak. The event was standing room only, and the venue was a very high-brow, conceptual art gallery called the Drawing Center in NYC. Zizek was reading/performing “Il n’y a pas de rapport religieux” from the latest edition of Lacanian Ink (#18), the movement’s journal. In this particular essay he rehearsed Lacan’s notion that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship but re-enscribed it in the context of something else (in this case ‘religion’) — as he is wont to do with most all his tactical maneuvers. The print version is illustrated with works by Damien Hirst. More striking, however, was that this perhaps marked the beginning of Zizek’s appropriation of St. Paul. This appropriation of St. Paul is significant insofar as when Zizek performs one of his acts of re-writing he is taking/ripping the original out of one context and inserting/transplanting it into another. In the case of St. Paul, what interested him most was that here was a figure (not a disciple!) who constructed the entire edifice of the Christian faith on the crucifixion and resurrection. Recall that in Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ (or at least Scorsese’s) Paul appears in the delusionary vision Jesus has — i.e., that he has escaped the cross and gone on to live, marry and have children — and repudiates Jesus as an imposter. Zizek is quick to point out (often) that post-modernists have multiple versions of everything — e.g., multiple versions of Nietzsche and multiple versions of Marx or Freud — but he also is the master of re-branding a concept, or a historical figure, to elucidate what might be best termed “synchronic or structural phenomena”. As a skilled structuralist (though he’d deny this too), Zizek constructs castles in the air and then sends a barrage of waves in pursuit of these tentative forms. He is Neptune to his own Odysseus — But he is also Minerva. In the case of Paul, as in the more recent resuscitation of Lenin, we witness Zizek isolating a critical moment, or even a failed moment, for purposes wholly related to the exasperating state of the current critical or failed moment — late-modern capitalism and post-modernity.
In such an intelligence we see the mark of an archaic synthetic brilliance — an almost heroic intelligence — that assembles, analyzes and destroys. His actual performances are theatrical events. He sweats bullets as he unpacks his torrent of complex references, flings asides, flings aside asides, tackles a hard kernel of Hegel or Marx, drops in an allusion to Hitchcock or even some pop cultural trash like the Worst-Case Scenario phenomenon or “Reality TV” to explain away our symptoms — to talk through our collective delusions and paranoias. His agitated (agit-prop) presentations are exhausting for the audience and for the actor. When he concludes, he invariable loses his bearings and is led off stage by his host or hostess. At the Drawing Center, he was whisked away by handlers (before the Lacanian bacchantes/babes could get to him?).
So what is he up to? And why does he succeed, where others have failed, in constructing an “actually-existing” alternative to left-right politics?
The version of Lenin that Zizek is re-enscribing into radical political discourse is ostensibly (by his own admission) the Lenin of the October Revolution, or the Lenin that had the epiphany that in order to have a revolution “you have to have a revolution”. Why is he doing this?
Primarily the goal appears to be to demolish the coordinates of the liberal hegemony that permit excess and aberration insofar as it does not threaten the true coordinates. He suggests as well that the true coordinates are much better hidden than we realize. The production of cultural difference (a trendy subject) is to Zizek the production of the inoperative dream — a dream that recalls perhaps Orwell’s 1984 or even Terry Gilliam’s Brazil where a kind of generic pastoralism or a sexualized nature substitutes for authentic freedom — the flip side of this is film noir. Zizek has determined that late-modern capitalism has engendered a whole range of alternative seductions to keep the eye and brain off of the real Real. The Real only exists as a fragment and this fragment is fast receding on the horizon as fantasy and often phantasm intercede. These dreams and nightmares are systemic, structural neuroses, and they are part of the coordinates of the hegemonic. The hegemon — the prevailing set of coordinates — always seeks to “take over” the Real, and, therefore, this contaminated Real must be periodically purged.
Without descending into the Lacanian house of mirrors we can understand this on an everyday level if we observe what Zizek is up to with “Lenin”. In his essay “Repeating Lenin” (1997) — ever the trickster, he convened a symposium on Lenin in Germany in part to see what the reaction would be — Zizek sets up a deconstruction of the idea of form to effectively liberate the idea of radical form. “[O]ne should not confuse this properly dialectical notion of Form with the liberal-multiculturalist notion of Form as the neutral framework of the multitude of ‘narratives’ — not only literature, but also politics, religion, science, they are all different narratives, stories we are telling ourselves about ourselves, and the ultimate goal of ethics is to guarantee the neutral space in which this multitude of narratives can peacefully coexist, in which everyone, from ethnic to sexual minorities, will have the right and possibility to tell his story. The properly dialectical notion of Form signals precisely the IMPOSSIBILITY of this liberal notion of Form: Form has nothing to do with ‘formalism,’ with the idea of a neutral Form, independent of its contingent particular content; it rather stands for the traumatic kernel of the Real, for the antagonism, which ‘colors’ the entire field in question […]” (italics added). He is interested, as most fire-breathing artists are, in discerning the real Real amid the rubbish of systems. In part, in appropriating “Lenin” he is also looking for the moment when Lenin realized that politics could one day be dissolved for a technocratic and agronomic utopia — “the [pure] management of things”. That Lenin failed is immaterial, since Zizek is extracting the signifier “Lenin” from the historical continuum which includes that failure — or the onslaught of Stalinism.
He adds: “‘Lenin’ is not the nostalgic name for old dogmatic certainty; quite on the contrary, to put it in Kierkegaard’s terms, THE Lenin which we want to retrieve is the Lenin-in-becoming, the Lenin whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a catastrophic new constellation in which old coordinates proved useless, and who was thus compelled to REINVENT Marxism–recall his acerb[ic] remark apropos of some new problem: ‘About this, Marx and Engels said not a word.’ The idea is not to return to Lenin, but to REPEAT him in the Kierkegaardian sense: to retrieve the same impulse in today’s constellation.” He compares 1914 to 1990, and, in a superb bit of multi-tasking, describes how Lenin attempted to convince long-suffering Russian soldiers to withdraw from the front and turn on the Czar. He does this by drawing on multiple, but singular examples of times when the Slave came face to face with the Master, as in the famous case of Hitler’s train being momentarily stalled en route through Thuringia when a second train full of wounded soldiers pulled alongside permitting Hitler to see them and they to see Hitler dining in splendour. (As a Zizek-inspired aside, let us note that this scene was folded into the recent film Enemy at the Gates (2001), a rather mannered depiction of the Battle for Stalingrad, wherein two snipers go up against one another and the entire war is collapsed into a game of cat and mouse.) Zizek marshals (martials?) several versions of this accidental (catastrophic) confrontation which is always-already suppressed to illustrate how the veil sometimes falls from the carefully constructed image we have both adopted and been inducted into. This image is the so-called Real but in fact the mirage constructed by the hegemonic “hidden hand”. Perhaps this is why Godard (and Herzog) both came round to admitting that there were no more images available for cinema and, as in Godard’s King Lear (1987), the audience is left effectively staring at a bare-naked light bulb.
“Today, more than ever, we should here return to Lenin: yes, economy is the key domain, the battle will be decided there, one has to break the spell of the global capitalism–BUT the intervention should be properly POLITICAL, not economic. The battle to be fought is thus a twofold one: first, yes, anticapitalism. However, anticapitalism without problematizing the capitalism’s POLITICAL form (liberal parliamentary democracy) is not sufficient, no matter how ‘radical’ it is. Perhaps THE lure today is the belief that one can undermine capitalism without effectively problematizing the liberal-democratic legacy which — as some Leftists claim — although engendered by capitalism, acquired autonomy and can serve to criticize capitalism.”
Here Zizek takes aim at all manner of post-cultural delusions — including Deleuzionary escapisms, and/or new Situationisms — in the manner that Marxists have long endorsed. On the one hand, the Left has decided to indulge “the long march through institutions”. On the other, the new surrealist or rote formalist is merely indulging in “ludic” games. These games usually come with the price of disengaging from the “proper” political, or, as with 1920s French Surrealism, playing at the political. This severe “Socratic” agenda — of deconstructing the coordinates of the ruling hegemony — is, for Zizek, impossible if the crisis of identity plaguing the late-modern subject (the doubling, tripling, quadrupling of identity) is not ‘cauterized’ by intellectual fire.
In his critique of contemporary capitalism Zizek finds not simply the conditions that Marx anathematized but those same conditions reified and made nearly intangible. “A certain excess which was as it were kept under check in previous history, perceived as a localizable perversion, as an excess, a deviation, is in capitalism elevated into the very principle of social life, in the speculative movement of money begetting more money, of a system which can survive only by constantly revolutionizing its own conditions, that is to say, in which the thing can only survive as its own excess, constantly exceeding its own ‘normal’ constraints […] Marx located the elementary capitalist antagonism in the opposition between use- and exchange-value: in capitalism, the potentials of this opposition are fully realized, the domain of exchange-values acquires autonomy, is transformed into the specter of self-propelling speculative capital which needs the productive capacities and needs of actual people only as its dispensable temporal embodiment.” In the era of globalization, then, the main question is: “Does today’s virtual capitalist not function in a homologous way — his ‘net value’ is zero, he directly operates just with the surplus, borrowing from the future?”
What Zizek is hammering away at, repeatedly and in various guises, is the empty present-day concept of the Universal (what I would call the meta-Real). The Universal is the form of forms (perhaps the urform of all forms) — as it signifies the latent content of all possible forms. This may seem hyper Platonic, but in fact such “higher” coordinates are the vacated premises of modern-day political economy. It is other possible concepts of political-economic form that are repeatedly revoked and/or given up for mutable, indeterminate, vague, and generally empty gestures in neo-liberalism. These empty gestures substitute for the meta-Real where everything critical is actually manipulated. This manipulated terrain, in Lacanian terms, interacts/intersects with the realm of the Symbolic — the place where the Thou Shalt Nots are inscribed. The Symbolic, in turn, is controlled by the collective force of the hegemonic, now “dematerialized” structures of late capitalism. Zizek’s complaints against “new social movements” is that they are generally “one issue movements” which do not engage the Universal. This totalizing language is partly a linguistic convention to confer a semantic and structuralist integrity to the idea of the Universal Singular, but also to circumvent or defuse the endless ineffective operations of “strictly limited goals” or “marketing” typified by the ubiquitous and generally tolerated NGOs. How many such organizations use a liberal, white guilt trip to raise funds? How many of these organizations exist only because government has been purged of its higher functions (its higher calling)?
“In a proper revolutionary breakthrough, the utopian future is neither simply fully realized, present, nor simply evoked as a distant promise which justified present violence — it is rather as if, in a unique suspension of temporality, in the short-circuit between the present and the future, we are — as if by Grace — for a brief time allowed to act AS IF the utopian future is (not yet fully here, but) already at hand, just there to be grabbed. Revolution is not experienced as a present hardship we have to endure for the happiness and freedom of the future generations, but as the present hardship over which this future happiness and freedom already cast their shadow — in it, we ALREADY ARE FREE WHILE FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM, we ALREADY ARE HAPPY WHILE FIGHTING FOR HAPPINESS, no matter how difficult the circumstances. Revolution is not a Merl[eau]-Pontyan wager, an act suspended in the futur anterieur, to be legitimized or delegitimized by the long term outcome of the present acts; it is as it were ITS OWN ONTOLOGICAL PROOF, an immediate index of its own truth.”
Hopping from peak to peak, and periodically descending into the valley of present-day culture for refreshment, Zizek outlines a topology of activity that recovers revealed truths. In many ways he is similar to a host of others who have sought to reverse the decimation of our experience of the world. Like Giorgio Agamben — see Infancy and History (1993) — he has utilized language to re-enscribe the terms of resistance and the game of turning things upside down to empty them out and examine them. His appropriations are classic as well as modern. His giant brain is an effective bridge to another world inside or opposite, above or below, or simply always-already here. His agenda is to foster and engender a withering critique of the structural chains that enslave late-modern man. His nostalgia is for very large gestures — for the meta-Real, the Universal, and the Formal. “THIS resistance is the answer to the question ‘Why Lenin?’: it is the signifier ‘Lenin’ which FORMALIZES this content found elsewhere, transforming a series of common notions into a truly subversive theoretical formation.”
Gavin Keeney is a landscape architect in New York, New York. and the author of On the Nature of Things, a book documenting the travails of contemporary American landscape architecture in the 1990s.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Slavoj Zizek’s essay Repeating Lenin (@ Lacan.com)
The new Karl Marx–“Capitalism has now triumphed, it is ‘the only game in town’, statist socialism is ‘dead’, and, yes, that is what Marx had said would happen all along.” Tittering at High Gate (The Guardian Unlimited, 05/19/02)
Zizek reviews Lenin by Hélène Carrère d’Encausse–“In 1914, an entire world disappeared, taking with it not only the bourgeois faith in progress, but the socialist movement that accompanied it. Lenin (the Lenin of What Is to Be Done?) felt the ground fall away from beneath his feet–there was, in his desperate reaction, no sense of satisfaction, no desire to say “I told you so.” At the same time, the catastrophe made possible the key Leninist Event: the overcoming of the evolutionary historicism of the Second International.” Seize the Day (The Guardian Unlimited, 07/23/02)
Alain Badiou rehearses his reappraisal of the 20th century–“Where are we today? The figure of active nihilism is regarded as completely obsolete. Every reasonable activity is limited, limiting, constrained by the burdens of reality. The best that one can do is to get away from evil, and to do this, the shortest path is to avoid any contact with the real. Ultimately one comes up against the nothing, the there-is-nothing-real, and in this sense one remains in nihilism. But since the terrorist element, the desire to purify the real, has been suppressed, nihilism is disactivated. It has become passive, or reactive, nihilism, that is, hostile to every action as well as to every thought.” One Divides Into Two (CultureMachine, 2000)
For a biography of Slavoj Zizek, see More Zizek