Excerpt: 'Žižek and Education' edited by Antonio Garcia


DancingPhilosopher, Žižek’s Multiple Voices, 2013 (CC)

From ‘The Threshold of the Žižekian: Notes Towards a Žižekian Pedagogy’ by Daniel Tutt:

Rarely do scholars of Žižek speak of themselves or their work as “Žižekian.” Most scholars of Žižek write about particular facets of his work, and the “Žižekian,” as a mark of one’s own approach to philosophy, is rarely cited in scholarly work on philosophy or critical theory more generally. Several notable works should be highlighted in the category of Žižek studies, including Adrian Johnston’s work on Žižek’s ontology[1], Fabio Vighi’s work on Zizek’s use of the dialectic[2], Adam Kotsko’s survey of Zizek’s “Christian materialist” theology[3], and the numerous interventions into aspects of Žižekian critique of ideology, ethics, Hegel, and Lacan published by various thinkers in the journal dedicated to Žižek studies, the International Journal of Žižek Studies. The diversity and range of these studies encompass important facets of the Žižekian project, but there still exists a general unwillingness to embrace the Žižekian in the same way many embrace philosophers whom we might place as contemporaries of Žižek, such as Badiou, Derrida, Deleuze or Heidegger. How might we come to understand this difficulty in embracing a distinctively Žižekian philosophical position?

The difficulty inherent to pinpointing and adopting a Žižekian philosophical project is tied to two factors, the broad scope of Žižek’s philosophical project[4], if one could define a singular scope, and the psychoanalytic relation between Žižek and his audience (readers). In this essay, I aim to demonstrate that both of these difficulties must be understood as working together, and we must look to the role of how Žižek’s interpretative project, i.e. his writing and thinking through philosophical problems, and his own psychoanalytic relation to his readers functions at the threshold of his project.

Buried deep within the “act” of Žižek’s interventions, (writings and performative lectures) there is transference and a resistance that takes place with his readers. This transference between Žižek and his readers is tied to the way that Žižek’s writing functions similar to an analytic session in the Lacanian sense, where the “reader-as-analyst” participates in the working through of Žižek’s own symptom. In Leigh Claire La Berge’s account, the reader-as-analyst is constructed around the fundamental fantasy that she claims Žižek’s work confronts, which is the confrontation with the postmodern in dialectical relation to the modern. By fantasy, La Berge means that Žižek’s interpretive interventions into the postmodern (film, popular culture, multiculturalism, and other post-ideological theoretical problems) present a knot that prevents the transition that Žižek truly desires, which is a more informed critique of political economy. In other words, Le Berge sees Žižek’s project as stalled insofar as his true desire never goes realized, and he instead seeks to move us out of late capitalism through theory, all the while neglecting what she sees as the elephant in the room, a critique of political economy[5]. In this context, the reader of Žižek, or the ‘reader-as-analyst’ is caught up in Žižek’s transference with postmodern critique, an endless series of variations on a theme which, for however much application of Lacan-Hegel and Marx, Žižek himself remains unable to break out of.

Where Le Berge’s account of Žižek’s fantasy falls short is in regards to Žižek’s critique of ideology. That the subject is never outside of ideology serves as an a priori to the Žižekian philosophical position, and instead of seeing Žižek’s critique of postmodern life, i.e. his critique of ideology as a forever stalled project, this essay argues that it entails a perspectival shift of knowledge towards a different type of knowledge, what we will call “emancipatory knowledge.” This shift seeks to bring the subject not only outside of ideology, but also in confrontation with his or her own split subjectivity. As Žižek is fond of repeating, we must reverse Marx’s 11th thesis in his, Theses on Feuerbach, that “philosophers have only interpreted the world and have not yet changed it.” It is interpretation that facilitates a shift in the perspectival field and a re-positioning of knowledge towards emancipation. This shift takes place at the threshold of the Žižekian, where the reader is faced with his or her own split subjectivity, and ultimately faced with his or her own un-freedom. As Žižek claims, “We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.[6]” Confronting one’s own relation to the Real and to reality is an a priori to the Žižekian, and it has pedagogical consequences, serving as a threshold, or entry point to the heart of the Žižekian.

We can understand Žižek’s placing of the subject (reader) in relation to the analyst, similar to how one of Žižek’s masters, Lacan also positioned his students and readers to his own teachings. Lacan used his public seminars as an opportunity to enter into a grand analytic discourse, where he himself was the analysand, and his students (readers) the analyst. Lacan played something of the hysteric in this position, demonstrating his own vulnerability and playing the role of the philosopher. After all, in analysis, it is the analysand (patient) who serves as the philosopher of his or her own problems, and not the analyst. This is why both Lacan and Žižek place themselves into the role of analysand to their students, who serve in a position of what Lacan called the discourse of the analyst. All throughout his Seminars, Lacan was aware of the potential catastrophe that his discourse might be reduced to slogans and lack any rigor, that the “university discourse” would eventually sweep it away. In Seminar XVII Lacan states, “what will you do with all that I say? Will you record it on a little thing and organize soirees by invitation only? – Hey, I’ve got a tape by Lacan![7]”

Like Lacan, Žižek is committed to applying Lacanian theory to today’s world, both as an intra-theoretical project, i.e. using Lacan’s metapsychology to revitalize German idealism and Hegelian dialectics, as well as a tool to understanding the challenges of emancipatory political projects. Yet like Lacan, Žižek is a rogue analyst, if one would ever venture to call Žižek an “analyst”. Alain Badiou encapsulates Žižek’s similarity to Lacan quite well:

Žižek’s lack of affiliation to any group of analysts grants him a freedom which he delights in abusing: jokes, repetitions, a captivating for the worst flicks, quick witted pornography, conceptual journalism, calculated histrionics, puns… In this perpetual dramatization of his thought, animated by a desire for bad taste, he ultimately resembles Lacan.[8]

Badiou is correct to note the similarity between Žižek and Lacan; however, we must note a qualitative difference in Žižek the writer, compared to Žižek the public intellectual. In both versions of the Žižekian, the public intellectual who “acts out” through performative dramatizations of himself: the fast-paced speech, nervous facial tics, and sweaty rapidity/repetition of jokes, as well as Žižek in his written work, we find the same position of the reader (subject). The reader is placed into the discourse of the analyst, and thus the subject of the Žižekian is one whereby a new relation to truth and emancipation is sought. As Žižek comments:

The analyst’s discourse stands for the emergence of revolutionary emancipatory subjectivity that resolves the split of university and hysteria. In it, the revolutionary agent– a –addresses the subject from the position of knowledge that occupies the place of truth (i.e., which intervenes in at the “symptomal torsion” of the subject’s constellation), and the goal is to isolate, get rid of, the master signifier that structured the subjects (ideologico-political unconscious)[9].

The threshold of the Žižekian consists first of a demand put onto the reader (subject) bringing them into a new relation to the Real – a process that makes any identity or reality inherently paradoxical, and thus the orientation towards the Žižekian is disorienting by its very nature. Žižek’s dialectical materialism is one primary way in which this shift towards emancipatory knowledge takes place. Dialectical materialism seeks, through interpretation of the phenomena of late capitalism, or ideology (democracy, tolerance, imperialism, etc.) identification with the repressed Real, which always returns in the form of a traumatic intervention into the social (symbolic).[10] The return of the real is what reveals the inherent inconsistency of the Master-Signifier, or the figure that stands in for the real in any given field. As Lacan articulated, and as Žižek points out in his work, the empty Master-Signifier is the point whereby the signifier collapses into its signified. The empty Master-signifier situates the fields within an ideological constellation. Žižek’s ontological position, because it suspends all symbolic identity and all reality as inconsistent/incomplete (non-All), is premised on the notion that the subject has the potential to be radically autonomous, or free. The exposure of the Real within an ideological field serves as the threshold of the Žižekian, an exposure of the inconsistent network of signifiers defined by relations of difference with one another. As Žižek claims, “We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.[11]” Confronting one’s own relation to the Real is an a priori to the Žižekian, and it has pedagogical consequences, serving as a threshold or entry point to the heart of the Žižekian. Before considering the pedagogical consequence of the Žižekian, we will examine Žižek’s debate with Alain Badiou over the role of the Master and the Master’s discourse in relation to emancipatory political change today.

The Persisting Challenge of the Discourse of the Master

A true master is only he who can provoke the other to transform himself through his acts.[12]
— Hegel

The injunction of the postmodern master under the reigning university discourse is “pretend to be free” yet all servitude is disavowed[13]. Freedom is thus construed in an ideological field that arises out of the university discourse. In the university discourse, the position of thinking as such, is dominated by neutral knowledge means that one’s ability to facilitate political change and emancipation is rendered inoperable. Badiou refers to this inoperability as “atonal”. This atonality is at the same time riddled by a big Other – or socio-symbolic system facing a precarious position, particularly in the position of the Master. The ubiquity of atonality in late capitalism as Žižek notes in Violence,

a basic feature of our postmodern world is that it tries to dispense with this agency of the ordering Master-Signifier: the complexity of the world needs to be asserted unconditionally. Every Master-Signifier meant to impose some order on it must be deconstructed, dispersed: the modern apology for the ‘complexity’ of the world…is really nothing but a generalized desire for atonality.[14]

Today’s symbolic landscape is atonal due to a larger shift in the superego following the historical decline of a mediating third Other (nation, state, parents, etc.). Dany-Robert Dufour, a Lacanian theorist, argues that the symbolic in late capitalism is “ultra-transcendental,” meaning that it functions without any reliance on a big Other for the subject. The subject is formed in a completely self-referential fashion, in a symbolic where, for the first time in history, the subject can constitute itself without reference to any third entity[15]. This absence of an assured big Other is what causes the world to be atonal, or lacking a master signifier that situates the entire field.

In a recent lecture,[16] Žižek comments that his ongoing debate with Badiou revolves around the role of the Master in facilitating emancipatory political change. Importantly, the Master is not necessarily the same thing as a master signifier. The master signifier serves as a quilting point within the chain of signifiers that creates a “new harmony” to the entire field. Žižek argues that today we are experiencing the final decline of the figure of the Master as the privileged mark of symbolic authority. But the decline of the Master brings with it an inherent danger – postmodern atonality is faced with its own abyssal basis of dependence on the Master, which is one way to understand populism and the rise of religious fundamentalisms, as a response to the decline of a certain Master in social and group life. Žižek’s critique of ideology seeks a confrontation with the role of the Master’s discourse, a legacy of Lacan’s unfinished theoretical project.

Lacan unveiled the illusions on which capitalist reality as well as its false transgressions are based, but his final result is that we are condemned to domination— the Master is the constitutive ingredient of the very symbolic order, so the attempts to overcome domination only generate new figures of the Master. The great task of those who are ready to go through Lacan is thus to articulate the space for a revolt which will not be recaptured by one or another version of the discourse of the Master.[17]

Žižek presents an important nuance between what is to fill in the empty seat of symbolic authority, which emancipatory discourse has privileged as the seat of the Master, and the inability to return to the master’s discourse. This tension must be read as a fundamental tension in all of Žižek’s work.

How true is Žižek’s accusation that Badiou relies on the Master to situate – or to use Badiou’s parlance, to “suture” the social link? For Badiou, there is an ambiguity to the role of the Master in facilitating emancipatory change. Jamieson Webster in a recent text, The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis: On Unconscious Desire and Sublimation, hits upon this ambiguity in Badiou’s thought from within the discourse of psychoanalysis in particular. Webster argues that that figure of Badiou himself – as a philosopher of the Truth-Event, presents us with a figure of the Master able to facilitate a new quilting point in an otherwise atonal world “devoid of passages.” Webster claims that Badiou’s position of mastery is brought on by his own movement away from Lacan’s discourse, for as Badiou repeatedly claims, there can be no philosopher today who has not gone through Lacan’s anti-philosophy. In so doing, Badiou himself, as the figure of the Master, has “disavowed the value of semblance,” making his own figure function as the “last master of the primal horde.[18]”

Badiou as the Master, in Webster’s account, resolves the deadlock between desire and love, a problem that permeates the entire social field[19].  It is the masterly figure of Badiou, the philosopher that resolves deadlock on the side of love that presents the answer to the deadlock of emancipatory politics today. In his refusal to be drawn into the desire of the analyst, the philosopher (Badiou) is placed in the position of the impasse itself, occupying the place of the Master.

Badiou, one could say, is the real master that Lacan said everyone has failed to understand – the father of the primal horde. He is the one who outlines the eternal place held by the father in all his many dimensions. He is, if we are to work through a continuing petit hysterie, the most important figure for psychoanalysis to begin to understand.[20]

Thinking Change: Žižekian Act vs. Badiouian Event

Both Žižek and Badiou envision change to the field of postmodern atonality through the Act (Žižek) and the Truth-Event (Badiou). Badiou’s Truth-Event and Žižek’s Act both stem from Lacan’s own conception of the act. For Badiou, a Truth-Event is an exception to the order of being qua being, or the state of the situation. The Truth-Event is an acrhiopolitical movement for the individual; a modification in a world that spurn on a process of Subjectivization, i.e. the Truth-Event brings transforms the human animal to the status of a Subject. The Truth-Event is similar to Lacan’s point de caption that leads to a process of naming the Event. As Žižek notes, this positive establishment of the Event is what distinguishes Badiou from Lacan:

That is the difference between Lacan and Badiou: Lacan insists on the primacy the (negative) act over the (positive) establishment of a ‘new harmony’ via the intervention of some new Master-Signifier; while for Badiou, the different facets of negativity (ethical catastrophes) arc reduced to so many versions of the ‘betrayal’ of (or infidelity, or denial or) the positive Truth Event.[21]

Žižek’s conception of the Act is quite different than Badiou’s Truth-Event because his allegiance to the core Freudian role of death drive prevents the emergence of any positive change to the constitution of being. For Žižek, every Act ultimately remains a semblance obfuscating a preceding Void whose Freudian name is death drive.[22] In fact, Žižek’s primary critique of Badiou’s Event is that the negativity of anxiety and death drive has to be posited prior to the affirmative enthusiasm for the Event, serving as it’s condition of possibility.[23] Because a master signifier is irrational, it excludes any intrusion of rational choice theory. Choices are calculated irrationally due to the big Other, which is why an Act intervenes into the scene of the big Other and changes the basis of its rules. This is why it must be stressed that an Act in the Žižekian conception is not an acrhiopolitical Event as it is for Badiou. The Act can be a seemingly minor action, as it entails full acceptance of one’s “second death” and remains authorized not by any big Other, but only by itself, and thus it precludes any self-instrumentalization.[24]

In the concluding chapter of Less Than Nothing Žižek highlights how his conception of the Act serves as an ethical position that remains pre-political in the sense that the void of the Freudian death drive always prevents the emergence of an entirely new Subject[25]. This is why Žižek rejects the very notion of Subjectivization, or full realization of a subjective position. It is also, in a somewhat unrelated way, why Žižek critiques Buddhism. In the Buddhist notion of enlightenment, the subject is taken out of the chain of being and of suffering, i.e. the Subject moves out of the cycle of the death drive and repetition. For Žižek, Buddhism overlooks the way the death drive always re-inscribes the human animal back into the negative order of being, regardless of whether an Event or an Act has fundamentally changed the social field. This is also why the Act happens more frequently for Žižek than the Event does for Badiou. The Act is a modest gesture for Žižek:

One cannot ever be sure in advance of what appears (within the register and the space of visibility of the ruling ideology) as a “minor” measure will not set in motion a process that will lead to the radical (evental) transformation of the whole field.[26]

In Seminar XVII on the four discourses, Lacan demonstrates that knowledge is what brings life to a halt on the path to jouissance (desire)[27]. Each discourse (the analyst, the university, the master and the hysteric) serves as a social link, and as Lacan remarks, “each of them takes itself for the truth. Only the analytic discourse makes an exception[28].” Lacan has four elements of any given discourse: the chain of ordinary signifiers (S2); the Master Signifier (S1); the barred subject ($); and the object (a). It is the university discourse that presents the reigning control over knowledge in late capitalism. By placing knowledge (S2) in the place of the Master-signifier, it renders anonymous and neutral all knowledge, which is why thinking emancipatory political change remains atonal.

As mentioned at the outset, the confrontation with one’s own unfreedom, i.e. with one’s own split subjectivity, is the a priori of the Žižekian. The university discourse is divided by life and desire and thus its own function is to exclude the divided, alienated subject, by excluding antagonism and tension by integrating it into the existing social network[29]. This exclusion of antagonism is reversed in the Žižekian discourse, where the first step in emancipatory practice lies in the articulation of our unfreedom. As Levi Bryant has suggested, Žižek develops a fifth discourse that reveals how:

On the one hand, knowledge– ideology –is what is excluded by this discourse in order to function. The ideological justifications for the existing social order are placed in brackets, called into question, revealed as riddled with contradictions and antagonisms. On the other hand, the pursuit of a different form of knowledge and new institutions is now what drives this discourse.  This would be revolutionary knowledge that analyzes and engages the social field from the standpoint of its constitutive antagonisms.[30]

The shift from the neutral knowledge of the university discourse to that of emancipatory knowledge can be understood from an Hegelian perspective as the move from the in-itself to the for-itself of the political act. For Hegel, the in-itself is merely a bundle of self-reflexive negativity, but in the political act (for-itself), subjectivity is enacted and realized, as the act itself. The Žižekian Act then resembles Hegelian reconciliation in the perspectival shift that it promotes for the subject (student) engaged in it. For Hegel, the entire point of reconciliation is that we change not only the objective circumstances of a situation, but that we also change the entire way that we see and come to value that situation. All dialectical processes are not safeguarded by a mechanism of redemption that synthesizes, but in Hegelian recognition, things always fall short. Hegel points out that what constitutes reconciliation is a story of the necessary failure of every success (of every project or act), the story of how the only “success” the subject can gain is the reflexive shift of perspective which recognizes success in failure itself[31].

Neoliberal Education as Dispotif and Žižekian Pedagogy 

As Henry Giroux points out, the neoliberal academe produces knowledge that’s always tied to the service of the market and capitalist commodity relations[32]. Giroux’s work on neoliberal education shows that the entire system is model is knotted with the political, the cultural and the social. This linkage forms an apparatus in the Foucauldian sense of the term. An apparatus, or “dispotif,” is a network of power relations that are established between various discourses. In the example of the neoliberal educational apparatus, the nexus is formed along the market, the state, and the academe; each discourse working in tandem to form what Foucault refers to as a subjectification process of the agents engaged in it. The subjectification process works on subjects at the juncture between catching their desire and the open natural expression of that desire into a system to order and discipline being. The more effective the dispotif is in capturing ones desire, the more powerful its hold over subjects will be[33]. If we link the apparatus of neoliberal education onto this dispotif model, the Žižekian form of pedagogy serves as a practical modality for thinking a possible rupture in it.

The Žižekian pedagogical relation between student and teacher places the teacher into the position of the analysand; meaning that the student is given the privileged site of thinking the rupture in the dispotif[34]. If the analyst is placed in the position of the student, this means that their role in traversing the fundamental fantasy (the reign of university discourse under late capitalism) like the Act as explored above, requires a movement beyond dependence on the big Other. Thinking a rupture in the dispotif is thus synonymous with traversing the fantasy that sustains the dispotif. In the case of neoliberal education, is the fantasy not the false notion that knowledge must be put towards the service of the market, and thus neutralized? This traversal of the fantasy of the dispotif is one in which the student must also undergo a subjective transformation that we have characterized as the threshold of the Žižekian. This transformation opens the student up to a new relation to truth. Because truth is not revealed in any socio-symbolic coordinates, or through the expert knowledge under the university discourse, the truth is not intersubjectively discovered as we find in Habermas. Truth, in the Žižekian field is only accessible from the position of those who are excluded – and thus, it is the student that is put into the position of universality as excluded object a. Facing the real; the student is the excluded universal exception. The student becomes the mark of the inconsistency of the sociosymbolic big Other; thus the “truth” of the entire social field (the big Other) can be located in the emancipatory knowledge gained through the students work in applying emancipatory knowledge to the field.

Excerpt republished from Žižek and Education, edited by Antonio Garcia, Sense Publishing, forthcoming August 2014. Excerpt republished with permission of the author, Daniel Tutt.

[1] Adrian Johnston’s text, Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity is notable in this regard as it draws out the unique constellation of Zizek’s appropriation of German idealism (Schelling and Hegel) with Lacan’s metapsychology – revealing a consistent thinking of materiality (nature, body, world) as internally inconsistent, shot through with antagonisms, despite the wide array of Zizek’s interrogations into popular culture, politics, etc.

[2] Fabio Vighi’s On Zizek’s Dialectics: Surplus, Subtraction, Sublimation develops a theory of Žižek application of the dialectic that places it into context with Marx, Foucault and psychoanalysis.

[3] Adam Kotsko’s Zizek’s Theology is an important companion to understanding how one can truly apply the Žižekian to the theological field, but it does not provide us with a more all-encompassing sense of the Žižekian.

[4] Žižek defines his work as revolving around the question of postmodernity and modernity, where his interventions ask, “is it still possible to pursue the Enlightenment goal of knowledge under conditions of late capitalism?”

[5] Claire La Berge, Leigh “The Writing Cure: Slavoj Žižek, Analysand of Modernity” Bowman, Paul, and Richard Stamp (2007), eds., from The Truth of Zizek, (London; Continuum, 2008).

[6] Žižek, Slavoj, “Introduction: The Missing Ink”, in Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London; Verso, 2002), 2.

[7] Lacan, Jacques, Seminar XVII, translated by Bruce Fink (New York; Norton and Company, 1999), 46.

[8] Badiou, Alain, Logics of Worlds, (London; Continuum, 2006), 652 – 563.

[9] Žižek, Slavoj, “Jacques Lacan’s Four Discourses”

[10] Žižek interprets the symbolic as always alienated from itself, a position that was held by Lacan in his late work. For Žižek, the symbolic order does not have an order that controls it, and the problem lies around the existence of the big Other as such. By this stage of his work, the symbolic is itself alienated and thus its Laws function anonymously. Žižek notes that it is this anonymous order that is the big Other, particularly in the context of our postmodern and post totalitarian societies.

[11] “Introduction: The Missing Ink”, in Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (New York; Verso, 2002), 2.

[12] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friederich Hegel and the Human Spirit: A Translation of the Jena Lectures on the Philosophy of Spirit (1805-6) with Commentary, (Detroit; Wayne State University Press, 1983),199.

[13] Zizek, Slavoj Less Than Nothing, (New York; Verso, 2012), 995.

[14] Žižek, Slavoj Violence (New York, Verso, 2008), 98.

[15] Dufour The Art of Shrinking Heads: On the New Servitude of the Liberated in the Age of Total Capitalism, (Malden, MA; Polity Press, 2008), 22.

[16] “A Reply to My Critics,” lecture held on February 23rd, 2013

[17] Žižek, Slavoj Less Than Nothing (New York; Verso, 2012), 616.

[18] Webster, Jamieson, Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, (London, Karnac Books, 2011), 79.

[19] Freud in Civilization and its Discontents develops this argument at some length.

[20] Ibid, 99.

[21] Žižek, Slavoj The Ticklish Subject, (New York; Verso, 1999), 159.

[22] Ibid, 154

[23] Zizek, Slavoj, Less Than Nothing, (New York, Verso, 2012), 807.

[24] Zizek, Slavoj The Ticklish Subject (New York; Verso, 1999), 351.

[25] Žižek, Slavoj Less Than Nothing, (Verso, New York, 2012), 992.

[26] Johnston, Adrian “Žižek, Badiou: Notes on an ongoing project,” International Journal of Žižek Studies, 5

[27] Lacan, Jacques, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis: Book XVII, translated by Russell Grigg (New York; Norton and Company, 1999), 70 – 73.

[28] Ibid, 53.

[29] Bryant, Levi. Žižek’s New Universe of Discourse: Politics and the Discourse of the Capitalist. International Journal of Žižek Studies, 35

[30] Ibid, 36.

[31] Žižek, Slavoj Less Than Nothing, (Verso, New York, NY 2012), 520.

[32] Giroux, Henry America on the Edge: Henry Giroux on Politics, Culture and Education (Palgrave McMillan, new York, NY, 2009), 214.

[33] Agamben, Giorgio, What is an Apparatus?, (Palo Alto; Stanford University Press, 2009), 43.

[34] Zizek, Slavoj, Less Than Nothing, (New York, Verso, 2012), 994.