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Zizek Politics a Critical Introduction

Zizek Politics a Critical Introduction

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Much of the supposed novelty and the difficulty surrounding Žižek’s
work really has to do with the lack of any historical perspective that
is a consequence of our postmodern condition. Theoretical fashion
often treats the latest celebrity Theorists as if they had sprung fresh
from Zeus’ thigh, or come down in the last shower. By contrast,
we intend to assess Žižek’s work against a larger philosophical and
historical background, as a thinker who offers a political philosophy
that can and should be assessed in the terms proper to that discipline.
Žižek has, after all, often argued that we should be wary of today’s
craze for ‘the new’, the ‘most radical’, and so on – so paradoxically
sometimes the most radical thing to do is to assess all this alleged
novelty against more lasting standards.
Political philosophy begins from the opinions of citizens about the
rightness of the political regimes in which they live, the distribution
of the goods and the obligations of citizenship. Political philosophy’s
goal is to ascend from these opinions, towards views about what
is possible and desirable based on new insights into what is last-
ingly true. Its origin lies in the unavoidable fact of political life, that
people’s political opinions disagree, and that this disagreement can
often be bitter or even violent. What the political philosopher seeks
to do is to discover some higher standard with reference to which
we could assess all competing opinions about what is possible and
desirable.

The standard to which political philosophers are inevitably
drawn are competing accounts of the human condition. Once we
know what kind of creatures we are, we can decide how we ought

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to organise our political lives, and what measures we can feasibly
adopt to change our political regimes for the better. The history of
political philosophy has provided numerous accounts of the human
condition: we are rational political beings, or we are god’s creatures,
or we are cunning and dangerous animals, or we are naturally asocial
individual pleasure maximisers, or we are inescapably social com-
munal beings. Political philosophers have duly opted on the basis of
their accounts of the human condition for different political ideals:
from the utopia of a state run by philosophers to societies in which
free markets regulate almost all social life, from socialist states in
which all are equal to highly hierarchical aristocracies or monarchies
with Kings as the earthly representatives of God. The political phi-
losopher’s account of human nature leads to a description of political
ideals that the philosopher holds to be desirable (because they accord
with human nature), tempering these ideals against a considered
reflection upon what is possible in any particular historical time or
regime.

Fortunately, we can unpack a lot of Žižek’s ideas about human
nature, political community and social ideals, and make some deci-
sions ourselves about the possibility and desirability of the two
basic positions (radical- democratic and revolutionary vanguardist)
that he takes. Žižek explicitly advocates a conception of the human
condition based on Lacanian psychoanalysis, according to which the
kernel of the human condition is the death drive. Surplus enjoyment,
or the death drive, he tells us explicitly:

defines the human condition as such: there is no solution, no escape from
it; the thing to do is not to overcome, to abolish it, but to learn to recog-
nise it in its terrifying dimension and then, on the basis of this fundamen-
tal recognition, to try to articulate a modus vivendi with it. (SO 5)

So Žižek’s claim to have theorised ‘enjoyment as a political factor’
is not just a claim to have noticed something interesting about
political ideologies. It is a claim about how the most basic element in
human nature affects political communities. This claim is so funda-
mental that he repeats it many times in his books, in the form of an
anthropological observation about the North American first nation
of the Winnebago, which Žižek clearly feels applies to all human
societies:

[The Winnebago] is divided into two subgroups, ‘those who are from
above’ and ‘those who are from below’; when we ask an individual to
draw . . . the plan of his village (the spatial disposition of cottages), we

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introduction

obtain two quite different answers, depending on his belonging to one or
the other subgroup. Both perceive the village as a circle, but for one sub-
group, there is, within this circle, another circle of central houses, so that
we have two concentric circles, while for the other subgroup, the circle is
split in two by a clear dividing line. In other words, a member of the first
group (let us call it ‘conservative corporatist’) perceives the plan of the
village as a ring of houses more or less symmetrically disposed around the
central temple, whereas a member of the second (‘revolutionary antago-
nistic’) subgroup perceives the village as two distinct heaps of houses sep-
arated by an invisible frontier. The central point of [this anthropological
observation] is that this example should in no way entice us into cultural
relativism, according to which the perception of social space depends on
the observer’s group membership: the very splitting into the two ‘relative’
perceptions implies a hidden reference to a constant – not to the objective,
‘actual’ disposition of buildings, but to a traumatic kernel, a fundamen-
tal antagonism that inhabitants of the village were unable to symbolize,
to account for, to ‘internalize’ and come to terms with; an imbalance in
social relations that prevented the community from stabilizing itself into
a harmonious whole. The two perceptions of the village’s plan are simply
two mutually exclusive attempts to cope with this traumatic antagonism,
to heal its wound via the imposition of a balanced symbolic structure.
(CHU 112–13; FA 51; TS 221–2)

So Žižek’s philosophical anthropology means we are driven by the
death drive, compelled to repeat the institutional rituals of our politi-
cal communities, in a fantasmatic bid to recover the enjoyment suppos-
edly lost when we gained our social identities by adopting shared ideals
and accepting shared prohibitions. But, Žižek adds, this ideo logical
‘fantasy’ of the loss of enjoyment gets projected onto those who, in
society, have adopted other social ideals. In ideological fantasy, it is
always they who have stolen the enjoyment (TS 201–5). According
to whether the subject has adopted dominant or subordinate social
ideals, their perception of how the others have stolen the subject’s
enjoyment will differ drastically. This leads to the split he describes
between ‘conservative- corporate’ and ‘revolutionary- antagonistic’
visions of the social whole. Notice, though, that this division in society
is absolutely necessary: there is no ‘enjoyment as a political factor’
without the fantasy of the ‘theft of enjoyment’, and, without enjoy-
ment as a political factor, there are no social ideals and, hence, no
society, because social ideals bind groups into collectivities.
Žižek’s account of human nature is also, notably, one whose con-
clusion is that all political communities are inherently antagonistic or
divided. This is why he speaks of social life in terms of the experience

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of ‘a traumatic kernel [and] a fundamental antagonism’ that cannot
be symbolised. If political passions run hot, but subjects themselves
cannot explain why, this is because ‘society as a Corporate Body is
the fundamental ideological fantasy’ (SO 126). But in fantasy it is
always the fault of the other group that social harmony is mysteri-
ously prevented.

Unsurprisingly, Žižek’s conception of human nature as centred
on the death drive and political community as inherently riven by
social antagonism shapes what he thinks is possible and desirable
in politics. More surprisingly, he reaches two distinct conclusions
on this matter. In his work from 1989 to 1995 he advocates finding
a better way to live with this traumatic fact through the structural
reform of political communities. This coincides with his radical-
democratic politics and his concentration on the subject of desire.
After 1996 Žižek seems to advocate the elimination of social antago-
nism through the creation of a radically new sort of political commu-
nity. This coincides with his revolutionary vanguardist politics and
his interest in the subject of the drive.
One task of the critical aspect of this book is to indicate our judge-
ment on which of these positions is more possible and most desirable,
while supplying readers with sufficient information to reach their
own conclusions.

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