The Ticldish SQJbjed: The Absent Cefiltre of pom:icel!!

Slavoj Zizek London: Verso, 1999

Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporel!r'Y Dialogues on Left
Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj Zizek


Verso, 2000

Slavoj Zizek has emerged, since the appearance of his first book in English - The Sublime Object of Ideology - in 1989, as a leading figure in critical theory. Terry Eagleton (not exactly the easiest person to please) has called him 'the most formidably brilliant exponent of psychoanalysis, indeed of cultural in general, to have emler~;ed in Europe for some decades'.1 The energy and panache with which Zizek writes, the vitality of his philosophical imagination, the subtlety of his arguments, and the range of his cultural reference all command attention. Not least of the virtues of the texts that he has produced over the past decade or so with such bewildering speed is that they show it is possible to write about complex philosophical ideas in a way that is both accessible and, quite often, entertaining. There is a lesson here for many writing in both the so-called continental and analytical traditions, who appear to believe that obscurity of style is an index of profundity of thought. But, if there can be no doubt of the quality of Zizek's writing, it was, till recently, more difficult to place it politically. His work has operated at the confluence of four discourses Lacanian psychoanalysis, German classical idealist philosophy, Althusserian Marxism, and film criticism, with the emphasis particularly on the first two. Thus Zizek writes 'of the great German Idealists from Kant to Hegel: for me, this tradition forms the unsurpassable horizon of our philosophical experience, and the core of my work is the endeavour to use Lacan as a privileged intellectual tool to reactualize German Idealism.'2 Nevertheless, stimulating though Zizek's texts might be, they did not seem to have any very directly political implications, certainly of a radical character. Thus, the very interesting discussion of the theory of ideology in The Sublime Object of Ideology seemed more in the


Eagleton 1999, p. 8. Preface to Wright and Wright 1999, p. ix. For a particularly example of his f1lm criticism, see Zizek 2000b.


nature of a formal clarification than anything leading obviously to any kind of substantive analysis.3 Zizek's most recent work, therefore, marks a significant shift, towards a much more explicitly political, and, indeed, anti-capitalist inflection.4 Thus Zizek describes his most important book to date, The Ticklish Subject, as 'first and foremost an engaged political intervention, addressing the burning question of how we are to reformulate a leftist anti-capitalist project in our era of global capitalism and its ideological supplement, liberal-democratic multiculturalism.' This is literally a burning question: Zizek goes on to refer to the fires that swept through large parts of southeast Asia in 1997, at time when the region was also being devastated by economic and financial crisis: 'This catastrophe thus gives body to the Real of our time: the thrust of Capital which ruthlessly disregards and destrols particular life-worlds, threatening the very survival of humanity.' Of course, for many intellectuals who regard themselves as in some sense critical of the existing order, pursuing an anti-capitalist project is very far from being a pressing issue. For them, capitalism is precisely what cannot be opposed: all we can hope for, at best, are reforms that make the existing economic system somewhat more humane and democratic. Tony Giddens's apologias for the Third Way represent a particularly debased version of this view, but there are many others who take up essentially the same stance.6 The distance between these views and Zizek's current position is indicated by the texts in which he takes up a supportive position towards Lenin and the Lukacs of History and Class Consciousness, whom he describes as the 'philosopher of Leninism'.7 Now that the pendulum has begun to swing back in reaction against the extreme neoliberal triumphalism of the early 1990s, it has become acceptable to highlight Marx's enduring strengths: a sympathetic biography even hit the British best-seller lists in 1999. But Lenin is a different case - firmly expelled far beyond the pale of polite intellectual society, even on the Left, portrayed in fashionable texts such as Orlando Figes's hugely over-praised A People's Tragedy as a bloodthirsty totalitarian monster. It is, then, a sign of Zizek's See alsothe discussionof different Marxist approaches to ideologyin Zizek 1994. 4 That this work represents a shift might be contested by some, including Zizek himself. I document some changes with respect to his earlier work below. 5 Zizek 1999a, p. 4. 6 See Callinicos 1999, Isaac 2000, and Callinicos2000a. 7 Zizek 2000a, p. 154.


radicalisation that he now repeatedly insists on Lenin's importance as a reference-point for contemporary left politics. This radicalisation is, as I have said, very evident in The Ticklish Subject. This is a rich and stimulating work, full of fascinating discussions of particular topics and themes. It is especially interesting because of the relationship Zizek seeks to establish between some of his most abstract philosophical arguments and more directly political themes. But, since the former involve detailed engagement with some of the most difficult issues in the German philosophical tradition, it may be helpful to approach them via the grid that another book, Contingency, Hegemony and Universality, offers us to plot Zizek's evolution. This is a collective work, involving a three-way debate between Zizek and two other leading 8 critical theorists, Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau.

The common reference point of the three participants is provided by Hegemov and Socialist Strategy, written by Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. This book, the founding text of what the authors call 'post-Marxism', can be described as an attempt to extract something positive from the unravelling of Althusserian Marxism. From the start, Althusser's project had been structured around a constitutive tension between, on the one hand, his commitment to reconstructing rather than abandoning classical Marxism, with its insistence on conceptualising society as a totality and on the explanatory primacy of the economic, and, on the other hand, his stress on the heterogeneity of the social, the inherent plurality of practices, and the dependence of theoretical discourses on purely internal criteria of validity. The most influential demonstration in the English speaking world that these two aspects of Althusserian Marxism were mutually inconsistent was provided by Barry Hindess's and Paul Hirst's internal critique. The outcome in Hindess's and Hirst's case was a kind of pluralist idealism, according to which social structures and practices lacked any necessary unity, and discourses constructed their own objects rather than in any sense corresponded to an lO independently existing real. It willsoon become clear that, given the cross-cutting philosophicaland political allegiancesof the three authors, the debate is a complex one. I concentrate here on those aspects relevant to an assessment of Zizek's development. 9 Butler, Laclau,Zizek 2000, p. 1. 10 See especiallyHindess and Hirst 1977.


p. Hindess and Hirst took it for granted that these elements themselves had an ascertainable fIxed identity.14 11 Laclau and Mouffe 1985. Therefore: if the system is not closed. literary genres.13 Once we take seriously the idea that 'reality' has the structure of discourse. 13 Lac1au 1988. p. 104. metonymy. 253-4.Laclau and Mouffe share Hindess's and Hirst's textualism: The main consequence of a break with the discursiveiextradiscursive dichotomy is the abandonment of the thoughtireality opposition and hence a major enlargement of the field of those categories which can account for social relations. Richard Rorty defines 'textualism' thus: 'Whereas nineteenth-century idealism wanted to substitute one kind of science (philosophy) for another (natural science) as the centre of culture.' Rorty 1982. no identity is ever definitely and definitively acquired. . The meaning of any individual signifier is a function of its differential relations to other signifiers: identity. then the meaning of each element of each element of the system and of the system as such is constantly threatened from outside. Laclau and Mouffe conceive discourse following Derrida. and to treat both science and philosophy as. in other words. further. 12 Laclau and Mouffe 1985. signification is an inherently open process involving the constant proliferation of new signifiers and signifieds.11 At the same time. And at the same time. p. But this is to substitute 'an essentialism of the elements' for 'an essentialism of the structure. 141. Laclau and Mouffe criticise Hindess and Hirst for failing systematically to draw out the implications of denying any distinction between the discursive and the non-discursive and engaging in a merely 'logical pulverization of the social'. p. is relational. Synonymy. at best. they are part of the primary terrain in which the social itself is instituted. Sign and Play in the Human Sciences' in support of this account of discourse. metaphor are not forms of thought to a primary constitutive literality of social relations. But.12 In demonstrating the absence of any logical or necessary connection between the elements making up social wholes.. Each element has a surplus of meaning because it cannot be located in a closed system of difference. then we see that nothing can have a fixed identity. 110. pp. textualism wants to place literature at the centre. Both relations and identity are always in a precarious state because there are no signifteds that can ultimately be fixed. instead. 14 Laclau 1988. 253. however. Laclau cites Derrida's famous essay 'Structure.

This hegemonic articulation transforms these elements into 'moments' of a 'structured totality'.antagonism.The social can.that is. pp. the latter's impossibility of fully constituting itself. 113. Laclau and Mouffe seek to disengage his theory of hegemony from its 'classist' moorings in orthodox Marxism. 16 Laclau and Mouffe 1985. p. is the "experience" of the limits of the social.'17 This abstruse 15 Laclau and Mouffe 1985. from entities whose identity is defined (provisionally at least) independently of one another to ones whose identity depends upon the interrelations through which they help . the sense in which Wittgenstein used to say that what cannot be said can be shown. acquire some temporary and provisional degree of fixity through hegemonic interventions. 125.that is. far from being an objective relation. as the underlying mechanism that gives reasons for or explains its own partial processes. Strictly speaking.16 Elsewhere. antagonisms are not interna! but externa! to society. ty ete Laclau and Mouffe use the concept of antagonism to capture this inherent incompleteness of every totalisation: Antagonism. Laclau makes the point more bluntly: 'Society as a sutured space. meaning would be fixed in a variety of ways. '377 .can never b e comp 1. an objective and closed system of differences . Moreover. or determined by no necessity inherent in the social structure (say. this 'suture' . So 'the transition from "elements" to "moments'" . as a witness of the impossibility of a final suture.the articulation of elements into a totality wherein they are internally related to one another as moments of this whole . p. Hegemony is here conceptualised as the articulation of distinct ideological elements that are brought together through the intervention of a collective will that constructs a convergence of interests among the constituent never complete. an objective correspondence of interests among different classes). 255-6. because if it did. or rather. if we have demonstrated. constitute a glven tota Ii' . they constitute the limits of society. the social only exists as a partial effort for constructing society .15 . does not exist. p. In a remarkable poststructuralist appropriation of Gramsci. where he differentiates the concept of antagonism from those of opposition and contradiction. however. since every such articulation is liable to overwhelmed the movement of signification beyond it. But. 17Laclau 1988. is a relation wherein the limits of every objectivity is shown . See also Laclau 1988. . but this totality is a contingent construction corresponding to.

Yet. 1S 19 figure alongside . 20 See.HistorrBC<li Materialism philosophical thesis has. Laclau and Mouffe 1985. Sim 1998. for example. p. the political upshot of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy turned out to be a pretty conventional left liberalism. As Butler puts it. Zizek 2000.19 This did not stop the book enjoying a substantial success: in the booming cultural studies industry it was rapidly packaged as a key postmodernist 20 text. Laclau. Laclau and Mouffe 1987. rendering them more inclusive.1s This elaborate theoretical construction was subjected to a formidable. Geras 1987. but on the contrary. since the 'democratic revolution' of the eighteenth century. for all the subtle philosophical reasoning that went to produce it. and (to my mind) largely successful critique by Norman Geras soon after the appearance of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. is an obstacle to developing a hegemonic articulation of diverse and autonomous subjectivities into a single movement which seeks to 'deepen' the democratic revolution: In the face of the [New Right] project for the reconstruction of a hierarchic society. Laclau and Mouffe argue that politics necessarily takes the form of hegemony in Western modernity. where Laclau and Mouffe Lyotard and Baudrillard. 176. this does not seem very different from the egalitarian liberalism of mainstream political philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin (although they are incomparably clearer than Butler or Lac1au about what such a 'deepening' ofliberal democracy might involve). Classical Marxism. 13. however. more dynamic and more 21 concrete: In its political substance. that is to say. antagonism no longer involves a sharp polarisation between two camps and identities become increasingly ambiguous and multiple. directly political implications. to deepen and expand it in the direction of a radical and plural democracy. with its insistence on 'classism. pp. the alternative of the left should consist of locating itself fully in the field of the democratic revolution and expanding the chains of equivalence between the different struggles against oppression. Geras 1988. The task of the left therifore cannot be to renounce liberal-democratic ideology. the idea that the working class represents the privileged agent in which the fundamental impulse of social change resides'. '[m]y understanding of hegemony is that its normative and optimistic moment consists precisely in the possibilities for expanding the democratic possibilities for the key terms of liberalism. where. 21 Butler. 177.

even at this stage. Zizek. p. 153-8. 379 . Hegemony and Universality share points both of philosophical agreement and of disagreement.22 The endorsement went both ways: Laclau contributed a strongly approving preface to The Sublime Object if Ideology. living on borrowed time. Today. 325. even if it remains empty. Zizek. however. awaiting the content to fill it in. Zizek 2000. all three contributors to Contingency. in the face of this Leftist knavery [that preaches 'cynical resignation' towards the continued existence of capitalism].23 But he also writes: 'Today. in The Sublime Object if Ideology identifies his own approach with that of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.Now.---B!.. . p. Laclau. pp. 22Zizek 1989. 23Zizek 1999a. 24Butler. as we shall see. he writes at one point: 'I am not preaching a simple return to the old notions of class struggle and socialist revolution: the question of how it is really possible to undermine the global capitalist system is not a rhetorical one .Itler I l1i:td<iIJ lizek Philosophy Politics Hegel I ~ridal Foucault Lacan Left Liberalism Left Liberalism L I Lacan Hegel Revol utionary Social!sm~~ ~j I Associating theorists with the three partlClpants is an admittedly rough-and-ready way of differentiating them philosophically: thus Butler's and Zizek's interpretations of Hegel diverge sharply. xv. he writes. is politically at odds with other the two in advocating a frontal challenge to liberal capitalism. which. This procedure nevertheless indicates the complexity of the theoretical field constituted by these three writers.maybe it is not really possible. The similarities and differences may be schematically represented by the following table. But. a marked divergence with both Laclau's position and Zizek's earlier views. we see growing political and philosophical divergences between Zizek and the theorists of'radical democracy'. p. at least not in the foreseeable future. More specifically. I have attached a question mark to the political position ascribed to Zizek in order highlight uncertainties in his expressed views. 'orientated him in his attempt to use Lacanian conceptual apparatus as a tool in the analysis of ideology'.'24 Even this desire for a global alternative represents. Thus. 352. Zizek was careful to differentiate Lacan from poststructuralism: compare Zizek 1989. it is more important than ever to hold this utopian place if the global alternative open. however.

and Zizek. but. This night. Laclau. Butler's contributions provide the starting point of the three successive exchanges between phantasmagorical representations. Zizek 1989. Hegel is conceived as a philosopher of socialised intersubjectivity: the moment of Absolute Spirit. that contains everything in its simplicity . Laclau. to posit a primordial subjectivity prior to the historically variable modes of subjectivation. 188. Rhetorically. Laclau. First. she sees subjectivity itself in Foucauldian terms. Zizek's concern is rather with the dark side of the apparent lucidity and coherence of the knowing e~o. The irreducibility of the subject as Lacan conceives it to poststructuralist modes of subjectivation is a standing theme of Zizek's thought: see. under Lacan's influence. this empty unending wealth of many representations. p. is effaced in her interpretation. in essence a sophisticated version of two current forms of doxa in the left academy. is night all around it. p. in fact.Let us. 25 26 . 6 The key to this conception of subjectivity is provided by a remarkable passage in the Hegel's Jenaer Realphilosophie on 'the night of the world': The human being is this night.25 Zizek takes up a directly opposed position. She offers. 175. the interior of nature. Zizek 2000. that exists here . as she sees it. Butler. while expressing his admiration for The Ticklish Subject. Laclau. he champions Hegel and indeed Kant as the philosophers of a subjectivity irreducible to historically contingent modes of subjectivation. of which none belongs to him . images. Secondly. for example. Butler is suspicious of both Laclau's and Zizek's tendency. which transcends social relations (what Hegel calis Objective Spirit).or which are not present.pure self . a procedure which she regards as both ahistorical and formalistic Laclau's characterisation of Butler's position as 'sociological nihilism' is perhaps too strong. Especially in The Ticklish Subject. he presents this a return to the Cartesian subject. but it is certainly true that she is hostile to interpretations that do not relativise the behaviour of agents to specific social contexts. approach these political differences by considering some of the philosophical issues at stake. p. in which here shoots a Butler. rightly describes Zizek's theory of subjectivity as 'a most peculiar way of being Cartesian'. Zizek 2000. however. 73. Hegelian 'absolute negativity' interpreted along Lacanian lines. Various modes of subjectivation are constituted within historically specific relations of domination: through the interrelations of forms of social power and psychic fantasies biological individuals are transformed into subjects.

as excluded from the "order of things". 0 Inasmuch as subjectivity involves this dimension of primordial chaos. 31 Zizek 1999a.bloody head . Chapter 4. 2050 See Zizek 1989. the point of utter madness in which phantasmagorical apparitions of partial objects wander aimlessly. from the positive order of entities'. with an epistemological obstacle. then. and just so disappearso One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye into a night that becomes awfuL27 This seems to be a favourite passage of Zizek's. lies for Zizek the error of the poststructuralist reduction of subjectivity to modes of subjectivation. impenetrable Stuff (of Nature. suddenly here before it. the 'night of the world'. premodern. is profoundly a death drive and reforesents in itself the portion of death in the sexed living being'. for an discussion of Lacan's evolving views on the death drive. is that it stealthily (re)introduces the standard. He quotes it the subject is no longer the Light of Reason opposed to the non-transparent. the partial drive. is absolute negativity. 'modem subjectivity emerges when the subject perceives himself as "out of joint".there another white ghastly apparition.28 As the concluding phrase just quoted makes clear. Therefore.. not exhausted by the subject-positions available to it in the existing set of social relationso Here. 0 )j his core. p. 28Zizek 1999a. The Hegelian 'night of the world' is 'the phall1tas!mago]ric~u. 30 Lacan 1973. Tradition . the coherence and effectiveness of these relations requires the exclusion of subjectivity as absolute negativity. frequently in order to demonstrate that. po 36. the realm of the Freudian death-drive. 340 29 Zizek 1999a.31 VVhen the subject glimpses in itself 'the night of the world'. it cannot be fully incorporated into any system of social is. Indeed. po 1570 . which dismisses the experience in the subject of something irreducible to the 'order of things' as ideological illusion: the mistake of the identification of (self-) consciousness with misrecognition. it experiences itself as something excessive. Zizek offers a psychoanalytical reading of this passage. 'the drive. the gesture that opens up the space for the light of Logos. at least as Lacan understands it. for Hegel. 27 Qyoted. in other words.29 For Lacan. Zizek 1999a. ppo 29-30 This passage also fascinated the young Althusser: see Althusser 1997. p. domain of drives' .

for whom. Laclau describes himself as undertaking 'a formal analysis of the logics involved' in different 'hegemonic operations'..and. 60. but rather is an index of its inherent incompleteness. Butler. as we have seen. Laclau argues against Butler that the possibility of objects being 'truly context-dependent and historical' implies that there is a 'negative limit' which is 'the very condition of radical contextualization and history'. in a hegemonic articulation. particular elements are constructed as 33 embodying the interests of society as a whole. p. 185. the renunciation of any real attempt to overcome the existing capitalist liberal regime. and complete 'order of things' implies that subjectivity is irreducible to historically constituted modes of subjectivation.Marxism: while this standard postmodern Leftist narrative of the passage from 'essentialist' Marxism . of course. Laclau and Zizek thus agree that the impossibility of creating a closed. leave out the resignation at its heart . Zizek 2000. 183. pp. But their overall approaches seem now very different. Zizek 2000. it does not complete the social. 95. Butler. in 'the production of tendentially empty signifiers'..34 Zizek. Butler. But it has a 'discursive effect' in the form of the series of substitutions that is characteristic of the signifYing process . 382 . of signifiers whose very absence of content allows them to take on the role of the universal through which. This involves a direct attack on his two interlocutors as complicit in global capitalism.'cosmological' notion of reality as a positive order of being: in such a fully constituted positive 'chain of being' there is. as a rule.. Thus he writes of Laclau's account of the origins of post. the only way to account effectively for the status of (self-) consciousness is to assert the ontological incompleteness of 'reality' itself. is seeking to help reconstruct a 'leftist anti-capitalist project'. p. no place for the subject . 53. Laclau. that is. Laclau. Consequently.32 This theme of 'the ontological incompleteness of "reality" represents a point of convergence between Zizek and Laclau.. to the postmodern irreducible plurality of struggles undoubtedly describes an actual historical process. LacIau. p. 184.. does not exist' because of the impossibility of a completed totalisation. Zizek 2000. as we have seen.35 32 33 34 35 Zizek 1999a.. more specifically. its proponents. This limit is negative: that is.the acceptance of capitalism as 'the only game in town'. 'Society .

Zizek 1999a. while Laclau and Mouffe develop a critique of the economy as 'the rational substratum of history'. for example. pp. in The Sublime Object if Ideology.'36 The same is true of postmodernism more generally and indeed of multiculturalism. Zizek uses their concept of social antagonism to reinstate Marx's account of the proletariat as the universal class in the 1843 Introduction to A Contribution to a Critique if Hegel's Philosophy of Right. p. 75-85.39 These discrepancies entail an alteration of Zizek's own earlier views. impossibility. Zizek 2000. with its pursuit of hegemonic articulations that have broken loose of any anchorage in class relations. which has created the conditions for the demise of "essentialist" politics and the proliferation of new multiple political subjectivities. 226-7. post-Marxism. '" repu d· lates tee alm t h at "S' oelety eXists . Laclau and Mouffe treat the idea of the working class as the agent of socialist transformation as the acme of outdated Marxist 'classism'. Thus. 36 37 383 . 169. compare Lac!au and Mouffe 1985. Thus. 46. 40 Zizek 1989. p. 39 Zizek 2000a. is only conceivable against the background of capitalist globalisation: thus LacIau's "'generalization of the hegemonic form of politics" is itself dependent on a certain socio-economic process: it is contemporary global capitalism with its dynamics of "deterritorialization".38More galling still. 37 This political shift is accompanied by a variety of theoretical discrepancies with Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. 38 Zizek 1999a. the acknowledgement of a fundamental . as we have seen. 210. p. 319. pp. 1999a. 'the very existence of the proletariat hI' . where. 243 n. p. 218. the global solution-revolution is the condition of the effective solution of all particular problems. according to Zizek. Butler. p. See. 40 antagonism. Zizek declares that 'the socioeconomic logic of Capital provides the global framework which (over)determines the totality of cultural processes'. Thus. See also Zizek's discussion of the relationship. Laclau. while here [post-Marxism] every provisional. he had invoked Laclau's and Mouffe's concept of antagonism to support a rejection of the notion of global social transformation: Here we reached the opposite extreme of the traditional Marxist viewpoint: in traditional Marxism. '[f]rom a truly radical Marxist perspective between "'working class" as a social group and "proletariat" as the position of the militant fighting for universal Truth'. 6.More than that. temporary solution of a particular problem entails an acknowledgement of the global radical deadlock.

Now. the impossibility of 41Butler. and the Real. in taking a radically anti-capitalist political stance is betraying his underlying philosophical commitments. the subject is caught up in three orders . pp. The difficulty with this view is that Zizek seeks to establish very close connections between his Lacanian Hegelianism and his anticapitalism. declaring that Zizek's 'way of dealing with Marxist categories consists in inscribing them in a semi-metaphysical horizon which. which (with the exception of its Hegelianism) he endorses. At the same time. No wonder that Laclau dismisses all this as a reversion to infantile leftism. . 41 clrcmt. Thus. if it were accepted . the Symbolic. For Lacan.a rather unlikely event .would put the agenda of the Left back fifty years'. Butler. 316. .the Imaginary. on this account.42 Zizek. 290. This can been seen in three crucial respects. from his politics. Zizek 2000. he argues that Zizek's 'discourse is schizophrenically split between a highly sophisticated Lacanian analysis and an insufficiently deconstructed traditional Marxism'. In the Symbolic. Zizek 2000. Zizek 2000. 101. Laclau. however. for example. p. divided and dependent. pp. Laclau. The first concerns Zizek's use of the Lacanian concept of the Real. 205. he seeks to distinguish Zizek's philosophical position. and limit ourselvesto partial problems to be solved:the jump from a critique of the 'metaphysics of presence' to antiutopian 'reformist' gradualist politics is an illegitimate short . 93. in the social reality constitutive of intersubjectivity (this is the realm of what Lacan calls the big Other whose recognition we seek in desiring): the endless substitutions and displacements of signifiers articulate the lack. Laclau. through the signifYing process. the subject participates. In the Imaginary. Zizek explicitly rejects any attempt to draw reformist inferences from the impossibility of society: this [Laclau's] justified rejection of the fullness of postrevolutionary Society does not justify the conclusion that we have to renounce any project of global socialtransformation. Zizek persistently taxes Laclau with 'secret Kantianism' for reducing global transformation to a regulative Idea of Pure Reason that can never be realised but nevertheless serves as a stimulus for smaller scale changes: see. 42Butler. in fact. the subject misrecognises itself as unitary and coherent when it is.

Thus the conception of a 'negative limit' that has 'positive' effects in 'the production of tendentially empty signifiers' that Laclau invokes against Butler is one version of the Lacanian Real. 162. In Zizek's writings. 7.45 The Real is one of the leading themes of Zizek's writings at least since The Sublime Object oJIdeology. for a very similar treatment of the Real by Ladau. 68. partakes of the Real. the ground-zero dimension of subjectivity that cannot be fully captured by any positive social totality. it is 'our primordial wound we incurred by our fall from the pre-Oedipal Eden. pp. the Real figures in two principal ways relevant to the present discussion. 222. p. . Zizek 1999a. Butler. Zizek 1999a. Laclau.fulfilment. Though we repress this trauma. see Butler. 385 . Zizek 2000.46 Secondly. eh. 54. 5. constltutlOn 0f rea l'Ity. again. Zizek writes. It is. 'the night of the world'. Zizek tells us that 'it was the great breakthrough of German Idealism to outline the precise contours of this pre-ontological dimension of the spectral Real. the impossibility of the Symbolic fully to "become itself'.' Or again. It cannot be discursively represented because it is nothing but the limit of such representation. it persists within us as the hard core of the self. 'the Lacanian Real is strictly internal to the Symbolic: it is nothing but its inherent limitation. discernible only through its discursive effects and posited as an explanation of these effects. p. 1989.'43 'The Real is an entity which must be constructed afterwards so that we can account for the distortions of the symbolic structure'. which precedes and eludes the ontological . The Real IS the limit of symbolisation: as Eagleton puts it. p.47 Zizek uses this equation of Capital and the Real in his polemic against contemporary post-Marxists. Or. . This he comments on Butler's conception of hegemonic politics as 'resignifications' which disturb the psychic attachments underpinning prevailing modes of 43 44 45 E' 6 47 Eagleton 1997. moreover. inherent in desire. Zizek now equates the Real with capitalism as a socio-economic system. Zizek 2000. a concept that he shares with Laclau.44 The Real is thus nothing like an external reality existing independently of discourse. 'the Real is the inexorable "abstract" spectral logic of Capital which determines what goes on in social reality'. and in quite a different register. 120. See Zizek. Thus he writes: 'the post-nation-state logic of Capital remains the Real which lurks in the background'. In the first place. Zizek 1989. pp. 121. the gash in our being where we were torn loose from Nature. Laclau. Thus. 276. 'what eludes symbolisation is precisely the Real as the inherent point offailure of symbolisation'. Thus.

through such decisions it founds the social: 'subject' is the contingency that grounds the very positive ontological order. that which "alwarss returns to its place". 48 49 . every ontology is 'political': based on a disavowed contingent 'subjective' act of decision. in the unconstrained struggle for hegemony'.50 gesture. while. 'the Social itselfis constituted by the exclusion of some traumatic Real. the 'vanishing mediator' whose selfeffacing gesture transforms the pre-ontological chaotic multitude into the semblance of a positive 'objective' order of reality. for Laclau. Zizek treats class struggle as an instance of the Lacanian Real and of Laclau's and Mouffe's concept of social antagonism. p. 51 Zizek 1999a. Zizek 2000. which is not what Zizek says at all. 52 Zizek 1999a. 21. 50Butler.51 Thus.subjectivation: 'today's Real which sets a limit to resignification is Capital: the smooth functioning of Capital is that which remains the same. the violent imposition of an order by 'an abyssal decision not grounded in any universal ontological structure'. Zizek 1999a. 1994. p. 49 The second major respect in which Zizek's philosophy informs his political positions concerns subjectivity as 'absolute negativity'. see generally ibid" pp. What is "outside the Social" is not some positive a priori symbolic form/norm.52 Butler. he believes that what Habermasian critics of Heidegger reject 'as proto-Fascist decisionism is simply the basic condition of the political. But. absolute negativity is not merely excluded from the social . In this precise sense. as will become clearer below. for Zizek. Wright and Wright 1999. the capitalist mode of production. the Real is what makes possible a plurality of hegemonic articulations. Laclau. 20. p. On the borrow one of his favourite metaphors Zizek's gentrification by the cultural studies industry that the editors of a collection in which this text was republished should gloss this passage along safely post-Marxist lines. In an earlier text. p. 74. as is implied by Lacan's account of the Real. It is a interesting illustration of . 8 Thus. 158. it does not follow that there is no connection between 'the night of the world' and this order. Zizek uses this formulation when explicating Heidegger's 'political ontology' in Being and Time. but. p. p. Zizek 2000. This constitutes an excess excluded from the positive order of things. 55 (emphasis added). merely its negative founding . Thus he argues that 'there is no class struggle "in reality": "class struggle" designates the very antagonism that prevents the (objective) social reality from constituting itself as a self-enclosed whole'. Laclau. But this 'founding gesture' involves a subjective intervention. p. that is. 223. it has become what these articulations leave in place. 311. arguing that he treats the 'pseudo-antagonism of class struggle as an effect of the fundamental antagonism'. 74-6.

This strange potpourri maps onto the third respect in which philosophy and politics meet in Zizek's recent work. To be faithful to an event. 55 This conception of the event as irreducible to the circumstances (the situation) from which it emerges dovetails with Zizek's 53Butler. of realizing his political project. pp. appears to be "impossible". 40. according to which 'the rule of law ultimately hinges on an abyssal act of violence (violent imposition) grounded only on itself'. Badiou's ontology is fully developed in his 1988. Chapter 3.'53 As Zizek acknowledges. 'since the event was outside all the regular laws of the situation. unpleasant as they may redefines the very contours of what is possible (an act accomplishes what. yet it changes its conditions so that it creates retroactively the conditions of its own possibility). a true Leninist is not afraid of the passage a l'acte. 'something irreducible to its inscription in "what there is"'. of accepting all the consequences. and so on. namely his espousal of Alain Badiou's ontology of the event. freedom.Indeed. 54Zizek 1999a. within the given symbolic universe. 12l. Such fidelity produces 'f]" a trut h 0f t hat speC! ICsituatIOn.54 So the political flip-side of the Real of the death drive and absolute negativity proves to be a decisionism exemplified by a rather Schmittian Lenin. An event constitutes a 'supplement' with respect to the pre-existing situation. 38. yet ducking out when one had to pay the price for them in the guise of concrete and often 'cruel' political measures): like an authentic conservative. to which Zizek devotes a detailed discussion in 1999a. forces [one] to invent a new way of being and acting in the situation'. and welcomes a close correspondence between Schmitt's authoritarian conservatism and Leninist what a true Leninist and a political conservative have in common is the fact that they reject what one could call liberal leftist 'irresponsibility' (advocatinggrand projects of solidarity. . p. Zizek 2000. 55Badiou 1993.236. the main exemplar of such a conception of the political is Carl Schmitt's decisionist theory of sovereignty. See Schmitt 1985. but all authentic political acts take the form of such 'abyssal decisions' which justifY themselves not in terms of any existing set of rules but in terms of the new rules that they bring into existence: 'An act does not simply occur within the given horizon of what appears to be "possible" . the "outlaws" [hors-Ialoi] of situations'. not simply is all ontology political. pp. 113. 'events are irreducible singularities. For Badiou. But Zizek discovers. Laclau.

138-9. .' But. the first requires some account of capitalism: how. p. and this difference lies in the fact that in a Truth-Event the void of the death drive. the National-Socialist Volksgemeinschaft did not pose an alternative to capitalism? Much of the political drive behind Capital derives from Man::'s effort to demonstrate that various projects 56 57 58 Zizek 1999a. drawing on Lacan.conception of the political act as redefining the contours of the possible. Thus. that is. that Zizek sees a close connection between his philosophy and his politics. he also says that 'there definitely is a difference between an authentic Truth-Event and its semblance. he counterposes to the Third Ways confinement of politics to what is possible 'within the framework of existing sociopolitical relations' what he calls 'authentic politics . Zizek 1999a.58 O r der 0fB" emg. Zizek offers some indications as to how this question might be addressed. without such an account can we say that. One obvious question is how such events may be distinguished from mundane happenings and (perhaps more important given capitalism's perpetual motion machine) deceptive novelties. 145. of radical negativity. Butler. Let us first consider Zizek's discussion of Badiou's 'TruthEvents'. and that they resonate with the death-drive. effectively undermining those foundations. Both these criteria pose difficulties of their own. Yet this connection undoubtedly involves serious difficulties.57 But I shall side-step these issues here: my concern is the narrower one of the consistency of Zizek's philosophical commitments with the Marxist social theory that he also espouses. changes the very parameters of what is considered "possible" in the existing constellation. there seem to be two criteria for distinguishing authentic from apparent Truth-Events: that the former challenge capitalism. in contrast to Nazism.. because only the latter related to the very foundations of the capitalist order. Thus. Zizek 2000. Butler touches on this at one point: behind it lies. of course. One that may have occurred to many readers is the speculative character of the Lacanian constructions on which both Zizek and Laclau rely./6 It seems clear. for example. So. the larger question of the empirical status of psychoanalysis. 162-3. 199. which staged a pseudo-Event precisely in order to save the capitalist order. contmues to resonate. a gap that momentarily suspends the . pp. Laclau. Thus he writes: 'Nazism was a pseudo-Event and the October Revolution was an authentic Event. the art of the impossible . then..

for example. and shows itself only through its disruptive effects.61 Zizek may have been misled by an analogy between the scientific real and the Lacanian Real. he writes: 'The paradox of the Lacanian Real.'60 But there are. But such a move is blocked by Zizek's equation of Capital with the Lacanian Real. the capitalist mode of production is necessarily accessible to conceptualisation . 59 . although it does not exist (in the sense of "really existing". of course. 291 60Butler. blocking its actualization from within. it can produce a series of effects in the symbolic reality of subjects. in fact. then. p. Thus. Zizek 2000. is real in the second sense: that is. The Lacanian Real is that which resists symbolization. it is only directly accessible via conceptualisation since it is visible only in its effects and therefore must be identified by means of the theories that posit its existence in order to account for these effects. But capitalism as a set of institutions. and so on can operate only in so far as it is part of the symbolic order. As Laclau puts it. exercises a certain structural causality. as it has been understood in the Marxist tradition. the Lacanian Real can also be traced indirectly through its effects in Butler. Like other cases of the scientific real. while the Real is an obstacle inherent in the Symbolic. three meanings of the term 'real'relevant to the present discussion: the ready-to-hand objects of everyday experience. 163. he [Zizek] knows as well as I do what the Lacanian Real is. it is a set of unobservable mechanisms and tendencies causally responsible (in conjunction.indeed. It seems to me that the capitalist mode of production. the unobservable entities posited by scientific explanations (what one might call the scientific real). Zizek himself draws the following distinction: "'reality" is the external domain that is delineated by the symbolic order. has a series of properties . much depends here on what we mean by 'real'.(notably that of Proudhon) fail to engage with the constitutive mechanisms of the capitalist mode of production. Bhaskar 1978 and Devitt 1984. is that it is an entity which. Laclau. 62Zizek 1989. p. with various other conditions) for the observed behaviour of societies where this mode prevails. Zizek 2000. Laclau. taking place in reality).59 Plainly. p. so he should also be aware that capitalism cannot be the Lacanian Real. 61The nature of what I call here the scientific real has been the subject of sophisticated philosophical treatment: see. footnote 2. and the Lacanian Real as the limit of symbolisation. 327.'62 So.

p. he had indeed said that 'today's Real which sets a limit to resignification is Capital'. Zizek's discussion of the Real in his recent writings seems riven with inconsistencies. More generally. is constructed by such an understanding. But there is no such qualitative difference between the scientific real and its observable effects. it does not.the Symbolic Elsewhere. he defends his equation of Capital and the Real thus: 'my point is not that the economy (the logic of Capital) is a kind of "essentialist anchor" that somehow "limits" hegemonic struggles .' In fact. it is also their 63 Zizek.' A few pages later.. these effects may be observed only thanks to theory-directed intervention in nature (what Bachelard called 'phenomenotechnics'). the 'structural causality' of the Lacanian Real is very different from that of the scientific real. sometimes. In any case. stratified according to different levels of complexity. it constitutes the breakdown of the Symbolic. yet paradoxical. he writes: 'What is "outside the Social" is not some positive a priori symbolic form/norm. he calls the Real as 'the absent cause of the distortions/displacements of the symbolic space. 43. however. the Real/Capital limits hegemonic struggles and. Thus.63The allusion here to Althusser's concept of structural causality. The boundary between the scientific real and the observable is thus shifting and blurred. even when we leave aside the origins of the concept. Sometimes. sometimes. is unmistakable. So. such intervention may allow us to observe the underlying mechanisms themselves: thanks to electronic microscopes and the like. the demonstration of its inherent finitude. merely its negative founding gesture. Both belong to the same natural world (understood to embrace the social as well as the physical). For Althusser develops this idea in an effort to clarify the Marxist concept of mode of production. Though we are led to posit the Lacanian Real because of its effects on the Symbolic.capitalist social formations. the observable may partake of the real in the first sense: we may detect the effects of the scientific real in the ready-to-hand objects of everyday experience. we can see DNA. in a passage on the Real that I have already cited. There is thus a fundamental discontinuity between the Symbolic and the Real. it is its positive condition. it creates the very background against which "generalized hegemony" can thrive. 2000b. where 'the structure is 64 immanent in its effects'. Often. Sometimes. . in order scientifically to know the real object . far being inaccessible to discursive understanding. p. where the latter is conceived as a 'thought object' that. 189. 64Althusser and Balibar 1970.on the contrary. in another passage cited earlier. however.

66Zizek 1999a. as the ultimate (im)possibility. Chapter 1 of this book contains a fascinating discussionofHeidegger. Thus 'Nazism was not a political expression of the "nihilist.221. He argues that the National-Socialist 'revolution' was a mere 'simulacrum cf truth' because it was 'faithful to only to the supposed national substance of a the defence. The implication is that an authentic Truth-Event involves that kind of 'abyssal decision' that Zizek regards as constitutive of political action. By contrast. are in full flight from the dimension of'absolute negativity' that is the source of such decisions.)world. lenin and the political Zizek's second criterion for identifYing authentic events is that 'in a Truth-Event the void of the death drive. Laclau. in fact addressed itself only to those whom it determined as "Germans"'. in fact. also taking the case of Nazism. 50. an authentic event arises from the void inherent in any situation that makes possible its supplementation. Zizek 2000. although it is a immanent rupture in a singular situation. p. is no less addressed universally'. as the most radical dimension of subjectivity. 21. 311. as that against which the violent synthetic imposition of a (New) Order the Event of Historical Disclosure of Being . demoniac potential of modern subjectivity" but. Thus. rather. a gap that momentarily suspends the Order of Being. of radical negativity. 6S 391 . psychotic self-withdrawal. Even Zizek's dialectical skills are unlikely to 6s be up to resolving all these apparent contradictions. Badiou seeks to address this question.'66 But this attempt to reclaim decisionism from the authoritarian right is merely quixotic unless it offers some criterion by means of which to find wanting what appear to be authentic decisions coming from reactionary quarters. Nazism was parasitic of 'true universal events' such as the Jacobin and Butler.Camnicos/Zizek 'positive condition' and the 'negative founding gesture' that constitutes the social. pp. 319. But this only pushes the question back: how do we distinguish authentic from inauthentic decisions? Central to Zizek's critique of both Heidegger and Nazism is that both appear to embrace a decisionist philosophy which founds politics on an ungrounded assertion of will but. So 'the fidelity of which an event is the origin. its exact opposite: a desperate attempt to avoid this potentiaL' Similarly: 'What Heidegger misses is the suspension of the dimension of the (being-in-the. continues to resonate'.

It is worth stressing also that Lenin's interventions were not those of an isolated genius. esp. Lenin was undoubtedly one of the great masters of creative political intervention. with a wager that this very 'premature' intervention will radically change the objectivist relationship of forces itself. as we shall see below.67 But the introduction of universality poses further problems for Zizek. within which the initial situation appeared as 'premature'.Bolshevik Revolutions. 68See Cliff 1975-9. p. . giving up the option of political intervention. Chapter 14. Lenin sought to ground his political practice through a strenuous analytical engagement with capitalist economic structures. that is it will undermine the very standards with reference which told us that the situation was 'premature. 162-3. I. 65. Zizek 2000a. 69 Zizek 1999b. Zizek makes Lenin the exemplar of the decisionist leader. even if the situation was 'premature'. with what is beyond discursive understanding. This seems to imply a dilemma: either accept the Menshevik evolutionist theory of history and adopt a passive stance. as is brought out when Zizek writes: 'a political intervention proper does not occur within the co-ordinates of some underlying global matrix. that is. He characterises this break as follows: the Leninist stance was to take a leap.. But Zizek rules out such an engagement by his equation of Capital with the Real.69 The trouble with this way of putting it is that it too sharply counterposes objective circumstances and subjective intervention. since what it achieves is precisely the "reshuffling" of this very global matrix'. political organisation provided the 68 necessary mediating link between theory and practice. pp. From The Development of Capitalism in Russia to Imperialism. seizing the opportunity and intervening. or declare that 'there is no objective logic of the "necessary stages of development". It would be churlish to complain too much about Zizek's habit (of which this is an example) of including the same passage in more than one text. since "complications" arising from the intricate texture of concrete 67Badiou 1993. 37. But he made these decisions in context of an evolving theoretical understanding of the capitalist mode of production. Zizek accurately portrays Lenin in 1917 as breaking with the Menshevik 'stance of obedience to the logic of "objective stages of development"'. but part of the collective practice of building a revolutionary socialist party rooted in the Russian working class: as Lukacs stresses in History and Class Consciousness. throwing oneself into the paradox of the situation. p.

we are able to reconstruct a series of underlying tensions that were tending to subvert the normal logic of the situation. part of the overall logic of that situation and existed prior to the occurrence of the event. radically revised his theory of that context. in particular.and therefore of revolutionary opportunity. the weakest of the imperialist states. but. Löwy 1993.the famous 'weak links' . transforming it into a 72 mirade. The East European revolutions of 1989 are a recent case in point sudden and unexpected eruptions into the normality of 'existing socialism'. he may end up mystifYing the event. even if they only become visible subsequently to an understanding that has been alerted to their existence by the event Zizek 1999b. for example. when we try to understand how such an event could happen.situations and/or from the unanticipated results of "subjective" interventions always derail the straight course ofthings'. 72 For this argument with respect to Benjamin and Sartre. 38. and. however. Russia. Zizek is rightly concerned to distinguish Leninist politics from determinist versions of Marxism.developed alongside a dose reading of Hegel's Logic . His theory of imperialism . see Callinicos 1987. 70 71 393 . rather. The danger. It is certainly true that there are events that cannot simply read off their context. See. But these tensions were. but this is quite wrong. p. pp.allowed him to rethink his understanding of capitalism. He stresses the gap between revolutionary events and the situations from which they emerge. in fact. Confronted with the supreme crisis of the First World War. Moreover. Lenin's analysis of the multiple contradictions responsible for the Russian Revolution of February 1917 is an example of such a retrospective interpretation. of an objective social context. p. But. Such events certainly contradict the apparent logic of the pre-existing situation. by completely disjoining the event from its context. 178-84. In this respect. 163.70 Zizek claims that Lenin opted for the latter horn of the dilemma. Badiou's notion that the event springs from a 'void' in the pre-existing situation is misleading. Lenin did not give up on the idea of an 'underlying global matrix'. this new reading of the objective context positively mandated political interventions like those of Lenin in 71 1917 in order to exploit these contradictions. Zizek 2000a. could thereby become a launching pad for the subversion of the entire system. is that. to see how the contradictions of the imperialist system created points of especial vulnerability . The global logic of imperialism thus trumped the evolutionary logic of the development of the productive forces to which Lenin had previously in a nuanced subscribed.

To say this is not to re-instate the idea of historical inevitability. The February Revolution brought into sharp focus Lenin's sense of the revolutionary possibilities created by the imperialist war. from within the situation. Every situation presupposes a matrix of possibilities consistent with the underlying tendencies that produced it. The resulting recognition of the wider set of possibilities inherent in the situation can itself become an active and transformative force. An event that brings into being another possibility. How then might theory ground political decisions? Kant. There can be no principle determining the application of universal to particular: to posit such a principle would merely generate an infinite regress. .Thus to say that an act 'changes the contours of what is considered "possible"in the existing constellation' is not the same as sayingit is impossible. It is easy enough to believe. Chapter 4. Very similar reasoning is involved in Wittgenstein's 73 See my discussion of historical materialism as encompassing alternative courses of development in Callinicos 1995.a socialist revolution . and thereby helped to turn what was a possible. 5. by showing that this belief is false.It would be better to say that. in the Critique of Judgement. In that understanding.into actuality. p. including that of its transformation.itself. that the possibility that is actually realised exhausts the potentialities of the situation. 74 Kant 1973. points to the inherent gap that separates a universal from the particular cases that are held to exemplifY it. This sense informed Lenin's political interventions during 1917. since a further principle would be required to determine the application of that principle. by revealing new possibilities present in the 'existing constellation'. What Badiou calls the 'void' in a situation is rather the set of determinate 73 possibilities it confuse the actual (global capitalism) with the possible. it widens our conception of the possible. This is the error of the Third Way . Zizek's formulations about the 'impossibility' of the political act equivocate between what is possible and what appears to be possible. transforms our understanding of the situation. This analysis suggests that effective political interventions involve a creative interplay with the theoretical understanding of the objective context of these interventions. the apparent 'void' from which the event sprang is filled. and so on ad 74 injinitum. but certainly not an inevitable consequence of the overthrow of the Romanovs .

Kripke 1982. the great task today is to think the necessity of the passage from Leninism to Stalinism without dumping the tremendous emancipatory potential of the Event of October'. decisions are necessarily ungrounded. when it has been 77Zizek 2000a.'76 Elsewhere. there is no set of meta-principles that can make this task the mechanical application of a rule. since no principle can uniquely determine them: how to apply a principle is always a matter of judgement. But reference to 'necessity' could imply that Stalinism was a 'regrettable but unavoidable' 75 See. Principles. p. for example. Paradoxically.:ek remarks on rule-following. 76Zizek 1999a. for example. in particular. and bemoan its regrettable but unavoidable later consequences': 'one should insist on the unconditional need to endorse the act fully in all its consequences. but fidelity to the consequences entailed by the full actualization of the (revolutionary) principles. when he points to the impact of the isolation of the October Revolution. Thus he criticises 'Trotskyite and other radical Leftists' who 'idealize the authentic revolutionary act itself. Fidelity is not fidelity to the principles betrayed by the contingent facticity of their actualization.c~m!1ico!>/Zi:l. in his eagerness to differentiate Lenin's politics from determinist and evolutionist versions of Marxism. But it does not follow that political judgements are completely disjoined from justifYing principles. as well their precise application to the situation she is confronting. In that sense. moreover. Zizek comes dangerously close to blurring the distinction between Leninism and Stalinism. the actor still has to work out the weight to assign to the different principles she has concluded are relevant. 156. rather than an abyssal leap. Indeed. 395 . But the that emerges is one of a constant to-ing and fro-ing between considerations of principle and the features of the situation that the actor deems relevant to her decision. 377. 77 The term 'necessity' in this last passage is ambiguous. Zizek writes: 'As Alain Badiou has emphasized. It could simply be taken to demand an account of the historical context of the rise of Stalinism . still serve to orient judgements and the actions they entail. in sense of both explanatory theories and normative conceptions.7) The upshot is that there is always a gap between a universal principle and its particular applications. the pressures of material scarcity and the resulting distributive inequalities. Once again. p. one of the main dimensions of any difficult judgement is likely to be the task of identifYing what principles are relevant to the decision under consideration. Trotsky does in The Revolution Betrayed.

the German Revolution succeeded. 'the passage from Leninism to Stalinism'. of course. 'purges are the form in which the betrayed revolutionary heritage survives and haunts the regime'. At one point.consequence of October 1917. Stalinism was the case of a perverted authentic revolution'. p. p. a reminder of the radical negativity at the heart of the regime'. 21-40. the purges served to stabilise the regime and thereby to complete the counter-revolution launched at the end of the 1920s: see Callinicos 1991. But any comprehensive analysis of the Terror must also grasp its objective consequence: once the climactic orgy of uncontrolled killing documented by Getty and Naumov in the autumn of 1937 had been halted. pp.78 The point of these criticisms is not. and not merely consequences. and that provides the focus of Getty's and Naumov's study. however unexpected and unwanted. then Soviet Russia's isolation could have been overcome. which is precisely not the purport of Trotsky's argument. he says that fidelity is 'fidelity to the consequences entailed by the full actualization of the (revolutionary) principles'. a new generation of party-state officials thoroughly schooled in Stalinism could full the shoes of the Old Bolshevik victims of the Terror. . But the difficulty here also concerns Badiou's conception of fidelity to the event. Zizek's interprets this as requiring we 'endorse the act fully in all its consequences'. His political reference point is indicated rather by a remark about '[t]he greatness of Lenin after the Bolsheviks took 78 Zizek 1999b. It would be more accurate to say that it was the perversion of an authentic revolution. 45. was not inevitable say. 44. to nail Zizek as a crypto-Stalinist. Therefore. and the twentieth century might have had quite a different trajectory. Arch Getty's and Gleg Naumov's fundamental study of the Stalinist Terror (1999). This argument certainly captures an aspect of the Terror that is crucial to any attempt to reconstruct how it was subjectively experienced and discursively articulated by members of the nomenklatura itself. since it plainly was a consequence of the October Revolution. In this crucial respect. This formulation brings principles. into consideration. This claim is based on a suggestive reading of J. Was Stalinism a consequence 'entailed by the full actualization of the (revolutionary) principles'? Precisely this question has been the central issue in all the debates about the October Revolution for the past 75 years. of October 1917. Valorising the tough-minded act over fuddy-duddy principles cannot short-circuit this inescapable debate. that would entail endorsing Stalinism. These ambiguities lead Zizek into writing: 'in contrast with fascism. But. Now. Zizek argues that 'incessant purges were necessary not only to erase the traces of the regime's own origins. then. His anti-Stalinist credentials are established by his record of opposition to the old regime in Yugoslavia. though the product of historical circumstances. in this case. but as a kind of "return of the repressed". Zizek 1999b. For him.

Secondly. Lenin's judgement progressively loses its moorings after the end of the Civil War. more than ever. 211.the discovery that the maximal realisation of liberty is co-extensive with the maximal realisation of equality. pp. for all its lucid realism. that is. the combination of tactical flexibility and strategic clarity that Lenin displayed after the October Revolution.8 It is important to understand that Zizek's decisionism does not lead him into a particularist repudiation of any appeal to universal principles. But the fact that. two important qualifications are necessary here. IV. concrete universality' from 'the impossible/real demand of "abstract universality"'. the question of how to distinguish 'the "false". First.lsof poweL Lenin's greatness was sustained by a specific class constellation as well as his theoretical understanding. 12. if universality itself is split into the "false" concrete universality that legitimizes the existing division of the Whole into functional parts.83 Zizek rightly believes that this principle can provide the normative basis for challenging capitalist globalisation. from Brest-Litovsk to the adoption of NEP. one has to insist that the only way open to the emergence of an Event is that of breaking the vicious cycle of globalization-with-particularity is by (re)asserting the dimension of Universality against capitalist globalization'. 237. 'Today. Lukacs highlights its importance in his discussion of Lenin's 'revolutionary Realpolitik'. is as remarkable a model of revolutionary leadership as any available. ) . 'Egaliberte' is the name Etienne Balibar gives to the fundamental principle first revealed by the great bourgeois revolutions . Zizek argues that the Left can only stress both antagonism and universality 'if the antagonism is inherent to universality itself.82 agam.p. 81See Cliff 1975-9. and the impossible/real demand of "abstract universality" (Balibar's tgalibertt . 223-4.79 Zizek is contemptuous of the kind of moralistic leftism that refuses to engage with the harsh realities imposed by intractable historical circumstances. 80Lukacs 1970 (1924). Undoubtedly. as it has to confront the disintegration of the Russian working class and the consequent decay of the soviets and transformation of the Bolshevik Party into a bureaucratic aplJaf'atl.80 But. . as he puts. 83Balibar 1990. This is an urgent 79Zizek 1999a. Lenin's decisions after October 1917 continue to be oriented by the same kind of general theoretical analysis that guided his actions before the Revolution. 'universality itself is split' reintroduces. Chapter 6.power'. 82Zizek 1999a. with wearying familiarity. Chapters 11.

a void which can be filled only by the particular. pp. the teleological structure of the dialectical process itself. p. Or.the rich and subtle analyses which purport to reveal the conceptual necessity involved in various complex determinations and transitions . for a shrewd cntlque by Ladau ofZizek's attempt to appropriate HegeL The definitive discussion of the Hegelian dialectic remains Rosen 1982. Were this operation a successful one. 58. . through historical repetition. Zizek 2000. as far as I can see. The difficulty he faces is that common to all attempts to help oneself to what is most attractive about Hegel's dialectic . since it is an empty signifier that can.' 5 On this account. produces a series crucial if. then it would provide universal principles with rational support. 87 See Butler. But Zizek repeatedly denies that Hegel can be given such a 'panlogicist' reading. ignores completely the most important way in which this conception of rationality informs Hegel's analyses . since he adopts wholesale Laclau's conception of universality. 86 Zizek tries to give this idea a Hegelian spin. 86 Eg. Zizek 1999a. given that moments in the dialectical process are necessary steps in the development of the Absolute's selfunderstanding. a universal can never receive a principled justification in its own right. Zizek. perhaps better. but which. 174-82. The problem is especially acute for Zizek. through its very emptiness.while repudiating the very strong conception of rationality that Hegel believes is required to establish this necessity. NATO waged war on Serbia in 1999 in the name of a universalist doctrine of human rights. Butler. pp. For the latter. to which Ulrich Beck gave (apparently without irony) the name of military humanism. an initially 84 85 at Sce cspecially Chomsky 1999. exposing the new military humanism does not provide us with a superior alternative universal principle. Zizek 2000. It does not seem satisfactory to say that we can condemn this as a case of 'false universality' simply by exposing the geopolitical context in which it emerged and the inconsistencies with which it was 84 applied. the 'key feature of Hegelian dialectics' is 'the mystery of how contingency retroactively "sublates" itself into necessity .namely. Laclau. important though such exposure may 'The universal is an empty place.fects in the structurationldestructuration of social relations. In all his repudiations of 'panlogicism'.political problem: after all. 87 For Zizek. which ultimately confines this process to the revelation of reality as the selfexpression of the Absolute. serve as the vehicle for particular interests brought together in a hegemonic articulation. 59-64. Laclau. in a specific conjuncture.

it is hard not to feel that they involve the substitution of one problematic for another under the guise of the latter's elucidation. not surprisingly. Certainly. It is difficult not to conclude that his theory lacks a satisfactory account of universality . let me say that stressing the importance of universal normative principles does not imply collapse into Habermasian consensualism. an account both of how universal principles are justified. See Zizek1989. 399 . Chapters 2 and 6. Zizek 2000. Laclau. Stimulating though such Lacanian glosses on Hegel may often be.contingent occurrence is "transubstantiated" into the expression of a necessity: in short. to reside in the Lacanian Real: the blind chaos of the Real is transformed into the structures of the Symbolic by the 'empty gesture' through which the subject posits this 89 order as the presupposition of her act. Zizek is left with an essentially pragmatic conception of universality. in which a universal is simply an empty signifier that some hegemonic operation has succeeded in projecting as universal. Callinicos 2000b. But it seems like the wrong way to approach any principle to start by considering consider the causal role it might play in generating social consensus. weakens the universalistic rigour of normative principles by running together their cognitive validity with their functional contribution to securing social integration. Once the Hegelian scaffolding is removed. 90 To fend off one rather routine kind of response to the considerations just advanced. in fact. order emerges out of chaos'. in John Rawls's difference principle and Amartya Sen's concept of equality of capabilities we find two formulations of'the real/impossible demand of "abstract universality''' whose realisation would constitute a profound challenge to the very existence of capitalism. the mystery of how through "autopoietic" selforganisation. 227. and of the content of the principle(s) relevant to a critique of capitalism. For some of the resources required for such an account. Habermas. p.88 The solution of this mystery turns out.that is. As is particularly clear in Between Fact and Norm. From an ethico-political point of view. This is too weak a basis for any conception of universality that is supposed to provide support for a critique of the status quo. Zizek could do worse than look to the egalitarian liberal tradition. 88 89 90 Butler. one of the interesting things about serious principles is that they divide as well as unite.

My only reservation . Secondly. This would be a silly thing to do. he now fairly unreflectingly uses classical Butler. for at least two reasons. All the same. p. Zizek should reflect more carefully on tensions in his position.Zizek's recent writings amount to a highly suggestive theory of the revolutionary act. Moreover. As it is. one has a feeling of concepts being pulled out of shape to make them vehicles for thoughts better expressed in other ways. Maybe Zizek should consider how far he needs to dis-embed some of his arguments from the post-structuralist doctrines on which they currently depend. Bensai:d 2000. Marxism is a sufficiently capacious tradition to be able creatively to resonate with many apparently strongly counterposed different philosophical positions. Zizek 2000. These criticisms cannot diminish the fact that as eloquent and original a writer as Zizek is a powerful and welcome recruit to the anti-capitalist struggle. Particularly in the uses to which he has put the Lacanian Real. demanding that he renounce Lacan and all his works.and it is important not to overstate it . 91 92 . The upshot of the foregoing criticisms is that such a theory is incomplete unless it is joined to an account of the objective conditions that make transformative events . the Trotskyist philosopher Daniel Bensai:d invoked that arch-reactionary Maistre to 92 support a Marxist repudiation of contemporary liberal humanism. 187. He highlights his own desire to have his cake and eat it in the very title of one essay: 'Class Struggle or Postmodernism? Yes. 'Tea or coffee?m Laclau's response to this ambivalence is to try to force Zizek to choose between 'his highly sophisticated Lacanian analysis' and his 'insufficiently deconstructed traditional Marxism'.concerns his own ambivalence towards the theoretical traditions on which he draws. his current stance has taken him a long way from the post-Marxism of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. from Oxford ordinary language philosophy to Jewish Messianism: recently. Laclau.not necessary. The reaction of the friendly Marxist critic should not be to try to skewer Zizek from the opposite direction. which recalls Groucho Marx's reply to the question. First. 90. Zizek has himself made so many stimulating connections between the most rarefied Lacanian themes and concrete social and cultural fields that it would be foolish to demand that this fascinating encounter be cut short.and to some ethical principles according to which such events would be desirable. p. Please!'. but possible .

Alex 1987. :Etienne 1990. Paris: Seuil. Louis 1997 [1947]. one might venture. in The Spectre of Hegel. Callinicos Alex 1995. Cliff. Slavoj Zizek 2000. Callinicos. L'Ethique. "'Droits de l'homme" et "droits du citoyen"'. Alex 2000b. Callinicos. New Lift Review. Tony 1975-9. Judith. 236: 77-102. 'Social Theory Put to the Test of Politics: Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens'. Actuel Marx. Zizek's radicalisation is a symptom of a more general intellectual shift to the Left that seems to gathering pace in the advanced capitalist countries. Alex 2000a. London: NLB. Daniel 2000. Paris: Hader. 4 vols. Butler. London: Verso. Chomsky. and :Etienne Balibar 1970. Oxford: Blackwell. Badiou Alain 1988. But. London: Pluto. whatever path they take. from very different theoretical starting points. Bhaskar. 'Impossible Anti-Capitalism?'. That Night'. Callinicos Alex 1991. Cambridge: Polity. Cambridge: Polity. Althusser. Noam 1999. Callinicos. perhaps. Hegemony. Making History. Alex 1999. L'Etre et l'ivinement.. but. be heading in the same anticapitalist direction. he needs more directly to acknowledge the validity of the arguments advanced by those who sought to defend these concepts from post-Marxist attack. Roy 1978. Bourdieu's emergence as one of the symbols of resistance to neoliberalism is perhaps the most important example of this process. Althusser. Equality. Devitt. Balibar. Contingency. 8: 13-32. The New Military Humanism. A Realist Theory if Science. Badiou Alain 1993. Bensai:d. It is. Le Sourire du Spectre.Marxist concepts that were targeted for deconstruction by Laclau and Mouffe. I. London: Verso. Universality. New Lift Review. Callinicos. 2: 117-24. Lenin. The Revenge if History. Zizek is right not to be embarrassed about using these concepts. Realism and Truth. a sign of the political seachange under way that Zizek and Bourdieu should. Brighton: Harvester. they will find Marx waiting for them at the end of it. Cambridge: Polity. Reading Capital. Cambridge: Polity. II. London: Pluto. 401 . Louis. Michael 1984. 'Man. Theories and Narratives. Ernesto Laclau. Paris: Editions Michalon.

27 November: 7-9. Norman 1988. 'Intellectuals. Mode of Production and Social Formation. Slavoj 1999a. London: Macmillan. Ernesto. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Lacan. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis. New Haven: Yale University Press. Barry. Geras. 'Ex-Marxism Without Substance'. Lenin. 163: 40-82. Teny 1997. Hindess. II. I. The Road to Terror. Brighton: Harvester. London: Verso. 'Metaphor and Social Antagonisms'. Richard 1982.) 1999. Geras. MA: MIT Press.Historical Materialism Eagleton. Political Theology. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Zizek. London: Verso. Oxford: Blackwell. 166: 79-106. New Lift Review. in On Changing the World. in Wright and Wright 1999. New Lift Review. Getty. New Lift Review. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Georg 1970. edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. The Critique of Judgement. London Review of Books. Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Michael 1993 [1976].) 1998. Rorty. and Chantal Mouffe 1985. and Chantal Mouffe 1987. . London: Verso. Lukacs. Slavoj 1989. Kant. Oxford: BlackwelL Zizek. Hegel's Dialectic and its Criticism. The Zizek Reader. I. Laclau. Slavoj 1994. The Consequences of Pragmatism. and Oleg Naumov 1999. Elizabeth. Kripke. in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. 2: 111-15. and Paul Hirst 1977. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press. New Lift Review. Norman 1987. Post-Marxism. Isaac. Stuart (ed. J. Laclau. Ernesto. 'Post-Marxism?'. London: Macmillan. London: NLB Rosen. I. Schmitt. Jeffrey 2000. Laclau. Michael 1982. Jacques 1977 [1964]. and Edmond Wright (eds. Carl 1988. 'Enjoy!'. 169: 34-61. The Ticklish Subject. Immanuel 1973 [1790]. Oxford: Clarendon. Ernesto 1988. 'The Spectre ofIdeology'. 'Post-Marxism Without Apologies'. Marxism and Politics'. Löwy. Arch. Sim. 'From the "Logic" of Hegel to the Finland Station in Petrograd'. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Saul 1982. Zizek. Cambridge. Wright.

Postface to Georg Lukacs. London: Verso. Slavoj 2000a. Zizek. New Lift Review. 'When the Party Commits Suicide'.Zizek. I. Zizek. 238: 26-47. Slavoj 2000b. The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: David Lynch's 'Lost Highway'. Seattle: The Walter Chapin Center for the Humanities 403 . 'Georg Lukacs as the Philosopher of Leninism'. Slavoj 1999b. A Difence of History and Class Consciousness.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful