Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Revolution: A Critique by Alan Johnson with How to Not Read Žižek by Paul Bowman

Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Revolution: A Critique

By Alan Johnson


… there is that kind [of voluntarism] which … celebrates itself in terms which are purely and simply a transposition of the language of the individual superman to an ensemble of “supermen” (celebration of active minorities as such, etc) … one has to struggle against the above-mentioned degenerations, the false heroisms and pseudo-aristocracies… (Gramsci 1971: 204).

In 2000, when I was an editor at the Marxist journal Historical Materialism, the Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek unveiled his new theory of revolution. Trotsky, he claimed, ‘went as far as proposing … the universal militarisation of life…That is the good Trotsky for me’ (2000a:196). In fact, in 1919 Trotsky called for the temporary, emergency militarisation of labour. Žižek’s slip, I suspected, was a case of what Freud called parapraxis, i.e. the revealing irruption of an unconscious wish. He has not repressed much since: ‘[t]here are no “democratic (procedural) rules” one is a priori prohibited to violate’ because ‘revolutionary politics is not a matter of opinions but of the truth on behalf of which one often is compelled to disregard the “opinion of the majority” and to impose the revolutionary will against it’. Revolutionary duty lies in ‘the assertion of the unconditional, ‘ruthless’ revolutionary will, ready to “go to the end”, effectively to seize power and undermine the existing totality’ (2000b:177).

Having apparently learnt nothing from the historical record of the use of ‘iron will’ and ‘ruthlessness’ in the pursuit of utopia – Žižek admits his leanings are ‘almost Maoist’ in this regard (2002c) – he has argued that revolutionaries must ‘act without any legitimization, engaging oneself in a kind of Pascalean wager that the Act itself will create the conditions of its retroactive “democratic” legitimisation’ (2002a:153). He has identified a clear and present danger to this project: ‘a priori norms (“human rights”, “democracy”), respect for which would prevent us from “resignifying” terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of sacrifice.’ He has even glimpsed where his theory was taking him: ‘[I]f this radical choice is decried by some bleeding-heart liberals as Linksfaschismus, so be it!’ (in Butler, Laclau, Žižek, 2000:326). Welcome to the ‘New Communism’.

He need not have worried, for there has been very little decrying. Indeed, as Adam Kirsch pointed out in The New Republic, ‘the louder [Žižek] applauds violence and terror – especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin and Mao …the more indulgently he is received by the academic left which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult’ (2008). This essay does not seek to explain that scandal, only to make the case that it is one.[1] In part one I explain the roots of Žižek’s theory of revolution and delineate its character as a Wild Blanquism. In part two, I try to make plain why that theory is totalitarian, drawing on two left-wing antitotalitarians, Claude Lefort and Hal Draper.

Part 1: Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Revolution

Žižek’s theory of revolution is a grandchild of the disastrous 19th century marriage between the philosophy of Hegelianism and the politics of Blanquism.[2] That marriage was consummated in the 20th century within the Marxist movement when Lenin substituted a dictatorial conception of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ for Marx’s (ill-named but nonetheless) democratic original. Once unmoored from self-emancipation and democracy, Leninist ‘Marxism’ became a kind of Organised Blanquism: a Party-elite seizes power by force in order to remake society and man from above, according to an Ideology, wielding the power of the modern state.

Žižek, I claim, spiritualises and subjectivises this already-dubious inheritance, creating a Wild Blanquism. His ‘Hegel’, like that of so many other Marxists, as Alain Finkelkraut has noted, is ‘no longer contemplative‘ or ‘inspired by the glow of twilight’ but burns with ‘the light of the morning…unrestrained and militant’ (Finkielkraut 2001:71). His ‘Lenin’ is an ultra-violent Schmittian decisionist (see Robinson and Tormey 2003). More: his readings of the Maoist Alain Badiou’s concept of ‘Fidelity to the Event’ and Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic notion of the ‘Act’ render ‘revolution’ at once expressive (an ungrounded act of pure desire), and salvific (a form of redemption from a banal existence).

The 19th century marriage of Hegelianism and Blanquism: Arbitrary Construction and the Cult of Force

The German social democrat Eduard Bernstein was one of the first to raise the alarm. A coming together of Hegelianism and Blanquism within the movement, he warned, would transform Marxism into a ‘socialism from above’ – an Organised Blanquism.[3] The connecting wires – both constitutive of Zižek’s own theory of revolution – were arbitrary construction and the cult of force.

Social democrats were being lured from the ‘solid ground of empirically verifiable facts’ into an ethereal world of ‘derived concepts’ and ‘arbitrary construction’ by an ‘a priori deduction dictated by the Hegelian logic of contradiction’ until ‘all moderation of judgement is lost from view’ and ‘inherently improbable deductions’ are embraced regarding ‘potential transformations’ (1993: 31).[4]

While he accepted the general idea that societies developed through the resolution of antagonisms, Bernstein worried that Hegelian Marxists could not resist ‘speculative anticipation of the maturation of an economic and social development which had hardly shown its first shoots’. A speculative philosophy of development encouraged a reckless politics to close the gulf between ‘actual and postulated maturation.’ Hegel’s dialectic, thought Bernstein, ‘[t]ime and again got in the way of a proper assessment of the significance of observed changes’ (1993:34). In short, a properly strategic view of politics became impossible once reality was forced into a preconceived schema.

Bernstein warned that this ‘almost incredible neglect of the most palpable facts’ had to be partnered by ‘a truly miraculous belief in the creative power of force’ (1993:35).[5] The chasm between the recalcitrant contingency of the world and the abstract idea of necessity could only be closed by a cult of force. [6]

Bernstein grasped that this was the great danger lying in wait for Marxism. He warned that commentary on Blanquism tended to stop at its externals (the absurdity of the secret societies, the tragi-comic putsches, and so on). In fact, these were only the time-bound surface expressions of an underlying political theory concerning ‘the immeasurably creative power of revolutionary political force and its manifestation, revolutionary expropriation’ (1993:38). A terrible destructive ardour was the fruit of the marriage between the Hegelian faith in ‘absolute necessity’ and the Blanquist faith in the transformational power of revolutionary violence. This marriage was ‘the treacherous element’ with Marxism fated to bend post-Marx Marxism into dictatorial shapes (1993:46).

Ian Parker points out that Žižek’s Hegel is actually the one who reappeared in France in the 1930s as ‘a bit of an ultra-leftist’ in the lectures of (the Stalinist agent) Alexandre Kojève (2004:39). This Hegel is a ‘figure of perpetual negativity’ who supplies Žižek with a cluster of notions that decisively shape his own theory of revolution: that the revolution can retroactively constitute the grounds on which one acts, that redemptive repetition is the proper reaction to the failure of a revolution (this is the foundational idea of the so-called ‘New Communism’), and that ‘abstract negativity’ is the ‘source and motor of revolutionary change’ (see Parker 2004: 39-45). Taken together, these ideas license a view of revolution that is pretty close to the dictionary definition of deus ex machina – the god lowered by stage machinery to resolve the plot and extricate the protagonist from a difficult situation. Revolution, Žižek thinks, ‘wipes the slate clean for the second act, the imposition of a new order’ (quoted in Parker 2004: 43-5).

The Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro thought that when Marx decided the dialectic was a body of laws with an objective existence (and not merely a way of thinking), he created a difficulty for Marxists: how to ‘establish the existence of these laws in reality through empirical means without doing violence to reality in order to make it agree with pre-established laws’ (1975: 89, emphasis added). This was an existential danger to Marxism as a tradition of emancipatory thought for the simple reason that ‘doing violence to reality’ meant abandoning the values of freedom.

But Žižek treats this danger as an opportunity. His theory of revolution is the doing of violence to reality. It is also a brutal ethics of force because, as Milovan Djilas understood, for the Communist, ‘[i]n the forefront of facts marched the a priori truths; and the struggle for their realisation stifled the ethical sense and even became transformed into its own ethic, the highest ethic of all’ (1969:72-3).

Žižek’s a priori truth is not Hegel’s, mind. Not pre-established laws but a ruthless and spiritualized will to power underpins his drive to do violence to reality. But it is all the more an arbitrary construction for that, and all the more prone to turn to violence to close the gap between ideal and real.  The ‘achievement’ of the mass murderer Mao was ‘tremendous’ to Žižek because Mao showed us that ‘the victorious revolutionary subject is a voluntarist agent which acts against “spontaneous economic necessity”, imposing its vision on reality through revolutionary terror’ (2007b).

The 20th century consummation: Lenin’s ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’

We should stop the ridiculous game of opposing the Stalinist terror to the ‘authentic’ Leninist legacy betrayed by Stalinism: ‘Leninism’ is a thoroughly Stalinist notion (Žižek 2002e: 193).

Žižek celebrates the moment when ‘Lenin violently displaces Marx’ because he believes that it is ‘only through such a violent displacement that the “original” theory can be put to work’ (2001c). Lenin consummated the marriage of Hegelianism and Blanquism when he substituted an anti-democratic concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ for Marx’s democratic original, thus ‘Marxifying’ arbitrary construction and the cult of force. Marxism was turned into an organized Blanquism, or, in Žižek’s revealing phrase, Marx was ‘put to work’.

The Marx scholar Hal Draper (1986, 1987) meticulously reconstructed the text and context of each and every use by Marx of the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to establish that the ill-starred term was invented by Marx as a way to re-educate Blanquists away from Blanquism. Marx was confronting the Blanquist notion of revolution as elite putsch with his own theory of revolution as popular self-emancipation. He did not have in mind a special dictatorial governmental form at all but was referring only to the class content of the state. Generally speaking, for Marx the ‘rule of the proletariat’ meant the working class leadership of an ‘immense majority block,’ while the governmental form of that rule was the democratic republic: popular control over the sovereign body of the state, universal suffrage, representative democracy, a democratic constitution, and truly mass involvement in political decision-making. Engels, in his 1895 critique of the Erfurt Programme, linked (social) form and (political) content thus: ‘the working class can come to power only under the form of the democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Engels, in Draper 1986: 318).

Fatefully, Marx’s democratic conception was soon replaced by a doppelganger within the Marxist movement. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ came to mean specially dictatorial governmental forms and policies (1987:44).[7] Plekhanov was the originator of this disastrous substitution, writing it into the programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903 (1987:39-41, 68-75). Lenin would later adopt Plekhanov’s conception, not as an emergency measure but in principle, as a mark of revolutionary virtue. Sounding rather like Žižek, it must be said, Lenin argued that ‘The scientific term “dictatorship” means nothing more nor less than authority untrammeled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever, and based directly on force. The term “dictatorship” has no other meaning than this’ (1987: 90). Draper points out that this formulation was ‘a theoretical disaster, first class [with] nothing in common…with any conception of the workers state’ held by Marx (1987:91).

It is upon this Leninist-dictatorial formulation that Žižek grounds his theory of revolution (2000b:176): ‘Nothing should be accepted as inviolable … [not] the most sacred liberal and democratic fetishes. This is the space for repeating the Leninist gesture today’ (2007a: 95) [8] He then spiritualises Lenin’s fateful substitution; in fact he renders it almost psychotic by foregrounding ‘a double equation: divine violence = inhuman terror = dictatorship of the proletariat’ (2008:162). There is much Robespierrist talk; we could call it the Higher Thuggery: ‘just and severe punishment of the enemies is the highest form of clemency,’ ‘rigor and charity coincide in terror,’ and so on (2008:159). He rescues the idea of egalitarian terror for ‘today’s different historical constellation’ by citing Saint-Just (‘That which produces the general good is always terrible’). He adds this menacing gloss: ‘These words should not be interpreted as a warning against the temptation to violently impose the general good on a society but on the contrary, as a bitter truth to be fully endorsed’ (2008:160). Little wonder that Žižek can write of ‘Stalinism’s inner greatness’ (2002e).

Wild Blanquism (1): Revolution as Badiouian ‘Event’

Sigmund Freud famously criticized ‘“Wild” Psycho-Analysis’ in order to seperate his creation from crude forms of analysis that had been picked up from books, short-circuited complexity, and were practiced by quacks (1910). Žižek’s theory of revolution is ‘wild’ not just because his crude ‘Leninism’ short-circuits Marx’s notion of working class self-emancipation, but also because he imports two theoretical resources, Badiou’s concept of the Event and Lacan’s concept of the Act, which (in Žižek’s reading, at least) reduce the notion of revolution to an arbitrary, will-governed, and expressive affair, ungrounded and astrategic, albeit personally salvific for its participants, even the dead ones.

Latterly, and especially in his 500-page warrant for totalitarianism, In Defense of Lost Causes, the decisive theoretical influence on Žižek has been the philosopher Alan Badiou. A member of the ultra-left group L’Organisation Politique, Badiou resurrects ‘the “eternal idea” of Communism’ which Žižek reads as being composed of ‘strict egalitarian justice, terror, voluntarism and “trust in the people”’ (2008:461). In Badiou’s work, ‘revolution’ is less the descriptor of a substantive political overturn inaugurating a process of social transformation, and more a plot point in what Terry Eagleton has astutely called a ‘born-again narrative’ (2003:248). Casting politics in the apocalyptic mold, Badiou seeks a ‘total emancipation’ beyond both good and evil and serious political strategy. Substituting for both is unconstrained violence and pure will: ‘extreme violence [is], therefore, the reciprocal correlative of extreme enthusiasm’ (2007:13).

The Badiouian concept of the Truth-Event – examples of which include the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the French Revolution, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution – refers to the radically new irruption, alien to what is, which shifts history and thought onto new tracks. Žižek has adopted Badiou’s conviction that the individual can only come alive, and is only constituted as a fully human subject, through their intense, faith-like commitment – Badiou’s word is fidelity – to a particular Truth-Event (Eagleton 2009:118).

Of course, what is being described here is fanaticism and it licenses within Žižek’s thought what John Holbo has called Žižek’s ‘towering un-thoughtfulness’ (2004:440). After all, the enthusiastic Chinese Maoists in thrall to The Idea, who knocked the glasses off the head of an intellectual, mocked him, dragged him through a show-trial and then killed him, had fidelity to the ‘Event’ all right. More: the concept of fidelity to the Event washes the blood from their hands and make their stupid murders into ethical acts and a service to Truth.

Žižek finds in Badiou’s concept a praiseworthy combination of ‘voluntarism, an active attitude of taking risks, with a more fundamental fatalism: one acts, makes a leap and then one hopes that things will turn out all right.’ Only it never has. Yet, 100 million Communist corpses later, Žižek still thinks that ‘what we need today [is] the freedom fighter with an inhuman face’ (2002a: 81-2).

McLaren points out that when Badiou’s Maoist ontology is combined with a Žižek’s ‘Leninist’ decisionism, revolution is reduced to an act of will (2002). Certainly, the Žižekian-Badiouian Truth-Event creates its own pre-conditions: ‘a demand possesses, at a specific moment, a global detonating power … if we unconditionally insist on it, the system will explode’ (2002b:164). Žižek then tries to ‘Leninises’ (and ‘Lacanises’) his ultra-voluntarism:

The Mensheviks relied on the all-embracing foundation of the positive logic of historical development; while the Bolsheviks (Lenin at least) were aware that “the big Other doesn’t exist” – a political intervention proper does not occur within the co-ordinates of some underlying global matrix, since what it achieves is precisely the reshuffling of this very matrix (1999).

Actually, political interventions do occur within an underlying global matrix, or what we might call ‘circumstances not of our own choosing’ or ‘the conjuncture,’ as we choose. Žižek’s wild theory of revolution rhetorically evades this brute and all-shaping fact in two ways. First, following Badiou, revolution is always thought under the political temporality of the ‘future anterieur’, or, as a brazen Žižek puts it, ‘one acts now as if the future one wants to bring about is already here’ (2008:460). Second, revolution is spiritualized as personally salvific whatever the outcome. Win or lose, Žižek’s revolution will force the individual to ‘accept that his or her life is not just a stupid process of reproduction and pleasure-seeking but that it is in service of a Truth’ (2002a:69-70). Win or lose, participation redeems: only when we act with ‘excessive intensity’, risking all and being willing to die for this Truth are we truly alive, anything less being only an ‘anemic spectacle of life dragging on as its own shadow’ (2003).

Wild Blanquism (2): Revolution as Lacanian-Antigonian ‘Act’

Žižek’s wild Blanquism is also heavily influenced by his reading of Lacan’s psychoanalytic concept of the ‘Act.’ There is a moment in Lacanian psychoanalytic clinical practice when the desperate analysand makes a ruthlessly honest self-assessment, gathering up all her courage and ignoring all her fears, even despite herself and beyond her conscious control, in order to make a therapeutic breakthrough. Parker argues that Žižek’s mistake has been to turn the ‘psychotic “passage à l’acte” … into something that is the model of proper political action’ (Parker 2004:80).

In consequence, Žižek’s theory of revolution floats free of institutional, ethical or strategic constraints. Ernesto Laclau noted that even when ostensibly talking politics, Žižek’s is ‘not …a truly political reflection’ but is rather ‘a psychoanalytic discourse which draws its examples from the politico-ideological field’ (in Butler et al 2000:289). Terry Eagleton has criticised Žižek for being ‘startlingly causal, almost naive in the way he moves directly from the psychoanalytic to the political’ (2003).[9] Parker points out that Žižek treats psychoanalytic change ‘as the model of social transformation’ when it plainly isn’t, ‘individual self-questioning in a clinic’ being incommensurable with ‘political strategies in public collective space’ (2004:63).

Lacan’s concept of the Act is influenced by Sophocles Antigone, and there is a sense in which Žižek’s theory of revolution is Antigonian. Antigone is deranged by the denial by the King, Creon, of a proper burial to her brother, and so sacrifices her life to secure that rite. Maybe she even longs for death (‘And if I die for it, what happiness!’). Žižek takes this as an exemplar of a properly political Act: driven and excessive, pursued to the end, ignoring the consequences. He dismisses critics of such violent excess and astrategic absolutism as people who ‘effectively oppose the act as such’ (2002a:153). His belief that a genuine ethico-political ‘Act’ must not just risk death but embrace it is then projected onto politics in the form of the claim that a ‘1794’ is an inevitable and necessary corollary of each and every ‘1789’ (2008:393; 486-7 n.10).

Stavrakakis (2007) has argued that Žižek’s reading of Antigone distorts Lacan’s original notion of the Act by valorising pure desire and parading indifference to the consequences of Antigone’s unhinged behavior for the polity. He also claims that Žižek misreads Antigone who doesn’t actually ‘risk’ anything, as any genuine notion of risk must involve a bare minimum of calculation and strategy. She does not so much act (or even Act) as ‘act out’ desire – and this is a particularly poor model for political action.

In the end, though, Žižek’s Antigonianism is really a fraud. ‘Antigonian rage’ is only for the foot-soldiers of the revolution, not for Žižek. ‘All successful socialist revolutions [have] followed the same model’, he tells us. First, the revolutionaries exploit some local form of Antigonian ‘rage capital’ in order to climb to power. But second, the revolutionaries anticipate the moment when the rage capital will dissipate, so they ‘build… up repressive apparatuses’ to ensure that, whatever is the will of the people, it is ‘too late to reverse things, for the revolutionaries are now firmly entrenched’ (2009c:89-90).

Žižek ‘Marxifies’ this cynicism by talk of a ‘Leninist’ outburst followed by a ‘Stalinist obscene underside’. In Sophoclean words, an Antigonian moment is manipulated to climb to power, and a Creonian moment is embraced to retain it, the revolutionary taking ‘the heroic attitude of “Somebody has to do the dirty work, so let’s do it!”’ (2002a: 30)

Žižek’s theory of revolution, then, is marked by a politics-shaped hole. Before the putsch we can only find the Žižekian-apocalyptic (the revolutionary elite is on the prowl for ‘rage-capital’ to exploit: a decisionist ultrapolitics). After the putsch is only the Žižekian-administrative (the elite engages in repressive measures and deploys the power of organisation: a non-democratic meta-politics). From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the Žižekian-political never comes.

Part 2: Two sources for an antitotalitarian critique

Two antitotalitarian thinkers, Claude Lefort and Hal Draper, offer resources for a radical democratic critique of Žižek’s theory of revolution.

The ‘anonymous intentionality’ of the totalitarian regime of thought and language: the critique from Claude Lefort

Claude Lefort argues that the totalitarian regime of thought and language common to fascism and communism is the bearer of an anonymous intentionality that ensures not only the ‘vast efficacy’ of totalitarianism, but also its criminality, whatever the desires of the militants (1998:2-3). Lefort identifies four bearers of this anonymous intentionality and Žižek’s theory of revolution I claim, is in thrall to each. I believe he realized this during his debate with Laclau and Butler (‘if this be linksfaschismus’) but decided to exult in that fact (so be it!’).

(i) The dream of a society unified and transparent to itself

The first bearer of anonymous intentionality lodged within the totalitarian regime of thought is the dream of a society unified and transparent to itself. Lefort warns that ‘[w]ith the demand for … a concrete community freed from the reign of abstraction, is attached the endless elimination of the enemy’ (1998:22). Despite his public image as a free spirit, largely based on his demeanour and his jokes, Žižek actually yearns for closure; he wants a world with a ‘point’. The name of his desire is not freedom but ‘final victories and ultimate demarcations’ and he wants to secure them by a ‘radical and violent simplification’. He dreams of the ‘magical moment when the infinite pondering crystallises itself into a simple “yes” or “no”’ and he seeks a life lived in the service of a ‘Truth’ understood not as Istina (truth as adequacy to the facts) but as (Badiou’s) Pravda – ‘the absolute Truth also designating the ethically committed ideal Order of the Good’. (2002a:70, 80). Wanting ‘definitive Solutions’ he sneers at the ‘merely pragmatic temporary solutions’ the democratic way of life relies upon (2002a:78).

Because the vision of a society wholly unified and transparent to itself is impossible to realize, a host of crimes and pathologies flow from the attempt to impose it, staining the hands of the best-intentioned (and Žižek is not exactly well-intentioned to begin with, as we have seen). Lefort describes the dynamic at work:

…the representation, which should be called phantasmal, of a society unified in all its parts, released from the opaqueness which derived from the division of interests and passions, mobilised by the task of self-realisation and the aim of eliminating all those who conspire against the power of the people … does not this representation imply the position of someone who is detached from everyone, all-powerful, all-seeing, omniscient, thanks to whom the people calls itself One … the image of a man who considers obedience to legality as a simple prejudice, who is constantly proving his will of iron who presents himself as invested by Destiny, elucidates the character of the regime (1998:10).

(ii) The individual subject is submerged in ‘Necessity’ which is as expressed in ‘The Idea’

The second bearer of anonymous intentionality in the totalitarian regime of thought is its submergence of the individual beneath ‘The Idea’. Lefort argues that totalitarianism never offers a novel idea but rather transforms an existing doctrine into a total ideology through ‘the intensification of the belief into a comprehensive intelligibility and predictability of the processes of history’ forcing the internalisation of necessity and the surrender of the individual subject (1998:14).

The doctrine that Žižek has transformed into a total ideology is, as we have seen, a crude mish-mash of one-dimensional Leninism, spiritualist Maoism, and psychoanalytic Stalinism. His recent writing is saturated with the idea that the only authentic life is one given up in self-sacrificial fidelity to the ‘Event.’ Inevitably, this has led Žižek to valorize and aestheticise martyrdom. For example, Robespierre’s ‘sublime greatness’ lies in the fact that he was ‘not afraid to die’ and viewed his own death at the hands of the revolution as ‘nothing.’ Žižek has plainly come to find death more interesting, authentic, and meaningful than (merely bourgeois) life. Again and again his gaze falls lovingly on death. Thus, Mao’s insouciance in the face of the threat of nuclear war is lauded, as is Che Guevara’s willingness to risk nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. ‘There is definitely something terrifying about this attitude,’ Žižek admits, ‘however, this terror is nothing less that the condition of freedom’ (2008:170).

The revolutionary’s role is to adopt the ‘proper attitude of a warrior towards death’ as illustrated by, of all people, the Zen Priest Yamamoto Jocho. Žižek quotes Mr Jocho approvingly: ‘Every day without fail [the warrior] should consider himself as dead … This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.’ Žižek even praises those Japanese soldiers who, during World War Two, performed their own funerals before they left for war. It is tempting to laugh at this and assume Žižek is joking. Resist; he isn’t. He tells us this ‘pre-emptive self-exclusion from the domain of the living’ is ‘constitutive of a radical revolutionary position’ (2008:170). Linksfaschismus indeed. [10]

Lefort points out that totalitarian ideology establishes the supreme law which is exalted far above law-as-such, which shrinks to mere command, indistinguishable from terror (1998:14). Because Žižek’s revolution is a ‘magic moment of enthusiastic unity of a collective will’ then even mass murder can be justified when carried out in the name of that enthusiasm, in a spirit of fidelity to the Event. Mao’s Red Guards, for example, may have killed half a million people during the Cultural Revolution but for Žižek all is redeemed because… it ‘sustained revolutionary enthusiasm’; indeed, it was ‘the last big installment in the life of this Idea’ (2008:207). Žižek invites his readers to ‘heroically accept this “white intellectual’s burden”, observing that Heidegger was great ‘not in spite of, but because of his Nazi engagement’ (2008:107,119) while Foucault’s support for the Iranian Islamists is to be applauded because ‘[w]hat matters is not the miserable reality that followed the upheavals … but the enthusiasm that the events in Iran stimulated in the external (Western) observer, confirming his hopes in the possibility of a new form of spiritualised political collective’ (2008:108).

(iii) ‘Organisation’ to control and regulate behaviour in every sphere of life

The third element of the totalitarian regime of thought that bears an anonymous intentionality is the use of organisation to ‘place the doctrine at the service of a plan for total domination’ and to ensure the end of the distinction between the political and the non-political (1998:14). The ideology is grounded in a ‘single source, that of power materialised in the party’ and that party presents its unity as ‘untouchable.’ Thus, in totalitarianism, ‘the power of discourse and the discourse of power become indistinguishable’ (1998:3-4) The most shocking example of this erasure of the gap between might and right in Žižek’s own writings is this ugly piece of braggadocio.

To be clear and brutal to the end there is a lesson to be learned from Hermann Goering’s reply, in the early 1940s, to a fanatical Nazi who asked him why he protected a well-known Jew from deportation: ‘In this city, I decide who is a Jew!’ (2008:136)

Žižek admits that he would love to mimic Goering and say ‘In this city we decide what is left’ in a future in which he can “simply ignore liberal accusations of inconsistency” (2008:136).

Lefort understood that unlike mass parties in democratic societies, the entire point of organisation in totalitarian ideology is ‘to control and regulate behaviour in all spheres of social life … all situations where human relations are formed outside institutional frameworks … to render everything organisable, everything [a] matter for party organisation’ (1998:16). Erasing the distinction between the political and the non-political renders suspect all social ties forged by ‘a spontaneous mode of socialisation’. And as spontaneity can never be fully repressed, the active minority must stand perpetual guard over the ‘maleficent adversary who is everywhere active [and] conspiratorial’ (1998:17).

On cue, Žižek yearns for a time when ‘terms like “revisionist traitor” were not yet part of the Stalinist mantra, but expressed an authentic engaged insight’ (2000b: 177), and he is nostalgic for the days when GDR workers would have their marriage raked over by co-workers because, after all, ‘private problems themselves (from divorce to illness) are put into proper perspective by being discussed in one’s working collective’ (2001a:133). As for Žižek’s vision of the post-revolutionary society, it is captured in his conviction that ‘Lenin was right: after the revolution, the anarchic disruptions of the disciplinary constraints of production should be replaced by an even stronger discipline’ (2000b:177).

(iv) Embracing the totalitarian politico-aesthetic of the ‘substantialist idea’

The fourth bearer of anonymous intentionality within the totalitarian regime of thought is its aestheticised incorporation of all individuals in one social ‘body’: the ‘substantialist ideal’. The price is the constant replication and representation of the state-unified people not only functionally but also in a host of state-run front organizations, as well as a bloody aesthetics: an endless drama of the healthy social body fighting off parasites in pursuit of purity.

Badiou wishes the revolutionary to view the world as ‘an ancient world full of corruption and treachery. One has to constantly start again with purification…’ (2007:14) and he looks forward to ‘the advent or commencement of man: the new man … a real creation, something that has not come into existence because it arises out of the destruction of historical antagonisms’ (2007: 14, 16). Man is to be drilled – Žižek himself is attracted by the aesthetic of ‘the new man who gladly accepts his role as a bolt or screw in the gigantic coordinated industrial Machine’ – and when out of step, forced to be free. Little wonder that Žižek flirts with talk of the individual being ‘crushed, stamped on, mercilessly worked over, in order to produce a new man’ (2002f).

Žižekian hatred for the Enemy, expressed in his thuggish Goering-talk for example, saturates his writings. In ‘The Leninist Freedom’ he reports gleefully on Lenin’s response to the Menshevik defenders of democracy in 1920: ‘Of course, gentlemen, you have the right to publish this critique – but, then, gentlemen, be so kind as to allow us to line you up against the wall and shoot you!’ (2001c)[11] (Actually, Lenin said ‘Do your job, gentlemen – we too will do our job,’ but Žižek captures his meaning well enough.)

The adoption of the tone of the commissar and the aestheticising of murder are two signs that the anonymous intentionality of the totalitarian regime of thought is eating its way through a thinker. Since his break with Laclau in 2000, Žižek has often sung in this leather-booted register, abusing antitotalitarians as ‘conformist liberal scoundrels’ who denounce ‘every attempt to change things’ (2001a:4) and traducing antitotalitarian thought as ‘a worthless sophistic exercise, a pseudo-theorisation of the lowest opportunist survivalist fears and instincts, a way of thinking that is … reactionary’ (2008:4).

No Socialism Without Democracy: the critique from Hal Draper

Žižek’s call for a ‘left alternative to democracy’ has not given his many admirers pause, and nor has his praise for those philosophers, from Plato to Heidegger, who have been ‘mistrustful of democracy, if not directly anti-democratic’ (2008:102). On the first page of In Defense of Lost Causes Žižek announced that there is no difference between three statements: ‘the Church synod has decided’, ‘the Central Committee has passed a resolution,’ and ‘the people have made clear its choice at the ballot box’ (2008:1). Praising Alain Badiou’s view that ‘Today, the enemy is … called Democracy’ (in Žižek 2008:183) Žižek argues that democracy is ‘in its very notion a passivization of the popular Will’ (2009c:135), a form of ‘corruption’ (2009c:136), and – an echo of Plato, the original totalitarian – a political system that is unable to provide a ‘place for Virtue’. He scorns liberal-democratic politics as a void and its partisans as ‘the party of the non-Event’ (2002a:151) and cracks a tendentious joke hints at his alternative. ‘You’ve had your anti-communist fun, and you are pardoned for it – time to get serious once again!’ (2009:157).

While democracy is wholly external to Slavoj Žižek’s theory of revolution, Hal Draper established that it was wholly internal to Karl Marx’s. Marx was a democratic extremist – ‘the first socialist figure to come to an acceptance of the socialist idea through the battle for the consistent expression of democratic control from below.’ Uniquely, he ‘came through the bourgeois-democratic movement: through it to its farthest bounds, and then out by its farthest end. In this sense, he was the first to fuse the struggle for consistent political democracy with the struggle for a socialist transformation.’ Seen through this optic, Marx’s true revolution in thought was not Capital but the idea that only on the social ground of self-emancipation could the integration of political democracy and the ‘social question’ be worked out:

Marx’s theory moved in the direction of defining consistent democracy in socialist terms and consistent socialism in democratic terms. The task of theory …is not to adjudicate a clash between the two considerations…but rather to grasp the social dynamics of the situation under which the apparent contradiction between the two is resolved (1977: 283).

Draper argues that democracy is the sine qua non of self-emancipatory socialism. Not ‘merely of sentimental or moral value … nor is it merely a preference,’ democracy is ‘the only way in which the rule of the working class can exist in political actuality.’ (1962). While Marx thought in terms of the maturation of the working class through reform-fights (‘We say to the workers: “You will have to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years… to change yourselves and fit yourselves for the exercise of political power.”’)[12] Žižek offers sound bites: ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for’ (2009:154). While Marx believed the first step was ‘winning the battle of democracy’ because the encroachment of a new social logic is impossible without untrammeled democracy; civil liberties, a culture of pluralism, with maximum space for initiative from below, and for enforcing the accountability of the government representatives. Žižek prefers to ‘resignify terror.’

The other lesson of the Stalinist experience ignored by Žižek and Badiou is that without democracy, statification equals totalitarianism. They both desire to give a fresh existence to the communist hypothesis but only in the form of a redemptive repetition. They seek new conditions for its existence, but the hypothesis itself is placed beyond criticism as the Eternal Event to which one must have fidelity.

Žižek’s ‘Wild Blanquism’ functions to protect the project of a redemptive repetition of the communist hypothesis by shielding it from a confrontation with its historical nemesis: real people (who are never to be confused with Badiou’s totalitarian category ‘The People’). The true purpose of ‘resignifying terror’, mocking as ‘liberal scoundrels’ all who warn of the totalitarian temptation, rehabilitating the educational dictatorship, and grounding politics in a Truth that must be imposed against the people in the name of ‘The People,’ is precisely to wall-off the Communist hypothesis from that very ‘independent movement of the immense majority’ in which Marx placed every hope.

Conclusion: Why We Must Keep Saying Totalitarianism

Today, the project of the Left desperately needs theoretical resources that help it to do two things: deepen and extend the democratic revolution begun in the 18th century while completing what the French antitotalitarian writer Pierre Rosanvallon calls the ‘reconceptualisation of the political in the light of the totalitarian experience’ (2006). Slavoj Žižek’s theory of revolution sunders the political project of the left from both. It reprises as an academic farce in this century what was a genuine tragedy in the last, when, in the plangent words of Albert Camus, ‘The great event of the twentieth century was the forsaking of the values of freedom by the revolutionary movements. Since that moment a certain hope has disappeared from the world and a solitude has begun for each and every man’ (quoted in Howe 1982:132-3). Žižek may make us laugh. But he does not restore that hope, nor lift that solitude.


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[1] Žižek’s diagnosis of the crisis of late modernity – whatever criticisms one may make of it – is not a scandal, of course. He is a penetrating critic of a range of maladies that have swept the globe since the Thatcher-Reagan revolution, and by treating those maladies as indicators of ‘what is wrong in the very structure of the system’ (2007a: 81) Žižek has held open the question of a global alternative to capitalism. And he can be brilliant in forcing us to adopt strange angles of vision on a vast array of familiar cultural objects, high and low, making us see them afresh as forms of meaning in the service of this ‘system’-in-crisis. No, the scandal does not lie in his insistence that a global alternative be held open, but in how he proposes to realise it. In 2000 – somewhere in the middle of his debate with Ernesto Laclau and Judith Butler – he decided to give up on democracy, ‘radical’ or otherwise. That exchange began with a declaration of their shared antitotalitarianism and radical democracy but ended with Žižek embracing terror, dictatorship and linksfaschismus (Butler, Laclau, Žižek 2000).

[2] The French conspirator and revolutionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-81) opposed universal suffrage and believed that the revolution would be made by a ruthless elite band organizing a putsch. After the seizure of power the Blanquist believed that ‘[t]he revolutionary band of idealistic dictators alone would exercise the transitional dictatorship’ (Draper 1987:13). In a meticulous account of the Marx-Blanqui relationship, Draper concluded that ‘Marx did vigorously reject Blanquist (Jacobin-Communist) putschism…from his earliest known writings to his last, with unusual consistency’ (1986:145). Blanquism, thought Draper, has always been ‘the “left” way to reject self-emancipation’ (1986:162).

[3] ‘Marxism and the Hegelian dialectic’, the second chapter of Bernstein’s 1899 book The Preconditions of Socialism, was not translated by Edith C. Harvey in Evolutionary Socialism (1961), but was included in Henry Tudor’s 1993 translation, which also restored the original title.

[4] Bernstein thought Hegelianism a ‘treacherous element in Marxist doctrine’ (1993:36). In Germany after 1848 Marx and Engels, as a result of ‘working on the basis of the radical Hegelian dialectic, arrived at a doctrine very similar to Blanquism’ (1993:37). By thinking the proletariat as the ‘antithesis’ they expected a proletarian revolution in Germany in 1848 and ‘[t]his position led directly to Blanquism’ (1993:38). It has not only been the devil Bernstein who has raised this alarm. Sebastiano Timpanaro thought that ‘the intrinsically idealist character of the dialectic was not clearly recognised by either [Marx or Engels]’ and that ‘Hegel has had certain negative effects on the thought of Marx and Engels which cannot be brushed aside’ (1975: 89, 129 n82).

[5] In a very different language, Laclau and Mouffe repeat Bernstein: ‘…”dialectics” exerts an effect of closure in those cases where more weight is attached to the necessary character of an a priori transition, than to the discontinuous moment of an open articulation.’ (1985:95)

[6] Sidney Hook argued that over the course of the 20th century the Marxist ideal of revolution degenerated into ‘the cult of revolution.’ The cultist ‘rejects the processes of democratic social change as hopelessly ineffective or deceptive or both’ and gives up on the working class as hopelessly corrupted. Bizarrely, in societies that have welfare states and mass reformist social democratic parties and elected governments, the cultist fastens on notions of violence, revolutionary myth, ‘emancipatory terror’, and dictatorship (2002:204-7). Hook might have been describing Žižek.

[7] The idea that Marx’s concept of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ was systematically misunderstood by his followers can also be found in Hook (1934) and Laurat (1940).

[8] Parker argues that Žižek is not really a Marxist, but only ‘uses Marxism tactically against other political and theoretical systems’ (2004:96). Laclau has criticised Žižek’s ‘insufficiently deconstructed traditional Marxism’ (in Butler et al, 2000:204-6). See also Homer 2001.

[9] See also Ebert 1999.

[10] See Johnson (forthcoming).

[11] Listening to the giggling of tenured faculty and their affluent students as Žižek jokes about the murder of the party of Julius Martov is enough to make one reconsider the virtues of terror.

[12] Norman Geras makes the case for thinking of self-emancipation as ‘central, not incidental, to historical materialism’ (1986:134).

How to Not Read Žižek

By Paul Bowman

[N]ote how many texts in the present volume follow a similar argumentative strategy. First, they impute to me a ridiculously caricaturized position; then, when they are forced to admit that many passages in my work directly contradict the described position, they do not read this discrepancy as what, prima facie, it is, a sign of the inadequacy of their reading, but as my own inconsistency. (Žižek 2007: 201)

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up on it.) (Wittgenstein 1922/2005: 189)

Reading the Romance

Žižek’s work is theoretically dense, deft, racy, fast-paced. He is also a theorist who seems to court controversy with his writings, who seems to try to provoke, by making outrageous declarations about all manner of subjects, no matter how delicate. Nothing is off-limits, it appears, to Žižek’s analytical, diagnostic, polemical gaze. He seems to delight in breaking academic taboos. Surely this is at least part of the reason why he is so widely read.

However, to fearlessly speak out, to heroically break taboos (academic taboos, though: so, mock-heroically) and to unashamedly make diagnoses, judgements and denunciations without worrying about offending sensibilities is one matter. The ethics and politics that one actually puts forward is quite another. This is why Alan Johnson’s new reading of Žižek strikes me as extremely important. For what Johnson demonstrates in his article, ‘Žižek’s Theory of Revolution: A Critique’, is not only that the nuts and bolts of Žižek’s political theory are highly problematic in many respects. (People have been saying this for some time.) It is also that it is in a sense a scandal that anyone who places themselves on any kind of progressive political left could continue to read Žižek as if Žižek’s work could be placed on any kind of progressive political left.

Johnson concerns himself with a demonstration of the key features of Žižek’s political pronouncements over the last decade and more, in order to reveal the bare bones of the political theory that Žižek expounds. Žižek’s politics are scandalous, he argues:

the scandal does not lie in his insistence that a global alternative be held open, but in how he proposes to realise it. In 2000 – somewhere in the middle of his debate with Ernesto Laclau and Judith Butler – he decided to give up on democracy, ‘radical’ or otherwise. That exchange began with a declaration of their shared antitotalitarianism and radical democracy but ended with Žižek embracing terror, dictatorship and linksfaschismus. (Johnson 2011: footnote 1)

‘This essay does not seek to explain that scandal’, writes Johnson at the start of his essay, ‘only to make the case that it is one’. To my mind it is clear that he does so in order to demand from us an engagement with the even more scandalous fact that people seem to be reading Žižek in such a manner as to not notice his unpalatable politics. It is clearly a concern with this situation that animates Johnson’s project. For, in this case as in all others, the issue is surely not simply that someone’s politics may or may not be scandalous. The serious issue relates rather to what is done with it, and by whom. In other words, the impetus behind Johnson’s excavation of Žižek’s political thought must involve an intention to precipitate a wider engagement with – a facing up to – the problematic fact that scholars, researchers and academics generally are continuing to read Žižek in often affiliative manners in light of the elaboration that Žižek himself has given of his own political theory over the last decade. Ultimately, that is, the problem animating Johnson’s work – which he elucidates by quoting from Adam Kirsch – is that ‘the louder [Žižek] applauds violence and terror – especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin and Mao … the more indulgently he is received by the academic left which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult’. What I would like to do in response to Johnson’s illuminating reading of the letter of Žižek’s political theory of revolution is to try to make some headway in an engagement with the ongoing modes of reading (or not-reading: consuming, enjoying) Žižek by an academic community that tends to conceptualize itself as more or less left and more or less radically and progressively democratic.

Blindness and Insight

One possible interpretation, one way to make sense of this reading formation or this general discursive context and its uncritically hospitable reception, would be to suggest that Žižek’s readers have simply not noticed precisely how scandalous Žižek is, or that they have not identified and isolated exactly why Žižek is scandalous, and have not ‘therefore’ come ineluctably to the conclusion that perhaps Žižek should no longer be read in a straightforwardly supportive way. Of course, this would be a slightly barbed interpretation – because it would imply that Žižek’s primary readers are not really reading Žižek thoroughly, or are not being attentive or paying attention to the implications of what Žižek is actually saying, either in his many digressions, asides and virtuoso vignettes, or in the general reiterated and consistent points that he regularly makes and returns to again and again.

Now, to be clear, I do not want to suggest that Žižek’s most hospitable readers are simply uncritical fans. For, even though it is inevitable that some surely will be, I know many ‘Žižekian’ scholars to be extremely sharp, perceptive, insightful and analytical readers. Nevertheless, I still want to propose that, given the style of his writing – particularly the way it jumps around from one topic and one theorist to another theorist then another topic and then another theorist on another topic, and so on, in an apparently chaotic manner – that given this, there is always going to be a degree of difficulty in stating with absolute certainty exactly what Žižek is actually saying; and perhaps not because of any ‘prima facie’ lack or failure on the reader’s part, nor because of the effects of that old chestnut called textual excess and the play of the signifier, but perhaps because the consistency and coherence that Žižek adheres to is an effect of his investment in his own reading of the Lacanian ‘Real’, one of the effects of which will be the effect of consistent inconsistency.

I will return to this suggestion later. But for now, I’d merely want to suggest that an inevitable effect of the range and apparently ramshackle nature of Žižek’s texts will be conducive to the establishment of some disagreement between readers – especially, perhaps, because Žižek combines his readings of a wide range of theorists, philosophers and psychoanalysts in such a way as to suggest that they are each confirming what the others are saying. As Michael Walsh puts it:

In other words, there’s no arguing with a thoroughgoing Hegelian; this is a position that always-already anticipates (or sometimes just ‘implies’) anything of value that is subsequently voiced. So it is with characteristic relish that Žižek comments after quoting some paragraphs of Hegel: ‘Everything is in this marvellous text: from the Foucauldian motif of disciplinary micro-practice as preceding any positive instruction to the Althusserian equation of the free subject with his subjection to the Law’ (…). Žižek’s enthusiasm is infectious, so that one feels almost churlish in saying that ‘from the Foucauldian motif’ to ‘the Althusserian equation’ can scarcely be described as ‘everything’, is in fact no great distance – Foucault was Althusser’s student, and is cited by his former teacher in the first footnote to Reading Capital. This sense of a pre-ordained inevitability is reinforced by Žižek’s other favourite formulations, the paradox (…), the ‘nothing but’ (‘Lacan’s whole point is that the Real is nothing but this impossibility of inscription’…) and the rhetorical question – ‘Is not the supreme case of a particular feature that sustains the impossible sexual relationship the curling blonde hair in Hitchcock’s Vertigo?’ (…); ‘Do we not find the ultimate example of this impossible Thing … in the science-fiction theme of the … Id-Machine?’ (…); ‘Is it not clear already in Kant that there is transcendental self-consciousness?’ (Walsh 2002: 391)

Žižek does and does not court consistency, in equal measure. In the face of the wide range of assertions within Žižek’s work, and consequently the wide array of responses to his work, Žižek always has one or more lines of flight open to him in defending himself or claiming to have been misread. A clear case of this occurs in the pages of a book of essays I co-edited on Žižek’s work, a book of essays which concluded with Žižek’s response – a long afterword called ‘With Defenders Like These, Who Needs Attackers?’ (Žižek 2007) In response to over a dozen essays offering various criticisms of his analyses, methods and conclusions, Žižek concedes very little, almost nothing, and not one of the many substantive criticisms made of his work in the book; claiming instead that all of the contributors have misread and misrepresented him, that they have been aggressive, abusive, ‘smash and grab’, unscholarly. Similarly, the ensuing reviews and discussions of the book online often restated Žižek’s sentiments, albeit sometimes in considerably less measured terms: the contributors to our book were incompetent readers, they said, each of whom had read Žižek entirely wrong[1]. . . . Consequently, it strikes me that if over a dozen academics from all over the world, each working independently and with no particular anti-Žižek axe to grind, could each spend protracted periods of time researching, analysing and assessing Žižek’s work, and could each come up with critical interpretations which were then received as complete misreadings, then anyone can.

All texts are, after all, essentially open. But does that mean that finding one’s way through reasons and arguments and analyses and evidence must be an interminable process of ongoing error – all blindness and no insight? Is disentangling Žižek impossible? Perhaps. Certainly, the range of poststructuralist or ‘deconstructionist’ paradigms all propose different versions of this. Of course, Žižek himself rejects such paradigms, and persistently uses a mode of address that implies that truth and insight can be directly apprehended and clearly stated by the scholar. Our own choice of title for our book – The Truth of Žižek – was, in this context, ultimately a playful jibe at Žižek’s own favourite rhetorical formulation: ‘Is this not precisely the truth of [x, y, or z]?’ – a rhetorical (non)question which more than implies that there is a ‘truth’ or, indeed, an ‘essential truth’ to this, that or the other, that can be known and stated. In the wake of our immersion in poststructuralism and the textual paradigm of deconstruction, as well as the discourse approaches of Foucault, not to mention Žižek’s own early allies and collaborators, Laclau and Mouffe, this kind of Žižekian proposition about ‘truth’ inevitably struck us as both engaging and problematic. It was one of the reasons we decided to compile a book of critical appraisals and responses to Žizek. For, given the textual ontology of deconstruction and of Laclauian discourse theory, how could one claim access to or knowledge of truth? John Mowitt’s contribution to our book, ‘Trauma Envy’ (Mowitt 2007), suggested that Žižek’s claim to be able to access the truth – a truth that would trump all others – could be understood in terms of the status he accords to the Lacanian Real, a status that allows him to regard his particular paradigm as superior to all others currently available, insofar as the (post)poststructuralist discursive formation cannot countenance the possibility of context-free ‘truth’.

In a sense, this possibility opens a way to confer upon Žižek’s work a different kind of consistency or coherence. Nevertheless, whenever Žižek has been accorded a ‘position’ by interpreters, and particularly when this has been used as the basis for a critique of his work, this has always been something Žižek has been able to sidestep, by claiming that the position attributed to him is not in fact his (true) position and that that was not what he was actually saying. In other words, maybe, as with the Real, there is no consistent Žižekian position. This is a possibility that deserves to be taken seriously. Another possibility would be to consider that, given the sheer proliferation of his writings on equally proliferating subjects, one should not really expect to find any consistency at all: pure, regular, repetitive consistency in an author’s works through time and space would surely constitute evidence of an inflexible, sedulous non-reading of any unique thing, text, issue, problem or debate. So perhaps the inconsistencies to be found could be taken as the great strength and virtue of Žižek’s work. Perhaps Žižek is performing either the chaotic eruption of the Real or (more pragmatically) Foucault’s argument that the historical and entrenched idea of the existence of a singular consistent coherent author is a social fiction (Foucault 1977). Perhaps ‘Žižek the author’ should be regarded as a Barthesian ‘figure in the carpet’ of the texts that bear his name. Perhaps the best way to read Žižek, then, would be always to forget, anew, each time, whatever it was he may have seemed to have said the last time you read him, and to dive in and enjoy your Žižek for reasons other than overarching consistency – perhaps purely for the range of examples, anecdotes and witty and suggestive deployments of theory and philosophy, rather than for anything consistent. Perhaps Žižek is all suggestion, all provocation, all critique with no consistency. . . Perhaps.

But still, there does seem to be consistency to Žižek’s writings. The same sorts of arguments regularly recur. The same sentiments, the same connections, often even the same passages and paragraphs and pages moving from one publication to the next. And these consistencies can be enumerated, elaborated, interpreted. In light of this, I genuinely wonder how Žižek and his primary readership will respond to the challenging consistencies that Alan Johnson has revealed in the political theory Žižek has produced in the last decade. Will Johnson’s interpretation be accorded the status of a persuasively systematic reading, or will it be consigned to the category of a symptomatic misreading? (Once one is inclined to start regarding some things as symptoms, it seems to become very hard to prevent that tendency turning into regarding everything as a symptom.)

The Reading of Žižek

Johnson is at pains to demonstrate that what is most scandalous about Žižek is not merely his apparent delight in breaking putative academic taboos. Nor is it even that the main targets of Žižek’s harshest judgements are invariably his own primary readership – those involved in cultural studies, film studies, cultural theory, continental philosophy, political theory. Rather, what makes Žižek so scandalous, in Johnson’s reading, is the fact that his political theory is based first on a deeply problematic misreading of both the spirit and the letter of certain historical events and second that his political pronouncements are explicitly anti-democratic, authoritarian, totalitarian, crypto- and not so crypto-fascist. Johnson meticulously and persuasively elaborates his evidence for arguing this. As such, I do not need to retread the same ground. So, rather than reiterating or recapitulating Johnson, I would prefer to start from the same initial observation that he makes about Žižek’s typical method, and from there to strike out on an equivalent but different tangent, into the matter that animates Johnson but that he leaves largely implicit: the problem of the reading of Žižek.

‘Žižek’s Theory of Revolution: A Critique’ begins from a clarification of Žižek’s most typical manner of proceeding: namely, the fact that Žižek so often starts from a misreading (or partial reading) and moves immediately into an amphibology, or, that is, a skewed argument, in order to arrive at conclusions that are, as such, faulty. So, typically: first Žižek misrepresents or caricatures something. He then runs with this chimera into a hyperbolical all-or-nothing argument in which straw men are set up to be struck down by the violent actions of zealous ‘free radicals’ – characters/caricatures that Žižek often represents as heroic (and violent) phallic heroes. This is a regular occurrence in his writings. Johnson begins from the example upon which Žižek bases his theory of revolutionary politics, but many equivalent examples on various topics could be provided. I will discuss one: one of the most frequent: Žižek’s reading of his favourite object of scorn, ‘cultural studies’.

Žižek almost invariably uses the term ‘cultural studies’ as a short-hand way of conjuring up everything academic that he holds in contempt. In Žižekian, it is short-hand for the cutting edge of the entire field of social, cultural and political studies, the arts, humanities and social sciences. This is because Žižek believes cultural studies to be exemplary of the leading tendencies both of academia and (hence) of capitalist ideology. This is why he so often singles out cultural studies for particular scorn (Bowman 2006). However, the problem with Žižek’s reading of cultural studies is that he persistently fails to engage with the object of his criticism on any level at all.

Some of the stakes and drama of this are played out most clearly in an essay by Jeremy Gilbert, again in The Truth of Žižek.[2] In his essay ‘All the Right Questions, All the Wrong Answers’ – a title which encapsulates the overarching consensus about Žižek that emerged within the pages of The Truth of Žižek – Gilbert takes issue with Žižek’s frequent declarations and assertions about cultural studies. Gilbert takes Žižek to task on a factual level – pointing out various ways in which most, if not all, of the claims that Žižek makes about cultural studies are demonstrably false, caricatural, mendacious, ill-informed, smacking of all the biases associated with the most right-wing of conservative reactionaries (Gilbert 2007: 61-80), and, I would add, palpably imbued with the stench of a resentment and hostility that – should any of the things that Žižek claims about this ‘cultural studies’ object that he represents as weak, soft, feminized, deluded and impotent have any basis in fact whatsoever – would put Žižek firmly in the position of a kind of school bully, of the sort who singles out the most naïve and gentle boy for attack, precisely because he is the one least likely to fight back. (I am supplementing my paraphrase of Gilbert’s argument with some of my own imagery here.)

It is worth looking at one aspect of the Gilbert-Žižek exchange, at some length, not least because it also connects Žižek’s criticisms of cultural studies with his interest in totalitarianism (the object of Johnson’s attention), as well as relating directly to the question of reading (Žižek’s reading and reading Žižek). So, allow me to quote Gilbert at length:

Let us take as one exemplary text, Žižek’s Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?. For a start, this book opens by promising to address the ‘problem’ of the fact that accusations of ‘totalitarianism’ have become unanswerable and automatically condemnatory charges in the context of a certain post-structuralist intellectual climate. It proceeds to do nothing of the kind, instead offering a more or less stream of consciousness set of reflections on certain uses of psychoanalytic theory to address a disparate and frequently disconnected set of intellectual issues. At no point does the book make any attempt to engage with the complex intellectual history which leads to the blanket condemnation of ‘totalitarianism’ – the disillusion with party communism after 1968, the rigorous scholarship of Lyotard and Lefort, the influence of anarchism on the ‘new social movements’, etc., etc. In place of any such thing, we get remarks such as this one: ‘If at a Cultural Studies colloquium in the 1970s, one was asked innocently “Is your line of argumentation not similar to that of Arendt?” this was a sure sign that one was in deep trouble’ (Žižek 2001: 2).

On the one hand, this is a remark intended to illustrate a general point about the changing fashionability of Arendt’s work during recent decades, to be read quickly and passed over. On the other, it sets up Žižek’s entire case that there is something ‘wrong’ with ‘cultural studies’ that can be registered in terms of its changing attitude to Arendt. As such, if Žižek’s initial assertion about this change is not substantiable then it raises severe questions as to the whole premise of this argument – never mind the substance of the argument itself. So wait. Read the remark again. Pause and reflect. Only one of two responses is really possible here: either silent acquiescence from someone who assumes that the remark must be reasonable (because it is made in a book by a famous authority on cultural theory published by a renowned publisher of esteem and quality), or a protesting query from anyone who knows anything at all about Cultural Studies and its history. Locating myself in the latter category I have to ask: what the hell is Žižek talking about? How on earth would Žižek know what ‘would have happened’ (with enough certainty to know that anything would have been a ‘sure sign’ of anything else) at a ‘Cultural Studies colloquium in the 1970s’. There was only one place in the world where one might have attended a ‘Cultural Studies colloquium in the 1970s’: at the University of Birmingham – and to the best of anyone’s recollection (I have asked a number of people who were there), Slavoj Žižek never made it along to one.

Žižek may be right and he may be wrong about his substantive point. That isn’t the immediate issue, although we will come back to it. The important point for now is that Žižek is making an authoritative comment on something – Cultural Studies colloquia in the 1970s – without offering the slightest reason for the reader to put aside their justifiable scepticism as to Žižek’s authority so to comment. Let’s be clear about the implicit assumption here: the reader is assumed (or hoped, at least) to know even less about the subject than Žižek, and to take his word for it. Such a reader is being misled for the sake of a polemical point on Žižek’s part. (Gilbert 2007: 63-4)

Žižek responds to Gilbert at some length in his afterword to The Truth of Žižek, ‘With Defenders Like These, Who Needs Attackers?’ (Žižek 2007). In response to Gilbert’s key point about cultural studies ‘as such’, all Žižek says is this:

Well, Birmingham definitely was not the only place ‘in the world’ – being born in 1949, I am old enough to have followed the scene around Europe from the early 70s, where, in the aftermath of the 1968 events, a Leftist critical analysis of cultural products was flourishing, especially in Germany and France, but also in Latin America. And, unfortunately, from that time, I remember clearly incidents where stating similarity to Arendt functioned as an act of ominous accusation.

With this, Žižek confirms the first half of Gilbert’s reading (‘On the one hand, this is a remark intended to illustrate a general point about the changing fashionability of Arendt’s work during recent decades, to be read quickly and passed over’). But it does so as if Gilbert had not already said this, and at exactly the same time as it misses everything else that Gilbert goes on to say – all of the important points, all of the essential critique that Gilbert is making. Žižek’s response to Gilbert’s taking of him to task about his incessant polemicizing against cultural studies (specifically: cultural studies specifically, and not some vague intellectual ‘scene’), takes the form of ignoring the essential point of the criticism that Gilbert is clearly, insistently, deliberately and unequivocally making.

The manner in which Žižek misses the point is very precise. Let us take note of its features. First, note: Gilbert is obviously not claiming that Birmingham was the ‘only place in the world’ in the 1970s. He is stating the institutional-historical fact that there was ‘only one place in the world where one might have attended a “Cultural Studies colloquium in the 1970s”’. For, cultural studies as a named institutional disciplinary entity – i.e., cultural studies as such, the thing called cultural studies – was baptised in the 1960s at Birmingham University in the UK. It was not until the 1980s that it spread widely, through the institution of degree programmes, departments, centres, schools, conferences, associations, publishers’ categories, and so on; and it was not until the 1990s that a quick evocation of ‘cultural studies’ could be taken as shorthand for the general tendencies of the intellectual scenes of the arts and humanities – i.e., not until after the institutional transformation of the arts and humanities precipitated in large part by the institutional proliferation of centres and sites of cultural studies.

In other words, the question is this: before cultural studies as such was there cultural studies ‘as such’? In a very general sense, one might say, yes, perhaps, sort of. But should one wish to answer this kind of question with any kind of precision or rigour, one would have to say, no, not really, not as such, and surely it could only look like there was ‘cultural studies before cultural studies’ from an un-self-reflexive post-cultural studies position. Alternatively put: before the paradigms, approaches, questions, orientations and discourses of cultural studies hegemonized the intellectual scene, had the paradigms, approaches, questions, orientations and discourses of cultural studies hegemonized the intellectual scene?

I have argued before – indeed, in the same book containing the Gilbert-Žižek exchange – that this tendency in Žižek to quickly introduce something (whether a debate, issue, entity or complex issue) by using sweeping statements and short-hand is both a strength and a weakness of his work (Bowman 2007). For, on the one hand, it allows him to conjure up, quickly and dramatically, any entrenched and ongoing debate. That is, rather than re-inventing the wheel, Žižek assumes that we know what he is talking about. But on the other hand, this wreaks all the conceptual and representational violence of any other reductive representation or account. So, on the one hand, this accounts for some of the appeal of Žižek’s work: it quickly maps out historical polemics, disciplinary disagreements, and ways to read philosophers and theorists against each other. But on the other hand, it often proceeds, as in the case Jeremy Gilbert points out here, according to an entirely problematic manner of not reading, not engaging, not reflecting, and not seeking or digging to find out whether things are actually as Žižek says they are, in a quick synopsis.

In this case, then, Gilbert’s specific point is that, in the 1970s, there really was a cultural studies scene, but that it is not what or where Žižek says it was. On the one hand, again, this merely reconfirms the fact that Žižek uses the term ‘cultural studies’ to refer to the general tendencies or discursive formations of left discourse in and around the arts and humanities disciplines – which takes us directly back to the point Gilbert concedes from the outset, that ‘this is a remark intended to illustrate a general point … to be read quickly and passed over’. But, on the other hand, it still leaves entirely unaddressed Gilbert’s actual challenge to Žižek – his questioning of his (persistent mis)reading and representation of ‘cultural studies’, specifically his ad hominem and ad nauseum insistence ‘that there is something “wrong” with “cultural studies”’. In other words, if Žižek is never actually referring to ‘actually-existing’ cultural studies, then why does he always refer to cultural studies?[3]

Over and above the specific issue of Žižek’s long-running misreading and compulsive defamation of cultural studies, my main reason for drawing attention to this matter again here is to add further fuel to the fire that Alan Johnson is surely lighting in his critique of Žižek’s theory of revolution. For, as we see in these and other equivalent cases, Žižek has a tendency to take only a fraction of the salient information about an issue or entity, to miss the essential issue, and to run with what amounts to a reduced or reductive stereotype into an all-or-nothing argument. In this, we may say, Žižek’s manner of reading amounts to a formalizable or formulaic mode of misreading. And I would suggest that it happens on all scales: from the scale of the phrase to the scale of the book, at least. On the level of the phrase, we see this in Žižek’s reduction of the essential thrust of Gilbert’s sentence about cultural studies in the 1970s (‘There was only one place in the world where one might have attended a ‘Cultural Studies colloquium in the 1970s’: at the University of Birmingham…’ – This is not the entire sentence, but it is the essential thrust of it). Žižek reduces this to ‘Birmingham definitely was not the only place “in the world”’. On a larger level, on the scale of a whole book, we see it in the following: Simon Critchley wrote a brief Preface to The Truth of Žižek, entitled ‘Why Žižek Must Be Defended’. With this title Critchley stakes out his own generous position vis-à-vis Žižek’s efforts (which, as I mentioned above, takes its best expression in the proposition of Gilbert’s title: namely, that Žižek asks all the right questions but comes up with all the wrong answers). However, no one else in the book purported to operate under Critchley’s title. It was Critchley’s own. Everyone else had different titles. Yet what Žižek picks up and runs with throughout his entire response to the book is the sentiment announced in Critchley’s title. Hence Žižek’s own title, ‘With Defenders Like These, Who Needs Attackers?’ Hence also the problem residing here: no one except Critchley even suggested that they were bent on defending Žižek. Yet, Žižek proceeds as if this were everyone’s brief. Hence, Žižek’s contribution keeps returning to and playing with this presupposition, as if his critics were failing in their stated mission of defending him. For instance:

Gilbert ‘defends’ me by way of raising against me two main reproaches: my books ‘display a level of scholarship which would be considered pitiable in the work of an undergraduate student’; and, I am ‘a writer whose main stock-in-trade is demonstrably ill-informed and frequently inaccurate diatribes against the legacies of the New Lefts’… (Žižek 2007: 216-217)

It may be needless to say by now that these reproaches were not actually Gilbert’s defences of Žižek at all. There were some points on which Gilbert sought to defend Žižek. But these are quite different to the ones Žižek refers to here.

Laughing at Žižek

In following the structure that they so regularly do, Žižek’s arguments could be said to be rather like jokes. Indeed, maybe this is another reason why people enjoy Žižek so much. For, rather than being as concerned as the likes of myself, Jeremy Gilbert or Alan Johnson with the characteristics that Žižek imputes to such matters as ‘cultural studies, ‘politics’, ‘revolution’, and so on, presumably some readers may be more casual (disinterested?) and may simply enjoy or laugh along with Žižek’s ridiculing of such huge social problems as naïve ‘liberal tolerant multiculturalists’, wishy-washy ‘postmodernist deconstructionists’, hapless ‘cognitivists and positivists’, the credulous ‘new social movements’, spoilt-brat consumerist feminists,  narcissistic gays and blacks, or indeed any of the bugbears Žižek so frequently singles out for scorn – bugbears, it deserves to be noted, that are typically the bugbears of choice of reactionary right wing and conservative thought, rather than those of any left other than the most tyrannical. So surely some people simply laugh. And surely Žižek’s lampooning of things like minority groups and positions may inevitably come as a breath of fresh air, or release a certain pressure, built up inside leftist readers, caused by their always having to maintain a serious and sober respect for so many ‘worthy’ things so much of the time… Presumably also there will be some readers who hold some version of the platitude ‘it’s funny ’cos it’s true’. Whilst there will be others who believe that Žižek is simply telling it like it is.

Before we get to the question of taking Žižek seriously, perhaps we need to ask the question: if we’re laughing along or nodding along with something, what does this signify or portend? In Freud’s theory, ‘getting’ a joke is evidence of what Freud calls a ‘far reaching psychic conformity’. In other words, if we laugh at the racist joke, it is because we are racist, or at least have been made to become so momentarily insofar as we become involved in the setting up and elaboration of the joke. For, in Freud’s characterization of ‘tendentious jokes’ – namely, sexist, racist, or otherwise hostile and aggressive jokes – the listener is recruited (interpellated) as a co-conspirator in the fantasy belittlement or victory over the object of the joke – an object that Freud argues is actually an object of desire, resentment, fear or preoccupation (Freud 1976).

In other words, any enjoyment of the ‘tendentious’ joke derives from a normally unspoken desire to ‘get’ something that we can’t otherwise ‘have’. Hence, blondes are rendered stupid and thereby beaten symbolically because they cannot be ‘had’ in reality; blacks are punished symbolically because they won’t go away, etc. Any laughter that bursts out from us signals the release of our pent-up ‘inhibitions’ (to use Freud’s word). These ‘inhibitions’ arise within us (if they are going to arise at all) as soon as someone leans closer to you and says ‘Did you hear the one about the blonde who went to see the ventriloquist’s show?’, or suchlike. On hearing this, if the listener has indeed been successfully interpellated or recruited to the drama, certain ‘inhibitions’ and an accompanying sense of excitement, anticipation, nervousness and even appetite all arise – because we recognise that this is going to be a bit ‘naughty’, a little bit ‘taboo’ – and we become primed, like a coiled spring, to release all of this in a burst of laughter. As Adorno and Horkheimer famously put it: laugher always occurs when some fear passes. There are lots of reasons why fear arises in the build up of jokes: jokes are conspiratorial, disrespectful, naughty. We are fearful in the face of talk about blondes or blacks because we worry that we might be reprimanded or, more fundamentally, that our enjoyment of socially unacceptable desires and wishes may become the target of reprimand. So, the punch-line comes both as a release and a relief.

What, then, are we signing up to when we laugh along, or smile, or nod, with Žižek’s ‘insights’ into the ‘truth’ of this or that aspect of, say, ‘tolerant liberal multiculturalism’, when this topic or group is rendered by Žižek as a symptom of some kind of evil ideology? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps puncturing the perceived prohibitions of ‘political correctness’ by pointing out that exponents of political correctness themselves are not free from the contaminations of their own prejudices (tolerance cannot tolerate intolerance, for instance); and perhaps pointing out the ‘ideological’ uses and dimensions of the ostensibly worthy world of ‘political correctness’ (its use in the macropolitical repression of ‘true’ otherness, for example; as when the norms of ‘tolerant’ societies are used to criminalize the norms and practices of ‘intolerant’ cultures and societies); perhaps enjoying this and other sorts of Žižekian ‘ideology critique’ will not necessarily make one into an opponent of political correctness as such. Surely, we can all laugh at ourselves from time to time, and this does not mean that we are somehow opposed to or hostile to ourselves or our own activities through and through. So perhaps enjoying Žižek’s critique of the left, the liberal, the postmodern, the tolerant, the multicultural, etc., does not mean that we are opposed to any of these things. But, is Žižek?

To echo Johnson, the short answer would seem to be yes. There does seem to be a plethora of evidence within Žižek’s texts to demonstrate this – especially in the form of quips, jokes, anecdotes, diagnoses (as ‘ideological’), and so on; even if there is also evidence of Žižek occasionally dropping the smile and offering straight-faced reassurances to the effect of, ‘obviously, folks, I am not against these others that I may seem to have spent so much time apparently attacking here’ – in a manner reminiscent of the two white students in the Hollywood comedy Soul Man who have a habit of exchanging racist jokes in earshot of blacks before quickly turning to them and saying ‘Hey! No offence! Right?’

The Asymptotic Sinthome of Ideology

Alan Johnson follows one strand in Žižek’s thinking: his theory of revolution, as it has developed since it was first explicitly announced over a decade ago. Johnson reads Žižek’s statements about political revolution in such a way as to argue that what Žižek is championing is ethically and politically aligned with totalitarianism. What I am adding here is that, given this, the fact that a certain readership regards Žižek as ‘one of us’ suggests that Žižek’s readers are, in effect, not reading Žižek. The fact that what Johnson represents as the scandal of Žižek’s politics has not been received as a scandal by his primary readership is the problem that animates Johnson’s work.

The existence or dominance of such a non-reading is scandalous to Johnson because Žižek remains so widely ‘read’ in academic and intellectual circles by people who are overwhelmingly avowedly democratic, left-leaning, liberal, progressive, tolerant and theoretically informed. For, Žižek is widely read by cultural critics, researchers, scholars and students of film, culture, society, race, gender, class, ethnicity, subjectivity, and so on – by academics working within the traditions of leftist cultural, political and identity studies. Yet, Žižek makes no bones of his contempt for this leftist position – what he often denounces as a pathetic and contemptible ‘resigned and cynical’ liberal tolerant deconstructionist, multiculturalist stance. Indeed, Žižek often openly pours scorn on actually-existing struggles and movements of the democratic left, and particularly on the entire formation and orientation of cultural and political thinking and theory associated with it. So, just as Johnson elaborates the extent to which, for over a decade now, Žižek has openly embraced an anti-democratic position of hard authoritarian voluntarism, one could easily construct an even longer list of his denunciations of everything associated with progressive left theory and politics. And yet many associated with precisely such a left seem to love him. His lecture tours sell out. His books go like hot cakes – bought by the very people who one would expect to be repelled by his declarations and denunciations. Us. Why does this happen?

In forensic mode, Johnson deftly lays bare the key coordinates of Žižek’s politics. Stripping away the many digressions, anecdotes, ‘jokes’, asides and scattershot diagnoses, declarations and denunciations that constitute the core of Žižek’s texts (and which surely help fuel his popularity), Johnson reveals the structure of Žižek’s politics: it is ‘wild Blanquism’, he argues, and it is totalitarian. It is, in other words, contrary to the overwhelming impetus and orientation of contemporary cultural, political, humanistic and social thinking in general and of cultural studies in particular.

I have already gestured to the peculiarity of the ongoing situation in which on the one hand you have the massive popularity of Žižek within cultural studies whilst on the other hand you have Žižek’s manifest and enduring contempt for cultural studies (Bowman 2006). Another peculiar feature of this situation is that, alongside the fact that Žižek almost invariably singles out cultural studies for the strongest criticism in the opening pages and paragraphs of his books and articles (and that these books and articles are consumed by people working in and around cultural studies), there is a contrary movement in which Žižek frequently writes endorsements for the back of books claiming, time and again, that ‘finally’ we have a book which ‘redeems cultural studies’. But the question remains one of why Žižek remains so frequently read in the disciplinary field he holds in such contempt.

Žižek vis-à-vis cultural studies is equivalent – perhaps even structurally identical – to the situation Johnson lays out regarding Žižek vis-à-vis political theory. His method is to start from a misreading, to move into a caricature, to construct an all-or-nothing binary and then to slay the chimerical straw bogeyman he has invented. And yet he remains read. My speculation is that this is because Žižek deals with all the ‘big’ subjects in a lively and fast-paced manner. Everything from the Holocaust to cybertechnology to politics to the most arcane aspects of theology and continental philosophy are engaged by Žižek, and often by way of contemporary popular cultural and often filmic examples. So, to a readership used to much more measured and meticulous scholarship, this is quite exhilarating. As such, Žižek’s actual animosity to cultural studies or democratic politics either becomes secondary to the liveliness of his texts or becomes something that can be forgiven because he offers so much more besides.

In other words, the fundamental consistencies which subtend Žižek’s work are either overlooked or forgiven because of the assortment of stimulating examples and vignettes he produces. But surely the fundamental orientation, or the overwhelming tendency of someone’s discourse, matters. Surely, it makes a difference – that is, if anything about academic reading and writing makes any difference. Surely, at least such forgiveness or forgetting, on the part of the generous reader, amounts to a species of misreading, non-reading, or under-reading. Holding such a view is what moves Johnson to elaborate Žižek’s frequently reiterated contentions about political action: because surely it matters that this stuff is passing into academic and intellectual circulation without being clearly marked as what it is: problematically voluntarist, violent, anti-democratic and totalitarian.

In offering us this reading, I think that Johnson adds weight to a growing response to Žižek, of which I like to think The Truth of Žižek was an important early instalment. There are now numerous types of increasingly critical response to Žižek. Some of these include the following: First, that Žižek can be shown to be predominantly concerned with the ongoing ‘multicultural’ transformation of the sociopolitical world. As a white male academic, it seems to be primarily the deconstruction of this traditional seat of power that bothers him – hence is spleen against LGB, non-white, non-traditional intellectuals (see Leigh Claire la Berge’s contribution). Another is that Žižek’s political position is unable to distinguish or disentangle itself from one which may justify terrorism. Another, as we have seen, is that despite the fact that Žižek asks ‘all the right questions’, the problem is that he invariably comes up with ‘all the wrong answers’. This is because, as Johnson similarly observes (as have others, including Critchley, Laclau and Chow), Žižek reads sociopolitical reality as if a ‘body politic’ simply exists, and as if psychoanalytic insights into (or dogmas about) subjectivity and behaviour can be directly mapped onto the macropolitical world. It is certainly the case that Žižek anthropomorphises and Lacanianizes everything, including processes without a subject. But even though he does this, it is not the case that he interprets the world through a consistent psychoanalytic paradigm. Rather, Žižek uses inconsistent, mutually incoherent and incompatible terms and concepts, which do not map smoothly or consistently and produce clear and compelling insights in the way he tries to persuade us they do. Specifically, for instance, Žižek piles Lacan on top of Marx who he puts on top of Hegel, as if these all click together smoothly and with no remainder or contradictions in order to produce an analytical machine that produces truth-insights that the righteous cultural critic can point out in order to speak truth to power. Moreover, in seeing his task as speaking truth to power Žižek arguably identifies too closely with the power that is his object and perhaps seeks to occupy, become or possess, himself. Whether or not this is literally true, it certainly seems to be the case that, with his investments in the primacy of the Lacanian Real, Žižek stakes a claim to a register of truth that be believes trumps all others: the chaotic Real.

It certainly seems to be the consistencies in Žižek which cause so much difficulty. Readers who try to find consistencies in Žižek, whether by way of identifying the tendencies, reiterations and repetitions that populate Žižek’s otherwise ramshackle works, or by attempting to follow the letter of Žižek’s argumentative constructions and scenarios (see Valentine 2007, for an excellent example), either ‘reveal’ a Žižekian position that is so simple as to appear caricatural, or to tie themselves up in knots. I place my own work and Johnson’s work in the former category. And I know that this leaves me – if not Johnson – wide open to the accusation of another type of misreading.

Žižek himself has long forwarded the idea that the very idea that there should be consistency is a kind of structuring fantasy, or Lacanian sinthome. So, given this, to accuse Žižek of inconsistency might be no real criticism. Conversely, perhaps identifying consistencies may amount to a real problem. It is certainly the case that readings which attempt to establish a consistent or coherent reading of Žižek encounter problems. But not attempting to do this – even if any attempt to read Žižek for coherence or consistency always ends up proving to be wide open to the accusation that it is not a complete, coherent or consistent reading, but rather something that can at best be asymptotic to a reading of Žižek – may be a much more serious issue.


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[1] Initial reactions on the blogosphere in 2007-8 suggested that people had not only read Žižek’s Afterword first, but that their readings of the book had stopped there. At the time of writing this draft of this present paper (19th May 2011), I have again become embroiled, all over again, in a strangely familiar and entirely predictable (symptomatic?) argument with members of a facebook group called Žižek Studies, who argue that they are ‘with Žižek’ and against the rest of the contributors to The Truth of Žižek because not only do the contributors attack Žižek on a ‘personal’ level, but these contributors are also ‘fetishists’. I have tried to point out the irony/self-contradiction of their replaying of the accusation they make, and also that therefore they must be against Žižek because in his Afterword Žižek himself rejects any and all ‘characteriological’ analysis. But to no avail, it seems.

[2] I am making so much use of ‘my own’ book not in order to boost sales – the entire book is now online for free – but because it is something of a one-stop-shop to find a range of key criticisms of Žižek and to see Žižek’s response to them.

[3] I have answered this question at length on a few occasions (Bowman 2006, 2007, 2008). As does Jeremy Gilbert in the essay we are discussing here (Gilbert 2007).