Zizek the Lacanian & Marxism?

Jukka Laari jlaari at tukki.jyu.fi
Sun Aug 14 13:53:47 MDT 1994

(That might be a long posting & there's a question to Philip Goldstein:)

Andy Daitsman asked (about week ago): what is leftism / left ideology? It
seems to me that here's the crucial question. On the other hand, Chris
Nagle made a question concerning Slavoj Zizek's possible contribution. It
seems to me, that Zizek is worried of what's going on with the left. I
think it's quite interesting that Zizek considers himself as lacanian
(not as marxist), because he might have a lot to give to marxists, too.
At least to marxists as part of the left.

I think that the whole discussion on marxism list shows (think about the
last few weeks, for instance), that at stake here is a question of
contemporary marxist theory. I'll pick up some comments and notes and try
to show how they circulate around that *basic problem* as problems of
special dimensions or parts of *general marxist theory* - important is
that many postings concern theories of ideology and/or of politics.

I'll start with some notes from Andy Daitsman and Philip Goldstein: AD
mentioned that discussion is very far from origins, but inspirations are
still marxist. I don't know whether he refers to origins of list or to
origins as something related to (our? Marx's?) interests. On the other
hand, PG mentioned normativity - twice, to be exact: "preserving the
interests of theory in a normative sense, e.g., autonomous Kantian
ideals" when he was writing about Habermas; secondly, he mentioned
"normative foundations" with reference to Kant and Max Weber. Now this
seems to imply something fundamental: what are the origins of theory?
what is the basis, the foundation? 'Critique' isn't proper answer, rather
it designates the mode or modality of theory and theoretical work. So
what are the foundations of contemporary marxist theory?

Two or three months ago I was discussing with one *habermasian* philosopher
and asked him to characterise habermasian project. The answer was:
"normative theory of modernity". Well, that might be only his view, but
surely there's something symptomatic with this conception.

I think Philip Goldstein would be the right man to tell us, what's at
stake here - what kantian normativity means? That'll surely clarify
habermasian normativity, too. So, please, Philip: note on kantian

(The other part of that definion, that of modernity, is not only a
question of *Zeitgeist*, rather it concerns the whole world: in 1970's
there was in Germany and in Scandinavia strand of marxism called
*Kapitallogik*, the logic of the capital. That reduced almost everything (in
the human reality) to the value law & 'hunger of surplus value of capital'.
As a critique of that there evolved (esp. in Danish universities)
*Zivilisationskritik*, the critique of civilization, which took a broader
and less reductionistic view. Soon after that (in the early 1980's) became
discussion on modern/-ism under the guise of postmodernism/-structuralism;
Habermas vs Lyotard, Habermas vs Foucault etc. Heuristically: result of
that discussion is the (normative) theory of modernism. In that the
modern means the whole totality of western society/civilization -
cultural, economical, political and social aspects included. In a way,
capitalism became The Modern (world)).

Then there was some argumentation between PG and Eugene Holland: PG said,
that there's always Hegel behind Marx's steps (in a positive sense). On the
other hand, EH insisted, that it's time to get rid of Hegel. EH
mentioned, that there's 'teleologism' with Hegel. Yes, according to
popular conception, Hegel is sort of teleologist. But is that true? Take
a look at recent Hegel research; no proof of teleologism. There's even a
strong tendency to get rid of historicism (which earlier was considered
essential)! It means, that what's left, is dialectics. Look Robert
Pippin's recent _Hegel's Idealism_ (hopefully I remembered the name
properly), as an example.

Pete Bratsis hints at the same direction by reminding us of critique of
essentialism (whatever it is) and of work on subjectivity and ideology
(Althusser was the case, I believe). Besides, PB mentioned, that the
concept of ideological interpellation is based on lacanian conceptions
of language and subject. - These are very hegelian questions, in a matter
of fact, these are sort of modern versions of classical philosophical basic
questions concerning the relations between 'the one' and 'many', general
(Allgemeine) and singular (and particular), subject and object etc.
Substantial themes & problems with every theory.

Jonathan Beasley-Murray wrote, that the question of subjectivity is "an
alien presence in a theoretical system" and that it's 'nauseatic' to try
incorporate psychoanalysis into social theory! - I don't buy that. One of
the first systematic encounters with the teachings of Freud was in
Soviet-Russia in 1920's: they started systematic translation and
interpretation process, but couldn't finish it, perhaps because of the
end of NEP-era. But Freud surely stimulated russian marxism of 1920's
and russian thinking in general - think of Vygotsky, Bakhtin,
Volosinov... Besides, JBM mentioned Zizek who he doesn't say much of
Althusser or Althusser's failure, according to JBM. I'd say, that we can
read the whole zizekian project as sort of criticism of Althusser and
althusserianism (somewhere Zizek says, that theoretically it's much more
important to consider Lacan-Althusser relation than, say,
Habermas-Foucault relation - because in the dimension of L-A we are
forced to consider those subject-object relations more substantially
than in H-F dimension). Zizek's project is much more than that, but we
can always read it as this or that, that is thematically.

Finally, Michael McDonald asks Zizek's work in regard to several efforts
to freudo-marxian syntheses (he mentioned that Althusser anticipates that
kind of synthesis, but remember german efforts - Reich (no, forget Reich!),
Frankfurt school - and frenchmen; Deleuze & Guattari (_Anti-Oedipus_ as
a critique in a *traditional marxist sense* of both marxism and
psychoanalysis, not as some new theory), perhaps Lyotard's _Libidinal
Economy_ (I haven't read that) and many of Foucault's books can be read
as sort of hints of the possibility of that kind of synthesis, as promises.

So, now we at Slavoj Zizek, slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, who
*belongs* to *the school of slovenian lacanism*. With the english
translations slovenians are now coming into wider (global) publicity,
although they've been known in France and in (german speaking)
Middle-Europe earlier. Zizek seems to be the most productive of them: 5
or 6 books already in english.

How can I characterize Zizek? He's a hegelian philosopher, who pretends
that he's a lacanian psychoanalyst, or he's a lacanian philosopher, who
in a matter of fact is a marxist psychoanalyst? I don't think it's
important into what category we put him.

What matters, is that he has a lot to say about some basic questions
(already discussed by Althusser and many others) and that he's deeply

First of all, via Zizek it's possible to outline some very interesting
common features of marxism and psychoanalysis. It's a common wisdom,
that Marx and Freud (and Nietzsche) are to be taken as some kind of
signs or marks of some (socio-cultural) break. But with Zizek we can
understand how there's a *deeper* process in question, which comes
visible with Lacan: neither marxism nor psychoanalysis is an academic
discipline, they both are in a way, well, not outlaws, but perhaps on
the border? I mean that they both have been quite critical in their
relations to academic disciplines.

Secondly, common feature is also dialectics: their common ground is Hegel,
who's behind both Marx and Lacan. Zizek shows again and again how nicely
dialectics work in Lacan's writings as well as in Marx's. More important
is, that Z (1) tries to show, that it's theoretically important for left
(whether marxian or lacanian) to keep in touch with classical idealism
(Kant, Hegel) in order to understand the basic problems (and paradoxes) of
theoretical thinking and not to fall into simple, mechanical *vulgar
materialism* (or some other sin), and (2) gives us conceptual tools for
sharpen the theory, broaden it in a consistent way, thanks to he's
emphasis on dialectics as common ground of lacanism and marxism.

As a sociologist I'm not able to value Zizek's interpretation of Lacan -
I've found Lacan cryptic as hell, annoyingly *idealist* who reduces
everything into language, I've almost hated several commentators (no
names) of Lacan, because they've made him into something like surrealist
clown, but Zizek shows - at least tries to show - conceptually the basic
forms or contours at work at the basis of these things called
consciousness and ego.

Anyway, there's yet one thing Zizek offers - interpretation of late
Lacan, Lacan of 1960's and 1970's - and reception of this will be very
interesting, at least in my opinion. I mean, if it doesn't get
*repressed*, if it's successful, then it might be almost revolutionary,
because of the potential it offers to integrate general social theory and
psychoanalysis together. Well, it won't work, but it'll be interesting to
see what comes of it. Zizek says that late Lacan's major interest was on
*the Real* - concept refers to weird, non-existent thing as a basis of
existence, of reality; these are the toughest parts of lacanian-zizekian
theories. Well, the structuration process, sort of becoming of the
Spirit or Mind, is fundamentally intertwined with the Real. In that
structuration process the symbolic (incl. & esp. language) and that way
the whole socio-cultural reality is essential.

Like I've said earlier, here we are at the basics (subject-object
-problematics etc), around which the discussion on marxism list seems to
circulate: at stake there's not only the foundations of theory, but also
the basic concepts, the whole basic structure of the theory.

>From lacanian basics Zizek elaborates nice conceptions and insights
concerning ideological and political (also cultural, if we define it in
classical latin way, as practice that defines humans or production of
humans - instead of rather modern, *romantic-idealistic* sense as something
closely related to High Arts or language). And here he might have lot to
offer for those studying culture as well as for historians, politologists
and sociologists etc. It's up to us: on the one hand, there's our
interests of research and our theoretical *frames*, and on the other
hand, there's a question of how much time and energy we will and can put
on something as *cryptic* and far reaching as lacanian theory.

One thing worried me, when I was reading Zizek: he seemed to repeat
himself too much. Same themes, even same examples, emerged again and
again, book after book. That might cause headache. But that repetition
might mean, that Zizek is writing in a very target specific way. One way
to make sense is to suppose, that first two books (_Sublime object of
ideology_ and _For they know not what they do: Enjoyment as political
factor_, both published by Verso) are mainly for European leftists; these
books seem to stick to thematics of late 1980's (questions of ideology,
politics and criticism of ideology; the rise of the new right as the
background horizon of these discussions). Next two books (_Looking awry_
and _Enjoy your symptom!_) are sort of introductions to the teachings of
Jacques Lacan and at the same time another look at the workings of
ideology, especially through popular culture, as reference to cultural
studies people. The latest one (_Tarrying with the negative_) is in a
sense his philosophical or theoretical main work, targeted to scholars.
There his effort is to show the significance of Kant and Hegel for
contemporary reader, the fundamentally hegelian character of the thought
of Lacan, and the relevance of lacanianism for broader audience
(especially for leftists?).

That all is another side of the problem. Sort of philosophico-theoretical
side, which is of special importance for researchers/scholars. Another side
is, of course, politics, or should I say; ethico-political. Here, too,
Zizek has much to say. - But I'm tired & it's time to go home.

So here's a conclusion: (1) It's obvious, that there's a search for a new,
refined theory among marxists and leftists in general. (2) So it's a bit
paradoxical, that one rather well-thought argumentation concerning that
dilemma comes from a lacanian. (3) It's philosophically better grounded
- not perfect: I hoped that *Tarrying* would be more systematic than it
finally appeared to be - than many theories/discussions, say, since
Althusser or Adorno (I mean Adorno the Dialectician) or since Habermas &
his theory of communicative action. (4) Zizek notices major impact
Althusser had, but shows (like many others before him, although more
convincingly; as a psychoanalyst he's on a firm ground when discussin
the basic characteristics of the concept of subject) how Althusser's
interpretation of Lacan, and accordingly, concept of subject (and
accordingly concept of ideology), is problematical and of no firm use.
That is, he shows where Althusser failed and how one can pass the
althusserian dead-end. (5) Interesting is, that Zizek, for instance,
doesn't deny social antagonisms like so called postmodernists /
-structuralists seem to do. On the contrary, he tries to show how
antagonisms are inscribed into popular culture and politico-ideological
*jargon* as well as into nationalistic phenomena - and he has very
refined conceptual tools to render visible these antagonisms. Hey, I
could continue, but I have to run now.

Jukka Laari


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