Understanding Slavoj Zizeks Work

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The son of middle-class Slovenian Communists, Slavoj Zizek (born 21st March, 1949 in Ljubljana, Slovenia) is a philosopher, psychoanalyst, cultural critic and Lacanian Marxist sociologist. He is currently - senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Ljubljana, where he is also president of the Society for Theoretical Psychoanalysis, professor at the European Graduate School and International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London. Zizek has also been a member of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts Since 2005.

In 1967 Zizek enrolled at the University of Ljubljana, where he studied philosophy and sociology. He published articles in the magazines Praxis, Tribuna and Problemi he was also an editor of Problemi. He worked at the University of Ljubljana as an assistant researcher from 1971 - 1973, but was dismissed after his Master's thesis was accused of being "non-Marxist". In1979 he acquired a job as a recording clerk at the Slovenian Marxist Center, where he met scholars Mladen Dolar, Alenka Zupancic and Rastko Mocnik, whose theoretical focus was the theory of French psychoanalytic Jacques Lacan.

Lacan (1901-1981). For the most part his work was associated with post-structuralism and the re-interpretation of Freud's work. Using concepts copied from structural linguistics, he was influenced by the 'revelation of unknown orders underlying the transparency of consciousness'. By re-reading Freud, he found a comparable set of structures, with the realms of cognition (knowing, perceiving or conceiving as an act, distinct from emotion and will) and consciousness as the product of an underlying transformation of desire. The conscious subject being a semiotic (symptom or symbol) product involved in communication it does not control, and it cannot readily be brought to consciousness. Lacan also wrote on 'the location of the self in social positions'.

Zizek was a member of the Communist Party of Slovenia until November 1988, then, between 1988 and 1990, he was actively involved in several political and civil society movements, which fought for the democratization of Slovenia. During the first free elections in 1990, Zizek ran as candidate for Presidency of the Republic of Slovenia for the Liberal Democratic Party. (The institution was abolished in 1991) The publication of his first book written in English, in1989 'The Sublime Object of Ideology' led to Zizek achieving international recognition as a major social theorist, and increasing his reputation as an argumentative eccentric. Having been a politician, still the shadow of the Yugoslavian conflict fell over his essays on war, racism, nationalism and ethnic strife. He was an arduous thinker, raised in the traditions of European philosophy. However, he has an ironic sense of humour. Such as, when he reported that the difference between the Soviet Union and the mildly more reformist Yugoslavia was that "whereas in the Soviet Union the people walked while their political representatives drove cars, in Yugoslavia the people themselves drove cars through their political representatives".

His book 'The Ticklish Subject '(1999) pits itself against Deconstructionists, Heideggerians, Habermasians and Cognitive Scientists. His purpose was- to destroy the 'system of liberal power that permits overindulgence and divergence, so long as it does not threaten the actual system'. One of the problems with understanding Zizek's work is that he changes his theoretical point. Such as, whether Lacan is a structuralist or poststructuralist. He argues this both between books and within the pages of one book. Some critics have accused him of inconsistency and lacking rigidity. Zizek defends himself and Lacan for persistently updating their theories. And the argument; "It is not the task of the philosopher to act as the 'Big Other' (authority) who tells us about the world, but rather to challenge our own ideological presuppositions".

Post modernity for Zizek, is based upon the termination of the power of the 'Big Other'. According to Zizek, theorists of present- society, who support the personal freedoms of choice that have replaced this authority, pay no attention to the reflexivity at the core of the subject. For Zizek, the absence of the prohibitions of the 'Big Other', the subject's inbuilt reflexivity reveals itself in relationships as forms of subjection, paranoia and self-importance. In order to improve the suffering, there is a need, according to Zizek, for a political act or revolution that will change the 'conditions of possibility' of post modernity (capitalism) and so begin a new type of Symbolic Order in which a new kind of subject can exist.

To Zizek, "the law" signifies the principles upon which society is based, assigning a kind of combined behaviour, based upon a set of prohibitions. The rule of the law masks an instinctive unruliness, in particular the violence by which it established itself as law in the first place. The Demise of the Big Other, is the resulting disintegration of the communal network of social institutions, customs and laws. The Big Other never existed as a material thing. All it ever was (and is) to Zizek, is a symbolic order which means that we all engage in a minimum of adulation idolatry, forsaking the fact of the Real, in favor of another Symbolic world behind it. In Zizek's 'For they no not what they do', he states this rejection in terms of an "as if". 'In order to coexist with our neighbours we act "as if" they do not smell bad or look ridiculous'. The Big Other is a communal lie to which we all individually subscribe.

In 'Looking Awry: an introduction to Jaques Lacan through Popular Culture' 1989) Zizek argues that; in the return of the Big Other, in contradiction the typical postmodern subject is "one who displays an outright distrust towards official institutions, yet at the same time believes in the existence of conspiracies and an unseen 'Other' pulling the strings". This paradoxical pairing of doubt and belief is correlative to the termination of the Big Other. In order to escape the intolerable autonomy, with which we are now burdened through its loss, we have to create another 'Other'.

For his essay 'Repeating Lenin' (1997), he organized a conference on Lenin in Germany, partly to see what the reaction would be. Zizek set up a 'deconstruction of the idea of form, to effectively liberate the idea of radical form' He was interested in discriminating the 'Lacanian Real' amid the half-truths of organizations. He was also looking for the moment when Lenin realized that politics could one day be dissolved for a technocratic and agronomic utopia, (the imagined perfect society or pure management of things). Lenin failed, but that was immaterial, Zizek was removing Lenin from the historical scale, which includes that failure or the onslaught of Stalinism. Zizek often chooses to re-inscribe into radical political discourse -

'The Lenin of the October Revolution, or the Lenin that had the epiphany that in order to have a revolution you have to have a revolution' -"In a proper revolutionary breakthrough, the utopian future is neither simply fully realized, present, nor simply evoked as a distant promise which justified present violence -it is rather as if, in a unique suspension of temporality, in the short-circuit between the present and the future, we are - as if by Grace - for a brief time allowed to act AS IF the utopian future is (not yet fully here, but) already at hand, just there to be grabbed. Revolution is not experienced as a present hardship we have to endure for the happiness and freedom of the future generations, but as the present hardship over which this future happiness and freedom already cast their shadow - in it, we already are free while fighting for freedom, we already are happy while fighting for happiness, no matter how difficult the circumstances. Revolution is not a Merleau-Pontian wager, an act suspended in the futur anterieur, to be legitimized or delegitimized by the long term outcome of the present acts; it is as it were its own ontological proof, an immediate index of its own truth."

A number of writers have taken critical perspectives to Slavoj Zizek's work. He stands accused of using popular culture to explain the theory of Jacques Lacan and the theory of Jacques Lacan to explain politics and popular culture. Most of his works are moral and political rather than purely theoretical. His attitude to writing has been described as - "One digression spawns another, until the author seems as unclear as the reader about what he was supposed to be arguing". For one of his books, to demonstrate the interplay of presence and absence, Zizek recounts a story of a guide showing visitors around an East European art gallery in the Soviet era, pausing before a painting entitled "Lenin in Warsaw". There was no sign of Lenin in the picture; instead, it depicts Lenin's wife in bed with a handsome young member of the Central Committee. "But where is Lenin?" inquire the confused visitors, to which the guide replies: "Lenin is in Warsaw". He appears on one of his own books dust jacket lying on Sigmund Freud's couch beneath an image of female genitalia. He has been the subject of an art installation entitled 'Slavoj Zizek Does Not Exist' and he has starred in two films 'Zizek'! and 'The Pervert's Guide to Cinema'.

Slavoj Zizek's work is a little harder to understand than most academics, he is sarcastically humerous, yet as deep thinking if not more than most theorists. His subjects and theories are diverse, mostly critical and hypocritical. To understand Zizek one almost has to become him, or at the very least to have a sociological imagination.


Frontiers of Identity, Robin Cohen. 1994

A theory of Capitalist Regulation, Michel Aglietta. 1979

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, Jary & Jary. 1995

Comparative Sociology And Social Theory, Graham Crow. 1997

Sociology, Anthony Giddens, 1990

The Readers Encyclopedia, William Rose Benet. 1977

Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia

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