Saturday, September 30, 2017


335. Understanding Žižek: Psychotherapy of politics

Here I start a series of items in which I seek to understand Slavoj Žižek, and to engage in comments. Žižek is original, entertaining, humorous, and provocative, but to me also difficult to understand. He makes interesting, challenging observations and then, in the fragmented, lapidary manner of his presentation, veers off in different directions, and I get lost. With his terminology, he indulges in outrageous hyperbole that rattles my inclination to nuance. Žižek uses concepts from Lacan, and those I find even more difficult to understand. Meanings seem to shift from one setting to another. However, Žižek is addressing important, fundamental issues, so I keep on trying. My understanding is so limited and dubious that I will not claim to explain Žižek and Lacan. I use their ideas to develop ideas of my own, and they may well be in conflict with what Žižek and Lacan intended to say.

I need help to understand Žižek, and I found some in a presentation, on YouTube, by Marcus Pound[i], and in a study of Žižek’s thought by Frank Vande Veire[ii]

Žižek is inspired by the psychotherapy of Lacan, and applies it to politics. What is this about? The point, Pound tells us, is that both the self and social order are hidden, fantasized, idealized objects (called ‘objet-a’ by Lacan) that guide our conduct but remain subconscious, in the dark, dodging the agenda of debate. That connection was an eye-opener to me.

For Lacan, the subject, the self is not a given, but forms itself in interaction with the Other. That is also my view.

The meaning of the ‘objet-a’ varies. It is an idealized, fantasized, subconscious object, dreamed up to give some illusory identity or unity to a thing, a self, or the social order. Lacan presented it in analogy to an algebraic symbol that can take on different numerical values. Different images can fill in the objet-a, depending on the circumstances. It can be ‘scopic’, visualizing the object, or ‘invocatory’, invoking authority or conformance. A monarch stands for the social, legal order. One ‘master signifier’ is attempted to represent all other signifiers, but this never covers all.

The ‘objet-a’ is also presented as an object and cause of desire; of what the Other wants from us that we should rejoice in, in what is called ‘jouissance’, in a desire that can never be fully fulfilled. There is always an ‘excess’ or ‘surplus’ that cannot be caught. Thus, it is not so much an object of desire that might be reached as the lack of something that could completely satisfy desire.  

A good example, I think, is trust. It is elusive, mercurial, difficult to grasp, and impossible to fully achieve. When we think we have it, distrust slits in. It is symbolized by a national flag or anthem, wedding rings, and as simple a thing as a handshake. We grab what is up for grabs. 

For the social order, Žižek uses the notion of the symbolic order, derived from Lacan, and used also by Henry Bourdieu. It is taken as an ‘objet-a’. The visible, rationalized order of established, dominant powers of vision and discourse manages to avoid discussion of its often dubious tacit, taken for granted origins, assumptions, principles, concepts and meanings that are not and cannot be fully specified, always remain hidden to some extent. It cannot function otherwise.  

A similar idea arises in the works of Michel Foucault, with his notion of  ‘regimes of truth’. I compared Žižek and Foucault on this point in item 244 of this blog. There, and in item 226, I also considered the possibility for the individual to escape from the clutches of that order and develop an authentic identity, which remained an unsolved problem for Foucault.

The symbolic order is dressed up and veiled in ideology. A current example is market ideology. It lured socialism into ‘shedding its ideological feathers’ of ideals of equality, solidarity, care and social justice. While condemning socialist ideology, neo-liberal market ideology projected itself as being free from ideology, and to be of obvious and universal validity, that all reasonable people should see and acknowledge. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, Bill Clinton said in the 1992 presidential campaign, and that slogan has spread across the capitalist world. If you did not go along, you were backward and dumb, behind the times, not to be taken seriously.

That neo-liberal market ideology has been supported by established economic dogma. Economists claim that they are value-free scientists, while in fact economics is based on a utility ethics that rules out considerations of intention, motive, morality and virtue. Individuality is abstracted in some universal, autonomous, anonymous voter, void of features. With market ideology hidden and other ideologies dropping out, politics fades into bureaucratic technocracy. From that, the present populist revolt has been born, reviving old seemingly forgotten ideologies of race and nation.

Žižek castigates the fake freedom of choice professed by capitalism, with advertising and internet manipulating choice. This is well-trodden ground in the literature, but Žižek uses, here also, categories derived from Lacan: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. According to liberal lore, the autonomous, rational economic agent should base its choice on the utility of the real. In fact, he/she has been guided to choose on the basis of the symbolic: depending on your life style, and the image you want to project, you choose one brand or the other. An example Žižek uses is that of the four-wheel drive Range Rover, the pioneering master of rough terrain, used for the trivial urban commute. Now, Žižek, claims, the emphasis is shifting to the imaginary, the experience one has, with the product offering authentic experience.

So, while Foucault struggled with the capture in the symbolic order that prevents the individual from achieving authenticity, now that order wins the ultimate victory of crafting the experience of authenticity.           


[i] On 30 September 2013.
[ii] Frank vande Veire, Tussen blinde fascinatie en vrijheid; Het mensbeeld van Slavoj Žižek, 2015, Nijmegen: Vantilt.