Saturday, December 2, 2017


344. Žižek: Beyond Lacan

Here I continue with a series of items on Žižek. Like many others I am amused by his style, but also detest the hyperbole, provocation, bluff, outrageous statements later retracted with the excuse that he did not mean them in that way, and so on, but he does have interesting or at least challenging things to say that call for response. I cannot read all the 50 books or so that he published, which anyway are said to include many repetitions. The sources I use are mostly the interviews and debates posted on YouTube. I am not everywhere sure that I understand or interpret him correctly, which also is difficult because he regularly seems to contradict himself. He endorsed Donald Trump but also rejected him. He favoured Jeremy Corbyn but rejected his socialism. He pleaded for bureaucratic socialism but also rejected it. And so on. I am doing my best to make sense of it all. I begin with a discussion of his use of Lacan.   

If I understand correctly, Žižek is inspired first of all by Hegel, and second by psychoanalysis, in particular Lacan. What those have in common is interest in paradoxes, tensions, between ideas, in conduct, and in social systems. The difference between the two is, I heard Žižek say, is that with Hegel the tensions are resolved in a dialectic that raises the issues to a higher level of synthesis (called ‘aufhebung’, in German), while in psychoanalysis the tensions remain unresolved and hidden, with mental trauma’s, mostly from infancy, buried in the unconscious, but with conduct or expressions or dreams sometimes revealing them in ‘Freudian slips’.

Here I want to look a little further at what Lacan called jouissance, enjoyment with an ‘excess’ that goes beyond enjoyment, with some paradoxical twists. Sex is the more appealing when it is more or less illicit, or submissive, or repressive. More sexual freedom and permissiveness have made it less enticing, has bred more frigidity. Fraternities, at universities and in armies, are aimed at brotherhood, mutual loyalty and support, but engage in hazing practices that are demeaning, suppressive, assaulting at times. Movies condemn violence while relishing it.

I am interested here, in particular, in celebrity worship. People with simple lives, perceived (by themselves or supposedly by others) as insignificant, pedestrian, compared to the lives of public figures, celebrities, craving for some vicarious enjoyment from reflection of their glamour and fame. People enjoy it the more when there is some deviance, something illicit in the celebrity’s conduct.

I wonder where this comes from. Is it ‘just there’, in the human being? Is it a romantic relish of transgression? Is it a consolation for their own mediocrity: these people may be glamourous, but they are also bad, unlike us decent people.  

Žižek used the example of Donald Trump. A striking phenomenon is that his adherents celebrate him not in spite but partly because of his vulgarity, lies, provocation, aggression, bigotry and hypocrisy. Why?

Žižek says that this is because his followers are secretly like him, and Trump gives them a feeling of legitimation. Also, they feel victimized by globalization and a political elite, and relish Trump’s rebellion, and his politically incorrect scorn and defamation of that elite.

I think Žižek himself is an example. He gathered fame with interesting views but also by provocation, bluff, political incorrectness, and humour.

If these insights are due to Lacan, that is to be applauded.

However, Žižek seems to surreptitiously apply this insight from psychoanalysis to the level of social systems: capitalism and politics. That is a category mistake. It helps to explain the Trump phenomenon, but does it explain the present crisis of capitalism that Žižek considers to be of critical importance (along with many others, including myself)?

To some extent perhaps it can. Capitalism is indeed full of paradox. Its virtues of yielding material prosperity, dynamism and freedom of enterprise are tainted by perversities of exclusion, exploitation, and injustice, which are relished and at the same time denied and justified by the logic of markets.

So, Lacanian insight does seem to apply, but there is more, which lies on the system level, not in psychoanalysis. Like many other systems, social systems have ‘emergent properties’ that are lacking in the individuals that make up the system.

In particular there is what in this blog I have called ‘system tragedy’. People in banks, other business, government and politics are ensnared in positions and roles in organizations and networks of interests and dependencies that coerce them to go along with processes and outcomes that are at odds with their ethics, which then is hidden, tucked away, in buried shame. This is not jouissance, I think.

What mostly plays a role, is the logic of prisoners’ dilemma’s, as I have discussed earlier in this blog. Some people may secretly cherish to perversion of the game, but others would like to exercise their ethics and turn things around, but can afford to do so only if others do so as well, and since everyone argues like this, no-one does, and perversities of the system remain.

The classic solution is for governments to intervene and impose a way out of the dilemma, but now, and that, in particular, is the feature of present capitalism, governments are themselves engaged in prisoners’ dilemma’s that force them into a ‘race to the bottom’ in facilitating the interests of multinational corporations, to the detriment of citizens. Anger about this is one of the feeds of populism.