International Journal of Žižek Studies: Vol 2, No 4 (2008) from Larval Subjects . by larvalsubjects - ISSN 1751- 8229 Volume Two, Number Four
Žižek’s New Universe of Discourse: Politics and the Discourse of the Capitalist
Levi R. Bryant - Collin College, Texas, USA.
Truth punches a hole in knowledge.
1. Towards a Formal Difference in Discourse Between Žižek and Lacan
If the originality of Žižek’s contribution to psychoanalytic theory is to be distinguished from the thought of Jacques Lacan, this should be done at the level of form rather than content. Although Žižek makes significant contributions to psychoanalytic thought at the level of content through the deployment of new concepts such as interpassivity, the conjunction of Lacan with the analysis of popular culture, political theory, Marx, German Idealism, and Enlightment rationality, the singularity of Žižek’s thought with respect to Lacanian theory can be most visibly discerned at the level of the formal structure of discourse with which his theoretical and political praxis strives to engage and respond. In Žižek’s own self-understanding of his project, his thought occupies the position of the discourse of the analyst, striving to affect a separation of the master-signifier and objet a, so as to contribute to an opening of revolutionary emancipatory possibilities for both thought and engaged political praxis in response to capitalism as the universal horizon of our historical present (Zizek 2006a).1 As he remarks in the documentary Žižek!, Žižek does not see his role as one of providing the formula or answer to the question of what is to be done in response to capitalism, but rather of throwing this question back at those that ask it, those that expect an answer, reframing the nature of the questions and modes of political engagement that inhabit our current political field of possibilities.2
The issue, then, is not one of choosing among the various possibilities currently available in the symbolic, but rather of introducing entirely new possibilities into this field. As Žižek puts it in his brief introduction to Mao, "…in a radical revolution, people not only ‘realize their old (emancipatory, etc.) dreams’; rather they have to reinvent their very modes of dreaming" (Žižek 2007: 24). Here revolution cannot simply be situated at the level of the material, of shifts in conditions of production, but must also be situated at the level of the cultural or symbolic. Without these shifts in the symbolic, we remain tied to particular conditions of production and power, simply reproducing them in another form. At the level of form, we replace one master with another master, leaving the structure as we found it. Consequently, Žižek remarks that, There are, roughly speaking, two philosophical approaches to an antagonistic constellation of either/or: either one opts for one pole against the other (Good against Evil, freedom against oppression, morality against hedonism, etc.), or one adopts a ‘deeper’ attitude of emphasizing the complicity of the opposites, and of advocating a proper measure or their unity. Although Hegel’s dialectic seems a version of the second approach (the ‘synthesis’ of opposites), he opts for an unheard-of third version: the way to resolve the deadlock is to engage oneself neither in fighting for the ‘good’ side against the ‘bad’ one, nor in trying to bring them together in a balanced ‘synthesis’, but in opting for the bad side of the initial either/or. Of course, this ‘choice of the worst’ fails, but in this failure it undermines the entire field of alternatives and thus enables us to overcome its terms (Žižek 2007: 12).
The point here is that the either/or alternative offered by these alternatives is an ideological rap characterized by what Lacan called a "forced vel of alienation": "Your money or your life!" Our immediate instinct is to choose the Good, freedom, and morality. Who, after all, would side with Evil, oppression, and hedonism? However, what this false alternative masks is that oppression and Evil lie on the side of the good choice, the obvious choice. In short, the choice itself functions to reinforce the reigning ideology and the way in which that ideology functions as a lure for our desire, leading us to will, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, our own oppression and slavery. In choosing the "bad choice", the aim is not to choose hedonism, evil, and, oppression-- the choice of hedonism, for example, turns out to be impossible due to the death drive and our subordination to the Law or the signifier --but rather to affect "…the inherent decentering of the interpreted text, which brings to light its "unthought," its disavowed presuppositions and consequences" (Žižek 2006b: ix). Here the text would be the symbolic field we inhabit in contemporary capitalism. The disavowed presuppositions and consequences would be the manner in which the "good choice" itself functions to reinforce this system of power and oppression. The activity of decentering these disavowed presuppositions would open the space of new possibilities where an act might be possible. As Žižek remarks, "…in an act, I precisely redefine the very coordinates of what I cannot and must do" (Ibid: 49). So long as these coordinates are defined for me, my action, my praxis, simply reinforces the coordinates of the reigning ideology.
In the forced choice we are given the illusion of a free choice and of making a free choice, without genuinely having a choice at all. The choice was already decided from the outset. But why is this detour through short circuiting the alternatives of a false choice, of a choice that is already ideological in its essence, a necessary detour for any political praxis?
This question can be answered by recourse to Lacan. As Lacan remarks in The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, …the idea that knowledge can make a whole is, if I may say so, immanent to the political as such…. The imaginary idea of the whole that is given by the body, as drawing on the good form of satisfaction, on what, ultimately, forms a sphere, has always been used in politics by the party of political preaching (Lacan 2007: 31).
We can readily discern this idea of the political in Plato’s Republic, where the polis is conceived as an organic totality akin to the organic body, where all members have their properly assigned functional place, producing a harmonious organic social structure where the elements composing this social structure are also best able to find personal satisfaction. The dream here is one where personal and collective satisfaction are co-terminus with one another without any loss or sacrifice. Under this organic model, Plato is able to plot four "pathological" forms of social organization-- the timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny --where social disorder results from disequilibrium produced by the intervention of an excessive and unchecked desire issuing from one element of the social system and thereby disrupting the collective. Insofar as the ideological conception of the political is premised on the idea of a harmonious whole, it is necessarily grounded on a bifurcated structure of fantasy.
In order to understand just why the imaginary idea of a harmonious organic totality is grounded on a bifurcated structure of fantasy, it is necessary to situate how antagonism is understood within this conception of the political. In the context of the imaginary conception of the political, antagonism is understood as an accidental feature of the social, rather than constitutive structure of social relations. On the one hand, harmonious organic totality without antagonism is understood to be a possibility for social structures. On the other hand, any antagonism unsettling the social formation is understood to be something that, in principle, could be removed and as something that besets the system from the outside. For example, the desires that unsettle the social realm in the case of timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny are not intrinsic or structural features of the social as such, but are pathalogical disruptions produced by unbalanced desires that could be removed thereby producing a harmonious social world.3 By contrast, one of Žižek’s fundamental claims is that antagonism is not an accidental feature of the social, but rather a structural feature of the social as such.
Žižek articulates the reason for this very nicely in The Parallax View when he observes that, …a system of pure differentiality (a system totally defined by the differential structure of its elements, with no antagonism and/or impossibility traversing it) would lead to a pure equivalence of all its elements-- they are all equivalent with regard to the void of the Outside; and, at the other extreme, a system of radical antagonism with no structure at all, just the pure opposition of Us and Them, would coincide with a naturalized difference between Us and Them as the positively existing opposed species… What we need to do is to take a step further from this external opposition (or mutual reliance) into direct internalized overlapping, which means: not only does on pole, when abstracted from the other and thus brought to the extreme, coincide with its opposite, but there is no "primordial" duality of poles in the first place, only the inherent gap of the One. Equivalence is primordially not the opposite of difference; equivalence emerges only because no system of differences can ever complete itself, it "is" a structural effect of incompleteness. The tension between immanence and transcendence is thus secondary with regard to the gap within immanence itself: "transcendence" is a kind of perspective illusion, the way we (mis)perceive the gap/discord that inheres to immanence itself. In the same way, the tension between the Same and the Other is secondary with regard to the noncoincidence of the Same with itself (Žižek 2006b: 38).
The key point to draw from this passage is that 1) every system is necessarily structurally incomplete, and 2) that any One differs not simply from others, but differs first and foremost from itself. On the one hand, if the One, for example a mark or signifier, must necessarily differ from itself, if it can never attain coincidence or equivalence with itself, then this is because the mark can only function as a mark insofar as it differs from its place of inscription. Numbers, for example, could not count things were they not simultaneously identical to themselves and different from themselves. For, if they did not contain difference within themselves, how would it be possible for them to stand for something else. Similarly, signifiers could not signify, but would themselves become dumb, mute, sonorous objects as in the case of psychosis if they did not simultaneously differ from themselves. The net result of this is that any identity or One necessarily contains a gap or discord within it that prevents it from attaining identity with itself.
If, by contrast, no system of differences can attain completeness, then this is by virtue of that property of the signifier such that the signifier can never signify itself (Lacan 1966: Seminar of 16 Nov.). In order to signify, every signifier must necessarily refer to another signifier. As such, the signifiers that belong to the set of signifiers have the property of being sets that do not belong to themselves, thereby fulfilling the requirements of Russell’s paradox pertaining to the set of all sets that are not members of themselves. Were the signifier to signify itself, then it would violate this principle prohibiting self-membership. Were this set not to contain itself, it would again cease to be the set of all such sets. The consequence is that there can be no complete set of signifiers.
The consequence of these two features of the signifier is that antagonism is a structural feature of any social organization. Antagonism is not an accidental feature that disturbs social organization from the outside, but is instead intrinsic to the organization itself. The organic totality is always already Other to itself, and identity always already differs from itself. If, then, the idea of the political premised on the idea of an imaginary organic whole or totality is necessarily grounded on fantasy, then this is because fantasy comes to cover over this traumatic antagonism, this structural impossibility of unification and self-identity, at the heart of social structures as a constitutive feature of these structures by transforming a constitutive wound into an accidental wound. Put otherwise, fantasy transforms a lack into a loss. A lack is an ineradicable absence that can never be surmounted, while loss implies the possibility that we both once had something and that we can regain that thing. Fantasy functions as a supplement, surmounting this gap or deadlock at the heart of identity and the One; first, by providing a schema of harmonious totality that we either once had in the case of nostalgic political discourses about the decline and fall of civilization, or by proposing a utopian future; second, by proposing a cause for the disturbances preventing harmonious totality: the Jews, terrorists, single welfare mothers, blacks, gangs, Hollywood, etc (for a more detailed treatment of this logic, see Bryant forthcoming). As such, the subject in the grips of this structure of fantasy ends up tilting at windmills, failing to get at the "real" of antagonism. If, then, a detour through the coordinates of the symbolic is necessary, if it is necessary to "decenter" these disavowed presuppositions and consequences, then this is because we must be brought before the constitutive structure of antagonism premised on the "not-all" of the social. It is only then that non-self-defeating political engagement becomes possible. Žižek, along with thinkers like Badiou, Laclau, and Ranciere can be seen as proposing a politics grounded in the not-all, the non-existence of the One, the Real, as opposed to one based on the idea of imaginary wholeness.
But what does any of this have to do with the form of the discourse or set of social relations with which Žižek engages? While there is a kernel of truth in Žižek’s selfcharacterization of his theoretico-politico praxis in terms of the discourse of the analyst revealing the castration at work beneath the discourse of the master and university, the letter of his text suggests something quite different. Indeed, the letter of his text even suggests a critique of the relevance of Lacan’s four discourses to our contemporary historical moment. Expressing this point in "Hegelese", it could be said that Žižek in-himself is quite different than Žižek as he is for-himself. As Lacan remarks, "…it is not at all self-evident that all knowledge, by virtue of being known, is known as knowledge" (Lacan 2007: 30). In this context, Žižek "for-himself" would be the commentary he gives on his own project, how he understands that project, and how he articulates what it is that he is doing. Put differently, this would be Žižek as he is conscious of himself and his work. By contrast, the letter of Žižek’s text, what that text is initself, would be the knowledge at work in this text that is known without being known as knowledge. What comes into relief in reading Žižek in this way is that his thought profoundly deepens and expands the work of Lacan. More specifically, Žižek’s thought, as I will try to show later, does not inhabit the discourse of the analyst at all-- nor any of the other three discourses explored by Lacan (see Verhaeghe 1999: 95-118) -- but rather, is a very precise cartography of an entirely new universe of discourse4, that strives to uncover the structures governing the new discourses that populate this new universe of discourse, their constitutive deadlocks, and how it might be possible to politically engage this universe of social relations. On the one hand, Žižek can be understood as tracing the consequences of the collapse of the universe of mastery explored by Lacan in his four discourses.5 On the other hand, Žižek can thus be understood as engaging the form of social relations that have emerged in the shadow of this universe of discourse: the discourse of the capitalist, the discourse of bio-power, the discourse of immaterial labor, and the discourse or form of social relation to which Žižek’s own text belongs, the discourse of critical theory.