Slavoj Žižek: The Anxiety of Retroactive Trauma

The essence of Slavoj Žižek’s vision is that philosophy is the result of a critical act of buggery, by which another, earlier philosopher is deliberately misread, and hence re-written, retroactively absorbed and incorporated into the ongoing project of the making of a Subject. In one of those impromptu interviews he has had over the years, Žižek once related the notion that “Hegel didn’t know what he was doing”. He went on to say,

You have to interpret him. Let me give you a metaphoric formula. You know
the term Deleuze uses for reading philosophers—anal interpretation, buggering them. Deleuze says that, in contrast to other interpreters, he anally penetrates the philosopher, because it’s immaculate conception. You produce a monster. I’m trying to do what Deleuze forgot to do—to bugger Hegel, with Lacan [chuckles] so that you get monstrous Hegel, which is, for me, precisely the underlying radical dimension of subjectivity which then, I think, was missed by Heidegger. But again, the basic idea being this mutual reading, this mutual buggering [chuckles] of this focal point, radical negativity and so on, of German Idealism with the very fundamental (Germans have this nice term, grundeswig) insight of psychoanalysis.1

Maybe we should apply this to Žižek: “Žižek doesn’t know what he is doing, but he knows that; and, this knowledge is the open wound that enforces a retroactive trauma and violence onto Žižek’s buggering of Lacan/Hegel texts. In a sense he like Peter Sloterdijk’s Cynics knows very well what he is doing, but he is doing it anyway: mis-reading former traumas as the cause of his own open wounds by which he is ‘traversing the fantasy’ of modern philosophical and political struggles. What Žižek describes as “mutual reading” and “mutual buggering” might be more of a mutual rending, a violence that tears asunder the very fabric of thought between both philosophers and intensifies the negativity in their mutual exchange to the point that nothing remains of the original text underlying either of their works. In this sense Žižek’s work is what Carew surmises as the “generative activity of concept-creation” which can bring forth something “unexpected, unsettling, even traumatic—we may produce monsters” (Carew, p. 41).

One might see in this a form of retroactive intervention, too. The retroactive trauma is the black hole in rhetoric through which the Real breaks through, the invisible made visible not as discursive display, but rather as the non-relation around which the text hovers like a lost object that can never be found but is always there in the very violence of this darkness in the text leading us to the Real. The philosopher must mis-interpret his philosophical father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is the active negation of the Orthodox vision most philosophers literalize into submission; and instead he must intervene in the dialectical re-writing of his philosophical father’s text into the colours (tropes) of a metaleptic reversal that give birth to his own traumatic truths. (Of course metalepsis  is a figure of speech in which a stance, word, phrase from figurative speech or act is used in a new context.) What we’re getting at here is the notion that the philosopher is not a man speaking to other men, but rather a man as Nietzsche once said “rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man outrageously more alive than himself” ( I need the source of the quote? – came from memory). What makes a philosopher stand out, become so strong that others seem to fall away into shadows? Why is a Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, etc. figures of strength around which philosophers like moths seem to alight and circle like the scorched denizens of some black sun? Why do certain philosophers achieve such strength that their thought seems almost self-begotten and free of all earlier pre-cursors influence, as if they themselves were ancients themselves and like Plato had put to rest all earlier pre-Socratic forms? Of course I’m transmogrifying the thought of Harold Bloom whose work on the anxiety of influence and poets is already so well known there need not be a rehash of his basic concepts. I’ve only displaced it into philosophical speculation.

But in this sense why has Žižek returned to German Idealism if not to find some far removed pre-cursor to overcome his debt to Lacan. For Žižek Idealism is the gateway to materialism, a radicalized form that revolves around certain contradictions, antagonisms, and sheer black holes that it in itself cannot resolve within idealism. This radicalized Idealism seeks out those very impossible gaps, cracks, and holes and finds in the obstructions and contradictions a path to the Real. It was the linguistic idealism of Lacan that led him back to the German Idealists. As Carew will say of him:

By zoning in on the limitations of idealization, the experiences of internal
resistance within its own self-enclosed phenomenal space (experiences that
reveal a difficult truth concerning the impotence of self-positing idealist
freedom), Žižek tries to construct his own metaphysics. Only able to
sustain itself from within the cracks of transcendental synthesis, his parallax
ontology functions within the impossible in-between of spectral materialism
and full-blown subjective idealism. (Carew, p. 63)

One could find as much in Johnston’s books on  Žižek as well, but I’ve covered his work in other posts: here, here, and here. Žižek has yet to step out from under the shadow of influence of Lacan and invent himself whole cloth. His work is an almost complete repetition of Lacan, Hegel, and other pre-cursors to the point that one can literally confuse Žižek for these others. In the process a monstrous creature emerges which is an amalgam of several pre-cursors visions, concepts, and thought all brought together in a series of texts that repeat over and over the key conceptual enframing and redoubling of a retroactive trauma. In his essay A Plea for a Return to Différance (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua) Žižek will describe it this way: 

The frame is always-already redoubled: the frame within “reality” is always linked to another frame enframing “reality” itself.  Once introduced, the gap between reality and appearance is thus immediately complicated, reflected-into-itself: once we get a glimpse, through the Frame, of the Other Dimension, reality itself turns into appearance. In other words, things do not simply appear, they appear to appear. This is why the negation of a negation does not bring us to a simple flat affirmation: once things (start to) appear, they not only appear as what they are not, creating an illusion; they can also appear to just appear, concealing the fact that they ARE what they appear.

In Less Than Nothing he’ll explain it this way, saying, that what counts is that one part of ordinary reality is separated from the rest by a frame which designates it as a magical space of illusion. We have one and the same reality, separated from itself (or, rather, redoubled) by a screen. This inversion-into-itself by way of which reality encounters itself on a fantasmatic stage is what compels us to abandon the univocity of being: the field of (what we experience as) reality is always traversed by a cut which inscribes appearance into appearance itself. In other words, if there is a field of reality, then it is not enough to claim that reality is inherently fantasmatic, that it is always constituted by a transcendental frame; this frame has to inscribe itself into the field of reality, in the guise of a difference between “ordinary” reality and the ethereal reality: within our experience of reality (structured by fantasy), a part of reality has to appear to us as “fantasmatic,” as not “real reality.” (LTN, KL 5634)

Think of the philosopher within the frame that Žižek is linking to this series of misreadings, what we discover in the reading of his giant book on Hegel (as an example) Less Than Nothing is this very process in which the “gap between reality and appearance, literal and figurative, are buggered, complicated, reflected-into-itself, thereby producing this monstrous reversal in which retroactively Žižek appears to have given birth to the thought of Hegel and Lacan presenting a transumptive display and reversal in which Žižek seems to appear earlier than the philosophers he is absorbing and interpreting: the framer enframing the Frame. As if Žižek were himself the pre-cursor and father of Hegel/Lacan instead of the other way round. As if Hegel, then Lacan had read the ancient works of Žižek, and were both deeply influenced by his dialectical thought. This grand fantasy or retroactive trauma in which it is Žižek, rather than Hegel/Lacan who had given birth to the whole tradition of dialectical materialism. As if Hegel and Lacan were mere ephebic inheritors of the great philosopher, and had all along been influenced by his conceptual originality. A retroactive trauma and violence of the first order in which the roles are reversed and transumptively Žižek comes first, and Hegel/Lacan second or after the fact in this time lapse sequence of retroactive inversion. So that in this scenario Žižek becomes retroactively the Father of Hegel and Lacan, the buggering trauma having been a violent and painful male-birth; a sort of Athena from the skull of Zeus thematic, but this time out of the very loins of Žižek’s retroactive trauma or intervention in German Idealism, discovering that “our experience of freedom is properly traumatic.”

“Freedom” is thus inherently retroactive: at its most elementary, it is not simply a free act which, out of nowhere, starts a new causal link, but a retroactive act of determining which link or sequence of necessities will determine us. Here, one should add a Hegelian twist to Spinoza: freedom is not simply “recognized / known necessity,” but recognized / assumed necessity, the necessity constituted / actualized through this recognition.
– Slavoj Zizek,  Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Žižek is the midwife who gives birth to that which could not give birth to itself: the monstrous truth around which the earlier philosopher hovered like an analysand upon a couch but could never quite put into words. Žižek brings out retroactively the very concept deformations that seemed so hidden in the traumatic event of the earlier philosophers discourse, as if what the philosopher were trying to say were impossible: it is this very impossible thought that Žižek through his ‘traversal of the fantasy’ of the former philosopher’s thought discovers and reveals as the Real of the philosopher’s anxiety thereby releasing it into the open wound of our own mis-readings of Žižek himself. One never reads Žižek directly but is always reading Lacan/Hegel through the open wound of Žižek’s retroactive trauma. Like victims of a rapist we become the partners in a crime after the fact, our buggery of Žižek enables in us the very violence of the trauma that emerges as the truth of Lacan/Hegel in Žižek. A violent act from which there is no redemption, only the awakening to our own wounds, an interminable determination without recourse or redress. The repetitions of difference we repeat are always already those of the retroactive trauma’s violence upon our own interventions, our buggeries and rapes.

If we take another quote from that same essay previously described above, we discover an illustration in this notion of interventionism (buggery) into the past retroactive text that does a violence to it even as it is rewritten in the current philosphers own colours (tropes, concepts):

“If /the Kantian moral view/ presents itself as the narrative successor to the revolution, this is not because it logically fulfils or supersedes it: Kant’s critical venture phenomenologically succeeds the revolution that it chronologically, of course, anticipates only insofar as his text becomes legible only retroactively through the event that in institutionalizing the incessant short circuit of freedom and cruelty puts the project of modernity to its most extreme trial. /…/ the revolution itself inflicts on Kant’s own text a kind of retroactive trauma.”

This notion that the French revolution “inflicts on Kant’s own text a kind of retroactive trauma” could be applied to Žižek’s own work-in-progress (for is there any beginning or ending?). What we observe in Žižek’s writings is a continuous churning of concepts in which the thought of Lacan and German Idealism acts as a revolutionary violence that inflicts on his texts a “kind of retroactive trauma”. And the so called “traversing the fantasy” is the very body of his struggles, his multitudinous works that seem to revolve around the missing object of desire situated in the wound of the Real:

In a case of constituted anxiety, the object dwells within the confines of a fantasy, while we only get the constituent anxiety when the subject “traverses the fantasy” and confronts the void, the gap, filled up by the fantasmatic object—as Mallarmé put it in the famous bracketed last two lines of his “Sonnet en-yx,” objet a is ce seul objet dont le Néant s’honore /” this sole object with which Nothing is honoured/.”

Is not this constituted anxiety none other than that anxiety of influence of which to follow Bloom, Žižek has internalized and formalized the structure of influence in his work. The knowledge that behind every philosopher’s anxiety about his originality stands a Primal Scene of Instruction in which the Great Original sleeps with the Dead while the young philosopher or ephebe looks on belatedly, powerless except to repeat, revise, memorialize and recognize the circumstances of his secondariness. Is Žižek after all anxious that his work will ultimately fail the test of primariness? That he will be and remain a repetition of all those he has fought and struggled with so long, like Jacob wrestling the Angel on Mount Horeb, seeking the wound that will earn him a place in the philosophical sun as one of the greats. Has he not almost ironically and in tribute of Badiou called him the “Plato of our Age”, as both an epithet of praise but also a distancing and anxious appraisal and judgement upon his own work?

Will Žižek ever step out from under the burden of influence of Lacan and Hegel and produce original work of his own, discover his own stance against the tide of secondariness? We ponder and wait… I sometimes think Žižek would like to be considered the ‘Hegel of his Age’, a revised, updated, refined and more industrious inverted materialist version of Žižek himself, part hip cultural icon, part Lacanian anti-philosopher; yet not completely of the substantialist Marxian form, but rather of the new dialectical (im)materialism that Žižek is already so adept at, investing in his immediate retroactive traumas of the Void, giving us the interminable open wound that knows nothing is completed and everything is open to the future: militant, revolutionary, and politically savvy.


  1. Carew, Joseph. Ontological Catastrophe: Zizek and the Paradoxical Metaphysics of German Idealism (New Metaphysics). (Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, October 29, 2014)



5 thoughts on “Slavoj Žižek: The Anxiety of Retroactive Trauma

  1. Always enjoy your ravings against Žižek. I would rave myself, but I kinda feel that it is like raving against a wall. I don’t mean that Žižek won’t listen to me, but that he cannot listen period. It is in this way that Žižek does not know what he’s doing: he only talks, he has to. It seems to me that he has to get out what has once violently entered him, and will never allow another thought to enter him again. But what I find most curious about his books though, is the fact that their first 2-3 pages are very original and atteactive. Then, you turn on page 4. Hello Žižek, you old bugger, you.


    • I know I may sound like I’m against him, but in truth he has much to say, indeed. I think I just get tired of the false repetitions in his works. He gets lazy copies himself, repeats himself rather than attending the new concept or problem at hand he seems to dig into his old works and copy/paste old jokes, old arguments; and, forgets that such habits work against his thought, not for it. He pads his arguments and seems to lose track of his gargantuan appetite to consume and engorge, then dip it all back out as if in an old Roman vomitorium (“to spew forth”).


  2. I agree with you about his endless repetitons. I had to write a short analysis of his review of the Montenegrin prince and poet Njegos, and I noticed that the same theme runs through at least 4 or 5 different articles/books, the latest if I am not mistaken being in Less than Nothing. The same with his analysis of Emir Kusturica’s movie “Underground.” Very little if anything changes from one to the next, there are there whole sections of copy and paste. And while I do enjoy reading his earlier works, it seems to me unnacceptable for a philosopher of that caliber to write 600 page books merely repeating the same old things, branching off in a million tangents that all considered might have nothing to do with his main subject, etc. To be sure, at times, it sounds like pop philosophy. Perhaps that is what Verso means when they introduce him as the most famous philosopher of our times. But there are also other things that are somewhat perplexing to me. For his example his stubborn refusal to accredit Baudrillard for his theory of simulacra, instead taking great detours to avoid quoting him. His analyses of Middle Eastern thought also are a bit wanting, to say the least. And to some extent I attribute that to Zizek’s historical (Platonic) stance against poetry, which then becomes an obstacle to his understanding of certain regions’ particular philosophical nuances. The same goes for his understanding of the Balkans, which has a long history of poetry. In many ways, then, it seems that Zizek tacitly confirms an old idea that only Western thought is capable of philosophy in the proper sense. Yet, what the proper sense is, no one cares/dares to clarify.


    • Although remember he was heavily influenced early on by Heidegger, who in his later works was informed by a deep ontological study of poets. Badiou even mentions that two paths of ontology came out of the twentieth century: math and poetry. Yes, Zizek has his foibles, but his insights are still worth the effort of these weighty and somewhat abstruse and circumlocutionary digressions. Too bad he didn’t have good editors to tighten and remove such tedious repetitions.


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