Should We Take Slavoj Žižek Seriously?

Slavoj Žižek has always been a thorn in my side. Why? Between his being on the one hand a sort of modern Pied Piper leading the young astray – a sort of  Slovenian Socrates awakening the young to the wisdom not of Greece but of Hegel and Lacan. But what is this strange wisdom he would bestow on us? Dialectical Materialism? What beast is this that comes our way? Never shy about his stance he tells us dialectical materialism is the only “true philosophical inheritor of what Hegel designates as the speculative attitude of the thought towards objectivity.”1 Agon Hamza offers us a working definition of Žižek’s core philosophy, saying: “dialectical materialism concerns the most radical attempt to ground subjectivity qua subjectivity into objectivity—not merely to find the hidden “objective reality” of thought, but he uses Lacan and Hegel to ground subjectivity in its negative character in the real”.2

Whoa… not so fast, you say! What is this grounding of “subjectivity qua subjectivity,” and – even more, what is this hidden “objective reality” of thought, and why return to Hegel or Lacan – and, most of all, why ground subjectivity in its – what? – “negative character in the real”. What is this “Real,” you ask? Like most commentary on  Žižek, and even in  Žižek’s own commentaries, none of this is made easy or explicit except in long and tedious passages which seem to fold and unfold and refold in infinite circular patterns like a some Ouroboros eating its own tail or an opening of a mysterious portal into the impossible? One seeks clarification and is given instead obfuscation and a litany of concepts that must be traced back through the various sources both primary and secondary until in the end one is left with a conundrum rather than a solution to one’s query. But then again maybe its this sense that there are no easy solutions, no pat answers to the difficulties of dialectical materialism. Instead there are questions and more questions. But, then again, hasn’t this been obvious from the beginning, hasn’t Žižek himself said repeatedly that he has no answers, only more questions?

Žižek admits it, the “dialectic is an inconsistent mess… (first phase) which is negated and, through negation, the Origin is projected or posited backwards, so that a tension is created between the present and the lost Origin (second phase). In the third phase, the Origin is perceived as inaccessible, relativized—we are in external reflection, that is, our reflection is external to the posited Origin which is experienced as a transcendent presupposition. In the fourth phase of absolute reflection, our external reflexive movement is transposed back into the Origin itself, as its own self-withdrawal or decentering.”3 This is Žižek’s rendition of Hegel’s absolute recoil, taking Hegel’s four phases of reflection – positioning reflection, external reflection, determining reflection, and – adding a fourth, absolute reflection. One could get lost among these recoiling effects. Why should anything be so convoluted?

Hamsa tells us it’s because “there is no lost origin, but the origin itself is constituted through the idea of this loss and desperate attempts to return to that which has been lost” (165). Hamsa will use an example from his own homeland and the conflicts between Albanians and Serbs in Kosavo and Serbia, saying the tensions go back all the way to the Kosovo Battle of 1448. Thus, the origin of the Serb presence in Kosovo is the battle—battle as a mess, projected retroactively as an origin, then perceived as inaccessible (the liberation of Kosovo in 1999). The Serbian identity (especially in its “revival” during the late 1980s and 1990s) is experienced or determined based on this “precious loss.” The point is that there is no lost origin, but the origin itself is constituted through the idea of this loss and desperate attempts to return to that which has been lost. Here comes the infamous attribution to the myths in the Balkans: myths are employed not as a result of (direct) belief in them, but to constitute the “lost origin.” (165)

Here in the U.S.A. one would not need to look far for such tensions in recent events. Think of the many Civil War memorials and flag issues across southern states in recent years that have been contested and removed. One can as well see in Black Lives Matters this tension with a “lost origins” in the need for reparations against ancestral enslavement from a “lost origins” in Africa and displacement/enslavement in southern plantations, etc. This constitution of a “lost origin” becomes in our time a political tactic to enliven and bring about change: “the idea of this loss and desperate attempts to return to that which has been lost”. One remembers Lacan’s use of the object petit a – or, lost object.  In Žižek’s world Subjects, to the extent that they are civilized, are “cut” from the primal object of their desire. Instead, they are forced by social Law to pursue this special, lost Thing in Žižek’s technical term, the “objet petit a” by observing their societies’ linguistically mediated conventions, deferring satisfaction, and accepting sexual and generational difference. Subjects’ “fundamental fantasies,” according to Lacan, are unconscious structures which allow them to accept the traumatic loss involved in this founding sacrifice. They turn around a narrative about the lost object, and how it was lost. So that in the Black Lives Movement it is Freedom and Independence, Equality and Social Justice that were lost and around which their movement is constituted because the founding sacrifice was the very loss of this freedom at the hands of slave traders who sold them in Africa to plantation owners in the Southern states in pre-Civil War times. Of course, there is more to this than this simplified version, but this is the gist.

As Hamsa says, based on this understanding of dialectic, Žižek is able to define the event, which ultimately “is the Fall itself, the loss of some primordial unity and harmony which never existed, which is just a retroactive illusion.” The notion that one defines a mythic origin, a myth of primordial loss based on a fall into time, history, and corruption from some paradisial realm of freedom, etc., all this is just a “retroactive illusion” a myth one uses to condition struggles in the present. Or, as Hamsa puts it the “dialectical process determines or rather constitutes its own presuppositions or its own past. To put this in a form of a proposition: a dialectical process retroactively creates its own conditions of possibility.” (166) Which is to say we need our fictions, our fantasies – as narratives of possibility to condition change in the present.

One of the difficulties in Hegel has always been teleology, this sense of a reactionary politics of reunification of thought and being, of a politics of absolutism, etc. Against such a notion Hamsa tells us that Žižek’s thinking brings together psychoanalysis, Hegelian philosophy, and Marx’s critique of political economy (172). In this way dialectical analysis of history ‘rewrites the past’ and retroactively de-legitimizes the previous one.” This retroactive delegitmization “makes ‘vanishing mediators’ of past phenomena: although a past phenomenon can be a necessary moment in the emergence of a new form, its role becomes invisible once the New has arrived.” (173) So that current thinking in communist ideas is a process of delegitimizing the whole Lenin-Stalin-Mao tradition even as a reflection of its pre-cursor (Marx’s thought, etc.) conditions the possibility of a new beginning. Or, as Hamsa summarizes:

This is where we should look for the liberation potential of the wound. The Fall is something which creates the good out of its own fall, which means that there is not a situation or level in which the goodness resides and from which we fall. In this sense, the new incarnation of the idea of communism will have to let go of the previous century socialist experiments and cease to consider that phantom as that of something that happened but was “hurt” or wounded by Stalinism. Rather, as the loss that was never positive, it only appeared as a lost democratic tool after it was lost. (173).

Ultimately our task Hamsa reiterates is to operate a withdrawal which itself constitutes the opening or wound or gap, exposing in this process a new field of experimentations of, what Marx used to call, “possible communism.” (173)


  1. Žižek, Slavoj. Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 4). Verso (October 7, 2014)
  2. Agon Hamza/ Frank Ruda. Slavoj Zizek and Dialectical Materialism. (Page 164). Palgrave Macmillan (November 4, 2015)
  3. Žižek, Absolute Recoil, p. 149.

21 thoughts on “Should We Take Slavoj Žižek Seriously?

  1. “As Hamsa says, based on this understanding of dialectic, Žižek is able to define the event, which ultimately “is the Fall itself, the loss of some primordial unity and harmony which never existed, which is just a retroactive illusion.”

    I really don’t understand what is the problem with this notion of a primordial unity? For me that just seems like a very pragmatic viewpoint. Ok, at that earlier time man had completely different problems, jungle stuff, but maybe he indeed lived in a social bliss where there were only lovers and family and no stupid ‘others’. I just can’t see the fundamental problem in this, why everybody seems so reactively hostile to this?

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    • Who? What Zizek is saying is not that he’s hostile to it, no… what he’s saying is that as an event we use such notions as the lost primordial unity (i.e., notions such as Paradise, Utopia, etc.) as theory-fictions and conditioning events or retroactive fictions for present political ends. I don’t see anyone hostile to it per se, instead I think almost every activist uses some form of the fall out of unity to defend their stance or struggles in present time. Think of Martin Luther King and “I have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March for Freedom in Washington, D.C. etc. Others such as the Sioux nation when they had the ghost dances back in the 80’s at the Custer massacre site… When the Berlin Wall came down etc. …. even the American and French Revolutions used certain myths to support their rebellions, etc. It’s just this sense of using a past that cannot be located in some real history, but is more of a mythic response and retroactive illusion (fiction) used to spur actions now.

      Who sees it negatively? Or hostile? Have you read something or heard something recently from someone?

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      • Ah, ok then I judged this wrong then.Thank you. I mean the problem with this is perhaps that it does have an aspect of empirical or scientific theory to it. I makes claims about “human nature” to some extent, us as a certain kind of social species who is longing for a somewhat narrowed mode of living.

        But yeah, I think I get the point that such things live a kind of half-life, halve myth, half pseudoscience, so thats maybe where I took this wrong.

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    • I kind of get where Felix is coming from. Even though it’s not explicit here there’s often an abrasively dismissive tone to qualifications around ‘primordial unity’. I guess the most famous instance is Freud’s belittling of ‘oceanic feeling’ as regressively narcissistic? That seems to colour much thought on the matter since. It seems clear that such states are hard to articulate and handle well, but I wonder if the dismissiveness in intellectual circles is sometimes down to the difficulties that the intellect can bring to these states (not that being stupid is necessarily more useful in this regard, just that the intellect brings its own problems of incomprehension).

      In terms of early humans, I do think there’s good evidence for there being a kind of ‘primordial unity’ which (1) is recalled or figured as overly paradisical from our position of alienation, but (2) was no less real on this account. I think it was a reality which can only be approached through fiction and fantasy, which I guess is part of what’s being expressed here – maybe minus the ‘reality’ bit?

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      • Hey, thanks for sharing that I am not the only one with this impression.

        Yes it is problematic propably. You have a kind of enmeshment of “womb theory”, this kind of primordial longing as a return to the womb, an impossibility and “primordial theory”, which should be possible, in glorious utopia this longing might be fulfilled.

        As I get it from Steven its not really a contradiction, more a question of nuance. No matter how real or scientific there is still that element of necessary myth, even if it seems a sensible view, the reason it is important is because it orients us towards the future. Still I think it is important to figure out this nuance, the trope might be very central.

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      • I found Morris Berman’s The Wandering God interesting on this (in terms of human history, but also factoring in the psychological aspects), a tough-minded approach that still takes seriously the idea of a reality beneath the ‘noble savage’ romanticism.

        Regarding the idea of a ‘gap’ or ‘basic fault’ between the Self/World or Self/Other, he presents evidence that this is present in hunter-gatherer cultures, but is related to in such a way as to obviate most of the tangles of alienation we see in agricultural societies.

        There is a diffuse or peripheral awareness, which can be characterized as being ‘horizontal’ in nature, in the same way that [hunter-gatherer] politics is. It is not characterized by a search for ‘meaning,’ an insistence or hope that the world be this way or that. It simply accepts the world as it presents itself … One does not ‘deal with’ alienation (the split between Self and World) as much as live with it, accept the discomfort as just part of what is.

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  2. Reminds me of Arthur M Young’s The Reflexive Universe where he discusses the relationship between restraint and freedom as creating a sort of cosmic fall and overcoming. Young offers a better way forward by really tackling our understanding of causality and how it will manifest differently on different levels.

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  3. Re: Gyrus (Continued from above, seems there is a limit to reply depth)

    “Regarding the idea of a ‘gap’ or ‘basic fault’ between the Self/World or Self/Other, he presents evidence that this is present in hunter-gatherer cultures, but is related to in such a way as to obviate most of the tangles of alienation we see in agricultural societies.”

    Yes, I feel there is nothing really so mystical about this. Our social behaviour seems to be set up as to work best in a tribe of max. 150 people, Dunbars number, and beyond that you get alienation, its totally fucking with us on a basic level. This does not mean that for the ancient noble savage it was all peaches but just that specific social longing so often reflected in religious fantasy they maybe really didnt have that it was fulfilled.

    “… One does not ‘deal with’ alienation (the split between Self and World) as much as live with it, accept the discomfort as just part of what is.”

    This feels again to me like contphil. totally getting ahead of itself. Why jump, focus immediately on this fundamental ‘unsolvable’ issue of alienation as split between self and world instead of focussing on the very solvable alienation as a result of broken social structure? How can we from our totally socially alienated perspective even speculate how much a burden that unsolvable split would even be were we to live in a sane society?

    This is a recurrent irritation for me amongst similar lines. You have this totally grounded, yet encouraging narrative and immediately it gets problematized before it could even enter the mainstream like that.

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    • I think that’s a weak reading of Zizek and others who speak of the gap, wound, and cut. It’s not between Self and World, since for both Badiou and Zizek there is not such thing as Self. What they speak of is “Subject” which is not Self as in Freud/Jung/Adler, etc. Subject is a philosophical term for the relations within the socio-cultural mode of being rather than as you suggest some atomized alienation, etc. Even Marx is never to be associated with alienation of the Self, but rather in economic terms of the worker. So many misprision these concepts and turn them into nihilistic fodder for their grist mill. Both of you are using these terms in modes other than in the actual philosophical traditions within which they are spoken and written. I’m not trying to be harsh about it, but just trying to alleviate what ‘alienation’ is within these traditions.

      For Marx alienation = estrangement: “”An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labour, from his lifeactivity, from his species being is the estrangement of man from n,an. If a man is confronted by himself, he is confronted by the other man. What applies to man’s relation to .his work, to the product of his labour and to himself, also holds of man’s relation to the other man, and to the other man’s labour and object of labour. In fact, the proposition that man’s species nature is estranged from him means that one man is estranged from the other, as each of them is from man’s essential nature”.

      For Marx there was no “essence” in men per se, only in their relations to each other in the social – so that it is in the social that the Subject is defined not by one’s Self, but by one’s place within the social field. You speak of primitive humans who had no sense of Self either, only of masks, roles, and work within their tribal socious. A name was associated with ones role in the group (i.e., read Malinowsky, Strauss, etc. almost any anthropologist).

      Our sense of Self is a liberal construct during the age of Locke, Hume, and later Mill etc.: this is the modern liberal notion of Self as individual which ancient societies lacked. A good work: Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism https://www.amazon.com/Inventing-Individual-Origins-Western-Liberalism-ebook/dp/B00P0RL278/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1501680203&sr=1-1&keywords=invention+of+the+individual

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      • Yes, I’m not familiar with the fine distinctions of Marxist theory (which are probably crucial rather than fine from the inside). I was (I think) following Felix in a more general discourse.

        As far as Berman goes, his ‘Self’ and its division from the world is based in Object Relations theory – he references Lacan and Balint. His point is that he doesn’t refute the idea of such a split in pre-agricultural humans, but insists their cultural mediation of the split is such that much of the alienation we associate with it is obviated.

        Certainly the ‘Self’ that Berman sees as being present in all humans wouldn’t have much to do with the modern liberal construct. Admittedly this is a little off-topic as the tradition that Zizek represents has very specific definitions, I was just responding to Felix’s more general point. From my ‘lay’ point of view Berman’s stuff seems useful in that it addresses the idea of ‘primordial unity’ without being romantic or dismissive. His take on early human life seems a bit more realist than the kind of discourse I think Felix was referring to, where the idea of prehistoric realities gets a little lost in the (admittedly important) fictional nature of our viewpoint.

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      • That said, your point about the social constitution of self would be an important part of the mediation of any self/world ‘gap’ in hunter-gatherers. Nurit David-Bird coined the term ‘pluripresence’ in her new book on HG social being, everyone always present to everyone else all the time (not literally, but effectively). The group is always ‘few-many’, i.e. always many, but never theoretically extensible into an unwieldy many. The best she could get out of her subjects in terms of ‘origin stories’ was plural from the start – ‘in the beginning their were many couples’, tellingly different from the Genesis story.

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      • All that might be fine for hunter-gatherers, but we’ve left that world behind ages ago… and, for better or worse, we are not “that”. Maybe, on an instinctual level, but as for our social relations we no longer have those tribal enclaves, habits, cultures that were locked into the natural rhythms, cycles, myths, whether of the extreme indigenous Australians or Native Americans… modern Western Civilization has seen to that, and even now the influence of our bad habits (i.e., alcohol, meth, drugs, etc.) have had their toll on these cultures. along with money grubbing (i.e., here in the Americas more casinos are owned by tribal peoples than the Mob…). It’s another world… and book learning of the past is great, but we are not those people any longer. That’s why to me anthropology is useless for our present needs… too localized and based on local habits, customs, and tribal enculturation that is open to so many variations that we’ve disconnected for it for most of humanity, while at the same time our instinctual relations have yet to reconnect to anything of use.

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      • Agree with you to an extent. The first caveat is that we are creatures of the imagination, and the story we tell ourselves about ourselves – how ‘where we came from’ relates to ‘who we are’ – matters deeply. It works alongside more material drivers, but it’s far from being insignificant.

        The other caveat overlaps it perhaps, and that’s about whether evolutionary psychology has anything to say. I’d say that’s a mixed bag. Certainly it functions in the above sense, to the extent that science is a crucial contemporary carrier for our stories about ourselves. There may be more material impacts afoot.

        But however important the nature of our formative years is, we’re no longer in them. And a lot of the crucial aspects of these years relate to social scale. I guess that’s the evopsych standard line – picking apart how our evolved instincts are interacting with our new environment(s).

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      • My point exactly: it’s all fiction… even our notions of evolution. Think of Leakey picking bone fragments out of Kenyan soil and forming from that small fragment a narrative reconstruction, building a whole narrative around it and the tidbits of geological debris… most of what we know is stories stitched together as if these soft sciences about the past were like physics or hard sciences. It’s not… its a nice little mythic narrative strewn together and accepted by a peer group of fellow fictionalists who say “Oh, yes, we’ll go with that… “. Even most of our physics is not based on hard science but models and effects… for no one has yet to see dark energy or dark matter, nor are all those energetic particles anything that can be quantified other than their effects on larger fields of energy that can be. We build our computer models now and construct our climatology and temporal changes based on a smattering of data added year by year… to get our knowledge and predictive events. All of anthropology is such fictional narrative constructions from bits and fragments that could have otherwise been narrativized in other ways and may in the future change. Nothing is solid, not even in the sciences, but rather open and incomplete to revision and new models/theories, etc. And, don’t even get me started on the fictions of philosophy or psychology… 🙂

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      • Archaeology in this sense is fiction, as in, it’s an art (not a science). The scientific aspect is a subset of a broader art. And while of course it’s more up for debate than science, there’s better and worse art. Historical novels utilise scientific aspects of historical research and construct an artifice to imagine the past – in better or worse ways. Certainly the same goes for philosophy and psychology 🙂 That’s part of my affection for Hillman. His book Healing Fiction makes much of the fact that Freud was once nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature, though not in the spirit of debunking, but in taking seriously the impact of fictions on human reality.

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      • In that sense reality is neither human nor completely non-human, but something in-between. The human itself is a category of thought, a pre-supposition around which we’ve constructed this thing we are for thousands of years. What were we before we called ourselves human?

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      • Indigenous self-designations such as ‘Inuit’ are often translated as ‘human’. Never have the perils of translation been more evident!

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  4. Thank you for this interesting article by clearly taking Zizek very seriously. I haven’t read Absolute Recall. I haven’t read any Ruda either although I saw him speak at a Zizek masterclass at Birkbeck last year.

    I know that Zizek locates his work between philosophy and psychoanalysis and reading Sublime Object of Desire changed the course of my life, but now that I’m reading Lacanian psychoanalysis I get frustrated sometimes reading SZ … but I always find myself revitalised by attending his talks.

    Reading your piece brings up a problem for me about the positioning of the reflection ‘… Žižek’s rendition of Hegel’s absolute recoil, taking Hegel’s four phases of reflection – positioning reflection, external reflection, determining reflection, and – adding a fourth, absolute reflection’. These Hegelian phases of reflection seem to be located in the present reflecting to a point in the past, which is what I understand to be the Freudian hypothesis. But Lacan took this further so that the unconscious is revealed in the future anterior tense. The unconscious thought will have come to me at some point in the future. I think for Lacan he went beyond the Freudian point of returning to the lost object from the present, to a concept of returning to the place marked by the lost object from a point in the future. Does SZ address this in Absolute Recoil?

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    • Sure he does… and, when you think about it Zizek goes further, he accepts neuroscientific data that the unconscious is just another name or trope for the brain itself and its non-conscious or pre-conscious processing powers which do 98% of the actual work and give us but a minimal amount of well filtered data… for the most part we live in a dark box with no access to the abyss surrounding us except this fidgeting oscillating void. At least this is Zizek’s take… the petit a or lost object of desire has been a mainstay for Zizek for years in his thought…

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