The tremor of reflection
Slavoj Žižek's Lacanian dialecticsPeter Dews
At first glance, the work of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek seems to offer an irresistible range of attractions for theorists wishing to engage with contemporary culture, without accepting the flimsy postmodernist doxa which is often the only available gloss on it. Zizek’s thought is still strongly coloured by his Althusserian background, and he is therefore rightly sceptical of the anti-Enlightenment sloganizing, and revivals of the ‘end of ideology’ , which are the staple of so much cultural commentary today. At the same time, far from being dourly Marxist, his writings are informed by a vivid and sophisticated grasp of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, and are enlivened by constant reference to works of fiction, cinema, classical music and opera. They also cheerfully disregard ingrained oppositions between high and mass culture, without proclaiming a pseudo-populist levelling of aesthetic distinctions. Finally, Zizek’s East European provenance provides a quirkily original perspective on the questions of subjectivity, phantasy and desire, and the problem of the resurgence of collectivist identities, which are so high on the agenda of the Left in Western Europe and North America today.
The very existence of this already sizeable body of work raises many intriguing questions. Why, for example, should the notoriously obscure and rebarbative thought of Lacan be of political interest not just to Zizek, but to a whole circle of Slovenian intellectuals? And why should Zizek be interested not simply in using Lacan to elaborate a new theory of ideology, but also to develop an extensive re-reading and defence of Hegel – the supposedly totalizing enemy of most contemporary theory? In short, why should a combination of German Idealism and psychoanalysis be seen as the most appropriate way to develop a critical social philosophy amidst the current upheavals and conflicts of Eastern Europe, and of the Balkans in particular?
The historical and political answer to these questions is to be found in the development of philosophy in ex-Yugoslavia between Tito’s revolution and the break-up of the country, which began in 1991 with the secession of Slovenia. For Yugoslavian philosophical life was far from being dominated by the creaking orthodoxies of Soviet-style dialectical materialism, and included the far more plausible and congenial positions of what came to be known as the Praxis School.1 The Marxism of the Praxis School was in fact a counterpart to the philosophical current known in the other half of Europe as ‘Western Marxism’. But whereas in Western Europe the thought of Lukacs, of Gramsci, of Adorno or Lefebvre could scarcely be taken to represent anything other than an oppositional and critical stance, the specific difficulty faced by the Praxis School was that their ‘humanist’ version of Marxism, inspired by the 1844 manuscripts of Marx, became – albeit unwittingly – supportive of the dominant ideology of the Yugoslavian regime, namely the representation of the Yugoslav social and economic system as a form of ‘self-managing socialism’ .
1. For a representative sample of the work of the Praxis School, see Mihailo Markovic and Gajo Petrovic, eds, Praxis: Yugoslav Essays in the Philosophy and Methodology of the Social Sciences (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. XXXVI), Dordrecht, Holland, Riedel, 1979. See also the journals Praxis, 1965- 74, and Praxis International, 1980-93.