How to Encounter That Impossibility? Zizek’s Theory of Subject

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From Zizek’s reading of Hegel, Marx, and Lacan, can we learn about Zizek, not the complex entanglement of Hegelian, Marxian, and Lacanian theories? What is Zizek’s own theory, his own philosophical, political, and psychoanalytic theory? What does Zizek want to say to us, borrowing Lacan’s (or Marx’s and Hegel’s) voice – as if he is a ventriloquist? Or, what can he say about the things that he wants to say to us, if not borrowing their voices?

As we have seen in the documentary film on him (Zizek!), when he points out Lacans empty gestures, what we can see is the very empty gesture that he is mocking. When he says that the picture of Stalin on the wall is only to threaten the people who visit his house, how much can we believe his words? Do we have to believe that there is a certain maybe a significant meaning hidden behind his jokes? Or, do we have to take his words at face value? Even when we try to understand his performances and writings as they are, what does it mean for us to understand them? Do we have to realize something significant but never represented in his words and performances, paradoxically, through the void, meaningless forms not through the content of his speech and actions? As if, in a Zen riddle, we should not look at the Buddhist masters finger tip when he indicates the moon with his finger? Through Zizeks theory, do we realize theorys nothingness?

According to Rex Butler, Zizek’s “work is endlessly shifting, open-ended, refuses to close itself down or draw conclusions – in a word, is psychotic.” But nonetheless “it is also only the activity of theorizing that saves him, saves him from the very thing this theorizing brings about”(2). Butler seems to think that despite his neurotic writing what we can learn from him is his theorizing activity itself – as the effect of theorization. But “what are we to make of Zizek, who constantly changes his position and ultimately believes in nothing except the ‘inherent correctness of theory itself’? What would it mean to sacrifice ourselves and everything we believed in (even our cause) for this ‘nothing’? And why would we nevertheless go ahead and do it? Is this death the very life of theory, Theory itself as Cause?”(Butler 3). Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology is in this sense the book from which we only get the “nothing” by submitting ourselves to his theory. However, the very nothing” is the (nature of) the subject, about which he tries to describe on every possible level. In other words, what we can get from this book is nothing but the subject we have lost.

While passing through the age of structuralism and post-structuralism, (the notion of) the subject has been passed away or just disappeared. In the ruins of the deceased subject, we have witnessed collapse of the real socialist societies and prosperity of liberal democracy and global capitalism. In this sense, it is not by chance that Zizek appears on the stage wearing a mask of post-Marxist – hand in hand with Laclau and Mouffe. As they regard that the social is fundamentally divided and antagonistic by the contingent and diverse subjects, Zizek thinks that the subject persists but only in the form of the split subject. In this way, Zizek brings back the problem of the subject into the center of postmodern debates. In short, his question is how to avoid the double trap of subject-centered modernism and subject-less post-structuralism.

It is in this context that we can understand why Zizek endeavors to remove the misleading name tag of a ‘post-structualist’ from Lacan. For this procedure, what Zizek calls for is the concept of the Real – so to speak, the return of the Real. According to Zizek, the Lacanian Real is “impossible to occupy its position … but it is even more difficult simply to avoid it”(Sublime 156). Instead of describing directly what the subject is, he strategically goes through the unrepresentable – but unavoidable – Real. It is because there is no way to explain the subject positively, and because even when it is explained there is the risk of being fallen into the essentialism of the subject. It is like the function of parallax view: in the dark, if we try to focus on the thing that we want to see (identify), we cannot see it; rather, we might see it only by not trying to focus on it directly – only by the gaze toward the void. That is to say, the paradox of the Lcanian Real is that, “it is an entity which, although it does not exist …, has a series of properties – it exercise a certain structural causality, it can produce a series of effects in the symbolic reality of subjects”(Sublime 163).

In Zizek’s Lacanian reading, the subject persists in the way that the Real functions. As Laclau says in “Preface” [in the 1st edition of The Sublime Object of Ideology], “the subject,” different from the poststructuralist subjectlessness, “cannot be reduced to the ‘position of subject’, since before subjectivation the subject is the subject of a lack”(Sublime xii) – the split subject. For Zizek, “the subject is … to be strictly opposed to the effect of subjectivation” (175), for before subjectivation as individual identification – i.e. prior to becoming somebody – the subject is the subject of a lack. After all the abstraction of subjectivation, what remains is “an empty place,” and this “original void, this lack of symbolic structure, is the subject”(175). However, is this void, empty place – which is the subject – the subject position as the subject-effect, which Zizek points out as a characteristic of post-structuralism? When Zizek says that “what the subjectivation masks is … a lack in the structure, a lack which is the subject”(175), is the lack not the subject-position, what post-structuralists argue for?

Zizek goes one step further by asking the ‘status’ of the subject before subjectivation.  According to his reading of Lacan, “the subject is not a question, it is as an answer, the answer of the Real to the question asked by the big Other, the symbolic order” and “the subject is the void of the impossibility of answering the question of the Other”(Sublime 178). To put it another way, for Zizek and Lacan the subject is not what they want to ask, but what is deduced as an answer to the big Other’s question, which is always already given (Che voui?). That is to say, while post-structuralists negate the existence of the subject confronting the question of the subject, what Lacan discovers, confronting the big Other’s question, is the void space – the subject itself.

In Lacanian theory, the subject is the void, gap in the big Other. In other words, “the subject is nothing but the impossibility of its own signifying representation – the empty place opened up in the big Other by the failure of this representation”(Sublime 208). However, in the procedure of signification, “there is always a certain remnant, a certain leftover escaping the circle of subjectivation, of subjective appropriation-mediation, and the subject is precisely correlative to this leftover: S̷a. The leftover which resists ‘subjectivation’ embodies the impossibility which ‘is’ the subject”(Sublime 209). Here, my question is whether the subject is the void, gap, and destitution or the excess, leftover, and remnant? To put it differently, is the gap in the big Other the excess of the signification?

Following Zizek’s logic, the void in the Other is the leftover in the process of symbolization, signification, or subjectivation. Lacanian “Graphs of Desire” might describe well the procedure of this paradox. The final point where the split subject, escaping through the signifying representation of the big Other, reaches is fantasy, which “provides the co-ordinates of our desire” at the same time functions as “a screen concealing the gap, the abyss of the desire of the Other”(Sublime 118). If there is a point where Lacanian and Zizekian theory of subject surpass the post-structuralism, it would be fantasy in the level of jouissance traversing the level of signification, the meaning of symptom. Although both of them seem to negate the traditional existence of the subject, while the post-structuralist notion of the subject is limited in the second phase of the Graph of Desire, Lacanian and Zizekian subject reaches the completed Graph – the level of jouissance.

Does the subject exists as a void of the signification at the same time as a remnant of jouissance? As psychoanalysis cannot give up ‘the subject presumed to know,’ in Zizek’s theory, though the subject is the void, the impossibility, it does persists.

Works Cited:

Butler, Rex. Slavoj Zizek: Live Theory. New York: Continuum, 2005.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.


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