CHAPTER FOUR

‘Learn, Learn and Learn’ – On Slavoj Žižek

Introduction

Žižek’s first text in English translation, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Žižek 1989), signalled not simply his arrival on the international philosophical scene, but the arrival of the whole Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis. This becomes clear in succeeding years with the publication, for example, of several anthologies of Slovenian philosophical (Lacanian) work in translation, such as Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock and Cogito and the Unconscious (Žižek 1992b, 1998a; Dolar 1992a, 1998; Zupančič 1992, 1998). The Sublime Object of Ideology (Žižek 1989) is also accompanied by a significant preface by Ernesto Laclau (1989), one of the earliest thinkers (alongside, for example, Chantal Mouffe [1993]) to combine Marx and Lacan in the critique of ideology in political philosophy.

Laclau’s (1989) preface is thus an interesting contextualization of some of the issues which we have already discussed in Chapters 1 and 2 and also looks forward to and anticipates some of the issues which will develop over future years in relation to this Lacanian orientation, especially as they bear on the critique of ideology. In the first case, Laclau highlights the different receptions given to Lacanianism, from country to country, foregrounding their context-specific importance (Laclau 1989: ix). He notes the important influence of Lacan’s son-in-law Jacques-Alain Miller on the Ljubljana interpretation of Lacan, ‘placing an accent on the theoretical importance of the last stage, in which a central role is granted to the notion of the Real as that which resists symbolisation’ (Laclau 1989: x). We will see below how this conception of the ‘Real’ becomes increasingly important for Žižek’s analysis of social reality (Žižek and Daly 2003). For Laclau, one of the most ‘original features’ of the ‘Slovenian Lacanian school’ is its ‘insistent reference to the ideological-political field’ as well as its outline of ‘the main characteristics of radical democratic struggles in Eastern European societies’ (Laclau 1989: x). In the latter case, Laclau also describes how such a Lacanian perspective has been one of the principal reference points of the ‘so-called Slovenia Spring, that is to say the democratisation campaigns that have taken place in recent years’ (Laclau 1989: xiv). This dovetails with our analysis in Chapter 1 and the commentaries of Močnik (1993) and Gantar (1993), among others. Finally, Laclau foregrounds the crucial importance of this understanding of the Ljubljana school, not simply within Slovenia, but more broadly in terms of the ‘democratic socialist project in a post-Marxist age’: ‘for those interested in the elaboration of a theoretical perspective that seeks to address the problems of constructing a democratic socialist political project in a post-Marxist age, it is essential reading’ (Laclau 1989: xv).

At the end of Chapter 2, we discussed how the ideology critique became transformed (and more oblique) as we moved from punk through to the later alternative culture in Slovenia of the Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) (Monroe 2005; Dolar 2003). This evolution of the concept also affects the approach of the Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis and especially the work of Žižek in this respect (Žižek 1989, 1992a, 2008b). Žižek’s own analysis of ideology shows some level of transformation as it develops from 1989 onwards. Already in 1989, Žižek was signalling an important move away from the ‘false consciousness’ notion of ideology: ‘ideology is not simply false consciousness as an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived of as ideological; ideology is a social reality whose very existence implies the nonknowledge of its participants as to its sense’ (Žižek 1989: 21). In his introduction to his edited volume Mapping Ideology (Žižek 1994a), entitled ‘The Spectre of Ideology’ (Žižek 1994b), Žižek continues to argue for the ‘pertinence’ of the notion of ideology: ‘we are within ideological space proper the moment (whether true or false) a content is functional with regard to some relation of social domination (“power”, “exploitation”) in an inherently nontransparent way’ (Žižek 1994b).

We can also trace Žižek’s understanding of the concept of ideology through different versions of the same text, showing significant variations, most especially the paradigmatic Žižekian text Enjoy Your Symptom: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (Žižek 1992a). Originally published in 1992, the successive versions of this text show a transformed and evolving notion of ideology, also as it relates to connecting Lacanian (and Marxist) notions such as ‘fetish’ and ‘symptom’ itself (the latter being a particularly ‘slippery’ concept in Lacan). First, in 2001, the second edition of Enjoy Your Symptom: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (Žižek 2001a) is published, including a new introduction and an additional final chapter. Then, in 2008, another version of the text is published in a different series, this time with a new preface (Žižek 2008b), entitled ‘Enjoy your Symptom – or Your Fetish?’. As the title suggests, Žižek is generating a certain ambiguity here between the original concept of ‘symptom’ and the newer concept of ‘fetish’. Can one concept replace the other in the Žižekian analysis? The related notion of ‘sinthome’ also comes to have significance in the later Lacan’s work and in Žižek’s own analysis (Bowie 1991; Dolar 1998), complicating matters further.

The crucial move here seems to be away from a conception of ideology which sees the latter as a resolvable problematic to a notion of ideology where a certain ‘deadlock’ must be borne, both at the subject level and at the societal level. For example, the conception of ‘fetish’ is described as follows in its difference from the ‘symptom’, this from the 2008 preface: ‘Fetish is effectively the reversal of the symptom; that is to say, symptom is the exception which disturbs the surface of the false appearance; the point at which the repressed other scene erupts. While fetish is the embodiment of the lie which enables us to sustain the unbearable truth’ (Žižek 2008a: ix). Here, we might also remember the rereading of the ‘symptom’ in the Punk Problemi situation which Dolar and Žižek put forward in 1981–82 in Ljubljana (Žižek 1981; Žižek et al. 1984; Dolar 1982). Although each of these successive notions can be seen as Lacanian (and indeed Freudian), there is also a strong connection back to the Marxist understanding of these concepts (as Žižek [1989] notes in The Sublime Object of Ideology, ‘How Marx Invented the Symptom’).

In his most recent text, however, Žižek has described some of Lacan’s final efforts to resolve the issues around ideology and the ‘sinthome’ as a ‘failure’, signalling perhaps a new direction yet again for Žižek and the Ljubljana school on this topic. As Žižek notes there: ‘Seminar XX [Encore] stands for his ultimate achievement and deadlock; . . . in the years after, he desperately concocted different ways out [the sinthome, knots etc] all of which failed; so where do we stand now?’ (Žižek 2012a: 18). We will return to the problematic of a possible ‘new direction’ in the Epilogue.

The core of the Freudian revolution

This question of conceptual and philosophical inheritance is, of course, always a crucial matter for Žižek. Lacan spoke of a ‘return to Freud’ and we can see in the respective interviews how the allegiance to an ‘orthodox Lacanianism’ (Dolar et al. 2014; Žižek et al. 2014) is more than merely polemical posturing. For both Žižek and Dolar, as later for Zupančič, this kind of approach in philosophy allows one a ‘positioning’, a comportment philosophically in the world towards existence and politics, in a way that for example, it is claimed, Derrida’s deconstruction undermines (Žižek et al. 2014). Whether the accusation of an aimless drifting is true of Derrida or not (we should remember that one of Lacan’s synonyms for Freud’s ‘Trieb’ or ‘drive’ is dérive or ‘drift’ [Lacan 1994]), nonetheless it is clear, on the other side, that the kind of Lacanian orthodoxy described does not signal sterility or philosophical passivity. Quite the contrary, and we have already seen Dolar’s far more positive explication of such ‘orthodoxy’ in the phrase ‘orthodoxy is transformation’ (Dolar et al. 2014).

Although this is a characteristic of each of the key members of the Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis in turn, in Žižek’s case, the question of a very particular ‘style’ of writing and exposition has become a trademark. We might again say that this is completely in keeping with the Lacanian inheritance in the measure to which Lacan’s texts are infamously ‘difficult’ and seemingly wilfully obscure, to the chagrin of many commentators. Even Derrida, his own work famous for such abstruseness, points the finger at Lacan for a kind of neglectful or destructive obscurantism (Muller and Richardson 1988; Hurst 2008; Derrida 1987) in his critique of Lacanianism, ‘The Purveyor of Truth’ (Derrida 1987). Here, we can certainly place Lacan’s philosophical-poetic style in a subversive tradition which Charles Taylor has referred to as the ‘immanent Counter-Enlightenment’ in French literature, the poet maudits or damned poets, such as Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Lautréamont and Mallarmé espousing an ‘immanent transcendence’ (Taylor 2007). We have seen, in the previous chapter, Dolar foreground these ‘philosopher-poets’ as crucial in the reception of the journal Tel Quel and the early influence of ‘French Structuralism’ in Ljubljana, during the late 1960s and early 1970s. These poets vehemently reject the rationalism of the Enlightenment and instead revive a mystical tradition (at least in aesthetics) with a focus on the irrational, sin and thanatology.

We might see Žižek, without much difficulty, in a similar lineage. For example, in this context, it is not surprising that one of Lacan’s more obscure texts ‘Kant with Sade’, originally a preface for a new edition of Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom (Sade 1980), has come to play such a key role for Žižek’s reading of Lacanianism (it will also have a significant impact on Zupančič’s reading of a new ‘ethics of the Real’ [Zupančič 2000]). Susan Sontag’s seminal essay ‘The Pornographic Imagination’ (Sontag 2001) is especially important here for an understanding of the twentieth-century rereading of Sade, coming through the dissident surrealism of Bataille and Klossowski, as we discussed in Chapter 2 (Macey 1988). Again, we can note here the significance of this Bataille reading for Lacan’s conception of ‘jouissance’ or ‘enjoyment’ (Lacan 1998), as well as on the wider (and radicalized) reading of sexuality in Seminar XX, On Feminine Sexuality. The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972–1973. ENCORE. (Lacan 1998), perhaps the key Lacanian seminar for Žižek which I will return to in the following section. Clearly, there is a powerful (if underplayed) Bataillean and more generally, surrealistic inheritance in Žižek, via a ‘return to Lacan’. Žižek admits as much, for example, in The Plague of Fantasies (Žižek 1997) when he says, ‘the Surrealists also practiced traversing the fantasy’ (Žižek 1997: 84).

But what of Žižek’s relation to either Freud or Lacan? Some commentators, for example Kay (2003), have played down the Freudian connection to Žižek. Kay argues that, in many respects, Žižek bypasses Freud and goes directly to influences from Hegel to Lacan. There is some truth in this hypothesis and certainly, one can argue that there is a lesser Freudian emphasis in Žižek’s work than in the work of either Dolar or Zupančič. However, one can overstate the case too, to the neglect of specific and important Freudian aspects. After all, Lacan by his own estimation always remained a ‘Freudian’ (and ‘not a Lacanian’ [Bowie 1991]). Consequently, there remain important relations of intellectual dependency here. Certainly, as with Dolar et al. (2014), there is a significant debt to be paid to Civilisation and Its Discontents (Freud 2002a), which, for example, in the introduction to The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (Seminar VII), Lacan cites as the most influential Freudian text on his own work (Lacan 1992). Unsurprisingly, Lacan explicitly mentions the concept of the ‘death drive’ as the key Freudian concept and this notion has played an increasingly important role for Žižek in terms of his reading of the matrix of ideology, fetish and symptom (Žižek 1989, 1992a, 2008b). We will see how this ‘death drive’ also relates crucially to perhaps Žižek’s most central of concepts, the concept of the Real (Žižek and Daly 2003), an originally Lacanian concept.

At the beginning, for example, of his introductory text on (‘How To Read’) Lacan from 2006 (Žižek 2006a), Žižek directly addresses this problem of how the ‘Freudian picture’ might now be seen, in the twenty-first century, as somewhat outdated. As he notes, ‘the Freudian picture seems outmoded today when the Freudian image of a society and social norms which repress the individual’s sexual drives no longer seems a valid account of today’s predominant hedonistic permissiveness’ (Žižek 2006: 3). Here, Žižek is keen to argue against such a view of the obsolescence of psychoanalysis and instead precisely claims that ‘it is only today that the time of psychoanalysis has come’ (Žižek 2006: 2). Crucially, for our purposes, he also connects this defence of psychoanalysis specifically to ‘Lacan’s return to Freud’, which he understands not ‘as a return to what Freud said but to the core of the Freudian revolution of which Freud himself was not fully aware’ (Žižek 2006: 2).

At a meta-level of interpretation, this again demonstrates the complexity of the concepts of ‘return’ or ‘orthodoxy’ for both Žižek and the wider Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis. In Žižek’s important text The Plague of Fantasies, he invokes a metaphor of the Derridean critic Paul de Man to explicate this issue, with his notion of ‘reading as disfiguration’ (Žižek 1997: 95), which he takes from the text The Rhetoric of Romanticism (Žižek 1997: 95). In a suitably adept aside, actively rereading one of the great mottos of Marx from ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ (Marx 1992a), Žižek says ‘one is thus tempted to say that the motto of the Lacanian reading of Hegel is: “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted Hegel; the point is also to change him”’ (Žižek 1997: 95). Again, we might see this approach as characteristic of Dolar and Zupančič’s mode of Lacanian interpretation. It is also an accurate description of Lacan’s hermeneutic relation to the history of philosophy, as well as his interpretative relation (paradigmatically) to Freud and the more orthodox tradition of psychoanalysis (Lacan 2008).

Lacan, then and now

What can we say about the specifics, then, of Žižek’s own reading of Lacanianism? As with Dolar and Zupančič, there is a strong influence of three of the main Lacan seminars on Žižek. First, Seminar VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (Lacan 1992) constitutes the starting point for much of Žižek’s work on the critique of happiness and the break with the Aristotelian understanding of being. Yet, it also allows the foregrounding of a notion of the ethical which must disavow the superego pathologies of the Good (in Freudian terms, a pathological ‘infantile solution to infant problems’ [Bowie 1991]) and instead ground itself in the ‘erotic’ (Lacan 1992). De Kesel’s (2009) Eros And Ethics brilliantly contextualizes this appeal to an erotic ethics as critiquing Aristotelianism through a recourse to Platonic Eros, most notably to the dialogue The Symposium (Plato 1961). We will see this dialogue become crucially important also for Zupančič in her most recent work on ethics, comedy and eroticism (Zupančič 2008a). For Žižek, in relation to the discussion of ethics, the aforementioned Lacan essay ‘Kant with Sade’ (Lacan 2002b) similarly plays a key role. In Žižek’s most recent work, however, the monumental Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Žižek 2012a), there is an attempted move away from the ethical towards the ‘political’. The extended conclusion is entitled ‘The Political Suspension of the Ethical’ (Žižek 2012a), and Žižek here draws on the work of the ‘Party Troika’ (e.g., one of Dolar’s most recent texts in Slovenian), to indicate that this move towards the political is a generalized move of the Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis. I will return to this important problematic in the Epilogue.

In brief, we can also mention two of the other Lacan seminars as especially influential on Žižek’s philosophical trajectory, namely, Seminars XI and XX (Lacan 1994, 1998). With regard to Seminar XI, alongside the key notion of ‘drive’, what Lacan calls the ‘encounter with the Real’ becomes especially important. In The Plague of Fantasies, Žižek defines the ‘Real’ as follows: ‘the hard traumatic reality which resists symbolisation’ (Žižek 1997: 157). Žižek, at this point, follows the analysis of the ‘Real’ in Lacan’s Seminar XI (Lacan 1994) on The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. There, Lacan introduces this fundamentally ‘elusive’ notion (drawing on the Aristotelian concept of ‘tuche’ or ‘luck’) in order to redirect psychoanalysis away from a tendency towards misguided ‘idealism’: ‘I wish to stress here that at first sight psychoanalysis seems to lead in the direction of idealism; [rather] . . . no praxis is more orientated towards that which, at the heart of experience, is the kernel of the real than psychoanalysis’ (Lacan 1994).

The originality of Žižek’s approach is that he develops the notion of the ‘Real’ as central to his philosophical analysis, not simply in relation to Seminar XI but also, perhaps more importantly in relation to the famously enigmatic Lacan Seminar XX, entitled ‘Encore’ (Lacan 1998): On Feminine Sexuality. The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972–1973. ENCORE. This amalgamation of the two perspectives leads Žižek to a notion of the ‘Real of sexual difference’ (Žižek 2002), developing some of Lacan’s most infamous (and least understood) principles from Seminar XX. These include such psychoanalytical principles as ‘Woman does not exist’, ‘There is no such thing as the sexual relationship’ and ‘Love is giving what one does not have to someone who doesn’t want it’ (Žižek 2002; Bernard 2002). These conceptions remain some of the most elusive (and also controversial) tenets of Lacan, Žižek and the Ljubljana troika’s philosophical approach to psychoanalysis. We might also say that these notions remain some of the least developed of the conceptions under scrutiny. The interviews with Žižek and Zupančič touch on their import (and controversy) to some extent. The important Appendix to Zupančič’s text The Odd One In: On Comedy (Zupančič 2008a) is the most systematic and interesting attempt to come to terms with these issues, focusing on the concept or phenomenon of ‘Eros’ or ‘love’ as it potentially allows for the ‘sublimation’ of the death drive in a non-repressive way. We will return to this discussion in the next chapter.

We might conclude by returning to the Ljubljana context of Chapter 1, and the various important commentaries in Slovenia on the evolving political and cultural situation as it developed through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s (Močnik 1993; Gantar 1993). As Močnik argues strongly, the Lacanian orientation makes the ‘breakthrough’ after the (French structuralist) ‘impasse’, and we have seen that Žižek was perhaps one of the main figures (alongside Dolar) in the struggles between state socialism, the (dissident) intellectuals and the alternative culture, in what would eventually lead to what Laclau refers to as the ‘Slovenia Spring’ (Laclau 1989). In the following interview, we discuss the genealogy of these events with Žižek, all the way back to the 1970s. We will see how he foregrounds both the more personal and the more conceptual (Lacanian) strands to this story and how he comes back, in his conclusion, to the abiding importance of this ‘troika’ of thinkers.

‘From Lacan to Hegel’ – Interview with Slavoj Žižek

Helena Motoh and Jones Irwin: Slovenia has been described (for example, by Alexei Monroe) as having a markedly problematic genealogy in terms of nationhood and cultural independence. Can you say if and how this problematical genealogy might be seen as affecting your own work and how significant it is for you that you are seen as a ‘Slovenian’ philosopher or part of a ‘Slovenian school’ of philosophy?

Slavoj Žižek: Let me say first of all that this is totally unimportant, this Slovenian national identity or context, or at least it is unimportant in at least one significant sense. That is, we never set out to be identified as Slovenian. Perhaps however, as we will see, the Ljubljana connection is more important to us. But what we can say in terms of being Slovenian is that we were lucky, all of us Slovenian thinkers and philosophers, both vis-à-vis the West and vis-à-vis the East. Why? Because it gave us a clear sense of what was going on in Yugoslavia, behind the illusions. We had no illusions about the great project of Tito’s Yugoslavia, non-alignment and so on. This differentiated us first of all from those Western intellectuals, including ones we were and are deeply allied to such as Badiou, who precisely did foster and in some ways still do foster illusions shall we say about what was going on. This ‘ideology’ (it is a kind of Western leftist construct of the ‘East’) continues to affect their thinking on matters political, more globally. Second, we will also see how it distinguishes our thinking from within Yugoslavia, for example, in contrast to those thinkers in the Praxis school. If you are looking to pinpoint the specifics of the Slovenian situation philosophically, and I agree that there are specific elements such as Lacanianism in its idiosyncratic form here (Močnik 1993), well this may have something to do with the political context. You also see it, the ‘Slovene Lacan’, in the NSK and Laibach, not simply in philosophy or psychoanalysis. The main thing to note here was that we were far more Westernized (in the hybrid sense), I would say, than the other federal members and certainly than any countries in the Soviet Union. Mladen (Dolar) says somewhere, for example, ‘you cannot pretend that we were Czechoslovakia’. We had much more freedom of movement and access to the West, simply. I am talking about the 1960s and 1970s, although there were different periods here, phases of liberalization, phases of repression, and sometimes economic liberalization might be accompanied by sociopolitical repressions, and vice versa. One aspect of this of course, if you are thinking of the Ljubljana school, Dolar and I but also others early on such as Močnik, is that we could study in France without having to go into exile, like many Eastern bloc intellectuals we might mention. So, this notion of the ‘East’, of ‘Eastern Europe’ is often used far too reductively in the West, not taking account of the local differentiations. Mladen has an essay ‘Yugoslavia was Structured as the Unconscious’ which captures this well, the dual sense of the specific and peculiar dynamics but also the ‘exoticisation’ of the Balkans, in Freud and succeeding thought (Dolar 1989). This was also happening through the 1990s when I kept getting asked to write about this Western perception of ‘tribal wars’ in the Balkans, as if this Balkan Other was a kind of ‘id’. This also applies to the concept of (Eastern) ‘state socialism’ and this is a big part of our evolution, the Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis (as it is called), in terms of the problematic of ideology, for example. I wrote an article on this, for example, in The New Left Review (this was later developed as Žižek 2007d).

Perhaps, I can say more about this lucky aspect of our history. Here, of course, I am speaking primarily of the generation of myself and Mladen and not so much of the generation after – Alenka (Zupančič) would have to speak to this specificity more. Our generation, studying in Ljubljana in the late 1960s, was the generation on the cusp of the explosion of French structuralism as a form of thinking. We entered university just before this took place which was in effect here in Slovenia in the early 1970s (we had entered university to study philosophy in the late 1960s). Of course, there might be an assumption abroad that, before this, Slovenia would have been simply designated intellectually or philosophically as Marxist in some traditionalist or even positivistic (scientific etc.) sense, but this certainly was not the case. Presaging the later explosion of French structuralism was an earlier version of Marxism which we can describe as a version of the Frankfurt school approach. Here again, what we can also discount is the myth of a unified Yugoslavia, philosophically. Rather, if the Frankfurt school and, for want of a better term, its ‘humanist Marxism’ (Marcuse etc.), could be seen as central to Slovenian thinking at the time, significantly in Croatia it was rather Heideggerianism which held sway. In Serbia, it was then again analytical philosophy which held sway, in Bosnia something else, consequently here we see the complexity of the internal differentiations to begin with, within the bigger ambit of the Yugoslav project. This is not even mentioning the complex political differentiations, the distinctions of the so-called civil society, and later this notion of ‘civil society’ will be a contested term with the dynamic with ‘alternative culture’, the punk movement, NSK etc. (Gantar 1993; Motoh 2012). So, that’s the context, the overlying background, but then what? Next comes the explosion of what we can call broadly ‘French structuralism’ (I’m thinking here, for example of the influence and example of the Tel Quel journal but also the wider tradition of Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva etc.). This latter became really influential on this younger group of philosophy students in the late 1960s at Ljubljana.

Helena Motoh and Jones Irwin: Can you develop this thematic in a little more detail, as to how exactly this notion of French structuralism came to influence your thinking in the early stages, and the place of the more specific figure of Lacan in this intellectual trajectory?

Slavoj Žižek: Perhaps surprisingly the two hegemonic philosophical schools in Slovenia at the time, previously fierce opponents, that is, the Frankfurt school on the one side and Heideggerianism on the other, start to speak the same language so as to precisely oppose this new birth of French structuralism. So this is where we come in, Mladen and I and a host of other thinkers in the 1970s’ era in Ljubljana. We were defending or following the French explosion of thought in contradistinction to this unholy official alliance of Heideggerianism and the Frankfurt school theorists. In the mid to late 1970s, we get this genesis of a new way of thinking here which of course will evolve and transform and that is in effect your story, the story you want to tell, the story of the so-called Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis, or as I prefer to see it, our ‘party troika’ of Mladen, Alenka and I. Our thinking at the time was then preoccupied with the new French thinkers we were translating into Slovenian obsessively and so on, but it was also not myopic to the past. It had a clear genealogical line back to Hegel and Marx, in particular. Even then, this was certainly the case and it is not simply a more recent development, the link of Lacan and Hegelian–Marxism. And it wasn’t homogeneous either, certainly not across the broad spectrum of Slovenian thinkers represented, but even in our own group, between Mladen and I at the time (there were differences).

How would I characterize this? In the first instance, Mladen was more Marxist then I at the beginning (and nowadays let me say I think fairly that he is less Marxist than I). Similarly with Alenka, if we are thinking of some internal differentiation within our so-called troika, we can say that Alenka is also less Marxist than my own thought. My own work has certainly become more overtly political, although one can trace all these political battles through the 1970s and the 1980s, the Problemi issues, for example, and then later the NSK and the democracy/independence movement etc. This is a theme we can return to later when we explore the more contemporary developments of the thinking and the more recent evolutions of our thought. Just recently, there are changes, perhaps a sense of the limitations of the approaches used. I articulate, for example, some of these contemporary problematics, they are political and philosophical, in my new book on Hegel, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Žižek 2012a). Within our troika, we have, I think it is fair to say, an internally differentiated politics, although we should not overplay the difference. They, Alenka and Mladen, are not as attracted to the notion, for example, of ‘communism’ as I am.

But let me return to the genealogy which I was outlining, and which I think is significant for our story. This is not just a story about Slovenia or an intra-Slovenian issue of course, as precisely our mobility, our ability to travel, is part of the story. In 1969, when I was 20/21, I went to France, Mladen went there first in the mid-1970s I think, and we would both have significant relations to the milieu of French thinking, not just from outside but also from within our experience of the French system, not just intellectually but politically also. This of course will also continue with Alenka’s trajectory, who like us goes to France, in her case to study with Badiou at St Denis. Mladen and I had studied with (Jacques-Alain) Miller in Paris, and had connections to the earlier department at Vincennes before they moved to St Denis. There is a very particular story attaching to that department at Vincennes (and the difficult relations with the philosophy department, Deleuze and Lyotard etc.). The Department of Psychoanalysis had Judith Lacan alongside Miller so this is a rather protracted history here, in terms of its problematicity.

Originally in the 1970s certainly, as I mentioned earlier, we would have been influenced by the wider gambit of French structuralism, understood broadly and therefore including figures such as Lyotard and Deleuze. Lacan, we might say, was already in the mix then but as one thinker among the many. As with the others, we would have translated Lacan into Slovenian, during this period. Not the least interesting aspect of this history is the way we move from the wider unity of French structuralism to the more specific orthodox Lacanian orientation. But, second, we should also note how there are significant schisms between, for example, Deleuze and Lacan, Derrida and Lacan etc. But Miller certainly was key for us in the early 1980s, especially in our experience of working with him closely on his reading of Lacanian thought. Just as there are clear differentiations to be made within the neo-Freudian schools of thought – I have referred, for example, in The Sublime Object of Ideology to ‘psychoanalytical essentialism’ in relation to Marcuse’s thought, not to mention ego psychology (Žižek 1989), so too we can differentiate between different Lacanian readings. One aspect of Miller’s reading is his emphasis on the later Lacan (although not in an exclusionary sense) and also his emphasis on the concept of the ‘Real’. His close readings of Lacan were formative for us, beyond doubt; this is why we refer to ourselves as orthodox Lacanians. In my case, I would take a class of 4 hours a week with Miller in Paris. I would describe his reading as as close as possible to a ‘miracle’. Miller was a magician in my eyes, still is and remains so for us. That said, we have also looked beyond Millerian Lacanianism in our thought, quite obviously. But the original influence remains intact and significant in a perennial way, throughout our thinking and theoretical production.

So there is the issue of the internal reading of Lacan within or from within Lacanian circles, and here I am speaking of Miller. But of course there is also and perhaps more importantly the meta-level question of ‘why Lacan at all?’. Or more accurately, why Lacan specifically?. To explicate this, I can say that, in the late 1970s, Lacan was the closest thing one could get to an authentic religious experience! Lacan was the real ‘thing’, although we flirted also of course with Kristeva, among others. Let’s get this straight then. We embraced a certain ‘unity in difference’ of French structuralism to take us out of the hegemony in those days shared between Heideggerianism and the Frankfurt school or Praxis school in Yugoslavia. But why did we move beyond French structuralism towards a singular Lacanian (orthodox) interpretation? We would say that it was the Lacanian reading of the concept of the ‘subject’ which was irreducible and key for us, at this time (perhaps later, we can say other concepts became more important). This needs to be emphasized; it was the reading of the ‘subject’ which was key for us, unequivocally. It was what differentiated Lacan from structuralism proper but also from more obviously post-structuralist thinkers such as Derrida.

Lacan, in this sense, is neither structuralist nor post-structuralist – we here start to jettison those terms, not to mention the overused concept of ‘postmodernist’. And, of course, there is a key political dimension to this foregrounding of the concept of the notion of ‘subject’. We can see this, for example, in Badiou’s taking up of Lacan and in the work of Alenka, as well as in Peter Hallward’s work, among others. But it is also key if we want to keep our eyes on the Slovenian specifics of the political mobilization. In many respects, the notion of ‘subject’ was indispensable here, insofar as it points beyond a simple or completely determining notion of ideology and the impossibility of resistance etc. Here, we can think of all the issues around the Althusserian ‘subjectless structure’, not so much before but after 1968, as by leaving the ‘subject’ out of the equation, there could be no explanation or justification for what happened in 1968 (which led to the early 1970 critiques from the ex-Althusserians, for example Badiou, centred on a reintroduction of a concept of ‘subject’).

Another way into this thematic is to make the distinction between the respective concepts of ‘productivity’ and ‘representation’, which divide a generation of French thinkers. Deleuze spoke of productivity and Derrida spoke of the closure of representation, for example, paradigmatically in his Writing and Difference texts. To some extent, at least, I think Badiou remains within this problematic. However, Lacan went beyond this distinction and the best way to see this is in terms of Lacan going back to Hegel and Marx. I might even say here that Hegel is more materialist than Marx (Balibar [2007], for example, makes a similar claim in his recent book on Marx). Hegel is undoubtedly closer to Lacan than Marx is on this. Marx remains caught within a more traditional notion of representation, for example, in his notion of ‘alienation’ (Lacan supersedes the notion of ‘alienation’ in his earlier texts with his later notion of ‘separation’). I take up these issues and problems in Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism.

But, again, we would need to take stock here a little more. Nothing is simple in this zone of interpretation and we must be patient conceptually at all times. For example, it is clear that when we speak of Lacan being close to Hegel, that we are not talking strictly at all about Lacan’s reading of Hegel, that is the reading through the influence of the Kojève seminars on the Phenomenology of Spirit. No. This is one of the dilemmas of reading Hegel through a Lacanian lens, that you can’t depend on Lacan. We have to take it as an axiom that Lacan’s own reading of Hegel is fundamentally misguided. Lacan gets Hegel wrong, perhaps even very wrong. This also isn’t just down to Kojève but to some aspects of the internal dynamics of Lacan’s own evolution as a thinker (the influence of surrealism, for example, or the surrealist Hegel). What we must say, then, is that Lacan is more authentically Hegelian when he is being (as he sees it) anti-Hegelian. Again, we can trace several different movements in Lacan’s own itinerary of thought, early to late, from the 1950s, for example, through the 1960s and right up to his final works. As a troika, I think we tend to agree with Badiou that Lacan’s later works are perhaps the strongest conceptually, also however the most enigmatic. In the 1950s and into the early 1960s, for the most part, Lacan is closer to Kant, ‘Kant with Sade’ etc. And, of course, this line of Lacan and Kant has been taken up very fruitfully (and insightfully) by Alenka in her readings of philosophy (Zupančič 2000). It is really only later Lacan becomes authentically Hegelian.

Helena Motoh and Jones Irwin: In the late 1970s, for both your work and that of Dolar, a specific kind of Lacanianism becomes key. You have spoken of some of the history and personal dimension of this story. Can you clarify how and why Lacan became the key intellectual influence from a more avowedly conceptual perspective. What in other words for you are the key Lacanian concepts of importance?

Slavoj Žižek: I have spoken of structuralism as the initial influence understood in the broad sense and how that very structuralism acted as a midway point between, on the one hand, Heideggerianism and on the other, a leftist Praxis school influenced by the Frankfurt school more generally of course. But, as we developed our thinking through the 1970s and especially the Parisian influence of Miller’s readings, we came to see the Lacanian perspective as quite singular in relation to the influence of the wider structuralism. It is this distinctiveness, as we saw it, of Lacan within the structuralist movement which led us to emphasize his work specifically and to seek to develop a Lacanian orthodoxy of our own. With regard to the question of structuralism, it is clear, for example, that this was no unified group, apart from Lacan. There were significant and important differences between Althusser, Foucault, Lévi-Strauss and between the Tel Quel group, for example, between Derrida and Kristeva.

Perhaps I can tell an old Soviet joke here to exemplify why Lacan became important. The key to the joke is that in the Soviet times, Lenin’s famous phrase was ‘learn, learn and learn’ and this was the motto in all the schools, and so on. But the joke goes that Lenin, Marx and Engels were once asked would they prefer a wife or a mistress? Marx, being a traditionalist in private matters, said he would opt for a wife. Engels being the dandy said he would opt for the mistress. Lenin said he would opt for the wife and mistress combination. Why? Because, Lenin said, he could tell the wife he was with the mistress and tell the mistress he was with the wife, and then he could go alone to the library or wherever, and of course there he could ‘learn, learn and learn’. It was like this with us and Lacan. We told the Althusserians we were with the Derrideans and the Derrideans we were with the Althusserians, but we went with Lacan, alone as it were. Why? Because he allowed us the wife and the mistress, the both/and, not just the either/or. And with him, we could ‘learn, learn and learn’!

Lacan alone, a singular Lacanianism, allowed us to develop a particular set of concepts. The concepts which were key here were myriad. But first, for me at least, was the concept of the ‘Real’ certainly. Here, we had the chance of a certain reference to a notion of the ‘Real’ but obviously avoiding the simplifications of a more traditional philosophical or even metaphysical realism. Lacan speaks to this strongly in Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (Lacan 1994), with reference surprisingly for some to Aristotle’s notion of ‘tuche’. We should also note here the significance of Lacan’s transfiguration of the traditional ‘object’ in philosophy or ‘object relations’ in psychoanalysis. Lacan’s ‘Real’ represents an ‘object’ which is not an object in any ontological sense; there is an ontological impasse here, which is one of the key claims of psychoanalysis.

Here, Hegel was closer to Lacan than Marx in that Lacan’s materialism was less ‘realist’ in a universal sense. Here, as Lacanians, and as a troika, we sought to repeat but also go beyond Hegel. We might say as our motto, the Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis: ‘Philosophers up to now have only interpreted Hegel. The point however is to change him’. So what was it about Hegel’s philosophical reading of reality and the relation to Lacan that was so important for us? As I’ve clarified before, Lacan’s actual reading of Hegel was a misinterpretation but what we are saying here is that Lacan’s own philosophy was closer to Hegel’s philosophy than Lacan actually realized. So, in this sense, we are also going against a certain Lacanian reading of Hegel. We are authentic Lacanians on this question, contra Lacan who was an inauthentic Lacanian on the question of Hegel. Although just to complicate matters further, Lacan, in fact, always said he was a Freudian and never a Lacanian. This is not some simple abstract (or academicized) use of Hegel or Hegelianism for its own sake but it is an inherently politicized reading of Hegel which contrasts Hegel with Marx most especially, where we view Hegel as more productive politically in his reading of capitalism (and the critique of ideology) than in effect Marx ultimately was. Why and how can Hegel speak to the crisis of contemporary capitalism, this crisis being another thematic of our work?

There is, we can say, a radical Left impotence in the current moment. Here, also of course, the concept of ideology is key and we know how this notion has evolved in the Marxist tradition most especially. Our reading of ideology is also somewhat distinctive. We assert a Lacanian pessimism of the obstacle as a positive condition of possibility. Marx in this sense was too utopian. The second main difference which we can delineate here between Hegel and Marx is the issue of necessity versus contingency. Briefly put, we can say that Marx is far too determinist. Even in his least determinist moments, of a more subtle notion of the progressive movement of history and the sense of historical agency, there is it seems to me, from a certain Hegelian perspective, too much of an idealist position being maintained in Marx. With Hegel instead, on my reading, and more broadly the reading of the troika, we have a concept of radical (political-economic) contingency. Again, this reading is central to Lacan and the importance for us of Lacan vis-à-vis the other thinkers in the structuralist tradition. We could trace this through a more complex reading of Hegel which we get in French philosophy in the twentieth century, beginning with Kojève and the way that Lacan takes up a perspective rooted in Kojève on Hegel and is misguided by that, misdirected by it. But of course in the Kojèvian reading of Hegel there is also something true, that is the tragic dimension, a step further into despair. This concept of despair or its equivalent will be important for both Hegel and Lacan.

Helena Motoh and Jones Irwin: Beyond the clear Hegelian influence which you delineate here, can you say something about the other key concepts and thinkers which contribute to your Lacanianism? Additionally, can you contextualize these conceptual influences in relation to the troika of thinkers in Ljubljana as a whole, drawing out their similarities and difference?

Slavoj Žižek: The range of influences on my own thought are complex and on the troika as a whole more complex again and more differentiated. That said, what draws our project and indeed the project of your book together is precisely this sense of a ‘unity in difference’. Let me say something first about the nature of philosophical influence on my own thinking. In no particular order, I might first mention here the figure of Pascal. In recent times, the theological dimension has become important in my work, not to defend the tradition but as a tradition which one must go through to understand concepts such as belief etc., which in today’s culture have such a superficial and over-hasty understanding. There is a notion of subjectivity in Pascal (alongside his important conception of belief per se) which becomes important for my own thinking in relation to Lacan’s notion of the subject. This conception of the subject is also linked to radical thought and political struggle, for example, in the twentieth century and also in our more recent developments. In another recent short text On the Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Žižek 2012b), I explore some of these recent developments of resistance movements, through, for example, the ‘Arab Spring’ and the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. Thus, the notion of ideology critique remains pertinent here although it needs to move away from such vulgarized versions of false consciousness or related notions which can still be present on the Left. This is where Lacanianism can make a contribution with its more nuanced critique of ideology.

Certainly, the critique of ideology becomes more and more oblique and we see this, for example, in Slovenia before independence in the shape of the NSK, and especially Laibach, who really did succeed in becoming ‘unbearable’ (as many commentators claimed at the time) with their ‘strategies of dissidence’. I followed their trajectory in several texts, moving on from the original defence of their work as not amenable to the ridiculous accusation of ‘fascism’ or ‘neo-Nazism’ thrown at them by the state (in ‘Why Laibach and the Neue Slowenische Kunst Are Not Fascists’ [Žižek 2007c]). Of course, all of this ‘neo-Nazi’ witch-hunt was really just a repetition of the earlier accusations of ‘fascism’ made against punk in Ljubljana in 1981–83 and the so-called Punk Problemi affair, and so on (Žižek 1981; Dolar 1982). In another text, I relate what the NSK did to what Freud calls ‘acheronta movebo’, or precisely ‘moving the underground’ (which he uses in The Interpretation of Dreams text). This shows the connectivity between NSK and Freud, and how the ideology critique that was adopted in Slovenia against the state socialism needed the psychoanalytical perspective. Yes, as I make clear in The Sublime Object of Ideology, ‘Marx invented the symptom’. But ‘dogmatic’ Marxism, as we used to call it, was using this conception in a very repressive way. We need to read the Marxist symptom in the context of Freud and Lacan, and this is what I have done successively in my texts. With the NSK, one also sees that this Lacanianism is something perhaps ‘peculiar’ in Slovenia. It emerged as a precise delineation not just for Mladen and I but for a whole grouping of thinkers, activists and artists like NSK. Močnik, also a Lacanian in his own right, and one of our grouping through the years, has written about this as a Lacanian ‘breakthrough’ (Močnik 1993). I have spoken about it already as emerging from within an allegiance to a more generalized French structuralist orientation. But I have also indicated the struggles (the philosophical ones too) which we had to come through, at the Department of Philosophy in Ljubljana, for example (this continues until today). I was unemployed for many years as the state socialism did not want me to teach, did not want me in a position of influence. Why? Again, you can trace this back to my Master’s thesis and having to write an extra chapter on the ‘relation to Marxism’. In effect, this is exactly the instantiation of the distinction between dogmatic and non-dogmatic Marxism which we foregrounded in the 1980s (Žižek 1981). Here, the notion of symptom which the system was using (i.e., ‘punk is a symptom’, ‘Lacan is a symptom’ etc.), this had to be turned back against the system itself so that the very diagnostic the system put forward was a symptom of its own malaise. But how to say this in the language of, for example, dogmatic Marxism? It was impossible in this sense to articulate. We can compare it to the way the philosophical and political journals of the time in Slovenia, were constantly having to negotiate censorship, what couldn’t be said, or how to say what couldn’t be said in a different way. Anyway, some of us ended up in court, Mladen as the editor was charged and fined. But here as well you have another sense to the ‘moving the underground’ idea from NSK. NSK, coming after and emerging from the embers of punk, they couldn’t approach it directly, therefore they went after the ‘obscene underlying supplement’ of the system. And they did this, of course, by taking the ideology of the system more seriously than the system ever did itself, more than they were meant to. They overidentified with the very notion of state socialism (its ideal moment) and that is what made them ‘unbearable’.

We might contrast this with Badiou’s perspective on the subject and ideology for example, which I remained unconvinced by. Politically, and remember Badiou was quite critical back in the early 1990s of some of what happened (in some ways rightly so) but also you had here the kind of Western Left perspective on the ‘East’. There is also (for all our alliances) more of a notion of determinism in Badiou, his political perspective still connecting with Maoism and so on. I would say that the political perspective being outlined here and he is not alone in this but it is more of an index of a certain thinking on the Left, is overly utopian, overly idealist as opposed to genuinely materialist and one indicative element of this is the complete lack of a critique of political economy. The perspectives on former Yugoslavia also show, I think, that ideology critique needs to be context-specific. There were incredible peculiarities at work here, as elsewhere in Yugoslavia or in the former Soviet bloc. Here, we had Tito, we had the very different and individualized federal republics, the ‘rabid’ emergence of nationalisms of all sorts, we had a strange mix of liberal and repressive, we had a complex philosophical trajectory going from Heidegger to Praxis to Lacan, and last but not least, we had the punks, FV and NSK, the ‘alternative culture’. The attempted colonization of the life world (Gantar 1993) by state socialism is key to all this, but it would be different elsewhere. This was ideology, Yugoslav style.

Helena Motoh and Jones Irwin: You have spoken about this wider context and also about your own formation as a philosopher, as a Lacanian. Can you say something more in-depth about the philosophical relations at the heart of the so-called troika: you, Dolar and Zupančič and the relations between your respective works?

Slavoj Žižek: You ask me, then, about the internal similarities and disaffinities within our troika of thinkers, myself, Mladen and Alenka. Of course, let me say first of all, we are friends, we are great friends, the three of us and we meet up if and when we can to talk about philosophy, when we are all in Ljubljana at the same time, not as often as we would like. Philosophy, by definition (let us not forget) is forged in friendship, in the ‘philo-’ and also there is ‘eros’ here too, love, and we know how central this is for us, from Plato’s Symposium to Lacan’s (1998) Seminar XX (On Feminine Sexuality. The Limits of Love and Knowledge).

Politically first of all, I think that it is fair to say that, from an ideological perspective, Alenka and I are the hardliners. Mladen is shall we say politically softer than either of us. I’ve already mentioned this, for example, in terms of the take-up of the notion of communism. In terms of the reading of Hegel which I have cited as key, absolutely key, to the evolution of our group of thinkers, I would actually say that the difference in reading is negligible if even non-existent. Mladen, as we know, is an especially strong reader of Hegel and Dolar’s work has been important in making the Hegel–Lacan affinities crucial for us as a troika, more and more. And I have already said something about the counter-intuitive aspects of all this. Lacan explicitly critiques Hegel but gets Hegel very wrong, so what he posits as his own alternative to Hegel is really Hegelianism, and so on. Certainly, the understanding of our troika as being focused on the Lacan–Hegel relation has been long in coming, but perhaps this is also as some of the earlier texts in Slovenian were not translated. In his preface to The Sublime Object of Ideology, Laclau was already clear on the question of the Hegel interpretation being constitutive, one of our ‘original features’ as he referred to it then (Laclau 1989).

There is also significant confusion over the question of our orthodox Lacanianism. The question goes like this – ‘how can you be an orthodox Lacanian and a philosopher at the same time?’. Here, the conviction is that philosophy must always be questioning its presuppositions endlessly and therefore having a position amounts to dogmatism, is unphilosophical etc. This issue also bears on the supposedly problematic relation between psychoanalysis and philosophy. Again, the question goes something like – ‘are you a philosopher or a psychoanalyst?’. And further, there is the assertion that it must be ‘either Hegel or Lacan, never both at the same time’ as one would be a philosopher and the other from psychoanalysis, and so on. How do we respond to this? This is obviously a question for the troika of thinkers, rather than simply for me, as we are referred to as the Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis. On this reckoning, we could not be philosophers, any one of the three of us, as according to the title we subscribe to psychoanalysis. You can see how contorted the scene of interpretation becomes. But not one of us in the troika sees it like this.

I don’t like answering for Mladen and Alenka on this, but let me just make two points. The concept of the cogito is an interesting example here, a revealing example. Back in 1998, I edited a text that we all collaborated on, Cogito and the Unconscious (Žižek 1998a). Dolar wrote an essay there, a very good one, on the relation between the cogito and the Lacanian ‘subject’. Certainly, there are key differences (Lacan is not a Cartesian, doesn’t use the ‘big Other’ as a get-out clause from doubt etc.). Nevertheless, as Dolar (1998) shows very well, the ‘subject’ of psychoanalysis is nothing other than the ‘cogito’, albeit as I put it at the time, ‘with a (Lacanian) twist’. So, my key point here is that psychoanalysis as understood by Dolar does not involve some extraneous site to philosophy (as Derrida keeps talking about; a ‘nonphilosophical site’). No, the psychoanalytical conceptuality derives from (and is very much an extension of) this very philosophical tradition. One could mention so many examples, ‘Kant with Sade’ being another one. Badiou writes an interesting essay (Badiou 2006) on ‘Lacan and the Presocratics’. Aside from the individual examples, the crucial point is that psychoanalysis, while distinct from philosophy, is still very much (in our eyes at least) to be seen as a philosophical practice of thought.

I have mentioned Dolar on this and it becomes also one of Zupančič’s key themes in her recent work, for example, Why Psychoanalysis? Three Interventions (Zupančič 2008b). There, she takes several psychoanalytical concepts (cause etc.) but especially the concept of ‘sexuality’ and demonstrates that far from this being some extra site to philosophy (as it is often claimed to be) what, for example, Freud is seeking to achieve with this conception is a claim about an ‘ontological impasse’ (Zupančič 2008b). Thus, psychoanalysis, whether Freudian or Lacanian, is a thoroughgoing form of philosophical, ontological critique. And these two concepts, ‘cogito’/subject and ‘sexuality’ would be just two examples of the many concepts one could make the same case for.

But what of the ‘orthodoxy’ issue? How can one be an orthodox Lacanian? In The Plague of Fantasies, I refer this question to a metaphor from Paul de Man, of reading as a certain kind of ‘disfigurement’ or distortion (Žižek 1997). If we are, and yes we can say that authentically we are, orthodox Lacanians, this does not mean above all agreeing with everything which Lacan said, or seemed to say, or thought himself that he said. Rather, to be orthodox Lacanians, we must in effect read Lacan against Lacan. ‘Philosophers up to now have only interpreted Lacan. The point, however, is to change him’.

In terms of the troika of thinkers, you also asked what differentiates us, where do we disagree philosophically? A topic which certainly does differentiate us as more individual thinkers within the troika is Christianity and the relation to religion. Here, there is a key distinction in the readings of my own work and that of either Mladen or Alenka on religion and Christianity. It is clear that there are different phases of the relation to Christianity in my own work and it develops more fully later on, especially, for example, more recently in terms of some of my debates with John Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy movement in theology. We don’t see such a substantive relation to the theological tradition in either Dolar or Zupančič.

Certainly, in her Nietzsche book, Alenka addresses some of these topics, but in a different way from mine. Mladen takes up a position which is seemingly indifferent to some of the theological issues I deal with, and his philosophy is a more thoroughgoing atheism than mine. My claim here is not merely that I am a materialist through and through and that the surviving kernel of Christianity is accessible also to a materialist approach. My thesis is much stronger; this kernel is available only to materialist approaches and vice versa. To become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience.

That said, of course, I have argued strongly in my books on theology (for example, in The Monstrosity of Christ. Paradox or Dialectic [Žižek and Milbank 2009]), that although one ‘must go through the Christian tradition’ philosophically (e.g., Augustine, Pascal etc.), that one nonetheless emerges as what I call a ‘Christian atheist’. Atheism is the truth of Christianity, therefore I am of course far closer to either Dolar or Zupančič than I am to Milbank or Radical Orthodoxy on this question.

Helena Motoh and Jones Irwin: To return to a more biographical trajectory for a moment, you returned to Ljubljana in the late 1980s. This was also a period of great change in Slovenian society, where we might say the spirit of Vincennes lived on. Can you explain some of these developments leading up to independence for Slovenia in 1991, with special reference to some of the important Slovenian Art movements known as NSK, and also their relation to the philosophical movement which you were a part of?

Slavoj Žižek: My sense of these groups under the ambit of NSK including of course Laibach as perhaps the most infamous among them (also IRWIN) is that the kind of critique of ideology they developed was very acute and insightful at a particular moment of our history. Ljubljana being a relatively small city meant that all of these ‘alternative culture’ moments were interdependent with the intellectual culture, the philosophers etc. So, for example, I have written extensively on NSK and Laibach and earlier punk, and we know the histories of these successive conflicts in relation to the various accusations of neo-Nazism first against the punks, then against Laibach and the NSK. Also, we can trace the development of the critique of ideology from its more explicit rendering in the punk movement to the kind of implicit or more nuanced approaches later on. Two things are clear in relation to the NSK and Laibach. First, that there was no way that they were fascistic in the sense in which they were accused by the state socialist ideology. These were the ‘decaying years’ of socialism and obviously, this whole period was a kind of desperate period for the ideological maintenance. The second thing is that the NSK exploited this ‘state decay’ to its utmost, they took the ideology seriously which of course was fatal to the ideology. They enacted the truth of what the ideology claimed itself to be and in so doing demonstrated that it was empty, hollow, a mere hypocrisy. But as events evolved and developed, with 1991 and independence, the situation completely changed. Now, you had this whole opposition of nationalism on the one side and left liberalism on the other, and then the residues of communism and state socialism and their adherents. In this scenario, perhaps one can say that NSK were not as effective any more. Their contribution had been made but it was a contextual moment, or perhaps they became overly self-conscious of their role. They ceased to be an underground, an alternative culture.

On the identity question more related to me personally, my own sense of being a Slovenian is very ambiguous. I would say that I do not feel very strongly about being a Slovenian, although of course I was swept up a little in the independence movement and that moment of Slovenian independence. Still, three minutes of a movie means more to me than Slovenian independence, no two minutes (I’m serious here!). Part of the problem with independence and the break-up of Yugoslavia was the way in which everything was split (from, for example, a Western left-liberal perspective) into ‘you are either proto-Fascist nationalist sympathisers or you are left-liberal democrats’. But this refuses to question the ‘normality’ or universality of liberal democratic capitalism. There was a missed political opportunity then, in what we might call the ‘vanishing mediators’ between state socialism and (capitalist) Slovenia. This is also part of the discussion on the civil society constraints that, for example, we hear from Gantar (1993) and Močnik (1993). Still, on a more general level, let me put it more starkly regarding Yugoslavia. I would say that Mladen, Alenka and I have no nostalgia for Yugoslavia: I would say that Yugoslavia was dead for us from Milošević.

Helena Motoh and Jones Irwin: You have clarified the position of orthodox Lacanianism to a great extent. How important is the relation between psychoanalysis and philosophy for your work specifically and for the troika as a whole? Put simply, would you describe your writings as philosophy? Do you consider yourself a philosopher?

Slavoj Žižek: Am I a philosopher? Yes, absolutely. But again, we have to be careful here. I am on the record as saying that I am an orthodox Lacanian and commentators then interpret your relation to philosophy in terms of Lacan’s explicit pronouncements on the topic of psychoanalysis and philosophy and their relation. But this to me is a misunderstanding of the sense of what orthodox Lacanianism means or indeed what orthodoxy means. When I say this I am understood ‘definitively’ by philosophers, but such orthodoxy for me does not entail literalism which I think is more the hermeneutic misunderstanding. I think that when people see the concept of orthodoxy they understand a blind literalism. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Perhaps the situation can best be understood in terms of the relation between Hegel and psychoanalysis or Lacan which I described earlier. Commentators think that when you say that Lacan is close to Hegel that we understand that means proximate to Lacan’s literal pronouncements on Hegel. But quite the contrary – I might invoke again de Man’s important concept of ‘reading as disfigurement’, which I foreground in The Plague of Fantasies (Žižek 1997). Lacan in his literal readings totally misunderstands the nature of philosophy. I would draw attention here for example to Lacan’s paradigmatic reading of Socrates as the founding gesture of philosophy. However, as a troika, I can say that we are opposed to Lacan’s conception of what Badiou calls ‘anti-philosophy’. We are also wary of Badiou’s own co-option of this notion of anti-philosophy in that we might say in contradistinction that he, Badiou, doesn’t realize to what extent he remains a philosopher. We thus also reject Badiou’s limitation of psychoanalysis. His notion that you can go through psychoanalysis and specifically Lacan’s thought and then somehow leave it all behind, supersede it, as it were. Philosophically, we can say that Badiou misses an entire dimension of the concept of death drive. There is thus a critique in the troika of Badiou on what we might call this meta-philosophical level of thought. I might refer specifically to Chapter 13 of my recent text, Less than Nothing (Žižek 2012a). We try to be precise: philosophy is not homogeneous.

Helena Motoh and Jones Irwin: How does this affect for example the relation between philosophy and literature which is so paradigmatic for many of your contemporaries?

Slavoj Žižek: In this context, the troika and I are with Badiou wholeheartedly in his reading of the relation between philosophy and literature, or philosophy and the artist poet. Here, additionally, we are with a whole tradition of thinking that goes back to Plato’s Republic Book X, if not before. That is, literature and poetry are far more terrifying than philosophy. How can I put this? – Plato was right; poets should be sent out of the city. Why? Let me say provocatively that there was no ethnic cleansing without poetry, poetry is always more important in totalitarian regimes and societies. This is no doubt because of the mythic dimension to poetry, mythos rather than logos, mythos against logos. In this, I am a militant philosopher no doubt. I can also say that this is something we need to think about in terms of some of the things we said earlier about the relation between Hegel and Marx. Now this relation is far from being any one relation, among others. Rather, let us think of Thesis 1 of the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, Marx’s famous intervention in the paradigm shift of philosophy. ‘Philosophers up to now have interpreted the world; the point however is to change it’. I would say with the troika and this is a Hegelian moment contra Marx; ‘philosophers up to now have changed the world; the point however is to interpret it’.

Helena Motoh and Jones Irwin: Regarding such interpretation, it is clear that there are significant difficulties in interpreting Lacan. There are different phases of his thought, with some commentators positing an early and late phase, others an overarching unity. There is the question of how we might make sense of the ‘return to Freud’. Also, what do these interpretive issues mean for psychoanalysis as such?

Slavoj Žižek: Yes, of course, the interpretive issues are clearly there. Dolar for example in the ‘Cogito’ essay delineates this hermeneutics of Lacan carefully, arguing against this hard and fast early/late distinction and against the notion that one notion might jettison another, earlier notion. I agree with this meta-level reading, which continuously brings the earlier concepts and texts back into the equation and seeks to reassess them in the light of the later work. This is exactly what Lacan meant by the ‘return to Freud’, it was never a literalist or originary orthodoxy. Rather, Lacan saw the open-ended aspect of the ‘Freudian field’ and he reworked it in different contexts, according to different challenges. The Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis does the same, reworking the Lacanian texts and philosophy, in relation to the challenges being faced. We see this in relation for example to the notion of ideology as it has developed in my work through The Sublime Object of Ideology and through various texts, including several versions of Enjoy Your Symptom. Or the theological emphasis (making use of Lacan’s ‘God is unconscious’) and the defence of a certain kind of ‘Christian atheism’.

While the early/late Lacan distinction is not hard and fast, there is a certain pertinence to it that we must take note of, as it affects particular thematics in Lacan’s work, whether for example we are talking of the move beyond the early emphasis on the symbolic or the so-called move from ‘desire to drive’. Another key concept for the late Lacan (appearing systematically first in Seminar XI) is, of course, the ‘Real’. This was the key revision of the notion of the object as it had been traditionally defined, by so-called ‘realism’. Therefore, here we have the two pronged attack of Lacanianism: the notion of the ‘subject’ which is indeed often foregrounded and seen as constitutive of our approach but just as strongly (and far more underestimated) the notion of the object (which is not an object). Certainly, in terms of the wider influence of Lacan, it is clear that this understanding of the ‘object’ first emerged as influential in the area of cinema studies. One can see it in the work of Laura Mulvey for example, and the development of specific aspects of feminist thought and queer theory later. Within the Ljubljana troika, the emphasis on cinema has always been strong, for example in one of our early anthologies in English on Hitchcock, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock (Žižek 1992b).

Although the triadic register of ‘Real, Imaginary and Symbolic’ was there earlier, in the late 1950s for example Lacan was almost exclusively focused on the tension between the symbolic and the imaginary. But, by the 1960s and The Ethics of Psychoanalysis text, the Lacanian axis and emphasis had changed to the relation between the symbolic and the ‘Real’. Briefly, for Lacan, the ‘symbolic’ sphere is the field of language, of symbolic structure and communication, the ‘imaginary’ is the domain of images with which we identify and the ‘Real’ stands for the trauma or ‘hard traumatic reality’ which resists symbolization. Earlier, Lacan sees symbolization as less of a problem but a whole shift takes place here in terms of the symbolic order itself. From this point onwards, the focus shifts to the symbolic order being ‘inconsistent’ and the encounter between the symbolic order and the newly emergent ‘Real’ is the locus for the inconsistency. This for Lacan (and psychoanalysis more generally) is not simply a theoretical inconsistency but rather an ‘ontological impasse’. I explore this ontological problem in The Plague of Fantasies (Žižek 1997), for example, and Alenka looks at it more recently in relation to the question of psychoanalysis vis-à-vis philosophy in Why Psychoanalysis: Three Interventions (Zupančič 2008b). This later theoretical development also casts doubt on the whole notion of ‘traversing the fantasy’, insofar as the antagonism of the ‘Real’ is a deadlock which cannot be traversed. We can see something similar in terms of the early Lacan principle ‘don’t give up on one’s desire’ which is outlined in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. With the renewed emphasis in the later work on the ‘Real’ and (death) ‘drive’, there is also a silence around this earlier dictum, which Lacan seemed to put at the centre of his ethics in Seminar VII. Alenka explores this issue very carefully and insightfully in The Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan (Zupančič 2000) and Mladen speaks of it as the ‘demotion of desire’ in his A Voice and Nothing More (Dolar 2006), devoting a whole section to the ‘ethics of the voice’. The conception of ethics is maintained but now it is an ‘ethics’ which must reckon with a traumatic encounter with the ‘Real’ and the death drive. This move between early and later Lacan is also a move away from a more Kantian perspective to a more Hegelian framework.

One concept which is dismissed as pathological in the early Lacan is ‘love’ but this is reinterpreted in later Lacan and explored in relation to some possibilities of sublimation, for example. Speaking quickly, sublimation is here understood as a ‘nonrepressive satisfaction’ of the drive, although this is a notion which requires further critical analysis. There is the infamous discussion of courtly love for example but Seminar XX, On Feminine Sexuality. The Limits of Love and Knowledge is among other things, concerned with the concept (and the experience) of love and a desire which is not focused on ‘lack’. Alenka has taken up this problematic in a very interesting way in her Odd One In: On Comedy (Zupančič 2008a), especially in the Appendix of that text, which grapples with the complexity of Plato’s Symposium and how Aristophanes’ speech on eros redirects the whole conception of the relation between sex and love, desire and drive in a way that Lacan takes up (the Aristophanic/Platonic complication of the notions of ‘split’ and ‘lack’ are also paradigmatic here). This is an important discussion for all three of us as thinkers, insofar as it also bears on some of Lacan’s late (and grossly misinterpreted) pronouncements concerning ‘there is no sexual relationship’, ‘woman does not exist’ and ‘love is giving something one does not have to someone who doesn’t want it’. These principles are still in need of significant critical analysis and consideration. Also at issue here is Freud’s whole juxtaposition of Eros and Thanatos, and the sense (for example in Civilisation and Its Discontents) that ‘Eros’ may have some remaining resources to combat the more aggressive or fatalist drives.

Finally, more recently, the troika has begun to come up against the limits of the Hegelian approach and the later Lacanian approach. As I say in Less Than Nothing, Seminar XX represents Lacan’s ultimate achievement but also a ‘deadlock’ and a philosophical failure (if we think of some of his attempted conceptual solutions after Seminar XX; sinthome, knots etc.). On another level, there is also an important need to shift the emphasis from ethics to politics, to explore new possibilities for a psychoanalytical politics. Developing a Kierkegaardian logic here, I have referred to the ‘political suspension of the ethical’. From the question ‘which ethics fits psychoanalysis?’ we should therefore pass to the question ‘which politics fits psychoanalysis?’ [Interview ends]

Conclusion – ‘Moving the Underground’ with the NSK

The above interview brings out both the highly powerful and unique philosophical trajectory of Žižek alongside his very genuine attachment to a troika of Ljubljana thinkers who have developed a group-level Lacanian analysis with a very significant worldwide philosophical influence. We saw the clear Lacanian position of ‘orthodoxy’ stated, the ‘break’ which such a view entails with traditional philosophical notions while, at the same time, the strong affinities to German idealism (especially Hegel) and the Cartesian tradition of ‘cogito’. As Žižek says in his introduction to the original Cogito and the Unconscious collection of essays which he edits (Žižek 1998a), with contributions from both Dolar and Zupančič, ‘Lacanianism represents the common sense view of subjectivity . . . but with a twist’.

In his preface to The Sublime Object of Ideology, Laclau (1989) drew attention to the context-specific importance of the Ljubljana interpretation of Lacan, noting how interpretations of Lacanianism ‘differed from country to country’. We have noted the warning which Dolar and Žižek give us in their introduction to their jointly authored book Opera’s Second Death (Dolar and Žižek 2002), where they tell the astute philosophical reader to be wary of simply reducing philosophical approaches to their spatio-temporal coordinates or historical specifics. While there may be a certain truth in this, we should also be attuned to the more universalist dimension of the philosophy. As Žižek and Dolar note here, ‘if we reduce a great work of art or science to its historical context, we miss its universal dimension; apropos of Freud, it is also easy to describe his roots in fin-de-siècle Vienna – much more difficult is demonstrating how this very specific situation enabled him to formulate universal theoretical insights’ (Dolar and Žižek 2002: vii).

Nonetheless, in this chapter, we have stressed this universal conceptuality alongside the Slovenian particularity, this psychoanalytic (and philosophical) framework deriving from Freud originally and his ‘invention’ of psychoanalysis and developing through Lacan’s ‘return to Freud’ especially. We have focused on the importance of Seminars VII (The Ethics of Psychoanalysis), XI (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis) and XX (On Feminine Sexuality. The Limits of Love and Knowledge) for Žižek in their different ways, allowing the latter to foreground notions such as ethics, drive, the Real and finally, sexual difference and the notion of the ‘Real of sexual difference’. But, to conclude this chapter, we would like to foreground a brief analysis of the more specific Ljubljana context, especially as it relates to the question of the alternative culture and the relation between the alternative culture and the younger intellectuals. We have looked at other aspects of this problematic in Chapters 1 and 2, especially in the context of Dolar and Žižek’s work on punk and the NSK (Monroe 2005).

Žižek devotes several important essays to alternative culture movements in Slovenia (Žižek 2003b, 2003c, 2005, 2007c). The most important of these for our purposes is the 2005 essay, included as a preface to Alexei Monroe’s seminal study of the NSK and Laibach, Interrogation Machine (Monroe 2005). This preface is entitled ‘They Moved the Underground’ (Žižek 2005), a reference to the Freudian concept of ‘acheronta movebo’, or precisely ‘moving the underground’, which Freud employs in the exergue to his text The Interpretation of Dreams (Žižek 2005: xiii). Žižek’s question is simple: ‘Why did the Slovene post-punk band Laibach have such a traumatic impact in Yugoslavia during the 1980s; the decaying years of really existing socialism?’ (Žižek 2005: xii). As Žižek mentions in Enjoy Your Symptom: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out, we can distinguish between ideology in Western Europe and Eastern Europe, for example, in one major inversion with regard to hegemonic behaviours and system beliefs. Whereas the citizens of the Western democracies pretend to be ‘free’ while secretly ‘obeying’, the citizens of the East under variants of state socialism pretend to ‘obey’ while secretly disobeying. Here, Žižek uses this insight to explicate Laibach and the wider NSK’s strategy of highlighting this contradiction at the heart of the communist states, in the context of the former Yugoslavia. As Žižek notes, ‘in really existing socialism, the explicit ideology for socialist democracy was sustained by a set of implicit (unspoken) obscene injunctions and prohibitions, teaching the subject not to take some explicit norms seriously, and how to implement a set of publicly unacknowledged prohibitions’ (Žižek 2005: xii).

How can a critique of ideology work in such a context, if at all? How can we frame a dissident strategy in such a complex and self-contradictory political context? Here, Žižek credits Laibach and the NSK with a subtle but nonetheless explosive ‘strategy of dissidence’: ‘one of the strategies of dissidence in the last years of socialism was to precisely to take the ruling ideology more seriously/literally than it took itself; by ignoring its virtual unwritten shadow, . . . [articulating] desperate hints of how this was not the way things functioned’ (Žižek 2005: xii). Of course, we can see the strong connections here back to the Punk Problemi issues and the problematic of the symptom and accusations of fascism (Žižek 1981; Dolar 1982; Motoh 2012). As Dolar has noted, the NSK emerged as a development of the original punk logic. However, we can also see here how the critique of ideology has evolved from punk to the NSK, much as we have also seen Žižek’s own ‘strategy of dissidence’ evolve from the early years through The Sublime Object of Ideology (Žižek 1989) to more recent texts.

This, then, shows how a critique of ideology can operate in such a context of complex ideological manipulation by the state, what Močnik referred to as the ‘colonisation of the life world’ and this is what ‘moving the underground’ as a practice of the critique of ideology means: ‘not directly changing the explicit text of the law but rather intervening in its obscene virtual supplement’ (Žižek 2005: xiii). It was this strategy, a very useful one for Žižek, which made Laibach so ‘unbearable’ through the 1980s. The crucial question then becomes one of whether such a strategy is possible today? ‘the problem however is how to find a similar procedure today; is there, in our cynical “postmodern” ideological universe, still a place for a Laibach type intervention, or is such an intervention immediately co-opted and/or neutralised?’ (Žižek 2005: xiii). Žižek is clear here that he still sees real possibilities in the Laibach and wider NSK strategy, in relation to an ongoing critique of ideology: ‘And here it is that a Laibach style intervention is needed again, a direct staging of this obscene supplement, of the spectacle of barbarism that sustains our civilisation. Today, the lesson of Laibach is more pertinent than ever. Only such a direct confrontation with the obscene fantasmatic core can actually liberate us from its grip’ (Žižek 2005: xv).

In this context, then, Žižek demonstrates the important allegiance between the NSK, Laibach and the Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis. We can see Žižek’s own work as a continuous effort to enact such a critique of ideology, while changing with the changing circumstances. As already noted, the Western and Eastern contexts were different in the 1980s. Post-communism, the situation for the newly independent states of the former Yugoslavia has changed significantly in terms of politics and ideology. In this chapter and through the interview, we have explored how Žižek’s own work has developed in relation to the varied possibilities (and limits) of the contemporary critique of ideology. In his more recent work, for example Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, Žižek has famously called time on a certain ‘failure’ of the late Lacan. There, he describes Lacan’s Seminar XX, On Feminine Sexuality. The Limits of Love and Knowledge (Lacan 1998), as Lacan’s ‘ultimate achievement’ but also as a work which seems to create an unsurpassable deadlock: ‘in the years after he desperately concocted different ways out [the sinthome, knots etc] all of which failed; so where do we stand now?’ (Žižek 2012a: 18). We await the next direction of the Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis with great interest. In the next chapter, we will explore how Alenka Zupančič’s work has brought a specific originality to bear on these problems, in a way which both continues and also transforms the intellectual trajectory (both psychoanalytic and philosophic) of Dolar and Žižek.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!