ISSN 1466-4615



Oliver C. Speck

What Do You Really Want From Zizek?




Slavoj Zizek

_The Sublime Object of Ideology_

London and New York: Verso, 1989

ISBN 0-86091-971-4


(With a preface by Ernest Laclau, giving an introduction into the history of the adaptation of Lacan's ideas.)


Writing a review about a relatively old book (the sixth impression appeared a year ago) is a somehow paradoxical task: obviously the book found enough buyers -- not necessarily readers -- and its ideas might already have been absorbed by (scientific) discourse or even the university curriculum. And in terms of 'theoretical design', Lacan's ideas -- at least in the United States -- have fallen out of academic fashion. Nevertheless, Lacan's 'return to Freud' or, to be precise, Zizek's reading of Lacan, can still help us to understand the symptoms of our postmodern world and to analyse film.


Readers familiar with Zizek's style will not be surprised: As usual Zizek does not develop a clear-cut idea, nor does he structure the book around a definable topic. His 'proofs' are mostly introduced with an 'of course' or an 'it is clear why', though he conjures what for a critical reader must mostly look like not more than a cleverly chosen illustration. On the other hand, he delivers what his fans and followers praise: His writing is a seemingly improvised free play of associations, more on the side of an unprepared talk than a scholarly work. He meanders, and illustrates abstract concepts with jokes and references to popular culture, techniques well known from his other texts. The book (as with all of his, or, for that matter, Lacan's works) can be opened randomly and the reader might deliver himself to the endless diatribe on the Name-of-the-father, the Symptom and the Sinthome, the object cause of desire, the objet petit a, etc. etc. In this perspective _The Sublime Object of Ideology_ could be seen as just another variation on the Lacanian theme.


The underlying assumption of the preceding paragraph, that this work ought to be structured as a clear argument and could be criticized like any standard scholarly work, is already drenched with ideology, insofar as it poses the 'wrong', that is a completely unproductive question. Instead of asking about latent significance in the manifest text (i.e. 'What's his argument?'), the question should rather be: 'Che vuoi?' What do you really want (from Zizek/Lacan)? Zizek's books perform a theory more than they constitute or even apply one. The whole notion of using a psychoanalytical theory as a tool for, say, a film analysis, disregards one of Zizek's fundamental points: the need to include transference and countertransference in this process of working through theory.


I will now outline Zizek's ideas from _The Sublime Object of Ideology_. The book is divided into three parts with two chapters each: I. The Symptom (1. How Did Marx Invent the Symptom? 2. From Symptom to Sinthome); II. Lack in the Other (3. 'Che Vuoi?' 4. You Only Die Twice); and III. The Subject (5. Which Subject of the Real? 6. 'Not Only as Substance, but Also as Subject').


In the first two chapters Zizek explains the psychoanalytical definition of ideology and its connection with Marxism: ideology 'is not simply a 'false consciousness', an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as 'ideological'' (21) It is crucial to understand the futility of a critical or even cynical standpoint *vis a vis* an ideological problem, say, the condition of our society. The fetishist's 'I know, but nevertheless' is exactly the key to understanding this problem: 'The mask is not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence.' (28). We know that the use value of Beanie Babies is next to zero, nevertheless we exchange them for hundreds of dollars. If the object itself (a kitschy bag full of pellets) were the fetish (or the ideology), it could be easily destroyed. We are indeed not fetishizing commodities or money, but actually the fantasy itself.


Lacan's formula for the relation of Subject and Object, equally the formula for the phantasma, is '$ <> a' (see: Lacan, _Seminar XI_). The Subject, split and 'barred' by language, is directing his desire onto the object a, to retrieve the 'lost', imaginary unity with the mother, situated 'before' the entry into the symbolic order. It is crucial to stress the difference between the fantasy as scenario, inscenating/illustrating the desire of the subject and the impossible gaze onto the 'objet petit a'. The sign '<>' must be read as screen: '[T]he 'object' of fantasy is not the fantasy scene itself, its content (the parental coitus, for example), but the impossible gaze witnessing it'. [1]


The sense of wholeness that ideology extends to one is an imaginary function, connected to the ideal ego. Thus fetish and symptom cannot be destroyed simply by explanation, they have to be analyzed (see here Zizeks example of the ideological figure of the Jew, starting page 97, especially 125-28). To further illustrate his argument about the quasi-external nature of the symptom Zizek chooses the 'canned laughter' of sitcom: Somebody else (the laughing track) is having a good time for me (35). Though we know about the idiocy and irrelevancy of Seinfeld, we enjoy the show. This jouissance (enjoyment, enjoy-meant) is not a side effect, it is the only driving force, aiming at the fulfillment of an ultimately unsatisfiable desire, like the surplus value that drives capitalism.


As with every act of fetishisation, the mechanisms of metaphoric disavowal and metonymic replacements are covering a lack (the absence of the phallus, the void of the real, the desire of the Other/the death drive) and becoming a quasi-entity, that is more in the subject, than the subject itself. In Freudian terminology this paradoxical construction is the 'Vorstellungsrepraesentanz' (see 160-61). In the case of collecting Beanie Babies this might be considered a mere and harmless perversion of taste; the collecting of territory for the grandeur of the (German/Serbian/whatever) nation is something different. Nevertheless both of these symptomatic constructions, as unrelated as they might seem, follow a similar psychic construction, insofar as they 'quilt' our ideological field and in the same instant bind our surplus-enjoyment in this object-cause of desire. This paradoxical 'point de capiton', 'a signifier without the signified' (97) is the tautological, empty signifier, giving consistency to the ideological field: 'I collect Beanie Babies because they are rare. Why are they rare? Because they are collectibles.' Or in the worst case: 'What makes you special? I am a German! What does that mean? I have Aryan blood! Why do you have Aryan blood? Because I am a German!' And so on . . .


In the second part of the book, Zizek now traces this paradoxical point-without-location through several fields. My above-mentioned example, fascist ideology, can be explained with the self-referential emptiness of the Fuehrer's claim, that he is the embodiment of the people's will. The fascist 'Leader's point of reference, the instance to which he is referring to legitimize his rule (the People, the Class, the Nation) does not exist -- or, more precisely, exists only through and in its fetishistic representative, the Party and its Leader.' (146) Another example is the post-structuralist dogma 'There is no metalanguage!' The only point of reference for such a statement is indeed the impossible position outside of discourse (see 154-55). Or, in Zizek's words: 'The phallic signifier is, so to speak, an index of its own impossibility.' (157)


Finally, Zizek outlines Lacan's different approach to the problem of the Real -- is it the 'really real', an untouchable thing-as-such/'Thing-in-itself', is it something resisting symbolization, or is it the subject supposed to know, a cause, that doesn't exist, something like Hitchcock's MacGuffin (see 162-164)? Zizek quickly dismisses the first oversimplifying definition and argues along the lines of his ideas about the founding paradox: the Real 'is nothing at all, just a void, an emptiness in a symbolic structure marking some central impossibility' (173). And this, according to Zizek, is the difference between the so-called 'post-structuralist' position and Lacan's position: The former describes the subject as being the result of a subjectivating processes ('assujetissement'), while the latter conceives of the subject as an 'answer of the Real' -- because the signified can never find a signifier that would fully represent it, this void we call a subject is created (174-75). In the last chapter, Zizek gives another example of these 'impossible' founding things, the Sublime: 'The Sublime is . . . the paradox of an object which, in the very field of representation, provides a view, in a negative way, of the dimension of what is unrepresentable.' (202) Especially the last point, the Sublime, is a good example for how this book (and most of Zizek's work for that matter) can be used for film theory and analysis. The sublime beauty of Rita Hayworth in _Gilda_ and Tippy Hedren in _Marnie_ is not a separate 'entity' (e.g. 'a beautiful actress is portraying this and this character'), it is the impossible object of the male gaze. Both women appear in a similar movement from below the picture frame, throwing their hair back. The whole following story now centers around a man, trying to pin down, to frame their essence. The quintessential stripping away of this futile enterprise is Gilda's famous striptease. Johnny, a 'god of prosthesis' (Freud, _Civilisation and its Discontent_) in his bureau, equipped with surveillance microphones, can not prevent Gilda from performing her self-referential striptease. While taking the blame for everything, even for natural disasters, she performs the ultimate act of fetishization before the eyes of the nightclub guests (i.e. the big Other). This sequence starts significantly with a prophesy of the police officer that Johnny will fall apart (i.e. become a hysteric), and Johnny's point-of-view shot through the jalousie (sic!) on to the vulgar performance of the woman he is obsessed with. Gilda's subversive act destroys in one movement the illusion that there is 'something to see' and that there is something essential about woman. Her exposition thus exposes the fetish of the sexual arousing 'whore' and the sublime essence of the 'mother' as covering the lack in the Big Other. Or, as Lacan puts it (over and over): woman is the symptom of man.


The merit of this book lies (as with most books by Zizek) in the way Zizek makes useful and fruitful Lacan's theory, in the sense that he instigates a 'thinking with Lacan' about politics and popular culture. The book clarifies some of the complex issues like the problem of transference, the surplus-enjoyment and the 'graph of desire'. This makes _The Sublime Object of Ideology_ more a work for advanced students of Lacan and above all, readers who are not enervated by Zizek's peculiar style. For a Zizek/Lacan 'treatment' centered specifically on film, I personally would recommend Zizek's _Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock)_, the above quoted _Looking Awry: An Introduction to Lacan through Popular Culture_, and _Enjoy Your Symptom_.


Northwestern University, USA



1. Slavoj Zizek, _Looking Awry: An Introduction to Lacan through Popular Culture_, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press 1991), p. 172.




Oliver C. Speck, 'What Do You Really Want From Zizek?',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 28, September 1998 <>.


Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998




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