Review of Slavoj Zizek's The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (London, New York: Verso, 1999)
Southwestern Illinois College
By interpreting classical German philosophy in light of the radical negativity of the subject in the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Zizek has brought a much needed new life to German idealism, a tradition which in recent years has floundered in its misbegotten role of providing metaphysical underpinnings for contemporary liberalism. Zizek's approach brings to light an important but neglected aspect of German thought and also makes available a non-dogmatic rendering of the speculative aspect of Hegel's thought as the basis for conceptualizing the ideas left ambiguous in Lacan's writings and lectures. In The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, this negative subject-concept is brought to bear on the issue of the "ethical act" - a political act transgressing the rules of the established social order. The metaphysical structure of the subject underlying this act discloses the unique form taken by contemporary ideology in obscuring and disguising the authentic subject position. The result of Zizek's work is a new version of idealism in touch with today's intellectual world and freed from old worn-out clich? About the absolute idea. Idealism now emphasizes the paradoxical nature of the absolute, exposing at the absolute's core the radical negativity of individual subjects and revealing the social order as a precarious and contingent fiction.
The first part of The Ticklish Subject treats three pivotal figures in German philosophy: Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger. Heidegger's discussion of Kant's transcendental imagination as a subject position that is neither phenomenal nor noumenal is shown to have implications for the concept of subject and freedom beyond Kant's own intention and provides a transition to the subject concept as understood in terms of pure negativity characterizing Hegel's famous "night of the world" passage in the Jena writings. This metaphysical concept of the subject as negativity parallels the Freudian "death drive" (in its symbolic Lacanian rendition) and provides the link between Hegel and psychoanalysis. In light of this negativity – the negativity at the core of the speculative identity of substance and subject - the Hegelian "absolute idea" becomes a contingent structure subject to the original metaphysical act of negation by the individual subject.
In the book's second part Zizek discusses a number of socially critical thinkers, among whom Alain Badiou is central. In a reaction to the relativism and historicism of recent continental philosophy and the reduction of the individual to a step in a historical sequence of events, for Badiou particular historical constellations present the possibility of an eternal act, an authentic act grounded outside of history - a "truth act." The truth act is, in the fullest sense, a political act, an act which negates the given political order and moves toward a new order. This truth act parallels the act of the Lacanian subject as negativity beyond the good within the social order.
The third part of the book contains a discussion of the unique post-oedipal structure of contemporary liberal society and the means by which an illusion of liberation appears. The symbolic order of today's liberal society is characterized by the decline of the efficacy of the paternal authority, the big Other, a decline reflected in the reduced role of traditional authority, social custom, and the internalized moral law (the superego), and resulting in an apparent individual liberation in terms of sexuality and life style. With this decline of the big Other, however, the formerly external coercion has been transformed into a component of the intimate desires of the individual, her "passionate attachments," as Judith Butler has termed it. With the authority built into the individual's "true desire," no external authority is needed to provide the acquiescence and conformity needed to sustain the essentially inhuman and alienating social order – an order understood essentially as an economic order, that is, liberalism. Paralleling this displaced repression, today's liberal watchword, the rejection of ideology, is itself the most effective ideology. Denouncing all ideology results in a depoliticization of liberal economic principles, which now - in a form paralleling the cooption of our intimate desires - appear as givens, as natural laws, beyond the realm of political action, beyond the realm of what can be affected by a political act, beyond what we have the power in our ultimate choice to accept or reject. In opposing this new political reality, Zizek insists on the possibility of a radical ethical / political act grounded in the "subject" outside the social order, the subject as negativity which first comes into existence in virtue of this very act.
In bringing together psychoanalysis and German idealism in a new form of social criticism Zizek produces the most interesting development of Hegel's thought since that of Marx, and will, no doubt, come to form one of the most productive schools of Hegel scholarship in the future. The defects of Zizek's work are common to any genuinely novel philosophical development. In striking out on new ground and thinking freely, loose ends emerge. While Zizek advocates a philosophy of action, the paradoxical nature of the Lacanian subject - whose true freedom is really a non-existence, an existence outside of the symbolic order - makes it difficult to grasp what the authentic act would actually consist in. What does it really mean in a concrete case to hearken to the Lacanian maxim: "Don't compromise your desire!" and how can this be distinguished from an activity which sustains the given social order? Part of the difficulty in specifying this act lies in the incongruity between Zizek's broad formula of the subject as pure negativity and the more narrow constraints of a subjective act which doesn't negate reality entire, but only a particular social order. In his insistence on the possibility of a political act, Zizek reveals his Hegelian commitment to some social order ("der objektive Geist"). The negative subject is itself a social product, though one which is directed to the negation of the given order. In the final analysis, this aspect reveals Zizek's commitment to the general assumptions of western metaphysics, indeed Christian metaphysics. Zizek prefers the structure of the intermediate categories (objective spirit) to the extreme relativity of much of post-modern thought. To one who sees the eternity of the moment and the complete vanity of human reality, Zizek might seem to be grasping at straws, unable to face the true nothingness of human existence. But these are straws which any serious reader of Zizek's work must admit are largely consistent with the contemporary human experience. The Zizekian restructuring of the western philosophical tradition has only begun, but it promises to be the most fruitful school of thought on this ticklish border between structure and nihilism.