Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Źiźek… Space travel      

Reading Źiźek can feel like a journey into a galaxy of ideas but a pictorially more exact image is that of visiting a solar system with a multitude of thoughts orbiting a radical understanding of existence.


Slavoj Źiźek. Photo by Sushiesque / Flickr. Creative Commons License.

Sean Sheehan


Reality, it is insisted, lacks any substantial coherence and this impossibility of wholeness is the Real.

This Real is the gap between any two completely different perspectives – think of a right-wing conservative and a socialist – a space without density, without a core.

Philosophically, ecologically, psychoanalytically, life is not a positive process upon which Capital parasitically feeds, destroying its natural balance – the animating proposition that is played out in “Parasite” (2019) – because alienation, the antagonisms that traverse life, are there from the beginning. There is an inconsolable rift between animal (nature) and human (culture).

The rift is paralleled within human sexuality. Gender identities, however, diverse and multiple, serve to cloak the Real of an impossibility that cuts across the domain of sexuality.

Źiźek draws a correspondence between the Oedipus who waits at Colonus, Christ and Che Guevara – all three emerging from the zero-level of existence when, at the point of knowing death is coming, their destitution places them outside any normal symbolic identity.

Miraculously, though, this also places them on the threshold of effecting revolutionary change.

We all inhabit a symbolic world –Lacan’s term for this is the “big Other” – that proffers a cohesive structure for managing  meaningless reality, a fiction that tries to hide the traumatic, ontological wound of human existence. But the effect is to distance us from our biological substance.

The big Other is the parasite that feeds off our pleasure and perversely allows for a surplus enjoyment (again, Lacan’s term) to flow from our displeasure. This helps explain why we collaborate in the catastrophes about to engulf the next generation; we carry on obediently and our libidinal investments in what is not right underpins the functioning of ideology.

Enjoyment comes from repeatedly missing what we think will bring happiness, a circular movement, a death drive, that perversely generates satisfaction.

The distortions, twists and self-sabotaging of desire enact the impasse at the heart of desire and it finds expression in the pursuit of something impossible or its displacement onto an unattainable object.

The nature/culture rift is being intensified to alarming levels by capitalism’s use of science, a Frankenstein-like engagement that goes beyond environmental disasters of the kind that the free market would normally turn into an investment opportunity; not a one-off ecological misfortune but extinction of human life; not another virus but biogenetic mutations.

“Surplus enjoyment” is the author at his most supple, addressing urgent current concerns and the need for a global solidarity that cannot be divorced from egalitarianism. When he writes of trusting people and of the possible need for rationing in one form or another, he aligns this approach with the radical tenets of communism. Źiźek is a pick-me-up for fatigued brains, a true radical and an authentic left-wing conservative who wants to prevent the social disintegration that threatens our civic life.

“Surplus enjoyment: A guide for the non-perplexed”, by Slavoj Źiźek, is published by Bloomsbury.





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