Slavoj Žižek recently debated Jordan Peterson, in a conflict that was somewhat dramatically hailed as the intellectual duel of the century. One of the most amusing moments came when Peterson observed that Žižek was a very strange kind of Marxist, after Žižek had made numerous critical observations about Marxist theory and the practices of many Communist states, before engaging in a characteristic monologue about why he prefers Hegel over Marx himself. The two men then exchanged numerous compliments, often agreeing about the dangers of identity politics and postmodernity. Though Žižek rightly pointed out that Peterson’s continuous conflation of Marxism with postmodernism was largely unsubstantiated—as I and many others have pointed out.
Given these confusions, I prepared this essay as a brief introduction to the political thinking of Žižek. Žižek has written dozens of books, numerous articles and op-eds (some weekly), regularly appears on television and in films, and engages in speaking engagements. There is even an International Journal of Žižek Studies, which includes a contribution on postmodern conservatism by yours truly. This constitutes a bevy of riches, but also poses substantial interpretive problems. These are not helped by Žižek’s style, which is often closer to stream of consciousness than to academic analysis. Like Jack Kerouac, who was called “Proust on the run,” Žižek’s thinking is a dazzling and often infuriating example of critical theory on the go. I hope to clarify a few aspects of the political dimensions of his thought. Readers interested in the more complex philosophical underpinnings found in works like The Parallax View and the shockingly linear (for Žižek) Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism may find some of these aids helpful.
The Sublime Theory of Ideology
Žižek’s primary political contribution is his reconceptualization of ideology. He originally made his name in the English-speaking world with the 1989 publication of The Sublime Object of Ideology, which was part of a wave of texts published during the period to try to rejuvenate the category of the sublime, in contrast to postmodern theories of discourse like Foucault’s. Žižek’s conceptualization of ideology is complex, and draws on a range of theoretical sources, including French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, German philosopher Georg Hegel, and, of course, Karl Marx. Nonetheless, it is highly original and his efforts account for much of the concept’s current resurgence as an intellectual approach.
For Žižek, ideology has all too frequently been misinterpreted as dualistic. This dualism posits that there is a real world of material relations and objects outside of oneself, which is accessible to reason. The problem is that ideology operates as a screen, which prevents one from using reason to fully understand that outside world and those material relations and objects as they are in themselves. The task of the critic is therefore to unmask the ideology and explain how it accomplishes this, while insisting we pay closer attention to reality than to our ideologically screened interpretation of it. The concept of false consciousness is a classic example. Žižek argues that we are in a far more complex mess. This is especially true of postmodern cultures, in which many of us cynically assume we are too savvy to be manipulated by ideological forces we no longer trust. For Žižek, ideology isn’t a screen that prevents us from recognizing the real world as it is. It is a necessary stabilizer of our worldviews, often providing the psychic horizon of transcendent meaning that enables us to act in the world. This horizon of transcendent meanings influences our actions even when we superficially disavow it, as earlier ideology theorists often insisted we should. For Žižek, this is why an era in which we had apparently reached the “end of ideology” was, in many respects, more ideological than ever. To speak of a world without ideology is to suggest the fundamental destabilization of the meanings we actually ascribe to objects through our practices.
This might seem confusing, but, fortunately, Žižek’s work is peppered with examples that help clarify the issue. He stresses that our disavowal of ideology is often insincere and that our actions demonstrate what we inwardly believe about the transcendent horizon of meaning we ascribe to objects. Consider climate change. Many of us, when confronted by the scientific consensus on climate change, nod in agreement and contend that we need to take serious action to ameliorate a potential catastrophe. But, inwardly, we do not actually believe that the current system can be changed and we secretly believe that the worst predictions of climate scientists are false. This explains the appeal of climate change deniers, despite the fact that they are often transparently funded by oil and gas interests. Deep down, we all want to buy the ideological narrative that the world will continue as it is and that we need do nothing to change it. Or take a more mundane example. We encounter a high-end fashion item on a mannequin. The mannequin is a piece of plastic, anatomically designed to project an idealized form of the human body, and the clothing on it was likely produced for pennies in a factory deep in the developing world. We may know this, and even cynically observe how the fashion industry manipulates us into thinking clothes are about glamour and social superiority, rather than just functional pieces of cloth. But we buy the high-end product anyway, reasoning that other people will still be impressed by our new Gucci purchase. For Žižek, this shows that the experience of interacting with others can have a regressive impact, causing us to act in a way that reinforces ideology, even while wanting to ignore it ourselves.
The Critique of Identity Politics
For Žižek, emancipation from ideology means accepting a lot of destabilization into our lives. Alienation can be a productive development if it leads us to sincerely cast aside the transcendent mysticism we associate with objects and ideological systems, and try to recognize the materiality of the world. This has concrete implications for our interactions with other people. For Žižek, who draws on the psychoanalytic tradition, many of our relationships with others are highly skewed by unconscious and ideological pressures. This is even true of our most intimate relationships. For Žižek, many of us do not sincerely love our partners. Rather, we love what they symbolize to us. For conservatives, this may mean marrying and loving someone because social tradition dictates that. For postmodern liberals, this may mean having a partner who helps us generate social capital and present a habitable image. We may also love someone because we feel they complete us—thereby absorbing the other person’s individuality into our own. Real love, by contrast, involves recognizing the other in her radical alterity. Love is a shocking interruption of our normal mindset and way of life, involving a flawed individual with goals and feelings entirely different from our own. Far from a warm and fuzzy sensation to be expressed through commodified greeting cards, love can be extremely disruptive and even chaos inducing, as when we decide to give up career and reputation to be with someone.
This approach has interesting consequences for Žižek’s approach to identity politics, which he has been criticizing for many years now. For Žižek, identity politics is a false solution to the real problem of how to recognize other people in their radical alterity. It imposes moralistic demands that encourage us to interact with others in the highly constrained and often insincere manner that is sometimes known as political correctness. We are told that we must accept those who are different from us, but only in so far as we never bring up their fundamental differences and assume that they are simply good, tolerant individuals like ourselves deep down. For Žižek, this demonstrates the ultimate hypocrisy of many forms of so-called radical postmodern theorizing. For all its claims to want to go beyond liberalism—and liberal capitalism—it simply encourages a hyper-liberal puritanism that insists that the truly good person should recognize none of the things which make people unique. What’s worse, it insists that not approaching others in this manner makes one an intolerant or wicked person. In practice, this professed tolerance and broad-mindedness results in a dismissal of all different perspectives. It is a shallow universalism unwilling to acknowledge its own parameters. I would add that this is why a certain vulgarized form of identity politics appeals to the reactionaries among postmodern conservatives. As Žižek puts it in his piece for Philosophical Salon, “Troubles with Identity”:
And what about the assertion of marginal identities in identity politics? Identity politics reaches its peak (or, rather, its lowest point) when it refers to the unique experience of a particular group identity as the ultimate fact which cannot be dissolved in any universality: “only a woman/lesbian/trans/Black/Chinese knows what is it to be a woman/lesbian/trans/Black/Chinese.” While this is true in a certain trivial sense, one should thoroughly deny any political relevance to it and shamelessly stick to the old Enlightenment axiom: all cultures and identities can be understood, provided that one makes an effort to get it. The secret of identity politics is that, in it, the white/male/hetero position remains a universal standard; everyone understands it and knows what it means, which is why it is the blind spot of identity politics, the one identity it is prohibited to assert.
For Žižek, as for other left-wing critics of postmodernity and liberal capitalism, this desire for a fat-free other, devoid of real difference or antagonism, is the perfect ideology for liberal capitalism. We approach others with the expectation that they will behave as placid consumers, largely disinterested in anything below the ideological surface and content to interact with one another purely to pursue their self-interest. The more radical society Žižek favors would involve people who were truly free of these ideological constraints, and who approached one another in their full difference, without reactionary puritanism and defense mechanisms. Resources would also be more equitably distributed so individuals could better develop their “creative potentials,” becoming unique people, free from substantial material and ideological constraints.
Unfortunately, despite the immensity of his oeuvre, Žižek has very little to say about what form such a society might take. Like Marx, Žižek is far more astute as a critic than as a constructive political theorist. This may be disappointing to those looking for concrete answers to the most pressing social problems, and it gives Žižek’s work a pessimistic air. According to Žižek, ideology plays such a determinative role in our lives that getting free of it can seem like pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. We needn’t share this pessimism: there are good progressive policies we can propose. But, for all its gaps, Žižek’s work remains highly useful, since it develops new concepts that enable us to more acutely criticize contemporary society. As he himself often puts it, sometimes the most critical action we can take is not to act, but to think.