My recent article on Slavoj Zizek deliberately eschewed more extensive engagement with the philosophical underpinnings of his work. Given that his recent debate with Jordan Peterson—which I analyze here—concerned politics and political economy, I thought an introductory essay on these topics might be helpful to those trying to navigate his immense oeuvre. To my surprise, a number of readers contacted me with queries about the deeper philosophical underpinnings of Zizek’s approach, particularly what distinguishes it from the various postmodern philosophies that preceded it.
I wrote this essay as an introduction to Zizek’s ontology and how it relates to his account of human subjectivity. These are obviously very complex issues, which go beyond politics and relate to the structure of reality itself and the nature of humanity. This piece can only sketch out the positions Zizek argues for in far more detail in lengthy works, such as Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism and Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism. Here, I will try to situate Zizek’s philosophical positions in their proper intellectual context, before describing his mature and systematic outlook.
Zizek’s Account of Nature and the Human Subject
Zizek’s philosophical thinking partly emerged as a reaction to the dominant climate of the time. While his earlier works, such as The Sublime Object of Ideology, had the more modest ambition of rejuvenating the category of ideology, following attacks by postmodern theorists, from the beginning, Zizek’s ambitions have gone beyond political analysis. In the 1990s, he became increasingly critical of theorists inspired by postmodern philosophy, such as Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau. In their seminal dialogue Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, Zizek continuously pushes back against the claim that grand philosophy and critical theory have come to an end, giving way to a philosophical outlook stressing contingent identities and a pluralism of competing but equally plausible ways of looking at the world. Zizek always stresses that these postmodern positions not only cede too much ground to political conservatism, but that they lapse into incoherence by failing to pursue the modernist project to its radical conclusions.
This position is clarified in Zizek’s seminal 1999 book The Ticklish Subject, his first major effort to develop a systematic alternative to postmodern theories of the human subject. Here, Zizek runs through the various efforts to attack the Cartesian claim that there is a human subject that exists outside of social and linguistic determinations. For postmodern theorists like Michel Foucault, the concept of the human subject emerges as part of the broader historical development of western individualism. As such, it is a historically contingent way of looking at the human being, determined by society and the totality of the historical developments in which one participated. For Zizek, this position is fundamentally flawed. It takes the human being to be a fractured entity, determined by the totality of history and society. Zizek wants us to recognize that there is a human subject at the base of everything, one whose complex psychic and cognitive processes frame the way she looks at the world. The reason postmodern theorists dismiss this isn’t because the subject is fractured, but because society—and indeed nature itself—is incomplete. The appeal of ideology is that it enables us to bring psychic stability to a social and natural world that is chaotic and broken in and of itself.
In his later works, Zizek makes this position far more ontologically systematic. Starting with The Parallax View, Zizek talks about nature as characterized by fundamental “gaps,” which illustrate its incompleteness. In one of his famous recent metaphors, Zizek describes both society and nature as ontologically similar to the world of Pokemon Go. The social and natural world that we apprehend may have a certain stability, but that is because we are only looking at it in an ontologically constrained way. Like someone in a videogame, who tries to go beyond the boundaries of the digital world and realizes that there is nothing there, just an artificial boundary, when we look closely enough at nature, we recognize it as an entropic force governed by accidents and contingency. There is no deeper and more perfect order beneath it, just as there is no further digital world to explore beyond the one contained in the video game’s programming. This may seem like a pessimistic ontological outlook, but it also has an upside. Drawing on the philosophy of Georg Hegel, Zizek claims that the incompleteness of nature is part of what enables human freedom to emerge. In a truly perfect and complete nature, a kind of equilibrium would be reached in which there would be no space for human freedom. We would be entirely determined by natural laws, which would operate with deterministic regularity to prefigure all human action. The chaos of nature, and the dissatisfaction and anxiety it provokes, open up opportunities for us to transform ourselves. Take, for example, death and disease. These natural bodily functions occur as the processes which protect us gradually decay and become more chaotic. But we counter them through artificially changing our natures and disrupting these natural processes: through organ transplants, artificial limbs, and so on. Human freedom emerges as we struggle with the chaos of nature and seek to manipulate it to serve our ends.
The Human Subject’s Reaction to Nature
For Zizek, the recognition that nature is incomplete and chaotic helps us recognize how freedom emerges. But, like Kierkegaard in The Concept of Anxiety, Zizek recognizes that the conditions of our freedom can also produce a great deal of terror from which we will retreat. Nature’s incompleteness also means that there is no inner purpose to it, and that destruction and annihilation can occur at any moment. Disease, the possibility of mass extinction, the death of the innocent—these are not part of some grand plan that might redeem them. They are real possibilities, which we must come to accept and seek to overcome. Moreover, the fact that we human beings are not bound by nature and can create ourselves in any manner we wish, also brings with it the tremendous burden of deciding who it is that we wish to be. There is no prescribed plan or telos to which we can turn for guidance.
Rather than accept that fact, Zizek argues, many of us try to project onto nature—and by extension onto society—a perfection and completeness that does not exist in material reality. For instance, Aristotle and various Christian thinkers describe nature as a harmonious whole, which operates according to deterministic natural laws. Human beings have a nature as well, and once we discover it we can live happily in a society that approximates our inner essence. According to these perspectives, chaos and destruction emerge because corrupt and evil human beings distort the natural law. The point of knowledge is therefore to ascertain the natural or divine law and live by it. Evil emerges when one is ignorant of the natural law. This belief in an orderly nature and society provides a sense of psychological stability in the world. But it blinds us to the realization that it is not that human ignorance and failures distort the natural law: nature itself is chaotic and often unlawlike. As Zizek puts it in Absolute Recoil, invoking Hegel:
This is the classic Hegelian reversal: what at first appears as an impotence of limitation in our knowledge, as the impossibility of our grasping the wealth of natural phenomena conceptually, is turned into an impotence in nature itself. And, indeed, do we not find exactly the same constellation in quantum mechanics, where indeterminacy (complementarity) points towards a “weakness of nature,” in its inability to fully determine itself?
I will try to clarify this seemingly odd position with a few examples from Zizek’s work. Consider the common accusation made by conservatives and New Age believers alike that a given practice is unnatural. This can lead to anything from an aversion to homosexuality and transgenderism on the conservative end, to calls for a return to nature and the primitive on the New Age end. For Zizek, the assumption underpinning both these approaches is that there is some pure and perfect nature from which human beings have fallen. The concurrent belief is that a good society is one which approximates this perfect nature as completely as possible. Zizek argues that, for a materialist, this position is highly suspect. Nature is far from perfect: it is merely a sequence of often chaotic and destructive material processes. Sometimes these processes can prove beneficial, as when volcanic eruptions annihilated many species during the Great Extinction, enabling the development of coal and oil resources, which were later useful to human beings. But these beneficial outcomes are not signs of nature’s perfection, but contingent results of chaotic processes. Another example Zizek often gives concerns social phenomena. Conservatives will often claim that economic downturns result from our failure to sufficiently liberate capitalist markets from the constraints of governments, much as Communists will often claim that the Soviet experiment failed because real communism was improperly implemented. In each case, there is an idealized image of how society and the economy could function according to perfect natural laws, which are only disrupted by the human temptation to interfere: such perfect natural laws could be free capitalist markets or the inevitable movement of history towards real communism. What we refuse to recognize is that real capitalism and real communism fail because, like nature, they are highly imperfect systems driven by chaotic processes.
Zizek’s philosophy of nature and the subject tells us a great deal about politics, and sheds particular light on the attraction of ideology in a postmodern capitalist culture. For Zizek, we inhabit a more transparently chaotic time than ever before. The traditions and practices that framed many people’s sense of identity and values are increasingly being eroded through processes of neoliberalization and technological transformation. Moreover, the liberal democratic societies we inhabit seem increasingly powerless in the face of globalization. In addition, we are beginning to recognize the damage we are causing to the planetary ecosystem, damage which may result in natural catastrophes befalling large swathes of the human race. This exposes how fragile and incomplete nature is, and the delicate line that exists between a natural world that is well ordered for our survival and a more chaotic one that can generate destruction.
The consequence of these instabilities has been a growing turn towards ideology, which has become more omnipresent than ever before. Ideology provides us with a way of projecting psychic stability onto the world. For instance, it enables us to simplify complex sociopolitical and natural processes into simple partisan narratives. Rather than acknowledging that complex processes of neoliberalization and technological transformation have destabilized our societies, we can blame the presence of foreigners and elites, who provide a convenient human enemy to hold responsible for social instabilities—which spares us from having to analyze and change complex and powerful social processes. These ideological narratives also explain the attraction of postmodern conservatives like Donald Trump, who offer simple stories and clear enemies in lieu of engaging in genuine change. Or, to give another example, we disavow our concerns about climate change by secretly believing that nature must always repair itself to satisfy our needs. We demonstrate this not so much consciously—we may rationally acknowledge the danger—but through our ideological actions. Politically, on a day-to-day basis we refuse to agitate for major efforts to alleviate climate change, because that would mean admitting it is a problem that necessitates major changes to our behavior and outlook. In each of these cases, ideology simplifies the chaotic incompleteness of society and nature, and provides us with a firm sense of identity and values. For Zizek, we need to move beyond these ideological tropes and accept both the incompleteness of the world and the responsibility of our freedom within it.