Volume 3, Number 1 (January 2006)
Author: Dr. Paula Murphy
Review of: Rex Butler. Slavoj Zizek: Live Theory. London: Continuum International Press, 2005.
Slavoj Zizek is one of the most prolific and interesting theorists alive today. With a theoretical matrix that is derived mainly from Lacanian psychoanalysis, he has set himself apart from other psychoanalytic critics by using the insights of the discipline to explore areas as diverse as Hollywood film, in books like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) and contemporary global conflict in most recent book Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. It is quite unusual for a theorist so young to already have critical guides to his writing. It is a testament to his importance as a contemporary philosopher, as it is been an honour bestowed on eminent thinkers like Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida. Indeed, the commonality of these three theorists does not end there, as all of them have been outspoken on the issues of war and terrorism1 , share a common interest in contemporary culture, and a concern with involvement in psychoanalytic issues, a relationship that will be explored further in this review.
The first Zizek guide was published in 2003, and written by Sarah Kay, providing a lucid analysis of his significant oeuvre. So what does Rex Butler have to offer that is new? Butler’s book is part of the Live Theory series published by continuum press. It is comprised of monographs on prominent contemporary philosophers and features overviews of the work of Baudrillard, Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous. In line with the philosophical emphasis of the series, Butler approaches Zizek with a view to untangling the philosophical threads of his writing and evaluating how his perspective develops on, and differs from, Jacques Lacan. Resultantly, the book is dense and complex, woven with philosophical dilemmas and theoretical logicality. In its favour, it is markedly different from Kay’s book, which is an accessible introduction to Zizek for the uninitiated. Butler’s book, while innovative from a philosophical point of view, is less of an introduction than a book-length argument for a particular interpretation of Zizek’s relationship to philosophy, and one that plays down the inter-disciplinarity and imbrication of high and low culture that have made Zizek such a popular theorist.
However, Butler does comment on dilemmas associated with writing an introductory text, which shows that he is aware of the problems of such a task. Firstly, there is the fact that it is often better to read the actual writer rather than another critic’s account of that writer. In relation to this book, the matter is further complicated by the fact that Zizek is re-interpreting Lacan and Hegel, which may question his validity as an original philosopher. Perhaps, suggests Butler, imitating his subject’s own titular playfulness, his book should be entitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Zizek (But Were Too Lazy to Read Zizek) or Everything You Already Knew about Zizek (Because You Have Already Read Lacan and Hegel)”.2 Because of this philosophical borrowing, Butler rightly assumes that it is necessary to firstly make a case for viewing Zizek as a philosopher who merits attention in his own right. He justifiably asserts that “it is not some literal fidelity to Lacan’s psychoanalysis that is at stake here…Rather, Lacanian psychoanalysis is caught up from the beginning in other fields of knowledge”.3 It is quite true that every philosopher builds on what has gone before. Even Jacques Derrida’s critique of the entire canon of Western philosophy begins with the canon itself, and utilises the concepts that are still relevant within his logocentric critique. While it would seem logical to follow this argument to its conclusion and say that Zizek‘s originality lies in his application of Lacanian psychoanalysis in new contexts and to new subjects, Butler’s defence of Zizek rests on his connection of philosophy and psychoanalysis in relation to the split subject of Lacanian psychoanalysis, and the subject as a substance standing in for a void in Hegelian philosophy.
Because Butler is primarily interested in the philosophical implications of Zizek’s writing, the book is structured around two major psychoanalytic ideas: the master signifier and the object a. The master signifier is a part of Lacan’s symbolic order: the order of Law and language. Within the symbolic order, master-signifiers as defined by Zizek are those signifiers “that by which an implicit order or prescription is made to seem as though it is only the description of a previously existing state of affairs”.4 As an example of such a signifier, one might think of the word “nation”, which insists on a commonality amongst a heterogeneous group of people. In light of this definition, Zizek’s interpretation of the Lacanian master signifier would seem absolutely relevant to contemporary society, in which the concept of the nation itself is being questioned by technological advances which emphasise the arbitrary nature of man-made borders. According to Baudrillard however, the concept of the symbolic itself is outdated: psychoanalysis “acknowledges the ghostly presence of the symbolic, [but] it averts its power by circumscribing it in the individual unconscious”.5 Baudrillard asserts that it is the principle of simulation and not symbolic exchange, whether Marxist of Lacanian, that “regulates social life”.6
The object a, the other major concept explored by Butler, is a concept described by Lacan as the object of desire that is sought in the other. Since the Lacanian subject is based upon lack, the object a represents that which could potentially fill the manqué a etre, or gap in being, although this possibility is never filled because of the endless deferral of desire. Butler proposes that in Zizek’s oeuvre, the object is a related to the master signifier. It is “what makes the master-signifier both possible and impossible”.7 For Lacan, it is language and the symbolic that causes desire because of its endless deferral of meaning. Baudrillard too recognises this characteristic of language, saying: “[w]hat actually displaces it, ‘seduces’ it in the literal sense, and makes it seductive, is its very appearance: the aleatory, meaningless, or ritualistic and meticulous, circulation of signs on the surface”.8 However, while Baudrillard agrees that Lacan improves upon Freud, he argues that he does not accurately describe the seduction of language, because it is always “under the bar of the Law (of the Symbolic)”.9
The book looks at these two concepts, the master signifier and the object a, in various different ways, and it is structured around them. As Butler tells us, in Hegelian terms, chapters two revolves around the master signifier, chapter three considers its negation, and chapter four, the negation of this negation. Or, if the object is thought of as the subject of the book, chapter two analyses it “for the other”, chapter three looks at it “in-itself”, and chapter four regards it “in-and-four-itself”.10 The penultimate chapter deals with critics of Zizek, focusing primarily on Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau, and the book concludes with Zizek’s own words, in an interview conducted with him.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the link that Butler makes between the symbolic and the real in Zizek’s writing. In Plague of Fantasies, Butler tells us that he warns of “the potential psychosis that results in the bringing together of the Symbolic and the Real in such things as computer games”.11 This is because in Lacanian terms, the symbolic is already known as a virtual experience, because it removes the subject from the pre-linguistic real of fullness and wholeness and divides and ruptures the subject in language, creating a gap between being and meaning or ontology and epistemology. In the interview at the end of the book, he makes this clear saying that virtual reality is simply a concretization of the reality already felt by subjects in language. It simply “generalises this procedure of a product deprived of its substance: it produces reality itself deprived of its substance, of the resisting hard kernel of the Real”.12 And although Baudrillard is in general critical of Freud and Lacan, this would seem to be a site of agreement between psychoanalysis and postmodernism. If, as Baudrillard claims, “[t]he very definition of the real becomes that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction”,13 in other words that reality itself is hyperreal, this coincides with Zizek’s analysis of the symbolic order as it is encapsulated in virtual reality. Yet, as Butler acknowledges earlier in the book, Zizek is not suggesting as Baudrillard does, an end to the symbolic as it is constituted under the Law, but rather proposing that it should be thought of in its transcendentality; “the taking into account of that ‘outside’ that makes it possible”.14 This stance is reminiscent of the Derridean logic of supplementarity, and the importance of being aware that if a system of thought has a limit, that this necessitates that the system cannot be universal, but demands a supplement. As Butler states, it is “only through the self-contradiction involved in identity that we are able to grasp its limit, and not through its simple impossibility or deferral”.15
In chapter five: “Zizek on Others: Others on Zizek”, Butler makes a statement regarding critics of Zizek that could well be applied to his own book on the writer. He states, “there is something in the relationship of the critics to what they criticize that goes beyond both of them…the critic is able to see something that is not already in the work…the work is able to speak of something that is not already known to the critic”.16 There is no doubt that Butler’s book clarifies philosophical aspects of Zizek’s work in a manner impossible for the writer himself. However, there is a danger that in doing so, his writing is complicated even more. If you are already familiar with Zizek’s writing and wish to engage more fully with how his own philosophy is different to those of the writer he emulates: Hegel and Lacan, then buy this book. If you are looking for an introduction to the writer and the literary, filmic, political and cultural critiques he undertakes, then perhaps it would be best, as Butler humorously suggests in the introduction, to read the texts of the writer himself.
About the Author:
Dr. Paula Murphy is from the Department of English Language and Literature, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, Ireland.
1 – See Baudrillard. “This is the Fourth World War: The Der Spiegel Interview”. In International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 1, Number 1 (January 2004). Giovanna Borradori. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida; and Slavoj Zizek’s Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. New York: Verso, 2004
2 – Rex Butler. Slavoj Zizek: Live Theory. London: Continuum, 2005:13.
3 – Ibid:14.
4 – Ibid:19.
5 – Jean Baudrillard. “Symbolic Exchange and Death” in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Edited by Mark Poster. Stanford University Press, 2001:122.
6 – Ibid.:123.
7 – Butler, Rex, Slavoj Zizek: Live Theory. London: Continuum, 2005:27.
8 – Jean Baudrillard. “On Seduction” in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Edited by Mark Poster. Stanford University Press, 2001:152-3.
9 – Ibid.:156.
10 – Rex Butler. Slavoj Zizek: Live Theory. London: Continuum, 2005:29.
11 – Ibid:29.
12 – Ibid:143.
13 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Orders of Simulacra” in Modern Literary Theory (4th Ed.) Edited by Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001:338.
14 – Rex Butler. Slavoj Zizek: Live Theory. London: Continuum, 2005:37.
15 – Ibid:59.
16 – Ibid:126.