Žižek and the Political: A Summary

A Žižekian approach to the political can arguably be presented by mimicking the Lacanian Imaginary/Symbolic/Real triad.

The realm of the Imaginary is characterized by misrecognition, the illusion of wholeness, and narcissism. Whilst temporal ‘sequence’ doesn’t entirely apply in Lacan’s scheme, it’s still possible to associate the Imaginary with a form of logical priority (all the while recognising that the Imaginary persists throughout a subject’s life). Likewise, we could argue that Žižekian views of political hegemony and the split particular/universal serve as a form of ‘ground zero’ of political scenarios. This is to say that all political regimes and subjects operate under illusions (of universal representation, of a Meta-Crime or Enemy expunged, of the rightness of a particular Group as a stand-in for the Universal, of social wholenss) which mask a void (of incompleteness, of injustice, of the marginalised, of exclusions, etc.).

The Symbolic, then, would be the actual laws, cultures and institutions into which subjects have been (incompletely) interpellated and which sustain the cover-up of the Loss. As per the Lacanian link between the Unconscious and the symbolic — the unconscious being ‘like a language’ — Žižek here emphasizes the efficacy of signifiers, how leaders inevitably misattribute their authority to some essential element (e.g. divine right) when in fact all titles are fundamentally arbitrary and how subjects are hot-wired by and into the ‘desire of the Other’ i.e. the role of ideology and belief. Also key within the Symbolic — or pertaining to questions about how ideology continues to exercise a hold on subjects — is that of Super-Ego, that malevolent ‘voice’ behind the signifiers, that shadowy domain which makes impossible demands on subjects, which is the parallax obverse of the Law, it’s inherent trangression which violates it even as it constitutes it.

The Real — Lacan’s domain of an unrepresentable yet generative negativity ‘inherent’ (or ‘extimate’) to all symbolic systems — can tie in with Žižek’s views of the political Act, those revolutionary ‘works of love’ (to cite Che Guavara’s description of violent struggle) which transform a system completely. As in clinical scenarios where the whole ‘point’ of analysis is to get the analysand to problematize his/her relation to the signifying system (or, to ‘touch the Real’ within the Symbolic) and therefore change said relation, so in politics — the objective must be to reconfigure the system itself (usually by violent means or means which appear ‘psychotic’, e.g. Jesus’ voluntary death?). Here it is common for people to chide Žižek for the impracticality (or un-workability) of his ideas (of, say, revolution) but often these objections play into the very system which he hopes to shatter i.e. the Žižekian Act aims at redefining what ‘practicality’ and workability’ even mean as these are usually characterised within a pre-revolutionary framework.

So, the Imaginary is the realm of hegemonic representation (the Story/Lies the nation and its leaders tell themselves and each other); Symbolic is the realm of Law and its trangression (how/why subjects remain within the power of ideology); the Real is about how the system can be transformed completely.