On My “Reading” of Slavoj Žižek
And the craziness of Slavic critical leftist psychoanalysts
By MARTIN REZNY
Unfortunately, Žižek and I are not fellow countrymen, he is Slovenian while I’m Czech. But I don’t blame anyone for getting this wrong, it’s mainly our fault for overcomplicating it — first we were Czechoslovakia, then separated into Czech Republic and Slovakia, while a bit earlier, Yugoslavia had separated into many different nations, one of which is called Slovenia. With all that being said, Slovenia and Czech Republic are actually very much alike.
Fun fact, while the word “Slavic” was hijacked to produce the word “slave”, which may explain why it was a Czechoslovakian author who invented the word “robot” (Karel Čapek), how we call it, “Slovan”, is actually derived from the word “slovo”, meaning “the word”. Anyway, that doesn’t really have anything to do with anything, it just sounded like something Žižek would comment on randomly. If you want a contemporary Czech thinker which can be understood, I suggest Tomáš Sedláček and his Economics of Good and Evil.
That’s about it, these days it seems that each Slavic country can only support one great thinker. There certainly are cultural similarities between the Czech Republic and Slovenia these days, as these are actually the two most developed of the postcommunist countries. In terms of thought, if you compare Žižek and Sedláček, both are critical qualitative thinkers focusing on ethics, or lack thereof, in the current global capitalist system. I am as well.
The rest seems to be optional, and while I do technically use something like psychoanalytical method, I do have a number of gripes with all the classical approaches. If I had to pick one, I’m probably closest to Jung, while Žižek is closest to Lacan, but Žižek is far closer to what’s generally understood as psychoanalysis in the academia than I am. One of the differences is my main problem related to how he presents ideas, or as you say, his “diarrhea of the mouth.”
It feels almost like a stream of consciousness, random association, and that’s because in psychoanalysis, you don’t really have a hard anchor to reality in a way in which all materialist approaches do. At best, you have themes, like sexuality in Freud’s work, for example, or Žižek’s. I believe that his tendency to focus on scandalous sexual metaphors is one of the main reasons why he became so popular online. I’ve actually never read him, only listened to him.
And that’s not necessarily bad, it’s just a fact, but I personally prefer being more grounded in the thought — not only with a subject to examine, but also with a problem to solve, and a universalist perspective even within human subjectivity. That’s why I can only really connect with Jung and his notion of archetypes, I even share his fascination with Astrology for that reason, since astrology is the main historical effort to discover shared archetypes of human psyche. The rest of psychoanalysts either follow Freud and treat human subjectivity on a very arbitrary individual basis, or follow Marx and focus heavily on systemic economic issues. Žižek is between persons and economics.
I can completely understand how someone with a natural science background would be utterly lost in Žižek’s work, or that of any psychoanalyst, but I’m also fairly certain it’s not just nonsense, or Derrida-like postmodern academic trolling. The simplest way of decoding Žižek would be to say that he’s trying to deconstruct oppressive ideologies that keep people constrained within some kind of externally imposed economic relations designed to exploit them.
If you take his ideas one at a time, they tend to make sense just fine. For example take commodification — capitalist system turning ideas and experiences into commodities for sale. Or his analysis of political correctness and its relationship to racism — that it’s actually necessary to use vulgar language to break barriers and tensions between different groups of people. He mainly sheds light on something stupid that people fall for or do that through awareness can be dispelled. That’s why I would classify him as a countermage.
It’s hard to recall and put together what his main ideas are because of their anecdotal style, so maybe I’ll have to go for the most recent one that impressed me, his critique of Buddhism. Which was the best one I’ve ever heard, actually. First of all, he noticed that even though in practice good deeds are expected to be performed on the path to enlightenment, there’s no basis for any moral right or wrong in zen itself. You can achieve the same meditative state while helping or killing people, it doesn’t matter at all, and zen warriors were a real thing, in Japan especially. It only makes you better at less caring about your own survival and more able to do inhuman violence.
Second of all, if you really think about it, the whole goal of achieving transcendence of oneself through serenity is suspect. As long as you’re trying to minimize your own suffering, you can hardly be considered to have transcended yourself. Žižek suggests that while zen meditation is a great and powerful mental technique, maybe Buddhists should consider embracing “the fall”, suffering for something, and, well, meditate on the light side and dark side aspects of the forc… I mean, zen state. And he notes that some do.
He also has a bone to pick with zen Buddhism in how it plays into economic relations of capitalist oppression. He points out that of all the spiritual practices, zen is the one most compatible with capitalism, especially due to the illusory and chaotic nature of money and the stresses of making money by financial speculation and investment. Given the lack of a moral compass in the state of zen meditation, it then only better enables the bad people to be more effective, but no more caring. Now this is as coherent as Žižek has ever gotten.
Like much of what he observes, it’s a cool insight, but the problem is, at least for me, that in psychoanalysis and much of qualitative science you cannot compare it in any reliable or objective way to anything else. Not even to any other insight of Žižek. You can only organize it by subject matter, themes, or schools. To me as a (kind of) zen Buddhist, his observation is useful because now I better understand why my personal approach to it is not conventional, since I consider serenity to be inferior to suffering, and morality as essential.
In other words, with this one thing that he said I personally identify and have arrived at it independently. But should anyone else? What even are all of the possible positions one can have on this issue, let alone how they compare? What standards should, or can, be used for such comparison? How can one determine which issues need to be focused on in the first place? I just don’t know of any good answers to any of these questions by any psychoanalyst.
The few aspects that seem to be given are just historical coincidences from my point of view — critical means being critical of those in power; those in power have traditionally been capitalists, and/or organized religions, so that by default identifies you as a socialist-atheist. If you want to be more up-to-date, you can try to criticize postmodernism or multiculturalism, and that’s about it. If you instead of Marx follow more in Freud’s footsteps, you will focus on sexual taboos, frustrations, or deviations, analyze dreams, and improvise.
It doesn’t mean that this method cannot produce any legitimate insights, it’s just producing insights that are isolated and, as Karl Popper would say, unfalsifiable and therefore not really scientific. Not in any systematically tangible and useful way, at any rate. Psychoanalysis is for that reason good at tearing down nonsense, but it’s not very good for building a coherent system of thought. That’s also reflected in how easily it fragments into multiple schools critical of each other. So I like Žižek, but I too find him very random.
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