- The Parallax View by Slavoj Žižek
MIT, 434 pp, £16.95, March 2006, ISBN 0 262 24051 3
As every schoolchild knows by now, a new book by Žižek is supposed to include, in no special order, discussions of Hegel, Marx and Kant; various pre- and post-socialist anecdotes and reflections; notes on Kafka as well as on mass-cultural writers like Stephen King or Patricia Highsmith; references to opera (Wagner, Mozart); jokes from the Marx Brothers; outbursts of obscenity, scatological as well as sexual; interventions in the history of philosophy, from Spinoza and Kierkegaard to Kripke and Dennett; analyses of Hitchcock films and other Hollywood products; references to current events; disquisitions on obscure points of Lacanian doctrine; polemics with various contemporary theorists (Derrida, Deleuze); comparative theology; and, most recently, reports on cognitive philosophy and neuroscientific ‘advances’. These are lined up in what Eisenstein liked to call ‘a montage of attractions’, a kind of theoretical variety show, in which a series of ‘numbers’ succeed each other and hold the audience in rapt fascination. It is a wonderful show; the only drawback is that at the end the reader is perplexed as to the ideas that have been presented, or at least as to the major ones to be retained. One would think that reading all Žižek’s books in succession would only compound this problem: on the contrary, it simplifies it somewhat, as the larger concepts begin to emerge from the mist. Still, one would not have it any other way, which is why the current volume – which, with its companion The Ticklish Subject (1999), purports to outline the ‘system’ as a whole (if it is one), or at least to make a single monumental statement – inspires some apprehension.
It will be dialectical to say that this apprehension is and is not confirmed. The first chapter, which explains the title and seeks to ground Žižek’s philosophy in some definitive method, is tough going indeed; I’ll come back to it. But later chapters – on Heidegger and politics, on cognitive philosophy and its impasses, on anti-semitism, on politics today – are luminous and eloquent, and will surely stand as major statements, with enough to provoke and irritate people from one end of the ideological spectrum to another (I am myself attacked in passing as some kind of gullible practitioner of commodification theory). Nor are they lacking in jokes, as tasteless as you might wish, and in passing remarks on current films (Žižek seems to have got Hitchcock out of his system, if not out of his unconscious – one never does that).
As for what has persisted through this now considerable oeuvre, I will start with the dialectic, of which Žižek is one of the great contemporary practitioners. The old stereotype is that Hegel works according to a cut-and-dried progression from thesis, through antithesis, to synthesis. This, Žižek explains, is completely erroneous: there are no real syntheses in Hegel and the dialectical operation is to be seen in an utterly different way; a variety of examples are adduced. Still, that stupid stereotype was not altogether wrong. There is a tripartite movement in the Hegelian dialectic, and in fact, Žižek goes on, he has just illustrated it: stupid stereotype, or the ‘appearance’; ingenious correction, the underlying reality or ‘essence’; finally, after all, the return to the reality of the appearance, so that it was the appearance that was ‘true’ after all.
What can this possibly have to do with popular culture? Let’s take a Hollywood product, say, Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944). (Maybe now Fritz Lang belongs to high culture rather than mass culture, but anyway . . .) Edward G. Robinson is a mild-mannered professor who, leaving his peaceful club one night, gets caught up in a web of love and murder. We think we are watching a thriller. At length, he takes refuge in his club again, falls asleep from exhaustion, and wakes up: it was all a dream. The movie has done the interpretation for us, by way of Lang’s capitulation to the cheap Hollywood insistence on happy endings. But in reality – which is to say in the true appearance – Edward G. Robinson ‘is not a quiet, kind, decent, bourgeois professor dreaming that he is a murderer, but a murderer dreaming, in his everyday life, that he is a quiet, kind, decent, bourgeois professor’. Hollywood’s censorship is therefore not some puritanical, uptight middle-class mechanism for repressing the obscene, nasty, antisocial, violent underside of life: it is, rather, the technique for revealing it.
Žižek’s interpretative work, from page to page, seems to revel in these paradoxes: but that is itself only some ‘stupid first impression’ (one of his favourite phrases). In reality, the paradox-effect is designed to undo that second moment of ingenuity, which is that of interpretation (it looks like this to you, but in reality what is going on is this . . .): the paradox is of the second order, so that what looks like a paradox is in reality simply a return to the first impression itself.
Or perhaps we might rather say: this is not a paradox, this is perversity. And indeed, the dialectic is just that inveterate, infuriating perversity whereby a commonsense empiricist view of reality is repudiated and undermined. But it is undermined together with its own accompanying interpretations of that reality, which look so much more astute and ingenious than the commonsense empiricist reality itself, until we understand that the interpretations are themselves also part of precisely that ‘first impression’. This is why the dialectic belongs to theory rather than philosophy: the latter is always haunted by the dream of some foolproof self-sufficient system, a set of interlocking concepts which are their own cause. This dream is of course the after-image of philosophy as an institution in the world, as a profession complicit with everything else in the status quo, in the fallen ontic realm of ‘what is’. Theory, on the other hand, has no vested interests inasmuch as it never lays claim to an absolute system, a non-ideological formulation of itself and its ‘truths’; indeed, always itself complicit in the being of current language, it has only the vocation and never-finished task of undermining philosophy as such, by unravelling affirmative statements and propositions of all kinds. We may put this another way by saying that the two great bodies of post-philosophical thought, marked by the names of Marx and Freud, are better characterised as unities of theory and practice: that is to say that their practical component always interrupts the ‘unity of theory’ and prevents it from coming together in some satisfying philosophical system. Alain Badiou has recently coined the expression ‘anti-philosophy’ for these new and constitutively scandalous modes of intervening conceptually in the world; it is a term that Žižek has been very willing to revindicate for himself.
Still, what can be the theoretical, if not indeed the philosophical content of Žižek’s little interpretative tricks? Let’s first take on the supremely unclassifiable figure who somehow, in ways that remain to be defined, presides over all Žižek’s work. One of Jacques Lacan’s late seminars has the title Les Non-Dupes errent. The joke lies in the homophony of this enigmatic proposition (‘the undeceived are mistaken’) with the oldest formula in the Lacanian book, ‘le nom du Père’, the name of the Father or, in other words, the Oedipus complex. However, Lacan’s later variant has nothing to do with the Father, but rather with the structure of deception. As everyone knows, the truth is itself the best disguise, as when the spy, asked what he does in life, answers, ‘Why, I’m a spy,’ only to be greeted with laughter. This peculiarity of truth, to express itself most fully in deception or falsehood, plays a crucial role in analysis, as one might expect. And as one might also expect, it is in that great non- or anti-philosopher Hegel that we find the most elaborate deployment of the dialectic of the necessity of error and of what he called appearance and essence, as well as the most thoroughgoing affirmation of the objectivity of appearance (one of the deeper subjects of The Parallax View). The other great modern dialectician, Theodor Adorno (whose generic tone compares with Žižek’s, perhaps, as tragedy to comedy), was fond of observing that nowhere was Hegel closer to his heroic contemporary Beethoven than in the great thunderchord of the Logic, the assertion that ‘Essence must appear!’
Yet this insistence on appearance now seems to bring us around unexpectedly to the whole vexed question of postmodernism and postmodernity, which is surely nothing if it is not a wholesale repudiation of essences in the name of surface, of truth in the name of fiction, of depth (past, present or future) in the name of the Nietzschean eternally recurring here-and-now. Žižek seems to identify postmodernism with ‘postmodern philosophy’ and relativism (an identification he shares with other enemies of these developments, some of them antediluvian, some resistant to the reification of the label), while on the other hand he endorses the proposition of an epochal change, provided we don’t call it that and provided we insist that it is still, on whatever scale, capitalism – something with which I imagine everyone will nowadays be prepared to agree. Indeed, some of his basic propositions are unthinkable except within the framework of the epochal, and of some new moment of capitalism itself; Lacan is occasionally enlisted in the theorisation of these changes, which have taken place since Freud made his major discoveries.
Take the new definition of the superego. No longer the instance of repression and judgment, of taboo and guilt, the superego has today become something obscene, whose perpetual injunction is: ‘Enjoy!’ Of course, the inner-directed Victorian must equally have been directed to enjoy his own specific historical repressions and sublimations; but that jouissance was probably not the same kind of enjoyment as that taken by the subject of consumer society and of obligatory permissiveness (Marcuse called it ‘repressive desublimation’), the subject of a desperate obligation to ‘liberate’ one’s desires and to ‘fulfil oneself’ by satisfying them. Yet psychoanalysis always involves a tricky and unstable balance between the theorisation of an eternal human psyche and the historical singularity of culture and mores: the latter tilts you back into periodisation, while the ‘eternal’ model is secured by the simple reminder that desire is never satisfied, whether you are a Victorian in thrall to duty or a postmodern intent on pleasure.
This is the point at which we reach the most persistent of all Žižek’s fundamental themes: namely, the death wish, the Thanatos, or what he prefers to call the ‘death drive’. Modern theory is indeed haunted by Freud’s death wish, that better mousetrap which any self-respecting intellectual owes it to himself or herself to invent a theory of (Freud’s own version having satisfied nobody). But we also owe it to ourselves to retain everything that is paradoxical (or perverse) in Žižek’s (or in Lacan’s) version of the matter; for here the Thanatos has nothing to do with death at all. Its horror lies in its embodiment as life itself, sheer life, indeed, as immortality, and as a curse from which only death mercifully relieves us (all the operatic overtones of The Flying Dutchman are relevant here, all the mythic connotations of the Wandering Jew, or indeed the vampire, the undead, those condemned to live for ever). The death drive is what lives inside us by virtue of our existence as living organisms, a fate that has little enough to do with our biographical destinies or even our existential experience: the Thanatos lives through us (‘in us what is more than us’); it is our species-being; and this is why it is preferable (following the later Lacan) to call it a drive rather than a desire, and to distinguish the impossible jouissance it dangles before us from the humdrum desires and velleities we constantly invent and then either satisfy or substitute.
As for jouissance, it is perhaps the central or at least the most powerful category in Žižek’s explanatory resources, a phenomenon capable of projecting a new theory of political and collective dynamics as much as a new way of looking at individual subjectivity. But to grasp the implications it is best to see jouissance as a relational concept rather than some isolated ‘ultimately determining instance’ or named force. In fact, it is the concept of the envy of jouissance that accounts for collective violence, racism, nationalism and the like, as much as for the singularities of individual investments, choices and obsessions: it offers a new way of building in the whole dimension of the Other (by now a well-worn concept which, when not merely added mechanically onto some individual psychology, evaporates into Levinassian sentimentalism). The power of this conception of envy may also be judged from the crisis into which it puts merely consensual and liberal ideals like those of Rawls or Habermas, which seem to include none of the negativity we experience in everyday life and politics. Žižek, indeed, includes powerful critiques of other current forms of bien-pensant political idealism such as multiculturalism and the rhetoric of human rights – admirable liberal ideals calculated to sap the energies of any serious movement intent on radical reconstruction.
All these ideals presuppose the possibility of some ultimate collective harmony and reconciliation as the operative goal or end of political action. It would be wrong to identify these ultimate aims with utopian thinking, which on the contrary presupposes a violent rupture with the current social system. Rather, they are associated, for Žižek, with that quite different absence of antagonism denounced in his very first book, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), a target also identified by Lacan and which has always been central in Žižek’s tireless explanations and propagation of Lacanian doctrine. This is the conviction that human subjectivity is permanently split and bears a gap within itself, a wound, an inner distance that can never be overcome: something Lacan demonstrated over and over again in an extraordinarily complex (and dialectical) articulation of the original Freudian models. But taken at this level of generality it is a view that might easily lead to social pessimism and conservatism, to a view of original sin and the incorrigibility of some permanent human nature.
It is to forestall and exclude just such a disastrous misunderstanding of the social and political consequences of the Lacanian ‘gap’ that is the task of The Parallax View. The book does so, however, not by any immediate extrapolation of the gap or constitutive distance from individual to collective; but rather by juxtaposing the theoretical consequences of split subjectivity on a variety of disciplinary levels (whence the difficulty of the opening chapter).
A parallax, Webster’s says, is ‘the apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer’; but it is best to put the emphasis not on the change or shift, so much as on the multiplicity of observational sites, for in my opinion it is the absolute incommensurability of the resultant descriptions or theories of the object that Žižek is after, rather than some mere symptomal displacement. The idea thus brings us back to that old bugbear of postmodern relativism, to which it is certainly related. (Popular locution mutes this scandal by way of narrative: X tells the story of quantum theory, or modern dictatorship, this way; Y tells a different story. These convenient and widely accepted turns of phrase efface all the serious philosophical debates about causality, historical agency, the Event, philosophies of history, and even the status of narrative itself, which is probably why Žižek, assimilating the problems themselves to ‘postmodern philosophy’, has often been dismissive of narrative as such.)
The more fundamental difference at issue can be measured by comparing the parallax idea with the old Heisenberg principle, which asserted that the object can never be known, owing to the interference of our own observational system, the insertion of our own point of view and related equipment between ourselves and the reality in question. Heisenberg is then truly ‘postmodern’ in the assertion of an absolute indeterminacy of the real or the object, which withdraws into the status of a Kantian noumenon. In parallax thinking, however, the object can certainly be determined, but only indirectly, by way of a triangulation based on the incommensurability of the observations.
The object thus is unrepresentable: it constitutes precisely that gap or inner distance which Lacan theorised for the psyche, and which renders personal identity for ever problematic (‘man’s radical and fundamental dis-adaptation, mal-adaptation, to his environs’). The great binary oppositions – subject v. object, materialism v. idealism, economics v. politics – are all ways of naming this fundamental parallax gap: their tensions and incommensurabilities are indispensable to productive thinking (itself just such a gap), provided we do not lapse into some complacent agnosticism or Aristotelian moderation in which ‘the truth lies somewhere in between’; provided, in other words, we perpetuate the tension and the incommensurability rather than palliating or concealing it.
The reader will judge from the case-studies in this volume whether parallax theory has been fruitful. In particular, the chapter on the dilemmas of cognitive science – the material brain and the data of consciousness – is a superb achievement which transcends Spinozan parallelism towards the ultimate Hegelian paradox: ‘Spirit is a bone.’ As far as politics is concerned, it seems to me that Žižek’s lesson is as indispensable as it is energising. He believes (as I do) that Marxism is an economic rather than a political doctrine, which must tirelessly insist on the primacy of the economic system and on capitalism itself as the ultimate horizon of the political situation (as well as of all the other ones – social, cultural, psychic and so forth). Yet it was always a fundamental mistake to think that Marxism was a ‘philosophy’ which aimed at substituting the ‘ultimately determining instance’ of the economic for that of the political. Karl Korsch taught us eighty years ago that for Marxism the economic and the political are two distinct and incommensurable codes which say the same thing in radically different languages.
So how to think about the concrete combinations they present in real life and real history? At this point, we glimpse what is clearly Žižek’s basic Lacanian model for parallax: it is the Master’s scandalous and paradoxical idea that between the sexes ‘il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel’ (Seminar XX). ‘If, for Lacan, there is no sexual relationship,’ Žižek writes, ‘then, for Marxism proper, there is no relationship between economy and politics, no “meta-language” enabling us to grasp the two levels from the same neutral standpoint.’ The practical consequences are startling:
To put it in terms of the good old Marxist couple infrastructure/superstructure: we should take into account the irreducible duality of, on the one hand, the ‘objective’ material socioeconomic processes taking place in reality as well as, on the other, the politico-ideological process proper. What if the domain of politics is inherently ‘sterile’, a theatre of shadows, but nonetheless crucial in transforming reality? So, although economy is the real site and politics is a theatre of shadows, the main fight is to be fought in politics and ideology.
This is a far better starting point for the left than the current interminable debates about identity v. social class (it also seems to me a more appropriate climax than the enigmatic reflections on ‘Bartleby’ that actually close the book).
But it is appropriate, in the light of the earlier discussion, to ask just how dialectical this now turns out to be. I think an argument would run something like this: that third moment of the dialectic which returned to appearance as such is sometimes described (in Hegelian jargon) as returning to ‘appearance qua appearance’, to appearance with the understanding both that it is appearance and that nonetheless as appearance it has its own objectivity, its own reality as such. This is precisely what happens, I believe, with the two alternatives of the parallax, let us say the subjective and the objective one. To discover that neither the code of the subject nor the code of the object offers in itself an adequate representation of the unrepresentable object it designates means to rediscover each of these codes as sheer representation, to come to the conviction that each is both necessary and incomplete, that each is so to speak a necessary error, an indispensable appearance. I would only want to wonder whether there are not more complex forms of the parallax situation which posit more than two alternatives (on the order of subject and object), but which rather confront us with multiple, yet equally indispensable codes.
I cannot conclude without explaining my hesitant apprehensions about Žižek’s project. Clearly, the parallax position is an anti-philosophical one, for it not only eludes philosophical systemisation, but takes as its central thesis the latter’s impossibility. What we have here is theory, rather than philosophy: and its elaboration is itself parallaxical. It knows no master code (not even Lacan’s) and no definitive formulation; but must be rearticulated in the local terms of all the figurations into which it can be extrapolated, from ethics to neurosurgery, from religious fundamentalism to The Matrix, from Abu Ghraib to German Idealism.
Yet theory was always itself ‘grounded’ on a fundamental (and insoluble) dilemma: namely, that the provisional terms in which it does its work inevitably over time get ‘thematised’ (to use Paul de Man’s expression); they get reified (and even commodified, if I may say so), and eventually turn into systems in their own right. The self-consuming movement of the theoretical process gets slowed down and arrested, its provisional words turn into names and thence into concepts, the anti-philosophy becomes a philosophy in its own right. My occasional fear is, then, that by theorising and conceptualising the impossibilities designated by the parallax view, Žižek may turn out to have produced a new concept and a new theory after all, simply by naming what it is probably better not to call the unnameable.