Slavoj Žižek is wrong about stuff

Žižek’s latest article is bad. Really bad. A trainwreck. Almost every paragraph is – to a greater or lesser extent – wilfully ignorant, deliberately offensive, and ill-thought-through to the point of absolute redundancy. But no one needed me to tell them that; so why even bother responding to it? The first reason is personal. Žižek’s early books (The Sublime Object of Ideology, Looking Awry, etc.) were particularly influential on my academic development, and, like many, I was first exposed to Jacques Lacan through Žižek. I still believe he has done work which is sharp, insightful, and enlightening, and there are even some Žižekian turns of phrase that creep into my writing, owing to the amount of time I have spent reading him. So a particular pathos accompanies my reception of his recent interventions, to say the least. Secondly, as his most famous disciple, Žižek remains for many readers the predominant or even sole encounter with Lacan. It is profoundly unfortunate if the only Lacan a person comes across is Žižek’s, and even more so if this Lacan is seen as the support for ultimately reactionary conclusions on subjects as diverse as the refugee crisis and transgenderism. It falls on us as Lacanians to challenge Žižek’s (ab)use of the man’s theories, to reclaim Lacan on his own terms.

What this is not is a comprehensive, ‘line-by-line’ critique of Žižek’s article. Many of his arguments are essentially rehashes of familiar (homo/trans)phobic lines (“Why not even a marriage with animals?” is a sentence which actually appears therein, for example) and do not really warrant a response. Nor am I going to discuss Žižek’s baffling points about ethnic identity and class politics, or for that matter his conflation of transgenderism and postgenderism – again, I think every reader will see the shortcomings here without me having to highlight them. Besides, the famous political commentators Virgil Texas and Felix Biederman have already done this for us. Instead I would like to sketch some points about the (possible) relationship between psychoanalytic (and specifically, Lacanian) theory and transgenderism, and suggest that the framework Žižek has used to attack the latter can be turned in the opposite direction, against his conclusions.

Whenever we talk about psychoanalysis, what must not be passed over is its rejection of the apparent dichotomy between biological essentialism (gender as a biological fact synonymous with sex) and discursive constructionism (gender as a historico-social construction); faced with these two options, it chooses the third, so to speak. This is why it in fact seems to me that there is a certain congruence between psychoanalytic thought and the logic of transgenderism. Trans people are clearly not absolute constructivists – if they were, having acknowledged the historicism and contingency of ‘gender’ as such, they would not be so invested in carving out a place of possible identity within its framework, be it of the opposite gender to that corresponding to their biological sex (as in the case of trans men and women) or of a refusal of this binary altogether (as in the case of all that is gathered under the umbrella term ‘genderqueer’). They would simply dismiss the notion that anything related to gender had any fundamental bearing on their identity separate from performativity. Nor are they biological essentialists, as is evident from the separation of gender and biological sex inherent to transgenderism, and the mobility of gender therefore prescribed. What a trans person knows is that sex/gender cannot be reduced to biology, but also cannot be discarded altogether as purely rhetorical/performative. This is precisely Lacan’s own view, and why we can see the reasons Tim Dean has called Lacan “a queer theorist avant la lettre.”

Lacan was of the opinion that sex cannot be reduced to a discursive construction, because it is opposed to sense itself, occurring at (or as) the limit internal to signification: “Everything implied by the analytic engagement with human behaviour indicates not that meaning reflects the sexual, but that it makes up for it.” “Sex,” as Joan Copjec eloquently puts it, “is the stumbling block of sense.” This is what Lacanians mean when they say that sexual difference is ‘real’ – not that it maps onto a biological (prediscursive) reality, but that it designates the very failure of symbolisation itself. The symbolic is like a torus, structured around the hole of the real, which Lacan ingeniously described as “extimate” to it, and as such there is no signifier of sexual difference in the unconscious, only the phallus, which stands for this very impossibility. This is passed over by many gender theorists, who note that the symbolisation or discursive construction of sex is an ongoing process without end, but do not acknowledge that sex does not simply designate this discursive process, but rather the failure of this process altogether.

That there is no signifier of sexual difference in the unconscious means that, as Tim Dean writes, “sexual difference does not organize or determine sexual desire.” This is why Žižek’s conflation of gender identities and sexualities is particularly surprising; the Lacanian formula of the sexual relationship he quotes – “1+1+a” – has nothing to do, per se, with the genders of the people involved. Besides, the ‘third element’ he is so keen to centre his argument on, objet a, is radically unsexed, as Tim Dean has also pointed out: insofar as the subject’s relationship to the object operates via fantasy, no fantasy (cis- or transgendered, hetero- or homosexual) has any more claim to ‘authenticity’ or success than any other. In Lacanian theory, “masculine” and “feminine” describe not biological positions but rather positions assumed in relation to the deadlock of sex. As Lacan himself says, when explaining the graph of sexuation: “On the other side, you have the inscription of the woman portion of speaking beings. Any speaking being whatsoever, as is expressly formulated in Freudian theory, whether provided with the attributes of masculinity—attributes that remain to be determined—or not, is allowed to inscribe itself in this part.” A heterosexual male could very well be a feminine subject in terms of psychoanalysis, in a way which is crucially non-behaviourist. Insofar as they respond to a ‘real’ impossibility, both of these positions index a failure, and are bound to be equally (un)successful, albeit in asymmetrical ways.

The fact that the unconscious contains no signifier of sexual difference means that it is essentially bigendered/bisexual (as Freud himself already suggested), which is why Shanna T. Carlson has concluded that one way a transgendered person might be viewed in terms of psychoanalysis is as personifying “the human subject as such, the unconsciously bisexual subject for whom sexual difference is only ever an incomplete, unsatisfactory solution to the failure of the sexual relation.” Žižek (and, before him, Catherine Millot) obviously wants to argue that this solution is in fact a doomed attempt to escape the anxiety of castration. I do not understand why he comes to this conclusion. He seems to be suggesting, implicitly, that trans people fail to assume a position with regard to the phallus (‘having’ – masculine, or ‘being’ – feminine). But I see no reason to believe this once we understand that sexual position and gender identity are not synonymous in Lacanian theory. A heterosexual cisgendered man has no stronger claim or likelihood to have assumed his castration than anyone in any other sexual position, and indeed insofar as the only clinical structures available to the Lacanian subject are neurosis, perversion and psychosis, every subject comes to be defined by a complication or impasse with regard to the Other, that is, in relation to castration. It doesn’t make sense for Žižek to suggest that transgenderism is somehow a symptom which stands apart from all others. When Žizek writes that the “LGBT trend” to “deconstruct” sexual norms “reduces this tension to the fact that the plurality of sexual positions are forcefully narrowed down to the normative straightjacket of the binary opposition of masculine and feminine, with the idea that, if we get away from this straightjacket, we will get a full blossoming multiplicity of sexual positions (LGBT, etc.), each of them with its complete ontological consistency,” he makes an unwarranted leap, implying that trans people do not assume the same ontological lack as everyone else, even in spite of their gender identity, with as much or as little acknowledgement of this as is present in the cisgendered subject. Trans people have no illusions of being ‘more complete’ or fully realized sexually than their cisgendered counterparts. Žižek cannot simultaneously maintain that the “trend” he identifies attempts to both “de-ontologize” sex and provide the resulting sexual positions with “complete ontological consistency”. Indeed, Lacan – ‘anti-philosopher’ that he was – did not ascribe ontological consistency to sex at all, since, as we have already said, it marks the point at which logos itself fails. It seems that Žižek has found himself caught up in the same dated nature/culture dichotomy psychoanalysis exists to render obsolete.

The truth is, Lacan’s theory of sexual difference represents perhaps the most complex facet of his entire life’s work. I do not have space to do it justice here, and I am not even attempting to introduce Lacan’s graph of sexuation (which would indeed take a whole other essay). Lacan’s seminars on sexual difference contain many of his most notorious, provocative, and misunderstood statements: “There is no sexual relationship,” “Woman does not exist,” “Woman is a symptom of man”. This is part of the problem with Žižek’s article: he attempts to mount a Lacanian critique of transgenderism while only making vague gestures in the direction of what Lacan actually said. Too often, Lacan has become for Žižek a rhetorical flourish, or (in a case of sublime irony) a Big Other to appeal to for authenticity; the actual content of Lacan’s work is lost. In truth, Lacan has a lot to offer queer theory, and a genuinely Lacanian queer theory would be a large and fruitful undertaking, which can only take place if Lacanians are willing to listen (like actual analysts) to the accounts of trans people, instead of forcing them to conform to a pre-decided theoretical framework. If psychoanalysis cannot account for the existence of trans people without reducing them to a pathological version of the already-pathological cisgender human subject, it risks becoming the obsolete science its opponents claim it already is.

Further reading

I would point anyone who wants to read further on this subject to Shanna T. Carlson’s thoughtful essay, “Transgender Subjectivity and the Logic of Sexual Difference”. On Lacanian sexual difference, Sean Homer’s Jacques Lacan provides a good introduction, and Bruce Fink’s The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance is incredibly useful. Joan Copjec’s “Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason” is perhaps the definitive Lacanian response to Butlerian gender theory. And of course, Lacan should be read in his own words; in this case, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: Encore, On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973.

N.B. I have written a little more about this here, with further reading recommendations. 

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27 thoughts on “Slavoj Žižek is wrong about stuff

  1. Several recent books by Lacanians that have very nuanced and supportive psychoanalytic readings of trans/gender/sex.

    /Please Select Your Gender/ (Gherovici)
    /Transsexuality and the Art of Transitioning/ (Oren)
    See also trans inclusive comments in /Lacan and Feminist Epistemology/.

    I could go on. Zizek’s rehash of Mitchell crossed with Zuckerish AGP insinuations throughout were just obnoxious. That we even have to respond to this stuff (and thank you for doing so) is what drove me out of academia.

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    1. Does anyone know how this Mitchell/Zizek line of thought takes into account people who are intersex and in no way even lean to one side of the binary or the other?

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  2. I think Zizek’s point is not that trans people, or anyone, escapes the problematic of symbolic castration, which is the condition for entry into the social. His point was that contemporary enthusiasm for an endless multiplicity of genders, and the concomitant idea that the abolition of the gender binary will lead to a world free of sexual oppression, belies a naive belief that symbolic castration, and therefore social antagonism as such, can be overcome. It is a belief that coincides with right wing shoring up of sexual difference as an attempt to establish social harmony. On one side is the idea that this can be done accomplished endless multiplication and fluidity — limitless options to overcome all limits — the other, through the violent imposition of a limit (symbolic sexual difference) that cannot be challenged.

    I don’t see this as a commentary on the legitimacy or worth of trans people, Zizek’s terminological clumsiness notwithstanding. It seems rather to point out a fault in contemporary so called leftist politics which prevents those politics from occupying a more genuinely revolutionary and transformative position. (Hence the ease with which those politics can be adopted by corporate America.)

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      1. Google “cis heteropatriarchy” and you’ll find results like “All we need is love… And the abolition of the white cis hetero patriarchy,” and “I got 99 problems but the white cis hetero patriarchy is most of them.” I understand these are tongue in cheek, but they seem to speak to something fundamental about contemporary genderqueer politics (not inhabited solely by trans people of course): an underlying belief, usually not stated explicitly but easily discernible, that gender essentialism and its associated ills constitute the fundamental stumbling block to social/sexual harmony. Also, witness the popularity of guides to successfully navigating a polyamorous lifestyle, which usually portray polyamoury as both a) a more enlightened approach to romance that liberates one of unnecessary limitations and b) an experience which can be made harmonious for all involved parties through “good communication,” which can be learned — as if romantic/sexual conflict is a contingent failure which can be, with sufficient knowledge, overcome, rather than a constitutive feature of the sexual as such. Again this is not to demean non-monogamy, but to appreciate the contours of the ideology which today often underwrites it. Of course it’s rare to hear someone explicitly claiming that a world free of antagonisms is possible. But I think Zizek is right to point out an underlying tendency in much of contemporary leftist politics to identify some contingent social norm/identity-based oppression as the stumbling block to self-coincidence, leading to a politics dominated by (victimised) identities demanding symbolic recognition, rather than a more universalistic form of struggle and solidarity.

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      2. I think if Žižek had been as clear and considered in his remarks as you have been, he would have avoided a lot of the flak he’s received.

        I understand what you are saying here about the inflation of cisheterosexism (for lack of a better term, surely!) into a kind of primary bogeyman. But I think the term ‘cis hetero patriarchy’ extends to something which Marxists might very well just call ‘capitalism’; the ‘system’ itself, imbued as it is with dynamics which tend on the side of (traditional) masculinity, male and heterosexual dominance (even as they increasingly claim otherwise).

        Incidentally, I have problems with the idea of polyamory – I am sure this makes me incredibly ‘problematic’ to some, but that is another discussion.

        I am completely with you on the need for the leftist political struggle to be a universalist struggle. As Alain Badiou says, “there can be no universal sublation of the particular”. My worry is that a universal struggle cannot be possible as long as trans people are considered or discussed in the way Žižek has done.

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      3. Fair enough. I would not attempt to defend Zizek’s language as particularly welcoming to trans people or many others.

        But, as a last point, I have to admit that I find the way many of his critics cling on to his outdated or politically incorrect turns of phrases, as evidence of his deep seated philosophical bankruptcy/immorality, a kind of bad faith laziness that chooses easy moral judgement over intellectual assessment. It seems symptomatic of our times, and to turn the accusations of racism in their head, it may even reflect a kind of elitist demand for academic propriety over the more uncivilised Eastern European boorishness that he has come to represent. I’m accusing this post of that, as you are obviously considering and evaluating Z’s arguments. Just saying that while Zizek could probably do a better job articulating his arguments, so too could his readers/angriest critics do the work of actually considering his ideas even when couched in silly provocations about human-animal marriage.

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  3. The problem with your article is and is what Žižek’s answer to his critics was. You attributed a statement/question to him which never appears in the article. It’s unworthy and dishonest and as such there is no merit to your article. From the bit I read (I stopped at the lie) it appears you, like the critics he points out never read his article much less understand it, and let’s face it how can you understand something you have not read.

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      1. I apologise. You didn’t. I had just read Zizek’s most recent article and then your’s which was aimed at the previous “most recent” article. Again I apologize.

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  4. Thank you. It is very generous of you considering that I accused you of being dishonest. I also withdraw that as I should have had already. I have read the original article from Zizek and yours in light of my stupid mistake. Oddly enough I realize that I had read his piece before and had I did feel as I still do that he used some very vulgar comparisons (not that that is anything new for him) which I thought verged on transphobia. However I don’t really believe that he is transphobic and by the end of his article I think he shows that even if its in some future fantasy and that itself undermines. He doesn’t really engage with trans or queer theory as you describe it but uses it in the context of his bigger project.

    I found your comments on Lacan’s theories in this area very thought provoking and far easier to digest than Zizek’s references/comparisons in his piece. I haven’t read any of his books on Lacan and only ever read him from a purely political point of view. I will be reading those articles whose links you provided.

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  5. He is wrong about refugees, you are right, which is xenophobia. I’ve noticed that he is also proud of his Eurocentrism vis-à-vis the Orient. He writes condescendingly about ‘Asian values’ and makes fun of Buddhism without doing any scholarly homework–something that Tim Morton addressed pretty. This gap in Continental Philosophy regarding anything non-European, a problem that can perhaps be traced back to Hegel. And then, of course, there is Zizek not taking Islamophobia seriously although he wrote extensively about anti-Semitism. You’d expect him to be more sensitive regarding these issues, but I guess he’s old and tired and goes with what he knows instead of investing time and effort into learning new things about Buddhism, Islam, or anything Oriental for that matter without falling into the trap of Orientalism.

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  6. t here we have a presumably cis man generalizing about what trans people believe, working our mouths like a puppet, then claiming how psychoanalysts need to “listen to transpeople” so they can speak for them and tell us what we really are. the implication in the author’s statement is that psychoanalysts are not trans people and need to speak for trans people. Instead, how about trans psychoanalysts and writers speak for themselves, instead of all these cis people hopping on a bandwagon to join the “trendy” conversation that is actually so many people’s lived experiences. It makes me disgusted, honestly, although I did quite appreciate the critique of Zizek and I thank the writer for sharing the insights, regardless of my differences with the author.

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    1. I am sorry you feel this way. When I refer to the community of analysts listening to trans people, this of course includes trans analysts, and is not at all meant to mean analysts somehow ‘speak on behalf of’ trans people. To speak on behalf of any group would be totally antithetical to psychoanalysis. At the same time I do not believe that people should (or even can) only speak ‘for themselves’; this would surely lead to a crisis of empathy and intersubjectivity.

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  7. What I thought was really weird about that article was the part where he said, “Why don’t trans people confronted with binary toilets just say, ‘I am no-conforming, so I choose whichever toilet I want?` This is really bizarre in an article ostensibly about the fact that some states outlaw exactly that choice. It was as if he was arguing against a world where every gender (and every sexuality want) their own separate toilet, when the whole argument was all about trans women using female conveniences. I also think the anxiety a trans person faces in the situation in question is often of a more practical nature, having less to do with castration anxiety or existential dilemmas and more to do with the possibility of being beaten up in the men’s room.

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  8. Serious question and not intended to be disrespectful:
    why does anyone take Lacan seriously?

    I am sure by this question you can tell that I am not very pro-Lacan (or any form of literal Freudian-derived psychoanalytic thought), but I am definitely open to different POVs and having my mind changed.

    I do find Lacan and Lacanians to be quite interesting from time to time and I occasionally enjoy reading Lacan, but cannot understand taking him so seriously to the point where anyone would, in 2016, consider themselves to be “Lacanian”.

    Again, no offense or disrespect intended, I am genuinely curious as I’ve never had the chance to discuss this topic with an actual self-described Lacanian.

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    1. The short answer is because he was right. Lacan is probably the master dialectician of the 20th century and the one who was able to formalize the post-Hegelian lesson of the incompatibility of truth and totality, better than anyone else. He synthesized Freudian psychoanalysis with several other forms of thought (at different points: Greek, Hegelian and Heideggerian philosophy, Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, the linguistics of Saussure and Jakobson, Marxism, psychiatry, topological mathematics, etc.) to produce an extremely rich body of thought which really paved the way for the French theory of the second half of the 20th century. Lacan was saying “there is no Other of the Other” a decade before Derrida announced that “there is no outside-text”.

      Even if you’re beholden to blunt empiricism, the phenomena Lacan described can be seen every day in modern life, which is something Žižek has historically been good at showing. Popular culture is a treasure-house or Lacanianisms.

      I came to Lacan via literary studies, and found that it was him more than anyone else who was able to rigorously elucidate the reasons why people are compelled to start talking in the first place, and keep talking, and why talking always fails – the strict connection between discourse and desire, between language and the failure of the sexual relationship, which is finally the heart of literature in general. Lacan was unafraid to formalize conditions of which most literary theory has been content to make vague gestures in the direction.

      The French philosopher Alain Badiou has a good answer to this question:

      “Lacan taught me the connection, the necessary link between a theory of subjects and a theory of forms. He taught me how and why the very thinking of subjects, which had so often been opposed to the theory of forms, was in reality intelligible only within the framework of this theory. He taught me that the subject is a question that is not at all of a psychological character, but is an axiomatic and formal question. More than any other question!”

      The long and short of it is that Lacan is one of the most formidable and valuable thinkers of the last one hundred years, and perhaps the only worthy inheritor of the Freudian revolution. And remember, those who try to claim Freud is irrelevant do so in terms which would not exist without Freud’s work.

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  9. Great article! Very thought provoking and I learned much! I’ve been steadily reading all your articles this week (not meant to sound stalkery lol) and they are always really well written and researched. One question… when you gonna write a book?! 😀

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