Guide to Slavoj Zizek

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The Imaginary

The Symbolic

The Real

The Subject

The cogito

Slavoj Žižek fully endorses the model of the Cartesian subject.

The Introduction of Žižek's The Ticklish Subject begins with his assertion that 'a spectre is haunting Western academia…, the spectre of the Cartesian subject' (TTS: 1). The Cartesian subject, or cogito as it is also known, is, he proclaims, constantly liable to attempts to exorcize it from contemporary thought by New Age obscurantists, postmodern deconstructionists, Habermasians, Heideggerians, cognitive scientists, Deep Ecologists, post-Marxists and feminists.

René Descartes (1596-1650), the French philosopher, mathematician and soldier who is often referred to as the Father of Modern Philosophy. Descartes' starting point for the cogito was a cold winter's day. It was so icy that he climbed into a very large stove to keep himself warm and stayed there all day. During his confinement Descartes commenced upon the philosophic procedure which is named after him: Cartesian doubt. The point of this procedure was to establish what could really be known.

Descartes began by isolating the evidence of his senses: was he really sitting by a fire in his dressing gown? He concluded that he could not be sure. He had often dreamt of just such a scenario and, in his dream, this had seemed real to him. However, even if the dream itself were an illusion, what of the concepts employed by the dream, the mathematical concepts such as shape, number and size which apparently match those of reality? Descartes concedes that although these may seem to be correct, there is a possibility that they are all the invention of an evil genius designed to fool him. If this were the case though, Descartes argues that he could not be deceived if he did not exist in some form. Given that his body may be an illusion, Descartes concludes that at the very least his thought must exist, if it is to be deceived:

While I decided thus to think that everything was false, it followed necessarily that I who thought thus must be something; and observing that this truth: I think, therefore I am, was so certain and so evident that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were not capable of shaking it, I judged that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking. (Descartes 1968:53-54) This phrase and first principle-'I think, therefore I am' or 'cogito, ergo sum'-is what the term 'cogito' designates.


The term 'post-structuralism' designates the body of work written by a loosely affiliated group of philosophers and critical theorists.

Among the most prominent post-structuralists are the Frenchmen Jacques Derrida (1930-) and Roland Barthes (1915-1980). Jacques Lacan is often included among this group but Žižek refutes this and charges Derrida with consistently misreading Lacan's work.

Broadly speaking, post-structuralism foregrounds the role of language, showing how it affects what we know and who we are. It argues that reality is a linguistic text, and that, as language is also unstable and subject to a constant slippage of meaning, reality is also unstable and beyond our ability to control it.

cogito and the poststructuralists

There are many ways of interpreting the cogito, but we are interested here only in two-the post-structuralist version and Žižek's version. For the post-structuralists, the cogito is the basis of the centred subject, or, as it is more commonly known, the 'individual', and it is regarded by them as the spoilt brat of philosophy. The individual, as the name suggests, is indivisible. In our day-to-day lives, we tend to think of ourselves as individuals because we feel we are complete, in charge of ourselves and not subject to the whims of outside forces. When Descartes states 'I who thought thus must be something', we understand that 'I', the 'I' of the cogito, to be an individual. It is the 'I' that does the thinking-the thoughts belong to him rather than him to the thoughts. In other words, the 'I' of the cogito is the master of itself. An individual is therefore self-transparent-nothing impedes its understanding of itself because it is in total control and has total autonomy over its actions. There are no dark banana skins of the soul waiting to slip up the psyche, there are no words which threaten to betray the meaning of their speaker, and there are no gusts of history which might suddenly blow the individual from its perch. The world of the individual is an immaculate, windless, danger-free environment.

It is, therefore, a state of perfection. Its main advantage is that nothing impinges upon the autonomy of the individual. Every person, as the saying goes, is an island-self-sufficient, independent and free to do what it wills. Its main disadvantage, however, is that nothing impinges upon the autonomy of the individual. Every person is an island-self-sufficient, independent and free to do what it wills. In other words, the very features of the individual which seem to confer upon it such blessings are also those which blight it. This is because the individual conceived in this way is utterly subjective; everything remains within its dominion and subject to its control. There is no objectivity at all.

If this seems merely to be a philosophical problem, the consequences for this model of subjectivity are equally compelling within 'reality' as well. For example, until recently, it was generally accepted (by men at least) that only men were masters of themselves. Women, on the other hand, were supposed to be subject to passions and feelings which they could not properly control. That is to say, women were not centred subjects but decentred subjects. They were, therefore, not 'proper' individuals and were treated accordingly as second-class citizens, subject to the rule of the masterful men. In fact, the mastery of women formed part of the larger project to dominate the natural world itself (of which women were held to be a part). The results of this project, which is sometimes referred to as the Enlightenment Project, can be witnessed in the devastation wreaked upon the environment. If it seems a little harsh to rebuke a philosophical model with the destruction of the planet, it is perhaps worth remembering that only a subjectivity which thinks it answers exclusively to itself would risk the destruction of nature and not expect to be held accountable for it. For, in destroying nature, we are effectively sawing away at the branch on which we sit.

Against the background of this rampant subjectivism, then, it is perhaps not surprising that philosophers (among them the poststructuralists) discerned the need for a corrective dose of objectivism. They built upon developments in other sciences which had long been chipping away at the monumental authority of the centred subject. For instance, the Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) pushed humanity to the margins of the solar system by showing that the Earth orbited the Sun rather than the other way round. Similarly, Charles Darwin, the English naturalist (1809-1882), proved that humans are a species of ape subject to the laws of nature and not a breed apart from other animals. And, in creating the field of psychoanalysis at the beginning of the twentieth century, Freud's disclosure of the unconscious demonstrated that much of our psychic life is inaccessible and beyond our control. All of these developments, along with others, helped to breach the seemingly impervious subjectivism of the individual, showing it to be subject to forces outside of itself, or else that it belonged to a world of which it was not the centre.

Building upon these theories, the post-structuralists rejected the notion of the cogito with its associated individualism and advanced in its stead the idea of the decentred subject. As I have already suggested, this subject is not an autonomous being with the power of self-determination but rather an effect of the structure of discourse where competing discourses intersect and speak through the subject. In this way, the meaning of the subject is not inside or at the centre of itself; instead the meaning of the subject is decentred or located outside of the subject in the competing discourses, in, for example, the discourse of the unconscious or ideology. The subject is therefore determined or impelled by these discourses. It cannot determine itself but is subject to (or in a 'subject position' to) the dominant ideologies and histories of the day. In its bleakest form, therefore, the decentred subject is little more than a puppet of overwhelming forces with, as Žižek points out, its only individual outlet being the way in which it experiences life at the end of the strings:

In 'post-structuralism', the subject is usually reduced to so-called subjectivation, he is conceived as an effect of a fundamentally non-subjective process: the subject is always caught in, traversed by the pre-subjective process (of 'writing', of 'desire' and so on), and the emphasis is on the individuals' different modes of 'experiencing', 'living' their positions as 'subjects', 'actors', 'agents' of the historical process.

   (SOI: 174)

In other words, the post-structuralist subject is, as Derrida argues, merely 'a "function" of language' (Derrida 1973:145), a kind of Symbolic automaton doomed to ventriloquize the discourse of the big Other.

One of the problems with this model, of course, is that the objective world encroaches so far upon the subjective world of the individual that there is little or no subjectivity left. If everything is objective, if there is no subjective element to my character at all, I cease to have any particularity or any individuality: I am nothing but the point where the system, or the Symbolic, speaks. But this cannot be right either. How, for example, can I decide to drink coffee in the morning rather than tea if I am a decentred subject that is merely a puppet pulled by the strings of ideology, language, the unconscious and so on? Where is the 'I' that makes this decision or indeed any decision? Clearly, in a world of pure objectivity this 'I' does not exist, but equally clearly we do not live in such a world either because we do make such decisions.

Both of the models of subjectivity we have looked at so far, then, are hamstrung by forms of extremism, tending either to over-value the subjective or prize too highly the objective. A fully rounded subjectivity must maintain a productive harmony between the two, preserving the realm of the personal in order that we may exist at all and securing it upon the ground of the impersonal so that we may have somewhere to exist in. To find such a subject we must return to Žižek's reading of the cogito and examine how he understands it completely differently from the post-structuralists.


Žižek's reading of the cogito is rather more indebted to the method by which Descartes arrives at his famous pronouncement than just the cogito itself. Specifically, for Žižek, the method of Cartesian doubt affords us a telling insight into how we transform from beings immersed in nature (or objectivity) to beings supported by culture (or subjectivity). The works of philosophers, such as the Germans Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Hegel, are, according to Žižek, haunted by the question of this transformation. How is it that at one moment we are just part of nature, part of an objective world, and in the next moment we are speaking beings able to adopt a subjective attitude towards the rest of the world? Where does this distance come from? Unable to postulate that culture is magically conferred upon human beings, Hegel and Kant are forced to invent a creature that is not quite of nature but not yet of culture (or logos-the Word, as Žižek variously phrases it) either. In Hegel's work, for example, the place of this in-between being is occupied by what Hegel terms 'negroes', a people half in thrall to nature and half attempting to enthral it.

For Žižek, however, the missing link between nature and culture is to be found in the process of Cartesian doubt. Žižek describes the process of Cartesian doubt as a withdrawal into self-a withdrawal symbolized by Descartes's own physical withdrawal into the oven. Descartes cuts himself off from the world, systematically severing all links with his environs until all he is left with is the cogito. It is here, in the gesture of total withdrawal, that Žižek locates the hidden passage from nature to culture. This gesture is, for Žižek, one of madness-the specific madness of Hegel's 'night of the world':

This night, the inner of nature, that exists here-pure self-in phantas-magorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head-there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye-into a night that becomes awful.

   (quoted in CATU: 258)

It is only when reality is eclipsed by this 'night of the world', when the world itself is experienced only as loss, as absolute negativity, that it becomes possible, and indeed necessary (if we are to escape from madness), to construct a symbolic universe or a universe of culture. Descartes's withdrawal-into-self is precisely such an experience of radical loss. For Žižek, Descartes's cogito is not the substantial 'I' of the individual, but an empty point of negativity. This empty point of negativity is not 'nothing' but the opposite of everything, or the negation of all determinacy. And it is exactly here, in this empty space devoid of all content, that Žižek locates the subject. The subject is, in other words, a void.

It is this void that, for Žižek, enables the transition from a state of nature to a state of culture. This is because if there was no gap between a thing (or an object) and the representation of that thing (or word), then they would be identical and there would be no room for subjectivity. Words can only exist if we first 'murder' the thing, if we create a gap between them and the things they represent. This gap, the gap between nature and the beings immersed in it, is the subject. The subject, in other words, is the missing link, or 'vanishing mediator' as Žižek calls it, between the state of nature and the state of culture. Žižek's point here is that the transition from nature to culture is not a story that can be told in terms of an evolutionary narrative, such as that offered by Hegel. Rather, the withdrawal-into-self which culminates in the cogito has to be presupposed as the vanishing mediator between the two, the missing link around which the transition is organized. In other words, we have to 'get rid' of the Real before we can construct a substitute for it in the form of the Symbolic Order. Žižek reads this vanishing mediator as a passage through madness and, by so doing, he conceives the subject (which is the vanishing mediator) as mad. Madness, therefore, is for Žižek a prerequisite for sanity, that is, for the 'normalcy' of a civilized subject.

birth of God

Žižek's point of reference for this theory of the genealogy of the subject is the work of the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854). For Žižek, Schelling functions as a kind of vanishing mediator in the history of philosophy. His work is the invisible connection between idealism and materialism, maintaining the form of the idealism of previous philosophers while introducing the content of a materialism that is later taken up by Marx, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Freud. It is because Žižek reads Schelling as a vanishing mediator that he does not disregard what might otherwise appear to be the arcane religious mythology of his work. As Žižek comments, 'every attempt to discard the part or aspect considered "not true" inevitably entails the loss of the truth itself' (TIR: 7).

With this in mind, it is perhaps less surprising that Žižek expends most of his labour on analysing the second draft (of three) of Schelling's Die Weltalter (or Ages of the World), the text in which Schelling considers nothing less than the genesis of God. The origin of God, as Žižek reminds us, is well known from the Gospel according to St John: 'In the beginning was the Word'. Žižek designates this beginning with an upper case 'B'-it is the 'Beginning'. However, for Žižek, Schelling's philosophy is all about the fact that the Beginning is not at the beginning. Before the Beginning 'is the chaotic-psychotic universe of blind drives, their rotary motion, their undifferentiated pulsating' (TIR: 13). These drives are the ultimate Ground (Grund) of reality-the basis for everything. Nothing precedes them, except this 'nothing' itself, this abyss (or Ungrund).

The nature of this abyss, as the title of Žižek's book on the topic suggests, is one of unmitigated freedom. It is not a freedom that 'belongs' to anyone, it is not the predicate of a subject; it is, rather, 'a pure impersonal Willing (Wollen) that wills nothing' (TAOF: 15), the brute contingent fact which, for Schelling, must be presupposed to exist. In the beginning (which, remember, is prior to the Beginning) God is part of this Freedom-He is not yet the individual Being. He is a pure Nothingness enjoying the state of non-being. Such contentment, however, contains the seeds of an inherent discontent. This is because the blissful peace of pure freedom is based on the fact that it is an unassertive Will which wants nothing. Nevertheless, wanting 'nothing' is an assertion in itself, as Žižek explains:

The pure potentiality of the primordial Freedom-this blissful tranquillity, this pure enjoyment, of an unassertive, neutral Will which wants nothing-actualizes itself in the guise of a Will which actively, effectively, wants this 'nothing'-that is, the annihilation of every positive, determinate content.(TIR: 23)

Wanting nothing and wanting 'nothing' are two sides of the same coin, contractions and expansions which constitute the rotary motion of drives which precede the Beginning. The Will that wants something is the positive, expansive Will, while the Will that wants precisely nothing is the negative, contracting Will. The result is a recursive deadlock.

Žižek interprets this recursive deadlock, this rotary motion, as failed attempts to Begin, as so many false starts. It is a vicious circle in which God fails to differentiate between Himself and His Predicate. God, in other words, is merely part of the Grund, of the basis of reality, but not yet an independent Entity in His own right. For God to achieve His independence He has to disentangle Himself from the Grund. As Žižek explains:

In order to posit itself as an actual free Entity disengaged from blind necessity-in short as a person-the Absolute has to get things straightened out, to clear up the confusion in itself, by way of acquiring a distance towards what in it is not God Himself but merely the Ground of His existence-that is by ejecting the Ground from Himself.(TIR: 36)

It is here that we find the analogy with Descartes's own attempt to secure the first principle of philosophy-the solid ground of existence. For the only way that God can establish the Ground for His existence is, like Descartes, by destroying all determinate content, by withdrawing from the world, as it were, 'by ejecting the Ground from Himself'. Žižek characterizes this act as a form of divine insanity, one that can be identified as analogous to the madness of Hegel's 'night of the world'. In other words, as Žižek deftly phrases it: 'God himself was "out of his mind"' (TAOF: 11). He has to risk madness before He can exist. It is this lunacy which, for Žižek, constitutes the vanishing mediator between Nothingness and God Himself.

What is crucial to recognize here-for it is a motif that runs throughout Žižek's oeuvre-is that the subject (in this case God) is constituted by a loss, by the removal of itself from itself, by the expulsion of the very Ground or essence from which it is made. The subject, in this sense, is always a nostalgic subject, forever trying to recover its loss. However, this Ground must remain outside of the subject for the subject to retain its consistency as a subject. The subject, in other words, must externalize itself in order to be a subject at all. What this means is that the subject is no longer opposed to the object, as it is in the other two models of subjectivity we have looked at; rather, subject and object are implicated in each other-the subject is the object outside of itself. The subject maintains what Žižek, following Lacan, calls a relation of extimacy towards itself. 'Extimacy' is a mixture of the two words 'external' and 'intimacy'. This external intimacy or extimacy designates the way in which the core of the subject's being is outside itself. If this sounds a little difficult to conceptualize, it is perhaps easiest to think of it in analogy to your eyeball. You can see everything except the part of you that does the seeing-your own eyeball. The only way you can see your eyeball is by looking in a mirror where it is outside of yourself. The subject is in an analogous position to this: it is a perspective on reality which cannot be grasped in itself but only in the 'mirror' of reality.

vanishing mediator

The concept of the 'vanishing mediator' is one that Žižek has consistently employed since For They Know Not What They Do. Žižek borrows the concept from an essay-'The Vanishing Mediator; or, Max Weber as Storyteller'-by the North American Marxist critic Fredric Jameson (1934-). In the essay, Jameson analyses the critique of Marxism advanced by Max Weber (1864-1920), the influential German sociologist, Briefly, this critique consists in the claim that Protestantism was the condition of possibility for the emergence of capitalism, As Protestantism is a religion and capitalism is a mode of production, this explanation inverts the traditional Marxist hierarchy in which the base gives rise to the superstructure. Jameson's response to this is to show how capitalism developed out of Protestantism in a dialectical movement which is fully consistent with Marxism. He argues that this dialectic is driven by what he terms a vanishing mediator-the missing link between two terms. In this case, he proposes that Protestantism is the vanishing mediator between feudalism and capitalism. Before the advent of Protestantism, religion was a separate sphere from that of economics. Protestantism, however, universalized religion, bringing the world of work within its purview, prompting people to live ascetically by accumulating wealth and working hard. In so doing, it created the conditions of possibility for capitalism. Ironically, of course, the advent of capitalism led to the obsolescence of Protestantism in particular, and religion generally, as Jameson notes:

It [Protestantism] is thus in the strictest sense of the word a catalytic agent that permits an exchange between two otherwise mutually exclusive terms; and we may say that…the whole institution of religion itself…serves in its turn as a kind of overall bracket or framework within which change takes place and which can be dismantled and removed when its usefulness is over.(Jameson 1988b: 31)

A vanishing mediator, then, is a concept which mediates the transition between two opposed concepts and thereafter disappears.

Žižek draws attention to the fact that a vanishing mediator is produced by an asymmetry of content and form. As with Marx's analysis of revolution, form lags behind content, in the sense that content changes within the parameters of an existing form, until the logic of that content works its way out to the latter and throws off its husk, revealing a new form in its stead, Commenting on Jameson's essay, for example, Žižek proposes that: The passage from feudalism to Protestantism is not of the same nature as the passage from Protestantism to bourgeois everyday life with its privatized religion, The first passage concerns 'content' (under the guise of preserving the religious form or even its strengthening, the crucial shift-the assertion of the ascetic-acquisitive stance in economic activity as the domain of the manifestation of Grace-takes place), whereas the second passage is a purely formal act, a change of form (as soon as Protestantism is realized as the ascetic-acquisitive stance, it can fall off as form). (FTKN: 185)

Žižek sees in this process evidence of Hegel's 'negation of the negation', the third moment of the dialectic. The first negation is the mutation of the content within and in the name of the old form. The second negation is the obsolescence of the form itself. In this way, something becomes the opposite of itself, paradoxically, by seeming to strengthen itself. In the case of Protestantism, the universalization of religious attitudes ultimately led to it being sidelined as a matter of private contemplation. Which is to say that, Protestantism, as a negation of feudalism, was itself negated by capitalism.


he place where the subject is externalized is the Word, the Word that announces the Beginning:

How, precisely, does the Word discharge the tension of the rotary motion, how does it mediate the antagonism between the contractive and the expansive force? The Word is a contraction in the guise of its very opposite, of an expansion-that is to say, in pronouncing a word, the subject contracts his being outside himself; he 'coagulates' the core of his being in an external sign. In the (verbal) sign, I-as it were-find myself outside myself, I posit my unity outside myself, in a signifier which represents me.(TIR: 43)

The problem with this is that if I find myself outside of myself, I am no longer self-identical. The signifier which represents me is just that, a representation, but it is not actually me. However, if I am to be a subject at all, I cannot avoid this irretrievable loss, for it is only on account of this loss that I actually become something rather than remain as nothing.

We can, perhaps, make more sense of Žižek's reading of Schelling by rendering it in Lacanian terms. In fact, at one point, Žižek observes that the passage from the closed rotary motion of the drives to the pronunciation of the Word is simply the passage from the Real to the Symbolic. The Real-or the Grund-is the world before it is carved up by language, and language-or the Word-is the medium of the Symbolic Order. One might also add that the rotary motion of the drives can be characterized as an Imaginary experience of the Real. The endless pulsating of the drives, their interminable contraction and expansion, is akin to the civil war that the ego visits upon itself in the mirror stage as it oscillates between identity and difference. God, at this stage, like the infant at the mirror, is a purely self-relating entity. He has no objective mooring for His Being-everything is just subjective, or 'inside' Him, as Žižek avers:

This God is not yet the Creator, since in creation the being (the contracted reality) of an Otherness is posited that possesses a minimal self-consistency and exists outside its Creator-this, however, is what God in the fury of his egotism is not prone to tolerate. (TAOF: 17)

It is only with the pronunciation of the Word (or a Symbolic experience of the Real), which introduces a cut into the Real and stands in for it, that God can establish His distance from it. In substantially the same way, although we, as bodies, are still part of the Real, we, as Symbolic subjects, are also differentiated from it. Which is to say that, although we are grounded in nature and can only survive within our bodies, simultaneously we are not merely our bodies; rather we have our bodies and can relate freely to them and it is language that enables us to do this.


Once you have grasped the basic Lacanian concepts of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real, you will notice that in his philosophical writings, such as in his discussion of Schelling, Žižek always interprets the work of other philosophers in terms of those concepts. This is because, as he admits on several occasions, 'the core of my entire work is the endeavour to use Lacan as a privileged intellectual tool to reactualize German Idealism' (TZR: ix). This raises three related questions: what is German Idealism, why does it need reactualizing, and what does 'reactualizing' mean? The term 'German Idealism' designates the work of philosophers such as Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), Schelling and Hegel. The reason that Žižek believes German Idealism needs reactualizing is that he thinks we are taught to understand it in one way, whereas he regards the truth of it to be something else. The term 'reactualizing' (which is borrowed from Schelling) refers to the fact that there are different possible ways to interpret German Idealism, and that Žižek wishes to realize or make 'actual' one of those possibilities in distinction to the way it is currently realized or 'actualized'.

At its most basic, we tend to be taught that the German Idealists thought that the truth of something could be found in itself. For Žižek, on the other hand, the fundamental insight of German Idealism is that the truth of something is always outside itself. So, for example, the truth of our experience lies outside ourselves, in the Symbolic and the Real, rather than being buried deep within us. We cannot look into our selves and find out who we truly are, we cannot gaze into our own navels, because who we truly are is always elsewhere, Our navels, as it were, are somewhere else in the

Symbolic formations which always precede us and in the Real which we have to disavow if we are to enter the Symbolic in the first place.

The reason that Lacan occupies a privileged position for Žižek is that the key to his work can be found in the proposition that self-identity is impossible. The identity of something, its singularity or 'oneness', is always split. To put this in another way, there is always too much of something, an indivisible remainder, or a bit left over which means that it cannot be self-identical. For example, the meaning of a word can never be found in the word itself, but rather in other words. The meaning of 'cat' cannot be discovered in the word 'cat' but in the words 'small, domestic feline'. Therefore, the meaning of 'cat' is not self-identical. This principle of the impossibility of self-identity is what informs Žižek's reading of all the German Idealists, including Schelling. For instance, as we have seen, the Beginning is not actually the beginning at all-the truth of the Beginning lies elsewhere; it is split or not identical to itself.

The process of subjecting ourselves to language and to the rest of the Symbolic Order is what Žižek calls subjectivization. Although this sounds like the formation of the post-structuralist subject, the difference is that, for Žižek, subjectivization needs to be conceived as a two-way process. On the one hand, the Symbolic Order, or the big Other, precedes us and speaks through us. For example, we might be born into a family and bear that family's name, occupy a specific socio-economic position, follow a particular religion, and so on. On the other hand, because the Symbolic Order is incomplete or constituted by a lack (a lack which is the subject) the way in which we integrate these elements of the Symbolic and narrate them to ourselves is ours. For example, we might disown our family and change our name, invent a new religion, and so on. Even if we are some kind of cyborgs, the gap in the Symbolic means that we are not reducible to mere functions of the Symbolic or automatons, as Žižek notes when commenting upon the ambiguous status of the replicants in the film Blade Runner:

Despite the fact that their most intimate memories are not 'true' but only implanted, replicants subjectivize themselves by way of combining these memories into an individual myth, a narrative which allows them to construct their place in the symbolic universe. (TWTN: 41)

It is the replicants' ability to create an individual story out of implanted memories that makes them seem human because that is exactly what we do too. We maintain our ability to integrate the elements of the Symbolic in an individual way and it is what Žižek terms the 'Self' that does this, what he defines as the 'centre of narrative gravity' (CATU: 261). In other words, the Self is what fills in the void of the subject, and while the subject never changes, the Self is open to constant revision.


Unlike almost all other kinds of contemporary philosophers

Slavoj Žižek reaffirms Descartes' cogito as the basis of the subject. The cogito is an empty space, what is left when the rest of the world is expelled from itself.

However, whereas most philosophers read the cogito as a substantial, transparent and fully self-conscious 'I' which is in complete command of its destiny,

The Symbolic Order is what substitutes for the loss of the immediacy of the world and it is where the void of the subject is filled in by the process of subjectivization. The process of subjectivization is where the subject is given an identity and also where that identity is altered or changed by the Self.


postmodern risk society

disintegration of the big Other

postmodern superego

the return of the Other

The act


False consciousness and cynicism

Belief machines

three modes of ideology

spectre that haunts reality


formulae of sexuation

Woman does not exist

Woman is a symptom of Man

There is no sexual relationship



Another way of looking at the relationship between fantasy and the big Other which Žižek often alludes to is to think of fantasy as concealing the inconsistency of the Symbolic Order. In order to understand this we need to know why the big Other is inconsistent, or structured around a gap. The answer to this question, according to Žižek, is that when the body enters the field of signification or the big Other, it is castrated. What Žižek means by this is that the price we pay for our admission to the universal medium of language is the loss of our full bodily selves. When we submit to the big Other we sacrifice direct access to our bodies and, instead, are condemned to an indirect relation with it via the medium of language, So, whereas before we enter language we are what Žižek terms 'pathological' subjects (the subject he notates by the figure 'S'), after we are immersed in language we are what he refers to as 'barred' subjects (the empty subject he notates with the figure '$'). What is barred from the barred subject is precisely the body as the materialization, or incarnation, of enjoyment. Material enjoyment is strictly at odds with, or heterogeneous to, the immaterial order of the signifier.

In order for the subject to enter the Symbolic Order, then, the Real of enjoyment or jouissance has to be evacuated from it. Which is another way of saying that, as we saw in the previous chapter, the advent of the symbol entails 'the murder of the thing'. Although not all enjoyment is completely evacuated by the process of signification (some of it persists in what we call erogenous zones), most of it is not Symbolized. What this means is that the Symbolic Order cannot fully account for enjoyment-it is what is missing from the big Other. The big Other is therefore inconsistent or structured around a lack, the lack of enjoyment. It is, we might say, castrated or rendered incomplete by admitting the subject, in much the same way as the subject is castrated by its admission.

What fantasy does is conceal this lack or incompletion. So, for example, as we saw in the previous chapter, 'there is no sexual relationship' in the big Other. What the fantasy of a sexual scenario thereby conceals is the impossibility of this sexual relationship. It covers up the lack in the big Other, the missing jouissance. In this regard, Žižek often avers that fantasy is a way for subjects to organize their jouissance-it is a way to manage or domesticate the traumatic loss of the enjoyment which cannot be Symbolized.


Figure 6.1 The structure of fantasy

As we can see in this diagram, the subject is faced with the abyss of the desire of the Other: what does the Other want from me? In order to 'satisfy' this desire and conceal the abyss, the subject responds with a fantasy. The fantasy therefore realizes the desire of the Other. I am not sure what the Other wants, but they seem to like me eating strawberry cake so I will therefore eat strawberry cake in order to try to satisfy their desire. In terms of racism, the intersubjective element of fantasy means that, paradoxically, the racist stages the desire of his victim. The racist, confronted with the abyss of the Jew's desire, makes sense of it by constructing a fantasy in which the Jew is at the centre of some nefarious plot, such as to take over the world. In this way, the desire of the racist to rid the country of Jews is actually a means of concealing the anxiety generated by the desire of the Jews.

Che vuoi?

For Žižek, racism begins with the question of 'Che vuoi?'. As we saw in Chapter 5, 'Che vuoi?' is a shorthand way of asking 'What do you want from me?'. This question arises from the arbitrary character of our roles in the Symbolic Order. These roles are arbitrary in that they are not the direct consequence of our actual, real properties. For example, if I am a king there is nothing inherently 'kingly' about me; I do not have an intrinsic quality of 'kingliness' that I am born with. The qualities of 'kingliness' are conferred upon me by my position in the Symbolic Order when I am born into a royal family. We therefore maintain a distance towards our roles because we do not feel we can fully account for them. This distance is expressed by the 'Che vuoi?'-'ZWhy am I what you say I am?-the question we address to the big Other. It is a question asked these days less by kings and more by celebrities: do you (the fans) love me for my fame (my role in the Symbolic Order) or for who I really am?

What, however, has this to do with racism? According to Žižek the question of 'Che vuoi?' or what you really want from me 'erupts most violently in the purest, so to say distilled form of racism, in anti-Semitism: in the anti-Semitic perspective, the Jew is precisely a person about whom it is never clear "what he really wants"' (SOI: 114).

As is suggested here, the Jew is the paradigmatic figure of the victim of racism for Žižek. Elsewhere, he concedes that this figure may well be Afro-American or Japanese, but in Europe the Jew has always been the subject of racism. The Jew is suspicious because we do not know what he wants-his intentions and his desires are unclear to us. In order to dissipate our own sense of incomprehension thrown up by the Jewish 'Che vuoi?' we create our own scenario, explaining the Jew's actions in terms of a hidden agenda-'This is what he really wants (to get all our money, to take over the world, etc.)'. This scenario, this answer to the 'Che vuoi?', is a fantasy. Fantasy functions as an attempt to fill out the void of the question of 'What do you want from me?' by providing us with a tangible answer. It spares us from the perplexity of not knowing what the Other really wants from us.

In order to clarify this point, Žižek suggests that the reason the Jews have become the paradigmatic subjects of racism is because of the particular character of the Jewish God. The Jewish God is unknowable. The Judaic prohibition on making images of God means that, for Žižek, the Jewish God persists as the incarnation of 'Che vuoi?'-we never really know what He desires from us. Even when this God pronounces a comprehensible order, such as when he demands that Abraham sacrifice his son, it remains unclear what he actually wants from Abraham, what God's intention is behind this command. Abraham's position in this respect is emblematic of the position of the Jews as a whole. Why were they picked by God to be the 'chosen people'? In themselves they were not special, but they became 'the chosen ones' when they assumed their Symbolic mandate, the role that God had chosen for them. The starting point for a Jewish believer is thus the perplexity of the 'Che vuoi?'-'What does God want from us?'. In contrast to the anxiety of Judaism, Žižek asserts that Christianity is founded upon the pacification of the 'Che vuoi?': the Passion of Christ, the image of Christ upon the Cross, is a kind of fantasy scenario which fills in the void of the question of the desire of the Other. By sacrificing His son, God reassures Christian believers that He loves them and thus makes His desire clear.

What Žižek insists we be clear on here is that fantasy, as a psycho-analytic category, is not reducible to an imagined scenario in which our desires are satisfied. The first point to note here is that desire itself cannot be satisfied or fulfilled. In order to exemplify this, Žižek relates the plot of 'Store of the Worlds', the story by American author Robert


We saw in the previous chapter that the question of 'Che vuoi?' defines the position of hysteria. The hysteric is never clear what the Other wants and is therefore always plagued by a kind of self-doubt, manifest in a recurrent questioning. In straightforward hysteria the subject believes that what the Other wants from him or her is love. In obsessional neurosis, which is a sub-set of hysteria, the subject believes that what the Other wants is work, and so the obsessional devotes him or herself to frenetic activity. Žižek often contrasts these hysterical responses with perversion. Despite its everyday associations with so-called sexual deviancy, perversion is also a technical term that Lacanian psychoanalysis uses to designate a certainty that a subject knows what the Other wants, The pervert is therefore defined by a lack of questioning. He or she is convinced of the meaning of the desire of the Other.

Scheckley (b. 1928), in which the central character visits an old recluse who, it is claimed, can satisfy people's desires by means of a drug. Before commencing with the drug, the old man advises the story's hero, a man called Wayne, to go away and think about what he is 'going to do. Back with his wife and child, Wayne gets caught up in day-to-day family life. Although he keeps promising himself that he will one day visit the old man and have his inner desires realized, it is a whole year later before he finally decides to go. At this point, however, Wayne suddenly wakes up in the presence of the old man who asks him if he is satisfied. Wayne agrees that he is and scurries off across a landscape devastated by nuclear war. The trick of the story, as Žižek avers, is that 'we mistake for postponement of the "thing itself" what is already the "thing itself", we mistake for the searching and indecision proper to desire what is, in fact, the realization of desire' (LA: 7). In other words, the desire realized in fantasy is only 'satisfied' by the postponement of satisfaction, by the perpetuation of desire. As soon as desire is satisfied, in the sense of being fulfilled, it disappears.

The second feature of fantasy that Žižek insists upon is that the object of our desire is not something given in advance. Rather, fantasy teaches us what to desire in the first place. Fantasy actually constitutes our desire, as Žižek explains: Fantasy does not mean that when I desire a strawberry cake and cannot get it in reality, I fantasize about eating it; the problem is, rather: how do I know that I desire a strawberry cake in the first place? This is what fantasy tells me.(TPOF: 7)

The fantasy of desiring a strawberry cake is my own individual concern. Fantasy, at this level, is very specifically mine. At the same time, however, the desire that is realized in this fantasy is not strictly my desire-it is, rather, the desire of the Other, the desire which throws up the enigma of 'Che vuoi?'. The question of desire is therefore never directly a matter of what I want, but what the Other wants from me: what I am to other people.

In order to exemplify this, Žižek reports the incident noted by Freud of his daughter's fantasy of eating a strawberry cake. Freud's daughter's fantasy is not just a case of simple wish-fulfilment in which she wanted a strawberry cake and in order to satisfy this desire she dreamt up a scenario in which she ate one. For what is at stake here is not her desire but the desire of the Other, in this case her parents, which permeated her desire. Previously, when eating a strawberry cake with a degree of gusto, Freud's daughter had observed how much her parents seemed to enjoy the scene of her eating. It was thus clear to her what her parents wanted from her-they wanted her to devour strawberry cake. The girl's fantasy of eating strawberry cake was therefore a way of answering the question of 'Che vuoi?' or 'What do my parents want from me?'. Although the fantasy of the strawberry cake was her fantasy, the desire it realized was actually that of her parents' desire. More precisely, we can say that the desire of Freud's daughter was the desire for the desire of the Other (for the answer to the question of what her parents wanted from her).

Fantasy, then, is what Žižek terms intersubjective. What Žižek means by this is that fantasy is only produced by the interaction between subjects. However specific a fantasy is to an individual, that fantasy in itself is always a product of an intersubjective situation. In order to make this clearer we can schematize the relation between 'Che vuoi?', fantasy and desire in Figure 6.1.

fantasy window

Žižek often conceives of fantasy as a kind of frame through which we see reality. This frame offers a particular or subjective view of reality. It is permeated with desire and desire is always 'interested', that is, it always presupposes a certain point of view. What Žižek means by this can be understood by reference to the concept of an anamorphosis. An anamorphosis is an image distorted in such a way that it is only recognizable from a specific angle. It is, as Žižek states, 'the element that, when viewed straightforwardly, remains a meaningless stain, but which, as soon as we look at the picture from a precisely determined lateral perspective, all of a sudden acquires well-known contours' (LA: 91). The most often-cited example of anamorphosis is a picture entitled The Ambassadors by the German painter Hans Holbein (1497-1543). Ostensibly this is just a portrait of two foreign emissaries, then at the court of Henry VIII, showing them amid all the accoutrements of Renaissance learning. However, at the bottom of the picture is an elongated stain which, when viewed from the side, reveals itself to be a skull. This anamorphic reminder of death alters the meaning of the picture, staining all the worldly accomplishments it depicts with a sense of futility and vanity. It is not part of the field of the rest of the painting yet, at the same time, it utterly changes the meaning of the rest of the painting. In the same way, '"fantasy" designates an element which "sticks out", which cannot be integrated into the given symbolic structure, yet which, precisely as such, constitutes its identity' (EYS: 89).

We may think of this element that 'sticks out' as a surplus knowledge, one that contaminates the gaze, subjectivizing the viewer and making it impossible to look at the picture in an objective or neutral fashion. In fact, it is possible to be more precise here and say that an anamorphosis is only the materialization of a surplus knowledge. The stain of the skull in The Ambassadors, for example, merely gives body to the knowledge that death is always the conclusion awaiting humankind however clever we may be. Anamorphosis is, therefore, a form of suspense-it suspends the ostensive meaning of a picture or situation. If, for example, we look at a piece of film which shows someone in a house idly making some dinner while listening to phone messages, this seems like an innocuous, mundane shot. If, however, previous to this shot, we see the same house from the outside with someone creeping about in the bushes, wearing a mask and wielding a knife, this completely changes the meaning of the second shot. The first shot stains the second one. We now have a surplus knowledge which contaminates our gaze. There is no stain on the screen in front of us, but everything the person in the house does in the second shot is denatured by the knowledge we have that that person is under threat from the stalker outside.

Ultimately, what anamorphosis represents is subjectivity itself. For subjectivity is precisely such a surplus knowledge. It is that which cannot remain neutral or objective but which looks at the world awry or from a particular point of view. Racism is exemplary in this regard. Shortly after the beginning of the allied bombing of Afghanistan in 2001, the American President George W. Bush (b. 1946) made an address to the American nation on television where he quoted from a letter written to him by the daughter of a military person engaged in the conflict. The letter stated that as much as the girl did not want her father to fight, she was willing to give him up for the war. For President Bush, this was a supreme example of American patriotism. Žižek suggests that we perform a simple mental experiment with regard to this event and imagine the same letter being written by an eight-year-old Afghan girl. Would we (in the West) not denounce this action as the work of a cynical, manipulating fundamentalist? Žižek supposes we would. The difference between interpreting the letter as the product of patriotism or as the product of manipulation is the surplus knowledge informing our perceptions. If we are American subjects, our gaze is stained by American history, customs and traditions. Our interpretation of the Afghan letter is anamorphically distorted by the 'knowledge' we have of Afghanistan as the centre of fundamentalism, as the enemy of our country, and so on. How we apprehend the ethnic 'other' is always subject to the ethnic stain of our own origins.

An anamorphosis, then, is a point of view-it frames reality. In this sense it is analogous to fantasy which is a kind of anamorphic frame around reality. Nowhere is this more clearly realized than in Hitchcock's film, and one of Žižek's favourite references, Rear Window. Stuck in a wheelchair because of a broken leg, L.B. 'Jeff' Jeffries, played by James Stewart, is forced to contemplate life through a window, observing people in the other apartments across the yard. Stewart's neutral gaze is subjectivized when he glimpses a murder and catches the eye of the murderer himself. Stewart becomes obsessed

with the murderer and is forced to confront the question of 'Che vuoi?'-what does he actually want from the murder? Why is the murderer the object of his desire? The answer to this question, according to Žižek, is that the murderer stages Stewart's desire. Stewart's desire is centred upon avoiding a sexual relationship with Lisa Carol Fremont, played by Grace Kelly, who constantly attends him in his apartment. The window through which Stewart observes the occupants of the other flats is thus a fantasy frame. Through it he sees what could happen to him and Kelly-they could become like the newlyweds, he could abandon her so she would end up like the lonely artist, and so on. Or, ultimately, he could do away with the problem of Kelly altogether and kill her like the murderer kills his wife. Stewart's attitude towards the murderer is thus predicated upon the surplus knowledge or anamorphic stain of his relationship with Kelly. His point of view is skewed or framed by the interest of his desire in a way that is embodied by the fantasy screen of the window.

Stewart's response to the murder is, therefore, particular to him-it is framed by his own specific fantasy. He does not witness the slaying of his neighbour from an impartial point of view. Indeed, Žižek makes it clear that without our own specific fantasies we would be left not with a sober, objective version of reality, but with no access to reality at all:

With regard to the basic opposition between reality and imagination, fantasy is not simply on the side of imagination; fantasy is, rather, the little piece of imagination by which we gain access to reality-the frame that guarantees our access to reality, our 'sense of reality' (when our fundamental fantasy is shattered, we experience the 'loss of reality').(TZR: 122)

Despite its everyday connotations, then, fantasy is not just a flight of fancy or an imaginative indulgence. On the contrary, it is the vista from which we see the world. It is the slant with which we are enabled to look at reality.

Furthermore, for Žižek, the slant or point of view of our most fundamental fantasy is what objectively makes us subjective. Our roles in the Symbolic Order can be filled by anyone. You may well be the best baker in town and think yourself indispensable as such. However, should you disappear, another baker will knead your dough, bake your bread and ice your cakes and thereby essentially fill your role. Nevertheless, what is indispensable about you, what remains objectively unique about you is your fantasy. So even when it becomes possible to duplicate your exact genetic make-up down to the last of the six billion elements of code which comprise your objective body, you will still not be cloned because the fantasmatic core which makes you an individual is not reproducible. There may well be other bakers, but there will never be another you.

In order to illustrate the particularity of fantasy, Žižek often has recourse to the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by English writer George Orwell (1903-1950), and specifically the reading of it given by the American philosopher Richard Rorty (b. 1931). As is well known, the culmination of the torture of Winston, the novel's leading character, is reached in Room 101, the place where a victim's worst fears are realized. Up to this point, Winston has betrayed everyone and everything he believes in except his love for Julia. However, here, with a cage containing rats attached to his face, Winston utterly breaks down, betraying Julia completely:

'Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don't care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!'

He was falling backwards, into enormous depths, away from the rats. He was still strapped in the chair, but he had fallen through the floor, through the walls of the building, through the earth, through the oceans, through the atmosphere, into outer space, into the gulfs between the stars.(Orwell 1949:300)

What Winston betrays here is not just Julia but himself, the specificity of his being as it is contained in his fundamental fantasy. The 'Do it to Julia!' is, according to Rorty, 'the sentence he could not utter sincerely and still be able to put himself back together' (Rorty 1989:179). Žižek concurs with this analysis but argues that where Rorty identifies this as a breakdown in the Symbolic (because it is a sentence or signifying formation), Žižek proposes that what Winston forgoes here is actually his fundamental fantasy, that which 'sticks out' from the Symbolic. This fantasy is the support of his being and without it he falls into the abyss, 'into the gulf between the stars'. Winston's universe collapses because he no longer has the specificity of his own view, his own fantasy frame. He thus spends the remainder of the novel as an unthinking being, an automaton who is merely part of the Big Brother machine.

As each individual's fantasy is the support of his or her being, it is little wonder that it is, Žižek avows, extremely precious and therefore sensitive to the encroachment of others. Fantasy is, as it were, the tender nerve or raw ganglia of the subject's psyche, and it is liable to cause grave distress if we probe it with insufficient care. As an example of this, Žižek discusses 'Black House', a short story by the American author, and perennial Žižekian favourite, Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995). The story follows a young man who has just moved into a small American town. In the saloon he listens to the local men recount tales from their youth of their adventures in and around the black house on the hill. This house is a desolate building which, they claim, is either haunted or inhabited by a homicidal maniac or, in some other way, malevolent. Determined to verify this, the young man goes to the house the next evening and finds nothing but an old ruin devoid of any threat, supernatural or otherwise. When he returns to the saloon to inform the men of his findings they are horrified. One of them then attacks the man, an act which ultimately results in the young man's death. The reason for this behaviour, according to Žižek, is that the black house functioned as a fantasy screen upon which the men could project their nostalgic desires. By empirically proving that the house was just an old ruin, the young man inadvertently intruded upon that fantasy space. Where the young man saw just a decaying building, the men in the saloon saw it from the particular perspective of their fantasy and therefore imbued it with a meaning he could not fathom. The violent reaction of the men is thus caused by the young man annulling 'the difference between reality and fantasy space, depriving the men of the place in which they were able to articulate their desires' (LA: 9).

postmodern racism

Žižek contends that today racism is just as reflexive as every other part of postmodern life. It is not the product of ignorance in the way it used to be. So, whereas racism used to involve a claim that another ethnic group is inherently inferior to our own, racism is now articulated in terms of a respect for another's culture. If racists once said, 'My culture is better than yours', postmodern or reflexive racism centres around the assertion that, 'My culture is different from yours'. As an example of this Žižek asks 'was not the official argument for apartheid in the old South Africa that black culture should be preserved in its uniqueness, not dissipated in the Western melting-pot?' (TFA: 6). What is at stake here, according to Žižek, is the fetishistic disavowal of cynicism: 'I know very well that all ethnic cultures are equal in value, yet, nevertheless, I will act as if mine is superior'. The split evident here between the subject of enunciated (the 'I know very well …') and the subject of the enunciation (the 'nevertheless I act as if I didn't') is even preserved when racists are asked to explain the reasons for their racist behaviour. Typically, a racist will blame his or her socio-economic environment, poor childhood, peer group pressure, and so on, in such a way as to suggest to Žižek that he or she cannot help being racist, but is merely a victim of circumstances. Thus postmodern racists are fully able to rationalize their behaviour in a way that belies the traditional image of racism as the vocation of the ignorant.

ethnic fantasy

With this discussion of fantasy, we may appear to have drifted away from the topic of racism, but Žižek's contention is that what is at stake in so-called 'ethnic tension' is a conflict of fantasies. The standard analysis of racism contends that racists are misguided, uneducated or in some way ignorant of those they victimize. If only, so the theory goes, the racist could see them objectively, get to know them, his or her prejudices would melt away. If, for example, the German racist could only see what a huge economic contribution the Turkish immigrants make to the German economy. If only the French racists could see what important cultural achievements the Algerian community has made in the name of France. If only the British racists could understand the vital contributions of second and third generation Indians to the health of the United Kingdom. And if only they could, according to Žižek, they would still be racists. Why?

The answer to this question is that the subject of racism is not an objective collection of individuals but a fantasy figure. In the 1930s, for example, the Nazis could not have been persuaded by rational argumentation that the Jews were not really at the centre of some international plot to undermine the Aryan race. You could not, argues Žižek, present them with empirical evidence proving that the Jews were really not like that because, like the men in the saloon talking about the black house, they were not dealing with an objective view of reality. Rather, they were looking at the Jews from the point of view of a fantasy frame. You could not, then, contrast that fantasy frame with a view of reality because the whole point of a fantasy frame is that it constitutes your reality in the first place. So even if, as Žižek conjectures, you were a Nazi who lived next door to a real, neighbourly 'good' Jew, you would not experience any contradiction between your anti-Semitism and this neighbour. You would, rather, conclude that your neighbour proves quite how dangerous Jews are because they seem such decent people on the surface. The very facts which would seem to contradict your anti-Semitism would actually prove to be arguments in its favour precisely because you saw those facts through your fantasy window.

All of which begs the question: what is the racist fantasy? For Žižek, there are two basic racist fantasies. The first type of racist fantasy centres around the apprehension that the ethnic 'other' desires our enjoyment. 'They' want to steal our enjoyment from 'us' and rob us of the specificity of our fantasy. The second type of racist fantasy proceeds from an uneasiness that the ethnic 'other' has access to some strange jouissance. 'They' do not do things like 'us'. The way 'they' enjoy themselves is alien and unfamiliar. What both these fantasies are predicated upon, then, is that the 'other' enjoys in a different way to 'us':

In short, what really gets on our nerves, what really bothers us about the 'other', is the peculiar way he organizes his enjoyment (the smell of his food, his 'noisy' songs and dances, his strange manners, his attitude to work-in the racist perspective, the 'other' is either a workaholic stealing our jobs or an idler living on our labour).(LA: 165)

In other words, ethnic tension is caused by a conflict of fantasies, if, in this regard, we understand fantasy as a way of organizing enjoyment. The specificity of their fantasy conflicts with the specificity of our fantasy. So, for example, a strand of American racism is 'bothered' by the way the Japanese seem to enjoy working and work at enjoyment. The Japanese, by American conventions, do not know how to separate work from play-their relationship to enjoyment is in some

way disturbed or 'not normal'. They are therefore a 'threat' to the American way of life.

For Žižek, this 'threat', or at least the perception of a threat, is a growing one. The past couple of decades have witnessed a marked rise in racial tension and ethnic nationalism. Žižek, following Lacan and Marx, ascribes this rise to the process of globalization. 'Globalization' refers to the way in which capitalism has spread across the world, displacing indigenous companies in favour of multinational businesses. The effects of this process are not necessarily just commercial, for what is at stake here are the national cultures and political bodies which underpin, and are supported by, resident industries. When a multi-national business like McDonald's opens up in Bombay, for example, it is not just another business, but represents a specifically American approach to food, culture and, ultimately, social organization. The more capitalism spreads, the more it works to dissolve the efficacy of national domains, dissipating local traditions and values in favour of universal ones.

The only way to offset this increased homogeneity and to assert the worth of the particular against the global is to cling with ever greater tenacity to your specific ethnic fantasy, the point of view which makes you Indian, British or German. And if you are busy trying to avoid being dissolved in the multicultural mix of globalization by sticking to the way you organize your enjoyment, you will inevitably court the risk of succumbing to a racist paranoia. Even if we attempt to institute a form of equality between the ways in which we organize our enjoyment, unfortunately, as Žižek points out, 'fantasies cannot coexist peacefully' (LA: 168). One of the most common examples of this problem is so-called arranged marriages. If a couple's enjoyment is organized around the formal process of selection, restricted meetings and so on which culminate in an arranged marriage, as it is in some cultures, are we, who consider such arrangements to be the very antithesis of free, spontaneous love, not then imposing our own fantasies on the couple if we step in and stop these marriages taking place? Is this part of their 'right to enjoyment', or are we supposed to liberate them in the name of Western values from this archaic way of organizing their enjoyment? The answer, for Žižek, is that there is no way to establish a compromise between the two fantasies at stake here.

ethics of fantasy

How, then, are we to proceed? What is the way of avoiding a clash of ethnic fantasies? Žižek's first answer to this is to propose a kind of ethics of fantasy. Simply stated, this proposes that we try as much as possible not to violate the fantasy space of the 'other', the specific way in which an individual looks at the world. This does not mean that we love our neighbour in so far as he or she resembles ourselves, nor that we love our neighbour because of his or her Symbolic mandate, even if we stretch that mandate to include his or her status as a human being. In other words, we do not respect 'others' for any universal feature that they might share with us, but rather for what they do not share with us, which is their fantasy. We therefore do our utmost not to prove that what they think is a house full of significant meaning is actually a ruined old shack as the young man does in Patricia Highsmith's 'Black House'.

Of course, as fantasies cannot ultimately coexist peacefully, particularly when they are ethnic fantasies, this ethic can only ever be an intermediate solution. For the present, Žižek has a more practical solution to the problem of racism, one which draws on his own experience in Slovenia. Surprisingly for a revolutionary, Žižek argues that we should support the state in opposition to civil society. By 'state' Žižek here means to refer to the institutions of government, whereas 'civil society' designates, in its widest sense, the people of a nation or non-governmental groups. While Žižek might aspire to a nation based purely on the consensual will of civil society, he contends that, in the light of the currently existing racist fantasies of much of civil society, this is just not possible. If he finds this in Slovenia, where he argues that civil society is basically right-wing, Žižek also sees it, for example, in the United States:

In America, after the Oklahoma bombing, they suddenly discovered that there are hundreds of thousands of jerks. Civil society is not this nice, social movement, but a network of moral majority conservatives and nationalist pressure groups, against abortion, for religious education in schools. A real pressure from below.(Lovink 1995)

Žižek's argument is that the state can act as a buffer between the fantasies of different groups, mitigating the worst effects of those

fantasies. If civil society were allowed to rule unrestrained, much of the world would succumb to racist violence. It is only the forces of the state which keep it in check.

In the long term, Žižek argues that in order to avoid a clash of fantasies we have to learn to 'traverse the fantasy'. What Žižek means by this is that we have to acknowledge that fantasy merely functions to screen the abyss or inconsistency in the Other which we noted earlier. In 'traversing' or 'going through' the fantasy, then, 'all we have to do,' according to Žižek, 'is experience how there is nothing "behind" it, and how fantasy masks precisely this "nothing"'(SOI: 126). But how does this apply to racism?

The subject of racism, be it the Jew, the Turk, the Algerian, or whoever, is a fantasy figure, someone who embodies the void of the Other. The underlying argument of all racism is that 'if only they weren't here, life would be perfect, and society would be harmonious again'. However, as Žižek points out, what this argument misses is the fact that because the subject of racism is only a fantasy figure, it is only there to make us think that such a harmonious society is actually possible in the first place. In actuality, according to Žižek, society is always-already divided. The fantasy racist figure is just a way of covering up the impossibility of a whole society or an organic Symbolic Order complete unto itself:

   What appears as the hindrance to society's full identity with itself is actually its positive condition: by transposing onto the Jew the role of the foreign body which introduces in the social organism disintegration and antagonism, the fantasy-image of society qua consistent, harmonious whole is rendered possible.
   (EYS: 90)

Which is another way of saying that if the Jew qua (or 'in his or her status or role as a') fantasy figure, was not there, we would have to invent it in order to maintain the illusion that we could have a perfect society. For all the fantasy racist figure does is embody the existing impossibility of a harmonious or complete society.

If, as Žižek suggests, we learn to traverse the fantasy, we will come to recognize that the characteristics attributed to the fantasy figure of racism are 'nothing' more than the products of our own system. Instead of saying 'if only they weren't here, life would be perfect, and society

would be harmonious again', we will say 'whether they are here or not, society is always-already divided'. By traversing the fantasy in this way we will accept that the figures of racism embody the truth of the failure of our society to constitute itself as complete. Instead of vilifying other cultures, therefore, Žižek enjoins us to come together in the '"solidarity of a common struggle", when [we] discover that the deadlock which hampers [us] is also the deadlock which hampers the Other' (TTS: 220). What kind of a society this 'common struggle' might lead to, Žižek, like everyone else, is unsure, but he remains hopeful.


For Žižek, racism is produced by a clash of fantasies rather than by a clash of symbols vying for supremacy. There are several distinguishing features of fantasy:

  1. Fantasies are produced as a defence against the desire of the Other manifest in the 'Che vuoi?', the question of what the Other, in its inconsistency, really wants from me.
  2. Fantasies provide a framework through which we see reality. They are anamorphic in that they presuppose a point of view, denying us an objective account of the world.
  3. Fantasies are the one unique thing about us. They are what make us individuals, allowing a subjective view of reality. As such, our fantasies are extremely sensitive to the intrusion of others.
  4. Fantasies are the way in which we organize and domesticate our enjoyment or jouissance.

There are two basic racist fantasies: 1 The ethnic 'other' has a strange or privileged access to jouissance. 2 The ethnic 'other' is trying to steal our jouissance.

In each case, what is at stake is an attempt to maintain the particularity of the racist's fantasy, his or her way of organizing enjoyment, in the face of a globalization which threatens to swamp that particularity within a

universal. As fantasy is immune to rational argument, Žižek suggests that we can only combat racism by proceeding on three fronts. First, we must try not to intrude on the fantasy space of other individuals wherever possible. Second, Žižek proposes that we continue to use the state as a buffer against the fantasies of civil society. Third, he advocates the practice of traversing or going through the fantasy, to show that, on the other side of fantasy, there is nothing there.