A Review of Sex and the Failed Absolute by Slavoj Žižek1
Department of Politics, Whitman College, Washington, USA
Sex and the Failed Absolute constitutes the most systematic and rigorous account of Zizek’s resuscitation of dialectical materialism thus far. It displays all the erudition and imagination his readers have come to expect. But it remains hamstrung by an unwillingness to take moral philosophy and political economy seriously, leaving it strangely limited relative to the classical Marxist account. Radicals should take his critiques of ideology and philosophical ideas seriously while trying to comprehensively link them to a more sustained programme.
Hegel – dialectical materialism – the absolute – totality – Trump – postmodernity
Slavoj Žižek, (2020) Sex and the Failed Absolute, London: Bloomsbury Academic.
What lies between reason as self-conscious spirit and reason as present actuality, what separates the former from the latter and prevents it from finding satisfaction in the latter, is the fetter of some abstraction or other which has not been liberated (and so transformed) into the concept. To recognize reason as the rose in the cross of the present and thereby to enjoy the present, this is the rational insight that reconciles us to actuality…
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Outlines of the Philosophy of Right2
Slavoj Žižek is a controversial figure to say the least; loathed by many on the political Right and not a few leftists, but also loved and admired by plenty of others. He has been the subject of scathing op-eds and fawning documentaries, characterised variously as a ‘charlatan’3 and the ‘Elvis of cultural theory’. Alain Badiou called him one of the greatest philosophers of our time, while Noam Chomsky wants nothing to do with him. The International Journal of Žižek Studies presents him as the sober object of scholarly study, while the man of the hour himself seems determined to lampoon academic snobbishness at every turn through an endless array of shit- and sex jokes.
All of this is to say that it can sometimes be very difficult to separate what Žižek actually says from the interminable debates that surround him. This is not helped by the fact that Žižek says quite a bit; publishing at such a frenetic rate that one wonders if he does not have a secret doppelganger, or a thousand monkeys trained to pound out Hegelese on a thousand typewriters.4 A cursory glance at Wikipedia indicates Žižek released four books in 2020 alone: including two on the COVID pandemic, one on Hegel, and another directly on left-wing politics. This can be misleading however, since, as plenty of people have complained, there is more than a lot of overlap between Žižek’s different books. It is tempting to regard these less as separate texts and more as one giant book being written on the go; a kind of philosophical parallel to Jack Kerouac, who called himself ‘Proust on the run’ and rapidly pushed out a series of interconnected autobiographical novels through the 1950s and ’60s.5 But this would be a bit misleading. I think it makes more sense to divide Žižek’s works into two. There are the interventions, which tend to be small scale, responsive to current events, and more accessible – the COVID books being an exemplar. Then there are Žižek’s academic books, which are notably fatter, denser, and likely to prove the cornerstone of his lasting legacy. And each of these academic tomes indeed reads like part of one big book that is constantly evolving. Like the rising tide, every wave pushes a little further than the last, though the distinctions between them can be somewhat blurry. The Ticklish Subject in 1997 kicked things off with a (mostly Lacanian) critique of then-fashionable poststructuralist ‘end of the subject’-type theorising, resurrecting the spectre of Cartesian subjectivity and dialoguing with Deleuze, Badiou and Heidegger. Flash forward to 2006 and we get The Parallax View, which, at the time, Žižek hailed as his magnum opus. It presented a distinctly more-Hegelian approach, wherein Žižek first presented his ontology in considerable detail and made it clear he was fully committed to a thoughtful return to the kind of grand theorising about the nature of reality poststructuralism seemed to have buried. In 2012, we got what I still consider his best, and longest, book: Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. This was, by far, Žižek’s most focused work; he carefully analyses the history of European philosophy before devoting several huge chapters to wrapping his distinctive synthesis of Lacan and Hegel in a neat bow.
Now, we get Sex and the Failed Absolute, which Žižek insists is his Hail Mary effort to decisively ‘provide the basic ontological frame of my entire work – as close as I will ever get to presenting a philosophical system, an answer to “big” questions about reality, freedom etc.’6 Sadly, I think that oversells the book somewhat, and (perhaps inevitably) it remains in the shadow of Less Than Nothing as an exposition of the panoramic sweep of Žižek’s views. Nonetheless, it remains a thought-provoking and helpful book, which further cements the reputation of the Slovenian maestro as a major Continental philosopher and critical theorist whose work will be read for many decades.
The Incontinent Absolute
From The Sublime Object of Ideology onwards, one of Žižek’s crusades has been in rescuing Hegel from dismissal as the philosopher of the cheesy, all-consuming, absolute. He memorably claimed that what was required was for such interpreters to take a laxative and recognise the absolute as precisely not what was holding reality together.7 The constipated and orthodox Hegel was, of course, a favourite target of luminaries from Søren Kierkegaard down through Theodor Adorno and Deleuze, who lobbed everything from soft jabs at the technical limitations of philosophical systematicity to nuclear strikes against the Prussian polymath’s alleged proto-totalitarianism. Hegel was accused of endorsing the most vulgar kind of Spinozist holism, glossed up with some pseudo-dynamic dialectical principles, which denied everything from the reality of difference to the existential priority of the single individual over and above society. Kierkegaard memorably described the philosopher Hegel as building a glorious castle in thought while the man himself lived in a crappy shack next door.8 Worse still, from Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right onwards, Hegel was portrayed as effectively a conservative figure.9 His strident idealism could only ever lapse into a kind of normative positivism, which insisted that reality as it appears in thought is the best of all possible worlds. Indeed, critics claimed Hegelianism even serves a hoary ideological function through its insistence that if we do apprehend contradictions in the world, our duty is to recognise them as part of an inner unity that is striving for pacified reconciliation. The job of philosophical thinking was therefore not to criticise, but to apprehend its own time in thought, and to try and heal the seeming contradictions of society not through agitation or change but mere reflection. This led to the conservative conclusion that to be free in a Hegelian sense means recognising that seemingly coercive institutions, like the repressive legal apparatus or monarchical aristocracy, are actually a precondition for the exercise of our liberty. By insisting that we see and accept the purpose in everything that happens, Hegel helped put the world as it is beyond critique, meaning his philosophy is fundamentally reactionary.
Žižek has always insisted on a much more radical interpretation of Hegel, though one which owes a great deal to Marx and Lacan. Sex and the Failed Absolute demonstrates that, in fact, Hegel’s most remarkable insight runs very counter to these conservative ruminations. Indeed, far from arguing for an orderly universe, Hegel shows how our sense of order is always ideological and just waiting to fall apart. This can be seen in how the notion of the absolute falls apart the very moment we try to grasp it. What we come to realise is that the absolute does not reconcile all the contradictions of reality in thought, which would be the ideological gesture par excellence. Instead, the absolute is posited as the moment where we finally understand how all the efforts to heal the contradictions of the world materially or ideologically have failed; they persist as part of a fractured totality which will inevitably break apart and transform the world. The way we should understand ideology is as undertaking the fundamentally anti-Hegelian gesture of positing that the absolute demonstrates the inner unity and harmony of reality, and, consequently, that philosophy should reconcile us to the present. In Lacanian terms, this misses the lesson that the ‘Big Other’ who stabilises the symbolic universe does not exist as the executor of meaning. It is, instead, a psychological projection of our inability to face up to ontological incompleteness and the terror this engenders. We libidinally invest an overdetermined absolute with the power to give meaning and order to the world in order to avoid dealing with its contingency and randomness; including investing moments like sex with sublimated power to put us into contact with the absolute, but when seen from the standpoint of materiality the most orgasmic moments reflect both our bodily frailty and even wilful vulgarity.
Žižek’s project thus falls into the austere tradition of left ‘negative dialectics’ that sees Hegel’s philosophy as the ultimate critical tool to disrupt the positivity of the present. As he puts it:
In the predominant perception, Kant is supposed to openly admit the failure of general ontology which aims at grasping the Whole of reality: when our mind tries to do this, it inevitably gets caught in antinomies. Hegel then closes up this gap, reinterpreting antinomies as contradictions whose dialectical movement enables us to grasp the Whole of reality, i.e., with Hegel there is a return to pre-critical general ontology. But what if the actual situation is quite different? [...] One should be careful not to miss the point of Kant’s philosophical revolution: he does not simply insist on the unbridgeable gap that separates appearances from the thing in itself. The gap he asserts is that between transcendentally constituted phenomenal reality and the Real, the Thing-in-itself, and what this implies is that our reality is non-all, inconsistent. It is only from the standpoint of this Kantian breakthrough that we can understand Hegel’s notion of negativity as the disruptive power immanent to reality itself.10
This gesture truly showcases both how knowingly beholden Žižek is to the transcendental philosophy of the subject and his determination to overcome its well-known limitations. In this respect, he is very different from earlier negative dialecticians like Adorno and Horkheimer, who always insisted on taking an almost fanatical distance from Kant.11 Echoing Quentin Meillassoux in After Finitude, Žižek,12 of course, rejects the Kantian claim that we can never know reality in and of itself, along with the conventional reading of Hegelian and Marxist transcendental categories of an all-swallowing absolute knowing and social totality. However, he does not follow Meillassoux in undertaking this gesture through a rejection of transcendental philosophy but, rather, through its radicalisation à la Hegel. Žižek insists that we interpret the contradictions which appear to the transcendental subject not simply as a consequence of the limitations of human cognition. Instead, we have to recognise that these limitations are inherent to material reality itself. This has political implications for any social form defended as the ‘only alternative’, which has the effect of falsely projecting the future as little different than the present and consequently degenerates into a morose ‘realism’.13
As a take on Hegel, Žižek’s is rather violent.14 It effectively runs counter to even the standard left-Hegelian reading put forward from Bruno Bauer and Marx onwards – that the dialectical method is a remarkable critical tool, but one not necessarily safe with Hegel. Instead, we need to recast the method in more materialist terms to strip it of its triumphalist ontological holism and the kind of quietism about radical politics that would provoke.15 Of course, this objection became more problematic as generations of poststructuralist theorists began to make similar claims about Marxist categories, from totality and the base-superstructure distinction to the very notion of historical materialism.16 Žižek is, of course, hyper-aware of this history, since he made his name in part by challenging poststructuralist and post-Marxist commentators propounding precisely this argument. Much of his work through the 1990s was committed to resuscitating Hegel, Marx and others for an intellectual readership raised to be sceptical of grand ontological narratives, universalism, and dialectics in general.17 Žižek has been very successful in this venture, as the recent rejuvenation of interest in Hegel and Marx has eminently proven. But it is frustrating sometimes that Žižek does not ever acknowledge the idiosyncrasy of this reading of Hegel and the way it breaks from longstanding tradition. There is nothing wrong with a deliberately violent reading of a text; if anything, I think it is vitally necessary to keep an author fresh for new generations. Dialectical philosophy is, after all, not a dead script but its own time comprehended in thought. But a book by Žižek systematically unpacking defenders of the traditional, all-swallowing Hegel (and to a lesser extent Marx) and responding to them programmatically would be very welcome. Fredric Jameson managed to pull off just such a project very successfully in his epic 2010 opus Valences of the Dialectic.18 Some might say this is scholarly nit-picking, and that the proof of a good interpretation lies in its practical uses. And I would agree in part, as evidenced below. But careful scholarship and radical reinterpretations do not have to break from one another, and as far as I am concerned they complement each another.
There Is No Alternative to Finding an Alternative
Žižek is well known as a talented expositor, in that his complex ruminations on dialectical theory have often been accompanied by helpful anecdotes, jokes, and pop-culture examples to help bring the reader down to earth. There is plenty of that in Sex and the Failed Absolute, though, surprisingly, the humour is more subdued. Immature readers – like me – may find themselves missing the endless scatological and pornographic humour that gave some kitschy flair to his earlier works. Perhaps he is just more determined to be taken seriously, or does not want to appear like he is going through the motions of pandering to an audience invested in Žižek the brand rather than Žižek the serious philosopher. If that is the case, he need not have worried; no fair-minded reader would come away from Žižek’s book without at least thinking he took a serious crack at constructing a grand argument. Fortunately, the pop-cultural analysis is alive and well, and fans of Stephen King and contemporary sci-fi cinema will not be disappointed by Žižek’s analysis.
Personally, however, I have always found Žižek at his most illuminating when he applies his arguments of ontological incompleteness, and the way this gap is filled in by ideology, to less eccentric examples. And there is plenty of that in his book; from ruminations on how his reinterpretation of dialectical materialism via Hegel and Lacan can help us understand quantum theory, to ruminations on the rise of Trumpist authoritarianism and its predecessors, and, of course, plentiful diversions on psychoanalysis and gender theory. To my mind, the most successful and longstanding of these interventions are his engagement with Christian theology, particularly its more conservative variants. This is a more important task than many a twentieth-century critical theorist would have anticipated, as we have increasingly come to recognise that – contra the expectations of some militant secularists – it turns out religion has not gone away and in fact remains a potent cultural and geopolitical force. This raises the stakes considerably for left-wing analyses of religious issues, and we are very fortunate that Žižek is extraordinarily deft in this field.19
One of the ways to summarise Žižek’s commentary on Christianity is that he does not think most right-wing interpreters are really all that committed to the Christian message. Their rhetorical excesses – indeed sometimes apocalyptic laments about the present – are substitutes for, rather than a complement to a deep engagement with, Christian doctrine. Christian conservatives do not want to conceive the world in the emancipatory terms propounded by the New Testament. What they really want is the good old Aristotelian universe with some Thomistic upgrades. Aristotle’s metaphysics, of course, is an emblematic form of essentialistic realism – I would even say a kind of empirical idealism, to the extent matter is intended to instantiate metaphysical substance, which is apprehended theoretically – where each thing is what it is and has a naturalised role to play in the greater whole.20 At its most reactionary, as with the work of someone like Joseph de Maistre or, more contemporaneously, John Finnis,21 this is usually accompanied by a rhetoric concerning the modern world as radically fallen, as liberal and progressive permissiveness has led to individuals deviating from their fundamental nature thus bringing about decadence and decline. But Žižek takes a very different line in Sex and the Failed Absolute, drawing upon his earlier commentary on religious issues.22 Žižek claims that we need to understand that ‘the death of Christ is not the death of the transcendent real god and its sublation into a symbolic god … what dies on the cross is not the real god but the big Other, the ideal/virtual entity, or, as Lacan would have put it, the symbolic big other.’23 For Žižek, the radicality of the Christian message is the dialectical passage from a symbolically overdetermining God who transcends material reality, to a materialist community of the Holy Spirit united in equality and a commitment to human freedom. In other words, contra a swathe of thinkers going back to St Thomas Aquinas, the radical message of Christianity lies precisely in celebrating the death of the Aristotelian God who served as the symbolic guarantor of metaphysical substance and teleological meaning.
Not coincidentally, this echoes Kant’s and Hegel’s similarly unorthodox readings of the Book of Genesis.24 The story of Genesis has typically been understood as one about the fall of humankind from paradise into the corruption of material nature, with all the suffering that entails. But, in fact, Genesis 3:22 contains the remarkably puzzling rumination by God after Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit. God proclaims that ‘the man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil’. Consequently, God expels Adam and Eve from the garden, not because they had sinned – for before eating the fruit they could have had no conception of sin or grace, only obedience and fear – but because they were now self-conscious beings not just made in the image of God but now like God in their knowledge of good and evil. Žižek’s materialist reading of the New Testament effectively completes this Hegelian story by bringing it to its logical conclusion; at the end of the tale, God Himself becomes like man in knowing suffering and death, before bequeathing the world to his creation. This also has direct implications for the appearance of the subject in reality, as observed by Giorgio Cesarale in his review of Žižek’s earlier work, Less Than Nothing:
In a Hegelian fashion, Žižek believes that Christianity is the ‘absolute religion’ that reveals the secret of all religions. The Christian God is one that, whilst becoming conscious of itself, becomes inexistent and collapses. This is why Christ must die: as soon as the fiction is consumed, and God is none other than the virtual substance of our existence, a piece of the real has to die, in a Lacanian fashion. If, however, God was identified with a ‘hole’ in the symbolic order, then it would prefigure the ‘Cartesian cogito, the barred subject ($), this pure evanescent point of enunciation betrayed by any enunciated’ (p. 105). In other words, the negativity internal to the divine is the same as the negativity internal to the subject.25
One way to express this is that the semblance of ontological stability which the subject projects into reality itself to dissociate from its own internal limitations ideologically warps both the subject and reality. This is best seen in traditionalist approaches to religion, where the Absolute of God is posited as an overwhelming lawgiver to whom we must subordinate ourselves in order to make sense of the world; the paradox being that we supplicate ourselves before our own ideological creation. When the tension inherent within this process becomes sufficient, believers tend to lapse into a kind of dogmatic scepticism or double down with an even more anxious religious conservatism and fundamentalism; the desperate attempt to insist on a failing totalisation26 through fiat when no other recourse is available.27 By contrast, in the Christian faith, the ‘death of God’ on the Cross is the symbolic recognition by the divine subject that his own failure to overcome the limitations of his subjectivity through apprehending a higher divine reality misses the fact that reality is always-already broken. This was best expressed by the weird passage in the Bible where Jesus – both the son of God and a part of God himself – cries out to God the father and admonishes him for forsaking Christ. But, with his resurrection and ascension to heaven, Christ gives way to the ‘Holy Spirit’; in Hegelese, the spirit of freedom through arriving at self-consciousness.
Moreover, there is a universalistic dimension to these emancipatory conclusions that Žižek does not shy away from. As he puts it: ‘[Christianity’s] universality is precisely the universality of all those who are excluded, of the “indivisible remainder” of all classificatory divisions.’28 The final transition to self-consciousness is therefore conceived as the end of the symbolic overdetermination of the divine and the recognition, à la Marx, that it is now men who make their own history.29 Though not yet as they please; at least under the ideologically heady conditions of neoliberal capitalism which – particularly in its Trumpist and postmodern conservative variants30 – ironically ignores the universality of the emancipatory Christian message to advance an exclusionary and stratified ideological buttress to capitalist exploitation.
This is interesting stuff, and as both a take on Christian doctrine and a critique of conservative (mis-?) appropriations of religious dogma it is highly effective. It showcases not only the originality of Žižek’s take on dialectical materialism, but its flexibility. As I have mentioned before, even great critical theorists like Wendy Brown have occasionally struggled to take religious issues seriously and consequently have ceded a formidable source of moral inspiration to the political Right.31 Žižek’s take on dialectical materialism is not limited in this manner; indeed, by the time we get to Sex and the Failed Absolute, it is unclear what areas of the intellectual and political landscape it would not be capable of analysing in interesting and critical ways. This is a signal virtue, and even if Sex and the Failed Absolute is not, as Žižek would seem to hope, his magnum opus, it is nonetheless an excellent piece in these respects.
Having said that, there is one enduring weakness to his work which I feel it is necessary to point out. If Kant and Hegel initiated the project of a critique of the cognitive and historical conditions of our understanding, Marx (and Engels) undoubtedly took the essential step in reconfiguring it politically. Unfortunately, one area where things occasionally become blurred is in the insistence of dialectical theories on a strict immanent unity of theory and practice32 – a belief shared by psychoanalysis amongst other doctrines – and, consequently, that normative conclusions must flow from an analysis of history and the present rather than being an area of independent analysis. At its best, this unity of theory and praxis gave dialectics its unique power. But, in its most vulgar form, it can indeed resemble nothing so much as a return to pre-Kantian and even pre-Humean accounts of normativity, that attempt like Aristotle to derive an ought from the now-fluid ‘is’ of history. Žižek’s own work is far more sophisticated on these points of course, but there is a sense in which his own disdain for normative theorising and relentless preference for critical analysis falls into the same vein. This is a serious weakness in two respects. Firstly, it falls victim to the philosophical problems I alluded to above. This means that Žižek occasionally lapses into moral claims which need to be proven, rather than simply asserted. One obvious example, shared by many Continental theorists, is the presupposition that some kind of egalitarian emancipation is the be-all and end-all of politics. I think this is true, but why we should aspire to egalitarian emancipation for all is very rarely argued for in any depth. Indeed, analytical Marxists and egalitarian liberals have done a far better job in this regard.33 Secondly, a disinterest in normative theorising limits the capacity of left theorists to conceive of a robust vision of a future society. If we are simply to be the critical handmaidens of the future society yet to be born, it is not our job to offer principle, let alone blueprints, for how things should be. But this limits the imaginative potential of theory and, again, cedes a lot of ground to the political right, which is always on hand with plenty of visions for how we should transition to a ‘post-liberal’ (really pre-liberal) society.34 Progressive theorists should be more ambitious in accepting the challenge of Kantian practical reason, and dare to conceive of and will a more-moral politics rather than just launching brilliant, but endless, criticisms.
Žižek and Marx
One tradition that has boldly taken strides in this direction is Marxist humanism,35 perhaps best embodied in works like Igor Shoikhedbrod’s recent and stellar Revisiting Marx’s Critique of Liberalism.36 As Shoikhedbord shows, we should have no reservations about acknowledging that Marxism emerged from and was fundamentally committed to many elements of Enlightenment modernity;37 indeed, one could make a strong case that Marx wanted to bring the modernist project of securing liberty, equality, and solidarity for all to historical completion. It also recognised the need to provide a normative defence of both Marxism and the humanist project more generally, which usually took the form of a Hegelian argument about the human need for recognition and conscious self-determination in conjunction with others. The argument was that, in a truly democratic and equal society, people would be more capable of forming bonds of mutual recognition which would enable them to deploy their respective capabilities and determine their own individuality more completely. This was best expressed in the slogan ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’ found part way through The Communist Manifesto,38 but it has found expression in the works of many contemporary socialists who want both historical analysis and strong convictions concerning justice.39
Also helpful would be a more thorough engagement with other variants of Marxism which foreground the importance of a dialectical analysis of the capitalist economy in a way Marxist humanism sometimes does not.40 One particular point of interest would be in unpacking the extent to which Žižek’s take remains ‘materialist’ while breaking quite decisively from Marx and Engels’s own understanding of materialism and the critique of political economy. This was best described in The German Ideology, where they focus on the capacity of human labour to construct material social life, which stands simultaneously as an alienating source of oppression and as opening up the possibility of our emancipation:
The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men. Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.41
Žižek’s own dialectical materialism is far removed from emphasising the centrality of labour, or indeed even the underpinnings of social life in processes of production. From the beginning, it drifted very much into the orbit of Western Marxism’s interest in ideology, culture, and the constitution of the subject.42 Sex and the Failed Absolute doubles down on all these propensities in its own approach to dialectics. This is fine insofar as it goes, as any twenty-first century materialist analysis should avoid economism and offer a more panoramic take on our condition. But, on occasion, it feels like Žižek moves too far in the other direction; the critique of political economy that defined classic dialectical materialism has almost entirely given way to the critique of culture and ideology. Thus far, Žižek’s ontology has comparatively little to say on these matters, focusing more on philosophical than economic matters.43
Coming at a time when the faltering dynamics of neoliberal capitalism have never been so apparent, and bold new socialist movements44 are emerging from the failures of the twentieth century, it would be appreciated if Žižek devoted more of his attention to these issues and a little less on providing yet another hot take on Hitchcock movies. As a variety of important figures have pointed out,45 the faltering of neoliberal economic ideology and the politics of the Washington consensus has rejuvenated the importance both of Marx’s critique of political economy and the relevance of historical materialism as a philosophy of history.46 Žižek has obviously been attentive to these developments and applauded them. Perhaps his most significant contribution has been not necessarily in political economy, but concerning the theoretically adjacent issue of how neoliberal ideology reconciles the tensions it itself creates. For instance, Žižek has made the innovative argument that, contra the claims of many Foucauldian takes on neoliberalisation, contemporary global capitalism actually empowers ‘local, particular, cultural identities’.47 This argument is, of course, partly popular because it runs in sharp contrast to the kind of militant particularism that has been in vogue on the theoretical Left since at least the 1980s. Its provocative juxtapositions would seem like a gimmick in lesser hands. But Žižek has made compelling arguments about how various forms of ‘woke’ capitalism, commodifying difference stripped of radical alterity, could not only function but thrive in our post-modern world.48 This is an important claim worth mulling over.
But, in Sex and the Failed Absolute, and elsewhere, it is not clear how one could connect Žižekian dialectical materialism to these more classically systematic Marxist takes on the economy; whether as a vital complement through providing the necessary critique of ideology and subject-formation or indeed as a potential rival emphasising a different materialist approach to social ontology. If it winds up being the latter, that is fine.49 But it would be nice to get some final clarity on these matters.
Conclusion: A Critique of Pure Criticism
None of this should detract from the formidable virtues of Žižek’s Sex and the Failed Absolute, which further deepens and expands the sweep of his reformulated dialectical materialism. It is a very interesting book which should reward long-time readers and critics alike (for the uninitiated and those uninterested in ontological speculation and simply wanting ideological and political analysis, I would recommend the more accessible Plague of Fantasies).50 In this respect, it comes with my emphatic endorsement. But I think the left will be better off once we stop dancing around and just say what we want, and, more importantly, why, as a complement to our well-established talents at criticism. I also feel critical theorists operating in the tradition of dialectical materialism need to wean ourselves off purely philosophical and cultural analysis – operating under the auspices of ideology-critique – and return to a more sustained critique of political economy. Rather than going back through Marx to Hegel, it may be time for a dialectical inversion that restores the critique of political economy to pride of place in our analyses.
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Barnett, David 2013, ‘Visions of Jack Kerouac … in an Epic 13 Volumes’, The Guardian, 24 July, available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/24/jack-kerouac-13-volume-memoir>.
Bowman, Paul and Richard Stamp (eds.) 2007, The Truth of Žižek, London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Brown, Wendy 2019, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Butler, Judith, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek 2000, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, London: Verso.
Callincos, Alex 2000, Review of The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology by Slavoj Žižek and Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek, Historical Materialism, 8, 1: 373–403, <https://doi.org/10.1163/1569206X-00801016>.
Cesarale, Giorgio 2016, ‘Between Schelling and Marx: The Hegel of Slavoj Žižek. A Review of Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism by Slavoj Žižek’, Historical Materialism, 24, 2: 205–27, <https://doi.org/10.1163/1569206X-12341459>.
Cohen, Gerald Allan 2000, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Derrida, Jacques 1994, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, translated by Peggy Kamuf, London: Routledge.
Eagleton, Terry 2011, Why Marx Was Right, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Finnis, John 1997, ‘Law, Morality, and Sexual Orientation’, in Same Sex: Debating the Ethics, Science, and Culture of Homosexuality, edited by John Corvino, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Fisher, Mark 2009, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Winchester: Zero Books.
Fluss, Harrison 2020, ‘The Prophet avec Lacan. A Review of Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky by Leon Trotsky, with a Preface by H.N. Brailsford and a Foreword by Slavoj Žižek’, Historical Materialism, available at: <https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/book-review/prophet-avec-lacan>.
Habermas, Jürgen 1971, Knowledge and Human Interests, translated by Jeremy Shapiro, Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Habermas, Jürgen 2008, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, translated by Ciaran Cronin, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Harvey, David 1996, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Hazony, Yoram 2018, The Virtue of Nationalism, New York, NY: Basic Books.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 2008, Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, translated by T.M. Knox, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 2012, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, edited by Peter C. Hodgson, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jameson, Fredric 2010, Valences of the Dialectic, London: Verso.
Kierkegaard, Søren 1992, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to ‘Philosophical Fragments’, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Marx, Karl 1992, Early Writings, translated by Rodney Livingstone, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Marx, Karl 2018, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Singapore: Origami Books.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels 1967, The Communist Manifesto, translated by Samuel Moore, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels 1998, The German Ideology: Including Theses on Feuerbach and the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
McManus, Matthew 2019, The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
McManus, Matthew 2020a, ‘The Politics of Dialectics. A Review of A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology by Robert Brandom’, Historical Materialism, available at: <https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/book-review/politics-dialectics>.
McManus, Matthew 2020b, ‘Ruined Resentments’, Radical Philosophy, II, 8, available at: <https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/reviews/individual-reviews/ruined-resentments>.
Meillassoux, Quentin 2008, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, translated by Ray Brassier, London: Continuum Press.
Moller-Nielsen, Thomas 2019, ‘What is Žižek For?’, Current Affairs, 19 October, available at: <https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/10/what-is-zizek-for>.
Robinson, Andrew and Simon Tormey 2006, ‘Žižek's Marx: “Sublime Object” or a “Plague of Fantasies”?’, Historical Materialism, 14, 3: 145–74, <https://doi.org/10.1163/156920606778531806>.
Scruton, Roger 2014, The Soul of the World, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Shoikhedbrod, Igor 2019, Revisiting Marx’s Critique of Liberalism: Rethinking Justice, Legality and Rights, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
Sunkara, Bhaskar 2020, The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality, New York, NY: Basic Books.
Whyte, Jessica 2019, The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism, London: Verso.
Žižek, Slavoj 1997, The Plague of Fantasies, London: Verso.
Žižek, Slavoj 2000, ‘An Interview with Slavoj Žižek’, Historical Materialism, 7, 1: 181–97, <https://doi.org/10.1163/156920600100414696>.
Žižek, Slavoj 2008, The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso.
Žižek, Slavoj 2020, Sex and the Failed Absolute, London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Žižek, Slavoj and John Milbank 2011, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
- 1. I wish to thank Conrad Hamilton for inspiring some of these ruminations.
- 2. Hegel 2008, p. 15.
- 3. See Moller-Nielsen 2019.
- 4. Even those who take Žižek very seriously sometimes find his writing frustrating in this respect. See many of his interlocutors in Bowman and Stamp (eds.) 2007.
- 5. Barnett 2013.
- 6. Žižek 2020, p. 12.
- 7. Žižek 2008, p. xxii.
- 8. Compare here Karl Popper’s memorably bad take. Kierkegaard 1992, p. 49.
- 9. Unsurprisingly, many conservative authors have tried to interpret him in precisely this manner. See Scruton 2014, pp. 29–30.
- 10. Žižek 2020, pp. 120–1.
- 11. Consider their rather scathingly-brutal treatment of the austere Prussian, in Adorno and Horkheimer 2002.
- 12. Meillassoux 2008. Unsurprisingly, Žižek draws parallels between his project and Meillassoux’s, but in a way which is critical of the latter’s full divestment from critique. See Žižek 2020, p. 302.
- 13. See Fisher 2009.
- 14. It is in sharp juxtaposition, perhaps surprisingly, to the more conservative but hardline reading of Hegel currently being pioneered in the analytical tradition by figures like Robert Brandom. For my take on his book, as well as a contrast with Žižek’s own analysis in earlier books such as Less Than Nothing, see McManus 2020a.
- 15. See Marx 1992.
- 16. This reached a point where even sympathetic readers like Derrida claimed at best to be carrying on in a ‘certain spirit’ of Marxism. See Derrida 1994.
- 17. For a classic piece of this debate, see Žižek’s rebuttal to Ernesto Laclau and Judith Butler in Butler, Laclau and Žižek 2000.
- 18. Jameson 2010.
- 19. Žižek himself comments on this in Sex and the Failed Absolute, and pays his typical foil Jürgen Habermas the rare compliment of having recognised the ongoing relevance of religion in the public sphere before many of us did. See Žižek 2020, p. 403. For Habermas’s own work on this subject, see Habermas 2008.
- 20. Aristotle 2001.
- 21. Finnis is especially concerned about so-called sexual deviance, as expressed in his well-known characterisation of homosexuality as akin to bestiality. This is such a predictably disappointing take it justifiably ruined Aristotle for generations of students. See Finnis 1997.
- 22. See, in particular, his debate with the Radical Orthodoxy theologian John Milbank (Žižek and Milbank 2011).
- 23. Žižek 2020, p. 401.
- 24. See Hegel 2012, pp. 438–9.
- 25. See Cesarale 2016, p. 213.
- 26. This is an enduring theme in Žižek’s work, as pointed out in Alex Callincos’s early take on The Ticklish Subject and Žižek’s own complex relationship with poststructuralism, where he discusses the importance of Žižek’s arguments concerning the ‘impossibility of a completed totalisation’. See Callincos 2000, p. 382.
- 27. In many respects, this insistence is emblematic of much of post-liberal conservative theology. Many took the emergence of ‘illiberal’ democrats (or not-so democrats) like Victor Orbán and Donald Trump to demonstrate the enduring power of a kind of conservative religiosity in the face of modernity and post-modernity. But, of course, they themselves and their defenders are utterly stamped by the features of what they oppose; are not the recent appeals to epistemic scepticism and identity politics – so similar to vulgar iterations of poststructuralism – evidence of nothing so much as post-liberalism’s datedness, even at the point of its very birth? See McManus 2019.
- 28. Žižek 2020, p. 249.
- 29. See Marx 2018, p. 3.
- 30. See McManus 2019.
- 31. See McManus 2020b.
- 32. This point was made by Jürgen Habermas as far back as in his early work. See Habermas 1971, pp. 274–300.
- 33. See Cohen 2000.
- 34. See Hazony 2018.
- 35. I am convinced that few authors were more damaging to this effort to link progressive efforts to normative theorising than Althusser, whose criticisms of Marxist humanism gutted the momentum of Western Marxism in that direction for many years. See Althusser 2006.
- 36. See Shoikhedbrod 2019.
- 37. One could even follow Žižek in claiming it has deeper roots in the more radically egalitarian dimensions of Christian doctrine.
- 38. Marx and Engels 1967, p. 244.
- 39. See, for instance, Bhaskhar Sunkara (Sunkara 2020).
- 40. Marxist humanism is prone to putting forward a moral case for egalitarianism that some accuse of running counter to the descriptive dialectical takes of orthodox Marxism; even of regressing back to ‘bourgeois’ moralism. Personally, I think these accusations are overstated, given the emancipatory moral core of Marx’s own work and its roots in Hegel’s own emphasis on freedom and recognition. Fortunately, the temperature on these debates has somewhat dropped in recent years, and even major proponents of the descriptive power of Marx’s account happily acknowledge he made moral arguments. See Harvey 1996.
- 41. See Marx and Engels 1998, p. 27.
- 42. See Žižek 2008.
- 43. A related criticism could be made of how Žižek treats political history. In his essay ‘The Prophet avec Lacan’, Harrison Fluss writes admiringly about Žižek’s philosophical and psychoanalytic acuity, but criticises the Slovene thinker for ‘reducing the historical phenomena of Bolshevism, the civil-war period, and Stalinism to an unresolved dialectic between the Lacanian categories of the Symbolic and the Real.’ This echoes some of my own reservations about the sometimes-offhand way political economy is treated in Sex and the Failed Absolute. See Fluss 2020.
- 44. And, for that matter, bold new analyses. One of the most refreshing developments in left-theory today has been a reexamination of the role of the state and international institutions in instantiating neoliberal governance across the globe. See Whyte 2019.
- 45. Brown 2019.
- 46. See Eagleton 2011.
- 47. See Žižek 2000, p. 182.
- 48. Well summarised in Callinicos 2000 at p. 383.
- 49. I would say it is going way too far to claim that Žižek remains committed to an ‘idealist’ and ‘reactionary’ philosophy, and ‘at odds’ with Marx, as Andrew Robinson and Simon Tormey put it. Žižek’s position is certainly materialist, in the sense that he carries on the project of a critique of the ontologically holistic way ideology attempts to harmoniously situate and naturalise every feature of the world as it is within thought. As spelled out in his major philosophical works, Žižek’s materialism is actually more philosophically grounded than Marx’s, who, of course, never offered a full-throated defence of his materialism. See Robinson and Tormey 2006, p. 146.
- 50. See Žižek 1997.