On Žižek’s Dialectics - On Social Theory and with Žižek

Psy-Complex in Question: Critical Review In Psychology, Psychoanalysis And Social Theory - Ian Parker 2018

On Žižek’s Dialectics
On Social Theory and with Žižek

Vighi, F. (2012) On Žižek’s Dialectics: Surplus, Subtraction, Sublimation. London: Continuum.

Every reading of Slavoj Žižek, including those undertaken by the master himself of his own earlier writings, is a rereading, a reconstruction of lines of argument that have become snagged by the incompatible sharply-honed intricacies of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxism and their resistance to his insistent conceptual reduction of them to German idealism. The worst of that reduction surfaces from time to time in Fabio Vighi’s discussion of the way Žižek ’engages with Christianity in order to solicit from its narrative a revolutionary dialectic’ (p. 131), but it functions throughout this otherwise excellent book as a subterranean assumption that it is ’the vertiginous dimension of thought itself’ (p. 142) that is the stuff of an ’act’, an ’event’ and of the very ’political parallax’ through which we might redeem ourselves as we overthrow capitalism. There is good discussion of the limitations of adjacent political traditions, which include Hardt and Negri, Karatani and Badiou, but the epithet ’idealist’ is used as a term of abuse, which is a bit rich coming from a perspective that eschews any actual grounding in the material struggles that threaten to revolutionise the means of production.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the contradictory matrix that Žižek has formed as a reflective apparatus to grasp the nature of a no less contradictory political-economic system, Vighi constructs a faithful reading of the place of dialectics that also inches forward toward a political perspective that, as it were, ’thinks’ its way beyond ’the massive task of thinking’ (p. 142) that Žižek is most-times trapped within. This is, as Vighi reminds us, a tricky task because there is no direct link between Lacanian psychoanalysis and democratic politics, or any particular politics as such. Here he pits himself against some of the leftish enthusiasts for psychoanalysis who then attempt to find in the framework an implicit warrant for some form of ’democratic’ vision of society. Such an attempt is implausible enough when confined to Freud, but quite impossible when Lacan is brought into the equation. There are acute comments about the importance of ’negativity’ which run as a thread through this breathtakingly lucid account of Žižek’s work. And, apart from rehearsing the importance of ’dialectics’, there are carefully crafted connections between dialectics and the homologous relationship between Marx and Freud.

The mainspring for this endeavour is the connection between Marx’s specification of ’surplus value’ (extracted by the employer from the surplus labour carried out by the worker) and Lacan’s ’surplus jouissance’ (excessive enjoyment that is domesticated under capitalism as marketable packets of pleasure). Marcuse — another very suitable link back to Hegel from psychoanalysis — is evoked at key points in the text to show how the worker has been thoroughly incorporated into the system, and other revolutionary agents are summoned to help us out of this predicament, such as slum-dwellers (p. 21) or the figure of the child (p. 46).

The problem with this, and it connects with the problem of ’idealism’ (and indeed the claim made in the book that Žižek really provides a ’dialectical materialist’ alternative), is that there is a curious reframing of past historical struggles against exploitation as if they were at root expressions of what Marcuse called ’the Great Refusal’ (p. 128), rather than (alongside calls for ’freedom’, which is easier to incorporate into an idealist problematic) quite concrete demands for, say, ’bread’ and ’peace’. The revolutionary Marxist task of constructing alternative forms of society in opposition to the old forms culminating in ’dual power’ (in which the revolutionary forces provide a pole of attraction to break the capitalist state and thus build something better) is completely absent from the circuit of conceptual puzzles this book confines itself to. This might be what Vighi is hinting at though when he calls for ’an audacious creative sociopolitical project whose consistency is equal to, and materializes, the Real limit of theory itself’ (p. 153).

There are moments, all too few moments, when Vighi is forced to contemplate some possible limitations in Žižek’s work; that there is a risk of privileging ’an abstract Real’ (p. 111) and that his injunction to ’do nothing’ is actually not very dialectical at all (p. 138). This rather muted critique, which is effectively also in the frame of the book a self-critique, could be taken further, and it certainly needs to be turned around upon psychoanalysis, which functions here as a code-breaking mechanism that will lay bare the contradictions of capitalism. The whole point of the ’act’, Vighi argues, ’is that this gesture should be applied to theory itself’ (p. 112), so would it also be possible to treat psychoanalysis itself as part of the problem rather than as the solution? Rather than assuming that psychoanalysis provides the master key to unlock the mysteries of ’surplus jouissance’ in which ’surplus value’ is grounded (which is the way Vighi presents the relationship between the two, in an account that privileges psychoanalysis over Marxism), should we not examine how the ’lock’ itself is constructed such that psychoanalysis appears to be the only key that will fit it and so confirm its apparently immutable universal structure?

Many of the contradictions in this sympathetic reconstruction of the role of dialectics in Žižek’s work are apparent precisely because Vighi has set the terms of the argument so clearly, and he then makes it possible for the reader to register the importance of fruitful conceptual connections (and one or two worrying elisions) and mark their own critical distance from the text. Such distance may not be an expression of ’absolute spontaneity and pure, unendurable imagination’ (p. 164), and neither will it thereby accord with an Ur-psychoanalytic vision of Hegelian freedom. Instead it is Vighi himself who, in this surprisingly accessible and enjoyable book, sets the conditions for us to work with it dialectically and perhaps come closer to the political project he aims for.