Culture Machine, Reviews


Slavoj Žižek (2005) Interrogating the Real. Edited by Rex Butler and Scott Stephens

London and New York: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-7110-2

Paul Bowman

Žižek is intellectually orgiastic. He jumps from one paradigm to another: from Lacanian psychoanalysis to base-superstructure Marxism; from Heidegger to Hegel to hegemony. 'Eclectic' is how Ernesto Laclau characterizes Žižek's approach in general (Laclau, 2005). Laclau uses this term as a criticism, because to his mind, Žižek's lack of fidelity to one rigorously conceived approach produces inconsistencies and incoherence. Given Laclau's famous insistence on the importance of 'logic' and 'rigour', Žižek's promiscuity would 'logically' seem to mean that Žižek's position is incoherent and must fall apart. Judith Butler agrees with Laclau on this (see Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000). But Ian Parker has suggested that there is no real inconsistency, because Žižek's apparently inconsistent approach to any and every topic is an effect of his strategy of lining up and applying different and discrete paradigms to his subject matter, one at a time and one after another (Parker, 2004). In other words, Žižek's 'position' isn't necessarily incoherent because it isn't 'one' position. Moreover, because Žižek deliberately doesn't look for coherence or consistency, there may be little point expecting him to be coherent or consistent himself. Consistently inconsistent, he looks for any unique insight that can be garnered through one of several old friends: the theoretical perspectives he finds in Hegel, Marx, and Lacan. Does this mean there is no coherent Žižek, or no coherence in Žižek -- or indeed, no Žižekian coherence?

There is certainly always a question mark when it comes to working out where Žižek is 'coming from', or indeed 'going', and this is not helped by the fact that Žižek's frenetic and eclectic manner has been growing in pace and has become more and more pronounced recently. But this new book, Interrogating the Real, which is a selection of some of Žižek's older to more recent works, edited by Rex Butler and Scott Stephens, will certainly prove valuable for anyone wishing to work out Žižek's trajectory. Many of the texts have appeared before, but this is unremarkable when it comes to Žižek, given his tendency to reproduce entire sections of essays and books in different contexts. So, much of the content will be more or less familiar to the seasoned traveller. However, what will be of particular interest to the genealogist of Žižek's thought is the fact that quite a few of the essays contained here are earlier conference paper versions of essays that were later refined and published. So the development of Žižek's arguments will be explicitly traceable through this excellent selection of well-chosen texts.

With this book, Rex Butler and Scott Stephens have certainly gathered an exemplary and excellent collection of Žižek's works. Interrogating the Real moves broadly chronologically, but in three discrete thematic sections -- 'Lacanian Orientations', 'Philosophy Traversed by Psychoanalysis' and 'The Fantasy of Ideology'. Each section contains several very good samples of early to more recent work. The editors have done a remarkable job of choosing and organising the pieces -- so much so that Interrogating the Real could almost pass as a coherent monograph. Indeed, it is arguably much more coherent than many of Žižek's actual monographs, which tend to ramble and jump about like a psychoanalytic session. But thanks to the editors' judiciousness and dexterity, the reader can discern clear connections and developments from chapter to chapter, section to section, and gain a strong sense of the interconnections and developments of Žižek's wildly proliferating corpus.

The basis of Žižekian interconnections and the logic of his thought, as is well known, hinges around Hegel, Marx and Lacan. These three perspectives provide three matrices or 'machines' of his thought. What is idiosyncratic to Žižek is, as the early essays in Interrogating the Real explain, his perhaps indefensible tendency to regard these otherwise distinct approaches as reciprocally consolidating: to Žižek's mind, Hegel provides the philosophical justification for Marx and Lacan, and vice versa. Each is linked by analogy or 'homology', and what each says in their respective realm (philosophy, political economy and psychoanalysis) is held to be equivalent to what the others say in theirs. In other words, according to Žižek, the Hegelian master-slave dialectic makes sense and can be translated directly into Marxian (class antagonism) and Lacanian (sexuation antagonism) terms, and back again. Needless to say, this kind of perspective is controversial. What's more, for the uninitiated reader, one finds a torrent of dense and diverse philosophical, political and psychoanalytic argument which can seem overwhelming. For other readers, however, Žižek's approach can seem so crude as to be crass.

This is the 'Žižek-effect': a torrent of diversely ranging points, arguments, claims and insights, from different angles, but as quickly becomes apparent, with a high degree of repetition. Repetition appears to be everything and everywhere: repetition of the same examples (derived mainly from film, but also from 'high-culture' and considerations of totalitarian power), the same problematics (the decline of 'radical thought' in the west), the same interpretations (the 'need' for radical anticapitalist revolution). In other words, you could say: if you've read any Žižek then you've heard it all before. You can start just about anywhere with Žižek, dive straight in, and you will find the same things, the same themes, the same questions and the same conclusions, over and over and over again: 'Is [insert example] not precisely an exemplary example of the Real/return of the repressed in its inverted true form/universal class antagonism/sexual difference/barred subject/ working of the Big Other/objet petit a/[delete as applicable]?'

The editors acknowledge Žižek's repetition and try to account for it, and their effort deserves some comment. For, I've read quite a few arguments about Žižek's penchant for 'copy and paste' -- in which he always indulges with gay abandon. But none come close to Butler and Stephens' argument. Being generous, one could point to both the ingenuity and the polemical zeal of their argument. It basically works by claiming profundity and disparaging all of the so-called 'wrong' readings of Žižek (3-4), with that characteristic flourish much beloved of politicians, polemicists and, it has to be said, Žižekians: 'what so-and-so fails to see is this!' Being rather less generous -- but rather more Žižekian -- one could simply call their account deeply symptomatic, steeped in denial and the delusions of overinvestment. For they argue:

In the texts selected here, and throughout his work as a whole, one can find Žižek reversing his position many times. He writes, as has been noted, prolifically and seemingly with little concern for consistency. It is as though the activity of writing itself is Žižek's chief motivation, the reason why he writes at all. This is reflected in the very form of his texts, where there is inevitably an unnecessary final chapter, consisting of faits divers or 'related matters' added on, after the main theoretical work of the book has been completed. In fact, strangely enough, what Žižek actually wants us to see is this very nothingness, this 'nothing-to-say' or 'empty speech' that underlies his texts. Let us call it his theoretical drive, or in more technical language a kind of enunciation without enunciated. (2)

Well, if this is what Žižek wants us to see, then he doesn't appear to be trying particularly hard. But, what is more, this account doesn't even get Žižek off the theoretical hook anyway. In fact, one could take this attempt to justify Žižek's eccentricities and academic abuses as the harshest criticism of so explicitly ostensibly politicised a writer as Žižek. For, in his Author's Preface to Interrogating the Real, Žižek distinguishes between 'desire' and 'drive' like this: 'let us imagine an individual trying to perform some simple manual task -- say, grabbing an object that repeatedly eludes him: the moment he changes his attitude, starts to find pleasure in just repeating the failed task (squeezing the object, which again and again eludes him), he shifts from desire to drive' (10). This would make Žižek's claims about politics and revolution mere empty chatter, mere drive, mere repetition compulsion. The editors get closer to the point when they concede:

On the other hand, as one reads these texts -- and, again, as has been noted -- we observe a tremendous consistency of approach in Žižek. He is, in his own words, a 'dogmatic philosopher', who has remained strictly faithful to his great loves, Lacan and Hegel, from whom he has never wavered. More than this, we get the uncanny impression that, no matter what Žižek writes about, however far-fetched his examples, he always ends up saying the same thing. It is almost as though his is a predetermined system that follows its own course, despite obstacles or contingencies, personal events in his life or world-historical upheavals. . .. (2-3)

To be generous, Žižek does not always end up saying the same thing. He always ends up saying the same things (impossibility of: sexual relation and/or identity and/or reality-of-change-within-capitalism and/or all-of-the-above). Accordingly, perhaps it would be legitimate to redirect and redeploy one of Žižek's own favourite Hegelian aphorisms about 'science' so as to suggest -- precisely because, 'as Žižek himself says, [his work] is also a kind of impersonal "machine", a form of objective, externalized knowledge embodied in a neutral medium that repeats itself endlessly' (3) -- that Žižek's approach does not think, that perhaps Žižek's approach does not allow for thinking as such, because it already thinks it knows, in advance (Walsh, 2002). In this regard, Žižek is without a doubt the current world champion of formalising and systematising. His exclusive mode of 'fidelity to' Lacan, Hegel and Marx is formalising and systematising their 'insights'. One need not be Immanuel Kant to doubt the legitimacy of this 'fidelity'. Not really a post-structuralist, Žižek is more of a re-structuralist.

But, as problematic as all of this is, it is no simple criticism. For in Žižek's cold machinic yet cackling formalism lies his brilliance, or at least his utility. This is because his work functions a bit like a kind of Lacan, Hegel, Marx, and Miscellaneous Clever Stuff for Dummies. Or, rather, as a very culturally-specific, advanced-level refresher- or crash-course in 'All That Stuff' that contemporary academics are still expected to know about but probably haven't -- how shall I put it? -- finished reading yet. This function is not quite the same as his intended function of 'holding the place' (Žižek, 2000), of keeping political and philosophical radicalism on the agenda. In fact, the function that I am suggesting Žižek may serve today would equal the abomination and monstrous double of his intended function (except to the extent that it would allow him to 'hegemonise' the university scene -- and Žižek certainly regards academia as a battle for hegemony in the realm of ideas). Nevertheless, perhaps in the future, his work will turn out to have functioned as a kind of 'vanishing mediator' of all of that clever stuff that academics were still expected to know in the nineties of the old and the 'noughties' of the new millennium, but that they didn't actually have enough time to read, for the simple reason that reading is one not entirely 'academic' casualty of today's intensification of exploitation.

Ironically, for any who may already be so exploited and rushed off their feet that they haven't even got the time to read Žižek, the editors have generously included a Žižek Glossary. This is particularly amusing because one of the editors' arguments in the Introduction is that 'Žižek's real point is that no philosophical Truth can ever exist apart from its exemplification, its enunciation' (4). One wonders immediately, then, about the status of this glossary as exemplification or enunciation. For, its presence seems so contradictory that I'd like to believe that the glossary was added to this collection under extreme duress and solely at the demand of the publishers. (Publishers always want reassurances that books they contract will sell to first year undergraduates, mythical 'interested general readers', high school kids, their friends, parents, grandparents, pets, and so on -- the more the better, obviously.) It is not just that the collection of essays and the supplementary glossary reciprocally obviate the need for, and work of, each other. It is that if 'Žižek's real point is that no philosophical Truth can ever exist apart from its exemplification, its enunciation', then, we have this exemplification or enunciation in the form it takes in Žižek's essays themselves on the one hand, closely followed by the different, putatively example/enunciation-free form it takes in the glossary, on the other! Which is the right one? Which is which? What does the fact that both do actually exist mean?

So, on the one hand, the glossary of terms about truth free-from/only-in-and-as-its very moment of exemplification seems problematic in relation to the collection of essays themselves. And on the other hand, the editors' argument that tries to justify Žižek's relentless repetition of the same examples and conclusions over and over again seems to suffer from a kind of 'kettle-logic'. Basically, this argument contains a significant degree of virement, or conceptual drift and, I suspect, 'function-creep'. That is to say, the argument that tries to justify Žižek's endless repetition of the same examples and the same conclusions rests on a claim that Žižek does this because of the allegedly inevitable, perpetual distortion of truth in examples, truths that are only ever present in their distorted exemplifications. If this is so, then one might expect Žižek's examples and conclusions to change; one might expect something of an excess of examples and conclusions, rather than the conspicuously suspect limited selection that we keep finding.

But surely, this can all just be referred back to the Žižekian response to the Laclauian and Butlerian types of criticism about Žižek's apparent lack of consistency, coherence and eclecticism with which we began. Namely, there are different notions of coherence and consistency at play here. Vis-à-vis different approaches, every different approach is a foreign country -- they do things differently there.

Nevertheless, this still suggests a further critical question: When it comes to 'doing', why do this? For, once one has any concept of what Žižek means by 'the Real' -- basically, impossibility itself -- the question arising in the face of Interrogating the Real becomes: but why would you want to interrogate that, of all (non)things? What would be the point of it? It could be read as an empty exercise of 'drive' in a way that takes us back to the editors' arguments about Žižek having '“nothing-to-say” or [the] “empty speech” that underlies [Žižek's] texts'.

Perhaps this 'emptiness' says more about Žižek's Lacan than it does about Žižek's point. For, when it comes to Žižek's point -- so to speak, the point of Žižek -- namely, his much-remarked political investments and orientations and his rejection of 'postmodern resignation', this would, taken at face value, apparently trump his enjoyment of 'empty' psychobabble. Indeed, to my mind, it is in Žižek's articulation of the psychoanalytic to the political field as a way to think about 'radicalising' political projects that his project does try to add something, to 'change it'. As he argues in 'Revisioning "Lacanian" Social Criticism': 'The fundamental wager of psychoanalysis is that there exists such a knowledge which produces effects in the Real, that we can "undo things (symptoms) with words". The whole point of psychoanalytic treatment is that is operates exclusively at the level of "knowledge" (words), yet has effects in the Real of bodily symptoms' (303).

Now this, I think, remains thoroughly interesting, doubtless not only to me but also to Žižek's many readers. However, my contention is that the nuts and bolts of the socially-inflected Lacanian criticism that Žižek has spent so much of his efforts enumerating are ultimately of less significance -- both theoretically/academically and practically/politically -- than such seminal critical works on political theory as 'Beyond Discourse Analysis'. This essay, which was first presented as a response to Laclau and Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985), and first printed in one of Laclau's following books (Laclau, 1990), is rightly present in Interrogating the Real. Its presence there makes the book worth acquiring for this essay alone, if you do not already have the Laclau volume.

For, this short text is perhaps Žižek's finest. It is a response to Laclau and Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy and an engagement with political theory and contemporary academic intellectual and political concerns, one that remains valid and important today. Admittedly, however, it has increasingly come to appear that the 'Beyond' referred to in the title 'Beyond Discourse Analysis' may well be a bit of a dead-end, at least when it comes to politics if not to scholarship. But, as an account of the theoretical significance of Laclau and Mouffe's 'post-Marxist' discourse theory, 'Beyond Discourse Analysis' is hard to beat.

Unfortunately, for Žižek, the real value of Laclau and Mouffe consists in the extent to which their approach can be taken in Lacanian and not their own 'post-Marxist' terms. As we see in the first sentences of 'Beyond Discourse Analysis', Žižek wants to refute the post-structuralist readings of Laclau and Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, and to affirm an ultimately Lacanian approach to ideological social and political studies. This is a deeply problematic move. But it is one which has defined the entire subsequent development of Laclau and Žižek's relationship. It has taken the form, first of all, of an argument about whether and the extent to which one might ever be able to develop an ultimately Lacanian approach to ideological social and political studies.

This may seem on the one hand to be an obscure, arbitrary or inconsequential matter, particularly to those less than familiar with Laclau and Mouffe's work (but also to those quite familiar with it). Yet, on the other hand, any who read 'Beyond Discourse Analysis' for the first time are likely to find it relentlessly fast and theoretically formidable. One might ask how to make sense of this apparent mismatch, or indeed how to make sense of 'Beyond Discourse Analysis' per se. As regards the latter question, the editors of Interrogating the Real have very helpfully prepared the ground and set the scene for any first reading of it, so that its argument might more easily make sense. They have done so by including essays that can be read as 'primers' that prepare one for 'Beyond Discourse Analysis'. As Žižek puts it in one of these preceding pieces:

Is . . .the ultimate Marxian parallax not the one between economy and politics, between the 'critique of political economy' with its logic of commodities and the political struggle with its logic of antagonism? Both logics are 'transcendental', not merely ontico-empirical, and they are both irreducible to each other. . .

The 'political' critique of Marxism (the claim that, when one reduces politics for a 'formal' expression of some underlying 'objective' socio-economic process, one loses the openness and contingency constitutive of the political field proper) should thus be supplemented by its obverse: the field of the economy is in its very form irreducible to politics -- this level of the form of economy (of economy as the determining form of the social) is what French 'political post-Marxists' miss when they reduce economy to one of the positive social spheres. (242, 243)

This is the other key dimension of the argument between Žižek and Laclau. It may initially seem trivial, like the question of 'Lacanian' versus 'post-Marxist' approaches, but it is actually the argument between Žižek and post-structuralism or post-Marxism in general. It is an antagonism that is all about the theoretical status of 'antagonism'. The significance of it may seem secondary. But, it is not to be understood as a localised dispute. This is because it is, in fact, in a nutshell, the dispute between Žižek and what he pejoratively construes as the entire 'postmodernist/ poststructuralist/ deconstructionist/ cultural studies/ discourse analysis' tendencies in the contemporary university. In other words, it is Žižek's argument with me and, more than likely -- if you have managed to read this far through this review -- with you.


Butler, J., Laclau, E., & Žižek, S. (2000) Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London: Verso.

Laclau, E. (1990) New Reflections on The Revolution of Our Time. London: Verso.

Laclau, E. (2005) On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Laclau, E, & Mouffe, C. (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.

Parker, I. (2004) Slavoj Žižek: A Critical Introduction. London: Pluto Press.

Walsh, M. (2002) 'Slavoj Žižek (1949 -)', The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia of Modern Criticism and Theory. Wolfreys, J. (ed.), Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Paul Bowman is Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Roehampton University, London, UK. He is editor of Interrogating Cultural Studies: Theory, Politics, Practice (Pluto Press, 2003), author of Post-Marxism versus Cultural Studies: Politics, Theory and Intervention (Edinburgh University Press, 2007) and co-editor of The Truth of Žižek (Continuum, 2007). Formerly an editor of the journal Parallax, he has also published widely in books and such journals as Culture Machine, Strategies, Parallax and Contemporary Politics.