‘On Žižek’s Dialectics: Surplus, Subtraction, Sublimation’ reviewed by Michael Calderbank

On Žižek’s Dialectics: Surplus, Subtraction, Sublimation

Continuum, London and New York, 2010. 208pp., £65 hb
ISBN 9780826464439

Reviewed by Michael Calderbank

About the reviewer

Michael Calderbank is Co-Editor of Red Pepper magazine …


Fabio Vighi should be congratulated for having produced such a sympathetic yet consistently probing account of Žižek’s intellectual project. His work suggests that the Marx-Lacan nexus is not just the intellectual scaffolding for the provocations of an idiosyncratic humorist. Rather it helps to challenge the epistemological assumptions behind ameliorative notions of political agency in ways that are potentially productive for the development of a genuinely critical historical materialism.

If early twentieth century Marxists found themselves appealing to the insights of Freud, then psychoanalysis was too often cast in the role of an merely auxilliary discourse. If the collective economic liberation resulting from proletarian revolution was to be accompanied by a concomitant erotic liberation of the subject, then the sexual repression which appeared functionally necessary to the high-bourgeois Victorian family required an additional level of critique. Essentially the resulting “Freudo-Marxisms”, however superior to Stalinist ascetism, were somewhat ad hoc improvisations where the two discourses were more or less effectively spatchcocked together out of perceived political affinity. But if psychoanalysis was appropriated instrumentally by thinkers or movements claiming an affinity to Marxism, this process was all too rarely accompanied by any serious considerations of its epistemological implications for historical materialism.

Psychoanalysis – at least in most radical form – was never going to lend itself to being contained and safely domesticated as one sphere of research amongst others in a positivist intellectual framework derived from the natural sciences. Rather, psychoanalysis fundamentally problematises the relationship between the knowing subject (a consciousness fully self-transparent and internally consistent) and its immediate access to the external object of cognition. To acknowledge the full force of the psychoanalytic revolution in thought would ultimately mean to shake to the foundations a certain Second International view of Marxist “science” and a dogmatic orthodoxy which would persist as a characteristic of official Marxology (though not unchallenged) under the so-called “actually existing” Socialist states.

Thus the radical philosophical implications of psychoanalysis for a re-imagining of historical materialism as the basis for thorough-going critique of modern thought would be pursued as a marginalised enclave of dissent in the capitalist west, particularly in the work of the Frankfurt School theorists who witnessed both the emergence of fascism out of capitalist modernity in Germany, and then the post-war reconstruction of consumer-capitalism in the United States. It is no coincidence then, that although Slavoj Žižek’s thought came to maturity in the midst of the Stalinist bloc, there are such clear similarities between it and some key insights drawn from Herbert Marcuse and, more particularly, Theodor W. Adorno. Both thinkers draw extensively on the critical legacy of German Idealist philosophy and a Hegelian dialectical emphasis on negativity but shorn of the telos of an all-subsuming positive synthesis.

Fabio Vighi’s starting point in his explication of Žižek’s dialectics is the latter’s insight thatcapitalism, like all social orders, is stained by a self-generating excess that makes it incomplete, inconsistent and therefore vulnerable. However … unlike previous formations … it does not hide or disavow its constitutive excess; rather it elevates it into ‘the very principle of social life, in the speculative movement of money begetting more money’ (11)

The madness of capitalism’s irrational super-egoistic injunction to enjoy, the relentless madness of its drive to consumption without limit, is not screened from view in case its insanity should be called into question. On the contrary, our very sense of subjective identity is coterminous with the insistence that we are obliged to consume more and more. Vighi usefully recalls Marcuse’s notion of “repressive desublimation” where the liberalization of erotic constraints far from loosening the repressive structures of the social order serves to bind the subject all the more powerfully to the preservation of existing power relations. But the fact that we continue to play out our designated roles in the world of turbo-consumerism – even though by now millions in the advanced capitalist nations are perfectly aware that we stuck are on a joyless treadmill of work and consumption (grounded in injustice, exploitation, environmental destruction and so forth) – is indicative that we still have irrational libidinal investments in ideas and social practices that remain at the level of the unconscious.

Žižek first came to the attention of a broad Anglophone audience over twenty years ago now, with what remains his best-known work, The Sublime Object of Ideology. Drawing heavily on the account of the unconscious in the later seminars of psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan, Žižek is at pains to establish that, as Vighi puts it: “our existence is irredeemably tainted by a disturbing excess of libido which materializes the inconsistency of any knowledge that we acquire and identify with … it’s presence signals that in us there in an unconscious knowledge that we are unable to access.”

In Lacan’s account, the symbolic effect of castration opens up a rift in the subject, which experiences for the first time a painful sense that it is lacking the integrity and fullness of the pre-Oedipal Imaginary. This traumatic episode results in desire and drive, the quest for the jouissance (or sublime enjoyment) that would result if we were finally to possess a specific piece of the object-world (that Lacan calls “petit a”) that might ultimately fill that void. But if the subject experiences lack, this is because the symbolic field (of language, representation) is overloaded with jouissance as untameable excess, a surplus that is constitutively incapable of being properly accommodated. This “sublime object” subtends and sustains our fantastic-libidinal investment in ideological positions which the conscious subject disavows. It opens up the space between enjoyment and anxiety in which are trapped.

This is the Žižek best known to the non-specialist audience, and if Vighi simply explicated this account then his study would be of use only as a primer, since it would again remain extrinsic to the substance of Marx’s immanent critique of capitalist political economy. But Vighi’s genuinely illuminating and insightful study does much more than this. The bulk of the theoretical heavy-lifting is done in the chapter “From surplus-value to surplus-jouissance” where Vighi draws on the post-68 Lacan of Seminars XVI and XVII in order to establish the relation between the two as homologous, or more accurately still, as a parallax. That is, where a shift in the subject position means an identical phenomenon appears in a very different light:

[Marx’s account of surplus value] not only refers to the workers’ unpaid labour-time, but also to the excessive, incalculable quality of labour-as-such. Marx, however, did not develop this intuition. Instead he stopped at surplus labour-time, conceptualizing it as potentially detachable from surplus-value and directly available to the workers who, in a communist economy, would use it for the good of society. From Lacan’s perspective, then, Marx’s “reduction” of labour-as-such to labour-time corresponds to abstracting the formers from its real dimension. Lacan’s suggestion is by contrast, is that the genesis of surplus-value – this invisible turbine at the heart of capitalist appropriation and accumulation – should be conceived less as a supplementary lapse of non-remunerated labour-time than as the entropic and non-quantifiable quality intrinsic to labour-as-such. (42)

Vighi explores the division between mental and manual Labour in relation to the work of Adorno and Alfred Sohn-Rethel, with particular focus on the way that the production of knowledge is reified and abstracted from the sphere of material production more generally. Vighi takes Marx’s observation that the activity of the labouring subject cannot be valorized without remainder to be the same fundamental claim as the Lacanian point that the weight of the unconscious disturbs the integrity and consistency of the Symbolic register. Captialist society’s disavowal of the “knowledge-at-work” in the labour of the proletariat shares the same fundamental structure as the subjective disavowal of unconscious thought.

Thus the Marxian account of “surplus”, like Lacan’s, shows itself at one and the same time to be the symptom of a lack which is situated at the core of the (class) subject, since it gives rise to the pursuit of the uncanny little object ‘a’ which disrupts the whole social field.

However, if this account risks sounding ahistorical, Vighi claims Žižek holds the historical emergence of capitalist social relations to be the moment at which this surplus/lack becomes the very generating principle of the social whole, and begins for the first time to organise the entirety of human development – with the result that we are unable not to be driven by the insane drive to consume, even when it is evident advance capitalism is delivering us into a post-historical apocalytpic wasteland of ecological catastrophe. In fact, Žižek’s account of subjectivity and history is far more akin to Beckett than to someone like Lukács for whom revolution would represent the working class becoming both “subject” and “object” of history, which would represent the heroic affirmation of all human history to date. For Žižek (as for Adorno) the non-identity of subject and object is a condition of possibility of subjective experience, and thus its continued existence is inescapably bound up with the an awareness of its own otherness to itself, the product of its constitutive separation from the object. However, this is read from the dialectical perspective not as a tragic part of the “human condition” but as a felicitous fall that enables the subject’s meaningful experience of the world. The limit to the subject’s full self-identity is at the same time the mark of its freedom from full determination by the big Other. This moment of non-identity is both a limit to, and the enabling condition of, political engagement.

Vighi deals charitably with Žižek’s “Bartleby politics”, the basis of which is the subject’s subtraction and disengagement from activity which operates (even oppositionally, that is strategically) within the framework of the existing dispensation of liberal democracy. To be sure, Žižek’s appeal to the radicalism of Lenin’s “insane” commitment to the revolutionary act that would retroactive demonstrate the conditions of its own possibility, is salutary. However, as Vighi admits, there is an important difference between being aware of, on the one hand, the politically disabling effect of the forever accommodating oneself to the limits of what seems possible, and on the other, the dismissal of practical strategic considerations tout court.

 Žižek is a fine theoretical exponent of the inherent limits to what theory alone can achieve, and has argued convincingly for the need to break completely from the logic that governs global capitalism such that drives can be sublimated into wholly new forms of social organisation. But Vighi rightly presses Žižek to move beyond such a stance which continues to beg so many of the questions to which radical left politics needs to find answers. Here, although Žižek’s work demonstrates how the inerablicable surplus-jouissance means we have to be open to the radically new, Vighi rightly questions how that relates to the possibilities that exist for us in the here-and-now. The existence of groups like displaced asylum seekers or the millions of dispossessed slum dwellers whose disavowed presence in the heart of expensively rebuilt cities become the focus of the real forms of ‘subtraction’ already being delivered by global capitalist development. Though this phenomenon is real enough, the notion that this might result in new forms of solidarity and political organisation in relation to existing social antagonisms certainly needs more elaboration.

5 April 2011

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *