Slavoj Žižek is one of the most controversial left-wing thinkers in the world today. For fans, he’s a figure worthy of rapturous praise and entire journals devoted to studying his thought. For detractors, he’s a charlatan and a clown — a nose-grabbing, Lacan-citing, cartoonish emblem of everything that is wrong with out-of-touch, superficially radical continental philosophy.
These critiques sometimes have a ring of truth to them. Žižek has taken some truly bad positions in recent years, one of the worst being his crypto-accelerationist “endorsement” of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. While Žižek has tried to explain himself since then, he’s never backed away from his basic position: that Trump’s victory would help bring about a more “authentic left.” It was a bad argument that ignored the actual history of far-right movements, which — far from accelerating the rise of a genuine left — have often bred further reaction. Žižek’s arguments also ignored the incredible damage Trump was capable of — and ultimately caused.
Žižek’s 2015 comments about refugees also warrant criticism. While he rightly criticized Western states and global capital for generating many of the conditions that cause people to flee their home countries, his view of refugees from Africa and the Middle East as radically different, almost incompatible, with European society risks reinforcing far-right racism. Žižek can claim he supports solidarity with refugees in spite of this all he wants — these still remain troubling remarks.
But despite these serious missteps, Žižek remains an important theorist for the Left for two reasons. First, his reinterpretation of dialectical materialism has resuscitated the leftist philosophy in the face of intellectual assaults. Second, he has written creative, insightful studies of ideology in our postmodern, neoliberal era. Taken together these contributions constitute a formidable legacy that ensure Žižek, whatever his flaws, will remain a touchstone for a long time.
Did Somebody Say Dialectical Materialism?
Arguably Žižek’s most significant accomplishment is his rethinking of dialectical materialism. Before delving into this it will help to explain just what dialectical materialism is. The “dia-” in “dialectical” comes from Ancient Greek and refers to apart or across. The “lectical” is derived from the Greek word “logos” — a term too enigmatic to explain here, but that we’ll refer to as dialogue or discussion.
For ancient philosophers like Socrates or Plato, dialectic was the bringing forth of arguments by opposing interlocutors with the goal of reaching truth. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however — in a watershed moment for European philosophy — its meaning was transformed. No longer was “dialectic” used to describe the discrete practice of rational discussion. Instead, the German thinkers G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx applied it to characterize the entire advancement of society and its intellectual life, which they argued progresses through the negotiation of its internal contradictions.
According to Hegel, the forward momentum of history comes through the manifestation of concepts in the realm of practice. The fact that the Protestant Reformation had not happened in France, for instance, led to a moment of reckoning with feudal authorities in which “absolute violence” prevailed; in which the absence of social individualism meant the guillotining of enemies could be treated “with no more significance than cleaving a cabbage head.”
Though indebted to Hegel, Marx thought he used abstract concepts too freely. He attempted to set dialectics on a materialist footing by analyzing political economy. His famous thesis scarcely bears repeating: that capitalism, due to its propensity for replacing workers with machines and depriving them of the full product of their labor, eventually deprives itself of the consumer demand it needs to survive (which leads, of course, to communism).
Marx’s adaptation of dialectics, then, was always an explicitly materialist endeavor. But while using dialectics to explain the economic thrust of history became standard among Marxists, its application to nature remained controversial. From 1872 to 1882, Friedrich Engels authored — with Marx’s blessing — several manuscripts attempting to schematize natural phenomena ranging from biology to tidal friction using dialectics. The overly deterministic character — is boiling water really an example of dialectics? — caused Engels’s nature writing to be snubbed by much of the Marxist literati in the West from the 1920s onward.
The reception was far warmer among the apparatchiks of the Soviet Union. In 1938, Stalin went so far as to codify Engelsian “DiaMat” (dialectical materialism) as the official philosophy of the USSR. Given Stalin’s treatment of the natural sciences during his violent reign (most notoriously in the Lysenko affair), this didn’t exactly strengthen its intellectual repute.
For Žižek, the vulgarity of dialectical materialism, combined with the vulgarity of its political application, makes it “arguably the most stupid philosophical system of the twentieth century.” So why does he insist on identifying with the label? Žižek argues that without a vision of nature to oppose to capitalism, the Marxist left will find itself unable to speak decisively: it will, as he jokes of the poststructuralist philosopher Judith Butler, be unable to discuss a glass of water on the table without couching it in an array of caveats.
At the same time, Žižek’s version of dialectical materialism — what he calls, as if it were a Rocky sequel, “Dialectical Materialism 2” — is quite different than its stodgier precursor. The error of “Dialectical Materialism 1” is that its attempt to subordinate reality to objective laws ignores the great intellectual upheavals of modernity: namely, philosophy’s discovery (Kant via Descartes) that the structure of our thought conditions our understanding of the external world and psychoanalysis’s discovery (Lacan via Freud) that desire constitutes itself in opposition to a lack that can never be properly filled.
Žižek’s signature gesture is not to conceive of these injunctions negatively — as proof of the limitations of human reason, or as sexuality as a site of impossibility — but positively. If humans are defined by an irresolvable tension between reason and its fallibility, between desire and its lack, this proves they are part of nature. For if contemporary science has shown us anything, it’s that nature is riddled with inconsistencies, contingencies, and tensions. It is, in other words, constitutively incomplete.
To illustrate the point, Žižek often brings up quantum physics. Before quantum physics, our Newtonian understanding of the natural world was as a mechanically functioning material artifact. The shattering of this image, Žižek says, was like a player’s discovery of a video game glitch. When a gamer finds a glitch — when, say, they pass beyond a door that was put in the game for decorative purposes — they frequently find themselves mired in a mishmash of chaotic lines of code; in a liminal space in which the apparent rules of the game do not hold. But these spaces are still part of the game.
According to Žižek the same can be said of quantum physics: the shadowy conjuncture of waves and particles demonstrates the anarchic character of nature. The earlier iteration of dialectical materialism misses that reality is not holistic and lawlike, but defined by disunity and a refusal to submit to iron laws.
Given Žižek’s stress on failure and incompleteness as inherent features of the universe, it’s appropriate that his own system isn’t perfect either. One could question how useful it is to base one’s conception of nature upon contingency. Doesn’t this risk promoting a view where anything unknown can be seen as proof of its “incompleteness”?
Still, the great strength of Žižek’s dialectic materialism is that it incorporates criticisms of earlier versions. Many postmodernists have assailed orthodox dialectical materialism for being too rigid and deterministic, for assuming the knowability of reality. Žižek doesn’t reject these views outright — he builds them into his system.
It is often said that dialectics progresses in a three-step waltz, from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. With “Dialectical Materialism 2,” Žižek accomplishes a quintessentially dialectical feat: the synthesis of his opposition into something new.
The Sublime Resurrection of Ideology
If Žižek’s “Dialectical Materialism 2” attempts to renew Marxist thought by jettisoning a naïve idea of objective reality, the same can be said of his theory of ideology.
In the late 1980s and ’90s, when Žižek made his name, ideology studies were thoroughly passé. Poststructuralist and “post-Marxist” critics had launched a volley of attacks on the classical account given by luminaries from Marx and Engels to Louis Althusser.
Generations of Foucauldians claimed that, contra its seemingly radical qualities, the theory of ideology was too simplistic — replicating the old appearance/reality distinction of Enlightenment liberal philosophy, just at a higher level of sophistication. Even worse, it was elitist in suggesting that only a privileged cadre of intellectuals could cast aside the illusions of ideology and approach the truth.
Building on this, more politically minded critics claimed the binary logic underpinning ideology theory generated a simplistic notion of power: ideology was treated as merely part of an epiphenomenal superstructure that justified and obfuscated the real material basis of class exploitation. According to these critics, it was crucial to recognize how ideas molded us into the entrepreneurial, neoliberal subjects who both participated in and created a world dominated by capital.
Žižek’s argument acknowledges many of these criticisms while showcasing why ideology remains a vital theoretical category for the Left. His innovation is to show that ideology is best understood not in terms of an illusion that conceals reality, but as a psychological disposition and set of behaviors. This is especially important to grasp in a postmodern society, where ironic detachment and meta-awareness of our own manipulation have become familiar cultural tropes.
Often, these sorts of dissociations are perceived as critical gestures: by stressing my awareness of ideology and power, I disenchant it. Žižek insists this is nonsense. Taking a minimal distance from ideology in fact facilitates our reconciliation with it.
There are venerable precedents for this ideological dissociation and retrenchment. The Catholic practice of confession allows people a safe space to indulge their sinful natures while retrenching the power of the Church by requiring congregants to performatively absolve these forays. It’s common to suppose we’ve moved on from such antiquarian practices. But Žižek argues we are more likely than ever to adopt customs that allow us to mock ideology while submitting to its imperatives.
The phenomena of commodity fetishism is a good example. Once upon a time we’d say that the problem is that people see commodities like expensive cars, Gucci purses, and Starbucks coffee as talismanic objects. The point of ideological analysis is therefore to make people aware that these are all just simple material objects, very often produced under exploitative conditions.
But as Žižek points out, we all already know this today. One of the reasons businesses proclaim their (superficial) commitment to racial justice is because consumers will parrot a seemingly critical rhetoric about the fashion industry depending on unrealistic beauty standards, that clothes don’t make the man, and so on. And when pushed to defend their attachment to consumer products, they’ll note that Gucci supports the LGBTQ community, that Starbucks recently committed itself to hiring more female executives, or even claim that we’re just consuming “ironically.”
The combination of expressing awareness of our consumerism, with the symbolic escape provided by appeals to cosmetic inclusion or ironic dissociation, performs the same function that confession has for the Catholic church. It gives us a safe space to take a minimal distance from ideology, while ensuring we are as beholden to it as ever. In other words, the proper ideological subject isn’t one who doesn’t know what’s going on, but someone who says “I know, but…”
The same is true of political ideologies. One of the strange features about postmodern conservatism was the number of young right-wingers, particularly online, who claimed to be supporting Trump ironically or satirically. They often claimed this wasn’t about sticking up for anything like conservative principles, but instead “owning the libs” or sending a message to “elites.”
But of course these dissociations from reactionary views provided an ideal defense against conventional forms of criticism: whenever someone pointed out that Trumpists were often thin-skinned plutocrats defending an exploitative and bigoted system of power, postmodern conservatives could claim their support was all a big joke and mock critics for taking it seriously. Far from being countercultural, this allowed them to support reactionary ideas without having to take possession of them or offer justifications.
The Value of Žižek
Žižek is a mercurial figure whose work can be bafflingly spasmodic. His propensity to adopt the most provocative position has led him to conclude French voters have no reason to prefer the neoliberal Emmanuel Macron over the xenophobic Marine Le Pen. His writing vacillates between enjoyably accessible, with plenty of pop culture references to brighten things up, and frustratingly dense. And even sympathetic readers sometimes wish he would quit repeating himself throughout his myriad writings.
But these faults shouldn’t obscure the value of Žižek’s work on dialectical materialism and ideology. Few left-wing theorists have been as effective in refocusing our attention on the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism and the increasingly mysterious ways its ideology surfaces in everyday life.
Likewise, while his leftist opponents have often taken issue with his exhumation of dialectical materialism, accusing it of being pre-scientific, they could perhaps learn something from it. Žižek’s dialectics of incompleteness show us how novelty in politics, as in science, is possible — how Lenin could emerge from the periphery to seize power in the Russian Revolution, to cite one of his favorite examples.
The views of his left opponent often seem more primitive and binary. There is inequality, they tell us, so we should redistribute wealth. What this elides is the need to radically upend a system that, at present, makes fulfilling this goal nearly impossible.
If the mission of critical theory is to analyze and critique the ailments of its time, then Žižek is one of our finest diagnosticians. His work may not be sublime, but it is revelatory — which is just what the Left needs right now.