Žižek's critique of post-structuralism
August 23, 2021
Žižek is someone I’ve come to appreciate more lately, and The Sublime Object of Ideology (Žižek, 2008) had been on my list for some time before I finally got round to reading it over the last few weeks. There’s a lot going on in this book, but here I’ll focus on a criticism of post-structuralism made in a later chapter titled ‘Which Subject of the Real?’ One of Žižek’s main aims in the book is to articulate a theory of subjectivity which avoids the horns of a familiar dilemma, concerning the relationship between the individual subject and the social-symbolic field it is immersed in. One horn is occupied by essentialism, which construes the subject as given ontologically prior to the symbolic field (e.g. the Marcuse of Eros and Civilisation). The other horn is occupied by post-structuralism, which construes the subject as nothing more than a position on the symbolic grid.
It’s easy to lose sight of what is at stake in this somewhat abstract issue, but it has a fundamental bearing on the question of ideological interpellation. To what extent are the desires of an individual socially inflected? If they are, does this mean the individual is somehow at fault, conditioned, or alienated? Or are desires perhaps socially inflected in their very constitution? To what extent can manipulating the ‘external’ symbolic field produce a change in the ‘internal’ dimension of subjectivity itself? Can the subject ever be ‘liberated’ from its symbolically structured social reality? If so, does such a liberation constitute a legitimate political end? Clearly, answers to these questions cast a long shadow, and will have deep implications for the orientation of a political project.
Characteristically, Žižek finds the middle path between the two horns in the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. Roughly, the subject is neither to be understood as constituted prior to its immersion in the symbolic field, nor can it be reduced to a mere position on its grid—the subject is rather correlative to a certain lack immanent to the symbolic field itself. The subject is in this respect identified with the Lacanian Real: that which escapes symbolisation, the absence within the field that can be registered only in the form of ruptures, contradictions, and lacunae.
There is no pure metalanguage
The criticism begins by noting that Lacan and the post-structuralists agree on one thing: that there can be no pure metalanguage. But the agreement ends where it starts—according to Žižek, their respective treatments of this proposition are fundamentally at odds.
Expanding the post-structuralist position:
Post-structuralism claims that a text is always ‘framed’ by its own commentary: the interpretation of a literary text resides on the same plane as its ‘object.’ Thus the interpretation is included in the literary corpus: there is no ‘pure’ literary object that would not contain an element of interpretation, of distance towards its immediate meaning. In post-structuralism the classic opposition between object-text and its external interpretive reading is thus replaced by a continuity of an infinite literary text which is always already its own reading; that is, which sets up a distance from itself. […] As Habermas has already pointed out, in post-structuralism we have a kind of universalized aestheticization where whereby ‘truth’ itself is finally reduced to one of the style effects of the discursive articulation. (Žižek, 2008, pp. 171–172)
Lacan always insists on psycho-analysis as a truth experience: his thesis that truth is structured like a fiction has nothing to do with a post-structuralist reduction of the truth-dimension to a textual ‘truth-effect’. (Žižek, 2008, p. 172)
Indeed, this is one of the issues post-structuralists have taken with Lacan:
In ‘post-structuralism’, metonymy obtains a clear logical predominance over metaphor. The metaphorical ‘cut’ is conceived as an effort doomed to fail; doomed to stablize, canalize, or dominate the metonymical dissipation of the textual stream. In this perspective, the Lacanian insistence on the primacy of metaphor over metonymy, his thesis that metonymical sliding must always be supported by a metaphorical cut, can appear to post-structuralists only as an indication that his theory is still marked by the ‘metaphysics of presence’. Post-structuralists see the Lacanian theory of the point de capiton, of the phallic signifier as the signifier of lack, as an effort to master and restrain the ‘dissemination’ of the textual process. Is it not, they say, an attempt to localize a lack in a single signifier, the One, although it is the signifier of lack itself? Derrida repeatedly reproaches Lacan for the paradoxical gesture of reducing lack through its affirmation of itself. (Žižek, 2008, p. 172)
The ‘metaphorical cut’ is envisaged as introducing a rupture into the textual stream, a piece of brute materiality pointing to some ‘outside’ to the text. The post-structuralist objection is that by assuming the primacy of such a cut Lacan re-symbolizes the non-symbolic, in effect reabsorbing the lack back into the textual stream as a positive signifier. By asserting the ‘primacy’ of the metaphorical cut, he merely conceals the metonymic substitution that supports this very move.
Žižek counters that despite their best efforts, the post-structuralist continues to speak from an implicitly metalinguistic position.
The post-structuralist position constantly repeats that no text could be totally non-metaphysical. On the one hand, it is not possible to get rid of the metaphysical tradition by a simple gesture of taking distance, of placing oneself outside it, because the language we are obliged to use is penetrated by metaphysics. On the other hand, however, every text, however metaphysical, always produces gaps which announce breaches in the metaphysical circle: the points at which the textual process subverts what its ‘author’ intended to say. Is such a position not just a little too convenient? To put it more bluntly, the position from which the deconstructivist can always make sure of the fact that ‘there is no metalanguage’, that no utterance can say precisely what it intended to say, that the process of enunciation always subverts the utterance, is the position of metalanguage in its purest, most radical form. (Žižek, 2008, p. 173)
This inconsistency is demonstrated by post-structuralist écriture:
How can one not recognize, in the passionate zeal with which the post-structuralist insists that every text, his own included, is caught in a fundamental ambiguity and flooded with the ‘dissemination’ of the inter-textual process, the signs of an obstinate denial […]; a barely hidden acknowledgement of the fact that no-one is speaking from a safe position, a position not menaced by the decentred textual process? That is why post-structuralist poeticism is ultimately affected. The whole effort to write ‘poetically’, to make us feel how our own text is already caught in a decentred network of plural processes and how this textual process always subverts what we ‘intended to say’, the whole effort to evade the purely theoretical form of exposing our ideas and to adopt rhetorical devices usually reserved to literature, masks the annoying fact that at the root of what post-structuralists are saying there is a clearly defined theoretical position which can be articulated without difficulty in a pure and simple metalanguage. (Žižek, 2008, pp. 173–174)
Utlimately, then, the post-structuralist is stuck at an impasse:
The grand post-structuralist assumption is that the classic reduction of rhetorical devices to external means which do not concern the signified contents is illusory: the so-called stylistic devices already determine the ‘inner’ notional contents themselves. Yet it would appear that the post-structuralist poetic style itself—the style of continuous ironic self-commentary and self-distance, the way of constantly subverting what one was supposed to say literally—exists only to embellish some basic theoretical propositions. That is why post-structuralist commentaries often produce an effect of ‘bad infinity’ in the Hegelian sense: an endless quasi-poetical variation on the same theoretical assumptions, a variation which does not produce anything new. The problem with deconstruction, then, is not that it renounces a strict theoretical formulation and yields to a flabby poeticism. On the contrary, it is that its position is too ‘theoretical’ (in the sense of a theory which excludes the truth-dimension; that is, which does not affect the place from which we speak). (Žižek, 2008, p. 174)
At this point the question arises: what is the alternative? If Lacan agrees that the metalinguistic position is ultimately impossible to occupy, then will he not also end up in the same impasse? If this positioning is impossible—so that any attempt to speak from it can only be read as a kind of stage magic, as an ideological operation—then surely there is no option but to endlessly avoid and defer it, a strategy which (as we have seen) will only end up implicitly affirming the very theoretical position it seeks to displace?
In the Lacanian perspective it is, on the contrary, precisely such ‘impossible’ utterances—utterances following the logic of the paradox ‘I am lying’—which keep the fundamental gap of the signifying process open and in this way prevent us from assuming a metalanguage position. (Žižek, 2008, pp. 174–175)
The counter-claim, then, is that it is precisely in the failed attempt to occupy the metalinguistic position that its impossibility is materialised, opening the gap between the intended and actual meaning in practice, and thereby making possible the signifying operation as such (which is to say the representational dimension of language: the gap between appearance and reality, subject and object, intended meaning and actual meaning).
Lacan is close to Brecht here. One has only to remember the basic procedure of Brecht’s ‘learning plays’ of the early 1930s in which the dramatis personae pronounce an ‘impossible’ commentary on their own acts. An actor enters the stage and says: ‘I am a capitalist whose aim is to exploit workers. Now I will try to convince one of my workers of the truth of the bourgeois ideology which legitimizes the exploitation . . .’ He then approaches the worker and does exactly what he has announced he would do. Does such a procedure—an actor commenting on his deeds from an ‘objective’ position of pure metalanguage—not make it clear, in an almost palpable way, the utter impossibility of occupying this position; is it not, in its very absurdity, infinitely more subversive than the poeticism which prohibits every direct, simple utterance and feels obliged always to add new comments, retreats, digressions, brackets, quotations marks . . .—so many assurances that what we are saying is not to be taken directly or literally, as identical to itself? (Žižek, 2008, p. 175)
In the Western bourgeois theatre the audience implicitly takes themselves to be occupying the metalinguistic position: a view-from-nowhere outside the space of narrative action. But this position is ultimately impossible, and can only be feigned via an illusion of staging. When the actor also feigns to adopt exactly this impossible position, its impossibility is made palpable and the illusion collapses. The artificial division between the auditorium and the stage is broken down, and the audience discovers themselves to have always occupied the same textual plane as the characters.
Metalanguage is not just an Imaginary entity. It is Real in the strict Lacanian sense—that is, it is impossible to occupy its position. But, Lacan adds, it is even more difficult simply to avoid it. One cannot attain it, but one also cannot escape it. That is why the only way to avoid the Real is to produce an utterance of pure metalanguage which, by its patent absurdity, materializes its own impossibility: that is, a paradoxical element which, in its very identity, embodies absolute otherness, the irreparable gap that makes it impossible to occupy a metalanguage position. (Žižek, 2008, p. 175)
Where the post-structuralist wants to avoid ‘localizing the lack in a signifier,’ which they believe would ‘tame the dissemination of the writing process,’ for Lacan it is this very speech act which, in its absurdity (the irreconcilable contradiction between what is made explicit in the utterance and what is implicit in the act), avoids this taming, and ‘sustains the radical dimension of the gap.’ This speech act is something like a Gödel sentence within the symbolic field, a paradoxical element denoted by Lacan as the ‘phallic signifier.’ (Why is it phallic? I have no idea.)
To articulate more precisely the way in which the Lacanian phallic signifier entails the impossibility of metalanguage, let us return to the post-structuralist idea that ‘there is no metalanguage’. Its starting point is the fact that the zero level of all metalanguages—natural, ordinary language—is simultaneously the last interpretive framework of them all: it is the ultimate metalanguage. Ordinary language is its own metalanguage. It is self-referential; the place of an incessant auto-reflexive movement. In this conceptualization one does not mention the object too much. Usually, one gets rid of it simply by pointing out how ‘reality’ is already structured through the medium of language. In this way post-structuralists can calmly abandon themselves to the infinite self-interpretive play of language. ‘There is no metalanguage’ is actually taken to mean its exact opposite: that there is no pure object-language, any language that would function as a purely transparent medium for the designation of pre-given reality. Every ‘objective’ statement about things includes some kind of self-distance, a rebounding of the signifier from its ‘literal meaning’. In short, language is always saying, more or less, something other than what it means to say. (Žižek, 2008, p. 177)
In Lacan’s teaching, however, the proposition ‘the is no metalanguage’ is to be taken literally. It means that all language is in a way an object-language: there is no language without object. Even when the language is apparently caught in a web of self-referential movement, even when it is apparently speaking only about itself, there is an objective, non-signifying ‘reference’ to this movement. […] The self-referential movement of the signifier is not that of a closed circle, but an elliptical movement around a certain void. (Žižek, 2008, pp. 177–178)
In summary, the post-structuralist tries to avoid explicitly occupying the metalinguistic position, but cannot avoid occupying it implicitly. For Žižek, the only way to avoid speaking from the metalinguistic position is through the paradoxical attempt to do so explicitly. Both aim to challenge the ossification of metalinguistic authority as an aspect of given immediacy, as with the view-from-nowhere of Enlightenment liberalism, which hypostasizes the bourgeois perspective as a universal, or indeed the Western theatre audience whose structure of immediacy Brecht seeks to dissolve. Both examples exhibit the form of ideological interpellation in which the subject is displaced to the illusory position of a pure metalanguage.
Where both agree on the impossibility of this metalinguistic positioning, the post-structuralist interprets this negatively, abandoning themselves to the self-interpretive play of language and ultimately to bad infinity. Žižek, on the other hand, wants to double-down and recognise this very impossibility as a positive condition of signification. It is only through the paradoxical attempt to speak explicitly from the view-from-nowhere—in the inevitable failure of this enterprise—that one both unmasks the absurdity of those who speak from it tacitly (which includes the post-structuralists, despite their best efforts), and makes possible the signifying operation itself.
In this we can glimpse Žižek’s own response to the problem of ideological interpellation. The essentialist seeks to ‘unmask’ ideology at the level of content, aiming to liberate the unmediated subject beneath. This is the Matrix model of ideological denouement, the red pill which relieves false consciousness of its distorted content so it can perceive the world as it truly is. The post-structuralist denies this possibility, agreeing with Žižek both that ideology functions as a structural form rather than a misaligned content, and that the subject is essentially mediated. They then go on to conclude that any signifying operation carried out in earnest is ideologically complicit, finally resorting to a tactical poeticism which aims only to bring the subject to a felt awareness of this insurmountable limitation.
On this point Žižek disagrees, claiming instead that because of their ‘paradoxical’ or ‘impossible’ nature certain speech acts make palpable the implicit ideological form, which, since it is constitutively unconscious, is necessarily dissolved in the very act. Žižek thus recovers the space for a form of critique that purports not only to challenge, but to directly dissolve ideological structures through its form of enunciation. This feat is to be achieved by raising the form of the illusion to explicit consciousness via the rupture in the signifying texture produced by a performative contradiction, as with the Brechtian actor and the bourgeois audience.
One of the reasons I was driven to read Žižek in the first place was a growing sense that on certain issues, he and Baudrillard hold very similar positions. Indeed, the affinity between Baudrillard’s concept of ‘symbolic exchange’ and Žižek’s rendering of the Lacanian Real has been noted by others.
The affinity is demonstrated clearly in the following passage, taken from a discussion of Hitchcock’s symbolism:
But in a series of Hitchcock’s films, we find another type of object which is decidedly not indifferent, not pure absence: what matters here is precisely its presence, the material presence of a fragment of reality—it is a leftover, remnants which cannot be reduced to a network of formal relations proper to the symbolic structure, but it is paradoxically, at the same time, the positive condition for the effectuation of the formal structure. We can define this object as an object of exchange circulating among subjects, serving as a kind of guarantee, pawn, on their symbolic relationship. It is the role of the key in Notorious and Dial M for Murder, the role of the wedding ring in Shadow of a Doubt and Rear Window, the role of the lighter in Strangers on a Train, and even the role of the child circulating between the two couples in The Man Who Knew Too Much. It is unique, non-specular; it has no double, it escapes the dual mirror-relation—that is why it plays a crucial role in those very films which are built on a whole series of dual relations, each element having its mirror counterpart […]: it is the one which has no counterpart, and that is why it must circulate between the opposite elements. The paradox of its role is that although it is a leftover of the Real, an ‘excrement’, it functions as a positive condition of the restoration of a symbolic structure: the structure of symbolic exchanges between the subjects can take place only in so far as it is embodied in this pure material element which acts as its guarantee—for example, in Strangers on a Train the murderous pact between Bruno and Guy holds only in so far as the object (the cigarette lighter) is circulating between them. (Žižek, 2008, pp. 206–208)
This description of the object which inscribes the (impossible) Real within the symbolic field is packed with terms that could have been lifted straight out of Baudrillard—pact, dual relation, symbolic exchange, double. In the terms used earlier, this circulating object performs the metaphorical cut by virtue of the very fact that it has no metonymic equivalent. It cannot be liquidated in exchange, and so it must circulate forever as a remainder, a debt which, because it can never be repaid, ensures the pact remains in place.
Still, there is certainly some differences between them, not least in their praxis. In this respect it is worth considering where Baudrillard stands in relation to the distinction Žižek draws between post-structuralism and his own Hegelian-Lacanian view. I think that Baudrillard retains elements of both of these positions, and that by putting them together a (sympathetic) critique of Žižek can be outlined.
But why even bother? Two questions that motivate this: firstly, despite the ambitions of his project, Žižek himself does not seem to have escaped the effects of bad infinity. More than anyone else, perhaps, it is he who as a public persona is reduced to a disconnected bricolage of jokes and hot takes, a ‘positive signifier’ subject to endless metonymic sliding and substitution. He is the one who has apparently written more or less the same book fifty times. We might wonder: why has his strategy been absorbed into the textual stream no less than those of the post-structuralists, when its whole aim was to dissolve its presuppositions through a performative contradiction? And secondly, while we’re at it: did he ever actually reply to the post-structuralist critique of Lacan? Did he not simply change the subject by providing his own critique of post-structuralism? What is it, exactly, that will prevent his paradoxical signifier from being assimilated into the formal play of metonymic equivalence? So far, it seems this is exactly what has happened.
Baudrillard can provide insight on these questions. I take it that Baudrillard supports two theses, one corresponding to Žižek’s view and one corresponding to the post-structuralist view, which in turn correspond to two different ways of interpreting the ‘precedence’ relation between metaphor and metonymy. In Žižek’s discussion this relation is construed as a logical precedence of enabling conditions, a matter of whether formal structures of signification, internally defined by their metonymic equivalences, depend on a metaphorical cut (as Žižek reckons), or vice versa (as the post-structuralist reckons). On this point, I believe Baudrillard agrees with Žižek—indeed this is one of Baudrillard’s core points: that the entire symbolic network of differential relations, including the staging of the gap between reality and appearance, is always supported ultimately by an impossible exchange, by some element that has no equivalent internal to the system, exchanging only against something non-symbolic.
But this relation can also be construed as an economic precedence. According to this reading, the claim that metonymy takes precedence over metaphor is a claim about the value structure of the local, historically contingent symbolic economy we currently inhabit. Within the value structure—the empirical rules governing actual practices of exchange—that characterises this particular system, the metaphorical cut is prohibited except where it is encoded as a positive signifier, i.e. when it no longer provides a ‘cut’ at all. The signification of lack is excluded (in the ‘soft’ sense of being structurally disincentivised) except where it is localised by its differential relations, that is integrated into the textual stream via its network of metonymic equivalents, as with No Brand (TM) potato chips, the Different Art Gallery, or a This Isn’t Chicken burger.
On this construal of the precedence relation, Baudrillard takes the view that metonymy does indeed precede metaphor. This is derived by extending Marx’s analysis of the commodity form from practices of object exchange to practices of sign exchange—exchange under a universal equivalence excludes both the priceless or sacred object from the goods economy and the non-commutable signifier from the symbolic economy. Indeed, it is the very reversal of this economic precedence that constitutes the ‘ideological operation’ for Baudrillard (not that he’d ever phrase it that way): that the signifying field excludes its own conditions of possibility is precisely why it implodes into simulation, why the signifying operation is reduced to a pure aleatory formalism devoid of objective depth and the subject is rendered unstageable.
With this dual thesis we can basically agree with the reasoning behind Žižek’s attempt to fail to occupy the metalinguistic position, but then counter that this whole strategy makes empirical presuppositions about the normative structure of existing social practices which simply do not hold. Žižek recommends as a mode of critique a specific kind of speech act, which will function like a liar paradox or Gödel sentence—but the force of a speech act is, as Žižek would certainly agree, never located entirely in itself but also depends on the reading conventions of its receivers. The analogy with Brecht is revealing here: the performative contradiction is addressed to an audience, to a subject implicitly displaced to an illusory metalinguistic position.
But, we may argue, this is not the current form of the ideological process. The ideological process no longer displaces the subject to the auditorium, to the view-from-nowhere, to the role of a spectator rather than a participant. Rather it has already collapsed the contrast between these textual planes, recasting the subject as a character on the stage, into the hyperreal form of participation, a form marked by an intensification of the content of the act made possible by the attenuation of its stakes. Given these presuppositions, the Brechtian move will fail to produce its dissolving effect—it can only have, to use Baudrillard’s phrase, ‘the quaint charm of a 2nd-order simulacra.’ Today’s situation is governed rather by the logic of the 3rd-order simulacra: not spectacle, but LARP. For Baudrillard, the issue is not whether textual streams in general presuppose or produce a truth-effect, but that the economic logic of the present textual stream obliterates the truth-effect entirely by imposing a universal metonymic equivalence.
What, then, is Baudrillard’s strategy? If Žižek’s analysis construes the ideological form as consisting in a tacit displacement of the subject to an always already occupied metalinguistic position, then Baudrillard construes it rather as the indefinite deferral of the attempt to ever occupy such a position. Both consider it to undermine the staging of the subject, for exactly the same reason: both ideological forms preclude the failed attempt—the failed attempt to occupy the Real which is the positive condition of signification. But where Žižek wants to expose the absurdity of the already occupied metalinguistic position, for Baudrillard this cannot work, because there is no longer such a tacit positioning. For Baudrillard, the aim must be not to materialise the Real through the failed attempt to perform it, but to challenge the Real to appear—not to attempt the impossible, but to dare the other to do so.
- Žižek, S. (2008). The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso. [PDF]