divine curation

Žižek on retroactivity

September 4, 2021

This post touches on a paradox of temporality at the centre of Žižek’s thinking. In fact this is an idea which crops up in many places—Hegel’s conception of history and historicity, Thomas Kuhn’s conception of scientific revolution and paradigm shift, and Baudrillard’s conception of the fatal, to name just a few.

Žižek puts the basic point (approaching it through Lacan, as always), like so:

The Lacanian answer to the question ‘From where does the repressed return?’ is therefore, paradoxically, ‘From the future.’ Symptoms are meaningless traces, their meaning is not discovered, excavated from the hidden depth of the past, but constructed retroactively—the analysis produces the truth; that is, the signifying frame which gives the symptoms their symbolic place and meaning. As soon as we enter the symbolic order, the past is always present in the form of historical tradition and the meaning of these traces is not given; it changes continually with the transformations of the signifier’s network. Every historical rupture, every advent of a new master-signifier, changes retroactively the meaning of all tradition, restructures the narration of the past, makes it readable in another, new way. (Žižek, 2008, p. 58)

It’s customary for introductory science textbooks to begin with a brief, potted history of how we got to where we are. This history tends to be Whiggish, telling a story of gradual cumulative progress. But while studying the textbooks of past generations, Kuhn noticed that this potted history often changes after major breakthroughs and upheavals, a fact inconsistent with the Whiggish claims of their content. He concluded from this (cutting a long story short) that when scientific enquiry undergoes a revolution it does not simply add a new twist in a tale everyone knows, but re-interprets its whole history: shifting once canonical events or experiments to the margins, foregrounding previously forgotten figures and theories. Paradigm shift occurs not when new theories or data extrapolate a curve already established by prior discoveries, but when they produce a break so radical that the entire curve needs to be redrawn to accommodate them. A revolution in science doesn’t just explain old data in new ways, it retroactively posits its own presuppositions in a manner which changes the content of the old data. Always, the arrival of the new is announced by a transformation of the past.

One is therefore tempted to see in the ‘time paradox’ of science-fiction novels a kind of hallucinatory ‘apparition of the Real’ of the elementary structure of the symbolic process, the so-called internal, internally inverted eight: a circular movement, a kind of snare where we can progress only in such a manner that we ‘overtake’ ourselves in the transference, to find ourselves later at a point at which we have already been. The paradox consists in the fact that this superfluous detour […] is not just a subjective illusion/perception of an object process taking place in so-called reality independently of these illusions. That supplementary snare is, rather, an internal condition, an internal constituent of the so-called ‘objective’ process itself: only through this additional detour does the past itself, the ‘objective’ state of things, become retroactively what it always was.

If the past is never given but always produced, this means it is possible to intervene in the past. Indeed, this is how Žižek presents the therapeutic goal of psychoanalysis:

This, therefore, is the basic paradox we are aiming at: the subject is confronted with a scene from the past that he wants to change, to meddle with, to intervene in; he takes a journey into the past, intervenes in the scene, and it is not that he ‘cannot change anything’—quite the contrary, only through his intervention does the scene from the past become what it always was[.] (Žižek, 2008, p. 60)

It is important to note the modal character of this time structure. It is not as if through intervention some contingent aspect of the past is transformed into some other contingency—rather, hermeneutic labour in the present makes the past event what it always had been. This retroactive structure is also a characteristic component of fate, as in the ‘appointment in Samarra’ fable from Somerset Maugham’s play Sheppey—a point also made by Baudrillard. (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 72)

DEATH: There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me you horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs into its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

What Žižek highlights in this structure is the constitutive role of error in the production of truth:

The time structure with which we are concerned here is such that it is mediated through subjectivity: the subjective ‘mistake’, ‘fault’, ‘error’, misrecognition, arrives paradoxically before the truth in relation to which we are designating it as ‘error’, because this ‘truth’ itself becomes true only through—or, to use a Hegelian term, by mediation of—the error. […] This paradoxical structure in which the Truth arises from misrecognition also gives us the answer to the question: why is the transference necessary, why must the analysis go through it? The transference is an essential illusion by means of which the final Truth (the meaning of the symptom) is produced. (Žižek, 2008, p. 62)

There’s an affinity here with Paul Feyerabend’s suggestion—informed by a line of thought similar to Kuhn’s—that in order to progress, science must proceed by counter-induction, that is by the active creation of hypotheses that contradict the evidence. The reason is the evidence is contaminated—never just a neutral record of past experiments, but also a narrative retroactively posited. Counter-induction here plays the role of Žižek’s transference—the necessary illusion or leap into paradox which simultaneously transforms the past and brings the new into being.


  1. Baudrillard, J. (1990). Seduction (B. Singer, Tran.). St Martin’s Press.
  2. Žižek, S. (2008). The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso. [PDF]
Žižek on retroactivity - September 4, 2021 - Divine Curation