His Life

Books: A Summary


The three main influences on Slavoj Zizek's work are G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx and Jacques Lacan

1. Hegel provides Zizek with the type of thought or methodology that he uses. This kind of thinking is called dialectical. In Zizek's reading of Hegel, the dialectic is never finally resolved.

2. Marx is the inspiration behind Zizek's work, for what he is trying to do is to contribute to the Marxist tradition of thought, specifically that of a critique of ideology.

3. Lacan provides Zizek with the framework and terminology for his analyses. Of particular importance are Lacan's three registers of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. Zizek locates the subject at the interface of the Symbolic and the Real.

The Imaginary
The basis of the imaginary order is the formation of the ego in the "mirror stage". Since the ego is formed by identifying with the counterpart or specular image, "identification" is an important aspect of the imaginary. The relationship whereby the ego is constituted by identification is a locus of "alienation", which is another feature of the imaginary, and is fundamentally narcissistic. The imaginary, a realm of surface appearances which are deceptive, is structured by the symbolic order. It also involves a linguistic dimension: whereas the signifier is the foundation of the symbolic, the "signified" and "signification" belong to the imaginary. Thus language has both symbolic and imaginary aspects. Based on the specular image, the imaginary is rooted in the subject's relationship to the body (the image of the body).

The Symbolic
Although an essentially linguistic dimension, Lacan does not simply equate the symbolic with language, since the latter is involved also in the imaginary and the real. The symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier, in which elements have no positive existence but are constituted by virtue of their mutual differences. It is the realm of radical alterity: the Other. The unconscious is the discourse of the Other and thus belongs to the symbolic order. Its is also the realm of the Law that regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. The symbolic is both the "pleasure principle" that regulates the distance from das Ding, and the "death drive" which goes beyond the pleasure principle by means of repetition: "the death drive is only the mask of the symbolic order." This register is determinant of subjectivity; for Lacan the symbolic is characterized by the absence of any fixed relations between signifier and signified.

The Real
This order is not only opposed to the imaginary but is also located beyond the symbolic. Unlike the latter, which is constituted in terms of oppositions such as "presence" and "absence", there is no absence in the real. The symbolic opposition between "presence" and "absence" implies the possibility that something may be missing from the symbolic, the real is "always in its place: it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from there." If the symbolic is a set of differentiated signifiers, the real is in itself undifferentiated: "it is without fissure". The symbolic introduces "a cut in the real," in the process of signification: "it is the world of words that creates the world of things." Thus the real emerges as that which is outside language: "it is that which resists symbolization absolutely." The real is impossible because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order. This character of impossibility and resistance to symbolization lends the real its traumatic quality.


Unlike almost all other kinds of contemporary philosophers, Zizek argues that Descartes' cogito is the basis of the subject. However, whereas most thinkers read the cogito as a substantial, transperent and fully self-conscious "I" which is in complete command of its destiny, Zizek proposes that the cogito is an empty space, what is left when the rest of the world is expelled from itself. The Symbolic Order is what substitutes for the loss of the immediacy of the world and it is where the void of the subject is filled in by the process of subjectivization. The latter is where the subject is given an identity and where that identity is altered by the Self.

Reading Schelling via Lacan
Once the Lacanian concepts of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are grasped, Zizek, in philosophical writings such as his dicussion of Schelling, always interprets the work of other philsophers in terms of those concepts. This is so because "the core of my entire work is the endeavour to use Lacan as a privileged intellectual tool to reactualize German idealism". (The Zizek Reader) The reason Zizek thinks German idealism (the work of Hegel, Kant, Fichte and Schelling) needs reactualizing is that we are thought to understand it in one way, whereas the truth of it is something else. The term "reactualizing" refers to the fact that there are different possible ways to interpret German idealism, and Zizek wishes to make "actual" one of those possibilities in distinction to the way it is currently realized.
At its most basic, we are taught that German idealism believes that the truth of something could be found in itself. For Zizek, the fundamental insight of German idealism is that the truth of something is always outside it. So the truth of our experience lies outside ourselves, in the Symbolic and the Real, rather than being buried deep within us. We cannot look into our selves and find out who we truly are, because who we truly are is always elsewhere. Our selves are somewhere else in the Symbolic formations which always precede us and in the Real which we have to disavow if we are to enter the Symbolic order.
The reason that Lacan occupies a privileged position for Zizek's lies in Lacan's proposition that self-identity is impossible. The identity of something, its singularity or "oneness", is always split. There is always too much of something, and indivisible remainder, or a bit left-over which means that it cannot be self-identical. The meaning of a word, i.e., can never be found in the word itself, but rather in other words, its meaning therefore is not self-identical. This principle of the impossibility of self-identity is what informs Zizek's reading of the German idealists. In reading Schelling, i.e., the Beginning is not actually the beginning at all - the truth of the Beginning lies elsewhere, it is split or not identical to itself.

How, precisely, does the Word discharge the tension of the rotary motion, how does it mediate the antagonism between the contarctive and the expansive force? The Word is a contraction in the guise of its very opposite of an expansion - that is, in pronouncing a word, the subject contracts his being outside himself; he "coagulates" the core of his being in an external sign. In the (verbal) sign, I - as it were - find myself outside myself, I posit my unity outside myself, in a signifier which represents me. (The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters)

The Subject of the Enunciation and the Subject of the Enunciated
The subject of enunciation is the "I" who speaks, the individual doing the speaking; the subject of the enunciated is the "I" of the sentence. "I" is not identical to itself - it is split between the individual "I" (the subject of enunciation) and the grammatical "I" (the subject of the enunciated). Although we may experience them as unified, this is merely an Imaginary illusion, for the pronoun "I" is actually a substitute for the "I" of the subject. It does not account for me in my full specificity; it is, rather, a general term I share with everyone else. In order to do so, my empirical reality must be annihilated or, as Lacan avers, "the symbol manifests itself first of all as the murder of the thing". The subject can only enter language by negating the Real, murdering or substituting the blood-and-sinew reality of self for the concept of self expressed in words. For Lacan and Zizek every word is a gravestone, marking the absence or corpse of the thing it represents and standing in for it. It is partly in the light of this that Lacan is able to refashion Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" as "I think where I am not, therefore I am where I think not". The "I think" here is the subject of the enunciated (the Symbolic subject) whereas the "I am" is the subject of the enunciation (the Real subject). What Lacan aims to disclose by rewriting the Cartesian cogito in this way is that the subject is irrevocably split, torn asunder by language

The Vanishing Mediator
The concept of "vanishing mediator" is one that Zizek has consistenly employed since For They Know Not What They Do. A vanishing mediator is a concept which somehow negotiates and settles - hence mediating - the transition between two opposed concepts and thereafter disappears. Zizek draws attention to the fact that a vanishing mediator is produced by an assymetry of content and form. As with Marx's analysis of revolution, form lags behind content, in the sense that content changes within the parameters of an existing form, until the logic of that content works its way out to the latter and throws off its husk, revealing a new form in ots stead. Commenting Fredric Jameson's "Syntax of Theory" (The Ideologies of Theory, Minnesota, 1988), Zizek proposes that

The passage from feudalism to Protestantism is not of the same nature as the passage from Protestantism to bourgeois everyday life with its privatized religion. The fisrt passage concerns "content" (under the guise of preserving the religious form or even its strengthening, the crucial shift - the assertion of the ascetic acquisitive stance in economic activity as the domain of manifestation of Grace - takes place), whereas the second passage is a purely formal act, a change of form (as soon as Protestantism is realized as the ascetic acquisitive stance, it can fall off as form). (For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political factor)

Zizek sees in this process evidence of Hegel's "negation of the negation", the third moment of the dialectic. The first negation is the mutation of the content within and in the name of the old form. The second negation is the obsolescence of the form itself. In this way, something becomes the opposite of itself, paradoxically, by seeming to strengthen itself. In the case of Protestantism, the universalization of religious attitudes ultimately led to its being sidelined as a matter of private contemplation. Which is to say that Protestantism, as a negation of feudalism, was itself negated by capitalism.


The pleasure principle functions a a limit of enjoyment; it is a law that commands the subject to "enjoy as little as possible". At the same time, the subject constantly attempts to trangress the prohibitions imposed on his enjoyment, to go "beyond the pleasure principle". The result of transgressing the pleasure principle is not more pleasure, but pain, since thre is only a certain amount of pleasure that the subject can bear. beyond this limit, pleasure becomes pain, and this "painful pleasure" is what Lacan calls jouissance: jouissance is suffering. The term expresses the paradoxical satisfaction the subject derives from his symptom, that is the suffering he derives from his own satisfaction.