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In line with Žižek’s ideas of “ideological disidentification” and “jouissance as a political factor” (see 2b and 2c above) and in a clear comparison with Derrida’s deconstruction, arguably the unifying thought in Žižek’s political philosophy is that regimes can only secure a sense of collective identity if their governing ideologies afford subjects an understanding of how their regime relates to what exceeds, supplements or challenges its identity. This is why Kant’s analytic of the sublime in The Critique of Judgment, as an analysis of an experience in which the subject’s identity is challenged, is of the highest theoretical interest for Žižek. Kant’s analytic of the sublime isolates two moments to its experience, as Žižek observes. In the first moment, the size or force of an object painfully impresses upon the subject the limitation of its perceptual capabilities. In a second moment, however, a “representation” arises where “we would least expect it,” which takes as its object the subject’s own failure to perceptually take the object in. This representation resignifies the subject’s perceptual failure as indirect testimony about the inadequacy of human perception as such to attain to what Kant calls Ideas of Reason (in Kant’s system, God, the Universe as a Whole, Freedom, the Good).

According to Žižek, all successful political ideologies necessarily refer to and turn around sublime objects posited by political ideologies. These sublime objects are what political subjects take it that their regime’s ideologies’ central words mean or name extraordinary Things like God, the Fuhrer, the King, in whose name they will (if necessary) transgress ordinary moral laws and lay down their lives. When a subject believes in a political ideology, as we saw in 2b above, Žižek argues that this does not mean that they know the Truth about the objects which its key terms seemingly name—indeed, Žižek will finally contest that such a Truth exists (see 3c, d). Nevertheless, by drawing on a parallel with Kant on the sublime, Žižek makes a further and more radical point. Just as in the experience of the sublime, Kant’s subject resignifies its failure to grasp the sublime object as indirect testimony to a wholly “supersensible” faculty within herself (Reason), so Žižek argues that the inability of subjects to explain the nature of what they believe in politically does not indicate any disloyalty or abnormality. What political ideologies do, precisely, is provide subjects with a way of seeing the world according to which such an inability can appear as testimony to how Transcendent or Great their Nation, God, Freedom, and so forth is—surely far above the ordinary or profane things of the world. In Žižek’s Lacanian terms, these things are Real (capital “R”) Things (capital “T”), precisely insofar as they in this way stand out from the reality of ordinary things and events.

In the struggle of competing political ideologies, Žižek hence agrees with Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the aim of each is to elevate their particular political perspective (about what is just, best, and so forth) to the point where it can lay claim to name, give voice to or to represent the political whole (for example: the nation). In order to achieve this political feat, Žižek argues, each group must succeed in identifying its perspective with the extra-political, sublime objects accepted within the culture as giving body to this whole (for example: “the national interest,” “the dictatorship of the proletariat”). Or else, it must supplant the previous ideologies’ sublime objects with new such objects. In the absolute monarchies, as Ernst Kantorowicz argued, the King’s so called “second” or “symbolic” body exemplified paradigmatically such sublime political objects as the unquestionable font of political authority (the particular individual who was King was contestable, but not the sovereign’s role itself). Žižek’s critique of Stalinism, in a comparable way, turns upon the thought that “the Party” had this sublime political status in Stalinist ideology. Class struggle in this society did not end, Žižek contends, despite Stalinist propaganda. It was only displaced from a struggle between two classes (for example, bourgeois versus proletarian) to one between “the Party” as representative of the people or the whole and all who disagreed with it, ideologically positioned as “traitors” or “enemies of the people.”

According to Žižek, like and after Althusser, ideologies are thus political discourses whose primary function is not to make correct theoretical statements about political reality (as Marx’s “false consciousness” model implies), but to orient subjects’ lived relations to and within this reality. If a political ideology’s descriptive propositions turn out to be true (for example: “capitalism exploits the workers,” “Saddam was a dictator,” “the Spanish are the national enemy,” and so forth), this does not in any way reduce their ideological character, in Žižek’s estimation. This is because this character concerns the political issue of how subjects’ belief in these propositions, instead of those of opponents, positions subjects on the leading political issues of the day. For Žižek, political speech is primarily about securing a lived sense of unity or community between subjects, something like what Kant called sensus communis or Rousseau the general will. If political propositions seemingly do describe things in the world, Žižek’s position is that we nevertheless need always to understand them as Marx understood the exchange value of commodities—as “a relation between people being concealed behind a relation between things.” Or again: just as Kant thought that the proposition “this is beautiful” really expresses a subject’s reflective sense of commonality with all other subjects capable of being similarly affected by the object, so Žižek argues that propositions like “Go Spain!” or “the King will never stop working to secure our future” are what Kant called reflective judgments, which tell us as much or more about the subject’s lived relation to political reality as about this reality itself.

If ideological statements are thus performative utterances that produce political effects by their being stated, Žižek in fact holds that they are a strange species of performative utterance overlooked by speech act theory. Just because, when subjects say “the Queen is the Queen!” they are at one level reaffirming their allegiance to a political regime, Žižek at the same time holds that this does not mean that this regime could survive without appearing to rest on such deeper Truths about the way the world is. As we saw in 2b, Žižek maintains that political ideologies always present themselves as naming such deeper, extra-political Truths. Ideological judgments, according to Žižek, are thus performative utterances which, in order to perform their salutary political work, must yet appear to be objective descriptions of the way the world is (exactly as when a chairman says “this meeting is closed!” only thereby bringing this state of affairs into effect). In Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek cites Marx’s analysis of being a King in Das Capital to illustrate his meaning. A King is only King because his subjects loyally think and act like he is King (think of the tragedy of Lear). Yet, at the same time, the people will only believe he is King if they believe that this is a deeper Truth about which they can do nothing.

A further key point that Žižek takes from Louis Althusser’s later work on ideology is Althusser’s emphasis on the “materiality” of ideology, its embodiment in institutions and peoples’ everyday practices and lives. Žižek’s realist position is that all the ideas in the world can have no lasting political effect unless they come to inform institutions and subjects’ day-to-day lives. In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek cites Blaise Pascal’s advice that doubting subjects should get down on their knees and pray, and then they will believe. Pascal’s position is not any kind of simple proto-behaviorism, according to Žižek. The deeper message of Pascal’s directive, he asserts, is to suggest that once subjects have come to believe through praying, they will also retrospectively see that they got down on their knees because they always believed, without knowing it. In this way, in fact, Žižek can be read as a consistent critic not only of the importance of knowledge in the formation of political consensus, but also of the importance of “inwardness” in politics per se in the tradition of the younger Carl Schmitt.

Prior political philosophy has placed too little emphasis, Žižek asserts, on communities’ cultural practices that involve what he calls “inherent transgression.” These are practices sanctioned by a culture that nevertheless allow subjects some experience of what is usually exceptional to or prohibited in their everyday lives as civilized political subjects—things like sex, death, defecation, or violence. Such experiences involve what Žižek calls jouissance, another technical term he takes from Lacanian psychoanalysis. Jouissance is usually translated from the French as “enjoyment.” As opposed to what we talk of in English as “pleasure”, though, jouissance is an always sexualized, always transgressive enjoyment, at the limits of what subjects can experience or talk about in public. Žižek argues that subjects’ experiences of the events and practices wherein their political culture organizes its specific relations to jouissance (in first world nations, for example, specific sports, types of alcohol or drugs, music, festivals, films) are as close as they will get to knowing the deeper Truth intimated for them by their regime’s master signifiers: “nation”, “God”, “our way of life,” and so forth (see 2b above). Žižek, like Burke, argues that it is such ostensibly nonpolitical and culturally specific practices as these that irreplaceably single out any political community from its others and enemies. Or, as one of Žižek’s chapter titles in Tarrying With the Negative puts it, where and although subjects do not know their Nation, they “enjoy (jouis) their nation as themselves.”


The Essential Dialectic of Being-Consciousness is:

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The Intermediary Dialectic of Being-Consciousness is:

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The Complete Dialectic of Being-Consciousness is:

{Knowing ⇆ Being ⇅ Consciousness} ↻ Bliss