Letter: Retreating from the Subject, A Reply to Yanis Iqbal

Date: 2024-06-03T20:25:13+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Yanis Iqbal’s recent critique of Slavoj Žižek’s theoretical and political project illuminates two matters of concern: The political content that emerges from Žižek’s psychoanalysis and the lacuna within Marxism around the question of subjectivity. Because of the gravity of the latter problem, it would be a significant error for Marxists to leap from the recognition of Žižek’s political shortcomings to the conclusion that his theoretical work necessarily leads to such disappointments.

Iqbal’s article delivers a welcome engagement with the psychoanalytic discourse (and even Žižek’s adventurous foray into quantum physics), but, ultimately, it reduces the political project of psychoanalysis to Žižek’s own political formulations, and thus unfairly consigns psychoanalysis back into the realm of cultish obscurity. What Iqbal misses here is that while Žižek is wrestling with problems that he may not have solved politically, the problems themselves continue to disturb contemporary Marxism nonetheless—and Iqbal’s reframing of classic Marxist literature as having already absorbed the problem of subjectivity lets us off the hook too easily.

Iqbal correctly identifies Žižek’s political philosophy as one of “radical negativity,” an idea he rejects on the grounds that a purely negative position can never be sustained; in the first place, because it is too easily conscripted into an individualist project and, secondly, because contingent structural coordinates always determine the space of negativity, as well as “in revolutionary political sequences,” any possibility of a “transcendental gesture” at the point of negativity is “circumscribed by the materiality of mass struggle that imposes its own rhythms.” In other words, for Iqbal, keying in on the ‘real’ impasse within a social structure is pointless because that space is ever-shifting in accordance with the relentless development of societies. 

Responding to Žižek’s positive appraisal of the lessons of the film Fight Club, Iqbal observes that “the act of self-emptying is itself a search for authenticity.” That is to say, even an act of symbolic suicide still finds recourse to some symbolic project. Iqbal is right in identifying this contradiction within a politics of radical negativity: that wherever pure negation tries to assert itself, objects of desire reappear like unsinkable detritus. Here I prefer the Žižek of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, in which he offers a more productive insight: we should dream of a social order beyond our existing one, instead of fantasizing a “mirror of the dominant ideology.” The embrace of fantasy’s radical potential, unlike gestures of self-negation, both avows the inevitable resurfacing of desire and transfers political responsibility from the individual to the collective. 

Žižek’s concern, though, is that an ostensibly transgressive fantasy always risks slipping back into the terrain of ideology (or, in Iqbal’s terms, it remains “susceptible to hegemonic absorption”). A common refrain of Žižek’s is the idea that spontaneous transgressions are rarely of the radical type. In fact, there is plenty of space within the social order for “solicited transgression”—transgressions that are not only permitted, but that create the very conditions for the continued existence of the social order. Popular enjoyment of such pseudo-transgressions (what he calls the “obscene underside” of the social structure) only reproduces the oppressive structure rather than challenging its legitimacy.

It is worth pausing here to spell out the importance of the concept of enjoyment for Žižek and for psychoanalysis. As subjects, we do not only ponder the meaning of things and seek simple pleasures. We enjoy, and we are driven to enjoy. In fact, to paraphrase Todd McGowan in his book Enjoyment Right and Left, without enjoyment we would have no reason to get out of bed in the morning. Society as we know it would cease to exist. The drive, then—as originally developed by Freud and later elaborated by Lacan, Žižek, and others—hinges itself to the promise of enjoyment. Importantly, enjoyment happens in the space of contradiction (i.e. negativity), where the symbolic coordinates cease to hold their meaning. As such, enjoyment is often entangled with traumatic experiences. To again paraphrase McGowan, enjoyment is not the same as pleasure. We must suffer our enjoyment. The traumatic resonance of enjoyment renders its experience unconscious for the subject. That the subject, viewed through this frame, is motivated to undermine itself (i.e. to create the conditions for enjoying its own symbolic failure), produces a subject of an entirely different kind from all notions of subjectivity that precede Freud. Furthermore, enjoyment is organized through the structure of fantasy. In fantasy, subjects imagine obtaining some object of desire by overcoming a fantasized obstacle. In our social reality, we often experience this obstacle as an unexplainable (i.e. unsymbolizeable) quality of the object itself; a quality that exceeds the object and makes it altogether ungraspable. Fantasy allows us to give texture to the obstacle and imagine the prospect of really overcoming it. What remains unconscious to the subject, though, is that the source of enjoyment in fantasy is not finally obtaining the fantasized object, but contending with the obstacle in its way. In effect, what we actually enjoy in fantasy is our failure to access the object of desire.

For Žižek, fantasy puts the subject on a treacherous path, because it reflexively adopts its material from a hegemonic authority, thus mobilizing our enjoyment in service of that authority. Because of this, all social fantasies have the capacity to be double-edged. However, we should not conclude from this, as Žižek has before, that we must resort to a “pre-ideological enjoyment” as a way of circumventing the dominant structure’s oppressive “horizon of meaning.” Respite through a total foreclosure of ideological space is too abstract (as Iqbal duly notes), and its failure to translate into cogent political language leaves Žižek in the lurch (and sometimes appearing shockingly reactionary) when it comes to making determinations in real-time about actual political struggles. Some sort of positive project must be conceptualized instead. How this project materializes will depend on social conditions and the efforts of mass movements and leaders, and, although it should draw from the insights of psychoanalysis, it will not rely solely on the political instincts of theorists like Žižek.

For Marxists, navigating the impossible terrain of politics will go on with or without Žižek’s political formulations. In the meantime, we should appreciate that Žižek spends most of his time identifying the problems of political subjectivity, and only occasionally offers speculative answers to the problems he encounters. It is his articulation of the problem that should interest Marxists if we want to graduate from our melancholic, pre-Freudian conception of subjectivity. The problems of the unconscious, of the drive, of fantasy, of ideology—these must be dealt with, if we hope to build a robust counter-hegemonic politics that takes our enemy seriously and respects its political achievements. The shoring up of capitalist hegemony is a fact of Western societies, and it was done primarily through ideology, not repression. We should ask the question: how was this possible? Žižek observes in his Pervert’s Guide that “ideology is not simply imposed on us…we, in a way, enjoy our ideology.” This is the real lesson of psychoanalysis, and it is here that I believe Iqbal’s intervention falls short. Essentially, Iqbal dispenses with Žižek’s political conclusions without addressing the deeper problem of enjoyment and its relationship to the social order. 

Drawing again from Enjoyment Right and Left, McGowan argues that every political struggle is really a struggle over “what form of enjoyment will predominate.” Another way of saying this is that politics determines which fantasies will ultimately structure society. The error made by Marxists today is to assume that capitalism is hegemonic only because people accept its ideology, or because it is enforced by special bodies of armed men, or because its social relations are entrenched by what Lenin called a “force of habit.” From the psychoanalytic perspective, it is clear that capitalism is hegemonic because capitalist enjoyment—our affective attachment to repetition and failure, organized through the capitalist fantasy—predominates. That the commodity (and capitalist social conditions more generally) regularly fails to satisfy us should not be taken as a weakness in the capitalist structure; the failure of the commodity is instead constitutive of the structure’s hold over us, and keeps us coming back for more.

Viewed in this way, the space of negativity (i.e. the space of failure) within the symbolic structure, which preoccupies Zizek, is not just a point from which a hysterical critique is made possible; it tells us something fundamental about the symbolic structure itself. 

Lingering a bit more on the idea of enjoyment exposes another incongruity between classical Marxist dialectics and psychoanalysis. In the standard Marxist framework, people are motivated to resolve contradictions because they are uncomfortable to maintain. Thus, it is thought, we must articulate all the ways the current social order is contradictory so that people may be persuaded to overthrow it. However, in the Hegelian-psychoanalytic framework, the logic is flipped: rather than try to surpass contradiction, we instead try to sustain it (to derive enjoyment from it). Only when contradictions cease to hold our interest do we proceed to engage new ones. To return to Zizek’s idea, perhaps our task should be, at least in part, to fantasize a society with more interesting contradictions. In any case, recognizing the libidinal investment that exploited capitalist subjects have in maintaining the social order has deep implications for the way we think through the political question of “what is to be done?”

The challenge for Marxists today is to avoid clinging to a pre-psychoanalytic Marxism—a Marxism without a subject—as the basis for our politics. Rather, we should acknowledge the fact that the twentieth century indeed happened, and that serious theoretical work was done, whether or not we always associate it with convincing political projects. In the case of psychoanalysis, Zizek’s obsession is warranted: psychoanalysis represents a bonafide revolution in social theory. As improvisational as Žižek may appear, he is no postmodernist. His philosophy is a structuralist philosophy; psychoanalysis posits a structuralism with a subject. Sooner or later, Marxists will have to develop an opinion about what sort of subject we conceive of as the acting agent of the class struggle.

While I take issue with aspects of his article, Iqbal’s intervention is a welcome contribution to a renewed investigation of psychoanalysis within the Marxist Left. His article unfortunately constitutes an exception to the rule; what one often finds on the subject of Žižek in leftist media is either an incredulous fascination, or an unrestrained mocking, betraying a “malicious Joy” of the kind Lenin once described in his great essay ‘Notes of a Publicist.’ A more serious engagement with the question of psychoanalysis is in order, and hopefully Iqbal’s inquiry initiates a thoroughgoing exchange along these lines.

Kolya Ludwig

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