Method in the madness

The Ticklish Subject

November 19, 1999

Terry Eagleton marvels at a mind that knows no bounds

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. Its ideal reader would need to be familiar with the minor works of Schelling, the theology of St Paul, the politics of globalisation and the movies of David Lynch. Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher who is the most eminent member of the Ljubljana Lacanian circle, can pack more coruscating insights into a single item of his copious oeuvre than many a scholar can achieve in a lifetime. True to its author's inimitably idiosyncratic style, The Ticklish Subject mixes expositions of Hegel, Kant, Marx and Lacan with jokes, anecdotes from Slovenian politics, comments on Bill Gates, virtual reality and the ozone layer, allusions to mass culture, and observations on the psychopathology of everyday late-capitalist life. Yet if the subject matter is sometimes ferociously opaque, the style could hardly be more supple, lucid and companionable.

As perceptive about Monica Lewinsky as about Vladimir Lenin, Zizek proceeds here in his customary, mildly maniacal manner to shake the foundations of his reader's commonsensical assumptions. Much taken with the psychoanalytic category of perversity, he is a prime intellectual instance of it himself. A typical Zizekian move would be to demonstrate with uncanny plausibility that sleep was a result of having beds around the place, not vice versa. In fact it takes this kind of chiasmic mind, fascinated by ironies and dialectical inversions, to propose a bold rehabilitation of the Cartesian subject, as Zizek does in this study. In today's cultural climate, to speak up for this genderless, disembodied entity is as audacious as urging the dietary value of lard or denouncing car parking for the disabled. Caught in a pincer movement between Heidegger and Ryle, Wittgenstein and behaviourism, the Cartesian subject seems as passe as Roy Rogers; yet Zizek, forever allergic to postmodern fads, brushes perversely against the grain.

It is not, to be sure, quite Descartes's thinking thing which he is out to reinstate. What he challenges instead is the whole existential, phenomenological insistence on our worldly embodiedness, on the fact that our reflections always take place within some concrete project or life-world. This is true as far as it goes, but in Zizek's eyes it is also a form of defence against the embarrassments of the unconscious. The human subject may be situational, but it is also eccentric, out of joint, the joker in nature's pack. There is that within us which spins on its own sweet way regardless of the life-world or the reality principle, and its name is the unconscious.

In a typical Zizekian inversion, then, the spectral Cartesian ego is reborn, but this time as its exact opposite, the id. What precedes our being-in-the-world for psychoanalytic thought is not some self-brooding cogito , but something far more fearful: that chaotic, "pre-ontological" domain of drives which Hegel calls the "night of the world", out of which egoic reality is then constituted. A "psychotic" withdrawal from the world is for this line of thought at the very core of the world-creating subject.There is indeed a sort of Cartesian spirit, forever dislocated from the world, but it is a form of madness.

As a Lacanian theorist, Zizek has always turned his attention to the final, most disregarded of the maître 's celebrated three categories of imaginary, symbolic and real. The real in Zizek's view is the traumatic core of "obscene enjoyment" at the heart of the subject - that monstrous excess or otherness, born of the deadly complicity of law and desire, which makes us what we are but forever eludes our grasp. What we know as reality is in Lacan's view simply the set of fantasies with which we fill in this constitutive hole at the heart of being. And one name for this void, for that which can never be adequately symbolised and which is the ruin of all our attempts at totality, is the subject itself. If one wanted to find an ethics in Lacan's implacably anti-moralistic thought, it lies in the injunction not to give up on this desire, but to remain faithful to it despite its "impossibility", and thus to emerge somewhere on the other side of its pathological grip.

In an extraordinary chapter, "The politics of truth", Zizek explores the theological implications of this doctrine in a brilliant excursus on law, death, sin and the flesh in the writings of St Paul. Christ is one of those figures (Sophocles's Oedipus and Shakespeare's Lear are others) who, having encountered the death drive as the ultimate limit of human experience, have passed beyond that humanity into a realm of monstrous destitution which is the only conceivable basis of a new, transformed human order. Jesus is the skandalon or stumbling block rejected only to become the cornerstone, and his descent into hell is the Christian version of Hegel's psychotic night of the world. In a boldly imaginative move, Zizek claims that something like this also lies behind the Lacanian interpretation of the psychoanalytic "cure".

Madness, desire, monstrosity: these are postmodern motifs par excellence .

But Zizek is that most perverse of all "postmodern" thinkers, one who remains stubbornly committed to an Enlightenment ideal of universal emancipation. Being reared in communist Yugoslavia may prejudice you against totalities, which is no doubt one reason why the anti-totalising Lacan has his attractions; but it also allows you a sniff of real politics,in which Zizek has been actively involved, and a consequent impatience with phoney postmodern radicalisms. The book includes a scorching critique of the covert racism of so-called multiculturalism, along with a good deal else to nettle the purveyors of identity politics. With a political candour rare in these devious, discursive days, it accuses such radicals of evading the whole question of global capitalism, intent as they are on securing their "lifestyle" niches within it. If resurrecting the Cartesian subject is a resolutely unmodish move, calling for a resistance to global capitalism is even more bravely out of joint with the times. The Ticklish Subject is a magisterial work from one of the major philosophers of our age - though most English philosophers have probably never heard of him.

Terry Eagleton is professor of English Literature, University of Oxford.

The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology

Author - Slavoj Zizek
ISBN - 1 85984 894 X
Publisher - Verso
Price - £20.00
Pages - 409

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