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Review Essay: Slavoj Žižek: Absolute Trouble or Recoil in Paradise?

Books Reviewed in this Essay:

Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism, New York, London, Verso, 2014

Slavoj Žižek, Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism, London, Allen Lane, 2014

Something for Nothing

It is not easy to decide whether something can be in itself, or whether nothing can, in which case everything is either nowhere or in something other than itself.
–Aristotle, Physics

Slavoj Žižek might respond to the quote from Aristotle above by telling us that, yes; everything is either nowhere or in something other than itself. That is, at least, a way to begin any attempt to explain his recent work, which purportedly revises Hegel’s dialectics in a materialist fashion. First, I should warn the reader with a new version of an an old joke. The old joke goes like this, “What do you get when you cross the Godfather with a lawyer?” “An offer you can’t understand.” The new version could go like this, “What do you get when you cross the Godfather with Slavoj Žižek?” “Nothing, really.”

Slavoj Zizek

For Hegel, the dialectic was a process driven by the emergence and resolution of internal contradictions. The process is teleological insofar as the ‘final end’ that structures the dialectic is the self-realization of Absolute Spirit, coming to know itself in and through the emergence and resolution of contradictions that are always-already ‘within’ it. The logic of the dialectical process involves a tripartite movement in which worldviews evolve and develop through internal conflict and contradiction. That is, humans inhabit a world whose horizon of knowledge is comprised of a collective understanding of reality, a zeitgeist, or spirit of the age. Every worldview contains contrary ideas and beliefs and a variety of skeptical claims about what is good, true, and beautiful. Reflection upon these different views and skeptical claims brings about an internal tension, similar to cognitive dissonance. This tension is heightened by critique and reflection. The improbable, illogical, undesirable aspects of a worldview are rejected or revised, while the kernel of truth remains and is carried forward.

We cannot think beyond our horizon, just as we cannot speak with words that do not yet exist. This means that at any moment in history, the sum of all human knowledge is also our truth about reality. For what would anything be outside of our consciousness, and what would our consciousness be outside of our worldview? If we wish to critique and reflect upon our worldview we must utilize the language and concepts given by it. However, because we are capable of knowing and believing things that contain contradictions, the truth for us at any given time will be subject to personal doubts, practical exceptions, empirical anomalies, and pressures to conform, agree, and cooperate. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the world’s best and brightest scientific thinkers often spend hundreds of years revising and rationalizing an accepted scientific worldview before leaping quite nimbly and without much ado into a different paradigm. While they could see flaws and contradictions within one paradigm – for example, problems with motion in Aristotelian physics – they could not see the solution until the Newtonian worldview was developed. Thus, what is obvious to us was unthinkable for the Medievals.

In most Marxist versions of Hegelian dialectics, there is a glaring, systemic contradiction between the demands of capital, the promise of happiness, and the uses and abuses of labor. In this sense, capitalism is what Hegel called an Abstract Universal, the empty shell of an idea of prosperity, happiness, and progress that defines itself through reliance upon unceasing exertion, anxiety, and stress. The fundamental contradiction between labor and capital over-determines all of our social experience, imposing its image of time, space, happiness, love, and success. Critical reflection on the contradiction between labor and capital is the key to resolving the contradictions in personal, familial, or political life. This is not to say that class struggle is the obvious meaning of all other struggles, but that class conflict generates other antagonisms that tend to assume a life of their own, with particular dynamics, stakes, and solutions. Keeping one’s finger on the pulse of the dialectic has always meant tracing these antagonisms back to the primary contradiction. This is the meaning of radicalis: getting to the root of the matter.

Turning from the standard account of the Hegelian dialectic, with its teleology, its upward spiraling negations and syntheses, Slavoj Žižek describes a “downward synthesis” wherein we witness “the speculative coincidence of opposites in the movement by which a thing emerges out of its own loss.”[1] He explains it this way:

When positedness is self-sublated, an essence is no longer determined by an external Other, by its complex set of relations to its otherness, to the environment into which it emerged. Rather, it determines itself, it is “within itself the absolute recoil upon itself” – the gap, or discord, that introduces dynamism into it is absolutely immanent.[2]

He elaborates, somewhat unhelpfully, by explaining that in the absolute recoil, there is “no positive synthetic result.”[3] Žižek describes this downward spiralling negativity in many different ways throughout Absolute Recoil. For example, he compares the downward synthesis to the void as described by Democritus, who told us that no-thing exists just as much as thing, and that no-thing is not nothing. Žižek develops the analogy thus, “something is negated, we get nothing; then, in a second negation, we get less than nothing, not even nothing—not a Something mediated by nothing but a kind of pre-ontological inconsistency which lacks the principled purity of the [Democritean] Void.”[4] For Žižek this no-thing is what he called “less than nothing” in his magnum opus of the same name.[5] He claims that this fortuitous pre-ontological inconsistency, which he also calls a gap or a wound, is generated retroactively, as “a withdrawal that creates what it withdraws from,” an “action appears as its own counter-action.”[6]

His example of the Christian God in the form of wretched Christ is yet another attempt to explain this. When God became man, there was no fusion of the divine and the human. Instead, the important point is that Jesus of Nazareth was the ‘less-than-nothing’ created, retroactively, by the absolute negativity of God. God’s power is demonstrated in this downward synthesis by constructing the lowly figure of Christ, in whom God’s “spiritual depth is the monstrous distortion of the surface.”[7]

Žižek’s “less than nothing” has a Lacanian origin as well. For Lacan, the objet-petit-a is the illusory object of desire that blocks access to what we actually desire. For those who crave even more theoretical substance to explain this absence, Žižek describes a kind of Epicurean swerve that functions as the “bone in the throat,” destabilizing the void. In this way of seeing things, the standard Hegelian antithesis is revised as our incomplete and uncertain knowledge of the Real and its origins becomes a positive feature of our ontology. This is a phenomenology in which our everyday experience is incomplete, inconsistent, riven with wounds and gaps, and we experience reality as the retroactive effect of its own loss.

We ensure that we never get what we want by substituting one wretched, miserable, version of the Real for another. This must then be negated so that something new that we accept for real may appear. So we begin again forever, with an agitation, a bone in the throat, and upon that basis, we fabricate a lie out of what we think are our desires. But they are not our desires. They are the objets-petit-a that prevent us from freeing ourselves. But precisely because reality is a big lie, Žižek sees the future as open for creation of a new Noble Lie, his version of version of the ontological event.

The idea that we build less than nothing upon less than nothing and call it reality is intriguing and squares with Žižek’s Lacanian reading of Hegel. I think this may be dialectical, but it doesn’t seem very materialist. The title of the book does promise a “New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism” but Žižek cannot deliver a materialist dialectic based on a theory where the distorted reflections of our real conditions of existence appear as continual displacements that emerge out of a pre-ontological inconsistency. There simply is no there there. As for the distinctly Marxist aspect of all his approach, it is very hard to see how class antagonism structures other antagonisms or how ideological displacements of class conflict could be traced back to their source as a means of consciousness raising and conscious change. By definition, anything could be generated from the less-than-nothing base that Žižek provides in Absolute Recoil.

Žižek on the Dialectic of History 

In Trouble in Paradise, Žižek claims that retroactivity is the key to understanding and changing the future. In the dialectical analysis of history, each new stage rewrites the past and retroactively de-legitimizes the previous one. The result becomes the starting point of an infinite dialectical process. If each stage rewrites the previous stage, there is no resolution, no upward synthesis, other than in the minds of certain historians and prophets of the end of history. According to Žižek, retroactivity means that the future is unpredictable but also that the past must be repeated.

A revolution also has to be repeated: for immanent conceptual reasons, its first strike has to end in fiasco, the outcome must turn out to be the opposite of what was intended, but this fiasco is necessary since it creates the conditions of its overcoming.[8]

It is the retroactive constitution of the meaning of the failed event that allows us to see how to repeat it. Rather than blunder forward after a failed revolution, hoping, with the faith of a traditional Hegelian, to work the problems out as we move ahead to the next stages, we should immediately double back and repeat. Each second attempt is a negation of the negation that failed. Žižek illustrates this with the example of the colonization, liberation, and transformation of India. The British changed the culture by imposing their political and economic system. As India moved toward Independence, the leaders of the movement pointed out that the British had imposed a flawed, partial, and therefore false version of Western secularism on Indian society. So they tried again and succeeded, applying the form without destroying the distinctly Indian content of the culture. A good idea, applied stupidly and without sensitivity, may still be a good idea.

But I’m not sure this is so far from the standard Hegelian approach. Žižek exaggerates his departure from Hegel. He selects an arcane digression about the “absolute recoil” from The Science of Logic and raises it to the status of an ontological principle. Although he fashionably jettisons the traditional dialectic and many of the underlying assumptions about potentiality, actuality, essences, and ends, he gets the same result, as his example of India demonstrates quite well. The formerly colonized Indian leaders experienced the fiction of a system founded upon idea of universal rights and dignity which could only be maintained on the basis of servitude and misery for the majority. They perceived the future slumbering within this contradiction and brought forth a truer Ideal.

Žižek’s reformulation is part of his commitment to laying the theoretical groundwork for political action and the creation of the new, liberating, ontological event. For this reason, he wants to obliterate all traces of the mechanistic and teleological in Hegel. But, if we cast aside tendentious and triumphalist readings of Hegel as the theorist of the end of history, art, and all great Ideas, we can see that his basic theoretical insight lies in the undeniable fact that any worldview contains contradictions. These may include unassimilated and resurgent remnants of the past, multivalent fantasies about the real nature of the present, and nostalgic longings for a utopian future, often defined in-and-through various dystopian visions. We should not forget the essentially retroactive point; Hegel’s Owl of Minerva was always looking backward for the key to the future and Hegel, at his best, was not prescribing a direction forward. But if it’s not Hegel’s improper theorization that holds us back, what keeps us from seizing the day, or orchestrating the event?

Lordship, Bondage, and Culture

One of the more fascinating discussions in Trouble in Paradise revolves around the functions of debt, forgiveness, and guilt in the social construction of duty and obligation. Citing the work of Italian sociologist Franco Berardi, Žižek notes that capital is no longer produced by the appropriation of the surplus value skimmed from the labor of the world’s workers.[9] Profit now issues from two primary sources: rent for services and interest on loans. This spectacular form of capital is the basis of a global economy funded by debt and rent. Are the banks too big to fail or too unreal to fail? What once may have functioned like a system of accounting, with balances kept and payments noted, now feels more like a global potlatch, with the Lacanian “Big Other” as tribal chief, practicing conspicuous waste as a means to generate social obligations.

The system can afford to waste its surplus because it recoups it in bondage and obedience. When institutions forgive us our debts, we are forever in their debt. We live in “an indefinite continuation of the debt which keeps the debtor in permanent dependency and subordination.”[10] Debt obligations uphold the status quo, debt forgiveness legitimizes the status quo, and the frenzy of consumption becomes an end in itself. When the anxiety, stupefaction, and boredom generated by the uncanny groundlessness of the consumer economy tests our stamina, the solution is more of what ails us.

We are hailed as experts in our own trajectories of the self, but we never develop enough escape velocity to transcend the inauthenticity of our projects. The language, affect, and rituals associated with the binaries of stress/relaxation, burnout/reinvention, and depression/contentment are normalized and institutionalized. Here is a system where the individual contains all of the freedom, all of the potential, all of the problems, and all of the solutions; meanwhile the social and political structure cynically reproduces itself without consent or objection. The base may determine the superstructure in the very last instance, but the superstructure that we inhabit is a reflection of itself and its own concerns. It constructs an economic base in its image, not the other way around.

This might suggest that we can liberate ourselves from the burden of this false autonomy and the relations of authority that we embed ourselves in while exercising our freedom. Why don’t we? Readers will be aware of the obvious, and still relevant, reasons. Our freedom and our choices are commodified and only serve to strengthen the system. Our power to act is limited but our feelings of deprivation are relative; therefore, enough is never enough as we run along on our hedonic treadmills. We don’t want liberation; instead, we want power. So we satisfy our sado-masochistic desires by working long hours for people we don’t like in jobs that don’t suit us to get things we don’t need so we can feel superior to people we don’t know. Moreover, everybody’s doing it, our family depends upon us, and so on. But if, through rigorous critical reflection we find an opening in the iron cage, we are faced with one final obstacle: our own obscene desires.

The lie we tell ourselves about why we must obey authority is what makes us obey authority. We construct an image of the father who plays two roles: Father Law and Father Freedom. Father Law is the authority that we simultaneously create and obey; Father Freedom is the guy who can do anything because he’s so powerful. If we do our duty to Father Law, someday we can be like Father Freedom. This is the obscene reading of Kantian autonomy; autonomy deferred by autonomy itself. We might even feel compelled to struggle against Father Law in the name of Father Freedom. If we do, they both win. What we don’t seem to be able to pull off is to simply stop believing in them. We need our beliefs as objets-petit-a, needs that keep us from getting what we want.

What is the nature of this belief that makes it so convincing? Žižek suggests that the new, sensitive, liberal, Father Law exerts a more insidious power than the old patriarchal dads, and much worse than God the Father. God the Father and the patriarchal dad who modeled himself on God terrified us into outward submission but left us inwardly free in all but our weakest moments. The patriarchal dad ordered us to do our duty; outwardly, we usually did it, but our inner freedom, and our ability to develop this into an adult conception of autonomy, remained undisturbed. The new, sensitive, liberal, Father Law wants us to want to obey him; he desires our desire and he esteems our esteem, or so he says. He offers us the choice to do as we wish. He will be disappointed if we choose not to obey, but he will not force us.

In this manner, we internalize the Law along with a debt of guilt that we can never repay, since pleasing him means first interpreting his will and then internalizing it as our own. This is individual responsibility as a form of anxious infantilism. We become narcissistically involved with our imaginary ability to change the world. One example that comes to mind, admittedly, after watching a few episodes of Portlandia, is the way in which certain versions of ecology and sustainability are expressed in the form of repression and responsibility, serving the purpose of control rather than liberation. The scientifically nebulous, pseudo-spiritual discourse of sustainability is rife with opportunities for guilt, asceticism, and shame, combined with ceremonial obligations to go green and opportunities to confess one’s wasteful sins. “Loving your mother” turns out to be as crazy as obeying your Father. We are propping up this world and staging our social relationships through obedience to our guilt.

We are Already Them, They Are Already Us, and Now What?

“The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior. This is why our condescendingly politically correct assurances that we feel no superiority towards them only makes them more furious and feeds their resentment. The problem is not cultural difference, but the fact that they are already like us, they have internalized our standards and measure themselves by them.”[11]


The syncretic ability of American mass culture is its capacity to be less than zero; to be the space that awaits and absorbs and calls for more. Its superficiality is an inexhaustible form of seduction that masquerades as freedom and openness. This, as much as its decadent content, makes it the object of fear and resentment among the defenders of authentic culture everywhere. Their own definition of authentic culture emerges as a retroactive transcription, written on the palimpsest of history opened up by the dialectic of “Jihad vs. McWorld.”[12] In the Koran, Satan is the adversary, deceiver, and tempter who seduces believers away from the authentic and true faith. This is what the Ayatollah Khomeini meant when he called America the great Satan, not so much an enemy as a source of seduction, temptation, and destruction.

In contrast to true fundamentalists, [for instance, groups like the Amish who have peacefully withdrawn their identification with modern society] the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, and fascinated by the sinful life of the non-believers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful other, they are fighting their own temptation.[13]

On this reading, the West is the object-petit-a that structures the desires of false fundamentalism. It is not just that ‘they’ are jealous of ‘us’. They are us, and we are the bone in the throat that allows them to entertain their fantasies while remaining ‘against’ us which simply intensifies their desires. When polled about the general Western influences that have negatively affected local values, Muslims cite morals and decadent culture. When asked more specific questions about the negative influence of Western culture on their societies, they mention culture and lifestyle factors, “libertine attitudes toward sex, alcohol consumption, vulgarity and nudity in films and music, and inappropriate dress and hairstyles.”[14]

Only an Event Can Save Us Now 

Those readers familiar with the post-Heideggerian philosophical landscape (as exemplified by Alain Badiou, for example) will know that the event is a multiplicity or surplus that cannot be understood in terms of the rules or framework that govern reality. The event has no existence in itself and must be retrieved from the multiplicity. When we reach an aporia for which we have no concepts or scripts, we must invent anew through a play of imagination and reason that allows us to posit a new language game, genre, lifestyle, or reality. However, after every event there is a remainder, an excluded series of possibilities, another less-than-nothing, material for a new inscription. We know that the reality ship will run aground eventually, and we wait, without presuppositions, for openness and (im)possibility.

With the terror of nothingness comes the promise of freedom, the promise of openness in the fabric of being that gives us the ability to continually exercise the imagination. This is the feeling we get when we create something new, something that is ours. It can be-indeed should be-an aesthetic as well as a political act.

For Žižek, the event-worthy situation develops like a mutation. It may occur without notice, but after its effects and the problems that ensue, it can be noticed and repaired. The past continually repeats itself. However, this repetition contains transcription errors. With each mutation, we glimpse a new set of relations that offers the possibility of appropriation and transformation. The event is not a thing on the horizon. It has already happened. In our various iterations of the past, we slowly hit upon the new. But alas, by the time one comprehends the process of retroactivity, displacement, substitution, and repetition, one hardly has any energy left for a creative, revolutionary event.

I have addressed what I consider to be the theoretical core of, Absolute Recoil and Trouble in Paradise, leaving Žižek’s vast array of interesting examples and exciting tangents for the curious reader to enjoy. After laboring through Žižek’s work, reading it in the boring manner of a philosopher, I finally had to ask, or exclaim, What is going on here? The works do contain what are, in my opinion, modest revisions of Hegel, insightful discussions of our ability to deceive ourselves, and riveting cultural commentary and critique. For those who have plenty of time on their hands, and who can tolerate periods of reading in the dim light of partial comprehension, pick up one of these texts, or any of Žižek’s texts, for that matter, and enjoy. But, I should warn you again in the same way. What DO you get when you cross the Godfather with Slavoj Žižek? Nothing, Really (no really).



[1] Žižek, Slavoj, Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism, New York, London, Verso, 2014, p. 1.

[2] Žižek, op. cit., p. 4; The reference to Hegel is G.W.F. Hegel, Science of Logic, Atlantic Heights, Humanities Press International, 1989, p. 444.

[3] Žižek, op. cit., p. 336.

[4] Žižek, op. cit., p. 343.

[5] Žižek, Slavoj, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London, Verso, 2013.

[6] Žižek, op. cit., p. 148.

[7] Žižek, op. cit., p. 336.

[8] Absolute Recoil, p. 37.

[9] Berardi, F., The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, Los Angeles: semiotext(e), 2012.

[10] Žižek, Slavoj, Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism, London, Allen Lane, 2014, p. 46.

[11] Žižek, op. cit., p. 48.

[12] See Benjamin Barber’s “Jihad Vs. McWorld,” Originally published in the Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1992/03/jihad-vs-mcworld/303882/

[13] Trouble in Paradise, p. 48.

[14] http://www.gallup.com/poll/5458/Poll-Islamic-World-Perceptions-Western-Culture.aspx?utm_source=position4&utm_medium=related&utm_campaign=tiles


Tony Lack is Associate Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at Jefferson College in Roanoke Virginia. He is interested in critical theory, environmental philosophy, and aesthetics. His recent book is Martin Heidegger on Technology, Ecology, and the Arts, Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.