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Less Than Nothing by Slavoj Žižek – Review in The Guardian


by Jonathan Rée, Wednesday 27 June 2012.

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has thousands of devoted fans, and it's easy to see why. He is cheeky, voluble and exuberant, and over the past 30 years he has turned high theory into performance art. He was born in communist Yugoslavia in 1949, and received a thorough grounding in Marxism and the principles of "dialectical materialism". In 1971 he got a job in philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, only to be dismissed two years later for being "un-Marxist". After a stretch of military service, he resumed his academic work and spent a few years in Paris with followers of the surrealistic psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. In the 80s he adopted English as his working language and launched himself on an international career as a taboo-busting radical theorist.

Žižek is a gifted speaker – tumultuous, emphatic, direct and paradoxical – and he writes as he speaks. He has 50 books already to his credit, and plenty more on the way. His easy familiarity with the philosophical classics may leave some readers gasping for air, but he offers plenty of lifelines in the form of anecdotes, laddish jokes and inexhaustible references to popular culture. And he can always redeem himself, in the eyes of his admirers, by lashing out at multiculturalism, toleration, dialogue and other "liberal sacred cows". He has become the saint of total leftism: a quasi-divine being, than whom none more radical can ever be conceived.

Of course he relies on a formula: to be Žižekian is to hold that Freudian psychoanalysis is essentially correct, and that its implications are absolutely revolutionary. But Žižek's Freud is not everyone's. Old-fashioned Freudians believe that we have masses of juicy secrets locked up inside us, unacknowledged by our well-ordered rational consciousness and clamouring to be set free. For Žižek, however, as for Lacan before him, Freud's great insight was that everything about us – our vaunted rationality as much as our unavowable impulses – is soaked with craziness and ambivalence all the way through.

"The first choice has to be the wrong choice," as Žižek says in his monumental new book, because "the wrong choice creates the conditions for the right choice". There is no such thing as being wholly in the right, or wholly in the wrong; and this principle applies to politics as much as to personal life. Politics, as Žižek understands it, is a rare and splendid thing: no actions are genuinely political unless they are revolutionary, and revolution is not revolution unless it institutes "true change" – the kind of comprehensive makeover that "sets its own standards" and "can only be measured by criteria that result from it". Genuine revolutionaries are not interested in operating on "the enemy's turf", haggling over various strategies for satisfying pre-existing needs or securing pre-existing rights: they want to break completely with the past and create "an opening for the truly New". Authentic revolutions have often been betrayed, but as far as Žižek is concerned, they are....More