John W.P. Phillips: On how Slavoj Zizek doesn’t know how to read

Photo: John W.P. Phillips

Following an interview with John Phillips on the TCS Blog in September, we asked him to follow-up on some of his references and claims. Here is his third and final (for now) post: on deconstruction, the possibility of impossibility, and how Slavoj Žižek doesn’t know how to read

Simon Dawes: In your interview on the TCS Blog in September, you also mentioned your reservations about Žižek’s approach to Badiou and Rancière, suggesting that there is a lack of ‘pains taken’ research in his work, and suggesting even that he ‘doesn’t know how to read’. Could you elaborate on these claims? In what way do his readings of these writers, and of Lacan and Hegel (and others), fail to risk ‘disturbing the sense of what he’s looking for’? At the same time, in what ways do you also find him surprising to read?

John Phillips: It would be foolhardy to attempt an answer to this one without taking a few pains. My suggestion about knowing how to read was general. A text worth reading, I said, makes impossible demands on its readers. That’s partly why, in this tradition, when faced with a text by Plato or by Aristotle, reading becomes a matter of catching up. We’re always trying to catch up with thinkers who seem to have come from our future rather than from our past. The reasons for why this should lie outside the control of even those writers themselves. So this would not be a fault of Žižek particularly. The problem with Žižek lies more in the way things seem more decidable than they actually are. From the chapter in The Ticklish Subject called “The Politics of Truth” he repeats what I think of as his basic philosophical decision. I’ll quote him: “We can now see the sense in which the Truth-Event is ‘undecidable’: it is undecidable from the point of view of the System, of the ontological ‘state of things’” (155). Now this banal yet surprisingly tenacious view of things has been around for a long time. It’s undeniably satisfying, consoling even. Revolution is possible because whatever manifests the System, at any time–control, totality, government, state, etc.–comes up against the undecidable, the event, process, indeterminacy, and all those things we like in critical theory. Badiou here is mobilized as a way of harnessing a notion of “truth,” and an account of what constitutes an “event,” in order to make generalizations about what might be effective politically. A revolution would take the form of a truth-event while a fascist coup or a colonial conquest would not have this quality.

Žižek has always read Hegel as the philosopher of unpredictable contingencies, of what disrupts the system. And this is true, to be sure, of Hegel, but it is true to the extent that what disturbs Hegel’s system also constitutes it. Hegel’s philosophy proceeds in the manner of “the work of the negative” and the “difference from self” of identity. The system is nothing without it. Žižek’s argument depends on an ability to distinguish between an element of the system and an undecidable from the point of view of the system. But an undecidable worthy of the name would be both “non-negatable” and yet constitutive. It would be something uncontainable or inconceivable within the system but without which you’d have no system. The problem here is that the philosopher must inhabit the system for which and against which the undecidable does its work. By extension, the system of subject and substance, sovereign subject and sovereign state, cannot be distinguished from any other kind of political agency, whether this is to be grasped as revolutionary, insurgent, terrorist, or not. The alternative would be to “fix” things, so that you could keep political agency (a body capable of thinking things through, making decisions and marshalling a force adequate to action) on the side of contingency, chance and surprise, but always mobilized against system in general. You can see that the exact same dialectic applies: system and order on one side; contingency and chance on the other. Perhaps truth lines up on the side of order. Surprisingly few of the philosophical idioms available to us would accept that. Maybe, then, it lines up on the side of contingency and chance: the truth of things would then be a kind of chaos. Welcome (back?) to the twentieth century. It ought to be quite clear that neither of these possibilities really applies (in science, for instance, chaos theory, fractals, autopoiesis, various kinds of non-linear dynamics and surprising new formulations of power laws, reveal processes that lead to a kind of simultaneous order/chaos). The truth of Hegel’s system unfolds like a kind of trigger mechanism (the young Hegel calls it a moment or a power) that applies whenever the particular is mistaken for the general, or contingency is mistaken for necessity, or difference is mistaken for identity–and then everything switches. The Hegelian name for this moment–whenever an undecidable becomes decisive–is Aufhebung. This commonplace German word is used in different situations: you put luggage up on the rack; you put your old photos up in the attic; otherwise you destroy or annul something; but you can also save or restore something. You can reserve something but you can also reverse it. There are at least 28 often contradictory senses in current use. If you use it as a noun you’re either a Hegelian or you mean “fuss” (as in “a business”). All the same word. Hegel marvelled at the truth of this word that somehow contains the very element of his system in the contradiction: annul/reserve/raise or, in our special 21st century idiom, destroy/restore. Any dispute we might still have over the concept of truth occurs in the shadow of this undecidable.

In the chapter of The Ticklish Subject to which I’ve just been referring, Žižek reads Badiou as one of those supposedly rare thinkers who today dare to profess truth, and in this sense as adequate to the challenge of religion, metaphysics and science. (Such thinkers are much less rare than Žižek seems to think). So truth in Žižek’s reading therefore turns out to be on the side of these contingencies and unpredictables, where formerly these were supposedly seen as disruptive of truth. We can clarify this with reference to Žižek’s identification of the enemies of truth. There are two. The first is identified as embodying a “postmodern anti-Platonic thrust whose basic dogma is that the era where it was still possible to base a political movement on a direct reference to some eternal metaphysical or transcendental truth is definitely over” (151). More blandly still this thrust is summed up a couple of pages later as (“from Stalin to Derrida”) “postmodern deconstructionist political theory” (153). The second is identified as “cultural studies,” the “basic feature” of which “is that they are no longer able or ready to confront religious, scientific or philosophical works in terms of their inherent Truth, but reduce them to a product of historical circumstances, to an object of anthropologico-psychoanalytic interpretation” (155). I don’t need to defend cultural studies (whatever that might really turn out to be). How many counter-examples do we need? Nevertheless, anyone who does approach a topic or text or historical situation by reducing it to “an object of anthropologico-psychoanalytic interpretation” will inevitably fall foul of what is called in many contexts the “critique of historicism.” For instance, if only to get away from Hegel for a minute, Edmund Husserl’s Crisis texts deal a devastating blow to anyone who wants to ground their science on empirical psychology, or formalism or historicism. They arrived, appropriately enough, when these trends were as now dominant. (And the correlative here, in the context of Lacan and Badiou, would be the logicism of Frege and Russell in relation to mathematics). Husserl’s critique operates somewhat independently of the establishment of phenomenology (which is his positive answer to the problem), as one of his tireless preliminaries. Heidegger is more influential, but … the reference text for anyone who wants a painstaking criticism of, exactly, “anthropologico-psychoanalytic interpretation,” should automatically be Derrida’s Of Grammatology, particularly the short section on “Question of Method” from the chapter on Rousseau “… That Dangerous Supplement …”). It’s true that historical readings in the guise of “anthropoligico-psychoanalytic interpretation” do continue to be made. At stake, of course, is the question of what, then, in the name of truth, do you take as your guide?

Žižek does something that less patient readers (than I) might justifiably regard as incredibly banal. He invents a couple of straw theories (deconstruction and cultural studies) and mobilizes Badiou as their Aufhebung. By deconstruction he means anyone who has abandoned any belief in anything resembling Platonic truth (the truth of eidos: the idea of type and the intelligible and, in some interpretations, transcendental sphere of thoughts). By the time Nietzsche started writing, the path to this anti-platonism had already been laid, of course. But the Nietzsche text very possibly remains its most radical formulation. Heidegger and to an extent Freud also belong to this general historical movement, according to which the concept of truth undergoes a profound reversal. More recent operators include Foucault and Lacan, both of whom meet the concept of truth in science, metaphysics and religion more or less head on. So this notion of deconstruction (as anti-Platonism) is already very old (modern probably) and quite complex. So deconstruction and cultural studies are names for anti-Platonism and anthropologico-psychoanalytic interpretation respectively. That’s easy, then. Along comes someone with a concept of truth and he’s not afraid to use it:

“Perhaps the gap separating Badiou from the standard postmodern deconstructionist political theorists is ultimately created by the fact that the latter remain within the confines of the pessimistic wisdom of the failed encounter: is not the ultimate deconstructionist lesson that every enthusiastic encounter with the Real Thing, every pathetic identification of a positive empirical Event with it, is a delusive semblance sustained by the short circuit between a contingent positive element and the preceding universal void?”

I think the question is supposed to be rhetorical, but it cannot be, because it has an answer: no. But, more crucially, look what’s happened: truth has become bound up with a “positive empirical Event.” Žižek thinks, for instance, that while Derrida’s account of democracy as à venir means that it hasn’t actually arrived, Badiou has an account of the Truth-Event according to which, every now and then, “a ‘miracle’ can happen,” contingently and unpredictably. Žižek’s example? The sudden unpredicted support in the 1980s for the French minister for Justice, Robert Badinter, in his intention to abolish the death penalty.

First, then, no account of deconstruction–whether this name is attributed to Heidegger or Foucault or Derrida–would be just in attributing to it the “pessimistic wisdom of the failed encounter.” (Here Žižek actually echoes Hegel’s famous criticism of Kant and Fichte). Democracy, of course, is à venir so that “miracles” can occur. The “to come” of democracy (which takes into consideration antagonisms that are at present unimaginable) is always bundled by Derrida with the possibility of its impossibility. Not its impossibility. But the possibility of its impossibility. An affirmation of the impossible and the surprise: these are just the not-very-difficult-to-grasp minor premises of Derrida’s larger algorithm.

Second, then, the example. The intention to abolish the death penalty in France had been announced more than 200 years earlier. The “suddenness” of the reversal might be put in touch with its deeper genesis, I suppose. But the point is that Žižek reads Badiou’s account of Truth and Event as a kind of critique of some imaginary postmoderns (bearing the names of real thinkers) who are pessimistic about people who get enthusiastic about some “real” encounter that is in fact mere semblance (as Hegel would have said). Well, there’s a great example of the credulous enthusiasm at least. Žižek’s “postmodern deconstructionist political theorists”: there’s a semblance if there ever was one.

One final section on the event. Žižek’s “world picture” (his argument, his philosophical decision) seems to me to situate truth in such a way that it either resides within a neo-platonic sphere (metaphysics, science, religion) that can be negated (postmodernism, cultural studies) or it operates miraculously and contingently when attached to progressive or revolutionary events (as some kind of radicalized metaphysics, science, religion). If there was nothing for there to be an event against, or towards, or away from, then this notion of event would not apply. In this framework it is easier to understand the readings of Badiou and others in The Ticklish Subject. For they apparently do the work of accounting for the miracle. The cost of whatever insights might be gained from reading The Ticklish Subject (and there are many but not that many) include the diversionary tactics, identifying straw philosophers in the names of those who, actually and historically, should be credited with the kind of philosophical work that Žižek does habitually affirm against them. In the meantime, what is really interesting about Badiou’s account of the event–his way with formal demonstrations, his mobilization of truth as proofs rather than as mere empirical facts, his identification of these truths in the spheres of love, science, aesthetics, political conflict, etc … this rather gets lost on the way. But it is here that Badiou’s way with events would undoubtedly begin to disturb what I’ve just referred to as Žižek’s “world picture.” There’s a surprise here too but not much of one. Badiou, as Žižek correctly observes, opposes his notion of truth as event to any idea that there may be a (countable or uncountable) multiplicity of truths. Here is Žižek again:

“Truth is contingent; it hinges on a concrete historical situation; it is the truth of this situation, but in every concrete historical situation there is one and only one truth which, once articulated, spoken out, functions as the index of itself and of the falsity of the field subverted by it” (150).

Now the clever thing about this account of Badiou is that it–in advance of the more detailed reading to come–paraphrases St Paul. There is each time only one truth. All the rest is false. So an event would be something that happened in such a way as to expose the falsity of the sphere in which it happened (The French revolution exposes the falsity of the ancien regime). Now we can follow the logic (from Paul to Augustine) through: only God knows the truth; God never lies. The letter of St Paul that deals with this is the epistle to Titus in Crete (which incidentally is probably a forgery, but no matter). Titus has been left by the writer in Crete to amend a situation overrun by “empty talkers and deceivers.” Now the thing about Cretans seems to be–as the ancient proverb attests–that they lie. Paul again: “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true.” It’s amusing, certainly, to find the liar paradox dispersed in this way as a kind of testimony (God never lies, Cretans always do–except when they tell the truth about their lying). It’s worth noting that this notion of truth is not about facts but about discourses, about the truth or falsity of what one says, of the saying (whether it’s true to facts or not). Žižek does not only transfer this testimony-minus-the-paradox to his account of Badiou, but he also applies it against Badiou later in the chapter. Žižek’s claim involves an argument about immortality derived from his peculiarly appointed Lacanian dwelling. There’s no time to analyze Žižek’s argument here except where it concerns his reading of Badiou. This is what he says: “against Badiou, one should insist that only to a finite/mortal being does the act (or Event) appear as a traumatic intrusion of the Real, as something that cannot be named directly” (193). One possible problem with formulation lies in the question of how much this goes “against” Badiou. The Real here seems to mean something like the impossible noumenon of the critical philosophy (which consistently–rightly or wrongly–is Žižek’s philosophical framework). So the transcendental subject (a finite subject equipped with reason) nonetheless has access from time to time to the truth of a given situation, by his or her participation in an act-event that transcends the sphere of finite subjectivity, the so called symbolic universe. The standard uncontroversial reading of trauma implies damage caused to the Symbolic when what is called the Real intrudes. In my article on Badiou I attempt to outline some of the steps by which Badiou follows the simultaneous construction and subtraction of an event (in mathematics and poetry). It’s not too difficult to agree that the creation of something inevitably involves some traumatic consequences. It’s the Hegelian building and breaking–or deconstruction–of one universe in order for its replacement to emerge as if fully formed, in Hegelian words, like “the breaking of a new day.” Žižek concludes this chapter with the Lacanian rejoinder, that “truth is condemned to remain a fiction.” What this means is that the Real (the unnamable) eludes all conceptualization. OK, but why? It could be that Platonic topos noetos (that place where thought thinks thought itself–divine creation); or it could be a function of the operation of reason as it attempts to follow its own destiny. These are Žižek’s options (taking into account the rejection of the empty postmodernist who operates as a simple negative of the first option). Badiou’s formal demonstration of what in his terms operates as an inaccessible measure has really gone by the wayside here (reduced to a quasi Kantian antinomy). What’s at stake at least is a certain reading of Lacan and more profoundly a certain conception of what might be understood by the endlessly troublesome terms Symbolic and Real. I do think there’s more to be said and considerably more demonstration could be offered. But that for the moment is probably all I have time to say.

Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (London: Verso, 1999).

John W.P. Phillips is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, and an editorial board member of TCS. He writes on philosophy, literature, critical theory, aesthetics, psychoanalysis, urbanism and military technology. He is co-author with Ryan Bishop of the forthcoming Modernist Avant-garde Aesthetics and Contemporary Military Technology: Technicities of Perception (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), and he is currently researching a project on autoimmunity in biotechnology and political philosophy.

Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant for Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society

Go here for John’s second follow-up response on Rancière and Derrida on Plato

Go here for John’s first follow-up response on mathematical logic

Go here for the original ‘Interview with John W.P. Phillips on Badiou, Rancière…and Žižek’

You can access the article, ‘Art, Politics, and Philosophy: Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière’ (TCS 27.4) by John W.P. Phillips here


  1. If I may add my penneth worth, here are some quotes from Badiou’s (2010) The Communist Hypothesis:

    ‘I call an “event” a rupture in the normal order of bodies and loanguages as it exists for any particular situation … or as it appears in any particular world … an event is the creation of new possibilities’ (p. 242)

    ‘I call a “State” or “state of the situation” the system of constraints that limit the possibility of possibilities … The State’ is always the finitude of possibility, and the event its infinitization’ (p. 243)

    ‘I call a “truth procedure” or a “truth” an ongoing organization, in a given situation (or world), of the consequences of an event. … I call “facts” the consequences of the existence of the State … So it is clear that a truth cannot be made up of pure facts’ (p.244).

    It all leads to an interesting conclusion

    Couze Venn, TCS

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