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  • Art as Symptom:Žižek and the Ethics of Psychoanalytic Criticism
  • Tim Dean (bio)

This paper tackles a problem that is exemplified by, but not restricted to, Slavoj Žižek's work: the tendency to treat aesthetic artifacts as symptoms of the culture in which they were produced. Whether or not one employs the vocabulary and methods of psychoanalysis to do so, this approach to aesthetics has become so widespread in the humanities that it qualifies as a contemporary critical norm. As a norm, it may be subject to debate and even contestation. Today it is normative to read literature, film, and other cultural texts primarily as evidence about the societies that made them—evidence that necessarily requires our hermeneutic labor in order to yield its significance. This methodological protocol remains in place whether one inhabits critical perspectives as ostensibly disparate as historicist, materialist, or psychoanalytic modes of thinking; it is also a grounding assumption of cultural studies, irrespective of how one defines that critical practice. Indeed, the issue I want to address is quite as much a Marxist problem as it is a psychoanalytic one, and therefore the way in which Žižek articulates Lacan with Marx makes his work especially fertile terrain on which to engage this matter. As Žižek reminds us in The Sublime Object of Ideology, Lacan claimed that Marx invented the symptom [SO 11]—an observation that Žižek has been keen to exploit from the very beginning of his work.

Žižek's combining psychoanalysis with Marxism in novel ways has helped make Lacan more palatable to contemporary critical sensibilities by politicizing psychoanalysis, demonstrating how it offers less an account of the individual than of society and culture. In Žižek's hands psychoanalytic theory appears less vulnerable to the standard criticisms that it is ahistorical and apolitical. While a number of critiques of Žižek have reiterated these common objections, nevertheless his politicizing of psychoanalysis has been particularly important during a period that witnessed the rise of new historicism, the institutionalization of cultural studies, and the escalating importance of "the political" as a sign—perhaps the sign—of humanities professors' seriousness.1 Žižek's work has gone a long way toward making Lacan seem indispensable to cultural studies, just as Juliet Mitchell's and Jacqueline Rose's work a decade earlier made Lacan seem indispensable to theoretically rigorous feminism. At a moment when the poststructuralist variant of Lacanian theory was being displaced by historicist modes of thought, Žižek emerged on the scene to revivify psychoanalysis and make it exciting again. Thus his work's appeal has an historical basis quite apart from Žižek's own personal charisma and his remarkable productivity. It is his politicizing of psychoanalysis, as much as his [End Page 21] rendering Lacan newly accessible, that has made Žižek popular. I want to argue, however, that his style of politicizing psychoanalysis carries a significant ethical cost, one that follows partly as a consequence of Žižek's failure to work through his theoretical relation to Althusser, from whom he derives the practice of symptomatic reading while claiming to displace the latter's version of psychoanalytic Marxism. Thus I shall be arguing for a significant distinction between a political and an ethical psychoanalysis, suggesting that we have been cultivating the former at the expense of the latter.

Spaghetti Psychoanalysis

The notion of the symptom is central to Žižek's thinking about politics and culture. Although in his work and in psychoanalytic theory more generally the term symptom carries a range of conceptual meanings, symptomatology remains the governing trope of Žižek's oeuvre. Following Lacan, who continued to modify the concept of the symptom throughout his career, Žižek argues that just about anything can be understood as symptomatic:

[I]n the final years of Lacan's teaching we find a kind of universalization of the symptom: almost everything that is becomes in a way symptom, so that finally even woman is determined as the symptom of man. We can even say that "symptom" is Lacan's final answer to the eternal philosophical question "Why is there something instead of nothing?"—this "something" which "is...