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New Literary History 32.1 (2001) 1-21

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Psychoanalysis and the Post-Political:
An Interview with Slavoj Zizek

Christopher Hanlon

For many, Jacques Lacan represents postmodern theory at its height--that is, at its worst. Lacan, so say his detractors, made a career out of obscurantism, and may not even have believed very much of what he said. Noam Chomsky once indicated such a hypothesis when he explained that "my frank opinion is that [Lacan] was a conscious charlatan, and he was simply playing games with the Paris intellectual community to see how much absurdity he could produce and still be taken seriously." 1 Even Lacanians might find it in their hearts to forgive Chomsky such a remark, since it was Chomsky who, after asking Lacan a question concerning thought (at the latter's 1968 presentation at MIT), received the reply, "We think we think with our brain; personally, I think with my feet. That's the only way I come into contact with anything solid. I do occasionally think with my forehead, when I bang into something." 2 As if to condense the aura of contrariness and enigma he cultivated in such exchanges, Lacan often relayed his teachings through now-infamous maxims and mathemes, those Zen koans of the French postmodern era: "Desire is desire of the Other," "There is no sexual relation," "The Woman does not exist." 3 No wonder Chomsky and many others turn their heads in exasperation.

The best counterpoint to suspicions such as Chomsky's may well be found in the work of Slavoj Zizek, whose frenetic endorsements of Lacanian theory achieve a dense complexity even as they provide moments of startling (and typically humorous) clarity. Take Zizek's way of explaining why even one of the most banal features of late twentieth-century culture, the laugh-track of situation comedy, is itself an illustration of the Lacanian thesis that "desire is desire of the Other":

. . . let us remind ourselves of a phenomenon quite usual in popular television shows or serials: "canned laughter." After some supposedly funny or witty remark, you can hear the laughter and applause included in the soundtrack of the show itself--here we have the exact opposite of the Chorus in classical tragedy; it is here that we have to look for "living Antiquity." That is to say, why the laughter? The first possible answer--that it serves to remind us when to laugh--is interesting enough, since it implies the paradox that laughter is a [End Page 1] matter of duty and not of some spontaneous feeling; but this answer is not sufficient because we do not usually laugh. The only correct answer would be that the Other--embodied in the television set--is relieving us even of our duty to laugh--is laughing instead of us. So even if, tired from a hard day's stupid work, all evening we did nothing but gaze drowsily into the television set, we can say afterwards that objectively, through the medium of the Other, we had a really good time. 4

Whimsical and yet theoretically earnest solutions to everyday conundrums such as this can have the effect of seducing even Zizek's most skeptical readers, but this is not to say that Zizek's work hasn't earned him opponents. For many, Zizek's Lacanian analyses of contemporary culture cannot quite shed the burdens of classical psychoanalysis itself: in an academy happily enamored of historicism and often disinclined toward universalisms of any kind, Zizek's mostly ahistorical, psychoanalytic defense of the Enlightenment draws criticism from various epistemological camps. One of the most persistent reproaches, for instance, has been voiced by Judith Butler, who asks rhetorically, "Can Zizekian psychoanalysis respond to the pressure to theorize the historical specificity of trauma, to provide texture for the specific exclusions, annihilations, and unthinkable losses that structure . . . social phenomena . . . ?" 5 Others have raised suspicions about the political implications of the Zizekian subject: "[Zizek] views the modern individual as caught in the dichotomy between his or her universal status as a member of civil...


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