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  • Exception in Žižek’s Thought
  • Erik Vogt (bio)

One cannot fail to be struck by the repeated occurrences and invocations of some logic of exception as well as by the proliferation of examples or stand-ins for exceptional positions (“Jew”; “woman”; “class struggle”) or exceptional collectives (“proletariat”; “slum dwellers”) in many of Slavoj Žižek’s writings. The significance of thinking exception is evident not only in Žižek’s powerful reconceptualization of (a supposedly outdated) ideology critique and in his intriguing materialist account of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, but also in his interventions into contemporary debates as to what constitutes proper politics. For this reason, it might be appropriate, in a first sketch, to attempt to weave together some of the threads that combine into Žižek’s (critique of the) logic of exception.1


The Symptom and Its Logic of Exception

Already Žižek’s early brilliant elaboration of a contemporary ideology critique in terms of a powerful coarticulation of Marx and Freud analyzes the “social symptom” in light of its hidden logic of exception [Sublime Object 11–53]. Since the “social symptom” is not to be grasped as some imbalance external to universality, but rather as its constitutive moment, it marks “a point of breakdown heterogeneous” to a given universal field that at the same time is “necessary for that field to achieve its closure, its accomplished form” [21]. A symptomatic ideology critique will seize on the logic of exception implicit in the fissures of universality by deciphering its “falseness,” insofar “as it necessarily includes a specific case which breaks its unity, lays open its falsity” [21]. What is impossible, then, is the claim to some totality or universality without including in it “the point of exception functioning as its internal negation” [23]. This seems to suggest that the “social symptom” does not present any obstacles to its ideological-critical decipherment according to the logic of exception. However, Žižek makes clear immediately that it often does not effect the dissolution of the “social symptom”; on the contrary, it might even reinforce it, insofar as this interpretive procedure appeals to and relies on an addressee that continues to be figured in terms of consistency, completeness, totality. Consequently, this interpretive procedure of dissolving the symptom remains stuck in the very logic of exception that it attempts to unearth [73–74]. This is the reason why Žižek suggests supplementing this notion of the “social symptom” as ciphered message with the notion of fantasy. He describes the relation between symptom and fantasy in the following manner: “Symptom implies and addresses some non-barred, consistent big Other which will retroactively confer on it its meaning; fantasy implies a crossed-out, barred, non-whole, inconsistent [End Page 61] Other—that is to say, it is filling out a void in the Other” [74]. A contemporary ideology critique will therefore have to account for both the exceptional status of the social symptom and its underlying social fantasy. In other words, ideology critiques must consist of two stages, of two complementary procedures:

—one is discursive, the “symptomal reading” of the ideological text [. . .] demonstrating how a given ideological field is a result of a montage of heterogeneous “floating signifiers,” of their totalization through the intervention of certain “nodal points”;

—the other aims at extracting the kernel of enjoyment, at articulating the way in which [. . .] an ideology implies, manipulates, produces a pre-ideological enjoyment structured in fantasy.


In short, what is required from ideology critique is an interpretation of the social symptom in such a way that it brings to light the very fundamental fantasy that, precisely as a preideological blockage to interpretation, has then to be traversed and correlated to the identification with the symptom. The social symptom has to be grasped as master signifier and as objet a. And Žižek illustrates the working of (a theory of) ideology via anti-Semitism and its construction of the “Jew.”2

Briefly, anti-Semitic ideology articulates the “Jew” through a network of symbolic “overdetermination”; that is, the “Jew” becomes the point of condensation for heterogeneous and often incompatible attributes. What has to be taken into account, moreover, is the inversion...