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  • The Politics of Lack
  • Lasse Thomassen
Review of: Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso, 1999.

The Ticklish Subject is a recent work by Slovene philosopher, social theorist, and Lacanian psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek, who has produced books at the pace of more than one per year since the 1989 publication of his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology. As in his previous books, Zizek intermixes psychoanalysis, nineteenth-century German philosophy, political theory, and popular culture. With The Ticklish Subject, Zizek endeavors to bring together three of his main concerns: Lacanian psychoanalysis, the question of subjectivity, and the possibilities for a Leftist politics in today’s late-capitalist, postmodern world. He sets out to provide a “systematic exposition of the foundations of his theory” (to quote the book’s cover), in order to address the relation between Lacanian theory, subjectivity, and politics. Thus, The Ticklish Subject purports to be a Lacanian theory of politics and the political—in short, a theory of political subjectivity.

The book is divided into three parts, each of which addresses one of three important formulations of subjectivity: the German Idealist subject, the political subject of French post-Althusserian political philosophy, and the deconstructionist and multi-spectral subject theorized by Judith Butler. In each of the book’s three main parts, Zizek starts from a critical reading of Martin Heidegger’s, Alain Badiou’s, and Judith Butler’s respective critiques of the traditional Cartesian notion of the subject.

As an alternative to the Cartesian subject and to the three critiques of the Cartesian subject, Zizek proposes a Lacanian notion of subjectivity. To explain what this involves, we can start by looking at the notion of the decision and at the distinctions Zizek makes between the “ontological” and the “ontic.” Whereas the ontic refers to what is—that is, to a positive being—the ontological refers to the conditions of possibility and limits of what is. With the ontic we ask what is; with the ontological we ask how it is possible that it can be. Zizek believes that no ontic content or being can be derived from an ontological form. In other words, there is no concrete ontic content that can be the positive expression of being as such—that is, of the ontological order. In this sense, the ontological relates to the ontic in the same way as form relates to content. What Zizek wants to stress here is that it is not possible to find a concrete community that expresses the structure of community as such. So, for instance, he criticizes Heidegger’s assertion that the National Socialist State is the concrete expression of the structure of community and social being as such. Heidegger’s fault lies in the fact that he tries to establish a necessary connection between the ontological (the structure of social being as such) and a particular ontic being (the National Socialist State). We may be able to deconstruct community to show the conditions of possibility of community, but we cannot find the particular community that best expresses these conditions of possibility. Zizek develops this argument as a critique of Heidegger. The problem with Heidegger is that on one hand he insists on the distinction between the ontological and the ontic, but on the other hand he ends up looking for the particular ontic community that would realize the “essence” of the ontological structure of society as such, that is, for the ontic of the ontological.

Zizek insists that there is an insurmountable gap between the ontological and the ontic, and that we are not able to move directly from one to the other. In other words, it is not possible to proceed directly from a formal argument to a particular substantial argument, from form to content. The question then becomes how the gap between them is filled or bridged. Here we encounter Zizek’s notion of the decision, which fills the gap between the ontological and the ontic. The decision cannot be grounded in any ontological structure, but this does not mean that you cannot give grounds for the decisions you make. What it means is that the decision can only...

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