- Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity
In the two decades since he came to prominence in the English-speaking academy, Slavoj Žižek has already generated a substantial body of secondary texts, ranging from general introductions to works on specific themes. Yet it seems safe to say that among readers of Žižek, Adrian Johnston’s book Žižek’s Ontology was the most eagerly anticipated. According to the narrative that has been solidifying over the last few years, the initial reception of Žižek did not reflect the full ambition of his work. Focusing on his theory of ideology and his usefulness for cultural analysis, interpreters had missed the true philosophical core motivating it all: the attempt to develop a new theory of subjectivity, grounded in a synthesis of the insights of German Idealism (above all Hegel) and the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. For those who hold this view of Žižek’s reception, Žižek’s Ontology would finally break through the shell of the “cultural studies” reception of Žižek as well as the image of Žižek as a kind of entertainer, revealing once and for all the rigor and depth of Žižek’s properly philosophical work.
On many of these counts, Johnston delivers. He zeroes in on Žižek’s theory of subjectivity, organizing the work around the “big three” German Idealist philosophers (Kant, Schelling, and Hegel) with continual reference to Lacan. And despite largely leaving aside the broad swathes of Žižek’s work devoted to film, popular culture, politics, and religion, Johnston’s book surely must stand as the most thorough treatment of Žižek’s philosophy to date—upon finishing the work, I could not think of a single major theme or passage within Johnston’s purview that had not been covered. In addition, Johnston provides valuable exposition of Kant, Schelling, Hegel, and Lacan that Žižek himself often leaves aside in his hurry to set these figures to use.
Nevertheless, while reading I became increasingly convinced that Žižek’s Ontology is not finally a book about Žižek at all. A hint in this direction can [End Page 419] be found in Žižek’s disarmingly humble recommendation on the back of the book. Speaking of the anxiety he felt while reading Johnston’s book, Žižek says that he often felt “as if [Johnston] is the original and I am a copy” and advises the reader to view it not as “a book on me, but a book, critical of me, on what both Johnston and I consider the core of our philosophical predicament.”
Žižek does provide a continual point of reference for Johnston, but it is the philosophical task that is the focus. As such, Žižek himself is strangely under-thematized throughout. For instance, Johnston occasionally mentions areas where Žižek’s thought has evolved over time and yet never discusses the matter systematically. More than that, Johnston clearly pushes beyond Žižek’s own concepts and terms, above all in his primary way of characterizing his project. Rejecting Žižek’s use of the term “dialectical materialism,” he proposes that what Žižek is really after is a “transcendental materialism,” which can explain why more-than-material processes can arise from matter and then take on a life of their own (i.e., transcend the material in a durable way). In addition, he claims that the dialectical negativity that is everywhere present in Žižek’s philosophy represents the negativity of “time-as-becoming” (237)—this interpretation is certainly interesting, but at the same time, I am not aware of any passage in Žižek’s work where he makes this connection.
Thus, while Žižek’s assessment is basically accurate, one might phrase things differently: Johnston’s book is an attempt to do what Žižek is doing—namely to synthesize German Idealism and Lacan in order to arrive at a contemporary theory of subjectivity—better than Žižek does it. In this regard, Johnston seems...