I think therefore I tickle

In his new book, "The Ticklish Subject," renegade philosopher Slavoj Zizek offers a mind-searing, polyvalent glimpse into the heart of modern freedom.

By Jose Klein

Published May 19, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As I learned from a recent review in the Nation, there are two ways to plot a slasher movie: "Either you organize a movie around nine decapitations ... spacing them at 10-minute intervals, or else you work up to a single big decapitation at the end." And although philosophy does not follow the same generic guidelines per se, Slavoj Zizek's "The Ticklish Subject" falls into the latter camp. The steps are slow, but Zizek moves the book steadily toward its coup de grbce, a model for the decapitation of global capital.

Zizek's hatchet man is the Cartesian subject, the embodiment of Rene Descartes' notion that rational thought defines human existence. Zizek's championing of Mr. Cogito Ergo Sum seems peculiar, given how many currently fashionable philosophical schools have declared him already dead. Multiculturalism, for instance, argues that no one seminal criterion can explain what it is to be alive, but that the condition of being human depends on the culture from which the person comes. Consequently, the logic of Descartes' "I think therefore I am" may reflect only a narrow, Occidental mode of being.

In his introduction, Zizek acknowledges a laundry list of other schools "united in the rejection of the Cartesian subject": the New Age obscurantist, the postmodern deconstructionist, the Habermasian, the Heideggerian, the cognitive scientist, the Deep Ecologist, the critical (post-)Marxist, and the feminist. Zizek concludes that it's high time for someone to defend the view that so many scholars argue vehemently against. He sets out to do this by positing a universal selfhood, seen through the scrim of leftist political theory. What he drafts, however, is not the typical cold-blooded, rational Cartesian subject; rather he formulates an original reading of the self, one that with all its contingency still possesses a paradoxical freedom to move us "from subjection to subjective destitution." That is to say, from enslavement by our circumstance to self-determination, albeit limited.

Right, sure, but just what does Zizek's search to define the universal self have to do with you? Everything. If you have ever wondered to what extent your life lies within your own power, or to what extent your experience is determined by influences -- culture, class, sex, class, history -- hopelessly beyond your control, you are none other than the ticklish subject.

What's amazing about Zizek is that he paints such a broad canvas. He divides the book into three parts, gradually building a dialectical portrait of the individual dwelling within a politicized world. The first presents us with the solitary individual -- rather akin to the atomized psychological self -- whose imagination naturally breaks apart totalities into a horrific multitude of shattered images. He quotes from Hegel: "Here shoots a bloody head -- there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears." In the second part, he places the individual back in a sociopolitical context. In the third part, we return to the reflective consciousness of the single individual, who must think and act in the complexity of the world. Through this journey from self to other and then on to a new self, Zizek sets out to measure the scope of our personal and political agency, and the hopes, fears and limitations that define that scope.

Zizek's notion of individual freedom harbors little of the mythological hype so prevalent in America's stalwart individualism. There are no parables of bootstraps and new frontiers. Instead, the individual acts within a rather narrow space in which he or she can offer or deny consent to a context far beyond individual control. More simply, we can decide what we think about the world, and this may or may not have a great effect upon the world itself.

For Zizek, freedom is the power "which the soul has, to suspend or to give its consent to motives, which naturally follow interesting perceptions." Zizek's concept is not unlike Monty Hall's "Let's Make a Deal." After all, we do have a choice: we can either accept the stack of bills that Monty has placed in our hand, or we can hold out for what lies behind Door No. 3. However, neither in "Let's Make a Deal," nor in life can we determine what it is that lies beyond the doors of withheld consent until the choice has been made.

What separates Zizek from so much of philosophy that seems to cloak medium-sized ideas in large words is his ability to locate his theories in the madness of our depoliticized cultural moment. The breadth of Zizek's ken never ceases to amaze. Not only does he move freely between subjects as disparate as Viagra and Alain Badiou's reading of St. Paul's reading of the crucifixion, but such acrobatic intellectual leaps nearly always feel germane to his project. Through unexpected connections, tapestries of very complicated ideas gradually come into focus. Movie mogul Sam Goldwyn at one point illustrates Hegel; Hegel, at another, provides the key to understanding Pat Buchanan and the radical right. Constellations develop and shapes are given to those ineffable anxieties that keep us tossing and turning while our partners sleep soundly.

Some of Zizek's keenest insights arise out of contemporary cinema. In a very moving passage, he draws a surprising conclusion from the comparison of two British films, "Brassed Off" and "The Full Monty." Both, in Zizek's words, tell the story of "the traumatic disintegration of old-style, working-class identity.""Brassed Off" portrays the "political struggle (the miners' struggle against threatened pit closures legitimized in terms of technological progress) [with] the idealized symbolic expression of the miners' community, their brass band." When the miners lose their political struggle, what remains is the empty symbolism of the brass band -- "as one of them puts it, when there is no hope, there are only principles to follow ... " As the miners continue to play in the brass band, it becomes the locus of a political struggle that continues despite the fact that what they were struggling for has already been lost.

In "The Full Monty," five unemployed guys find a way to make a buck by stripping. Zizek points out that their act finally signifies the same thing as the miners' brass band: the acceptance of a passing way of life. Nonetheless, one critical difference between the two films remains: "The heroism of the final gesture of "The Full Monty" is not that of persisting in the symbolic form (playing in the band) when its social substance disintegrates but, on the contrary, of accepting what, from the perspective of the male working-class ethic, cannot but appear as the ultimate humiliation: readily giving away false male dignity."

Characteristically, Zizek broadens his scope so that what first seemed to be, at best, nifty cultural criticism takes on deeper meaning:

So, in today's leftist politics, we seem in effect to be reduced to the choice between the "solid" orthodox attitude of proudly out of principle, sticking to the old (Communist or Social Democratic) tune, although we know its time has passed, and the New Labour "radical centre" attitude of going the "full Monty" in stripping, the last vestiges of proper leftist discourse ...

What springs from this and so many other moments in "The Ticklish Subject" is a passionate search for what Zizek aptly calls a "miracle" -- the political act that undermines the structures of global capitalism. For Zizek, miracles occur at the moment when multitudes of individual Cartesian wills come together to achieve what had seemed like a political impossibility. For example, in Italy in the 1970s, a referendum on divorce was held. Members of the left, who supported the freedom to choose divorce, thought that people weren't "mature enough, that they would be frightened by the intense Catholic propaganda." And yet, inexplicably, when the moment came, over 60 percent of the country voted for the right to divorce.

Occasionally, the fecundity of Zizek's imagination can be a bit too much. For instance, in a footnote on the "ultimate horror" of the personal computer, he goes on and on about the uncanny ability of computers to both lose enormous amounts of information in a single instant and yet -- with the help of retrieve commands -- make it well-nigh impossible to ever really delete anything permanently. "A simple PC then contains a kind of 'undead' spectral domain of deleted texts which nevertheless continue to lead a shadowy existence, 'between the two deaths', officially deleted but still there, waiting to be recovered," he concludes rather melodramatically. "This is the ultimate horror of the digital universe: in it everything remains forever inscribed; it is practically impossible to get rid of, to erase a text ... "

One gets the sense here that Zizek is enjoying a private little joke. We can picture him writing the footnote. The green squiggly line of a grammar program has spewed out its judgment from somewhere deep within the machine. It tells him, "Long Sentence (no suggestions)." He playfully deletes the text and then hits the undo icon ... No doubt Zizek has a big, big brain, but must we be privy to all its minor digressions?

But perhaps I'm nitpicking. In many ways, the power of the book arises from just this type of refusal to censor the imagination. It doesn't, however, make for an easy read. Zizek's playfulness makes him nearly impossible to pin down. Even after parsing through jargon that frankly leaves me cold, I still can never be sure just how sincere he's being at any given moment. Nonetheless, I think it's all part of Zizek's point. Irony, here, becomes crucial to his political argument. For just as irony transforms the literal into something radically different, our imagination contains the power to sneak new narratives into the political universe of global capitalism. Moreover, if what he seeks to illustrate is a new type of agency inhering in human selfhood, one that is ticklish rather than rigidly heroic, then shouldn't he tickle us into understanding, too?

Zizek concludes his book with the story of Mary Kay Letourneau, the 36-year-old schoolteacher who had an affair with one of her sixth-grade pupils. In the public debate over the incident, two ideological camps formed. The first condemned her as evil. The other, which included Mary Kay's own defense team, diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. They claimed that the manic states, which the illness induces, suspended her ability to use proper judgment. Rather than be punished, they argued, she should be treated medically. This leads Zizek to ask, "Is not such a suspension [of good judgment], however, one of the constituents of the notion of the authentic act of being in love?" The mania they describe, then, is love itself. And so, confronted by a society that sees love as a mental illness which medication can cure, Zizek offers his own prescription. Like a sublime, intellectual self-help guru, he "exhorts you to dare," to discover the freedom that can only come from obeying your deepest desires.

In theory, such exhortations have the ring of utopia. But in the real world, freedom exercised with such abandon can be dangerous. I imagine the hatchet man from bygone slasher flicks. Perhaps he's that sixth-grader now grown up, his deepest desires informed by poor modeling from elders and boundaries blurred. As he raises his axe, I wonder how Zizek might distinguish the freedom we are meant to act upon from that which is better left in the realm of nightmares and horror films.

Jose Klein

Jose Klein is a writer living in Portland, Ore.

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