Slavoj Zizek: A Critical Introduction

Slavoj Zizek: A Critical Introduction

by Ian Parker

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783713523
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 03/20/2004
Series: Modern European Thinkers
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 184
File size: 415 KB

About the Author

Ian Parker is Professor of Management in the School of Management at the University of Leicester and President of the College of Psychoanalysts-UK. He is the author of Psychology and Society (Pluto, 1996), Slavoj Zizek: A Critical Introduction (Pluto, 2004) and Revolution in Psychology (Pluto, 2007).

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Yugoslavia – To Slovenia

This chapter is about the formation, operation and decomposition of the Yugoslav state, and it is also of course about the role of the West in the reinvention of capitalism in Eastern Europe. How we make sense of this, and how we position ourselves to applaud or bemoan the rise and fall of Tito, self-management socialism, nationalist resistance and the new free-market moral majorities, will influence how we read Zizek and his attempt to make sense of the process. The chapter provides an understanding of how the amazing combinations of ideas in his writing were made possible, and so we trace the conditions of possibility for the particular combination of theoretical resources in Zizek's work. However, the theoretical resources he uses from psychoanalysis and philosophy are resources that are always distorted in some way in different geographical and historical settings. The contradictory, mutating political conditions in Yugoslavia we are about to review are not, then, merely the 'context' for how Hegel, Lacan and Marx were read and applied separately by Zizek, as if he read them incorrectly and as if we can now put them together correctly.

Theoretical resources are always already distorted, and something of them always fails to represent or capture adequately the world they take root in. The question is not merely how some ideas come to be possible in certain social conditions as if we were then explaining them away, but how to develop an analysis of how certain sets of concepts are put to work to grasp conditions that have reached points of impossibility, breaking points. This is why it would be more accurate to say that we are really outlining the conditions of impossibility for how the theories were put together by Zizek. The history of Yugoslavia is precisely a history of deadlocks and breaking points, relations of impossibility. And the sets of concepts that emerge should not then serve to solve or smooth over what they attempted to grasp; instead, they too show something of that impossibility. That is why these particular theoretical resources – Hegelian, Lacanian, Marxist – that attend to negativity, lack and dialectical fracture, are so important. We could say that the conceptual architecture of the different systems he uses was first built crookedly on the economic-political terrain of the Balkans, before being rebuilt, just as unsteadily perhaps, for an academic audience outside.

Zizek, after being refused a lecturing post upon completion of his first two degrees in the University of Ljubljana, and then working as a researcher and visitor at different places around the world, at last has a position as Professor in the Department of Philosophy. Now it would be tempting to slide too quickly over what it meant for him to have been 'politically active in the alternative movement in Slovenia during the 80s' and to have stood as 'candidate for the presidency of the republic of Slovenia in the first multi-party elections in 1990' (as his little biography on the departmental website puts it). The years of intellectual and political compromise and challenge in and against Yugoslavia were part of a dialectical process of the making and unmaking of Stalinism. So what we need to grasp, then, are what the conditions of impossibility of Yugoslavia were that made it possible for the Republic of Slovenia to appear, and so what the conceptual conditions were for Zizek to appear as he did both here and there.

How Zizek appears here and there is precisely the issue, for conditions of impossibility also mark the relationship between what we think we see when he appears to us and what has actually been going on in Eastern Europe. This chapter traces the theoretical resources that organised philosophical and political work in Yugoslavia and the way these were lived and reworked in Slovenia. If we want to understand what Zizek is up to we need a good historical account, not to sum him up or explain him away but to cut our way through the circuits of lies that have structured how Yugoslavia has often appeared to the West. Then something different that includes Zizek can appear to us, something we can mark our own theoretical positions against.


How can we begin to make sense of these conditions? Maybe like this: Tito steered the Yugoslav revolution towards a more open, democratic form of self-management socialism, during which it was necessary to break with Stalinist bureaucratic traditions and adopt a third-way non-aligned position between capitalism and communism. The problem is that this characterisation is wrong in almost every respect, but different versions of this representation of the Yugoslav state for its own populations, and such images of Yugoslavia for the West, have served to spin a mythology that was potent enough to stifle opposition for many years, and to discredit Marxism fairly efficiently along the way.

Actually, the respect in which this characterisation is right lies not in any of the particular elements of the description but in the space that the mythology opened up. This paradox, a space in which dissident academics were able to take the bureaucracy at its word and enact the very freedoms it claimed to endorse, struck at the heart of one of the impossible points where the hypocrisy of the regime could then be made to implode. In Slovenia, the northernmost republic in the Yugoslav Federation, Zizek was one of those who noticed that the regime required its population to take a cynical distance from the claims it made about democracy in order for it to function. This requirement meant that an enthusiastic embrace of democratic claims – in practices of 'overidentification' – might be able to open up and detonate the ideological apparatus from the inside. We will look at strategies of resistance like this in more detail later, but for the moment we need to dismantle the different aspects of the structurally-necessary symbolic deception that enabled the bureaucracy to seize and hold power until it started to disintegrate in the 1980s.

What the Yugoslav resistance was already locked into

The personality cult constructed around the figure of Josip Broz Tito, a Croatian locksmith drawn to Marxism and then swiftly into the Comintern – the Communist Third International – during his time in Moscow, itself testifies to the Stalinist cast of the Tito regime in Yugoslavia. Tito worked as a Comintern agent with responsibility for the Balkans, and became secretary of the Communist Party in Yugoslavia in 1937. Tito was even groomed at one point to be the leader of the Comintern to succeed Stalin, and it is worth recalling that there was a good deal of grotesque adoration of this single individual from before the break with Stalin in 1948 through to his death in 1980. The bizarre doubling of the image of the leader – modelled on Stalin yet with the pretence that he was in some sense the more progressive reverse image – already introduces into the symbolic texture of Yugoslav politics a particular kind of duplicity.

Up to the point of the expulsion of the Yugoslav Party from the Cominform, Tito was quite explicitly a good Stalinist. The Cominform, or 'Communist Information Bureau', was set up in 1947 as replacement and successor to the Comintern, which had been dissolved in 1943. That dissolution was partly as a goodwill gesture to the capitalist world, and a message to the West that the Soviet Union was willing to embark on a period of 'peaceful coexistence' during which it could get on with the task of building 'socialism in one country', and thus demanding that the local communist parties subordinate their activities to the needs and diplomatic manoeuvres of the Soviet bureaucracy. For Tito, what being a good Stalinist meant until 1948 was to respect the compromises made with the imperialist powers, including agreement between Stalin and Churchill as to how Europe would be apportioned between the Western and the Soviet spheres of influence.

Yugoslavia would then be neutralised as a threat to both sides, and function as part of the buffer zone. The Communist Party in Italy, which was clearly assigned to the West, and bordering on Slovenia as a component of the new Federative People's Republic of Yugoslavia, dutifully handed over its arms to its government. In Greece, which was also assigned to the West, bordering on Tito's southernmost republic (now Macedonia), a bitter civil war broke out between the Western-backed government and partisans. The Stalinists were then torn between instructions from Moscow to stifle revolutionary activity and communists on the ground who refused to hand over their weapons, particularly in the north of the country (Greek Macedonia).

The West had already assumed that Yugoslavia would adhere to the diplomatic agreements made between Moscow and London in 1944, which was when the Allies and the Yugoslav government in exile stopped their military aid to the Chetniks – the Serb 'Royal Army in the Homeland' dedicated to the elimination or expulsion of traitors and implicated in massacres of Croats and Muslims, as well as Gypsies and Jews. Support from London then went to Tito's Partisans in the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia, with collaboration continuing well after the war was over, to the extent that captured Chetnik and Croatian fascist Ustashe would be handed over to Tito to be executed. What we need to keep focused on here is the way that despite Tito's refusal to close down the 'proletarian brigades' in the Partisan forces, there was no intention of breaking from the Stalinist conception of historical stages of development, in which there was the notion that proletarian revolution should be delayed until there had been a sustained period of bourgeois rule.

This is not to say that there was no conflict between Tito's partisans and Stalin as early as 1941, when the Soviet Union was still negotiating directly with the Royal Yugoslav Government in exile. Every local Stalinist apparatchik at that time had to manage the extremely difficult task of balancing orders from Stalin with what was actually possible, what activists on the ground would accept. The Tito–Subasich Agreement for a coalition regime that would keep Yugoslavia on track for its capitalist stage of development at the end of the war would conform to the cynical conceptual distortions of Marxism emanating from Moscow, but this meant that any mention of 'socialism' by the partisans, and then by the new government, had to be carefully guarded. The eventual re-designation of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963 was then designed to mark symbolically the 'socialist' character of the regime as, we might say, drawing on a favourite phrase from Zizek, 'precisely the reverse' of what it actually was. There had been no revolutionary overthrow of capitalist property relations, rather a neutralising of the 'proletarian brigades' and stabilising of the economy, initially as capitalist and then as a bureaucratically-regulated market system.

What we are unravelling here, then, are the conditions of impossibility in which things are in many key respects precisely the reverse of what they seem to be. Because there had been no socialist revolution, there was no process of degeneration from the conditions of thriving democracy that flourished all too briefly during the October 1917 revolution in Russia. Instead, the state that was instituted in Yugoslavia first stabilised capitalism and then assimilated it to the needs of the bureaucracy. As was the case with other countries in Eastern Europe (those that had less space for market mechanisms to operate) this process of 'structural assimilation' of Yugoslavia to the mould of the Stalinist command economies meant that it occupied some kind of temporal space between capitalism and socialism, as a state that was a parody of both.

Staging the myth of the Yugoslav state

One of the structurally-necessary founding myths of the Yugoslav state, part of the symbolic apparatus of Stalinist rule after the break with Stalin in 1948, was that Tito had led a revolutionary movement that defied Moscow by carrying through a socialist transformation of society. The Tito–Stalin split actually arose over trade and military relations between Yugoslavia and the USSR at a time when Stalin was attempting to consolidate his grip over the buffer zone between his sphere of influence and the West. In Yugoslavia the seizure of power by the Communist Party already made its status as a fully-fledged capitalist power untenable. It is instructive to note that while Greece had by this time been engulfed in civil war, with Stalin's agents attempting to stifle all-out opposition to capitalist rule, there was a significant exception to the rule of different spheres of influence on the borders of both Greece and Yugoslavia. This significant exception was Albania. Stalin wanted Albania absorbed into Yugoslavia after the war, but the Tito–Stalin split saw Enver Hoxha's incredibly repressive Tirana-based regime ally with Stalin. It was only when there was some rapprochement between the USSR and Yugoslavia in the early 1960s that Hoxha constructed a new destiny for himself as the only Leninist in the region, and sided with China during the Sino–Soviet split.

The material, economic-political status of Albania in relation to Yugoslavia can easily be re-described in terms of Serbia's fantasmatic points of traumatic origin in Kosovo, and we will consider these later. These are issues that have been fairly crucial to Zizek's account of what drove Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic. What it is important to emphasise for the time being is that 'Albania' already figures here as some kind of sticking point – even as a symptom we might say – of the historical foundation of the Yugoslav state. A symptom is a point of symbolic condensation of conflict that causes anguish but which has a function, and so it is difficult, perhaps impossible without the disintegration of the identity founded upon it, to give up. What is being symbolically condensed in 'Albania' and 'Kosovo' for the Serbs in Yugoslavia is crucial, but already we can see how these places were functioning for the Yugoslav state, ostensibly integrated but operating as points of conflict. The partisans took power in Albania without any military support from the Red Army, but no one would try to pretend that Hoxha's was not a quintessentially Stalinist regime. Tito's regime, which was formed with the help of the Red Army, then had to spin much rhetoric and spill some blood to persuade its supporters that it had really distanced itself from Stalinism.

It is easy to confuse the nationalisation of enterprises as part of the reconstruction of the economy in Yugoslavia after the Second World War with socialism, but we need to keep in mind the early attempts by Tito to remain faithful to a Stalinist stage conception of history, in which the primary task of the regime was the stabilisation of capitalism, if we are to understand how 'self-management' of the economy was to flourish later on. The stabilisation of capitalism turned out to be but a precursor to the installation of the bureaucracy as the only way that Tito could maintain power after the break with Stalin. This 'workers' state' was forced to carry out the task of subjugating capitalism as the overtly dominant mode of production, but only so it could also keep control of the workers or any dangerous aspirations to socialist democracy. The main theoretician of 'self-management', the Slovenian Edvard Kardelj, had been one of Tito's comrades during the partisan struggle, and his history with Tito as an economic policy advisor was to prove useful. He had a good track record in political spin, making the management of dissent and the steering of a pragmatic political course appear to be in line with anti-capitalist struggle.

To advertise the success of the Yugoslav model as 'democracy and socialism', as Kardelj later did, requires some breathtaking facility with signifiers. On the one hand, of course, the absence of democracy and the presence of a corrupt and secretive police apparatus meant that signifiers like 'democracy' could be juggled around by the regime without much opposition – with the exception, as we have already noted, that the opponents of the regime might take the rhetoric of democracy too seriously and actually hold the regime to its word. One thing the opposition, in Belgrade and Zagreb as well as Ljubljana, was able to notice from the 1960s was that words are dangerous things, dangerous to the regime. On the other hand, the presence of 'socialism' in this description of 'self-management' was predicated on the denationalisation of economic enterprises. That is, the use of the signifier 'socialism' rested on practices that required the absence of anything actually approaching socialism. The signifier was thus evacuated of the content that Western leftists usually summon up when they appeal to socialism. Self-management, as we shall see, was to have some fairly disastrous effects, with incitement to competition between enterprises accelerating into a wider centrifugal force that central state repression was eventually unable to contain.


Excerpted from "Slavoj Zizek"
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Copyright © 2004 Ian Parker.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, viii,
Introduction: something retroactive and some anticipation, 1,
1. Yugoslavia – to Slovenia, 11,
2. Enlightenment – with Hegel, 36,
3. Psychoanalysis – from Lacan, 58,
4. Politics – repeating Marx, 82,
5. Culture – acting out, 105,
Abbreviations, 128,
Notes, 129,
Bibliography, 158,
Index, 167,

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