Comparative Review

David Mertz
May 14, 1994

Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying With the Negative. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-8223-1395-2
Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993. ISBN 0-415-90366-1

These two children of the incestuous marriage between Lacan and Hegel share much of the same modus operandi. For starters, they both continue to write the same book from year to year, although the formula is by no means yet exhausted in either case. But in their latest efforts we can start to see the thread of interchange between the siblings, as Butler and Zizek sometimes explicitly, but mostly slyly, discuss each others' theoretical contributions. In addition to the common lineage, there is a certain shared philosophical method to the writing of Butler and Zizek: both masterfully interweave their theoretical contributions with expositions of cultural productions which illustrate and exemplify the theoretical moves.

We get the impression from these books of high theory that theory itself, however abstract, is always a practical matter which is given meaning in its application to the ordinary cultural artifacts around us (novels, popular movies, TV commercials, etc.). Zizek is, at points, quite explicit about the interpenetration of popular culture with high theory - for example, in the introduction to Looking Awry, he quite baldly claims that Hitchcock gives the "truth" of Lacan, and Lacan in turn the "truth" of Hitchcock. The same assumption runs through all of Zizek's practico-theoretical analyses. Butler is perhaps more reserved on the relation of the practical to the theoretical, but we get hints of an understanding similar to Zizek's, for example in the final chapter of Bodies That Matter which explores what the popular reappropriation of the word queer means to the psychoanalytic structure of gender/sexuality categories.

Between the latest books by Butler and Zizek one perceives a curious antithesis of form with content. In Zizek's terms, one might call Butler an external negation of her imputed parentage preserving the form while negating the content while Zizek is an internal negation of such parentage - preserving content, negating form. Whereas Zizek writes stylistically with a Nietzschean lightness while embracing the "totalizing" structure of Hegelian philosophy, Butler writes with Teutonic ponderousness as a critic of Hegel, and of systematic philosophy generally. Likewise, Zizek, the defender of Lacan writes with a transparent clarity, while Butler, Lacan's feminist critic, might well be accused of the very obscurity which Lacan so perfected. Both Zizek and Butler are unquestionably profound thinkers, but the act of reading Butler is a process of extraction of insights, as puzzle pieces are cautiously fit into place finally to form a complete picture. Reading Zizek, on the other hand, resembles nothing so much as reading a murder mystery: one is drawn along by the colorful writing, only near the end to realize that all the clues to the theoretical structure have been slipped in inconspicuously when one finally experiences a Gestalt shift which brings the whole picture into focus.

Sexual Difference

One of the theoretical issues addressed in both Zizek and Butler is of sexual difference. Both books introduce strikingly novel approaches to an old question, although the answers are different (if not necessarily contradictory) from each other.

For Butler,

What in Lacan would be called sexed positions, and what some of us might more easily call gender, appears to be secured through the depositing of non-heterosexual identifications in the domain of the culturally impossible... (p.111).

According to this logic, homosexuality is not fully repudiated, but is rather abjectly maintained in its necessity for maintaining the psychic structure of sexuation. Specifically, Butler utilizes the Lacanian distinction between the Imaginary and the Symbolic to maintain that homosexual desire is inherently an Imaginary possibility, but is a possibility which must be performatively repudiated with assumption of a subjective position in the Symbolic register. This repudiation of homosexual desire is by no means a mere developmental step which is done once, then over with. Rather, this repudiation is repeatedly invoked with every act of speech from within a sexed position - since homosexual desire is, according to the dictates of the Symbolic Order truly "that love which cannot speak its name."

Contained in Butler's analysis of "sexuation through abjection of homosexuality" is a critique of feminist/queer theorists who have maintained that homosexuality is a way out of the trap of gender (they are not named, but implicitly Wittig and Irigaray are the targets). By allowing that the condition of homosexual desire is a retreat to a purely Imaginary register, exclusive of speech within the Symbolic, such theorists fail to challenge and perhaps even strengthen the dictates of a compulsorily heterosexual Symbolic Order. It is less than clear what the positive content of Butler's critique is, however. While she points to the "tacit cruelties that sustain coherent identity (p.115)," she nonetheless does not "suggest that identity is to be denied, overcome, erased (p.117)." What, then, are we to do with these cruel identities? Butler hints that if not merely suffered, options might be to parody or destabilize identities. The option not occurring, I think, to Butler in her systematizing binarism of totalizing identity or unachievable anti-identitarianism, is simply to ignore identity - what I would like to call a "strategic indifference" or "revolutionary ennui." Perhaps the dictates of cruel identities can simply be suspended (in the sense of a suspended musical chord as much as in that of a postponed event) without mounting an impossible challenge to a totalizing compulsory heterosexuality/sexuation.

For Zizek, as for Lacan,

[S]exuality is the effect on the living being of the impasses which emerge when it gets entangled in the symbolic order, i.e., the effect on the living body of the deadlock or inconsistency that pertains to the symbolic order qua order of universality. (p.56)

This problem of the inconsistency of universality was posed first by Kant, in terms of his antinomies. Kant, in specifying two type of antinomies, was the first philosopher to articulate sexual difference insofar as the mathematical antinomies of "not-all" parallel the feminine relation to the Symbolic Order, while the dynamical antinomies of universality parallel the masculine relation. Lacan's famous maxim, "Woman does not exist," helps clarify the different impossible structures of masculine and feminine subjectivation. It is precisely insofar as women are necessary objects for the fabrication of a Symbolic Order as in Levi-Strauss' "exchange of women" that the Symbolic Order cannot account for the category woman. The particulars exclude totalization according to a logic of "not-all," just as the individual phenomenal existence of objects of experience exclude judgement about the universe as a whole (according to the structure of the mathematical antinomies). Man, contrarily, can enter the Symbolic Order categorically, but only under the condition that he have no particular existence, but simply enact the phallic function.

This logic of sexuation is duplicated in the contradictory options given in the Cartesian Cogito. According to Lacan's analysis, the Cogito creates a rupture between the pure form of the "I think" and the res cogitans, the substantial entity thought. What the Cartesian deduction actually performs is not to create an equivalence between a substanceless act of thought and the contentless thinking substance, but rather to posit a choice between the two. The two possible choices force the differentiation of sexual identities: the masculine choice is the choice of being, at the price of thinking; the feminine choice is the choice of thinking/acting, at the price of existence.

Feminist Critiques Of Lacan

It is apparently incumbent upon every feminist philosopher abreast of the French scene to develop her own critique of "Lacan's phallocentrism." While whether Zizek would identify himself as a feminist is not clear, he is certainly a loyal son of Lacan, and hence will have nothing of these critiques. Zizek quite correctly points out that the stock feminist critique of Lacan that he maintains patriarchy by excluding women from subjective participation in the Symbolic Order has no more than misunderstood Lacan. As pointed to above, the exclusion of feminine subjectivity from the Symbolic is mirrored in a masculine barring of subjectivity as condition of entry into the Symbolic. The exclusive masculine and feminine choices are that of being and that of thought, but neither allows for a thinking-being within the Symbolic.

Butler, on the other hand, launches her own critique of Lacan (and Freud) in her chapter "The Lesbian Phallus." After first dismissing Kristeva's false hypostasization of the maternal body at the site of the unsymbolizable Real, Butler explores the Lacanian construction of a bodily imago. What is at issue in Butler's discussion is whether despite the fact that "Lacan explicitly denounces the possibility that the phallus is a body part the penis (p.73)" he covertly smuggles back in a biologism within the "phantasmatic figure of the phallus (p.73)." In essence, Butler argues that such an error is made by Lacan on the basis of an ambiguity between the Imaginary and Symbolic position of the phallus, as between "The Mirror Stage" and "The Signification of the Phallus." If "what operates under the sign of the symbolic may be nothing other than precisely that set of imaginary effects which have become naturalized (p.79)" then, indeed, a particular imaginarily invested (masculine) bodily organ may become determinative of the Symbolic Order. But this seems like a mere misreading on Butler's part it amounts to an insistence that Lacan must maintain all the tenets of "The Mirror Stage" while reworking them in "Signification;" Butler apparently merely refuses to recognize the fundamental epistemological break which occurred in Lacan (if she merely observes that "The Mirror Stage" is wrong, so what? Lacan himself was its most radical critic).

Other Topics

The few points of intersection between Zizek and Butler discussed in this small space are only a tiny portion of the wonderful explorations in either book not even encompassing everywhere the two intersect. For example, in her chapter "Arguing with the Real," Butler explicitly challenges Zizek's Sublime Object of Ideology in it's construction of the Real outside of Symbolization suggesting this fantastic otherness is really a ruse for what patriarchy simply does not want to acknowledge. Elsewhere, Butler provocatively reads Zizek's provocative reading of Kripke's rigid designators - suggesting that both fail to recognize the originary role of patronyms in all naming. All such intersections are well worth reading, although space does not permit more explication here.

Similarly worth reading are the quite spectacular ventures Zizek takes into territories not covered in his earlier books. Tarrying With The Negative marks the book at which Zizek first reaches back through his usual defense of Hegel against Hegel's defenders, to produce a quite stunning reading of Kant. Or again, were anyone else to argue Zizek's claim that the series of operatic composers Monteverdi, Gluck and Mozart exactly parallels the successive articulation of subjectivity through Descartes, Kant and Hegel, we would surely gape in disbelief. But somehow, when Zizek presents it it seems so natural that we wonder how anyone could fail to see such a thing.

Butler is also not without quite a number of novel readings of culture, ranging from Jennie Livingston's film Paris is Burning, to the writings of Willa Cather and Nella Larsen, to post-gay-rights movements such as Queer Nation. In all of these readings one finds refreshing appropriations of the works, which reflect Butler's underlying theoretical concerns. Still, one isn't left with quite the feeling of a consistent project one is when reading Zizek; clearly many of Butler's concerns are shared across her various readings, but whether each of these readings could really be unified into a common theoretical understanding is unclear. With Zizek, in Tarrying, as with his other books, every unexpected turn into surprising areas of analysis carries with it a clear relation to the "Zizek-ian project." For all her originality, it is still not yet possible to speak in the same way of a similar Butler-ian project.