Literary and Critical Theory Slavoj Žižek
by
Jamil Khader
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0080

Introduction

Slavoj Žižek was born on March 21, 1949, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in the former Yugoslavia. Žižek studied philosophy and sociology as an undergraduate student and completed a master of arts degree in philosophy in 1975 at the University of Ljubljana, writing a 400-page thesis on French structuralism. In 1981, he earned his first doctor of arts degree in philosophy, writing his dissertation on German idealism. Four years later, Žižek successfully defended his second doctoral dissertation titled, “Philosophy Between the Symptom and the Fantasy,” a Lacanian reading of Hegel, Marx, and Kripke, which he completed under the direction of Lacan’s son in law, Jacques-Alain Miller, in Paris. Žižek is one of the most prominent members of the Ljubljana Lacanian School, a group of theorists who have been affiliated with the Society for Theoretical Psychoanalysis in Ljubljana since the 1970s. Žižek also cofounded the Liberal Democratic Party in Slovenia and ran as its candidate in the first multiparty presidential elections in the country in 1990, narrowly missing office. Later, he completely broke with Slovene public space and became engaged in global radical Leftist politics. He is currently a researcher in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana; the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London; Eminent Scholar at the Kyung Hee University, Seoul; returning faculty member of the European Graduate School; and visiting professor at the German Department of New York University. Since 1991 he has also held visiting positions at different universities in the United States and United Kingdom. He is also the editor of three major book series, including WO ES WAR, Short Circuits, and SIC Series. In 2012, Foreign Policy listed Žižek as one of its top influential 100 global thinkers, and in 2018 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Círculo de Bellas Artes (Madrid, Spain). Ever since the publication of his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, in 1989, Žižek has become known as one of the most provocative and innovative philosophers in the world. Žižek has developed a challenging dialectical materialist philosophical system that appropriates the late Lacan to reload and retrieve Hegel through Marxism, Christianity, and quantum physics in order to describe the structure of reality (ontology) and to articulate the basis for collective revolutionary change through a wide range of cultural, folkloric (jokes), literary, religious, political, scientific, and philosophical references. Žižek has published extensively, almost a monograph a year, on a wide range of topics, and has been engaged in many debates and controversies that attest to his commitment to reformulating the questions that philosophers, psychoanalysts, political scientists, activists, and the general public have been asking about common everyday notions about reality and its relationship to the subject. Žižek has consequently established a phenomenal presence in the lecture circuits, online, and in the media that has made him a household name and one of the most iconic international public figures and philosophers in the world.

General Overviews

Lucid and comprehensive book-length overviews that do not presuppose any prior knowledge of Žižek’s dialectical materialist philosophical system, its central themes, key Hegelian and Lacanian terms, and major intellectual and conceptual sources (Lacan, Hegel, and Marx) can be found in Myers 2003, Kul-Want and Piero 2011, Sheehan 2012, and Wood 2012. Myers 2003 approaches Žižek’s work by focusing on the question of identity and the subject; Kul-Want and Piero 2011 focuses on Žižek’s politics, and Sheehan 2012 focuses on the intellectual sources that influenced his work. Sheehan 2012 also provides brief summaries of many books by Žižek, while Wood 2012 provides book-by-book chapter summaries and analysis of Žižek’s work up to its publication date. More critical introductions, which are intended for more advanced audiences, are in Kay 2003, Butler 2005, and Parker 2004. Kay 2003 and Butler 2005 emphasize Žižek’s approach to the Real, and Parker 2004 examines the interrelationship among Žižek’s intellectual sources and the theories that shaped his work. Pound 2008 provides a useful general introduction to Žižek’s work for religious studies students and scholars.

  • Butler, Rex. Slavoj Žižek – Live Theory. London and New York: Continuum, 2005.

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    A sophisticated chronological account of Žižek’s philosophy and its overall goal in terms of the function of the master-signifier in the ideological field. Examines the master-signifier, through which the ideological construction of reality is presented as a seamless whole, in relation to the object a as a stand in for the Real and their relationship to the political act. Contains a useful chapter on Žižek’s debate with Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau and a live interview with Žižek.

  • Kay, Sarah. Žižek: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2003.

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    An advanced introduction to Žižek as the “philosopher of the Real.” Examines the manifestation of the Real in the cultural field, sexual difference, the ethics of psychoanalysis, and the political act. Shows that the value and importance of Žižek’s ideas must be understood in the overall context of his egalitarian politics and his rejection of cynical postmodernism. Provides a useful glossary of major Žižekian terms.

  • Kul-Want, Christopher, and Piero. Introducing Slavoj Žižek: A Graphic Guide. London: Icon Books, 2011.

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    A brief graphic illustration of Žižek’s political thought through his analysis of the underlying ideological causes of the world’s crises and catastrophes. Illuminates Žižek’s position on the ecology, poverty, consumerism, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, and the law through the Hegelian notion of incomplete reality. Presents the liberating aspect of his philosophy in relation to the struggle for the commons, immoral (authentic) forms of ethics, and revolutionary ethics.

  • Myers, Tony. Slavoj Žižek. Routledge Critical Thinkers. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

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    A clearly written and accessible introduction to Žižek’s work for the uninitiated through an examination of the questions of identity and subjectivity that bind his work together. Offers a concise explanation of Žižek’s debt to Hegel, Marx, and Lacan and analyzes the political and ethical implications of the subject in its different hegemonic forms, including postmodern, ideological, gendered, or ethnic identities or subjects. A “Further Reading” chapter offers brief summaries of Žižek’s major individually authored books in English.

  • Parker, Ian. Slavoj Žižek – A Critical Introduction. London: Pluto Press, 2004.

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    A polemical introduction to the intellectual sources of Žižek’s work (Hegel, Lacan, and Marx). Provides a useful biographical context for understanding Žižek and explains how the key concepts of each theory (history, subject, politics) relate to each other and why they are important to understanding Žižek’s work. Offers a useful summary of the existing critical responses to Žižek and the objections to his heterodox readings of Hegel, Marx, and Lacan.

  • Pound, Marcus. Žižek: A (Very) Critical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2008.

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    A comprehensive and systematic introduction to Žižek’s work for religious studies scholars that examines theological motif and themes in Žižek’s philosophical thought, psychoanalytic theory, and politics. Scrutinizes Žižek’s repeated references to Christ, Job, Saint Paul via Alain Badiou’s theory of the political act, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in terms of Lacan’s formulae of sexuation. Explores the implications of Žižek’s work on enjoyment to anti-Semitism in the context of interreligious relations.

  • Sheehan, Sean. Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed. London and New York: Continuum, 2012.

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    A concise introduction to Žižek’s thought for the general reader through an easy and accessible explication of the major sources (Lacanian psychoanalysis, German Idealism, and Communism) that shaped his philosophy. Places Žižek’s thought in the larger context of these sources. References German Idealism beyond Hegel and relates Žižek’s Marxism to Lenin, Mao, Christianity in general, and Saint Paul in particular. Provides succinct summaries of varying lengths mainly of Žižek’s single-authored books in English.

  • Wood, Kelsey. Žižek: A Reader’s Guide. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

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    A lucid and comprehensive guidebook that provides book-by-book chapter summaries for Žižek’s single-authored books in English. An introductory chapter defines his key Hegelian and Lacanian terms (Absolute Knowledge, the Other, the split subject, fantasy, enjoyment, ideology, belief, the ethics of the Real, etc.) and outlines his major contributions to the discipline of traditional philosophy. Provides detailed summaries for twenty-four books and discusses the importance of the concept of singular universality to Žižek’s politics.

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