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Zizek makes sense of the past for future purposes

The Most Sublime Hysteric: Hegel With Lacan 

by Slavoj Zizek

(Polity Books, £17.99)

CHARISMATIC, convincing, authoritative, amusing, blunt and somewhat intimidating — there is a danger with writers like Slavoj Zizek that we may be so in awe of their intellect we accept their ideas without question. 

This is particularly ironic as one of the main issues Zizek examines in this book is the problem of totalitarian dictatorship. 

As with the majority of complex philosophy, in order to fully understand Zizek’s ideas one must absorb much of the information without question until the full picture is revealed, inviting further unfortunate parallels with dictatorship. 

This is particularly true as Zizek explores the links between the infamously opaque ideas of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the work of the 18th-century philosopher Friedrich Hegel. 

The book’s examination of complex and dense concepts has the potential of course to make it impenetrable and, at worst, very dull. But Zizek’s playful writing style presents the reader with apposite and amusing examples, from Franz Kafka to Jane Austen, which clarify and enliven his arguments.

They focus on the link between Hegel’s dialectics and Lacan’s ideas of signification. By re-thinking the orthodox idea of dialectics and demonstrating its similarity to Lacan’s concept of the “point de caption” (“anchor points”) Zizek concludes that history is not a simple continuous progression of coherent events. 

Instead he asserts that we construct and understand history through watershed moments that allow us to look back over our chaotic past in a newly — and apparently coherent — light and create a sense of unity. 

Zizek’s poignant examples offer fascinating and alarming validations of this idea. Thus St Paul’s reassessing of the crucifixion of Jesus is not viewed as a terrible fatal blunder but as the substitutionary atonement for humanity’s sins which brought new meaning to the muddled Christian faith and Adolf Hitler’s “Jewish conspiracy” explained Germany’s post-war disarray and served to unify the Third Reich behind anti-semitism.

This perspective of history as a narrative which retroactively receives meaning is used to build a critique of the modern political and ideological landscape. 

Zizek explores the interaction of “good” and “evil” as well as the relationship between systems of governance, particularly totalitarian ones, and the people they supposedly represent. 

In truth there is too much information in The Most Sublime Hysteric for one, or even several, readings. Zizek’s book bursts with reflection, observation, wit and raw iconoclastic conclusions. 

Perhaps we do need to be wary of placing our faith in charismatically persuasive thinkers but, in the current climate of political apathy and intellectual stagnation, Zizek’s magnetic style and radical ideas are a welcome and inspiring breath of fresh air. 

It is possible that through revealing how we make sense of our past The Most Sublime Hysteric may help us to cultivate a better future. 

Steve Richards

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