Obligingly Noxious

Slavoj Žižek, Disparities

Bloomsbury, 456pp, £19.99, ISBN 9781474272704

reviewed by Stuart Walton

Halfway through his latest theoretical work, Slavoj Žižek undergoes an exploratory colonoscopy. Naturally, he does nothing so dull as share its results with us, but is more fascinated by the fact that, after the procedure, the consultant discreetly offers him a DVD of the examination. What on earth is one expected to do with it? Žižek wonders whether it might make a nice change to the bill of fare on the nights he gets together with old friends to watch a classic film. Playing next in this house: 'a deep journey into the innermost core of my being.' Such self-examinings are the late manifestation of the classical injunction to 'Know thyself', written above the entrance to the sacred precinct at Delphi and now apparently at the contemporary metaphysician's rectal entrance.

Disparities is the most recent substantial volume of Žižek's continuing panoptical address to global modernity. The angle this time is the notion of discrepancy, disagreement, discordance, the inequality of terms in an equation, that not only sustains the movement of the dialectical process, but provides a multiplicity of unusual focal points from which to view the densely meshed network of capitalist reality. Disparities are the holes torn in this network, but they also expose the lacks and inconsistencies in the subject doing the viewing, who has not, at least since Hegel, been the autonomous sovereign perceiver, but a part of torn reality in himself. Žižek follows this notion through a framework loosely modelled on the old Platonic ideals of the true (ontology, epistemology), the beautiful (aesthetics) and the good (theology and politics).

The opening section considers what has happened to the scientific basis of knowledge in postmodernity, a moment in which humanity has attained the apogee of its power in the paradoxical form of having lost control over the natural world. If the human narrative, including the evolution of consciousness and the development of symbolic systems, has been all about progress in the domination of nature, the circle has now been closed. Environmentalism's concern that we see the big picture is briskly dismantled by Žižek, who takes it as axiomatic that the big picture results from using precisely the wrong lens. 'The greatest power of our mind is not to see more,' he writes, 'but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations.'

Self-reflexiveness as a principle is woven throughout Žižek's work, but the point is always to take it one stage further back. The true nature of reality is not just the hidden In-itself that one doesn't see; it includes the fact that one doesn't see that one doesn't see it. Much the same principle applies to language: it isn't just that language misses the essence of things, but that it is specifically constituted as antagonistic, distorting, incomplete – and from this, subjectivity emerges. Extending this point to the administrative Real, Žižek writes that the jouissance generated by state bureaucracy is a by-product of its own deliberate failures, its strategies of evasion and obfuscation. The law of inherent transgression states that things are not supposed to work, a point already comprehensively grasped by Kafka, and that should give comfort to all those standing in static queues the world over.

In the aesthetic context, the book turns to Julia Kristeva's theory of the abject, Adam Kotsko's recent work on creepiness (a late manifestation of Freud's Unheimlich), and Adorno's notion of the beautiful as a direct historical outgrowth of the ugly. Žižek turns his attention from Hegel's much-disputed thesis of the end of art to the vacant gazes of Manet's portrait subjects, which in looking at the world – or at us – and apparently seeing nothing, prepare the way for a non-figurative art that will show precisely nothing. The 19th century brought reality into fiction in the realist novel, but our own age has prescribed the need to see the fictive moment in reality, whether in the lies of commercial advertising or the staging of monstrous political events such as 9/11.

The chapters on religion are among the most provocative, and luminously insightful, in the book. Žižek, an atheist who is a better Christian theologian than most Christian theologians, points out that the innermost component of authentic religion is not certainty but doubt, so that the believer is repeatedly surprised by signs of the divine presence. Religions have been supremely adept at sidestepping, disregarding or violently prosecuting attempts to shine light on their incongruities and contradictions, but only Christianity has incorporated such moments of disparity into its own canons. It has a moment of candid atheism in the cry of Christ on the cross, and its cosmological structure appears to represent the self-cancelling of a God or god who has not, as Nietzsche thought, been put out of his misery by the vanguard of the free, but has deposed himself.

In a fittingly incendiary conclusion, Žižek stages another eternal return to the dialectic. Instead of reading history dialectically, as we were taught by Marx, should we not rather read dialectics itself historically, recognising that its various transformations are applicable to different stages of the class struggle? And then Badiou pops up, urging us to forsake the destructive fury of negativity for a positive vision, against which present social and political convulsions can be measured, exactly what isn't available in the inarticulate post-political universe. Like a man possessed with the spirit of decluttering, Žižek throws that out, along with the idea of political development as a series of historical stages – there is no higher stage to which we are always about to move up, only the present lower stage in which we flounder about – and the bourgeois principle of equality, already exposed as a false idol by Marx and Engels, but still living on a radioactive half-life in the protocols of appalled liberalism.

Suffering, Žižek concludes bracingly, is not a life-lesson, as postwar existentialism thought, an educative experience through which we must pass on the way to becoming whole men and women, but is strictly useless and pointless, something to be survived only. This insight is hardly new, but bears repeating in all ages. For every humanist idiot claiming that there is something of value to be salvaged from the greatest adversity, even Auschwitz, there is already a Schopenhauer, a Beckett, an Adorno – a Shakespeare, for that matter – to read the indictment. History is not a reclamation process, but something like Hegel's slaughterbench or Marx's nightmare, from which human self-realisation might emerge only if we can perceive and exploit its disparities.

The book is written with Žižek's characteristic mix of minutely detailed philosophical analysis, film synopses, anecdotes and jokes. He remains one of the world's most brilliant expositors of Hegel, and a devoted apostle of Jacques Lacan, and there is rather more of the latter than the former this time out. As Terry Eagleton observed in a Guardian review, Žižek has made a virtue of being interested in everything, which is not always the best literary strategy. Followers will note that the move to Bloomsbury from Verso, his longstanding publisher of serious theory, has not resulted in the detailing of a junior editor to cut-and-paste all the superfluous definite articles into the gaps where they are conspicuously missing, but it would make the text sound less like him if they did.

The spectral absence throughout, however, is Theodor Adorno. He does crop up evanescently here and there, but the notions of a lack of correspondence at the heart of representational systems, the historical morphologies of the dialectical process, and the thoroughgoing refusal of the existentialist account of suffering, as compared with those of Kafka and Beckett, are geological layers of the Frankfurt master's work. In the formative days of his academic career in the late 1970s, Žižek undertook an intensive engagement with the work of the Frankfurt School and its late-Marxist critique of ideology, but then a period of study under Lacan in Paris shifted his perspectives in a psychoanalytic direction. Might one suggest that a book-length study of Adorno's negative dialectics from Žižek might now seem fresher and more fruitful than another rehearsal of the formulas of sexuation?

In the meantime, he remains a Dionysian figure, rancorous and playful by turns, permanently transmutative, obligingly noxious to liberals and credal Marxists alike. His recent intervention in the US presidential election, in which he declared that he would have voted for Trump against the continuity candidate of a degraded political establishment, produced exactly the mixture of dull-witted indignation and dismissive incredulity in which nearly all contemporary political consciousness is now stuck fast. Be he ever so repellent to mainstream reasonableness as Marmite, or as thinly spread, Žižek is still a virtuoso of subversion.