In a number of places Zizek argues that it is merely our belief that sustains social reality. As Zizek puts it in The Parallax View,

…how does shared meaning emerge? Through what Alfred Schutz called “mutual idealization”: subjects cut the impasse of endless probing into “do we all mean the same thing by ‘bird’?” by simply taking it for granted, presupposing, acting as if they do mean the same thing. There is no language without this “leap of faith”.

This presupposition, this “leap of faith” should not be conceived, in the Habermasian vein, as the normativity built into the functioning of language, as the ideal for which the speakers (should) strive: far from being an ideal, this presupposition is the fiction, the as if…, that sustains language– as such, it should be undermined again and again in the progress of knowledge… its “truth effect,” its positive role of enabling communication, hinges precisely on the fact that it is not true, that it jumps ahead into fiction– its status is not normative because it cuts the debilitating deadlock of language, its ultimate lack of guarantee, by presenting what we should strive for as already accomplished. (51-2)

What holds for the institution of meaning in language, holds likewise for any social institution. It is merely our beliefs, this leap of faith, that sustains these institutions. When Lacan says that there is no Other of the Other, he is essentially claiming that there is no authority, no outside, no sovereign that legislates truth and meaning after the fashion of Descartes’ God that establishes mathematical and natural truth. Thus, when Christian nationalists argue that “marraige, by definition, is between a man and a woman” and appeal to a dictionary, etc., it is clear that they are appealing to an Other of the Other to make such an argument. The joke, of course, is that dictionaries are not authorities but take their authority from the speakers of the language.

I confess that I find this line of thought very attractive as it suggests that if only we give up our belief in certain institutions, these institutions will dissipate and float away like so much fog. This is the paradox of the social: It transcends individuals but exists only in and through individuals. However, as David has pointed out in response to one of my other posts, it is possible that Zizek has a “hopelessly outdated conception of belief.” It seems to me that there are at least three major difficulties with Zizek’s conception of belief:

  • Systemic Interdependence: The paradox of the social is that it is composed entirely of individuals and without substance of its own, but nonetheless transcends any single individual in isolation. In a manner similar to Stephen Johnson’s conception of emergence, social institutions are composed only of elements but cannot be reduced to their elements. It might very well be that only our beliefs sustain social institutions, but changing my beliefs alone will not dissipate the efficacy of the social. Thus, heeding what Zizek here argues, I might resolve to heretofore use the word “dog” to refer to my cats (I actually do this). The problem is that others about me immediately push back, correcting my error and regulating me to return to the conventional usage. That is, I encounter the phenomenon of social feedback. Of course, I might eventually win the others responding to me over and they might accept my convention or treat it as merely a silly idiosyncracy of my character, but the point is that it is not up to me alone. The big Other certainly does not exist, but it does produce effects. This is what makes the question of change so difficult. It seems that in order for social change to be possible, it must occur all at once or not at all. The attractive counter to this thesis would be that all sorts of micro changes can be produced, eventually generating a breaking point, much like the way speciation occurs through population isolation where eventually two populations that once belonged to the same species can no longer reproduce with one another.

    Irreversability: It seems to me Zizek’s conception of belief fails to take into account the arrow of time. Perhaps my assumption that others mean what I mean is only based on belief, but looking at an institution like language, is it possible for me to suspend my belief in language altogether? That is, once I’ve acquired language can I unacquire language through anything short of a serious accident? Is it possible for me to cease thinking linguistically? It seems that once language is there it is irreversable, such that while it perpetually mutates and changes in the course of my speaking the one thing I can’t do is undo language altogether. This would seem to be the same with many other social institutions as well, such that once they have established themselves we cannot return to the prior state (though new states can emerge). This brings me to the third problem:

  • Habitus: It seems to me that Zizek attributes too much efficacy to propositional attitudes or mental judgments. That is, Zizek seems to labor under what Bourdieu would call a certain intellectualism or subjectivism with regard to social institutions. Here I think Bourdieu’s conception of habitus provides a far more accurate picture of just how social institutions sustain themselves:



“One of the major functions of the notion of habitus is to dispel two complementary fallacies each of which originates from the scholastic vision: on the onehand, mechanism, which holds that action is the mechanical effect of the constraint of external causes; and, on the other, finalism, which, with rational action theory, holds that the agent acts freely, consciously, and, as some of the utilitarians say, ‘with full understanding’, the action being the product of a calculation of chances and profits. Against both of these theories, it has to be posited that social agents are endowed with habitus, inscribed in their bodies by past experiences. These systems of schemes of perception, appreciation and action enable them to perform acts of practical knowledge, based on the identification and recognition of conditional, conventional stimuli to which they are predisposed to react; and, without any explicit definition of ends or rational calculation of means, to generate appropriate and endlessly renewed strategies, but within the limits of the structural constraints of which they are the product and which define them.” (Pascalian Meditations, 138)

Of course, Zizek, approaching these issues from the side of psychoanalysis and in light of the unconscious, Zizek does not fall on the side of the utilitarians, yet there does seem to be something strongly intellectualist in his conception of social institutions. Elaborating elsewhere on habitus, Bourdieu remarks:


The habitus, a product of history, produces individual and collective practices– more history –in accordance with the schemes generated by history. It ensures the active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes of perception, thought and action, tend to guarantee the ‘correctness’ of practices and their constancy over time, more reliably than all formal rules and explicit norms. This system of dispositions– a present past that tends to perpetuate itself into the future by reactivation in similarly structured practices, an intral law through which the law of external necessities, irreducible to immediate cvonstraints, is constantly exerted –is the principle of the continuity and regularity which objectivism sees in social practices without being able to account for it; and also of the regulated transformations that cannot be explained either by extrinsic, instantaneous determinisms of mechanistic sociologism or by the purely internal but equally instantaneous determination of spontaneist subjectivism.” (The Logic of Practice, 54)

The point to note here is that these schemes of action, perception, taste, etc., are inscribed in the very body of subjects in a non-reflective and unconscious manner (though not in the Lacanian sense of “unconscious”) that is quite different than a propositional attitude or belief. Here we have the subject producing the social and the social producing the subject in endless feedback loops that become self-regulating as an emergent system, while still allowing for deviations and new emergences.

It seems that this level of organization is lacking altogether from Zizek’s discussions of ideology. It could be that we here have something of a “parallax”, where if we adopt the perspective of habitus or micro-power, ideological formations become entirely impossible to see , and where if we adopt the perspective of ideology, habitus becomes indiscernable. How might we think this gap? And what repurcussions does admitting something like habitus have for the Lacanian conception of the subject?

About these ads