Thursday, 20 March 2008

Žižek's fathers and the children of psychoanalysis

I recently saw Žižek ! -- well, actually, I saw some clips on YouTube first. One particularly struck me, a clip of Žižek being interviewed on Nitebeat. You can see it here:

(You'll find it about 5 minutes in, though the rest is very illuminating, and entertaining, too.)

All very clever, and all very funny. It's the charming, counter-intuitive, Slavoj Žižek, after all. But something disturbed me about that Nitebeat clip, and not just the slappable puppet that hosts it, Barry Nolan. (Lacan makes Freud sound like a simple Valley Girl?!? How, in the name of... No. Nevermind. I don't know how these things work.)

No, what's really troubling is Žižek's ideas on fatherhood.

I'm not talking about the clips, near the end, where we see Žižek with his own son. Far be it from me to judge, and as I'm a father myself, I know better than to offer prescriptions. (More on that later, no doubt. Suffice to say for now that I sometimes sign myself as 'Laius'.) I'm talking about Žižek's ideas that he raises on Nitebeat in relation to his book, The Puppet and the Dwarf. Here, Žižek gives us two fathers to consider: the 'postmodern' father and the 'good, old fashioned totalitarian father'.

Žižek's 'postmodern' father uses emotional blackmail to get his son to do his bidding. The 'postmodern' father is treacherous, getting into his son's head, convinving him that he really does want to go to Grandma's house. 'You know how much she loves you...'. The good, old-fashioned totalitarian father, on the other hand, is rather more straight-forward in his approach. We are going to Grandma's and you may not like it but tough. He is authoritarian, yes, but does not manipulate on his son. He is not devious. He gets his son to do his bidding through good old fashioned beatings, for example. But I'm not going to complain about Žižek's apparent endorsement of corporal punishment.

We aren't left in any doubt as to which father Žižek prefers. The good, old-fashioned totalitarian father is more honest. He is a rogue, he is counter-intuitive, he doesn't play by the rules of that new authoritarianism, political correctness, but we love his cuddly brutishness. But he is not -- and this is where I get troubled -- an Oedipal father, not in the psychoanalytic sense

The 'postmodern' father (and here's why I explain why I've been insisting on the inverted commas) isn't 'postmodern' at all, but is actually just very liberal. As in the 19th century notion of the word. As in a way that Jeremy Bentham might recognise. Why Bentham? Because Bentham invented the panopticon, which gave the world a vision of the carceral society, and of our modern (and 'postmodern', if you must) prison guard, censor, educator, father -- the figure of authority internalised. And it is this father whose children can be psychoanalysed.

The way I see it, if all fathers were Žižek's totalitarian fathers, there would be no psychoanalysis. The totalitarian father's children don't need psychoanalysis, because they don't internalise law of the father; the father and his law are sitting right there, to stop the child from doing whatever it is his unimpeded id is telling them to do. And when the child can get away with it, later, when Daddy's not watching, he will. This child is not self-policing. He has no superego, no resistance, no internal conflict.

Ok, they would do, really, of course, but not in the same way. This coneption of the internalised authority is an invention, and is in fact proving to be one of the most enduring technologies of the 19th century. And that conception of authority, of power as hidden away inside, is a pre-requisite for psychoanalysis.
For psychoanalysis was another invention, a technology that was devised to analyse those children of liberal father's who got into their sons' heads, those children who internalised the voice of authority -- the superego -- and who then churned out all that delicious stuff of analyses.

As Foucault might say -- oh yes, this is where I've been going for some time now -- the liberal father is a necessary condition of possibility for psychoanalysis. So Žižek pines for his authoritarian Daddy (and make no mistake, he does adore a Stalinist), but it troubles me that he so easily dismisses the role played by the key character in the psychoanalytic drama.

'Maybe it works as a strategy, at a certain point,' he says earlier in the above YouTube clip about Lacan, without a hint of irony. 'First you need to seduce people with obscure statements, but I hate this kind of approach. I am a total Enlightenment person. I believe in clear statements, and so on.' Yes, he does. But he seems instead to want to seduce us with the outrageous, un-PC counter-intuitive statement. Which is fine. Everyone's got to have a marketing angle now, I suppose. But we can't let these pass unanalysed.

Too long for a blog post, no doubt. I'm learning the form. Give me time


  1. I think Zizek's use of postmodern in relation to the father was with his own twist of irony. He is himself critical of post-modernism (witness his treatment of Judith Butler in this same documentary) and has been working to revive ideology (and succeeding in many ways) when it was under so much pressure from the post-structuralist slippages of word, image, text and so on.
    I suppose Zizek's needs a authoritarian father as the blunt instrument of ideology. His approach does not work so well when cast in a simulacrum of never ending symbolic systems, or the spectacle relations of the commodity folding in on themselves in the never ending internalization of artificial desire.

  2. Yes, he could be being ironic, agree. That's, I think, how most people take it. Surely there's a wink in there somewhere. But I'm just not sure anymore. And as you say, his approach necessitates a good, strong authoritarian father...

  3. i think one of the problems Zizek could be addressing is that without a father who is openly hostile it becomes more difficult to retaliate. Zizek doesn't suggest that totalitarianism is the ideal way for society to function, but that it is difficult to transcend the status quo or even comment on it, when your enemy is invisible and his methods and agenda disguised. his methods and agenda being the simulacrum and internalization or artificial desire...