Slavoj Žižek's newest book Freedom: A Disease without Cure was released earlier this month on October 5th, and this week's edition of Samsara Diagnostics brings you a review of that book. I'm trying to use book reviews to force myself to read more, so thanks for being a part of keeping me accountable to read more books!
This piece is longer than my usual weekly pieces, so if you'd prefer, you can listen to a recording of this review. I apologize for the lower quality of the audio for this week's recording, as I had to compress the file to stay within the limitations of my package with Ghost. Thanks for your understanding!
Why I am (slightly) embarrassed talking about Žižek, but can't help talking about him anyways
Slavoj Žižek has been publishing so many books lately that I haven't been able to keep up on them all. I wonder if he's feeling his age – he was born in 1949 – and has been sensing the need to clarify himself? I think though that I'd prefer to believe that he's writing so much because we live in such an immensely fruitful moment in history for philosophical reflection.
Žižek's idiosyncratic method of reading Hegel's metaphysics and Lacan's psychoanalysis together is more relevant than ever for helping us attain a liberating perspective within our present moment, defined as it is by an increasing acceleration of technological transformation and proliferating alternative realities.
I need to admit up front that I am never quite sure about how to feel when I publicly write or talk about Žižek. As I write this, I am fighting back a temptation to engage in a too open expression of my true feelings, which are those of an unabashed fan. I love Žižek's work, have profited from it immensely, and I am willing to say without hesitation that I believe he is one of the few living philosophers people will still be reading 100 years from now.
However, because Žižek is regarded as trendy today, it can feel embarrassing to openly wade into the ever-expanding Žižek discourse. Žižek studies is overcrowded, and constitutes a highly mimetic field, much like the oversaturated markets which Peter Thiel cautions entrepreneurs against in his Zero to One. At the very least, I wouldn't advise trying to start a theory YouTube channel or newsletter with Slavoj Žižek as your centerpiece. There's just too much competition out there, in my opinion.
Ultimately though, I cannot betray my roots – reading Žižek's The Ticklish Subject in my senior year of college was a revelation for me, and devouring every one of his books I could get my hands on irrevocably formed me as the thinker that I am today. I credit Žižek with introducing me to psychoanalysis, especially its Lacanian wing, helping me find my way out of the maze of Buddhism, and enabling me to boldly reclaim the unique value and efficacy of my Christian faith.
I'm delighted then that this latest book from Žižek, Freedom: A Disease without Cure, comes especially near and dear to my heart. This text takes as its theme the thread which runs through all my own work here at Samsara Diagnostics – freedom. What is freedom and how do we practice it? In what ways does freedom define the surprising contours of our lives as finite creatures, and how can we embrace that freedom rather than fleeing from it?
In Freedom, Žižek puts his mind and his pen to tackling these questions (and more) with his usual mixture of close readings of other philosophers, counter-intuitive insights and suggestions, and pop cultural references for illustration, but with all of these usual elements elevated to a new level of clarity and organization.
Where does this book fit in Žižek's work?
This review aims to introduce Žižek's main in Freedom, but before we dive into the details of the book's claims, I think it's important to place this work in the broader context of his entire project.
With over 45 single author works published over the last 30 years (and many more collaborations!), Žižek is a shockingly prolific writer who also manages to stay unwaveringly on theme. Žižek grew up in Slovenia under the USSR's Communist rule, he served in the Slovenian army for a time, and had to navigate the transition as a young academic from the fall of the Soviet Union to a newly freed and capitalist Slovenia. Underneath all the esoteric philosophy, cultural references, and dirty jokes, I read most of his work as grappling with these experiences.
His first breakout book The Sublime Object of Ideology delivered to an English audience the fruit of a decades long journey of attempting to use Lacan and Hegel to understand why communism had failed and why capitalism seems so inevitable. He closely observed the changes which accompanied the falling away of the old Communist social norms and political order, and how a new ecology of behaviors arose as capitalism moved in to fill that gap. This emphasis on the operation of the unspoken and implicit rules inherent to sociality continues to dominate his work, even this latest book.
More than anyone else, I think, Žižek has been a voice in the wilderness calling us to wake up to the fact that our supposedly "post-ideological" age where we are all self-conscious and aware of ideology is nonetheless the most ideological of all. His work leans heavily on psychoanalysis precisely because psychoanalytic theory uniquely equips us to see how what is repressed, sublimated, and lacking nonetheless manages to find a way to return in our lives.
Under the hegemony of global capitalist ideology and the complex of institutions which propagate it on this side of Fukuyama's proverbial "end of history," Žižek continuously raises the question of how our society's ideologies continue to function today. He wrestles with this question in the spirit of one struggling to give birth, wondering and inquiring about how we who, having become stuck, might once again bring forth something new. Why do we seem like we're sleep walking into disaster, and how can humanity rise to the myriad challenges we face today?
In Freedom, I think that Žižek takes some important steps forward in trying to formulate our contemporary experience of ideology and what that struggle for freedom looks like today. Through reference to Hegel's idea of the Absolute and to Lacan's interplay of lack and excess, Žižek tries to formulate how the experience of freedom unites the contradictions of liberty and compulsion, and he grounds this paradoxical experience in the fundamental incompleteness of the universe itself.
As a final side note – I wanted to point out that you will notice throughout the book numerous references to Adrian Johnston, a person you might not have heard of before. This book seems to have a side-conversation running through it in which some sections serve as the latest salvo in an ongoing sparring match between Žižek and Adrian Johnston (University of New Mexico), who was one of the first people to take Žižek seriously as a metaphysical thinker, not simply as a cultural critic.
Dr. Johnston has used Žižek's rising star to buoy his own career, and has attained lately the status of a regular conversation partner in Žižek's own written works. For Johnston's side of the story, I recommend this recent interview with Cadell Last. I won't be addressing in this review the particulars of their disagreement, so if you want to understand that dialogue better, you should start with the interview I linked above.
With that said, let's turn our attention to what Žižek is doing in this book.
On freedom as such and human freedom in particular
"From a Hegelian perspective, we should not limit freedom to a predicate of some entity: at the highest point of freedom, freedom itself is the subject... [emphasis added]" (page 8)
The experience of freedom is uncanny, because when we are gripped by freedom, it feels as though we cannot be anything other than free. We feel compelled by something greater than ourselves, and we become such that we cannot not do something. In the moment of freedom, we are made into an object which simply instantiate freedom's unwavering will through our contingent circumstances.
This freedom, Žižek contends, differs radically from the supposed liberty which is peddled by capitalist ideology in which we are free to have what we desire, we are free to engage in whatever acts we choose, and we are free from any external compulsion which we have not freely chosen. This ruse seemingly promises to return us to a certain naked authenticity where we can act and experience ourselves without any sort of alienation.
But if the contradictory experience of freedom which Žižek describes is more accurate than the version which is pushed by our capitalist society, then we must acknowledge that alienation is an essential part of freedom. We cannot have one without the other, for the subjective experience of freedom demands that we find ourselves as the instrument through which freedom as a subject actualizes itself in history. Indeed, it's only through this alienation that one attains the level of abstraction which allows them to step outside of the popular construal of their moment and to thereby notice and enact the alternative potentialities which it harbors.
In these respects, Žižek remains thoroughly Kantian in his account of freedom. The Kantian experience of ethical duty as the injunction that "you can because you must" fully operates here, and indeed takes on a new effulgence. The order of operations here is that the ability ('can') to be free flows from the fact that one cannot not be free ('must') when they find themselves in freedom's grip. In a paradoxical way then, the highest moment of freedom resembles doing one's duty.
The title "On freedom as such and human freedom in particular" borrows Žižek's own structured approach to the question of freedom.
He first addresses the question of freedom as such – what is the ground and possibility for freedom? What is this freedom which becomes subject in us as its object?
Secondly, he then proceeds to consider human freedom in particular, which is, of course, the only experience of freedom which we have access to. This human freedom includes all the obstacles, limitations, and alienations which from which capitalism proposes to free us, but which nonetheless ground the very possibility of our freedom.
In these two sections, the object and the subject diverge and circle back on each other, for we are asking both what the objective ground of freedom is which is becoming subject in us and also what it means to become a free subject who nonetheless experiences themselves as an object. In each iterative step of this journey, we are confronted by the abyss of our freedom which demands that we choose how to live under conditions of uncertainty. We must risk an intervention into the whole, knowing that the whole will inevitably be transformed by the next determinate moment we have inserted into its ever-growing chain.
On freedom as such...
Žižek has become well-known for his reliance on quantum physics to support and illustrate his metaphysical explanations. Quantum physics provides Žižek with a language for talking about the indeterminacy which science has encountered at the bedrock of what we think we understand about reality, and to thereby connect philosophical reflection to those befuddling scientific observations. Conversely, with the advent of quantum physics, we might say that science has also become increasingly meta-physical. As science discovers its own limits, it must fall to philosophy to theorize the function and implications of these conundrums.
According to contemporary research in quantum mechanics, quanta simultaneously exhibit behaviors like waves and particles, while also being neither waves nor particles. They only "collapse" into one of the two options upon our attempts to observe them. While we could take this observation in different directions (it sounds to me like this might contribute to the disagreement between Žižek and Johnston), Žižek appropriates recent research in quantum mechanics in order to theorize that the universe is fundamentally indeterminate within itself.
What is to be avoided, for Žižek, is the idea that this strange experience with quantum mechanics is the result of our ignorance of some underlying and rationally comprehensible phenomenon which we just haven't made sense of yet. Such a belief would speak to a dogmatic commitment to the ultimate rationality of all things, which cashes out into a concept of a universe which is totally determined and thus fully explicable in its own terms. Žižek's wager is instead that the source of this contradictory phenomenon which scientists have encountered in quantum mechanics is indeterminacy itself, not an as-yet unrecognized underlying process, and that it testifies to an ineliminable openness at the heart of reality.
Freedom is connected with this essential incompleteness of the universe, where things are not yet what they will be and at all times what could be remains surprisingly open. The dynamic whole of reality does not run on predetermined tracks which are generated through an inevitable adherence to its own rules, but that somehow the universe cannot fully close on itself, and that through the intervention of a subject (the scientist, in this case) does the essentially indeterminate becoming of the universe collapse into the next moment in the chain of determinate events.
... and human freedom in particular
During the second half of Freedom, Žižek attempts to embody his own method of Hegelian intervention by turning to consider salient aspects of various contemporary political situations, as well as their pregnant possibilities. While Žižek has a tendency to drop in liberal platitudes to signal to his Leftist censors that he really is one of them, he also risks making some very clear and controversial claims, so theorists in all positions on the political terrain will find something to delight them and to piss them off.
Ideology has always been a mainstay of Žižek's work – how does ideology function and where do we see it operating? – and in this first chapter of this second half he makes some fascinating comments which seem to be newer developments in his thought on this topic. In particular, he spends some time tracing the subtle shift in ideology's contemporary operation from symptom to fetish.
What does this mean? Ideology as symptom presents us with a model of ideology as an official narrative frame which represses something, and this repressed things returns in some quirk or discontinuity which the official narrative struggles to integrate. This symptom indicates the existence of a failure or lack in the ideology, and the work of the critical theorist is to trace this symptom back to its source in the material reality or antagonism which the ideology endeavors to suppress.
However, under a model of ideology as fetish, this newer cynical mode of ideology allows the knowledge of what is repressed to be public and widely circulated, and consequently the knowledge of what is repressed is precisely what disarms the power of the critique who seeks to uncover power's "dirty secret." There is no secret to hide, all is known, and everyone can go back to their business comforting themselves with the thought that at least they know the truth, even as they continue to act in accordance with the ideology.
Power's updated tactic in employing ideology as a fetish rather than a symptom has prompted some to seek a return to a second naïveté, to find a way to re-inhabit the old structures of subjectivity such as people, nation, land, and place which prior generations experienced as given but which we now experience as contingent and changeable under conditions of globally interconnected market societies.
This reaction seems to be driving an increasing societal fragmentation which Žižek describes as something akin to a technological neo-feudalism. He borrows Catherine Malabou's turn of phrases "unlimited horizontality" and "savage verticality" to describe this anarchic tendency in capitalism which is manifesting today in the increasing unbundling of the state's functions and the drive towards privatization into fiefdoms run by wealthy corporations and private individuals. The free individual today is becoming more and more bereft of the basic goods and safety nets afforded by sociality, and consequently must turn to organizations which can provide them with a functional substitute for the commons of old – for a price.
Against this trend towards the sovereign individual who, ironically, must make themselves reliant upon the benevolence of a private tyrant, Žižek spends the final chapter of the second section offering a challenging and impassioned plea for renewed reflection on the beneficial role of the state, both against Right populism as well as against Leftist emancipation, in the way that the state embodies for society the alienation which serves as the ground of its freedom.
I highly recommend wrestling with this chapter ("The State and Counter-Revolution" in particular, wherein Žižek simultaneously fully supports the Left's total exercise of power in the name of the common Good (such as during Covid or to suppress the events on January 6th), but concludes his extended meditation on the failures of Communism by instead proposing a need for the state to even oppose emancipatory politics in the name of universality. Only the state, he believes, can truly mitigate the excesses of the spirit of emancipation which animates the liberationist groups operating within the body politic. In short, the state must always remain separate from "the party."
By way of conclusion
Freedom: A Disease without Cure is one of Žižek's texts which I plan to return to time and again, and which I expect will fuel my reflection for a long time to come. My copy is riddled with underlines and marks as a testament to the torrent of insights which Žižek pummels his readers with. I'm left feeling that I understood the thrust of each chapter, but that I need to circle back to pick up all the rest of the gems which I wasn't able to gather along the way.
The question which Žižek raises in this book does not terminate simply at the individual experience of freedom, but I think especially that his chapter "The State and Counter-Revolution" raises in a brutal way how human beings must find the highest actualization of freedom in a collective political work. This is why, I think, Žižek wrestles so much with the paradoxical co-incidence of compulsion and freedom, and the crucial role that alienation through social structures plays in enabling this contradictory experience.
Once again, the question of the human as a political animal confronts us with the full breadth of its difficulty. The relationship between the free society and the free individuals who make up that society – they seem to be related like a Möbius strip. We find our ultimate freedom only through experiencing ourselves as the object of some greater freedom manifesting its will through us and in us, and what else could this freedom be but the social body coming to experience itself as free? And how else could society experience itself as a free subject but through the precarious labor of making of itself an object?
At every moment, we teeter on the abyss of freedom – How might we come to be free together?
A new episode of Samsara Audio was released this week, and it's surprisingly relevant to this book – I hosted Dimitri Crooijmans (Actual Spirit) to talk about his work in personalizing Hegel's method. You can watch the video here or you can listen on any major podcasting platform.
I recently rolled out a new way to support Samsara Diagnostics – you can buy Žižek's new book through this affiliate link at Bookshop.org. Every purchase at Bookshop.org directly supports local bookstores, and when you purchase from my affiliate link, I get a small cut too. As always, I also offer premium subscriptions which provide me with the funds I need to cover basic tech costs.
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