Birkbeck’s Big Ideas: Slavoj Žižek

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, of Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

Why do we so consistently act against our best collective interests? As the deleterious effects of climate change and the ecological disaster of unsustainable neoliberal models of economic growth become undeniable, why do so many of us take refuge in an affected cynicism, pouring scorn on plutocratic elites while allowing them to continue enriching themselves at the expense of the people and the planet? Why is our response to the democratic deficit evidenced by the crisis in the Eurozone and the global financial crisis one of weary resignation and sardonic inactiveness? In other words, how do we explain human passivity in the face of overwhelming provocation to organise, protest and affect change?

11004113_10155242752270634_1031773294_nBirkbeck’s Big Ideas events consider thought-provoking issues in history, politics, literature, education and philosophy. The current series of five lectures, delivered by Birkbeck and the Whitechapel Ideas Store, explore the work of the theorist Slavoj Žižek, wrestling with some of the philosophical challenges he has thrown at us and considering how he might help us interpret and change our contemporary moment.

Žižek is a something of a superstar and a ubiquitous presence, frequently publishing books (he currently has over 50 titles to his name), penning numerous articles, giving frequent lectures and interviews, and voicing his opinions on countless aspects of modern life. He is also the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. Although popular, prolific and perspicacious, Žižek is also a famously abstruse thinker, melding German philosophy, Marxist politics and French psychoanalysis to produce idiosyncratic analyses of present-day woes that can be wilfully dense, confusingly complex, blistering and enraged, ludic, larky and purposefully perverse. He is a thinker derided as much as he is admired, starkly dividing opinion with his fiercely erudite approach, his shabby prankster media persona and his forceful, contrary pronouncements.

The first lecture in the series introduced Žižek and considered how he is an important and useful thinker. After a useful biographical sketch from Dane Pedro, a PhD law student at Birkbeck, Jeff Smith-Hayzer of the Whitechapel Ideas Store, a self-proclaimed Žižek fanboy, elucidated some of the key ideas of the ‘Elvis of cultural theory’.

Žižek grew up in communist Slovenia and studied philosophy in Ljubljana and psychoanalysis in Paris. He is unfashionably Marxist, foregrounding the class struggle and deriding capitalism and its politics of consumerist passivity. Although Žižek’s theoretical concerns align him with other ‘postmodern’ thinkers, he is scornful of the idea that we exist in a ‘post-ideological’ world or that we have reached the ‘End of History’, as Francis Fukuyama famously termed it, in which liberal democracy and economics have rightly triumphed as the only effective, logical and ‘natural’ structures for governing and living. Instead, Žižek urges, we must creatively refuse political ‘realities’.

Deploying psychoanalytic frames of reference, Žižek considers how our unconscious fantasies structure reality. For Žižek, modern subjectivity and politics are characterised by a disavowal or split in which we deny or refuse to believe those things that we know. Central to Žižek’s work is a persistent questioning, an unpicking, of the assumptions that shape how we live our lives and his insistence that we traverse the fantasies that shape the Symbolic, the social world of language, ideology, relationships and the law (which Žižek, following the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, calls ‘the big Other’). For Žižek, these psychic mechanisms are appropriated and exploited by ideology and our knowing cynicism actually signifies our thrall to the big Other. The imperative we most guiltily obey these days is ‘Enjoy!’, but, for Žižek, the constrained freedom we exercise within power structures – our ‘freedom’ to choose this or that product, holiday, house – contrasts with the actual freedom to ‘choose the impossible’ and intervene to alter the status quo.

Professor Bill Bowring

Professor Bill Bowring

In the second lecture, Birkbeck’s Professor Bill Bowring considered what Žižek means when he deploys the notoriously slippery and difficult term ‘ideology’. Starting from the OED definition of ideology as a ‘system of ideas and ideals’, Bowring considered how ideology presents society and its institutions as unified, unitary, fixed, unchangeable, rational, natural and universal. We know that our politicians make terrible decisions, but we believe that, ultimately, our governing structures tend towards the good, disavowing the truth of our social reality. Bowring also considered how Žižek has modified and expanded Marx’s notion of ‘commodity fetishism’, which describes the reduction of human worth and social relationships to the level of economic and monetary value. Žižek takes commodity fetishism, by which the oppressive social relations that structure capitalism are made opaque, and aligns it with the Lacanian observation that we disavow that which we know while the fetish conceals the lack around which the Symbolic order is orientated. Bowring also explained how Žižek has taken Lacan’s observation that Marx invented the psychoanalytic notion of the symptom and made this idea central to his work. In psychoanalysis, repressed desires find alternative modes of satisfaction and emerge as symptoms, which are usually debilitating or detrimental to the individual, such as anxiety or obsessive compulsions. For Žižek, the symptom is a universal condition of human life that can never be overcome, only enjoyed, so his work focuses on uncovering those symptoms in culture and politics. This gives his work an almost limitless field of analysis and partly explains his famous intellectual profligacy.

The next lecture in the series will be on Tuesday 24 March when Maria Aristodemou, Senior Lecturer from the Birkbeck School of Law, will discuss how Žižek marshals the psychoanalytic theories of Lacan to explore how consumerism extends and exploits our unconscious fantasies.

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Interrogating the Social Unconscious

This post was contributed by Ceren Yalcin, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research (BISR).

The idea of the ‘unconscious’ is undoubtedly at the heart of psychoanalytic thinking.  Unconscious conflict, unconscious desire, unconscious mind, unconscious fantasy, unconscious thought – just to name a few derivatives of the term that can be found in Freud, Klein, Winnicott and other influential psychoanalytic thinkers. Most of these terms refer to the individual psyche, alluding to the existence of ideas that are ‘hidden’ from conscious knowledge but that nonetheless have force and motion (Frosh, 2012). What one barely hears is the term social unconscious.  As a person interested in both psychoanalysis and social theory, I was quite excited to hear about the study afternoon that wore the title “Interrogating the Social Unconscious “. The workshop was held on 25 October 2013 and was part of a series of events around the same topic organised by the Sociology, Psychoanalysis and Psychosocial Study Group, together with the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research. (If you, have missed the first event, like me, you can listen to the podcast).

So, what is the social unconscious ? And if there is the social unconscious does it mean that it is opposed to the individual unconscious? I was hoping to get some answers from the two eminent speakers that were invited to the workshop: Earl Hopper, a psychoanalyst and group analyst and Christopher Scanlon, a consultant psychotherapist and group analyst. To my disappointment, the two speakers had no intentions to provide us with ready-made answers. Instead, we were formed into small groups and got to discuss the concept ourselves. This, of course, was the idea behind the workshop. It gave us participants the chance to get our teeth into questioning, discussing and critiquing the readings we were given a few weeks prior to the event. Topics discussed in my seminar group centred on the question of how categories of the social such as class, culture and ethnicity might inform the unconscious, and most importantly to me as a training psychotherapist, why the social was often bracketed out in psychoanalytic training.

The question that has most intrigued me was concerned with the extent to which the concept of the social unconscious was developed as a rhetorical response to psychoanalysis. Weinberg (2007, p. 309) writes: “The idea of the social unconscious assumes that some specific hidden myths and motives guide the behaviour of a certain society or culture. It also assumes that a large group or society might use some shared defences. In the same manner that unconscious forces drive an individual without knowing it, a group, an organization or the entire society can act upon unconscious forces too”. I find this working definition of the social unconscious quite helpful as it shows the complexity of the unconscious mind. What I don’t like about it is the binary opposition it assumes between the social and the individual. The term ‘social unconscious’ suggests that there is an individual unconscious that is freed from societal, historical and cultural dynamics. I would agree with Dalal (2001, p. 554) who asserts that ‘the unconscious is constituted by the social at every level’. Earl Hopper’s (2001, p.10) definition sheds a different light onto the term: “The concept of the Social Unconscious refers to the existence and constraints of social, cultural and communicational arrangements of which people are unaware. Unaware, in so far as these arrangements are not perceived (not ‘known’), and if perceived not acknowledged (‘denied’), and if acknowledged, not taken as problematic (‘given’), and if taken as problematic, not considered with an optimal degree of detachment and objectivity.” What Hopper makes clear is that the social unconscious does not merely refer to the social aspects of individual unconscious. It is also not the same as the superego, or the Lacanian symbolic order. It is about shared fantasies, repressed memories, traumas and anxieties of a given group. Indeed, Earl Hopper made an insightful comment that afternoon on the fact that many participants were late to the study seminar so that we had to start 15 minutes later than planned. He asked what it was in the group’s social unconscious that had led many of its members come late. Was it the fact that the event, unlike the previous one, required a ticket? Or that the participants were made to work in groups themselves rather than being lectured? These questions give me an idea on what the term ‘social unconscious’ seeks to capture. The answers to the questions remain difficult though – but we might find out in the next event of this series!


Dalal, F. (2001) ‘The Social Unconscious: A Post-Foulkesian Perspective’, Group Analysis 34(4): 539–55.

Frosh, S. (2012). A brief Introduction of Psychoanalytic Theory. New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Hopper, E. (2001) ‘The Social Unconscious: Theoretical Considerations’, Group Analysis 34(1): 9–27.

Weinberg, H. (2007). So what is this social unconscious anyway? Group Analysis, 40(3), 307-322.

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Exploring psychoanalysis with Dr David Bell

This post was contributed by Ceren Yalcin, an intern at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

Following his popular lecture series about psychoanalysis, Dr David Bell, Visiting Fellow in the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR) and the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (BIH), answered questions at a special session for students and the wider public. The event was designed to address issues that might have remained unclear, and it generated a lively discussion with participants from various academic and professional backgrounds.

The following account does by no means provide an exhaustive summary of the event – it is rather a selection of questions and answers that I personally found most insightful.

Question 1: Did psychoanalysis retreat to the clinic?

Answer: It should be emphasised that psychoanalysis is a body of knowledge about the  mind and not “just” a form of treatment. Treatment is the application of psychoanalysis within a clinical context. The British Psychoanalytic Society, for example, has created an outreach committee in the last ten years. It is involved in the annual Psychoanalysis and Film programme. The Society also has an applied section with psychoanalysts, academics, and literary critics. Over the last ten years, the Society has put a lot of emphasis on showing that psychoanalytic thinking can be very relevant to understanding other spheres of social and cultural life.  (Those interested in this question, might find Stephen Frosh’s (2010) book “Psychoanalysis Outside the Clinic” useful).

Question 2: How does psychoanalysis understand the ‘the normal’ as opposed to ‘the abnormal’?

Answer: Psychoanalysis finds the normal in the abnormal. It sees abnormality as a perversion of normality, as revealing what is immanent inherent (is this right?)  in all of us. As Freud beautifully puts it, a breakdown is like a crystal smashing. If you drop a crystal it fragments but it does not fragment along random lines. It sheers along the lines of force that are already within the crystallized structure. In other words, the shattering shows inherent(?) immanent forces within the crystal like the breakdown.

Question 3: What is transference and why is it important in psychoanalytic treatment?

Answer: The concept of transference is not just relevant for the psychoanalytic setting (i.e. the consulting room). As Freud states, it occurs in classrooms when students develop feelings about their teachers or their peers who become like their siblings. The original metaphor Freud used to describe transference was that of a template.

We carry around templates and mould the objects around us to fit into templates. All of us have our particular tendencies. Some of us tend to idealise people, some of us tend to denigrate people, some of us tend to see things in people that other people do not see. We all invest significant people around us with powerful feelings that have their origin in our past.

These templates, called internal objects, exist within us and we project them on to other people. In the clinical setting the patient projects onto the analyst. The analyst tries to maintain neutrality without asking ‘why are you treating me like this?’. On the contrary, the analyst lets transference develop in order to understand the patient’s internal objects. Those interested in transference might want to read Freud’s papers “On Transference Love” and “The Dynamics of Transference”.

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The Cultural Relevance of Psychoanalysis: a Lecture by Professor David Bell

This post was contributed by Ceren Yalcin, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research.

Sigmund Freud wrote Civilization and Its Discontents between the two World Wars in 1929. Here, he posed questions such as why we are unhappy or why we act so destructively against others and often against our best interests. Surely, these were questions that came to mind in the aftermath of a devastating war that had cost so many lives and in anticipation of another human catastrophe that was beginning to show long before 1933. One can debate whether Freud delivers satisfactory answers to these questions in his book. But perhaps this says more about the world we live in than about Freud.

Professor David Bell, Training and Supervising psychoanalyst of the British Psychoanalytic Society and Visiting Professorial Fellow in both the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research (BISR) and the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (BIH), gave a highly stimulating lecture on some of the issues tackled by Freud. As he explained, the premise that Freud’s thoughts are based on is that people seek happiness, or at least, try to diminish unhappiness. However, this proves rather difficult as civilization necessitates the repression of the fundamental drives: sexuality and aggression. It is the latter that is at the core of Civilization and Its Discontents. For Freud, men have to inhibit natural aggression in order to form groups that guarantee survival. In order to live in a functioning society we have to supress this part of our nature. Humankind exchanges happiness for security, Freud writes. What happens though is that the aggression suppressed takes up residence  in the superego, where it is turned towards the self and so becomes a source of internal persecution . David Bell further pointed out, here drawing on Freud’s work on group psychology, that in order for the group to survive the individuals in the group  have to suppress the natural aggression/hatred they feel towards others in the group. However this aggression does not disappear but  is channelled externally, that is towards hated ‘others ‘ who are not part of the group  So far, so Freud.

Karl Marx, as David Bell argues, offers, somewhat surprisingly, a similar explanation for human unhappiness. Marx bases his argument on political (and not libidinal) economy when he states that the achievements of the capitalist mode of production have their price: they lead to human misery and alienation.

But how does this all relate to aggression and the Freudian death drive? The second part of David Bell’s lecture was dedicated to the hegemony of the free market and its consequences for the subjects who live under it. David Bell argued here that the logics of the market capture the very registers of the death drive: capitalism attempts to destroy  all forms of non-capitalist forms of life and brings a numbing of sensibility and thought. An interesting two-fold distinction that Professor Bell made  between what he called manifest and latent violence was helpful. Based on Slavoj Zizek’s notions of ’objective’ versus ‘subjective’ violence, Bell explained that it is often the manifest aggression that is in our consciousness. (He illustrated this with a series of newspaper covers that show a student kicking in a window during a protest). The underlying violence leading to that act (e.g. the inequality and poverty the market creates), however, tends to remain unseen and unthought-of. A psychiatrist by profession, Professor Bell drew attention to the violence that neo-liberal agendas do to the national healthcare system. Here, patients turn into “clients”, “service users”, and in the very near future very likely into “customers”. The danger here is that “customers” cannot claim a right to health care. Even psychoanalytic practice itself, so Prof Bell, is in danger of being contaminated by the market form, for example when it does away with some of its key tenets to ‘satisfy’ the customer-patient.

But does capitalism really swallow up everything? One person from the audience challenged this assumption by stressing political activism as well as other everyday life practices that are at the edges of capitalism. David Bell made clear that he does not think that the market has hegemonized all spheres of human life. There is hope to be found, precisely in resistance and alternative ways of relating to others. The discussion went on for another hour and generated many insightful critical thoughts. I am sure that many of the participants will come to Prof David Bell’s last lecture in this series on 12 June at Birkbeck to take up and continue the debate.

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