Why should Zizek’s misreading of Lacan matter?

Question: I need to be clearer about why Zizek is wrong in your terms (and why I should care). His reading of Schelling seems to be entirely through a Lacanian lens – or at least how he reads Lacan. So can you articulate this for me? Reading your blog is not totally clear for me.

Answer: Understanding corporations as holobionts is a way of thinking of them not only as living systems, but as themselves being constituted of many kinds of symbiont that may be thought of collectively as an ecosystem in some kind of relation to its environment. Above the strategy ceiling of a corporation are the taken-for-granted assumptions about its approach to governance that remain unquestioned, i.e., that remain tacit within its governing mentality, the questioning of which by the corporation’s employees and subcontractors is none of their business. The doubling of the double task inevitably brings us to question any existing strategy ceiling.

The presence of a strategy ceiling in a governing mentality lends itself well to positional strategies, where sovereignty may remain external to the corporation. With relational strategies, however, the governing mentality must not impose a strategy ceiling, i.e., authorization must not come from an external ‘above’.  Rather, authorization must come from the nature of the corporation’s relation to its customers’ value deficits, i.e., to that which creates value sustainably within a customer’s context-of-use.

Zizek’s misreading of Lacan matters because it prevents a Lacanian understanding of psychoanalysis from being able to be applied to understanding the governance of relational strategies. The radical asymmetry that Zizek invokes in his use of Schelling, by justifying the source of authorization as coming wholly from an external ‘above’, encourages us to turn a blind eye (Steiner 1985) to the radical implications of Lacan’s reading of Freud invisible.

To care about Zizek’s misreading of Lacan is thus to be questioning where are we trying to get to through psychoanalytic understanding. The misreading matters to me because it prevents effective use being made of Lacan’s oeuvre in understanding and intervening on the perverse effects of corporations’ and governments’ immune systems.

The example of the Transforming Experience Framework

The framing of the overlapping experience of person, system and context is described by the Transforming Experience Framework (TEF) as framed by the lived experience of connectedness and source. This connectedness is approached ‘inside-out’ or ‘outside-in’:

“The TEF framework centres round role because it is within roles that decisions can be made and actions taken. Persons take up roles and act from within their constraints – both explicit and tacit or implicit. However, the traditional egocentric way of seeing persons at the centre of all things can be challenged through the framework. The challenge comes from looking not from the “inside out” (person to group), but from the “outside in” (seeing the group and context first).” (Long 2016: p5)

In considering the purpose of a system, reference is made in Figure 1 to integral theory. Integral theory  adds the ‘individual-collective’ distinction to the ‘inside-outside’ distinction in the framework itself, enabling the Transforming Experience Framework (TEF) to span all four of Ken Wilber’s quadrants. These quadrants define a comprehensive approach to reality at any level of definition of entity (Wilber 1983): the intentional as Interior-Individual, the behavioral as Exterior-Individual, the cultural as Interior-Collective and the social as Exterior-Collective.

Figure 1: Adapted from The Transforming Experience Framework (TEF)(Long 2016: figure 1.1, p5)

“Source” is defined by the TEF as that from which connectedness originates or can be obtained, or as that by means of which energy or a particular component enters a system:

“In terms of spiritual source, God, a deity, or even natural forces (e.g., Gaia) may be the source. In more secular terms, source may come from an overall purpose beyond individual egos – a communal purpose or a historical, cultural dynamic.” (Long 2016: p9)

What is at stake in Zizek’s misreading is how we understand what is being spoken of when we speak of “spiritual source”. Lacan approaches this in terms of the subject’s relation to a truth in the relation of a transferential repressed unconscious to the “wider compass” of a neuronal radically unconscious (Freud 1957[1915]: p166): a truth that is about what it means not to “give ground to one’s desire” while at the same time accepting that any such struggle is “always accompanied in the destiny of the subject by some betrayal” (Lacan 1992 [1959-1960]: p321).

Zizek’s misreading of Lacan in Schellingian terms can be seen by contrasting it with Lacan’s reading of Freud’s Caesura. Zizek’s reading of the formation of the subject becomes a metaphysical version of Freud’s Caesura, a contracting arising from becoming alienated from the abyss, the void of divine eternity. The resultant radical asymmetry between the void of divine eternity and man’s alienation leaves an irreducible gap – an indivisible remainder – that in Zizek’s reading of Lacan becomes the relation to the objet petit a. No such radical asymmetry exists in Lacan, for whom the formation of the subject is a privation arising from being in relation to a real lack, a real hole (Lacan 2021[1956-57]: p29).

Why does this matter?  It matters because of its implications for an ethics of the subject. Does authorization for acting in relation to an other flow from being in relation to the void of divine eternity or from being in relation to a real lack of the other rooted in an originating loss. Does authorization flow from a (pleromatic) universal or from being in relation to a (kenomatic[1]) particular?

The following is a shortened version of the blog on Zizek’s misreading of Lacan.

Lacan’s reading of Freud’s Caesura

Freud’s Caesura is the moment of separation from the mother (Freud 1959[1926]: p138). The experience of this separation cannot be compared to later forms of separation, since the fetus is as yet totally unaware of its existence as an object (Freud 1959[1926]: p130). The Lacanian reading of Freud on how the experience of this Caesura is taken up is as an affirmation (Bejahung) of being in relation to an original loss (Freud 1961[1925]; Lacan 2002[1996]-b), the foreclosure of which forms the basis of psychosis (Lacan 1993[1981]: p82).

Others have delved into the basis in Freud’s work of this affirmation, an affirmation of being in relation to an originating loss that is referred to by Freud as Das Ding (Hooson 2015). In considering what might have been lost in relation to the intra-uterine life of the fetus, Freud noted that “for psychic development, the intrauterine time must be included in the calculation, otherwise it will not work; whereas for sexual development, the calculation can only start with birth (Freud 1985: December 6th,1896. pp207-215). The process of development that the Caesura interrupts is thus one in which the traces of endogenous excitation of the neural y-complexes arising during the pre-natal stage of development have added to them wholly new forms of exogenous f-excitation (Freud 1966: p315).

Lacan’s reading of the effects of the interruption caused by the Caesura is that the subject experiences a loss that is either affirmed or foreclosed:

“In the subject’s relationship to the symbol there is the possibility of a primitive Verwerfung, that is, that something is not symbolised and is going to appear in the real.  It is essential to introduce the category of the real, it is impossible to neglect it in Freud’s texts. I give it this name so as to define a field different from the symbolic.  From there alone it is possible to throw light on the psychotic phenomenon and its evolution.  At the level of this pure, primitive Bejahung, which may or may not take place, an initial dichotomy is established – what has been subject to Bejahung, to primitive symbolization, will have various destinies. What has come under the influence of the primitive Verwerfung will have another. … In the beginning, then, there is either Bejahung, which is the affirmative of what is, or Verwerfung.” (Lacan 1993[1981]: pp81-2).

The ‘what is’ that is affirmed is a “primary procedure in which the judgement of attribution finds its root” (Lacan 2002[1996]-b: p388). The subject, then, is to be understood as this being in relation to that which was lost (Lacan 1970[1966]).

For the subject, it is a loss that shows its presence as an absence, a relation to an absence that appears in Freud as the navel of a dream (Freud 1953[1900]: p111, footnote 1), and in Lacan as a ‘hole in the real’ (Lacan 2023[1975]). This hole in the real, a hole that is the loss in the real that never ceases not to be written (Lacan 2023[1975]), is the place in which is projected the object of desire, objet petit a (Lacan 2019[2013]: p336). The desire here spoken of, however, is not at the level of the ego’s desire of ‘something’, but at the level of the subject’s relation to the hole in the real: “…while desire is the metonymy of the want-to-be, the ego is the metonymy of desire” (Lacan 2002[1996]-a: p534[640]).

Zizek’s reading of Lacan in terms of Schelling

Zizek’s way of reading Lacan is within the context of Schelling’s relation to German Idealism (Zizek 1996: pp8-9):

“Schelling’s ‘materialist’ contribution is best epitomized by his fundamental thesis according to which, to put it bluntly, the true Beginning is not at the beginning: there is something that precedes the Beginning itself – a rotary motion whose vicious cycle is broken, in a gesture akin to the cutting of the Gordian knot, by the Beginning proper, that is, the primordial act of decision. The beginning of all beginnings, the beginning kat’ exohen – ‘ the mother of all beginnings’, as one would say today – is, of course, the ‘In the beginning was the Word’ from the Gospel according to St John: prior to it, there was nothing, that is, the void of divine eternity. According to Schelling, however, ‘eternity’ is not a nondescript mass – a lot of things take place in it.  Prior to the Word there is the chaotic-psychotic universe of blind drives, their rotary motion, their undifferentiated pulsating; and the Beginning occurs when the Word is pronounced which ‘represses’, rejects into the eternal Past, this self-enclosed circuit of drives. In short, at the Beginning proper stands a resolution, an act of decision which, by differentiating between past and present, resolves the preceding unbearable tension of the rotary motion of drives: the true Beginning is the passage from the ‘closed’ rotary motion to ‘open’ progress, from drive to desire – or, in Lacanian terms, from the Real to the Symbolic.” (Zizek 1996: p13) italics in the original.

In this reading, there was a ‘nothing’, a ‘void of divine eternity’ in relation to which ‘the primordial act of decision’ took the form of ‘contracting being’, a contracting that is paralleled by man’s ‘primordial act of free decision’:

“… the primordial act of free decision is not only man’s direct contact with the primordial freedom as the abyss out of which all things originate – that is, a kind of short circuit, of direct overlapping, between man and the Absolute; this act of contracting being, of choosing one’s eternal nature, has to be a repetition of the same act of the Absolute itself.” (Zizek 1996: pp20-21) italics in the original

‘Contracting’ here is to be understood as a contracting of being in a process of becoming alienated from the abyss, the void of divine eternity. The parallel ‘contracting being’, by which the subject asserts ‘pure Freedom’, is instituted by a primordial act in relation to the vicious cycle of repetition that Zizek identifies with Lacan’s Real. This leaves an irreducible gap – an indivisible remainder – that in Zizek’s reading of Lacan becomes the relation to the objet petit a (Zizek 1996: p79).

Within this context, the ‘irreducible gap’ read by Zizek as objet petit a, while appearing to be a ‘wanting being’ in the sense of the Lacanian manque à être (Lacan 2002[1996]-b: p534[640]), is something quite different: a wanting towards a return to the void, a nothingness that is the void of divine eternity.

“For Schelling, the original Will is the transcendent point of departure, from the very beginning securing the transcendence of reality: it is the `living reality’ and `the oldest of all beings’ which develops `freely, by its own impulse and volition, purely by itself’ (Schelling 1942: p83). The Schellingian Will is a `living contradiction’: it is only as wanting to be, which means that, at the same time it is not. As wanting being, it is simultaneously nothingness which lacks being and a proto-being pressing for more life, more existence that will realize and reveal its final essence. … But for Schelling, there can be no talk of the estrangement from the will and the unintended consequences, because the primordial Will simply does not know what it wants: it wants being, it wants itself, but since none of it existed before, it has no clear picture of its strivings.” (Bielik-Robson 2019) (Bielik-Robson 2019b) italics in original

In Zizek’s reading of Lacan via Schelling, we understand Freud’s repetition compulsion not as a being in relation to a real lack but as a failure of narrative to metabolize trauma and a regression to a self-erasure evidencing the effects of the death drive overcoming the will as a wanting to be (Bielik-Robson 2019b). The effect of this reading, therefore, is to identify a radical asymmetry between the void and ‘man’ in which

“true being – the only being worthy of that name – is of a purely pneumatic nature, while matter turns out to be the fake creation of an Archon, a minor apostate deity who made this fallen world by merely imitating the divine creative power. Thus, while from the point of view of material entities the true being appears as nothing (a no-thing whose mode of existing cannot be compared to that of cosmic beings), from the point of view of the true being the created world simply is nothing.”(Bielik-Robson 2023) italics in original

No such radical asymmetry between a pneumatic and a material nature is present in Lacan’s work.  In its place are incommensurabilities between a neuronal radically unconscious, a symbolic transferential unconscious and an imaginary perceptual reality, the relations between which take the form of a Borromean knotting that is the subject’s taking up of his or her being in relation to an originating loss.


[1] In contrast to the pleromatic, in which God hangs around after the Creation as a continuing source of inspiration, with the kenomatic, God withdraws, leaving it for his Creation to find its way for better or for worse, depending on the choices made by humanity (Bielik-Robson 2019a; Khatib 2013). What is at stake here, therefore, is an ethics as distinct from morals, an ethics of practice in relation to the particular other.


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