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Philosophy and Meaning: Zizek’s Christ, Hegel, Wagner

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Since 2005, I have increasingly been following the works of Slavoj Zizek. What first attracted me to him was how I was able to use some of the tools provided by his philosophical essays: to reformulate the very dimension from which questions are asked.

Secondly, the very methods of communication inspired me. I was and continue to be impressed by Zizek’s ability to strike a common theme between seemingly disparate subjects: from particular films, to foods, literature, and politics. Stylistically, his writing and lectures have an aesthetic gravity and rhythm that pulls the audience through chambers of interrelated thought with a certain ease that defies the common notion that complex theory is difficult to relate in simple language. I have found that these tools of communication can be applied to many genres of writing, from creative prose to policy analysis.

At times, I find myself recoiling from some of Zizek’s opinions. As I try to understand my own reaction, I sometimes find myself agreeing in the end, dismissing certain illusions previously held. Occasionally, it seems difficult to know if Zizek is sincere in defending a particular opinion. Vulgarity may itself be another tool used to provoke a strong response. It becomes difficult then to ignore the subject. These provocations incite a critical examination of the subject leading to conscious examination.

In the short essay, ‘Christ, Hegel, Wagner’, Zizek quotes Borges as saying that “a book which does not contain its counter-book is considered incomplete.”

I believe that Zizek’s essay, and the above quote, articulate the dialectic composition of not only his theories but also of how they are communicated. Zizek outlines three dialectic methods of narrative logic in the text. In the three methods there are two planes to each narrative.

In the first method, story 1 resides on the most visible plane of the narrative. Story 2 is, as he says, “all of a sudden displaced, re-framed, relocated into, or supplemented by, another story.” Though the two planes are interrelated, once the first appears completed the second intrudes and continues in partial opposition to its precedent. Together, they formulate a complete story.

Zizek paraphrases Pilger: “that a story always has a double characteristic and always tells two stories at the same time, which provides the opportunity to distinguish the story which is on the first plane from the number 2 story which is encoded in the interstices of story number 1.”

The provocative intrusion of a second story in Jose Saramago’s novel, ‘The History of the Siege of Lisbon,’ is a clear example of a book that contains a counter-book. In Saramago’s book, the protagonist alters a historical text on Lisbon to contain one important incorrect fact about the early history of the city. This lie results in a second telling of the same history, this time founded upon a fiction. This narrative logic threatens the reader’s perception of reality by confusion fact with fiction. Saramago uses this tool to investigate the nature of historiography and highlight the subjectivity of our understanding of human history.

In the second method, story 2 is sealed within the first plane. It exists as an empty space discernable yet unarticulated. In many of De Chirico’s paintings, empty space is pregnant with meaning. An immaterial object resides within these spaces. The architecture of the first plane of the paintings would be incomplete without them.

I am reminded of a lecture by Manuel DeLanda on Deleuze’s theory of nonhuman expressivity, in which he explains the importance of the environment in affording “risks and opportunities” to its inhabitants. Story 2 is encapsulated in story 1, yet remains invisible. To paraphrase Zizek, the first plane “permits the reader to perceive that there is a second story that needs to be told but which remains absent.”

The third method presents story 2 on the visible plane and story 1 is unarticulated. Story 2, traditionally the counter-story, is dominant, such as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. This surreal or “secret story” appears on the first plane. What is encoded within this visible plane is normally what should have been apparent yet remains veiled by the “secret story.”

The style of narrative logic in which the counter-story is included can lead to what Zizek describes as the negation of negation. An example given in the essay is a theory in the ‘Communist Manifesto’ which asserts that “it is the capitalist freedom itself which is effectively the freedom to buy and sell on the market and thus the very form of un-freedom for those who have nothing but their labor force to sell; it is the capitalist property itself which means the ‘abolition’ of property for those who own no means of production.”

Zizek’s essay is useful for discerning the virtual plane of meaning within a narrative. This touches on the study of literature as well as that of social order and political strategy. Furthermore, these tools of storytelling are effective in communication, to relate the deeper meaning of a subject in the interstices of the dual story.

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