Example, Opera, For Example . . .
Preface to Slavoj Zizek’s “Why
is Wagner Worth Saving?”
interview published in the last issue of this journal, Slavoj
Zizek suggests that it was Soren Kierkegaard who finally clarifed
the real, as opposed to the fake Hegelian sense of the significance
of the paradox of Christ.
. .as for the essence of Christianity Kierkegaard got it first.
When he emphasized that it is totally wrong to read Christ as a
metaphor in the sense that first the truth appears just as a person
but then with the Holy Spirit we know that it’s not a person but
just a universal notion of love, or whatever. The greatness of Kierkegaard
is to show that our only access to eternity is through temporality.
Not in this fake Hegelian sense that eternity is just the totality
of the movement of the temporal, but this crazy paradox that in
a specific historical moment something happened. Only through that
passage do you get eternity. That is to say, if you go directly
to eternity, you get nothing, you miss eternity itself.”1
So Kierkegaard, of all people, is the Real Hegelian, the one
who most clearly understands the paradoxical relationship between
concept and concrete reality, between eternity and time. And Zizek,
as many are by now familiar with, is the “Hegelian of the Real,”
the thinker who for our time has argued most passionately that Hegel’s
Absolute Knowing is not knowledge of an abstract totality, a summation
of a whole, but rather the register of an absolute inability
of each and every object, every event, to resist the temptation
to be more than it is, to be not merely an object, but a Thing.
Things in their absolute character insinuate at once a gap
in what we took to be a whole and an excess where we thought to
find only another part. The absolute truth of things is that the
taking-place of things—things in their existence or eventfulness—are
both incomplete and excessive with respect to themselves. It is this unhinged or out-of-joint character
in things that speaks of a Real that is paradoxically Rational. Zizek’s way of teaching us this (absolute)
truth is, famously and infamously, to render again and again a series
of uncanny and persistent exemplifications of the Absolute at work
in unworking modern times. From anecdotes of Eastern European life
under Stalin to the macabre subtexts of Hollywood’s aparently most
banal plot lines, to the paradoxes of Wagnerian opera and uncanny
objects in David Lynch, Zizek is a master philosophical story-teller,
forcing us to look at what Kant said we could not:
at things themselves, at their inherently antinomical and
But in a recently-written preface to the re-publication of
For They Know No What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor,
Zizek complains about our attachment to his examples—the stories,
puns, movies, and memoirs that make his texts such an hilarious,
grotesque, and sublime menagerie of modern times. Of For They
Know Not What They Do, he writes,
it was overshadowed by the more popular Sublime Object of Ideology,
my first book in English published two years earlier, I always considered
it a more substantial achievement: it is a book of theoretical work,
as opposed to the succession of anecdotes and cinema references
in The Sublime Object.”2
Apparently Zizek wants us to love him for his attachment to
Hegelian dialectics and not for his attachment to the things he
loves. And yet paradoxically, if not in outright self-contradiction,
Zizek cannot do so without his favorite exemplars. Opera, for example,
as the text in this issue attests, seems indispensable, unforgettable,
irreplaceable . . . undead, even immortal?
Why should Zizek be uncomfortable with the exemplarity that
populates his text? Especially when he himself, right in For
They Know Not What They Do, gives us good Hegelian reasons for
insisting on the irreducibility of exemplars and their uncanny mode
of “contingent necessity.” If there is always something contingent
about an example, a “case in point,” an “illustration,” does not
this contingency nevertheless fit precisely the Hegelian project
of reading in the apparent accidents of history the “ruse of reason,”
the deeper truth? Zizek admits as much when he writes that “truth
is not contained in the Universal, as such. Its emergence is strictly
a matter of particular conjectures.”3 Are not the particularities
of Zizek’s conjectures where the true magic of his discourse lies?
Isn’t the power of Zizek’s presence in philosophy precisely the
spell-binding power of his exemplars? And isn’t this obsessive exemplarity
Zizek’s greatest contribution to the speculative tradition of dialectical
materialism, and to philosophy?
Far from making of Zizek a mere rhetor or a sophist, his obsessive
exemplarity demonstrates Gilles Deleuze’s notion that the true philosopher
has “no ally but paradox.”4 The truly realist form of
speculation, the thought gripped by real events and the real stakes
of common (if unconscious) life is thought penetrated by the
real itself, concepts split open by their own exemplars—their
heroes, their demons, their angels, their friends. Only when this
takes place does discourse remain attached to what gave rise to
it in the first place.
If Deleuze was right in claiming that we think because we are
forced to do so, the force of thinking is lost when the event that
provoked thought no longer interrupts what we thought we had to
say. If this is a riddle, it is the riddle of how philosophy can
educate. If it is a paradox, it is the paradox that attempts to
speak the relationship between communication and that to which our
desire to communicate attests. It is the paradox of exemplarity,
as such: the paradox of how what gives rise to concepts in experience
can be present in the discourse of concepts. As such, exemplars
are not the deep origin of a species or a type of event. They are
the unconscious surface origin of what interrupts the present in
its apparent normalcy.
The often humorous incapacity of speculative dialectics, in
Zizek’s discourse, to keep up with the events that precipitate it
might thus be the most revolutionary thing, at least philosophically
speaking, about what Zizek does. Even if he himself can only misrecognize
the way examples are communicating with each other, and wants always
to say with Hegel that they are an effect of “the Notion’s self-relation,”
should we be surprised? A true hysteric never gives up the ghost—especially
if it is his master.
But how would we know Zizek without his things? Especially
without that thing in question here, that bizarre and excruciating
mix of music and melodrama that is the undead ghost of opera, an
art form Zizek admits was dead even before it was alive? If, as
Zizek himself concludes in this cabalistic exegesis of Wagner’s
universe, we are identified most fully by the objects we have loved
and lost, what more could we learn from Zizek than of his great
attachment to this so very unchic egotist of an artist, villainized
by Nietzsche and full of every incorrectness known to our time?
Perhaps to truly pass beyond Man to what in humanity is worth saving
it is necessary to entertain such grumbling ghosts as these.
Ghosts like Wagner. Ghosts like opera, for example.
Journal of Philosophy and Scripture, Spring 2004, Vol. 1,
2. Slavoj Zizek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as
a Political Factor, (London: Verso, 2002), xi.
3. For They Know Not What They Do, 54.
4. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, Trans. Paul
Patton, (New York: Colombia, 1994), 132.