The Slovenian Marx : Slavoj Žižek on Redefinition of Subject

“a spectre is haunting Western academia, the spectre of the Cartesian subject” — Slavoj Zizek

The social sphere became a hot topic of conversation after the outbreak of the French revolution in 1789. At that time, there appeared a figure named Auguste Comte who argued that research on the social sciences was as possible as natural science. Since then, sociology was born which focuses its studies on social issues. As the times progress, this view of social science continues to experience dynamics and changes. Until finally in the post-modern era, there was a paradigm in sociology that the subject / individual was like “dead”. This is because nothing but the individual is merely the result of social fabrication / environment. However, in 1949 someone was born who formulated a radical thought by formulating a breakthrough “redefinition of the subject” to the social sciences. This thought is a synthetic result between Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx and Lacan. His name is Slavoj Žižek.

Zizek is a contemporary philosopher. One of his masterpiece ideas was a redefinition of the subject formed from Descartes’ subject ontology. A subject is an entity that has reason, mind and ratio. It is then developed into a starting point of the subject’s thinking. Thought then evolved because Descartes’ thinking on the subject tended to use ratios as a feature of the subject. Then Zizek attempted to combine that understanding using Kant’s subject thinking. Zizek then uses Kant’s subject thinking to reinforce the thinking on his subject.

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Why Kant? Because the definition of a subject for Kant tends to use empiricism rather than rationalism. This is what distinguishes Descartes and Kant. Using Kant’s thoughts, Zizek epistemologically constructed his subject. How was this subject formed? Because comprehensively the subject is said to be an empirically formed subject. Then epistemologically, Zizek also saw Hegel and Marx often make contributions in terms of reviving the subject. Thus, he strengthened the epistemology of his subject through the negativity and dialectical thinking of Hegel and Marx. The subject seeks to distance himself from his former self by using the concept of dialectics. This is the thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic concept that seeks to form an autonomous subject. Where the subject is always trying to improve himself. From there, Zizek’s subject is regarded as a vacuum that seeks to strengthen its position in society. The subject always tries to see the opportunities / explosions of action that he is able to realize to affect the social structure in society.

Interesting things from the thought of this subject then continued Zizek by using the Lacanian triad of Jacques Lacan’s thoughts. Why then did Zizek see that psychoanalysis could rehabilitate subjects when Zizek knew that Lacan was a poststructuralist/postmodern thinker. Zizek noticed there was a difference in Lacan’s thinking in response to a subject. The subject has great potential to influence the surrounding society as the subject seeks to improve himself and also fill his emptiness. The intended void here is that Zizek uses Lacanian triad as an attempt to rehabilitate the subject.

Broadly speaking, Lacan’s triad is divided into 3 parts: imaginary, symbolic and real. Through imaginary stages, an individual seeks to identify the people around him/her social structure within a society. He learned how society behaves, seeing an event as something he could set an example of. The imaginary stage then progresses to a symbolic stage: an individual seeks to actualize the results of identification and play a role in his social environment. After the symbolic stage, then the individual enters the real stage. This stage is where an individual strives to contribute to his social sphere. However, he always failed in achieving his function and goals as a subject.

At that stage, Zizek sees a “void” that is an “opportunity” where a subject to optimize or pursue radical potential and actions in influencing the surrounding environment. With the subject’s thoughts being a combination of those of Descartes Kant, Hegel, Marx and Lacan, Zizek sought to revive the redefinition of the subject. This is what then became a differentiator of Zizek’s thought from other social-contemporary thinkers. When contemporary social thinkers think the subject is dead, Zizek has a different view than seeing the subject can be revived to create substance. So that the subject used to be said to be the result of social fabrication, it can now be said that the subject is an entity that is able to influence the environment or social structure around it in forming a substance.

It may be a bit difficult to infer what Zizek really wants to say in Zizek’s philosophy. But what we have to underline in Zizek’s thinking is that in his thought project, Zizek often speaks about the subject. What is then intended in this subject is an individual or human entity that uses reason or ratio in acting. This is at the same time a thing that distinguishes the subject (human) from other creatures. In this subject, there are three major discussions on the definition of the subject (from philosophy to post-structuralist). First, about the subject in the era of philosophy: the development of the subject from the classical to modern era certainly can not be separated from the discussion about what the subject is and where it is positioned in society. The culmination of this subject debate arises when Descartes expresses the subject is someone who uses his ratio of reason to act. The principle it offers is that I think therefore I am (cogito ergo sum). This becomes a foundation for a subject’s thinking in acting because before it existed (renaissance appeared), European life was controlled by a church where religion was a special reference. The discussion on this subject was later liberated by Descartes’ thoughts on the middle ages/renaissance. The subject has a place very close to the world of reason/ratio, where then the subject has a dominant role in society and not an entity governed by a religious institution or church.

The subject matter then developed into the realm of sociology which defines that the subject is an entity formed or engineered from social life (social structure). In other words, the presence of a subject arises when a subject has a social interaction with another subject. This discussion then continued into the realm of post-modern and post-structuralist thought, where the subject was defined as the result of social structures, symbols and language. It is in this thought that the subject is considered to experience a death because it has no place or realm in developing itself. The subject is considered dead because the subject does not have a great influence in the social environment. This is the basis for Zizek in developing thought on the subject. This thought is often defined as the redefinition of the subject.

What is a thought must certainly contain the value of relevance in it. Zizek’s thought is certainly very close to the current condition of society, where our society is often referred to as a liquid society and a risky society. It is also linear with the view of Zygmunt Bauman (1925–2017) who saw that our society is in a liquid situation, where change becomes a very real fact in the social structure of today’s society. Ulrich Beck (1944–2015) also stated that our society is in a risky society. Based on these facts, Zizek sought to associate the concept of the subject with the relevance of capitalism and socialism in the contemporary era. Zizek sees the current condition of society as a tendency to take action without thinking about the consequences they do. This is the basis of Zizek in linking the concept of the subject in socialist-capitalist thought, where the debate between the two camps is still a hot thing to discuss, especially in the concept of action of today’s society.

Based on my online lecture on Sanglah Institute, there’s one interesting story by a man in my country (Indonesia). His name is Sadiman. Relevance of Zizek’s subject is practiced by him. Where he alone did a reforestation in the Wonogiri’s area (Middle Java). Sadiman sought to see the social reality in his society, that social life tends to be indifferent to their actions. Deforestation and forest fires become a very common thing in the Wonogiri area caused by a very close need for an increasingly vociferous industry. Sadiman saw that if the action continued to be carried out it would produce consequences in society, such as natural disasters. This is where Sadiman as an autonomous subject seeks to fill changes that cannot be made by society or social structures in their environment. Sadiman then becomes an empty subject who seeks to fill the realm. What is real is that he wants to revive the deforested forest to green again. Sadiman sought such action without expecting a reward or praise from the community. He sees this reality as an opportunity to contribute and this is then why Zizek’s subject puts his thoughts on influencing social structure. Sadiman then tried to reforest by replanting in the deforested area using shady plants, especially banal trees. This is the real action Sadiman took. He, as an empty subject, seeks to fill those gaps. Then this action makes a fairly positive contribution in society. However, before Sadiman did this, there were certainly big things that he had to sacrifice. Sadiman sold all his crops to buy the seeds of banal trees. Even the people around him had thought that this Sadiman was a madman. This is then where the subject Zizek is born from a process of absence / emptiness that is often pursued by a subject. Looking at Sadiman’s practice of action, it shows that the subject is trying to influence or shape a change in his or her social structure. This phenomenon is one of the relevance of Zizek’s thinking in the contemporary era. The subject seeks to promote change and authentic action in realizing a new order of society.



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