Imaginary Žižek, Symbolic Žižek, Real Žižek, and Back… — Işık Barış Fidaner


In response to the invitation to “traverse Žižek” [1], Evren İnançoğlu suggested that Žižek might be a vanishing mediator that will eventually go away [2]. This view of Žižek is consistent with Žižek’s own notion of an authentic master who does not tell people what to do and instead pushes them to their own freedom.

A Master is a vanishing mediator who gives you back to yourself, who delivers you to the abyss of your freedom: when we listen to a true leader, we discover what we want (or, rather, what we always-already wanted without knowing it). (Incontinence of the Void)

I agree with this view but I’d like to complicate Žižek’s vanishing quality with his subsequent re-appearances. I’m sure that there is going to be a post-Žižek landscape of thought but it will not involve a metaphorical final “death” of Žižek; instead, he will continue to re-appear in varying forms, showing an “undead” quality of an eternal recurrence of the same difference. Such a circuit is already detectable in the evolution of a Žižekian subject [3].

At first, the typical proto-Žižekian person witnesses Žižek’s presentations and engagements in documentaries like Žižek! (2005) and Pervert’s Guide films (2006, 2012) and his other videos online. This is the initial encounter with the Imaginary Žižek who excites a certain desire to ask “What does he want?” The standard reaction to the Imaginary Žižek is just to laugh at his appearance, to dismiss him (more or less) derisively, and abandon the desire about his intention, since this desire is deemed “socially useless”.

If the proto-Žižekian person is going to be an actual “Žižekian” listener and reader, (s)he must follow the desire Žižek induces and seek to understand what Žižek wants to say. To truly understand him, (s)he must bypass the Imaginary distraction to actually focus on Žižek’s true message: what he says in his speeches and what he writes in his books. This is the choice of the Symbolic Žižek which must be substituted for the Imaginary Žižek [4]. The rising uncertainty of the excited desire is thereby calmed and soothed by a Symbolic “Žižekian” engagement that follows Žižek’s word and letter. This engagement attempts to construct a Symbolic World by exploring the pathways of Žižekian thought. This is just the beginning of the journey, though.

A subject who literally follows Žižek’s pathways of thought is merely a Symbolic “Žižekian” and not yet a Real Žižekian (notice the scare quotes). Continued conscious symbolic engagement with Žižek’s text eventually leads to an unconscious resistance or delay which feels like either a deadlock or an emptiness. The interconnections within the text renders the Symbolic “Žižekian” unable to construct a whole symbolic world out of them, and instead (s)he falls and tumbles down the hole of a loss of meaning. This hole is indeed the famous “rabbit hole” in The Matrix and Alice in Wonderland. It’s the abyss of the reader’s subjectivity. It requires patience. This is the Real Žižek.

The standard reaction to the Real Žižek is to blame the emptiness of the final message on the messenger: If the reader is repeatedly failing to decrypt [5] the message of Žižek’s word and letter, the author must have failed in delivering it. The author must be either incompetent or fraudulent because the reader is unable to fill the signifier “Žižek” with any positive content. Once the reactionary Symbolic “Žižekian” arrives at this conclusion, (s)he turns to “other sources of symbolic knowledge” and perches himself/herself at a Symbolic Anti-Žižek position in the blink of an eye.

This reaction is actually a “flight response” [6]: an escape from hesitation and a failure to show patience, an inability to endure the temporal unfolding of the symptom, a temptation to “understand” (decrypt) what is going on. This reaction is not a mere refusal of Žižek, it is the refusal of the Lacanian Real as such, which is the typical attitude of the University discourse [7]. If Žižek cannot ultimately function as a “source of symbolic knowledge”, i.e. a subject supposed to know and tell the truth, then his text is simply deemed dysfunctional and useless.

A Real Žižekian is someone who gives the “fight response” instead: (S)he suffers the eventual symbolic disengagement from Žižek and subsequently succeeds in turning it into a real engagement [8]. The Real Žižekian engages with the same problems that Žižek deals with, the antagonisms and the contradictions, at the level of his/her unconscious desires. (S)he learns to recognize the presence and absence of his/her own desire in his/her feelings of deadlock or emptiness. This is what happens in any work of decipherment. It’s a common and well-known experience that can be observed in anyone who studies seriously for a PhD degree. Lacan calls this the “nonknowledge” of the analyst who “recognizes in his own knowledge the symptom of his own ignorance” (Lacan, Écrits, p. 297). This is the choice of the Real Žižek over the Symbolic Žižek [9]. This is still not the end-point.

If the Real Žižekian follows his/her real engagement until the end, the prior Symbolic Žižek will gradually collapse and the “rabbit hole” of Žižekian subjectivity will cease to be a nice adventure around the coastlines and turn into an unbearable void without any support, like being in the middle of an ocean without a compass.

The standard reaction to this disorientation is melancholy and loss of desire. The fidelity to the Symbolic Žižek has turned into a stubborn attachment to a lost object, which has left the Real Žižekian subject absolutely alone in his/her work of decipherment. At this point, the Žižekian has to lose the loss itself, betray the Symbolic Žižek [10], give up striving to be a Real Žižekian, and refer back to the Imaginary Žižek in order to have a fantasmatic support for his/her intellectual endeavour. Now the Žižekian can relentlessly make use of this Imaginary support to connect his/her work with the others. And the circuit repeats again!


Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD from Boğaziçi University, İstanbul. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler, Editor of Žižekian Analysis, Curator of Görce Writings. Twitter: @BarisFidaner


[1] See “Invitation to contribute to Žižekian Analysis”

[2] See “Traversing Žižek?” by Evren İnançoğlu

[3] My approach here is based on “Three Lacanian True Choices”

[4] Symbolic Žižek and Imaginary Žižek obviously correspond to the Name-of-the-Father and the mother’s desire in the Lacanian formulation of Oedipal development. This is the masculine distinction in the authority-body complex. See “The Authority-Body Complex”

[5] Decryption seeks to extract a positively meaningful message. Decipherment, in contrast, explores the negative significations that play with meaning but never obtain it finally. See “Decryption and Decipherment”

[6] See “Fight-or-flight response” (Wikipedia)

[7] About the temptation to “understand” and the escape from hesitation in the University discourse, see “Three Prisoners and Four Discourses”

[8] See “Symbolic Engagement and Real Engagement”

[9] This is the feminine distinction in the authority-body complex.

[10] Ironically, betrayal is the ultimate form of fidelity according to Žižek!


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