"The Negation of the Negation is Not My Friend"

Review by Erin Felicia Labbie

Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. 434 pp.

[1] During the early to mid 1990s, an Eastern European band called Laibach drew the attention and admiration of left-wing intellectuals and skinheads alike. Their dialectical sound projected heavy militaristic drumming and a fascist beat, as well as a vocal homage to death metal. This performative rigidity was playfully syncopated with echoes of a 1970s groovy flashback (also demonstrated by their cover of the Beatles' album, Let it Be). Yet, despite these variations in genre and approach to their music, Laibach performed a purity of sound that achieved proper fascist, or, alternately, hyperbolically ironic, status. Flanked by two erect and stoic doppelgänger drummer boys, the lead singer performed a perfect hybridity of Dracula and Christ as he mobilized the masses with his bass bellowing, arms outstretched from his shoulders in imitation of the crucifixion.

[2] At the time, Slavoj Žižek wrote about Laibach as the perfect instance of a band who walked a fine line between fascism and left-wing intellectual politics. The difference depended on one's perspective and the potential for the interpretation of irony. If one were a skinhead, then Laibach was appealing for its raw and earnest fascist beat and oppressive content. If one were a left-wing intellectual (or a pseudo or budding form of such a creature), then one read and heard Laibach with the irony which must be appropriate to any sort of cultural phenomenon that was so overtly offensive, ideologically informed, and utterly, potentially, and dangerously, regressive and oppressive.

[3] In 1996 I had the opportunity to attend a Laibach concert at First Avenue in Minneapolis. Together with my budding and pseudo left-wing intellectual graduate school cohort, I rubbed shoulders with the enemy—the skinheads (who would have happily burned me at the stake in other contexts)—and found that, in the proper situation (entranced by music that they liked), they were quite nice, making room for intellectuals carrying beers, and even offering to light a cigarette here and there. Again, we asked, was this the power of the band to pacify violent skinheads by way of their sheer insight into the way that music may alter human emotion and affect? Or, were skinheads actually nice people despite their hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-feminism, and xenophobia? (Impossible.) This, ten years ago, symbolized the utter perversity of the potential for artistic and textual interpretation itself. As self-perceived intellectuals, we did what we thought was expected of us, indeed demanded of us, and we intellectualized the experience, chalking it up to the power of irony and dialectical materialism, both of which confirmed Fredric Jameson's views of the postmodern, post-capital world in which we had decided we were living. Strangely, this experience and the dual readings of Laibach asserted as irony, paradox, dialectics, and the play of signification by means of the negation of the negation so vitally at stake then have come to signify for Žižek the "parallax view" now. [1]

Was that a pat or a slap?

[4] In Jacques Lacan's Seminar III: The Psychoses (1955-56), [2] we encounter the famous example of the experience of constructivism, socialization of the child, the relationship between the signifier and the signified, the difference between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, and, among other hierarchical structures indicating the law of the father, the establishment of the subject in relation to ideological apparatuses. As Lacan puts it:

When you give a child a smack, well! it's understandable that he cries—without anybody's reflecting that it's not at all obligatory that he should cry. I remember a small boy who whenever he got a smack used to ask—Was that a pat or a slap? If he was told it was a slap he cried, that belonged to the conventions, to the rules of the moment, and if it was a pat he was delighted. —Seminar III, 6

The child reacts to the gesture of the law based on the law's symbolic power. The symbolic gesture itself does not contain significance; rather, that significance is bound to and dependent upon interpretation determined by context and intentionality. The two reactions that the child, who must learn how to react within the social scene, has to choose from are both complicit with the law itself. The child may either cry, and so demonstrate a properly contrite reaction to punishment and pain, or the child may show delight, and so properly enact the pleasure of submitting to the law that praises him or her. At stake is the manner in which the gesture is read.

[5] From a parallax perspective, both readings are mutually exclusive and irreconcilable, yet both co-exist. The child is either being punished—with a slap—or praised—with a pat. A choice must be made regarding the interpretation of the gesture; but, what happens when that choice is multiple? We are confronted with an either/or choice upon which our emotional being, both as subject and as object, is called into question. According to Slavoj Žižek's lengthy articulation of the definitions, permutations, applications, and implications, the parallax view suggests multiple positions which are mutually exclusive, but which, paradoxically, nonetheless co-exist. If one is to inhabit both positions simultaneously, then one exhibits the function of utterly split subjectivity that perceives the subject to exist as an object, even while ceasing to exist altogether (assuming one's own nonexistence). The gesture of the smack is always already both a pat and a slap, and, signifying schizophrenically, the single gesture which is necessarily and automatically split or fragmented always carries with it the potential for (at least) two modes of interpretation. If the child is "good" then he or she receives a pat. If the child is "bad," then he or she receives a slap. In both cases, the law determines the method by which the gesture is interpreted and received. The function of the parallax as Žižek articulates it requires existence to manifest itself as, in the words of Luce Irigaray, "both at once."

Defining the Parallax

[6] The introduction to Slavoj Žižek's The Parallax View opens with two narrative and fictional examples of what Žižek calls the parallax gap. Opening with an attempt at Benjaminian shock, Žižek says, "Two remarkable stories were reported in the media in 2003" (3).

[7] In the first instance, we are introduced to the "use of modern art as a deliberate form of torture" in a form of "psychotechnic" torture created by the placement of colored cells inspired by the work of Kandinsky and Klee as well as Buñuel and Dali, designed to drive the prisoner insane. Designed by a French "anarchist" Alphonse Laurencic in Barcelona in 1938 these torture cells emulated surrealist and abstract art. The prisoner was to be placed within the cell where angles and colors would conspire to drive the subject mad: death by aesthetics, a notably fascist approach to punishment of the other. [3] Seeking to counter General Franco's rightwing orders, the anarchist reproduced from the left the type of mental torture that the right endorsed.

[8] In the second instance, Žižek asserts that "Walter Benjamin did not kill himself in a Spanish border village in 1940 out of fear that he would be returned to France, and thus to Nazi agents—he was killed there by Stalin's agents" (3). Žižek is recalling a story that he claims was printed in 2003, although, in an interesting narrative twist in this game of revisionist historiography that Žižek is playing in order to illustrate the cognitive and historical materialist effects of the parallax gap, we find that the tale itself was printed in 2001: first on June 11 in an article by journalist Stephen Schwartz who asserted the hypothesis and then repeated in the New York Times on June 30, 2001.

[9] Žižek calls attention to these stories because together they encapsulate many of his themes throughout The Parallax View, themes which pervade Žižek's oeuvre: the combination of high and low culture, the juxtaposition of the aesthetic and the political, his relatively new interest in the technology of the psyche and the limits of psychoanalysis with regard to neuroscience, the competition for the "most traumatic" moment between the Holocaust and Stalinism, and torture, terrorism, fundamentalism, and the element of the "story" itself. Additionally, the parallax shift between the event and the truth-effect that becomes narrated across time alters the manner in which we consider the political and the cultural (as well as the religious) by way of dialectical materialism and psychoanalysis.

[10] Regardless of the precise topic at stake at the moment within his grand narrative authenticity, essence, concept, or the real are usually behind the veneer of the high and low play within Žižek's writing. That is, whether Žižek is speaking of ethics in the novels and short stories of Henry James, retelling a joke, questioning the "mystery" behind feminine sexuality and death, or speaking of religious fundamentalism or the discourses of psychoanalysis, "the real thing" is called into question. Similarly, the definition of the parallax gap strikes at the core of the definition of the real of universal categories, such that The Parallax View (in addition to examining the topics listed above) also asserts a commentary on the role of universality in contemporary politics and culture, with reference to the "real" of psychoanalysis. Indeed, the parallax view exceeds the boundaries of psychoanalysis and dialectical materialism as its precise definition allows Žižek to speak from multiple platforms at once.

[11] The system or theoretical approach to perspective and analysis that Žižek calls the parallax view or the parallax gap consists of "the confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible" (4). In other words, the two sides of the parallax are like the two opposed sides of the Möbius strip, destined to circulate around each other but never to meet, reconcile, or exist on the same plane. Indeed, asserting the theoretical system of the parallax gap "is the necessary first step in the rehabilitation of the philosophy of dialectical materialism" (4). Although he follows Alain Badiou in privileging the anti-philosophical as a mode of inquiry, at times, and precisely with the sustained example of the parallax, Žižek establishes a method that he hopes will be subject to symbolic application as a means of solving cultural, political, and intellectual problems that he recognizes in his work. In short, Žižek has created a system and cannot be classified as an anti-philosopher. Fredric Jameson also recognizes this system in his review of the book in The London Review of Books, September 2006.

[12] As a culminating method then, the parallax view provides Žižek with the key to bridging the high and low, the universal and the particular, as well as the historical and the dialectical elements of materialism. In the service of this goal, Žižek explains that "they are substantially the same, the shift from the one to the other is purely a shift of perspective" (5). This explanation obscures the clarity that Žižek seeks in his definition of the parallax. The gap in the parallax is precisely the unreconcilable split between two sides, yet, the view of the parallax may shift or alter with a change in perspective, suggesting that perhaps the two sides of the parallax are not necessarily opposed; rather, despite the lack of "neutral common ground" between the two sides, a shifting of perspective will allow them to engage in dialogue or to communicate across the gap.

[13] In many ways, the definition of the parallax view resembles several operational terms and concepts within psychoanalytical theory that are more commonly understood as means of shifting ground, shifting perspective, crossing a distance, or achieving understanding of a subject or an object. Among these, we find first the gestalt theory of early structural psychology, which takes us back to Lacan's very early, and perhaps most widely read, work, "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience." As it sought to depart from the gestalt system, the mirror stage nonetheless provides the platform for Žižek's understanding of the patterns and potential for wholeness in the parallax view. Indeed, Žižek refers to the famous face/vase example as a means of illustrating his point. Additionally, the parallax appears to resemble the structure of anamorphosis, paradox itself, and, despite Žižek's resistance to Derrida, différance.

• Anamorphosis

[14] As that shifting in perspective that relies partly on sublimation, distance and proximity, and particularity of universalized distortion, anamorphosis resembles the parallax view. In fact, as Žižek clarifies the meanings of the parallax, he asserts that

The Real is thus the disavowed X on account of which our vision of reality is anamorphotically distorted; it is simultaneously the Thing to which direct access is not possible, and the obstacle which prevents this direct access, the Thing which eludes our grasp and the distorting screen which makes us miss the Thing. More precisely, the Real is ultimately the very shift of perspective from the first standpoint to the second. (26)

The relationship between the Real and anamorphosis, then, places the Real itself in the parallax gap that exists between the shifting perspectives crucial to anamorphosis.

• The Real

[15] In the sense that the parallax exists as an immaterial, "non-substantial," encounter between two perspectival points, its structure and (non)existence resembles the real. As Žižek puts it:

...the status of the Real is purely parallactic and, as such, non-substantial: it has no substantial destiny in itself, it is just a gap between two points of perspective perceptible only in the shift from the one to the other. The parallax Real is thus opposed to the standard (Lacanian) notion of the Real as that which "always returns to its place"—as that which remains the same in all possible (symbolic) universes: the parallax Real is, rather, that which accounts for the very multiplicity of appearances of the same underlying Real... (26)

The system or theory of the parallax, then, also encompasses the Real. It may be that this is an application of the parallax gap to the Real, or, it may be the case that Žižek is redefining the Real. Time will tell as readers respond to the book. Strikingly, the multiplicity of the parallax and the Real also then refer to Derridean différance.


[16] Although Žižek maintains his quarrel with Derrida when he takes him to task at the beginning of The Parallax View for asking about the sex lives of philosophers in his biographical film, [4] he assimilates many of Derrida's concepts by the end of the book. One such example includes the presentation of the parallax view as analogous to différance. Although the comparison is buried within the conversation about the brain sciences, it is nonetheless evident that the parallax structure of consciousness is akin to différance. Žižek says,

The magic trick of self-relating lies in the way my very "decenterment"—the impossibility of the I's immediate self-presence, the necessity of what Derrida would have called neural différance, of the minimal detour through the past mnesic traces—is turned into the mechanism which makes direct "raw" self-awareness possible. (213)

Whether or not Derrida would have called the self relating to itself as other a "neural différance," what is striking here is that Žižek feels comfortable applying Derridean concepts to his theory of the parallax gap. Why this comfort? Because ultimately the parallax, anamorphosis, the Real, and différance all depend on Hegelian dialectics. This becomes further evident when Žižek applies the parallax structure to several abstract terms relevant to psychoanalysis and Marxism, such that we find, among others the parallax of: ontological difference, of the gap between desire and drive, of the unconscious, and "last and least—the parallax of the vagina" (7). While the first several examples of the parallax at work are established retrospectively as part of a thesis statement promising what will come in the remainder of the book, the "least" and "last" example of the vagina does not return in a systematic manner in the argument of the book. [5]


[17] Among the many theoretical lines of inquiry and examination presented in The Parallax View, Slavoj Žižek establishes a thesis regarding the power and significance of the parallax view as the play of dialectical materialism when he says, "This is what 'negation of negation' is: the shift of perspective which turns failure into true success" (27). Throughout the book Žižek seeks to assert the centrality of the negation of negation as a means of applying the parallax view to cultural politics and economics (as well as aesthetics) today. Similarly, Žižek persistently returns to "anti-anti-essentialism" as a means of getting at the core of Hegelian essence, and of addressing the problems with clashing fundamentalist positions within cultural, political, and religious circles (all of which are necessarily bound to economics). In fact, if the assertion of a form of anti-anti-essentialism (which follows the same logic as the negation of the negation) is the second thesis in The Parallax View, then the third thesis is: "culture war is class war in a displaced mode" (360). [6] Throughout the book, Žižek dismantles forms of anti-essentialism to establish anti-anti-essentialism, which places class at the core of cultural debates and forms of oppression. These three theses are not exhaustive of the many assertions that Žižek makes throughout the book, but they broadly encapsulate most of the subpoints addressed in the volume, which is driven by the definition and application of the parallax view itself.

[18] At stake within the parallax view, and the apparent motivating force behind its formulation, remains the question of how we might make free decisions in a world where the discourses of psychoanalysis and dialectical materialism are in fact the more liberating of the discourses available to us? As always, in The Parallax View, Žižek seeks to investigate difficult cultural, political, and economic questions by way of the intersections of psychoanalysis and dialectical materialism.

Good Žižek, Bad Žižek

[19] When reading Hegel in a proper dialectical fashion, one is always aware that there is a "Good Hegel" and a "Bad Hegel." The Good Hegel presents the dialectical process as a means of opening potential subject and object positions to freedom and self-consciousness. The Good Hegel reveals how the positions of the master and the slave are interdependent and dialectically necessary such that the slave has ultimate control over the master, rendering the slave the master and the master the slave in the circulation of dialectical exchange. The Good Hegel, in short, shows how dialectics displace and disrupt hierarchy. On the other hand, the Bad Hegel allows the abstract conceptualization of dialectics to sustain and reinforce real experience of oppression and hierarchical limitations of experience in life. The Bad Hegel implies that if the slave achieves self-consciousness in a dialectical scene with the master, then slavery is in fact justified, necessary, even not so bad after all. The Bad Hegel is the Hegel of Absolutism, Statism, Individualism, Universalism, Singular History, Right, and of pure hierarchy and rigid ideological structures. Dialectically speaking, we must recognize that there is always a Good Hegel and a Bad Hegel and Žižek seeks to speak from both positions at once.

[20] In the spirit of Žižek, it is relevant and illustrative to note that both of these Hegels (the good and the bad) are evident in Lars Von Trier's film Manderlay (2005). In this second film in the "American" trilogy that began with Dogville, Grace sets out to free the slaves in a town that, after more than 50 years of legal emancipation in the U.S., apparently has not heard that slavery had been abolished, and in which slavery is still practiced. Witnessing the horror of such continued racist oppression, Grace stays in the town of Manderlay in order to liberate its citizens. Taking it upon herself to enforce freedom, even among those who claim to be comfortable in their oppression, Grace acts as a fundamental figure of the law as it imposes its own desire onto its subjects and proclaims them to be free. This, in fact, is one of the core issues at stake in The Parallax View. How and under what circumstances are decisions freely made? If the slaves choose to remain slaves, are they choosing freely? On the other hand, if the slaves choose to follow Grace into their liberation, is that a free choice? This is, of course, the question asked by the child in Lacan's seminar on the psychoses as well: was that a pat or a slap? It is also a crucial driving question in The Parallax View.

[21] One element of a potential solution to this persistent question is found, for Žižek, in a return to the question of the essential qualities of the speaking subject. In Seminar III: The Psychoses, Lacan states that "The question that has been advocated frequently enough here to be of full value, that of Who speaks?, must dominate the whole subject of paranoia" (23). Echoing Lacan (as well as Michel Foucault and Gayatri Spivak), Žižek asks, "What does it matter who speaks?" According to Žižek, it matters. The subject position from which ideas are enunciated is relative to the auditor and the context for Žižek, who asserts an anti-anti-essentialism to argue that it does matter who is speaking. For Žižek, the subaltern can speak of the subaltern and maintain dignity despite self-hatred. The subject may negate the negation of the self to reclaim a foundation from which to speak at all. This, in fact, is linked to affect and the ability of the emotions to lie.

[22] On the other hand, Žižek also shows that by lacking freedom entirely, the speaking subject is irrelevant, hence the parallax-paradox and the double negation at stake in his claim. If the slave proclaims to decide to remain enslaved, that is a non-choice. Žižek mobilizes the concept of "rumspringa" as an example of the problem of decisions with relation to freedom. Rumspringa is the term for the rite of passage that Amish children experience as a means of choosing to remain within, or to depart from, their culture. At the age of seventeen, when the Amish adolescent is set free into the world to experience "normal" American culture and to be "free," they find, for the most part, that they return to the culture from which they came. Their lack of familiarity with contemporary culture outside of their environment, as well as the skills (practical and emotional) which will allow them to feel at home in an "outside" environment, renders the choice a non-choice. Similarly, the choice or non-choice to take the veil draws Žižek's attention. This logic of the rumspringa, though, translates across several discourses for Žižek, who also sees our daily participation within culture to experience the extreme of such limitations, as well confront the Kantian different between the must and the ought. Such a debate leads to the articulation of anti-anti-essentialism for Žižek. As the negation of the negation, does anti-anti-essentialism make an assertion? And a positive one at that, rendering a return to essentialism by way of its anti-thesis, anti-essentialism (i.e.: constructivism)? Not really. Rather, what emerges is the ultimate Althusserian paradigm of ideological structures determining subjectivity.

[23] In one of the most macabre moments in the book, Žižek recounts the following legend, tale, or anecdote:

The 2001 Darwin award for the most stupid act was posthumously conferred on an unfortunate woman from the Romanian countryside who woke up in the midst of her own funeral procession; after crawling out of her coffin, and realizing what was going on, she blindly ran away in terror, was hit by a truck on a nearby road, and died instantly...Is this not the ultimate example of what we call fate? The question of freedom is, at its most radical, the question of how this closed circle of fate can be broken. The answer, of course, is that it can be broken not because 'it is not truly closed,' because there are cracks in its texture, but, on the contrary, because it is overclosed, that is, because the subject's very endeavor to break out of it is included in it in advance. (207)

This approach to freedom by way of ultimate oppression is akin to Giorgio Agamben's concept of the state of exception, and it suggests that transgression occurs, as it must, from within. This is not a new idea; what is new here, however, is the manner in which the concept is demonstrated by way of Žižek's rhetoric which occurs from both contradictory and mutually exclusive parallax platforms. Žižek is both the good and the bad Žižek. He is receiving and giving both a pat and slap at the same time. Similarly, and in a final note, Žižek proclaims both the death and resurrection of psychoanalysis when he explores the realm of cognitive science by way of Dennet and Damasio.

Psychoanalysis is dead?

[24] As Žižek and many others have noted, psychoanalysis is perpetually proclaimed to be dead. One might even argue that this is part of its vitality. Resistance to psychoanalysis is itself in psychoanalysis, and this often keeps it alive by way of negation and dialectical conversation. Never before, however, has psychoanalysis actually appeared to be dead as it does in The Parallax View. Having established his readings of Lacan elsewhere in his previous work, throughout The Parallax View Žižek flatly refers to concepts without explaining them merely by stating that something may be put in "Lacanese" (notably, he also has a "Hegelese," though this often is flanked by a bit more discussion of Hegel than we find of Lacan in the present book). Rather than enlighten anyone about psychoanalysis, Žižek translates his idea into other words without regard for the complexity of this translation, it seems perhaps because he thinks that this is what the Other wants of him. He refers to terms as if their definitions and implications have already been settled, and they are merely monuments to particular ideas or drives. In this, and in several other ways, Žižek implicity announces that he is "Žižekian" in The Parallax View.

[25] Žižek explores the different aspects that the new sciences and their technological awareness of the subject as cyborg bring to an understanding and articulation of subjectivity read precisely as object. Beyond ontology we find the nothingness or the Hegelian night of the subject, and in this scene, rather than survive, as psychoanalysis does within an Althusserian understanding of dialectical materialism as it intersects with psychoanalysis itself, Žižek prophesies that, for better or for worse, psychoanalysis is in danger of giving way to the cognitive sciences and an understanding of emotion which can be altered by way of drugs, surgery, etc. If Žižek is right, then this signals the very end of the unconscious as we know (or don't know) it, simultaneously ringing in a truly post-modern way of perceiving the subject and object that makes postmodernity look as though it has not yet occurred. Yet, Žižek holds tightly to the epochal distinction between pre-modernity and modernity, claiming in many instances that we are bound within the empire of modernity that began sometime between Descartes and Mozart.

[26] To return then, to the question, "Was that a pat or a slap?" we encounter Žižek's characterization of Damasio. According to Damasio, "expression (emotion) preceeds feeling" (qtd in Žižek, 227). For Žižek, this "Althusserian" approach to the psyche and subjectivity leads to the "empty pure subject" such that Žižek asserts that for Damasio, "it is only through feelings that I become the 'full' subject of lived self-experience" (227). Yet, according to Žižek, feelings lie. How do we distinguish between a pat and a slap, between the good Žižek and the bad Žižek, and how do we negotiate the negation of the negation when confronted with this threat to concept and essence itself? This in fact, is one of the core provocations Žižek leaves us with in The Parallax View. The multiple positionality that he embraces by way of his parallax system simultaneously and impossibly places him in the categories of "both at once," and none at all.


[1] Many thanks to Douglas Brooks and Petar Jevremovic for exciting and helpful conversations about Žižek and Damasio.

[2] Jacques Lacan, Seminar III: The Psychoses, ed. Jacques Alain-Miller, trans. Russell Grigg (New York: W. W. Norton & co, 1993).

[3] Klaus Theweleit examines the relationship between aesthetics and fascism in Male Fantasies, 2 vols. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, 1989).

[4] Derrida. Zeitgeist, 2002. This argument of course invites a comparison between the film Derrida and the more recent film, also by Zeitgeist, Žižek! (2005). Whereas Derrida coyly and jokingly says that he would want to know about the sex lives of the philosophers because it is something that they never talk about, Žižek places himself as the philosopher in the bedroom in his film, as he speaks of ideology from his bed. Recall Lacan's statement here: The law does not ignore the bed.

[5] Systematicity here is relative to the elliptical nature of the flow of the book, which is best read in one sitting—if possible—and which reads like one long essay, such that "systematic" remains contextualized by the stream of consciousness that characterizes Žižek's writing. Nonetheless, while there are sections that take up the distinction between desire and drive, and the Real, for instance, references to the vagina (what Žižek characterizes as "the shift from the ultimate object of sexual penetration, the embodiment of the mystery of sexuality, to the very organ of maternity"), are scattered throughout the text and do not seem to serve a purpose toward establishing a different parallax order nor toward asserting anything about sexual difference itself (7). 

[6] The whole line has an unfortunate typo and reads: "culture war is class war in a displaced mode—so much for those who claim that we leave [sic—live] in a post-class society" (The Parallax View 360).