Review of Adrian Johnston, Žižek’s Ontology

[This review appeared in Symplokē 18.1-2 (2011): 419-421, and is copyrighted by that journal. It appears here with permission.]

In the two decades since he came to prominence in the English-speaking academy, Žižek has already generated a substantial body of secondary texts, ranging from general introductions to works on specific themes. Yet it seems safe to say that among readers of Žižek, Adrian Johnston’s book Žižek’s Ontology was the most eagerly anticipated. According to the narrative that has been solidifying over the last few years, the initial reception of Žižek did not reflect the full ambition of his work. Focusing on his theory of ideology and his usefulness for cultural analysis, interpreters had missed the true philosophical core motivating it all: the attempt to develop a new theory of subjectivity, grounded in a synthesis of the insights of German Idealism (above all Hegel) and the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. For those who hold this view of Žižek’s reception, Žižek’s Ontology would finally break through the shell of the “cultural studies” reception of Žižek as well as the image of Žižek as a kind of entertainer, revealing once and for all the rigor and depth of Žižek’s properly philosophical work.

On many of these counts, Johnston delivers. He zeroes in on Žižek’s theory of subjectivity, organizing the work around the “big three” German Idealist philosophers (Kant, Schelling, and Hegel) with continual reference to Lacan. And despite largely leaving aside the broad swathes of Žižek’s work devoted to film, popular culture, politics, and religion, Johnston’s book surely must stand as the most thorough treatment of Žižek’s philosophy to date—upon finishing the work, I could not think of a single major theme or passage within Johnston’s purview that had not been covered. In addition, Johnston provides valuable exposition of Kant, Schelling, Hegel, and Lacan that Žižek himself often leaves aside in his hurry to set these figures to use.

Nevertheless, while reading I became increasingly convinced that Žižek’s Ontology is not finally a book about Žižek at all. A hint in this direction can be found in Žižek’s disarmingly humble recommendation on the back of the book. Speaking of the anxiety he felt while reading Johnston’s book, Žižek says that he often felt “as if [Johnston] is the original and I am a copy” and advises the reader to view it not as “a book on me, but a book, critical of me, on what both Johnston and I consider the core of our philosophical predicament.”

Žižek does provide a continual point of reference for Johnston, but it is the philosophical task that is the focus. As such, Žižek himself is strangely under-thematized throughout. For instance, Johnston occasionally mentions areas where Žižek’s thought has evolved over time and yet never discusses the matter systematically. More than that, Johnston clearly pushes beyond Žižek’s own concepts and terms, above all in his primary way of characterizing his project. Rejecting Žižek’s use of the term “dialectical materialism,” he proposes that what Žižek is really after is a “transcendental materialism,” which can explain why more-than-material processes can arise from matter and then take on a life of their own (i.e., transcend the material in a durable way). In addition, he claims that the dialectical negativity that is everywhere present in Žižek’s philosophy represents the negativity of “time-as-becoming” (237)—this interpretation is certainly interesting, but at the same time I am not aware of any passage in Žižek’s work where he makes this connection.

Thus while Žižek’s assessment is basically accurate, one might phrase things differently: Johnston’s book is an attempt to do what Žižek is doing—namely to synthesize German Idealism and Lacan in order to arrive at a contemporary theory of subjectivity—better than Žižek does it. In this regard, Johnston seems to be giving into the temptation that has occurred to many readers of Žižek (myself included): to write the book that Žižek should write. That is to say, Johnston is not writing a book on Žižek so much as attempting to write the next Žižek book. One symptom of this is the similarity of Johnston’s style to Žižek’s, including what for me are some of the pitfalls of Žižek’s style: a proliferation of parentheticals within parentheticals, a tendency toward arguments from authority (“contrary to the common wisdom, this is what Kant really said—and therefore it must be true”), a habit of relying on the appeal of the counterintuitive, and most seriously, unclear organization compounded by a general lack of flags to help the reader understand why this particular passage of Hegel or Lacan is being discussed in detail.

The end result is a book that is unsatisfying both as an account of Žižek’s work and as a theory of transcendental materialism. Given that it reproduces so much of what makes Žižek difficult to understand—while omitting the pop culture references and jokes that make him more palatable—it does not succeed in explaining and defending Žižek’s work in a way that will be convincing to those who are not already on board with Žižek’s project. At the same time, viewing it as the independent philosophical work that it essentially is, Johnston obscures his attempt to ground a “transcendental materialist theory of subjectivity” by devoting so much time to exposition and so comparatively little to dealing directly with the core questions motivating the work: how subjectivity as negativity can arise within the material world, how it can persist without collapsing back into its material ground, and how it can (at least sometimes) autonomously direct the actions of that material ground. For more insight into those urgent questions, we must hope for a future work in which Johnston will allow himself to speak more clearly in his own voice.

7 thoughts on “Review of Adrian Johnston, Žižek’s Ontology

  1. Thanks for posting this Adam. I did a review of Johnston’s book a couple years ago, and I agree that it falls in between a secondary and a primary book, but that aspect didn’t bother me quite as much. I do think it’s the best treatment of Zizek’s core philosophy, just as your book is the best work on his religion/theology, and my main criticism was its neglect of the political status and stakes of Zizek’s thought, which he deferred to the follow-up The Cadence of Change.

  2. To write the book a thinker should have written themselves and to be them more than they are themselves seems to me to be the exemplary attitude when it comes to doing this kind of thing. The reviewers pining after Johnson’s “voice,” rather than the complaints about style etc, is actually what strikes me as proof that he didn’t quite get it. The reader should be saying, “Oh my god! This is the real deal! Why have we settled for this imposter for all these years?”

  3. Too negative of a review in my perspective. For whatever combination of reasons we tend to value systems. Žižek is not a systematic thinker, but I think he feels pressure to be a systematic thinker. He wants to be Hegel but his brain just links one idea after another in a long rambling (and often repetitive, a couple times I’ve found the exact same paragraph word for word in two places within the same book) glorious string.

    I think the best way to look at Žižek and Johnston is as an assemblage in which there is a division of labor. Žižek rambles and gives us ideas as raw material. Johnston then tries to compose these ideas into an architectonic system. In doing so there will be some original ideas that Johnston inserts himself, some ironing out of ideas that don’t actually square together, and some outright betrayals, but that’s all healthy and good.

    As much as I await Žižek’s big book on Hegel, I think we should let him do what he’s good at. He’s not good at systems and that’s fine. He’s not Hegel and that is okay.

  4. I think Johnston’s book was a good book if you wanted to get a birds eye view of Zizek’s use of the German Idealists throughout his work; I thought the “constructive” part was okay. I’m not aware if anyone else has looked as close at his use of Hegel and Kant like that before (frankly the Kant part was the most interesting I thought).

    However, like Clayton’s review pointed out, I was a little put off that Johnston ignored the political dimension (especially Marx) and Zizek’s Christianity, but I guess that just isn’t his interest.

  5. I have to agree with the first two comments. I think Johnston’s book is maybe the best statement out there for Transcendental Materialism (particularly in the concluding chapter, which is a brilliant piece in its own right), and that he in many senses carries out the project Zizek aims at with more clarity and rigor that Zizek ever does himself. In particular, his textual engagement with Kant-Schelling-Hegel (and to a lesser extent Fichte) do a lot of the scholarly work that Zizek doesn’t really have to.
    As for Michael’s last comment on the lack of a discussion of the political dimension of Zizek’s work, I think the story is that initially ‘Zizek’s Ontology’ included another section on Marx but the publisher said it made the book too long. That section makes up the second half of his next book, ‘The Cadence of Change’. I do agree that at times in the book Johnston seems to be using Zizek to articulate his own unique project, but I think in a sense he was working through his teacher in that book and his upcoming two-volume project sounds like it will carry the tone of a creative philosophical project rather than a commentary.

  6. And just to be clear about Johnston, he takes Zizek’s political project very seriously, as Michael O’Neill helps clarify–it just gets deferred to his next book, but Johnston is not interested in religion and does not think it is central for how he engages Zizek, which distinguishes him from Adam (and me). For Johnston, materialism is more conventionally or traditionally atheistic.

  7. Thomas, But does Johnston really succeed in systematizing Zizek? I don’t think he does. I think it’s every bit as scattered as Zizek’s own work, in the last analysis — even if it seems more focused, since he jumps around among philosophical concepts without pop culture references, etc. We need someone to systematize Johnston for us.

    I think people are overreacting to my “negative” review. Reread the thing — I say he delivers on most of what people expected of him and gives an amazingly thorough treatment of Zizek’s concepts. But he’s caught between two goals such that he doesn’t really achieve either of them, and he’s too close to Zizek’s approach and style. Everyone seems to agree with the basic substance of what I’m saying.

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