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Laughing at finitude: Slavoj Žižek reads Being and Time


“Laughing at Finitude” interprets Slavoj Žižek’s intellectual project as responding to a challenge left by Being and Time. Setting out from discussions of Heidegger’s book in The Parallax View and The Ticklish Subject, the essay exfoliates Žižek’s response to the Heideggerian version of a “philosophy of finitude”—both finding the central insight of Žižek’s work in Heidegger’s radical proposal for “anticipatory resoluteness” and developing Žižek’s critique of Being and Time as indicating Heidegger’s retreat from that proposal within the very book where it appears. Žižek reads Being and Time’s existential thematic as proposing a radical subjectivism and, unlike other Heidegger-critics, praises this aspect of the project. Indeed, Žižek claims that the weakness of Being and Time as a whole is that it is insufficiently radical in its subjectivism. For him, Heidegger is a thinker of ambiguous value, one who develops a program from whose own demands he hides. “Laughing at Finitude” both articulates this accusation of self-deception in Heidegger and examines the imperatives necessary to avoid it, for a dialectical shift from the “tragic” voice in existential treatments of finitude and for a revolutionary collectivist re-conception of social “Mitsein.” It suggests, in the process, Žižek’s own intellectual itinerary.

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  1. For references to Žižek’s Heideggerian beginnings in the secondary literature, see Kay’s Žižek: a Critical Introduction (Kay 2003, p. 2), Butler: Slavoj Žižek: Live Theory (Butler 2005, p. 10) and Parker, Slavoj Žižek: a Critical Introduction (Parker 2004, p. 4). Žižek himself discusses this background and its influence on him in one of the interviews with Glyn Daly included in Conversations with Žižek. See Žižek and Daly (2004, pp. 26–33).

  2. Žižek and Daly (2004, p. 28).

  3. We should also note here another possible direction for interpreting the Žižek–Heidegger link, this one concerning the traumatic nature of human consciousness. In a recently published manuscript on Žižek, Adrian Johnston pursues the powerful thesis that Žižek’s current interest in the Philosophy of Science can be traced back to Being and Time and to Heidegger’s insight there that Dasein’s reflection only takes flight on the wings of failure—specifically, the failure of the projects of the “ready-to-hand.” Only when things “go wrong” do we gain the possibility for the specifically human response of self-consciousness. While I do not pursue this link between Žižek and Heidegger further, I acknowledge its importance for understanding the trajectory of Žižek’s current work (see Johnston 2008).

  4. Žižek (2006a, p. 273).

  5. It’s important to note Heidegger’s ambivalence about the very term, “finitude” (Endlichkeit). While Being and Time uses “finitude” and its cognate, “finite” in order to indicate a basic existential structure of Dasein—its being-toward-death as its own most possibility—to which the existentiell “decision” of “resolution” “attests,” texts in the following years [The Basic Problems of Phenomenology from 1928 (Heidegger 1982) and Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics from 1929 (Heidegger 1997)] cast some doubt on this terminological gambit. (Heidegger, Being and Time; Sein und Zeit, p. 259; trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, p. 303) and (Heidegger, Being and Time; SZ, p. 97; M & R, p. 343). These later texts problematize “finitude,” given its metaphysical origin in a theological relationship between “creator” and “creation.” See, for example, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology: In Kant’s understanding, “Being of a being must be understood…as being-produced, if indeed the producer, the originator also is supposed to be able to apprehend the substance, that which constitutes the being of the being. Only the creator is capable of a true and proper cognition of being; we finite beings get to know only what we ourselves make and only to the extent that we make it” (quoted from Heidegger 1993, p. 150).

  6. Descartes, Discourse on Method, 24-5/Quoted, Žižek (2006a, p. 274).

  7. Heidegger (1962, M & R, p. 346; SZ, p. 300).

  8. Ibid. (M & R, p. 342; SZ, p. 296).

  9. Ibid. (M & R, p. 355; SZ, pp. 307–8). It’s worth noting the significant ambiguity of the passage I here refer to. After binding resoluteness with certainty, Heidegger seems to back off from this position—precisely to what I’m here calling the “Cartesian” option: he seems to suggest that Dasein holds itself back from any identification with the situation. Such, indeed, is Macquarrie and Robinson’s interpretation of a key grammatical ambiguity. Heidegger writes, “Dies besagt aber: sie kann sich gerade nicht auf die Situation versteifen, sondern muss verstehen, dass der Entschluss seinem eigenen Erschliessungssinn nach frei und offen gehalten werden muss für die jeweilige faktische Möglichkeit. Die Gewissheit des Entschlusses bedeutet: Sichfreihalten für seine mögliche und je faktisch notwendige Zurücknahme.” Macquarrie and Robinson translate: “Such certainty must maintain itself in what is disclosed by the resolution. But this means that it simply cannot become rigid as regards the situation, but must understand that the resolution, in accordance with its own meaning as a disclosure, must be held open and free for the current factical possibility. The certainty of the resolution signifies that one holds oneself free for the possibility of taking it back—a possibility which is factically necessary.” However, in a footnote, they add that one could also take the subject of “seine” (“its”) to be actually oneself (“sich”) instead of the “resolution”. To make sense of the passage by Žižek’s interpretation, though, demands that we embrace precisely the translation rejected by Macquarrie and Robinson: we “hold (ourselves) free” from the situation only to the extent that we may be “withdrawn from it” by death. Or, as Macquarrie and Robinson are tempted to suggest, “the certainty of the resolution signifies that one holds oneself free for one’s own withdrawal.” In other words, the situation’s necessity stems from our free engagement with it.

  10. Žižek (2006a, p. 273).

  11. Indeed, Žižek also offers Heidegger’s book, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics (Heidegger 1997) and, indeed, the whole confrontation with Cassirer and other German neo-Kantians as another way into the Heideggerian insight about finitude. See Žižek 1999, pp. 25–52. I have further discussed Žižek’s reading of the Kant–Heidegger relationship in an unpublished paper, “Žižek’s Imagination: A Kantian Critique of Heidegger” (Brockelman, Unpublished).

  12. Žižek (1999, p. 55).

  13. Ibid.

  14. Žižek (2003, p. 87).

  15. Žižek (1999, p. 55).

  16. See, for example, Löwith (1995) or Habermas (1987).

  17. Žižek has long followed Miller and later Lacan in his defense of a radicalized modern subjectivism—in his readings of Hegel and Schelling as well as, most polemically, in the very thesis of The Ticklish Subject, whose opening sentences play with the language of “The Communist Manifesto” as follows: “This book thus endeavors to reassert the Cartesian subject, whose rejection forms the silent pact of all the struggling parties of today’s academia: although all these orientations are officially involved in a deadly battle (Habermasians versus deconstructionists; cognitive scientists versus New Age obscurantists…), they are all united in their rejection of the Cartesian subject” (Žižek 1999, p. 2).

  18. Of course, the line of argument I trace here is not Žižek’s only Auseinandersetzung with the approach in Being and Time: we should also mention the way that any Lacanian position, such as Žižek’s, must train a basic suspicion on one of the basic premises of Heidegger’s phenomenology—namely, its appeal to a vision of language “where (originally, tb) statements refer directly to their social context,” so that the inauthenticity of Dasein’s self-expression can be related to forgetting the experiential origins of metaphor (Žižek 2006a, p. 234). It’s in that light, of course, that Heidegger considers the task of philosophy to be nothing other than the re-animation of the basic metaphors of a language or tradition (see Being and Time, 1962, Sect. 44). For Žižek, on the contrary, “the first signifier is empty, a zero-signifier, pure "form," an empty promise of a meaning-to-come; it is only on a second occasion that the frame of this process is gradually filled in with content” (Žižek 2006a, p. 234). And he explains this pronouncement with Freud’s famous statement that, “the secrets of the ancient Egyptians were also secrets for the Egyptians themselves”; that is, there is no “original meaning” in experience to which we might return. Quite the opposite, the appearance of such a meaning, embedded in the seeming “fallenness” of metaphor in language is what provides “the paradigm of how ideology works” (Žižek 2006a, p. 234).

  19. Žižek (2006a, p. 78).

  20. Though he does not build this argument with regard to Being and Time, Žižek has, since the manuscript of the present argument was written, to some extent addressed my criticism here. Both in “Why Heidegger was right in 1933” and in In Defense of Lost Causes (Žižek 2008), which incorporates much of the discussion from “Why Heidegger was right,” he offers an understanding of the ontological “errancy” underlying Heidegger’s political error. My discussion here ties this errancy directly to Being and Time.

  21. See Heidegger (1962, M & R, pp. 327–329; SZ, pp. 281–284).

  22. Heidegger (1962, M & R, p. 321; SZ, p. 276).

  23. See ibid. (M & R, p. 316; SZ, p. 271): “Dasein fails to hear itself, and listens way to the “they”; and this listening-away gets broken by the call (of conscience, tb.) if that call, in accordance with its character as such, arouses another kind of hearing, which, in relationship to the hearing that is lost, has a character in every way opposite. If in this lost hearing, one has been fascinated with the ‘hubbub’ of the manifold ambiguity which idle talk possesses in its everyday ‘newness’, then the call must do its calling without any hubbub and unambiguously, leaving no foothold for curiosity. That which, by calling in this manner, gives us to understand, is the conscience.

  24. Ibid. (M & R, pp. 67–68; SZ, p. 42).

  25. Here, I must note a terminological difficulty: within Žižek’s Lacanian discourse, Heidegger’s notion of an “objectless” anxiety is mistaken. Anxiety indicates, not the lack of an object, but the presence of a particular object, objet a. While this distinction is important for understanding the specific praxical bond that Žižek identifies between analysis and revolution, it need not enter our considerations here. For more on this, see Žižek 2006a, p. 198, and Žižek 2006b, pp. 116–119.

    It’s also worth noting the parallel between Heidegger’s and Freud’s anxiety accounts, both of which distinguish between some form of fear (or phobia), as object-directed and anxiety, as too overwhelming to attach to a particular object. In Freud’s version, the consistent note sounded from his letters to Fliess (1896) through Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety is the traumatic nature of anxiety. Because, as he puts it in The Ego and the Id, the origin of anxiety lies in a fear “of being overwhelmed or annihilated,” “what it is” that is feared “cannot be specified” (Freud 1974, p. 57). It is only when, later, we are able to anticipate anxiety’s onset, associating it with the presence of particular objects, that we can place it within an economy of the pleasure/reality principles.

  26. Heidegger (1962, M & R, p. 341; SZ, p. 294).

  27. Ibid. (M & R, p. 341; SZ, p. 295).

  28. Žižek (2006a, p. 110).

  29. In his recent writing (Critchley 2002, 2007), Simon Critchley, himself an expert on Heidegger, criticizes precisely this “tragic” seriousness in Heidegger’s work—tracing it back to a “massive and complex privileging of the tragic in post-Kantian Germanaphone philosophy” (Critchley 2007, p. 75). My thanks to an anonymous reader for this and several other helpful suggestions in the final preparation of this manuscript.

  30. Žižek (2006a).

  31. Locating its central articulation in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Alenka Zupancic articulates this “alternative” comic dimension in some detail, dwelling particularly on the way in which it answers the philosophy of finitude. See Zupancic (2006).

  32. Žižek (2006a, p. 109: see, also, Zupancic 2006, p. 196).

  33. Critchley (2007, p. 79).

  34. Critchley (2007, p. 80, quoting Freud).

  35. Žižek and Daly (2004, p. 44).

  36. Žižek (2006a, p. 278).

  37. Ibid.

  38. A recent essay of Žižek’s, “Why Heidegger Made the Right Step in 1933,” makes this argument with regard to the period following Being and Time, the period in which Heidegger’s texts have often been taken to be fatally and symptomatically filled with proto-Nazi references to a communal “will.” Indicating Heidegger’s derivation of this language from his seminars on Anaximander and Heraclitus, Žižek demonstrates that the meaning of such willing is hardly subjective in the sense of a closed position from which and for which Being is “framed.” Quite the contrary, in Žižek’s interpretation at least, Heidegger’s will must be related to Anaximander’s “disorder,” a primal disturbance in the historicity of the “fugue of Being” which cannot be ironed-out (Žižek 2007, p. 37). Seen not as the hegemonic claim of power over the whole of Being, but rather as a primordial disruption of totality itself, “will” means something much more like what Freudians get at with “drive” (Žižek 2007, p. 37).

  39. Both guilt and identity, as attested in Freud’s Ur-myth for the founding of society from Moses and Monotheism, assume a socially constituted reality conceived from a totalizing perspective—some “whole” in which the individual is given a pre-ordained “place.”

  40. Žižek (2003, p. 130).

  41. See Žižek 1999, p. 57. “So the gap that forever separates the domain of (symbolically mediated, i.e. ontologically constituted) reality from the elusive and spectral real that precedes it is crucial: what psychoanalysis calls ‘fantasy’ is the endeavor to close this gap by (mis)perceiving the pre-ontological Real as simply another, ‘more fundamental’, level of reality—fantasy projects on to the pre-ontological Real the form of constituted reality (as in the Christian notion of another, suprasensible reality)”.

  42. Heidegger (1979, p. 199).

  43. As Habermas points out, in the following passage from one of Heidegger’s 1933 propaganda pieces, the “individualizing” language of Being and Time is simply translated into the first-person plural: in propagandizing for the elections of 1933, Heidegger writes that Hitler gives “the German people” “the direct possibility of the highest free choice: whether the entire people wills its own Dasein or not.”Heidegger, article in the Freiburger Studentenzeitung of November 10, 1933, translated and quoted in Habermas 1987, p. 157.

  44. Thus Žižek reminds us that in Sect. 74 of Being and Time Heidegger does indeed treat the individual’s resolute decision as “merely formal,” since Dasein’s existential possibilities are “not to be gathered from death” (Heidegger 1962, M & R, p. 434; SZ, p. 383). In this situation, Heidegger proposes that the content of resoluteness derives from “the communal heritage in which Dasein’s existence is caught up” (Ibid., M & R, p. 435; SZ, p. 383; Žižek’s translation, 2006a, p. 278).

  45. Žižek (2006a, p. 284).

  46. Žižek (1999, p. 21).

  47. See Žižek 2006a, p. 283: “Stalinist Communism was inherently related to a Truth-Event (of the October Revolution).”

  48. Žižek (2006a, p. 285).


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Brockelman, T. Laughing at finitude: Slavoj Žižek reads Being and Time . Cont Philos Rev 41, 481–499 (2008).

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  • Žižek, Slavoj
  • Heidegger, Martin
  • Finitude
  • Being and Time
  • Modernism
  • Comedy
  • Existentialism