While theorist and provocateur Slavoj Žižek tends to get characterized—especially in a recent, testy exchange with Noam Chomsky—as obscurantist and muddle-headed, I’ve always found him quite readable, especially when compared to his mentor, psychoanalytic philosopher Jacques Lacan. As an interpreter of Lacan’s theories, Žižek always does his reader the courtesy of providing specific, concrete examples to anchor the theoretical jargon (where Lacan gives us pseudo-mathematical symbols). In the short Big Think clip above, Žižek’s examples range from the history of physics to the Declaration of Independence to the familiar “male chauvinist” scenario of a man, his wife, and his mistress. Žižek’s point, the point of psychoanalysis, he alleges, is that “people do not really want or desire happiness.”
This seems counterintuitive. Happiness—our own and others—is after all the goal of our loftiest endeavors, no? This seems to be the pop-psych rendition of, say, Maslow’s theory of self-actualization. But no, says Zizek, happiness is an integral part of fantasy. Like the philanderer’s mistress, the object of desire must be kept at a distance, he says. Once it is achieved, we no longer want it: “We don’t really want what we think we desire.” And in keeping with Žižek’s example of infidelity—which may or may not involve the chauvinist killing his wife—he tells us that for him, “happiness is an unethical category.” I find this statement intriguing, and persuasive, though Žižek doesn’t elaborate on it above.
He does in much of his writing however—explaining in Lacanian terms in his essay collection Interrogating the Real that our desire for something we think will bring us happiness can be construed as a kind of envy: “I desire an object only insofar as it is desired by the Other.” Furthermore, he writes, “what I desire is determined by the symbolic network within which I articulate my subjective position.” In other words, what we think we want is determined by ideology—by the cultural products we consume, the soup of mass media and advertising in which we are permanently immersed, and the political ideals we are taught to revere. What does authentic “self-actualization” look like for Slavoj Žižek? He tells us above—it means being “ready to suffer” for the creative realization of a goal: “Happiness doesn’t enter into it.”
Žižek cites the example of nuclear scientists who willingly exposed themselves to radiation poisoning in pursuit of discovery, but he could just as well have pointed to artists and writers who sacrifice comfort and pleasure for lives of profound uncertainty, religious figures who practice all kinds of austerities, or athletes who push their bodies past all ordinary limits. While there are several degrees of pleasure involved in these endeavors, it seems shallow at best to describe the goals of such people as happiness. It seems that many, if not most, of the people we admire and strive to emulate lead lives characterized by great risk—by the willingness to suffer; lives often containing little in the way of actual happiness.
Whatever stock one puts in psychoanalytic theory, it seems to me that Žižek raises some vital questions: Do we really want what we think we want, or is the “pursuit of happiness” an unethical ideological fantasy? What do you think, readers?