Financial crisis, social pathologies and ‘generalised perversion’: questioning Zi≈æek’s diagnosis of the times (New Formations 72, Winter 2010)

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Publication date: July 1, 2011

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Geoff Boucher, Matthew Sharpe

Slavoj Žižek’s work has been highly influential in the formulation of an emerging consensus among Lacanian social researchers, that we live in a society of ‘generalised perversion’ whose initial fruits are the corrosion of democracy and the recent financial crisis. This position rests upon a notion of modern subjectivity that connects ‘commodity fetishism’ with clinical perversion in a pathological configuration, so that social theoretical identification of crisis tendencies, evaluative language about moral problems and diagnostic categories from the Lacanian clinic can be combined in a single figure. In this article, we question the series of conceptual links that constitute this position, tracing them from Žižek’s critique in his short work on the global financial crisis and his broader restatement of this analysis in the recent Living in the End Times, through the moment of his announcement of the notion of ‘generalised perversion’ in The Ticklish Subject, all the way back to fundamental propositions outlined in his earliest work. Our argument progresses through three claims. First, we show in the evolution of this position that it leads Žižek to equivocate in his diagnosis of contemporary society between two mutually exclusive categories (‘psychosis’ and ‘perversion’), indicating an antinomy in his work that is resolved in favour of ‘generalised perversion’ on empirical, not logical, grounds. Secondly, we offer a critical resolution of the antinomy through a critique of what we argue is Žižek’s mistaken over-extension of psychoanalytic reason beyond its legitimate scope of application. Finally, we point to some of the political implications of the way that Žižek speculatively resolves his logical difficulties, by analysing the consequences of his claim that generalised social perversion Рthe problem to be solved Рinvolves a dethroning of the communal ego ideal. A communitarian streak, implicit in the potential conflation of moral denunciation with psychoanalytic diagnosis that the rhetoric of ‘perversion’ invokes, runs through Žižek’s work on capitalism, we propose in conclusion.

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