[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.