My Morning Routine: Tarrying With the Negative

I have a morning routine of reading the Episcopal (Anglican) lectionary over breakfast followed by some thorny philosophical tome while I drink my coffee. It’s reading habit I’ve kept for years to the point where its become an eccentric hobby. When I took an online class last year via the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research on the topic of Fredric Jameson’s book Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism I discovered that there were other philosophy nerds unconnected to any academic institution. I had “found the other” as Timothy Leary once put it but instead of golf or model trains, it was theory.

There’s a virulent anti-intellectualism in this country that would declare this pastime pretentious and silly. Which is unfortunate because I consider this morning reading as eminently worthwhile as the carpentry that fills much of the rest of my time. Ultimately the lesson of this morning habit for me has been humility. Shit’s complicated. There ain’t gonna be a definitive answer to the big questions and mapping the complex territory we inhabit requires a lot of verbiage and, often, a befuddled silence.

But I’ve been frustrated of late with my retention of some of this reading and I think the only way to remember what I’ve read is attempt some summaries on this blog. I was inspired to do these reviews by Root Simple pal Daniel Saunders who has created his own version of Good Reads using Airtable to track all the books he digests.

I won’t be offended if you skip these reviews or feel they are “off topic.” And a disclaimer: I’m an amateur and I don’t necessarily endorse an author’s entire work because a review appears on this blog. We begin with Slavoj Žižek’s Tarrying With the Negative, but first . . . 

What I’ve learned about difficult reading
Tarrying With the Negative is not a beach read, which is the point. The fact is that questions of subjectivity, of what it means to be human, the psychological factors in political belief and the nature of group ideology are far from simple topics and they require nuanced and sometimes highly technical writing. I’ve found it useful to take two passes on reading a chapter in this type of book–an initial surface reading followed up by a closer look. It’s also been helpful to seek out audio or YouTube lectures by experts in the field. And I can only read this stuff over coffee in the morning.

Yes, someone in my neighborhood drives a Tesla with a personalized “Zizek” license plate, here seen in the infamous Silver Lake Trader Joe’s parking lot. I’ve spotted this oh-so-LA car twice. Would Žižek approve of this parking job? Photo by Adam Assad.

Tarrying With the Negative
Slavoj Žižek holds the celebrity philosopher crown right now meaning he’s popular with nerdy laypeople like myself and largely dismissed by academics (because of the YouTube hits?). His popularity stems from his jokes, his charm and the use of popular culture touchstones to explain thorny concepts. He writes both popular books and academic tomes and this difficult to read 1993 book is in the latter category, written before his fame and at a time when he was still a thing in academia.

The book begins with the question of who is the Subject , the “I or He or It (the Thing) which thinks?” Žižek illustrates this conundrum with a contrast between classic film noir and the neo-noir of the 1980s. Protagonists in 1940s noir often suffered some sort of amnesia or general delusion that resolves in the end by finding their true identities. This stands in stark contrast to the ending of Blade Runner where the detective discovers that he is, in fact, an android, that he will never understand who his “I” is. Žižek goes on to show that you can trace this destabilized “I” back through the history of philosophy, that the “I” is unstable all the way back to Descartes but especially through Kant, Hegel and on to Lacan. In other words, questions about subjectivity are not just some new postmodern concern.

The current debates over artificial intelligence makes this discussion far from academic. As to the question of can computers achieve intelligence, Žižek turns the question around and asks how are we so sure about our own intelligence? This never to be resolved question of who the “I” is has implications for ethics and the notion of human autonomy and agency. As an example of the implications of the destabilized I and its place in a web of others, Žižek offers as an example, “the Protestant gesture of dislocating actual social freedom into “inner” moral freedom, which leaves untouched all the distortions of actual social life.” This failure to recognize the “I” in a social context may, in my opinion, be one of the great and ubiquitous errors of our time.

As a layperson I had great difficulty with this book and had to read chapters twice, sometimes three times and I’m still unable to summarize large sections. Žižek assumes familiarity with Hegel and Lacan, two notoriously difficult thinkers. Lacan’s thought evolved over his life and you’d have to read a lot of material to get a handle on his ideas, not to mention also being familiar with Freud. That said, Žižek helped me better understand Hegel’s dialectics while giving me an introduction to Lacan that I’d like to explore in the future. Typical of Žižek’s fondness for Hegelian humor is this passage,

Let us just recall the usual outcome of psychological training intended to deliver the individual from the constraints of his or her everyday frame of mind and to set free his or her “true self,” with all its authentic creative potentials (transcendental meditation, etc.): once the individual gets rid of the old clichés which were still able to sustain the dialectical tension between themselves and the “personality” behind them, what take their place are new clichés which abrogate the very “depth” of personality behind them. In short, the individual becomes a true monster, a kind of “living dead.” Samuel Goldwyn, the old Hollywood mogul, was right: what we need are indeed some new, original clichés.

If there’s a lesson from the first section of this book I think I’d summarize it as a need for humility when it comes to the question of who we really are as humans and a need for healthy suspicion when someone claims to be able to neatly explain who we think we are or the basis of our social and political allegiances. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing door to door political work it is that people’s beliefs (and I’m including myself in this) are far from coherent. You need both the toolbox of philosophy and psychology to understand social dynamics and, indeed, this book could be seen as a kind of philosophizing of psychology.

The Wound is Healed Only by the Spear
I studied music in college and share with Žižek a fascination with Richard Wagner’s complex, challenging and transcendent music. Žižek takes up the plot of Wagner’s opera Parsifal to continue his explication of the who the hell “we” are.

What’s striking about Parsifal and what differentiates it from other operas is that the hero comes completely from outside the symbolic system. He’s a kind of Holy Fool, an outsider who heals the fallen grail king via the very object that wounded him. Žižek, building on Freud and Lacan uses this as a metaphor for the ways in which we use language and narrative to deal with the struggles of life by reenacting pain and pleasure cycles in order to heal.

In the final chapters of the book Žižek moves on to collective forms of ideology via a deep dive into Lacan. Of our current system Žižek says,

The elementary feature of capitalism consists of its inherent structural imbalance, its innermost antagonistic character: the constant crisis, the constant revolutionizing of its conditions of existence. Capitalism has no “normal,” balanced state: its “normal” state is the permanent production of an excess; the only way for capitalism to survive is to expand. Capitalism is thus caught in a kind of loop, a vicious circle, that was clearly designated already by Marx: producing more than any other socioeconomic formation to satisfy human needs, capitalism nonetheless also produces even more needs to be satisfied; the greater the wealth, the greater the need to produce more wealth. It should be clear, therefore, why Lacan designated capitalism as the reign of the discourse of the hysteric: this vicious circle of a desire, whose apparent satisfaction only widens the gap if its dissatisfaction, is what defines hysteria.

On this note let me note the case of the recently elected anarcho-caplitalist president of Argentina, Javier “El Loco” Milei. He has already started moderating his radical proposals as he’s discovered, the hard way, that the purpose of governments in capitalist countries is to stabilize an inherently unstable system. If you take the brakes off, the system self destructs. My further two cents: because of ecological limits, even with government stabilization, the whole thing self destructs in the end, but I digress.

Žižek explains ideological systems via the Lacanian concept of the Big Other, “a hypothetical observer watching our every action and conversation, whose demands we obey and for whom we perform.”(1) This book was written around the time of the fall of the Soviet Union and Žižek explains how the Big Other can suddenly, without warning, dissolve,

The feature common to all these moments of the big Other’s collapse is their utter unpredictability: nothing really great happened, yet suddenly the spell was broken, “nothing was the same as before,” reasons which a moment ago were perceived as reasons for (obeying the Power), now function as reasons against. What a moment ago evoked in us a mixture of fear and respect is now experienced as a rather different mixture of ridiculous imposture and brutal, illegitimate display of force.

One such moment that Žižek mentions elsewhere is the underappreciated Haitian revolution of 1791–1804. When French troops sent to put down the uprising heard the Haitians singing in the distance they assumed it was some kind of African chant. In fact they were singing the French revolutionary anthem La Marseillaise. As Žižek says, “Sometimes, therefore, the only truly subversive thing to do when confronted with a power discourse is simply to take it at its word.” In the Haitian example the challenge to the system comes, like Parsifal, from outside the system, from African slaves who took seriously the claims of the French revolution. Sometimes I feel like we’re on the precipice of the collapse of the American Big Other, but these things, as Žižek says, can’t be foreseen.

Leave a comment


  1. Do you mind sharing the title of the Episcopal lectionary you use? Sounds like a good way to start the day.

  2. This is my kind of morning routine.
    However I have to admit I have far less patience than you for reading thick texts full of coded words and referencing that requires a deep foundation in other philosophers’ work to even begin to understand. I know the point of these books is to just get ideas out within one’s field but I find it frustrating that that means the ideas are hard for even interested lay people to digest and put to use. (But I am very utilitarian with most things in life, so that’s my problem!)

    • I should have added that with particularly difficult texts I’ll read a companion explainer book. The late writer Mark Fisher, who was good at introducing and summarizing some of the texts I’ve read, wrote a number of books that helped introduce me to some of this material.

  3. Excellent! Selfishly I’d like you to keep reading and posting these reviews so we can start an intellectual blogging renaissance.

    The section on humility regarding consciousness and identity, artificial or otherwise, reminded me of the darkly satirical stories of Stanisław Lem. Sci-fi remains a pretty approachable entry point for a lot of these ideas.

Comments are closed.