‘On Samuel Beckett’s Art of Abstraction’ by Slavoj Žižek

Video recording of a paper delivered by Slavoj Žižek titled On Samuel Beckett’s Art of Abstraction at The Scottish Centre for Continental Philosophy, University of Dundee, United Kingdom on 8th November 2018.


The “empty” Cartesian subject is an abstraction: it emerges as the result of the process of abstraction, of self-withdrawal from its real-life context. This is why the “materialist” demands to localize a subject into the texture of its “concrete” historical situation misses the key point: what disappears if we do this is the subject itself. This does not mean that subject is a kind of user’s illusion which persists only insofar as it doesn’t know fully its concrete material conditions: the network of “concrete material conditions” is in itself incomplete, it contains cracks and inconsistencies which are the points of the rise of subjects.

The great writer of abstraction is Samuel Beckett. When he depicts the subjective experience of terror, loss, suffering and persecution, he does not endeavor to locate it into a concrete historical context (say, making it clear that it is a moment of Fascist terror in an occupied country, or of the Stalinist terror against dissident intellectuals). Beckett does (almost – not quite, of course) the exact contrary: he puts particular forms of terror and persecution which belong to different contexts and levels (Fascist terror, the “terror” of anti-Fascist revenge, administrative “terror” of regulating the repatriation of refugees and prisoners) into a series and blurs their distinctions, constructing an abstract form of de-contextualized terror, one can even say: a Platonic Idea of terror.

Slavoj Žižek is a Philosopher and Psychoanalytic social theorist. He is Senior Researcher at the Department of Philosophy, University of Ljubljana; Professor at the School of Law and Director of the Institute for the Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London; Distinguished Scholar at the Kyung Hee University, Seoul; and Visiting Professor at the German Department, New York University. His field of work comprises Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, dialectical-materialist metaphysical interpretations of German Idealism and Marxian critique of ideology. His more than sixty books in English have been widely translated. His latest publications include Pandemic! & Pandemic! 2, Hegel in a Wired Brain, Sex and the Failed Absolute, Like A Thief In Broad DaylightReading MarxIncontinence of the Void, and The Day After the Revolution.

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