Why I Don’t Understand Slavoj Zizek: Psych vs. Columbo

Before I sat down to revise this essay about the ideas of Lacan as they are
understood through the philosopher and celebrity Slavoj Zizek I glanced at my Facebook newsfeed and read that the actor Peter Falk, best known for his portrayal of the detective Columbo, recently died at the age of 83.  This is sad, but for me timely, as a dead detective is both the problem and also maybe the solution that we are facing.

In his book How to Read Lacan, Zizek mentions Falk’s Columbo as an example of the “one supposed to know:”

In the TV-series Columbo, the crime – the act of murder – is shown in detail in advance, so that the enigma to be resolved is not that of whodunit?, but of how the detective will establish the link between the deceitful surface (the “manifest content” of the crime scene, to use the term from Freud’s theory of dreams) and the truth about the crime (its “latent thought”)… This strange reversal of the normal order has theological connotations.

Now, in psychoanalysis “the one supposed to know” is the analyst.  He’s the one who can properly decipher your speech and track down its hidden or occult meanings, and you go on babbling away in order to give him the chance to do his magic for you.  You free associate, tell him about the first time you masturbated, or describe that dream you had when you kept getting lost in airports, getting on the wrong flights and ending up in Hong Kong. The dream when you realized that your credit card was maxed out and you’d never get home again?  Anyhow, you do describe these things because you believe that the analyst already knows the truth and is just waiting for his chance to tell you.  You’re hoping that by free associating you’ll say the secret words that will cue Columbo.  The shrink will then solve the crime and even if that means exposing your guilt this is what you want him to do.  This is what you’re paying for.

The original television program Columbo was cancelled in 1978 and since then many things have changed on television. In the late seventies there were three networks and two superpowers, but today those old hegemonies are nowhere.  Today’s hegemonic power is buried under an onslaught of choices and niches, and Columbo’s counterpart, a fictional crime consultant for the Santa Barbara police name Shawn Spencer, is different from Falk’s detective, even if he serves the same function.  Spencer is played by James Roday on television series Psych, and he’s different from Columbo in one key respect. Spencer isn’t a detective at all, but a fraudulent psychic.

Both Columbo and Spencer are comic characters, both are small figures who appear incompetent but who, despite this incompetence, have and use their powers of observation to not only discover but also signify the truth of any given crime scene. However, while Columbo as the one who knows is both official and small (Columbo is a frumpy police detective whose wrinkled trench coat and scuffed shoes reflect his working class background), Spencer is devilishly handsome, fraudulent, and all pervasive.  Rather than humble and downtrodden he’s ironically self-reflexive. This is the detective as the one who is not supposed to know but who, somehow, still does.

Gus: You named your fake detective agency “Psych”? As in “gotcha”? Why didn’t you just call it “Hey, we’re fooling you and the police department; hope we don’t make a mistake and somebody dies because of it.”

Shawn: First of all, Gus, that name is entirely too long; it would never fit on the window. And secondly, the best way you convince people you’re not lying to them is to tell them you are!

Spencer is not a detective but a phony psychic, but somehow his powers of observation, his power as the one not supposed to know, are enough.  In fact, he apparently is what he claims not to be.  When Spencer comes upon a crime scene he does not merely spot the significant details of the scene, doesn’t merely find clues, but literally creates the clues.  He has the power of what Laura Mulvey called the male gaze.  When he looks at a discarded Starbucks cup the corporate logo, the significant aspect of the object, illuminates.  When he shuffles through filing cabinets the words he needs light right up for him.

In this way Shawn’s power doesn’t come from him but from the space he occupies.  As an irreverent wise-cracking man child he is supported by the ideology of the police-procedural rather than his own competence.  Television itself is what is real.  Shawn gets out the way of television.  He mocks himself, never invests in anything directly, and in this way he makes room for the real subject as it is defined by the televisual space around him.

Power today is a parody of itself and as such it is an invisible, always displaced, force.

Let’s go over that again, with a different example.  Let’s understand that therapeutic psychoanalysis and psychoanalysis in reverse may not be as different as they appear.  Both traditional psychoanalysis and psychoanalysis in reverse operate through transference.  That is, in a psychoanalytic relationship the patient transfers his own superego onto the psychoanalyst, or takes the psychoanalyst to be the punishing figure who knows what it is that God, parents, or society wants, but while psychoanalysis creates this transferential relationship in order to expose the basic fact that the superego and its injunctions is a product of the patient’s own identity and that it has no independent existence, the culture of psychoanalysis in reverse, a culture that is made material and actual through the television set, wants to hold onto its position and sustain the transference.  The best trick a representative of the one who is supposed to know can pull in order to hang onto the power given to him or her through transference, the trick that defines todays networked, hybridized, and de-centered power, is to deny that such power exists.

The psychoanalyst who works in reverse would tell you, “I don’t really know anything.  That suspicion you have that I know something, that I might be able to let you in on some secret, well that is your sickness itself.  All you need do is realize that I have nothing to tell you and you’ll be free.”

But how is this different than what the real psychoanalyst tells you?   If you keep thinking about it you just start biting your own tail.  Or, as Columbo once said:

I don’t thinks it’s proving anything Doc, as a matter of fact I don’t even know what it means. It’s just one of those things that gets in my head and keeps rolling around in there like a marble.

Peter Falk died last week. This is sad, but for me timely, as a dead detective is both the problem and also maybe the solution that we are facing. TC mark

image – Andy Miah


More From Thought Catalog

  • Bardolator

    dear tc,
    keep this guy.
    get rid of kat george.
    the people who still enjoy exercising their brains.

    • Greg


    • Nofrillshero

      what he said

    • katgeorgefanfolyfe

      mmm i basically love kat george…so no, but i agree with you, this is amazing and i am now in like with this douglas. love will come with more pieces, and more mentions of laura mulvey, the male gaze, and lacan. Love will be pronounced immediately upon any mentions of phallogocentrism and attempts to understand cixous and/or irigaray.

      are you my gender studies prof under a psuedonym?

      basically in ramble the above translates to: i like, do more.

      • http://twitter.com/DougLain Douglas Lain

        I’m not a gender studies professor, but just an independent writer/worker living in Portland. I have to say that I’m much more likely to get around to reading Luce Irigaray than I am to read a Derridean like Cixous.  However, when it comes to radical women philosophers I’m interested in reading (and have not) is Iris Murdoch.  I recently came across a youtube video with her, and I really want to understand how she mixed her Platonism and Communism.  

      • katgeorgefanfolyfe

        hm iris murdoch, i will check her out. i was kind of kidding about the gender studies professor thing, but it never hurts to ask.  good luck with irigaray, (she frustrates me and impresses me all at once)  but i agree, i prefer her to cixous. anyway keep writing, i really like your style and subject matter.

      • http://twitter.com/DougLain Douglas Lain

        I will keep writing here at Thought Catalog for as long as they’ll let me, although I may change gears eventually.  One day I might even get over my Zizek crush…maybe.

      • Guest

        just don’t write about your ~travel hookups~

  • a non

    Seriously amazing. 

  • Maggie

    great piece! would love to see more of this on tc.

  • Anonymous


  • http://twitter.com/FLYamSAM Denden

    Timely. I just finished reading “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce” today.
    Btw, you have a lovely voice Douglas

  • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

    “Power today is a parody of itself and as such it is an invisible, always displaced, force.”

    I think that should read “Our notion of power…” or “Our perception of power…”. In fact, Power is more powerful than it has ever been: there are more holders of it, more varieties of it,  it appears in greater concentration and its effects are more immediate and widespread because the channels it travels along connect ever-more far-flung nodes around the planet (and even into space, an impossibility until relatively recently and a Power undreamt by, say, Charlemagne).  Power is doing all the displacing as We (the Powerless) become a parody of ourselves; our increasing  misperception of, or inability to see, Power, is a symptom of our increasing powerlessness. If you don’t think that’s so, go to the airport and see for yourself: watch all the Powerless misinterpret Power as Safety. When I was a child, no grownup of my acquaintance would have submitted to a non-medical stranger’s groping their (and their family’s) genitals as a public pre-condition to visiting grandma. Power becomes more nakedly visible… we fade (or become transparent, via Facebook).

    “And secondly, the best way you convince people you’re not lying to them is to tell them you are!”

    Zizek’s double-bluff! I wish I could find an actual and complete transcript of the recent “Zizek in Tel Aviv” event because I’d like to debate the danger of Zizek as a “Success Story” (or as one of Hegemony’s trinkets or as Power’s Sneakiest Cheerleader). Ziz too-often reminds me of the sassy Bohemian rom com female who aims barbs at the Handsome Rightwing (but secretly charitable) Billionaire she’s been saddled with via some ridiculous plot contrivance (the break-up of the Soviet Union?) for most of the flick. But we all know how that flick will end.

    • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

      Also: Re: Rebecca Black:  isn’t that song/video more about Rebecca’s will to Power than any direct expression of her joy in the everyday of vapid consumer youth? She went to a cheapo, walk-in production team, paid a fee, they put her into an accidental hit video (the production team’s original intent was to cheat her out of the fee by producing a product they never, in a million years, thought would be a “hit”). In some sense, it was as though Rebecca went to an Oracle and (paid a fee and) asked, “Will I be famous?” (aka, Powerful… in a local, Serfy, limited sense). And the Oracle lied: “Yes!” And the lie came true.

      • http://twitter.com/DougLain Douglas Lain

        I believe this is a very good description of the “behind the music” story of Black, but the video itself was a hit as a transparent celebration of the obscenely vapid.

    • http://twitter.com/DougLain Douglas Lain

      I agree with you that I should’ve written that power “appears” as displaced but is more present than ever.  In fact, I think the argument is that the more power works to be invisible the more omnipresent it will be.  When power fully exposes itself in all its brutality it is diminished.   Think of how the Bush administration undermined US power, and how one of Bush’s most successful defensive ploys was to appear to be  incompetent and stupid.  

      Zizek’s relationship to power is a strange one.  The key to understanding him is that he is not against power but wants it (just as you point out), and that he thinks that power is usually itself unconscious while we are self aware.  His idea is to turn that around.  This is why he’s an advocate of Christianity as the best kind of atheism.  In Christianity God knows that he doesn’t exist so that we don’t have to know.  Under Christianity God believes in our radical freedom for us.

      “Maybe we just need another chicken,” Zizek says.  

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QF4DLMLXG3T4TXSF4BIQUDW7BA Grant

    I don’t understand this piece. You outlined the basic difference between Freudian psychoanalysis and Lacanian psychoanalysis (reverse psychoanalysis?), only to claim there is no difference? The difference is, if you’re working with these are the broad caricatures you represent, that the Freudian retains a positivist, physiological notion of the mind, while the Lacanian thinks of the system as being the outcome of a symbolic and signifying system. These are different. Their difference seems obvious. Your confusion of these two is not.

    • http://twitter.com/DougLain Douglas Lain

      Grant: Psychoanalysis in reverse is not Lacanian, but is a term picked up from the Frankfurt school.  It is the way ISAs work on keeping us unconscious.  What I tried to note in the essay was that Zizek’s interpretation of ideology as something that is best maintained by ironic distance, and an ISA as a ritual or fiction that believes for you, seems to lead to a doublebind.  

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QF4DLMLXG3T4TXSF4BIQUDW7BA Grant

    Also, that is not what “the male gaze” means. The Male Gaze is the technique by which the camera produces women as objects to be looked at, and men as subjects to look, and then genders all objects looked upon as feminine and all objects that look as masculine.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QF4DLMLXG3T4TXSF4BIQUDW7BA Grant

    Also, that is not what “the male gaze” means. The Male Gaze is the technique by which the camera produces women as objects to be looked at, and men as subjects to look, and then genders all objects looked upon as feminine and all objects that look as masculine.

    • http://twitter.com/DougLain Douglas Lain

      The male gaze is the gaze of signification.  Mulvey and others focus on how women are situated in films especially, however women and nature are put into the same position by this account, and in more general terms this approach to signification raises the one who looks, who desires, to the level of a creator.  In analysis the patient assumes a female/hysterical role while the analysts waits to see what meaning can be found.   
      So, again, the male gaze doesn’t just objectify women, but gives meaning to otherwise inert and meaningless female bodies. In the same way that the detective in Psych arrives and by looking gives meaning to the otherwise trivial crime scene.  

    • http://twitter.com/DougLain Douglas Lain

      One other comment.  My point about Psych was that, by appearing as a fraud the one who knows or who has the power of the male gaze can paradoxically reinforce the reality of his subjective perceptions as objective.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    I want to meet zizek and mirror his ticks

  • http://rmimms.tumblr.com Renee

    the easiest way to understand Zizek is listening to him talk. Otherwise,  I get lost fairly quickly. Just barely cracked The Plague of Fantasies and trying not to throw in the towel.

    • http://twitter.com/DougLain Douglas Lain

      I’ve read the Plague of Fantasies, and it’s not always easy.  I recommend “How to Read Lacan” as a good place to start with Zizek.  The Zizek movie Zizek! and the Pervert’s Guide to Cinema are both very accessible and fun. 

      • http://rmimms.tumblr.com Renee

        Cool, I will definitely go look for  “How to Read Lacan.”

  • Kekec Lolek

    This video is packed with homoerotic libidinal tension.

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