Is Buffy a Lacanian? Or, What Is Enlightenment? – Matthew Sharpe

Matthew Sharpe brings the Lacan-informed critical theory of Slavoj Zizek to bear upon Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This essay looks at both the diegetic universe of Buffy, and considers television. as a ‘symptomatic’ product of the current later capitalist culturo-political conjuncture. In particular, as the subtitle indicates, Buffy is considered in order to raise questions concerning where we might stand today vis-a-vis the enlightenment project of opposing all things spectral and vampyric in the name of rendering social and political life transparent to reason. Following Zizek, who argues that later modern social reproduction is entrenched in an essential cynicism, it is suggested that contemporary power can always laugh at itself. How this positions Buffy’s light-hearted self-referentiality is the concern.

Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” was written at the end of the eighteenth century, at the height of the modern age. It is a highlight in the cultural self-expression of modernism. Kant argues that humans can free themselves from the self-imposed binds of superstition and dogmatism, to ‘sapere aude’: or ‘dare to think for themselves’. Yet, as Slavoj Zizek has argued, the piece has a darker side. ‘Think and argue as much as you like’, Kant ends by saying, ‘but obey!’ the rules of your community in the meanwhile. There is a parallel here with Descartes’ Discourse on Method, that earlier masterpiece of independent modernist thought, which yet supports a completely conventional ‘provisional morality’ until reason can think everything through. It might seem a far cry to link Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’, dark side or no, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Kant’s name does not appear on the ‘buffyguide’ website, which advertises itself as “the complete Buffy episode guide”. And it certainly will appear to be an even less likely to try to read ‘Kant with Buffy’ by way of questioning whether Buffy herself, or the show, is Lacanian or has psychoanalytic credentials. Free association is not high on Buffy’s list of curative procedures. Yet this task of thinking Buffy alongside of Kant, by way of Lacan, is what I propose to pursue here. As I shall hope finally to show, the double side of enlightenment, together with Kant’s injunction ‘think what you want, but obey!’, will be exactly my central concern. It would be easy to propose a psychoanalytic reading of Buffy as staging a whole series of delusional paranoid motifs. Such a reading could even draw specifically on Lacan’s central diagnostic and meta-psychological categories.

Buffy’s sense of being chosen, the conflict between her calling as a slayer and her normal social and sexual development, the absence of Buffy’s father and her anxious clingy mother all spring to mind. Interestingly, an episode in series 6 has exactly staged the scenario that Buffy Summers is nothing more than a very sick girl. Yet the problem with such a reading, on top of its impressive reductivism, is its failure to understand or even raise the ‘historicality’ of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is not solely an academic concern, either. In doing so, it fails to understand the immense popularity of the show in the contemporary world, including the fact that it has managed to rate highly in Australia even at 10:30 on weeknights.

What I want to do here is use the Lacan-inspired critical theory of Slavoj Zizek to try to problematise exactly the historicality of Buffy as a contemporary cultural artefact, and even as what we sometimes strangely call a ‘phenomenon’. The paper has two parts. Part 1 argues two things. The first is that Buffy is a later modern variation on the vampire mytheme that has haunted modernity from if not its inception, certainly at least its eighteenth century height. The second is that this vampire mytheme gives one figure to the modern enlightened subject’s uncanny double, or everything that it ‘can’t leave behind’ (to quote U2). Part II then takes up this argument to problematise the ‘post-modernity’ of Buffy, and also the whole notion of ‘post-modernity’ itself’. The central claim here is Zizek’s observation that today the predominant mode of consumerist subjectivity, one that is openly cynical of all authority, ironically seems to live Kant’s dream of ‘thinking what one wants, but obeying’, and simultaneously to turn it into a parody of Kant’s ideals. Does Buffy partake in this cynical enlightenment or anti-enlightenment, or does the show itself- and the paradigms of behavior it presents us- challenge it? As the title reads, the paper asks a question.

Part I: Buffy with Kant: or The Philosophical Dignity of the Undead

If Slavoj Zizek were to be confronted with the traumatized lament of Buffy and her fellows- namely, ‘why are the vampires haunting us in Sunnydale?’- what I want to say is that he would probably reply: ‘why are you surprised? The undead haven’t ceased returning since around the time of the romantics, up to and including the innumerable twentieth century versions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Anne Rice’s blockbuster novels.” In both Enjoy Your Symptom and Tarrying With the Negative, Zizek has pointed out how recurrent the vampire mytheme has been in the historical evolution of modernity, certainly since the end of the eighteenth century. What I want to focus on here, however, is how Zizek’s argument is that this cultural pre-eminence of the vampire in modern times is not a mere historical coincidence. His argument is that there are deeper philosophical reasons that undergird it.

We can approach what Zizek means through recalling what happens to the vampires when they are about to ‘feed’ in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To cite <>, reflecting on the first episode:

While many traditional elements (sleeping in coffins, turning into bats and wolves) have been discarded or ignored, the vampires in this episode (and by extension, the whole series) do not seem to deviate very much from the standard vampire mythos. [For example, there is] … the facial change when ‘the feed is upon them’ …

When a vampire ‘shows his true colors’ in Buffy, this manifestation of vampiric desire is manifest on the surface of his body. More precisely, it shows itself on the face, that bodily surface usually held in Western iconography to be directly expressive of the soul. In Buffy, the foreheads of the vampires particularly are disfigured, so their eye sockets resemble those of an enraged cat or wolf.

In his 1993 work Enjoy Your Symptom!, Zizek undertakes an extensive analysis of such monstrosity, or what he calls ‘the monstrous’ [das Unform]. He broaches the topic of the ‘monstrous’, though, through a meditation on the nature of the sublime in the work of Immanuel Kant. The key point in Kant that Zizek focuses on is where the latter comments in The Critique of Judgment that our perception of the sublimity of sublime objects (such as a hurricane or storm) clearly depends on where we stand with regard to them. The man clinging to the drain pipe as his house is flying away, for example, is hardly likely to be taken by the sublimity of the hurricane. He needs to view it from a certain distance, and perhaps from indoors, etc. What this elementary observation signals in Zizek’s reading, is the insight that what we perceive as sublime is not ever ‘by itself’ sublime. Rather, sublimity ‘in itself’ is always already ‘for us’- or, put differently, it is already a profoundly subjective effect.

This doesn’t mean that it isn’t ‘really real’. Au contraire, for Zizek the subjects’ seeing an object as sublime depends on how his/her partial or ‘pathological’ subjective perspective on objective reality is situated in the field of this reality itself, and will over-determine how this reality is perceived. This is important for Zizek’s analysis of monsters and vampires because Zizek’s contention in Enjoy Your Symptom! is that what it indicates also explains why it is that we perceive certain things within the world as monstrous or horrifying.

His point is that, as narratives from Genesis up until Jurassic Park have insisted, it is precisely whenever human beings do come too close to a direct apprehension of whatever trans-phenomenal dimension is signaled to us in the sublime, that they are exposed to forces of unfathomable destructive potential. For Zizek, the truth being staged in these fictions is that monstrosity is ‘speculatively identical’ with the sublime. What he means is that the difference between monstrosity and the sublime concerns not the content of the objects in question. It is – again- a difference ‘for us’: that is, it concerns wholly our distance from the ‘noumenal’ alterity which the objects’ ‘might’ or ‘magnitude’ intimate.

Zizek puts his contention this way:

The boundary that separates beauty from disgust is … far more unstable than it may seem, since it is always contingent on a specific cultural [or symbolic] space: [thus] the ‘anamorphotic’ torture of the body which can exert such a fascination within some cultural spaces (from the bandaging of female feet in China, the Indo-Chinese tribe whose women put tight rings on their necks in order to protect them, etc., up to erection itself, the paradigm of anamorphotic protraction of a piece of reality), can evoke nothing but disgust in a foreign [or uninvolved] gaze. [ES, 160]

I can now make clear how I want to relate this Zizekian-Kantian insight to Buffy. In the light of these observations, Zizek suggests in Enjoy Your Symptom! that:

‘Lacan’s definition of the sublime (‘an object elevated to the dignity of the Thing’) could be rendered as ‘the sublime is an object, a piece of reality, upon which the Real of [our] desire is inscribed by means of an anamorphotic grimace [on its surface].’ [ES, 160]

It is certainly in point here that Sunnydale’s grimacing monsters have a penchant for feeding only at the high-school and local nightclub and that Buffy the ‘slayer’ herself is only just ‘of an age’. In line with Zizek’s contention concerning vampires, these are exactly the places where adolescent sexual desire is provoked and problematized in our culture. The fondness of vampires throughout the ages for virgins in whom sexuality is newly budded also doesn’t bear my comment. As Zizek comments:

The coincidence of motifs between high art (and theory) and mass culture is today a theoretical commonplace: is not the clearest figuration of the famous je est un autre [of Rimbaud] to be found in the mass-culture tradition of vampires and living dead who ‘decentre’ the subject, undermining from within his consistency and self-control?’ [ES, 113]

Vampires, on Zizek’s reading, that is, are an exemplary instance of what Lacan called extimate objects. On the one hand, they are manifestly ex-ternal or ‘out there’, beyond the pale even of ordinary experience. But the thing is that, in their monstrosity, they condense everything intimate to or within ourselves that we have to have let go in order to have achieved anything like a normal social and sexual identity. In a word, Zizek argues that vampires are one of the privileged cultural mythemes in which the West has figured the repressed, and allowed it to return in a metaphorical form.

I think that it is only here, with this reference to vampires as ‘returns of the repressed’, that we can fully broach the reason why Buffy can be read with Kant, by using Zizek. The reason ultimately concerns Zizek’s repeated denial of the standard ‘post-structuralist’ or ‘post-modernist’ understanding that the enlightenment subject expounded by Kant is the triumphal bearer of universal knowledge. As Hegel already highlighted, Kant’s subject in The Critique of Pure Reason, is precisely no-thing. It is a point of apperceptive unity that we must presuppose in order to explain how perceptions can be unified into intelligible knowledge-claims about the world. But this does not mean that it can itself be known like the things that it knows. Zizek quotes Kant:

Of this I or he or it (the thing) which thinks, nothing further is represented than a transcendental subject of the thoughts= X. It is known only though the thoughts which are its predicates, and of it, apart from them, we cannot have any concept whatsoever … [Kant, CPR, A346]

What the first Kantian Critique of Pure Reason indeed glimpses, Zizek argues, is that the constitution of phenomenal reality or ‘world’ can only ever proceed if the ‘Thing in Itself’ which we each are ‘in the Real’ is unknowable or, as he will say, ‘primordially repressed’. [ES, 137] Yet it is only the correlative of this truth that, as Zizek puts it, and as I exposed above with his argument concerning the monstrous: “The blank space of the Thing in itself is therefore something extremely dangerous to approach- if one gets too close to it, ‘world’ itself loses its ontological consistency, like the anamorphotic stain on Holbein’s Ambassadors,: when we shift our perspective and perceive it ‘as it is’ (as a skull), all remaining reality loses its consistency …” [ES, 137]

What the enlightenment subject encounters when he encounters a monstrous vampire, Zizek thus states, is: "… the Thing which is his impossible equivalent … the subject himself, conceived as Thing.” [ES, 137] This is why Zizek thinks that we ought not be surprised that vampires never appear in the mirror, that exemplary screen upon which the subject first recognises and misrecognises its unitary social identity. Zizek says: "It is … clear why vampires are invisible in the mirror: because they have read Lacan and, consequently, know how to behave- they materialise [the primordially repressed Thing] which, by definition, cannot be mirrored.” [ES, 126]

Again, Zizek claims that when popular culture names vampires as ‘Things’, we need to hear in this trope “its full Kantian meaning”. [TN, 113 (my italics)] Vampires are exactly ‘Things which think’, Zizek comments [TN, 113]: unheimlich ‘doubles’ of the modern subject qua substance-less point of apperception. [ES, 124 ff.] These grimacing undead who cannot stand the ‘light of day’ are a finite being’s best imaginary attempts to give figure to what is properly (for it) un-representable, when its usual horizon of understanding, which keeps this un-representable at a distance, has broken down. As he writes:

Invoking the ‘living dead’ is no accident here: in our ordinary language, we resort to indefinite judgment precisely when we endeavor to comprehend those borderline phenomena which undermine established differences, such as those between living and being dead. In the texts of popular culture, the uncanny creatures which are neither alive nor dead (vampires, etc.) are referred to as ‘the undead’ : although they are not dead, they are clearly not alive like us, ordinary mortals … In short, the difference between the vampire and the living person is the difference between indefinite judgment and negative judgment: a dead person loses the predicates of a living being, yet he or she remains the same person; an undead, on the contrary, retains all the predicates of a living being without being one …” [TN, 113; cf. Kant, CPR, A71-2; B307-311]

Part II: Sunnydale, or ‘(Post-) Modernity and its Discontents’

True Buffy fans, I know it, will have wanted for some time to contest the reading of the show I have been developing. The reason is simply this: haven’t I missed something in equating Buffy with the modern age’s collective vampire fixation? Surely, if there is anything gothic, dark or dire about Buffy, it is also patently tongue in cheek. The vampires in Buffy are after all much more ‘post-modern’ than all that they are as comic as they are horrifying. Spike, for example, who was once Buffy’s arch-enemy (until a felicitous metal chip in his head has socialized him [1] ) is nothing if not tres chique. Similarly (with the possible exception of an episode like “Hush”), it could hardly be said that suspense or terror are the key emotions invoked and played upon by Buffy’s adventures, as they were in the classic vampire tales.

Apart from when random ghouls appear for Buffy to thoughtlessly slay, from the first minutes of each show it is generally the case that we are shown who or what Buffy has to deal with, and are made to know how she’s going to have to do it. We are even encouraged to positively identify with several of Buffy’s main protagonists, two of whom at least have at times become her allies and lovers. It is evident, in this way, that our primary way of identifying with Buffy and her friends is less through their being the victims of monstrous visitations, as with the classical vampire stories, than through our recognizing ourselves in their constantly self-conscious and worldly banter.

I am tempted to say of these protests what J. L. Austen once said of his ‘speech-act’ theory: their only real merit is that they are absolutely right. I nevertheless want to raise a question about any simple alignment of Buffy as a wholly unprecedented ‘post-modern’ vampire tale in Part II. In Part I, I have already made the claim that the contemporary fascination with vampire and ghouls, in which Buffy partakes, is by itself nothing new to the contemporary world. If Zizek is right, to quote again: “… the ‘monster’ is the subject of the enlightenment, … the mode in which the subject of the enlightenment acquires his impossible, positive existence …” [ES, 134]

The second major argument that I want to put in the paper, however, involves a quite different claim, touching on the ‘darker’ side of enlightenment I mentioned in introducing the paper. The issue here involves Slavoj Zizek’s reflection on our contemporary condition, and the state of our ‘enlightenment’ today. Even Zizek’s first contribution to political philosophy was to challenge the position of such thinkers as Umberto Eco arguably upheld in The Name of the Rose. This is the position that power are wholly dour or serious affairs, defined by the lack of humor. Zizek’s position in The Sublime Object of Ideology is the argument that the reproduction of contemporary capitalism, at least, turns around its generation of a profoundly cynical mode of subjectivity that is only too capable of laughing at itself, and the pretences of public authority. Today, he observes, few of us believe in a simple way the ‘beautiful lies’ of neo-liberalist theory, or of the ‘polies’ from Canberra or Spring Street. Parodies of Bush, Blair and Howard circulate daily around office email circuits.

Meanwhile, the consumerist discourse of advertisements tell us to find our true selves behind the social masks. As theorists such as Thomas Frank have also highlighted, the management theory of the IT- revolution encourages us to be anything but the dour and serious subjects of a protestant work ethic. We are rather supposed now to be hip and creative, and to enjoy ourselves a little in the office.

The thing Zizek is concerned with about this is exactly that, despite our cool ability to laugh at power and its pretences, we still go on acting like good liberal-capitalist subjects: consuming, voting, going to work, and ‘tending our own gardens’, as if nothing indeed had changed from the days of the bad old Protestant work ethic. Following the theorist Sloterditk and his Critique of Cynical Reason, Zizek has for this reason argued since 1989 that contemporary subjectivity is one of enlightened false consciousness. With today’s consumerist subjectivity, Zizek suggests that we witness a strange apotheosis of enlightenment thinking, at least as it was formulated in Kant’s strange injunction that I introduced at the start of this paper- ‘think all you want, but obey!’ in the land-mark essay “What is Enlightenment?”. [SO, ch. 1]

Certainly, our contemporary consumerist version of enlightenment is one that Kant himself could not have foreseen, and probably wouldn’t have recognized. Notably, a reversal of public and private spheres has arguably occurred, relative to Kant’s eighteenth century aspiration to a free sphere of public debate. As theorists such as Naomi Klein lament, today increasingly the public sphere is one emptied of contestatory discourse in favor of ‘mature’ post-ideological conformity, where neo-liberalism is taken to be not only the best but the only possible way of organizing the sociopolitical order.

It is in the private sphere that we are each encouraged to be fully expressive subjects, pursuing our own brands of happiness, and creative money-makers. What today’s situation leads Zizek to argue, then, is that we cannot properly say that we live in a post-political age. Rather, as we are having forcibly impressed upon us after September 11, more than ever ideological power may have just deepened its hold upon us. What if ideology just by-passes our chique consumerist cynicism, and captures us precisely ‘where it hurts’ and where we enjoy- primarily at the level of social practices and beliefs that we don’t think about so much as repeat? This is Zizek’s question to us, in which I think we can properly discern a ‘post-modern variant’ of Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’.

Zizek makes the following claim concerning contemporary jingoism in both the first world and its ‘others’ in our post-consumerist world (and its should be stressed that he wrote this before September 11 2002:

… there is no incompatibility between the ‘post-modern’ cynical attitude of non-identification, of distance towards [explicit] ideology, and the manifest obsession with the national Thing. The Thing is the substance of enjoyment, according to Lacan, the cynic is a person who believes only in enjoyment- and is not the clearest example of it precisely the cynic obsessed with the National Thing?” [ME, 57]

That America, the much-maligned centre of consumerist privatism, could at the same time be home to a nationalism that would almost be touching if it were not armed to the hilt and inclined to paranoia, is an historical antinomy that has never been more in point than today. The question that this paper wants to raise by considering Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though- and it is of course no more than a question- is actually a variant of Zizek’s rhetorical question concerning the ‘National Thing’ that I just cited. It is this: is perhaps a clearer example still of a cynical ideological subjectivity today- moreso than Zizek’s jingoistic consumer- the ‘post-modern’ adolescent preoccupied by day with worldly success, but fascinated nocturnally by the possibility that vampires, demons, monsters or aliens supposedly operative ‘behind the scenes’ of what is publicly avowed?

Is there, or is there not, a link between our interminable fascination with vampires and their kin, even issuing from a ‘hell mouth’, and the West’s continuing difficulty in peaceably symbolizing its Others, who now more than ever are being rendered as potentially wholly alien, evil or even monstrous? And is the guiding humor of Buffy then not just one more instance of a cynicism which, while maybe not being directly political, in its very a-politicality is politically important? Does the type of humor evidenced in Buffy, that is, merely provide us with thee compensation of a conscious sense of distance and maturity, beneath which we are enjoying an immersion in the much less enlightened modes of thinking that we could never allow ourselves to own up to directly, but only beneath the layer of a jaded distance? Should we then read the name ‘Sunnydale’, where Buffy and the ‘scooby gang’ live and pursue their happiness, as a condensation of the new double side of enlightenment- at once ‘sunny’ in its apparent post-political pursuit of private happiness, and yet beneath the surfaces- or in its fascination with what must be beneath the surfaces- bound to a dark ‘dale’ of fantasies about the enjoyment of strangers without and within.

An essay like this can at most raise such a question. More than this, I think that it holds true of any program like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that so sharply raises them by so powerfully captivating virtually a generation of first world students, is never going to be simply ‘good’ or ‘evil’. There is as little point in playing the Frankfurt School game of completely dissing popular culture, as there is in wholly ‘letting go’ of all critical distance. I think there is enough joyful irony, genuine intelligence, satire, and powerful affirmative representations of friendship and ethical conduct in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to support the argument that it is a little unfair on Buffy, Xander, Willow, Tara, Giles, Spike, Drusilla, Faith, Dawn, Angel and Cordelia to wholly dismiss the show as so much more distractive-consumerist trash.

Only one thing is certain, in fact, and this is that, although Buffy may not be a Lacanian, we can see that her bearing towards the un-dead does have some similarity to the calling of the Lacanian analyst. Why is this? The psychoanalyst, too, is confronted daily by the ghouls and vampires of their patients’ symptoms. Should they simply celebrate them? Is unlocking them in their inscrutable Otherness the key to our redemption? We all know what Buffy’s answer is within the show. It is a thinly disguised contemporary version of the line that Marx pilched from Christ: ‘Let the dead bury the dead’. In deference to the slayer, perhaps our political bearing should be: give ‘em the stake!


[1] In a remarkable imaginary figuring of the Lacanian name of the father.



Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason

——–The Critique of Judgment, in Kant (Encyclopedia Britannica: Chicago, 1952).

[SO] Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object Of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989).

[LA] Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Lacan Through Popular Culture (Cambridge: Mass.: MIT Press, 1991).

[ES] Slavo Zizek, Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood (London and New York, 1992).

[TN] Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying With the Negative (Durham: Duke Uni. Press, 1993).

[ME] Slavoj Zizek, Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality (London: Verso, 1994)

[MI] Slavoj Zizek (ed.), Mapping Ideology (London: Verso, 1995)

[PF] Slavoj Zizek, Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997)

[TS] Slavoj Zizek, Ticklish Subject (London: Verso, 1999)