What is "The Pervert's Guide to Ideology" About?20 Dec 2017
Like many people who like ideas, I found the movie "The Pervert's Guide to Ideology" utterly fascinating. The movie presents philosopher Slavoj Žižek's philosophy and his views on "ideology". He does so through analogies to movies in which he is himself inserted.
(Although let's be frank, the movie would be just as enjoyable as a powerpoint presentation with occasional video excerpts.)
Even while I was watching the movie, I was thinking that a good part of it was lost on me. While Žižek's presents his points quite entertainingly, there are many of them, and the discussion goes into all kinds of directions. The different topics are never explicitly tied together, even though the movie ends on a call-to-action of sorts. But as I was watching the movie, I sometimes couldn't remember what was the topic two scenes prior.
Hence I decided to go through the movie again, but this time to produce a summary, like I have done on this blog multiple times for books and online articles. However what ended up happening is that I produced a sort of condensed and annotated transcript of the movie, broken up into scenes.
I also included a thematic summary at the end, but without having read the rest (or watched the movie) I'm afraid it's quite worthless.
Here comes the big talk, I hope you enjoy it!
I already am eating from the trashcan all the time. The name of this trashcan is ideology.
The material force of ideology makes me not see what I'm effectively eating. It's not only our reality which enslaves us. The tragedy of our predicament when we are within ideology, is that when we think that we escape it into our dreams - at that point we are within ideology.
Movie: They Live
Using special "critique-of-ideology" glasses, the hero is able to see the real message beneath all the propaganda.
But in reality, it is ideology which acts like glasses. The critique of ideology should be like taking off the glasses so as to see reality as it really is.
However, ideology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world - how we perceive each meaning.
We, in a way, enjoy our ideology. To step out of ideology is a painful experience, we must force ourselves to do it.
You must be forced to be free. If you trust simply your spontaneous sense of well-being, you will never get free.
When taken out of the movie like this, that last paragraph sounds somewhat ominous.
While the idea resonates, the real tragedy of it is that it probably resonates with 90+% of the people. Everyone thinks everyone else are blind sheep.
Movie: The Sound of Music
The basic insight of psychoanalysis is to distinguish between enjoyment and simple pleasures. They are not the same. Enjoyment is enjoyment in disturbed pleasure - even enjoyment in pain. And this excessive factor disturbs the apparently simple relationship between duty and pleasures.
This is also a space where ideology, especially religious ideology, operates.
In the movie, the heroin is a nun sent to tutor children in a rich family. She ultimately falls in love wih the widowed father of the children. Scared, she runs back to the covent, but the mother superior encourages her to go back and follow her heart.
This illustrates where the power of attraction of the catholic religion resides. Catholicism doesn't really prohibit (in this case sexual pleasures), but rather gives a hidden permission, as you are covered by the divine "Big Other".
This is a characteristic of the Catholic church as an instution, and is the logic of institution at its purest. The explicit message - "renounce, suffer, ..." - contradicts the true hidden message: "pretend to renouce, and you can get it all".
Psychoanalysts told Žižek their patients do not feel guilty because of excessive pleasures, pleasure who would go against their sense of duty or morality; but on the contrary, they feel guilty for not enjoying enough, for not being able to enjoy.
This reminds me of two other views of religion. One is that of Nietzsche, who loaths Christianity as an opiate, for it makes people feel good about lacking what they desire (sex, power, ...).
The other one (I forgot the source), says that while Protestantism is mostly based on personal guilt, Catholicism works on externalized shame. A Protestant faces his guilt alone, meaning he can't get rid of it without addressing its cause. The Catholic, on the other hand, always has the confessional as a way to wipe the slate clean.
Putting the three points of view together, you get sort of a win-win situation: if you can't get what you want, you get to feel virtuous; otherwise enjoy, but don't forget to confess and keep a pious demeanour.
Visuals: Žižek walks the desert and talks about Coca Cola, then about the Kinder Suprise egg.
Marx emphasized that a commodity is never just a simple object that we buy and consume. A commodity is an object full of theological, even metaphysical, niceties. Its presence always reflects an invisible transcendence. And the classical publicity for Coke quite openly refers to this absent, invisible quality. Coke is "The Real Thing" or "Coke - That's it". It's not just a chemical property or something that can be pinpointed.
In our post-modern socities, we are obliged to enjoy. Enjoyment becomes a kind or a weird perverted duty.
The paradox of Coke is that you are thirsty, but the more you drink it the more thirsty you get. A desire is never simply the desire for certain thing. It's always also a desire for desire itself.
Perhaps the ultimate horror of a desire is to be fully filled-in, met - so that I desire no longer. The ultimate melancholic experience is the experience - of a loss of desire itself.
We cannot return to some foregone era where we were only consuming for actual needs - if you were thirsty, you drank water, and so on. The excess is with us forever.
When Coke gets warm - improperly served - it loses its attraction. It's no longer "the real thing". What was transcendant can suddenly turn into shit. It's the elementary dialectics of commodities.
This has nothing to do with its ability to quench thirst. We are talking only here about that elusive surplus.
In the Kinder surprise, the commodity's surplus - the excessive object, the cause of your desire - is materialized as the plastic toy inside the chocolate egg.
The egg is what we bought and the toy is what we get for free. But Žižek doesn't believe the egg is there to send us on a deeper voyage towards the inner treasure that makes the commodity desirable. He thinks it's the other way around: we should aim at the higher goal - the gold in the middle of an object - precisely in order to be able to enjoy the surface.
I'm not sure I understand all the implications of that last distinction, but it echoes strongly in my mind with the path/goal distinction.
Is is a frequent trope that what really matters is the journey towards a goal, rather than the goal itself. This is often supported by the fact that each goal gives way to another goal - the completion of a goal unable to give us lasting satisfaction. The journeys comprise most of our live, while the "arriving" moments where we fullfill a goal are instantaneous and fleeting.
And that, in turn, meshes with what Žižek says about desire - desire is always also desire for desire itself; the loss of desire is inherently unsatisfying.
A more street-level view about this is that if you don't enjoy the process, you will be miserable even if you manage to fullfill your goals.
Some research shows there is a base rate of happiness, and that beyond the bare fundamentals, material conditions do very little to improve it. This is the difference between being born rich and becoming rich. Or better, as Hegel would say "To be free is nothing, to become free is everything." There is not happiness without struggle.
Mark Manson, my favorite street-philosopher, says it's much more important to know what pain you are willing to bear (and in fact, enjoy) than what you want to get (the goal's payload), as that is what ultimately determine how much you enjoy the journey you are going to embark on - as well as improve the chance that you will actually make it to the goal. He often phrases the question rather poetically: "What's your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?" Read about it here.
EDIT: I can't resist to link to this very funny response to Žižek regarding this scene.
Visuals: Propagandist Imagery
Movie: A Clockwork Orange
Note: The "Ode to Joy" is the unofficial name of the fourth movement of Beeethoven's Ninth Symphony.
What does this famous "Ode to Joy" stand for? It's usually perceived as a kind of ode to humanity, to the brotherhood and freedom of all people.
What is striking here is the universal adaptability of this well-known melody. It has been used by political movements which are totally opposed to each other: Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and China, Apartheid-era South Rodesia, the modern European Union, ...
This is how every ideology has to work. It's never just meaning, it always has to also work as an empty container open to all possible meanings.
It's a bit like the gut feeling we have when we experience something pathetic ("arousing pity, sympathy, or compassion") and we conclude that there is something deep at work. But we never know what this depth is: it's a void.
Whenever an ideological text says: "all humanity unite in brotherhood and joy" and so on, we should alwasy ask whether they mean really all, or if some are excluded.
In the movie A Clockwork Orange, Alex, the protagonist and a cynical delinquent, is fascinated with the Ode to Joy. According to Žižek, it's because he identifies with this place of exclusion.
Beethoven himself explicitly states this exclusion. We all know the main melody of the Ode to Joy, the part that has been used by various governments and organization. But the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony is actually more than twenty minutes long, and at some point it transitions into a non-longer sublimely-beautiful, carnivalesque rythm. Interestingly this rythm is also featured in A Clockwork Orange.
According to Žižek, Beethoven identified the first (beautiful) part with ideology. The second (carnivalesque) part tells the story of that which disturbs the official ideology and of the failure of the offical ideology to constrain and tame it. Beethoven was in fact practicing critique of ideology through music.
I must admit the point being made in this scene, beyond "don't trust all is well and we're all brothers ideology" escapes me.
Movie: West Side Story
Visuals: CCTV footage of English riots of August 2011
In West Side Story, there is a musical number where young delinquents explain to a (absent) police officer why they are delinquents: they were raised badly, society has played a trick on them, they need a job, etc. But of course, if they know all that, why are they acting the way they are?
This sounds like the standard liberal explanation for the English riots: it cannot be condemned as delinquent vandalism, because of the external conditions that lead the delinquents to conduct their actions.
For Žižek, this explanation is wrong, because we always have the choice of how we subjectively interpret our objective conditions. But similarly, he judges the conservative response demanding more policing and stern judgement to be too simple.
Regarding the violent form of the protests, and in particular theft; Žižek says that the delinquents are totally caught up in the dominant ideology of pure consumerism. They are unable to act it out in their day-to-day life, and so act it out violently as a form of protest.
Because of the disintegration of "big ideologies" such as justice, equality, etc, only pure consumerism is left functionning.
While the idea that "non-ideological" protests work within the paradigm of the ruling ideology sounds nifty, I'm pretty sure looting has been a mainstay of non-ideological protests well before consumerism was a thing.
Movie: Taxi Driver & The Searchers
The its last scene, Taxi Driver brings the brutal outburts of violence to its radical suicidal dimension.
In the movie, Travis, the protagonist, is victim of his fantasies about a young prostitute. Fantasy is in psychoanalytical perspective fundamentally a lie. Not in the sense that fantasy is not reality, but in the sense that fantasy covers up a certain gap in consistency.
When things are blurred, when we cannot really get to know things, fantasy provides an easy answer. The usual mode of fantasy is to construct a scene - not a scene where I get what I desire - but a scene in which I imagine myself as desired by others.
Taxi Driver shares its structure with the western movie The Searchers. In both films, the hero tries to save a young woman who is perceived as a victim of brutal abuse. The task is always to save the perceived victim. But what really drives this violence of the hero is a deep suspicion that the victim is not simply a victim. That the victim, effectively in a perverted way enjoys or participates in what appears as her victimhood.
In the political dimension, this is the big problem of American military interventions, especially so-called humanitarian interventions. From Iraq to already Vietnam half a century ago. We try to help them, but what if they really did not want our help? The result of this debilitating deadlock can only be an outburst of violence.
Towards the end of the film, Travis explodes in a killing spree.
Violence is never just abstract violence. It's a kind of brutal intervention in the real to cover up a certain impotence concerning what we may call cognitive mapping. You lack a clear picture of what's going on.
At the end of his killing spree, barely alive, he symbolically with his fingers points a gun at his own head. Clear sign that all this violence was basically suicidal.
According to Žižek, you should have the outburts of violence, but it should be directed internally, at what ties you to the ruling ideology.
I'm missing a why here.
In Jaws, a shark starts to attack people on the beach. What does this attack mean and what does the shark stand for?
There were different, even mutually exclusive answers to this question: foreign threat, natural disasters, threatening immigrants, brutal big capital, ... According to Žižek, the right answer is "all of them and none of them". The function of the shark is to unite all the people's fears so that we can in away trade all these fears for one fear alone. In this way our experience of reality gets much simpler.
Nazi anti-semitism worked in exactly the same way.
An ordinary German citizen in the late 20s early 30s is - in an abstract way - like a small child: totally perplexed. Nothing fucntions. Why is that? What does society wants from him? The newspapers lie to him, and he lost his work and money because of the inflation.
The original fascist dream, like every ideology, is to have a cake and eat it too. Fascism is basically a conservative revolution: economic development, modern industry; yet none the less reasserting a traditional hierarchical society, with no class or other antagonisms. Yet these dangers are inherent to capitalism. Modernisation and industrialisation means disintegration of old stable relations, it means social conflict. Instability is the way capitalism functions.
The solution then is to generate an ideological narrative which explains how things went wrong in a society, not as a result of the inherent tensions in the development of this society but as the result of a foreign intruder. "Things were ok until Jews penetrated our social body." The same operation as with the shark in Jaws.
The same happened when John Major was the UK's prime minister. The figure of the unemployed single mother was put forward as the culprit for a number of woes: violence in the suburbs (they couldn't raise their kids), budge deficits (we have to support them), etc.
In an ideological edifice you need some pseudo concrete image like this to fixate your imagination and then this image can mobilise us.
If we look at the anti-Semitic image of the Jew, it's crucial to notice how contradictory this figure is. Jews are at the same time extra intellectual - mathematicians, etc - and vulgar: not washing regularly, seducing innocent girls, etc. This is typical of racism: you try to imagine how the other enjoys their secret pleasures.
In racism, the other is not simply an enemy. His figure is also usually invested with some specific perverse enjoyment, or maybe he his someone who tries to steal our enjoyment from us.
Visuals: Nazi Propaganda & Rammstein Concerts
Not every element of the Nazi ideological of fascism should be disqualified, its insistence on community and solidarity for instance.
The German hard rock band Rammstein are often accused of playing with the Nazi militaristic iconography. But if one observes closely their show one can see very nicely what they are doing. The minimal elements of the Nazi ideology enacted by Rammstein are something like pure elements of libidinal investment. Enjoyment has to be, condensed in some minimal tics: gestures, which do not have any precise ideological meaning.
What Rammstein does is liberate these elements from their Nazi articulations. It allows us to enjoy them in their pre-ideological state. The way to fight Nazism is to enjoy these elements, ridiculous as they may appear, by suspending the Nazi horizon of meaning. This way you undermine Nazism from within.
So how does ideology articulate pre-ideological elements? These elements can also be seen as a kind of a bribe: the way ideology pays us to seduce us into its edifice. These bribes can be purely libidinal bribes: all those tics are condensed enjoyment. Or they can be explicit discursive elements like notions of solidarity of collective discipline, struggle for one's destiny and so on and so on. All these in itself are free floating elements which open themselves to different ideological fields.
Žižek talks about Starbucks coffee.
Are we aware that when we buy a cappuccino from Starbucks, we also buy quite a lot of ideology.
When you enter a Starbucks store, it's usually always displayed in some posters there, their message which is: Yes our cappuccino is more expensive than others but we give one percent of all our income to some Guatemala children to keep them healthy. For the water supply for some Sahara farmers, or to save the forests, to enable organic growing coffee, etc.
Žižek admires the ingeniosity of this solution. In the old days of pure simple consumerism, you bought a product and then you felt bad. "My God, I'm just a consumerist while people are starving in Africa." So the idea was you had to do something to counteract your pure distractive consumerism.
What Starbucks enables you is to be a consumerist without any bad conscience because the price for the counter measure - for fighting consumerism - is already included into the price of a commodity. You pay a little bit more and you are not just a consumerist but you do also your duty towards environment, the poor starving people in Africa and so on and so on. This is the ultimate form of consumerism.
Visuals: Plane Graveyard in the Mojave desert Movie: I Am Legend
We should not simply oppose a principal life, dedicated to duty, and enjoying our small pleasures.
Let's take today's capitalism. We have, on the one hand, the demands of the circulation of the capital which push us towards profit making - expansion, exploitation and destruction of nature - and, on the other hand, ecological demands: let's think about our posterity and about our own survival, let's take care of nature.
In this opposition between ruthless pursuit capitalist expansion and ecological awareness, duty - a strange perverted duty of course - is on the side of capitalism.
Capitalism has a strange religious structure. It is propelled by this absolute demand: capital has to circulate to reproduce itself to expand, and for this goal anything can be sacrificed, up to our lives, up to nature.
Capitalism is all the time in crisis. This is precisely why it appears almost indestructible. Crisis is not its obstacle, it is what pushes it forwards towards permanent self-revolutionising and self-reproduction - always new products.
What we see here in the Mojave desert's plane graveyard is the other side of capitalist dynamics: tremendous amount of waste. We shouldn't react to these heaps of waste by trying to somehow get rid of it. Maybe the first thing to do is to accept this waste. To accept that there are things out there which serve nothing. To break out of this eternal cycle of functioning.
The German philosopher Walter Benjamin said that we experience history, not when we are engaged in things, when things move, but only when we see this rest waste of culture being half retaken by nature. At that point we get an intuition of what history means (e.g. the plane graveyard or post-apocalyptic movies like I Am Legend).
What confronting this waste bring to us is maybe a chance for an authentic passive experience. Maybe something new only emerges through the failure, the suspension of proper functioning of the existing network of our life.
This last remark seems true. It is a well-known trope that only can only grow through adversity. It's also why capitalism is so good at perpetuating itself: it imposes an evolutionary pressure on its components.
Here, Žižek takes a step back and proposes to step back one level, and to consider the failure of capitalism as a system. As much as this is interesting to consider, it is maybe not so much something to wish for, for the immense upheaval and consequent suffering it would cause.
Unfortunately, as we will see later, Žižek seems to believe in the redemptive virtue of some kind of such upheaval or revolution.
What does the wreck of the Titanic stand for? The standard reading relates it to history: the society in all its glitz and glory unaware of its future decay - it would go on to face both world wars and the great depression.
But there is something in excess of this entire field of meanings - the presence of the ruin of the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean.
When James Cameron organised a trip to the real wreck of the Titanic, he also made a similar remark. When the explorers approached the wreck, they had this almost metaphysical experience - that they were approaching a forbidden territory in which the sacred and the obscene overlap.
Every effective political, ideological symbol or symptom has to rely on this dimension of petrified enjoyment. Of the frozen grimace of an excessive pleasure in pain.
According to Žižek, within the movie, the couple escaping together would have been the true catastrophe. The love affair might have lasted for a few weeks of intense sex before fading away.
Kate Winslet is an upper class girl in psychological distress confused, her ego is in shatters. The function of Leonardo Dicaprio is simply that he helps her to reconstitute her ego.
Žižek says it's a new version of an old imperialist myth: when the upper class people lose their vitality, they need a contact with lower classes. Basically ruthlessly exploiting them in a vampire like way as it were sucking from them the life energy. Revitalised they can join their secluded upper class life.
Often in history, the event which may appear as a catastrophe saves a person or an idea, elevating it into a myth. Such was the case when the soviet army crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, an attempt by Czech communists to introduce a more human-faced socialism. The brutal soviet intervention saved the dream: the attempt could only have turned into a liberal capitalist state, or into another authoritarian state, once boundaries became necessary again to ward off capitalism
In Titanic, through the temporal we have a love story which is redeemed in it's idea, saved for eternity. We can ultimately read the catastrophe as a desperate manoeuvre to save the illusion of eternal love.
In the final scene of the film, as Leonardo di Caprio stands frozen into the water, Kate Winslet repeats "I will never let go" but at the same time gently pushes him off into the water.
This is one of the most well remembered scenes of the film, I think in no small part because the final scene of the film echoes the commentary of the final scene of Titanic.
But clearly the superficial point made in this scene is memorable by itself: the rich vampirising the poor and Kate Winslet pushing off Leo di Caprio as a symbol of that.
I think it is also relatively unconvincing - but also utimately uninteresting. For one, I can't bring any similar example to mind (maybe the myth of the noble savage?), and it's not clear what the myth means or affects in practice.
I am not entirely sure what Žižek means when he says that every ideological symbol has to rely on "this dimension of petrified enjoyment". I think maybe he speaks about the "saving of the dream": that ideological symbols lose their power when they are put to the test of practice. That a symbol should evoke a vision that has either never been tested, or pertaining to an universe that is long gone. Just guessing.
Movie: The Fall of Berlin
The logic of the production of the couple has a long story in Hollywood and elsewhere. As a rule we always have a couple whose link is threatened and who somehow through this ordeal at the end happily gets together.
The Fall of Berlin is a Soviet movie that chronicles the second world war from the soviet standpoint. In that movie, the model worker is in love with a local girl, but too shy to propose to her. He is called to Moscow to receive a medal from Stalin who incidentally gives him some dating advice. At this point Žižek drops probably the funniest quote of the movie: "If Stalin gives you love advice, it has to succeed." So the couplet gets together, but then the obstacle enters: Germans capture the girl. The boy joins the Red Army and we follow him through all the great battles.
The idea being that in a deeper logic of the film, what these battles were about was really to recreate the couple. The boy has to get his girl. This is what happens at the end, but in a very strange way which reconfirms Stalin's role as the supreme divine matchmaker. Stalin emerges from an airplane, delivers a rousing speech; then the girl first sees Stalin, then turns around and sees her lover, for whom she was waiting all the time of the war. So it's only through the presence of Stalin that the couple gets reunited.
This is how ideology works: not Stalin's speech that says "all the free people will enjoy peace" etc, but ideology at its more fundamental. This apparently totally subordinated and unimportant motive, the story of a couple, this is what is the key element which holds the entire film together, that small surplus element which attracts us and maintains our attention.
Movies: M.A.S.H., Full Metal Jacket, and If...
We usually think that military discipline is just a matter of mindlessly following orders. Obeying the rules. You don't think, you do what is your duty. It's not as simple as that. If we do this, we just become machines. There has to be something more. This more can have two basic forms.
The first more benign form is an ironic distance, best epitomised by the movie and TV series *M.A.S.H., where the military doctors are involved in sexual escapades and joke all the time. Some people took it as a kind of antimilitaristic, satiric product but it's not. These soldiers with all their practical jokes, operated perfectly as soldiers. They did their duty.
Much more ominous is a kind of obscene supplement to pure military discipline. In practically all movies about U.S. Marines, the best-known embodiment of this obscenity are marching chants. This obscenity is not undermining, making fun of military discipline. It is it's inner most constituent. If you take this obscene supplement away, the military machine stops working.
The drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket is a rather tragic figure. Žižek likes to imagine him as a person that is quite decent when he returns home. All this obscene shouting is just a show put on not so much to impress ordinary soldiers whom he is training as to bribe them with bits of enjoyment.
This rule holds not only for military communities but for all human communities. from the largest nations up to small university departments. You don't only have explicit rules. You always, in order to become part of a community, some implicit unwritten rules which are never publicly recognised but are absolutely crucial as the point of identification of a group.
Similarly, everyone knows about the obscene unwritten rituals, which regulate life in public schools. Older pupils torturing, sexually abusing the younger. Žižek says we should not simply put all the blame or all the enjoyment on the older pupils. The victims even are part of this infernal cycle of obscenity. It's as if in order to really be a member of a community you have to render your hands dirty.
In Full Metal Jacket, the character of Joker is close to what we would call a normal soldier, a M.A.S.H. type of soldier. He has proper ironic distance. He proves, at the end, militarily, the most efficient soldier. The character Gomer Pyle, on the other hand, ends up shooting itself after undergoing basic training. He didn't just run amok, but got too directly identifier with the obscene rituals. He lost the distance and took them seriously, which is self-destructive.
Žižek says here something to which I strongly disagree: the part about blaming the victims. It is also in contradiction with some statements he makes later in the movie about rape victims in ex-Yugoslavia (in scene 16.
I think what he has in mind here is "hazing", and indeed I can well belive that this is a practice in which the victim can partake and find enjoyment. For instance, at my university one can join a "students' circles", and the condition for admission is undergo such a hazing (although these days the process is to relatively sanitized and safe). Unfortunately, he does not make clear he refers to such "hazing", and it is not what the movie If... depicts either. And when such hazing is not done on a voluntary, cancellable basis, there are bound to be true victims as well.
Movie: The Dark Knight
The truly disturbing thing about The Dark Knight is that it elevates lie into a general social principal, into the principal of organisation, of our social political life. As if our societies can remain stable, can function, only if based on a lie; and if telling truth - an action embodied by the Joker - means distraction and disintegration of the social order.
In the movie, it is as if lie functions as a hot potato passing from hand to hand. First there is Harvey Dent, the public prosecutor who lies, claiming he is Batman. Then we have Gordon, the honest policeman and Batman's friend, who fakes his own death. At the end, Batman himself takes upon himself the murders committed by Harvey Dent, the public prosecutor turned criminal, in order to maintain the trust of the public in the legal system. The idea is if the ordinary public were to learn how corrupt was or is the very core of our legal system then everything would have collapsed, so we need a lie to maintain order.
This is an old conservative wisdom asserted long ago by philosophers from Plato, especially, and then Immanuel Kant, Edmond Burke and so on. This idea that the truth is too strong. That a politician should be a cynicist who, although he knows what is true, tells to ordinary people what Plato called "a noble fable" - a lie.
Let's be frank. Most demostatic states - public systems of power - today are as legitimate as you want, submitted to critical press, democratic elections, etc. They apparently just serve us. And yet if you look closely as how their power works, in order for them to display authority - and power needs authority - there need to be a message that says "Yeah, yeah, we are legalised through elections, but basically we can do whatever we want once in power".
Visuals: Soviet Propaganda Movies: Milos Forman's Movies
The quote "If there is no God then everything is permitted." is a great platitude, and yet it is simply wrong. To the contrary, if there is a god, then everything is permitted. For those who perceive themselves as instruments of the divine will, all "petty" moral considerations disappear.
This is how religious fundamentalist work, but not only them. Every form of totalitarianism works like that as well. A Stalinist political agent is not in the position of an arrogant master, but in that of a perfect servant. In Stalinism there is what in psychoanalytic theory is called the "Big Other". In the Stalinist universe it has many names: historical progress towards communism, or simply "history". A communist experiences himself as simply an instrument whose function is to actualise a historical necessity.
The mythic people whose instrument the totalitarian leader is supposed to be, are never simply the actually existing individuals. It's some kind of imagined idealised point of reference which works even when the large majority of the people are actually resisting the regime. The regime can still stay: "no these are just individual, not the true people".
The standard Stalinist excuse for attrocity committed is that they do not enjoy it but act of behalf of the "Big Other" (historical progress). To this effect, the iconography of a Stalinist leader always includes details like liking cats or small children.
The way to undermine Stalinism is not simply to make fun of the leader, but to undermine this very reference: the mythic people. This is how Žižek interprets the early Czech films of Milos Forman. These films mock the ordinary people in their daily conformission, stupidity, egotistic lust, etc. It is more effective to demonstate that there is no mythic people to serve a ultimate justification, rather than to demonstate the leaders are not leaders - they are always happy to claim being ordinary people.
Movie: Brief Encounter
The "Big Other" - the basic element of every ideological edifice has two contradictory aspects. On the one hand, it is the secret order of things, fate, divine reason, etc. This guarantees the meaning of what we are doing. On the other hand, the Big Other is also the order of appearances. Many things are not simply prohibited, but should not happend for the "Big Other".
We need for our stability a "Big Other" for whom we maintain apperances. Žižek compares it to the prattling lady in the movie Brief Encounter, in front of which the lovers have to maintain apperances.
In the movie, after parting with her lover, the woman want to confide her sorrow in someone. But she can't trust the prattling lady, and is out of the question to confess to her husband.
In order to fully exist as individuals we need the fiction of a "Big Other". There must be an agency which registers our predicament. An agency where the truth of ourselves will be inscribed and accepted, a agency to which to confide. But what if there is no such agency?
This was the utmost despair of many women raped in the post Yugoslav war in Bosnia. What kept many of them alive during their terrible predicament was the idea that they must survive to tell the truth. But they made the terrible discovery that no one really listened to them: not ignorant bored social workers, or some relative making obscene insinutations like that they enjoyed the rape a little bit.
They discovered the truth of what Jacques Lacan claims: there is no "Big Other". There may be a virtual "Big Other" to whom you cannot confide, and there may be a real "Big Other", whom you cannot trust. We are alone.
Žižek thinks Kafka was right when he said that for a modern secular non-religious man, bureaucracy, and especially state bureaucracy, is the only remaining contact with the dimension of the divine.
The movie Brazil depicts the intimate link between bureaucracy and enjoyment. What the impenetrable omnipotence of bureaucracy harbours is divine enjoyment. The intense rush of bureaucratic engagement serves nothing. It is the performance of it's very purposelessness that generates an intense enjoyment, ready to reproduce itself forever.
Early in the movie, there is an example of the obverse. The hero has a plumbing problem and tries to get the state agency to fix it, filling much paperwork to no avail. Then the ultimate subversive figure, a kind of clandestine plumber, comes in and fixes the problem. This is the ultimate offense to bureaucracy.
In the ordinary theological universe, your duty is imposed onto you by God, or society or another higher authority, and your responsibility is to do it. But in a radically atheist universe you are not only responsible for doing your duty, you are also responsible for deciding what is your duty.
That last remark is rather detached from the rest and I have trouble seeing how it fits into the discussion of bureaucracy. Maybe bureaucracy chases its own tail precisely to avoid deciding what its duty is? It tries to be its own purpose and its own justification. That could be said of many other pursuits in life, and of those who try to drown out the questions by a endless quest for pleasure, leisure, or carreer advancement.
Movie: The Last Temptation of Christ
There is always in our subjectivity, in the way we experience ourselves, a minimum of hysteria.
Hysteria, at its most elementary is a question addressed at the authority which defines my identity. It's the question "Why am I what you are telling me that I am?". In psychoanalytic theory, hysteria is much more subversive than perversion. A pervert has no uncertainties, while the hysterical position is that of a doubt - which is an extremely productive position. New inventions come from hysterical questioning.
The unique character of Christianity is that it transposes this hysterical questioning onto God himself as a subject. The movie The Last Temptation of Christ plays with this idea. When Jesus, in his youth, is told that he is not only the son of God, but basically God himself, he doesn't simply accept it. It is for him a traumatic event.
According to Žižek, this makes Christianity an exception, and the start of this idea is to be traced to the book of Job. Job loses everything: house, family, possessions, etc. Three friends visit and each of them try to justify Job's misfortunes in theological terms, but Job does not accept this deeper meaning. Towards the end of the book, when God appears, he gives right to Job. There is no meaning in catastrophes. This is the first step in the direction of delegitimizing suffering.
The contrast between Judaism and Christianity is the contrast between anxiety and love. In Judaism, God is in charge, but we do not know what he wants from us - a traumatic experience. God is this enigmatic, terrifying other. In Christianity, God demonstrates he loves us by sacrificing his son: an imaginary sentimal resolution of the situation of anxiety.
Žižek declares this jewish "insight" (the fact that god is unknowable) to be profound, and that Christianity could be simply taken as a reversal of that insight. But Žižek also says we can read God's gesture in a much more radical way. What dies on the cross is the guarantee of the "Big Other". It's not that Christ dies to pay for our sins: Pay to whom? Pay for what? It's the disintegration of the God which guaranteees the meaning of our lives.
The message of Christ is: "I'm dying but my death itself is good news. It means you are alone, left to your freedom, be in the Holy Ghost, which is just the community of believers."
It's wrong to think that the second coming will be that Christ as a figure will return somehow. Christ is already here when believers form an emancipatory collective. This is why I claim that the only way really to be an atheist is to go through Christianity.
Christianity is much more atheist than the usual atheism which can claim there is no God and so on but none the less retains a certain trust into the "Big Other", whether it is called historical necessity or evolution, etc. As humans it's true we are reduced to a position within the whole of evolution or history, but it is difficult to accept that there is nonetheless no "Big Other" there. No point of reference which guarantees meaning.
Žižek's reading of Christ's message is surely interesting, but I'm not sure it's shared by a lot of people.
I grew up a Christian, and I've had my breakdown with the dogma. Interestingly, I am somewhat like what Žižek describes: I don't have an absolute frame of meaning in my life, and moreover I'm extremely suspicious of anything that seems like it proposes to be one. On the other hand, while most people seem more susceptible - more easily affected by tropes, or taken in by movements - they don't that often have clearly identifiable Big Others. And other former or not-quite Christians I know are not that different from most ordinary people.
After the fact, I always found my own history with Christianity fascinating. The Christian truths - both factual such as the existence of God, and theological: what it meant for us - were for me facts of life, not unlike the fact that the sky is blue and that we breathe air. People did try to reason me out of it, but it never worked: what would you say to someone that says you aren't breathing air? But as soon as I myself considered the possibility that it might be false, the whole edifice went crashing down, sustained only by the suspension of disbelief as it was.
The frame, as I perceived it as child and then a teenager was extremely simple: you're born, you do some good stuff in accordance with God's will and teachings, you die and go to heaven. All is well. That simplicity is probably the reason it came crashing down for me in my late teens - it would have required me to consciously lie to myself, something I - self-aware as I am - was never able to countenance.
For what it's worth, I think the experience of Christianity in adulthood must be markedly different. I can't really comment from experience, but what I expect from observation: a sort of mysticism fraught with gratitude, and a strong sense of belonging, both socially and in terms of meaning (the Big Other of Žižek).
But I digress - my point is that after searching my own experiences, I can't really see how being a Christian really made me less susceptible to other Big Others. At least not without positing that I'm special snowflake, which makes his explanation kind of moot.
On the other hand, it is true that in the years that followed my skeptical awakening, I had to contend with the lack of frame of meaning and "being responsible for deciding what your duty is" as he puts in scene 17. This is intensely personal, and it's maybe not surprising some people come up with the "wrong" answers, hence the idea that "if God is dead, everything is permitted". Observed from the Christian point of view, this statement makes a lot of sense.
I'm sort of sad that Žižek didn't cite my favourite Bible book: the Book of Ecclesiastes. It would have been spot on because the whole book is about the Ecclesiastes' search for meaning. Ultimately, it's a failed search for meaning, and the message is relatively simple: enjoy life for what it is, fear God and keep his commands. Even though God is front and center, he does not give meaning: "vanity of vanity; all is vanity".
In the movie Seconds, a late middle aged businessman is living a gray, totally alienated life. Through a friend, he contacts a mysterious agency that offers to fake his own death, reshape his body and offer him a whole new life as a hip painter. Despite the glamour and sensuality of his new life (a beautiful girlfriend, participation in hippie orgies, ...), he starts to miss his old life. So he decides to go back to the agency. Only too late does he realize the agency doesn't want to help him, but will kill him and use his body to fake the death of another client.
Žižek asks what went wrong with the man's rebirth. After all, everything changed. But his dreams didn't change. The agency provided a new existence for the man by following his dreams. But according to Žižek his dreams were wrong.
Žižek says dreams should be distinguished between the right dreams - pointing towards a dimension effectively beyondour existing society - and the wrong dreams - which are are just and idealized consumerist reflection of our society.
We are not simply submitted to our dreams. They do not just come from some unfathomable depths and we can't do anything about it. This is the basic lesson of psychoanalysis and fiction cinema: We are responsible for our dreams. Our dreams stage our desires and our desires are not objective facts. We created them, we sustained them, we are responsible for them.
Movie: Zabriskie Point
The scene of mass orgy in Zabriskie Point is a nice metaphor of what went wrong with the 1960s hippy revolution. It's crucial that Zabriskie Point was made in 1970 when the authentic revolutionary energy of the sixties was already losing its strength.
This orgy is somewhere between subversion of the existing social order and already the full estheticised reincorporation of this allegedly transgressive activities into the hegemonic ideology. Although Antonioni meant this as a kind of transcendence of the existing constraints, we can easily imagine this shot in some publicity campaign.
Conclusion Visuals: Chinese Communist Propaganda
The first step to freedom is not just to change reality to fit your dreams; it's to change the way you dream. And again this hurts because all satisfactions we have come from our dreams.
One of the big problems of all great revolutionary movements of the 20th century such as Russia, Cuba or China, is that they did change the social body but the egalitarian communist society was never realised. The dreams remained the old dreams and they turned into the ultimate nightmare.
Now what remains of the radical left waits for a magical event when the true revolutionary agent will finally awaken, while the depressing lesson of the last decades is that capitalism has been the true revolutionising force - even as it serves only itself.
How come it is easier for us to imagine the end of all life on earth - an asteroid hitting the planet - than a modest change in our economic order?
Perhaps the time has come to set our possibilities straight and to become realists by way of demanding what appears as impossible in the economic domain.
The surprising explosion of Occupy Wall Street protests, the mass mobilisation in Greece, the crowds on Tahrir square, they all bear witness for the hidden potential for a different future.
There is no guarantee that this future will arrive. No train of history on which we simply have to take a ride. It depends on us, on our will. In revolutionary upheavals some energy or rather some utopian dreams take place, they explode - and even if the actual result of a social upheaval is just a commercialised every day life, this excess of energy, what gets lost in the result, persists not in reality, but as a dream haunting us waiting to be redeemed.
In this sense, whenever we are engaged in radical emancipatory politics we should never forget, as Walter Benjamin put it almost a century ago, that every revolution, if it is an authentic revolution - is not only directed towards the future, but it redeems also the past failed revolutions. All the ghosts as it were; the living dead of the past revolution which are roaming around, unsatisfied will finally find their home in the new freedom.
I didn't edit this, as the conclusion is a rather important part. It's also the last chance to experience Žižek's original long-winded-but-not-too-much style. Also, as I will explain, this is one of the part that made the less sense to me, making it inherently harder to compact.
I'm not too sure what we have here. It does look like an unspecified call to revolution, but it might just be expressing sympathy and support for contemporary "revolutions" (for context, remember the movie was released in 2012).
Frankly I'm not convinced with this talk of the ghost of past revolutions, or about the benefits in having one. Obviously, changes can and should be had, but whether that has to be achieved through social upheaval is debatable.
But what bothers me even more is that this "conclusion" - it isn't really presented as one, but it is the think piece at the end of the movie - isn't really supported by or even connected to the rest of movie.
Below are some criticism of Žižek's thoughts, found on his wikipedia page:
Žižek's philosophical and political positions are not always clear, and his work has been criticized for a failure to take a consistent stance. While he has claimed to stand by a revolutionary Marxist project, his lack of vision concerning the possible circumstances which could lead to successful revolution makes it unclear what that project consists of. According to John Gray and John Holbo, his theoretical argument often lacks grounding in historical fact, which makes him more provocative than insightful.
Critics complain of a theoretical chaos in which questions and answers are confused and in which Žižek constantly recycles old ideas which were scientifically refuted long ago or which in reality have quite a different meaning than Žižek gives to them. Harpham calls Žižek's style "a stream of nonconsecutive units arranged in arbitrary sequences that solicit a sporadic and discontinuous attention." O'Neill concurs: "a dizzying array of wildly entertaining and often quite maddening rhetorical strategies are deployed in order to beguile, browbeat, dumbfound, dazzle, confuse, mislead, overwhelm, and generally subdue the reader into acceptance."
In a very negative review of Žižek's magnum opus Less than Nothing, the British political philosopher John Gray attacked Žižek for his celebrations of violence, his failure to ground his theories in historical facts, and his ‘formless radicalism’ which, according to Gray, professes to be communist yet lacks the conviction that communism could ever be successfully realized. Gray concluded that Žižek's work, though entertaining, is intellectually worthless: 'Achieving a deceptive substance by endlessly reiterating an essentially empty vision, Žižek's work amounts in the end to less than nothing.'
I highlighted these quotes because they allude to things I myself spotted in the movie. The topic jumps around quite a bit, and it's not easy to tie all the think pieces together. His call to action at the end is indeed unspecified and the lack of vision on how to actually improve things can be felt throughout.
Now, it is a bit unfair to critize a man's thought based on a movie, when he has written a large amounts of books expounding his idea. So I will say no more. Of his books, the earliest, most highly-regarded, and most relevant with regards to this movie is *The Sublime Object of Ideology.
Even laid out on (digital) paper and summarized as it is, it is still not easy to see at a glance what Žižek is about. My original goal was to produce a summary, but this turned into an annotated and somewhat condensed transcript.
Nevertheless, here is a recap of the main points made in each scene, and hopefully, this will make the theme apparent (some of these intentionally ironic):
Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to the world, how we perceive meaning. (1)
You must be forced to be free of ideology. (1)
Enjoyment is always enjoyment in disturbed pleasure. (2)
The Big Other covers for you. (2)
People feel guilty not because of excessive pleasure, but because they are not enjoying enough. Enjoyment is a weird perverted duty. (2 & 3)
A commodity always reflects an invisible transcendance. (3)
A desire is always also a desire for desire itself. (3)
The ultimate melancholic experience is the loss of desire itself: for all our desires to be met. (3)
A commodity has a surplus (the transcendance) which is the cause of our desire. (3)
Ideological motifs can be recycled. (4)
Universalist messages usually specify a place of exclusion. (4)
The disintegration of big ideologies (justice, equality, ...) leads to revolutions following the hegemonic ideology: consumerism. (5)
Fantasy covers up a gap in consistency. (6)
Violence is never abstract: it's a brutal intervention in the real covering up an impotence concerning cognitive mapping. (6)
If you want to have your cake and eat it too, set up a scapegoat. (7)
The enemy is invested with perverse enjoyment, or alternatively tries to steal our own enjoyment. (7)
We can liberate enjoyment condensed in minimal gestures from specific ideologies. (8)
These minimal gestures are bribes that ideologies use to seduce us. (8)
Commodities including the price for the countermeasure are the ultimate form of consumerism. (9)
Maybe something new only emerges through the failure of our existing support network. (10)
Rich people vampirise the poor. (11)
Sometimes a catastrophe elevates a person or idea into a myth (petrified enjoyment). (11)
The logic of the couple in movies, an ideological motive that ties a movie together. (12)
You can't just follow orders, there are to be something more. Either proper ironic distnace, or obscenity - bits of enjoyment as bribes. (13)
Conservative wisdom: the truth is too strong, a politician should be a cynicist who tells the people a noble lie. (14)
God justifies everything: his "instruments" are not bothered by petty moral considerations. (15)
Both religious fundamentalism and totalitarianism are forms of "Big Other". (15)
To undermine Stalinism, one has to undermine the mythic people it purports to serve. (15)
The "Big Other" is (a) the guarantee of meaning for our actions. (16)
The "Big Other" is (b) the order of appearances we need to preserve. (16)
The "Big Other" is (c) an agency in which the truth of ourselves is to be inscribed and accepted, an agency in which to confide. (16)
There is no "Big Other". (16)
In a radically atheist universe you are not only responsible for doing your duty, you are also responsible for deciding what is your duty. (17)
Bureaucracy as a self-perpetuating mechanism for enjoyment that serves nothing, a distraction to avoid deciding what our duty is. (17)
Hysteria is a question addressed at the authority which defines my identity, a position of doubt (unlike perversion), hence very productive. (18)
A reading of Christianity as announcing the death of the "Big Other" and delegitimizing suffering. (18)
We are responsible for our dreams. (19)
Transcendence of the existing constraints end up being reincorporated into the hegemonic ideology. (20)
Hasta la sabiduría, siempre!