Coffee table radicalism

Submitted by Matthew on 9 October, 2013 - 10:51

It is difficult not to warm to a film that places a radical left wing philosopher into mock ups of various film sets to lecture on his theory of ideology. That is what film maker Sophie Fiennes has done with Slavoj Žižek.

So we have Žižek dressed as a priest talking about the ideology of fascism in the mother superior’s room from The Sound of Music, about the vampiric attitude of the ruling class towards the working class in the lifeboat from Titanic and about the nature of political violence in Travis Bickle’s single iron bed from Taxi Driver. All of this is amusing enough and makes a long and in places opaque lecture pass pleasantly enough, but the ideas that underlie it are rotten.

Slavoj Žižek has been proclaimed by some as the greatest political philosopher of the late twentieth century — there is even an International Journal of Žižek Studies. His work is popular with a layer of the radical left, although maybe the kind who consumes rather than acts on their politics.

He has somewhat replaced Chomsky as the author of the coffee table books of choice for the armchair radical, and he sold out the Royal Festival Hall when he spoke there in 2010.

His ideas have been developed in a series of books since the late 1980s, and fit with the themes of anti-globalisation, Occupy, and other radical struggles that are often one side of class struggle.

It is noticeable that Žižek does not attack capitalism as such. The exploitation of workers as workers is notably missing from this film. Rather he attacks consumerism, particular in its Coca-Cola/Starbucks form. This is despite, or maybe because, his philosophy is obtuse.

Although Žižek places himself in the revolutionary tradition and draws on Marx, he does not see himself primarily as a Marxist. He says he wants to reinvigorate German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Hegel, through the application of the French post-Freudian, Jacques Lacan.

There is no feeling in this film (or in Žižek’s numerous books) that this view emerges from a study of society and the forms of ideology in it. Rather, consistent with his idealist philosophical approach, the ideas emerge from the realm of pure thought, albeit cut with some empirically based psychoanalytic theory The world is sampled, squeezed and (mis)interpreted to fit this theoretical view.

His evidence about society is what many of us would not think of as evidence — mainly film. This is not an affectation, but central to Žižek’s view of the world. Ideology is fantasy, and film is the purest form of the projection of such fantasy. Film is not the mirror which we hold up to ourselves, but feeds us the fantasies by which we constitute ourselves. The films are, for Žižek, reality. Thus M*A*S*H and Full Metal Jacket are used to understand the American military, Brief Encounter the nature of social control, and Jaws, fascism!

To say that the shark in Jaws stands for nothing other than fear itself is hardly a startling insight. Alfred Hitchcock spoke in similar terms about how the purpose of his films was not essentially narrative or plot, but to create an emotional response in the viewer. To say this kind of work gives us an insight into how the Nazis scapegoated the Jews is little short of ridiculous.

Onto his argument, Žižek bolts some bits of other people’s theories as if they were his insights. So he goes on to say that underlying the fantasy of Nazi ideology was one of a modernising revolution that preserved tradition. But the idea of fascism being “reactionary modernism” was asserted by Jeffrey Herf in 1984, and has antecedents stretching back to the 1930s.

Similarly, Žižek’s assertion that the riots in the UK were driven by consumerism (the “wrong dream”) is both unoriginal and, in Žižek’s case, seems to be based on the most casual of acquaintance with the evidence.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology also demonstrates a wilful failure to engage with a Marxist understanding of ideology. In this film (and elsewhere) Žižek has dismissed the Marxist theory of ideology which he claims can be summarised by Marx as “they do not know it but they are doing it”. The line is a rather obscure one (from the first German edition of volume one of Capital, but not in future editions).

Nor is the line directly about ideology; the “it” here is people producing exchange values for the market. For sure, this has a relationship to ideology, Marx argues that it obscures the real nature of production to satisfy human needs, a veil that will only be lifted by once production is carried out by “feely socialised man under their conscious, planned control.” But the Marxist view of ideology based on the nature of social life is not understood, far less developed, by Žižek.

For Žižek both the nature of ideology and the liberation of humanity is based on the idea of fantasy. For him, people’s relation to ideology-fantasy is “I know very well what I am doing but am I still doing it.” The project of liberation is not to end fantasy, but to replace it with a better fantasy, or to dream with the right desire.

Thus Žižek goes down the road of anarchist cliché, we should “be realistic, demand the impossible”, and he argues that the dream should not be of wanting the working class to awake, but that new dreams and revolution become a subjective act of will.

Žižek’s politics are, ultimately, mere fantasy.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.