Saturday, 5 October 2013

Žižek's Guide to Ideology through Film

Genre: Documentary
The pervert’s guide to ideology is the Slovenian psychoanalyst-philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s sequel to his earlier pervert’s guide to cinema, both directed by Sophie Fiennes who does a superb job in collating Žižek’s musings into a coherent and entertaining whole. Like the previous movie which unfortunately I’ve not yet seen, the philosophical insights are told through the analysis of a sequence of films, but while the erotic symbolism of desire’s object or “petit a” was the subject of the first movie, the focus of this one is on ideology, that is to say the big Other. What is the big Other?

Žižek begins his guide with the film They Live (1988) in which the protagonist discovers a pair of ideology sunglasses that transform the world around him. The adverts he sees around the city become slogans like “Stay Asleep”, “Obey” and “Consume”. A picture of a girl sunbathing in the Caribbean becomes the slogan “Marry & Reproduce”. More disturbingly, he sees that many of the successful people in the country he loves are not human but alien, and so begins his quest to save humanity from this covert invasion. Though this makes it sound like science fiction, the aliens could easily be seen to represent the faithful believers or high priests of an underlying ideology. They figure prominently in media, law enforcement and business. Fighting a pervasive ideology is difficult even if we had magic sunglasses to recognize it, firstly because many fear the lie being exposed and would rather live in the comfort and hope of illusion than face the helplessness and uncertainty of truth. False ideology acts as a big Other that gives life meaning, and people would rather that than nothing. The protagonist goes through a protracted fight scene with his best friend just to convince him to try on the glasses. Secondly, and more confusingly for our protagonist, some humans know what’s up but they side with the ideology to reap the personal benefits of playing the game. Resistance seems futile, words are unconvincing to the general populace, and the visual image holds sway. But the image also holds the key to ideology’s unravelling. An illusion based on false appearances is fragile to the grotesqueness of its veil being ripped away. Saving humanity through truth’s unmasking is then an event more powerful and requiring more commitment than even life or love.

Žižek goes on to talk about The Sound of Music (1965), and in particular the superior nun’s instruction to climb every mountain, symbolically to face every desire, but to do it in the name of religion, revealing a sacred permissiveness in religion which it must have in order to play the role of the big Other and keep account. He goes on to say how in an earlier age, people would go to the psychoanalyst with the guilt of the wrongs they had done, whereas now his psychoanalyst friends tell him the more common complaint is the guilt of not enjoying enough. In the modern age, we are seeking transcendence not through God, but through enjoyment. The big Other has changed! A wonderful example of this transcendent position of enjoyment can be seen in the advertisements for Coca-Cola with advertisements like “Coca-Cola, the real thing” or “Coca-Cola, that’s it”. If we take Coca-Cola with us on a warm day and it gets warm in the sunshine and loses its fizz, then it’s no longer “it”, but there’s no positive quality which the “it” alludes to, which makes “it” transcendent. Another example is the kinder-egg, a chocolate egg within which is hidden a plastic toy. The toy is a seemingly worthless item, but it takes on a transcendent value, and do we not enjoy and consume the chocolate more for containing the toy? Žižek thinks so! One final example is Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ which in its universal appeal has been used by every kind of ideology from the Nazis to the Soviets, and now the EU, acting as an empty container to whatever meaning we choose to give it. In its use as an image of unity of people, it is worth asking “what is excluded?” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, from which the ode is derived, is more honest in Žižek’s opinion because it goes on to challenge the ideology of the ode through the music that follows it.

This only touches on the beginning of this movie, but the hour is late so let me finish by briefly summarizing the rest. Ideology unites men’s fears and it unites their dreams. It includes and it accepts, but in so doing it takes away man’s subjectivity and denies his power. It gives man pleasure in empty purposes and pursuits. And paradoxically, in those moments when man’s dream seems crushed, such as the love affair in the Titanic cruelly ended by its sinking, it is in this destruction that the dream never has a chance to betray itself and so lives on for eternity. In this sense, Žižek is a strange kind of optimist.

The truth unmasked is that there is no big Other, but that it is precisely in the crucifixion of ideology, like the crucifixion of Christ, that we gain our freedom and save the dream.

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