Sophie Fiennes’ new film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, follows Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek on a Virgilian tour through the labyrinths of popular culture. As in many of his seventy or so books, Žižek deploys the ideas of Jacques Lacan, Karl Marx, and Walter Benjamin to shed light on the intricate operations of ideology in cinema, TV ad campaigns, and popular music. Here, the emphasis on pop culture serves a two-fold purpose: it exposes the extent to which we denizens of a supposedly “post-ideological society” are entangled in the cobwebs of ideology, and it makes abstruse psychoanalytic and philosophical optics thoroughly palatable to large audiences (a tactic that in large part accounts for Žižek’s veritable intellectual guru status both inside and outside of academia).
For Žižek, following French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (whose revival in academic circles Žižek has played no small part in instigating), ideology is not merely a false screen that obstructs our perception of the way things really are. Reality, for Lacan, necessarily “takes on the structure of a fiction.” We understand the world around us and our roles within it primarily through fragmentary narratives that permeate the cultural sphere. As such, television, film, advertising, and the social networking sites to which so many of us are addicted teach us not just what to desire, but how to desire in an increasingly virtual world.
As in Fiennes’ last Žižek documentary, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the primary focus is on movies that are near and dear to Žižek’s heart, all of which will be familiar to his readers. And once again, a great deal hinges on the easily-overlooked role of “perversion,” an operative concept that radiates through the array of movies he scrutinizes. Above and beyond the colloquial sexual sense of the term, “perversion” has a distinctly Marxist resonance in Lacanian circles. This brand of “fetishistic disavowal” designates the pervasive attitude of “I know very well, but still…” without which the smooth-functioning of everyday life would be almost impossible. In order to “fetishistically” enjoy the spoils of “the Developed World,” we turn a blind eye to the unthinkable conditions in the sweatshops, slaughterhouses, and garbage dumps that make “civilized” life possible. This is an issue familiar to viewers of Astra Taylor’s less probing philosophical documentary, Examined Life.
By the same token, as Žižek repeatedly reminds his readers, in order to properly enjoy the sensuous fruits of virtual modernity, we have to disavow the fact that we are all decaying, defecating animals whose days on this earth are numbered. As undergirdings of the cultural unconscious, these are facts that we all know at some level. But to avoid encountering this traumatic shrapnel of the Real, we occlude our gruesome predicament from plain-view and behave as though it can be ignored out of existence. From a Lacanian standpoint, this particular brand of magical thinking is the sanitized stuff of everyday ideology that we all participate in. There’s no pretense here of being able to escape the snares of ideology, only a heightened awareness of the extent to which “false consciousness” frames our shared reality. The best one can hope for, according to these Lacanian optics, is to make ideology’s operations less opaque so as to have a chance at expropriating the narrative textures that shape all of our beliefs and practices.
The film opens with one of Žižek’s favorite “forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left,” John Carpenter’s They Live, starring former professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as George Nada. Piper’s Nada is a destitute construction worker who finds a box full of sunglasses that, when donned, magically reveal the surfeit of subliminal messages with which a sinister alien race is bombarding humanity at all times. Billboards, magazines, dollars bills, and the like are covertly inundating naive American citizens with injunctions to “consume,” “obey,” “marry,” and “reproduce” in order to keep them dull and docile.
Žižek dwells on one scene in particular: when Nada insists that his buddy Frank (Keith David) try on the glasses to see what lurks behind the veil of civilization, his pal resists tooth-and-nail, and an over-the-top 6-minute brawl ensues between them. Above and beyond showcasing Piper’s pro-wrestling chops, for Žižek this ridiculous scene exemplifies the lengths we are willing to go to in order to avoid confronting and dismantling the fantasy structures that confer the world with a sense of intelligibility and our lives with a patina of purpose. It is, Žižek contends, far easier to relinquish control of our lives than to expose ourselves to the disorienting effects of unmooring our relationship to the dominant ideology.
Other ideological “masterpieces” that Žižek points to are much subtler, precisely because they occupy more prominent positions in the western cultural imaginary. He reads Jaws as a condensation of all the “foreign invaders” that privileged societies like upper-middle-class America worry will disrupt their peaceful communities. Part of what makes Fiennes’ film such a great showcase for Žižek’s approach to cultural studies is the persuasive effect of supplementing his explications with film clips. After listening to Žižek’s account of the ideological coordinates of the film, it’s difficult not to notice that all of the beach-goers scrambling to make it to the shore in one piece are affluent white Americans.
His reading of Titanic cuts right against the grain of its popular cachet. Far from seeing the film as an inspiring love story about a woman (Rose, played by Kate Winslet) who laudably transgresses upper-class mores to get together with her pre-ordained but underprivileged soul-mate (Jack, played by Leonardo DiCaprio), Žižek characterizes the romance as an example of the fantasy structures that undergird both the culture of “slumming” (and, by extension, we might add, gentrification) and the ubiquitous myth of the perfect soul-mate. The real tragedy of the film, says Žižek, is that, if they had gotten together, after a few weeks of seemingly illicit sex the fireworks would have subsided and Rose, the interloping patrician, would have sucked up enough of poor Jack’s zesty cultural difference to return to upper-crusty culture with renewed zeal. The life boat scene in which she says she’ll never let her dead love go is so telling for Žižek because, in the very same breath as she utters these touching words of endearment, she seems to shove him off into the frozen Atlantic Ocean. The disaster and Jack’s death are necessary obstacles to preserve the normative Hollywood fantasy of the perfect couple.
Žižek’s interpretations of The Sound of Music, Taxi Driver, The Dark Knight, and Coca Cola’s “Coke Is It” campaign all hit the mark and make ample use of the cinematic platform to buttress his claims. Others, like his polemical take on The Last Temptation of Christ as a vehicle for radical atheism, resonate more tenuously and require the kind of attention he gives them in books like The Sublime Object of Ideology.
The film’s biggest weakness, however, pertains to its own ideological coordinates. As a rule, Žižek tends to waffle expediently on a number of controversial issues (like, for instance, the sustainability of capitalism), depending on the perceived disposition of the audience he’s addressing at the time. So, while Fiennes and Žižek devote a great deal of time exposing the contours of the ideology of European anti-Semitism, no attention is devoted to the ideological screens that render US-Israeli foreign policy acceptable to the Western general public. Of course, Žižek is keenly aware of Palestinian and Middle Eastern Muslims’ pervasive status as sharks in supposedly otherwise tranquil Israeli waters. But the film seems to concede to the unviability of broaching this issue to mainstream Western audiences.
Those interested in the sharpest versions of his arguments should check out books like First as Tragedy, which are decisively more antagonistic to Anglo-American sacred cows than this film or his embarrassingly mealy-mouthed interview with the BBC’s Stephen Sackur. Whether this colours him as an adroit pedagogical salesman or a craven hypocrite is probably going to be a function of your own ideological disposition. Without skipping a beat, Žižek would likely reply that the very illusion of being able to evade hypocrisy in the socio-symbolic order is the Right-wing fantasy screen par excellence.
Another seeming blind spot, though this one isn’t nearly so blameworthy, is the glaring absence of references to Internet culture. If, as Lacan claims, the unconscious is structured like a language, in the digital 21st-century, much of it is constituted by algorithmic bits and bytes in the fiber-optic datastream. Though speaking to this issue has never been Žižek’s forte (and, given his immense cognitive talents and encyclopedic knowledge of theory, literature, film, and opera, it would be obtuse to begrudge him for not spending enough time online), this state of affairs calls for a third film about the perverse aspects of Facebook, Google, Mac, and other mediatic platforms whose “user-friendly” interfaces lure individuals into cycles of addictive “surfing” while inundating us with increasingly subtle and seductive advertising campaigns. As media critics like Bernard Stiegler point out, this is a porous and immersive relationship with our gadgets that renders our daily activities increasingly susceptible to corporate and governmental surveillance, not to mention previously unthought of varieties of identity theft. None of this paranoia-inducing terrain would be beyond the pale for Žižek, given his elaborate theoretical articulation of the virtual “Big Other,” an imagined and internalized superegoic agency before whom we are made to believe we need to regiment our behaviour and desires. And it would likely be edifying and entertaining to hear Žižek’s anecdotal-philosophical take on our relation to the Big Other in the age of Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds.
Go see The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology when it comes out. The film strikes a rare balance between progressive cultural analysis, entertainment, and philosophical education. So much so that when the credits roll you’ll find yourself wondering, eerily, whether you’re applauding Žižek and Fiennes’ tour de force or merely for the benefit of the Big Other.