Watching Slavoj Žižek is a lot like staring at a strobe light with your eyes taped open and your head immobilized on a board. Your are uncomfortable, unsettled, and at times disoriented, yet you can’t look away.
On camera, Žižek is a wreck. His herky-jerky body movements and nonstop, manic nose touching—said to be nervous tics—remind you of a guy who is alarmingly nervous about something, like why there was a knife found in the trash and a dead body in the living room. With regard to Žižek, this serves as an apt metaphor for his larger arguments about communism (the knife) as the only apt killer of capitalism (the bloated dead body).
As a philosopher and cultural critic, Žižek offers an intriguing amalgamation of neo-Marxism, post-Hegelian philosophy, and cultural criticism. Žižek is as comfortable quoting Glory Daze or Titanic as he is flaying the putrid milky skin of neoliberalism. His writing is witty, precise, and stretches the boundaries of thought.
In his book First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, Žižek critiques the broad failings of modern liberalism, illuminating its complicity in the mounting obstacles to the utopian Marxist future, failings perhaps even as massive and obstructionist as the most ardent member of the Tea Party.
Which brings us to a topic that makes all good Marxists giddy—ideology. As Žižek points out in The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology, we are unknowingly mired in it, unable to escape its sticky grip. Yet, that’s exactly what we must do if we have any hope at changing our current state of fuckedness. The failure of the modern left has largely been a failure of how the current ideology has been shaped, towering over us like a hulking mass of misguided exceptionalism, anti-intellectualism, and xenophobia. How did this happen?
The documentary, directed by Sophie Fiennes, sends Slavoj Žižek traipsing through the scenes of iconic films like Taxi Driver, The Sound of Music, Jaws and Titanic, in search of answers. But his journey isn’t mere folly. He’s proving a point. For Žižek, pop culture reinforces the prevailing ideology. Therefore, by inserting himself, like an avatar, into movie scenes, he is subverting this dominant belief structure, dismantling it from within, like a quirky thought bomb.
Žižek contends that we enjoy our ideology. It’s easier to believe in the superstructure, than to oppose it. That’s why the gravity of ideological change is so heavy. It’s like a tractor beam of conformity. Society is structured to punish subversive thought, the outlying ideologies. “To step outside ideology, it hurts. You must force yourself to do it,” Žižek explains. He makes this point while deconstructing the 80s cult classic film They Live, where the world is controlled by aliens and only a pair of glasses can show the movie’s hero, John Nada, the truth behind the appearance. Or, the real once it is liberated from the cloak of ideology.
Yet, like all good ideology, what Žižek unpacks for us within the documentary is a powder keg of meaning. Within the framework of the sometimes absurd cinematic recreations, Žižek offers us a peek behind the veil, to glimpse at the Wizard hard at work. It’s our job to have the eyes to see it.
One place ideology thrives is buried deep within the warm bowels of consumerism. Žižek argues that the high point of modern consumerism is Starbucks, where with each cup of coffee we also buy a tiny bit of ideology. It’s actually figured right into the cost of the drinks we so eagerly crave. Because, good news, with each cup of coffee, we’re also saving the planet a little, clothing someone in need, providing water to thirsty people. This “conscious capitalism” is to Žižek the ultimate form of consumerism. It gives us mass consumption, unbridled capitalism and inherent exploitation, without the guilt.
In his critique of Titanic, we find Žižek dropped cold and shivering into the Atlantic ocean. Sitting in a boat, he asks, “What am I doing here in the middle of the ocean, alone in a boat, surrounded by frozen corpses?”
The answer: because, according Žižek, Titanic is the most supreme case of ideology to emerge from the Hollywood film industry in recent times. At the core of the film, Žižek argues, is the theme that the rich can and do appropriate the vitality of the lower classes as they see fit. The boat is an ideal metaphor, with it’s stratified layers of passengers, the rich up top, the poor down near the cargo hold, beneath the surface, largely invisible.
And, according to Žižek, as we watch the film, the accident, the love story, they are all just a threat. Something intended to lower our attention threshold so as to accept the true conservative message about class and alienation and the way the rich empower themselves at the expense of the rest of us. One need only pay attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement for similar themes of exploitation and appropriation of the many for the enrichment of the few.
Ultimately, Žižek tells us that only we can save ourselves. It depends on us. On our will. But first, we must transcend, subvert, or reimagine our ideology. We must, as a collective, see through the current situation to what lies on the horizon. “The first step to freedom is not just to change reality to feed your dreams. It’s to change the way you dream. Because all satisfactions we have come from our dreams.” Žižek says.
And, again, as we’ve learned, this shift in ideology usually hurts. One of the most striking observations in the film is in reference to the endless string of recent modern disaster films. About which Žižek asks, “How come it is easier for us to imagine the end of all life on earth than a modest change in our economic order?”
Good question. Žižek, who is a communist, is aware of the failings of revolutions past. Revolutions that were nothing like Marx envisioned. Dirty words like socialism and Marxism are only dirty to those who don’t understand their real meaning. To those who do, they see an antidote to capitalism’s extreme hegemonic grip. That panacea is ideology. It’s like Slavoj Žižek reminds us: within ideology, “there is hidden potential for a different future.” Only we can determine what that future might look like.
Words by Coe Douglas
Coe Douglas is the Managing Editor of Bridge Eight magazine.