Slavoj Žižek climbs every mountain and fords every stream
Slavoj Žižek is one of the most popular public intellectuals in the world, though maybe in a "big in Japan" sort of way. (Most public intellectuals who aren't Noam Chomsky or a member of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism have "big in Japan" appeal.) If you're not familiar with him or his work, he's a Slovenian philosopher influenced primarily by Karl Marx and Jacques Lacan, the notoriously difficult psychoanalytic thinker.
Žižek is a cult figure and a divisive one. Hip-to-it humanities students dig on books like Violence or The Sublime Object of Ideology, while Žižek critics like John Gray publish lengthy and intelligent critiques of his thought in The New York Review of Books. He has been dismissed by some as "the Borat of philosophy," which is kind of true for all the good things and bad things that label entails.
This may sound boring and esoteric, but Žižek's a fascinating thinker even if you don't buy into what he's saying. One example: he's mentioned in lectures how the national character of a country is manifested in the way they design their toilets. (Yes, that's included after the cut.) It's this kind of thinking -- at once absurd, persuasive, entertaining, and even enlightening -- that drives The Pervert's Guide to Ideology.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2012 DOC NYC film festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
The Pervert's Guide to Ideology
[Editor's note: The above clip is from The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, not The Pervert's Guide to ideology.]
The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is a sequel to Žižek's previous film with director Sophie Fiennes, 2006's The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. They take similar forms: Žižek runs through his divergent thoughts over clips of movies, and even becomes integrated into them. In Cinema, for example, Žižek sits down in Morpheus's green-tinted room in The Matrix and drives a motorboat like Tippi Hedren while discussing The Birds. In Ideology, we open in the alleyway from John Carpenter's They Live. Žižek stands in front of a dumpster as if he's watching Roddy Piper and Keith David off camera. Later, Žižek is hanging out in a recreation of Travis Bickle's apartment in Taxi Driver (or as Žižek calls it, "The Taxi Driver"). He has a breather in the Korova Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange. He's in a plane looking out the window at the opening shots of Triumph of the Will; on an airstrip where Joseph Stalin was descending from a plane in some Soviet propaganda film (a narrative one, not a documentary.) He's even in a lifeboat at night in the North Atlantic while talking about Titanic.
"What am I doing in a lifeboat?" Žižek asks, as if to say "Why am I out here in the North Atlantic? Let me answer that for you," and "Why the hell am I doing something so ridiculous for this movie?"
It's a hilarious question. He's obviously on a set, the sky behind him totally black with bright stars. It's like Žižek in a diorama of Titanic (the movie) commenting on the film which is a melodramatic fiction about a real event. Žižek's own lectures and writings are often filled with jokes, and here, he's telling them and inhabiting them. But jokes have that interesting quality where they reveal the wobbliness of language, the strangeness of everyday life, and the weirdness of our beliefs. Like everything else, jokes are a manifestation of ideology. George Saunders wrote that "humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to," and I think he was onto something.
In Astra Taylor's 2005 documentary Žižek!, we got some insight into the way Žižek composes his thought. He jots ideas in flurries and frenzies until they're all down, and then he tries to find the bits that connect them together to form a book. In a way, Žižek's philosophy reminds me of something I once heard music journalist/cultural critic Greil Marcus say about the nature of criticism: it's about letting an idea take hold. There seems like there's some connection there between Žižek's impulses and Marcus's notion. Both have to do with identifying what hooks the mind about an object in culture. For Žižek, he's looking for a path from idea to idea, a back and forth between the object and the culture and vice versa. For Marcus, it's the idea sparked by a cultural object that creates a path toward the writing about that object and the culture that gave rise to it.
The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is basically a work of ideological exploration through film criticism -- not the "you should see this, 4 stars" sort of criticism where the value of a work is assessed in a reductive up or down vote, but the "x-movie made me think y-thought" sort of criticism that goes beyond the film and into what it says about the world. (Interestingly, my first encounter with Žižek's work was a piece on Lost Highway he did for some film journal while I was still an undergrad.) Žižek is inside these films because the x-movie/y-thought criticism is about stepping into the film as a cultural artifact and finding real culture in it, and then stepping out of the film back into culture to find film stuff in the world. This may be the prevailing method of lots of contemporary book-length criticism. It's reflective, playful, and at times memoiristic. I'm thinking here of the 33 1/3 music criticism series and the Soft Skull Press movie criticism series Deep Focus (which hopefully isn't defunct).
So going back to They Live, it's about what the glasses say about contemporary capitalism and consumerism, and how much it hurts to understand the nature of the veil. Or in The Sound of Music, we're eyeing the sexual tension and fundamental friction of the Catholic structure and what "Climb Every Mountain" is really getting at. In Titanic, what is Žižek doing in that boat? He's calling BS on the idea of Titanic as a romance. If Jack and Rose got to shore alive, they'd have incredible sex for three weeks. After that, Rose would get bored with being lower class and Jack would want to draw someone else, and that would be it. What's Titanic really about to Žižek? It's about a spoiled rich girl who, at a turning point in her life, sucks the vitality out of the lower classes (and James Cameron's idealization of the lower class, no less) in order to reaffirm her own ego.
I think he's onto something.
Žižek steps outside of film in order to get at a broader look at ideology. He drinks Starbucks and Coca-Cola and talks about slacktivism and Lacanian desire, respectively. There's a fascinating segment about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, particularly the "Ode to Joy" part, and how various cultures and governments relate to it and make it suit their ideological ends. And of course the riots in London, the Arab Spring, and Occupy get explored a bit in the film since those are current reactions to the prevailing ideology of the West. These real cultural moments help underline one of Žižek's most interesting questions in the film: why is it that so many people in the West can imagine an asteroid obliterating planet Earth but can't imagine changes to a capitalist economy?
I don't have the intellectual footholds to engage in a critique of Žižek's thought process in this film, at least not right now. Whenever reading dense material, the analytical machinery in my skull only gets working on the second or third read. In the case of The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, it'll take another watch before I can really parse the arguments. The first time through, I just dazzled at the spectacle of ideas. The audacity of Žižek and the playfulness of Fiennes (and the other way around) are a kind of intellectual Rube Goldberg machine: a series of madcap chain reactions -- history as a process, ideology as inescapable, cause and effect and divergence.
There's just something so enthralling about watching ideas take hold. You get a grip on it and continue the ascent, upwards, around and slanted, until you've reached the end. These ideas result in a kind of conclusion that solves nothing but remains invigorating. (Philosophy not as a solution to big problems but as a reassessment and reframing of big problems. Solutions not required.) Like the criticism that invigorates me, at the end I find myself on top of something new that allows me to look at all the cultural stuff around me in a different way. Žižek wants you to make like Maria and climb every mountain because the hills are alive with the sound of global capitalism.