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Žižek, “See you in hell or in communism!”

Slavoj Žižek appeared on the BBC’s Culture Show a few days ago. I’d been meaning to write it up and am only now getting around to it. His performance is dazzling, as per usual, and we socialists do like our in-jokes, but I thought that this time, rather than just show the video, I might pick up on a point or two of what he says, and how it relates to his wider oeuvre and his practice of what he preaches.

In the interview, Žižek maintains that the purest form of ideology is in cinema, that it is ‘more real than our everyday reality’. It is with this in mind that most of Žižek’s written works must be read – and to this is then applied the unique blend of Žižek’s systems of analysis: Marxist, Lacanian psychoanalysis and so on. I can see how certain ideologies can be evinced through certain movies. Žižek uses blockbuster ‘2012’ as one of several examples he gives.

One message from the film suggests that ‘in order for one stupid American family to come together,’ most of the world’s population must be wiped out – that solidarity under current conditions is impossible, that even imagining is pointless, for the individual as much as for Hollywood.

There is a logic here; it is a motif repeated in almost every Hollywood disaster movie – the disaster wreaks a personal effect, which is almost universally good, presented as the exposure of the people underneath the day to day existence. Except that who we are day to day is who we are; the normal processes of the system are what the system is.

What Žižek is suggesting, and where I agree with him, is that in this repeated motif, we can see a function of ideology. It is the argument that we should disregard banality, disregard our day to day drudgery, because who we are, and who other people are, underneath sets us apart from all that. The moral of the story is a sedative.

Thus the constellations of message produced by Hollywood takes on the role of one more arm of the hegemonic ideology. Here is an opportune space to query Žižek’s epistemological assumptions. Žižek does not believe in an objective reality; what decides between competing interpretations is the “master-signifier”, a resistance to the infinite regression of over-intellectualized reason, “It is so because I say it is so!”

The concept of hegemony is based on the idea that one can know the real processes at work through the system of socio-economic organization we call capitalism. Having gained further knowledge of cinema and this particular movie, we can then suggest how its message might relate to this broader process that we’ve observed, i.e. the attempt to normalize as common sense everything that upholds values conducive to the smooth running of that system.

We can argue over the meaning of ‘2012’, much like people argued over the meaning of Avatar. Yet we do so within the universe of the things actually contained within the film. Moreover we do so in the context of pre-existing ideology, the common sense factor, and mechanisms of dissemination controlled by the gate-keepers of the common sense factor (the press), all of which will have an effect on interpretation.

So the reality of the processes of capitalism have an effect in determining the interpretation. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it’s not limitless. It is not merely raw material to be warred over by competing factions wishing to hegemonize it and utilize its popular appeal for their own ends, much in the way that some Left groups tend to approach nationalism or ethnic identities.

It will contain the same contradictions as the ideology (or some part thereof) of the system which created it. We resolve those contradictions using the fundamental analytical categories provided by Marxism. It’s only when looked at in this way can we avoid what seem like wanton extrapolations from a film, however tightly packed it might be with ideology, however closely it may be linked to how capitalism thinks about itself, to the whole world or a whole ideology, or a whole socio-economic system of organizing.

In the interview, Žižek continues, “If you want to approach how beliefs function today, I claim, the best example I can imagine is that stupid cartoon which I’ve seen five, six times, because of my small son, Kung-Fu Panda.” Žižek goes on to link in the Marx brothers and how these explain the appeal of Silvio Berlusconi:

“This guy looks as an idiot, acts as an idiot, but this shouldn’t deceive you, this guy is an idiot”. Berlusconi is wealthy, his corruption is the subject of much debate, much like his links to the fascists and his many affairs with beautiful women and his changing of the law to suit his private interests. People, it seems, simply don’t believe that one can act like such a moron and yet be a moron.

This type of analogy seems different the previous one, more straightforward, assuming that what we can see in day to day life is real, and that we may look for reflections and distortions of the ‘real’ in cinema.

Whereas in the previous example, Žižek was taking a specific film and generalizing to the form in which capitalist hegemony attempts to oppress people, in this one it is mere metaphor for what we can see with our own eyes. An opportune film demonstrates a phenomenon we’ve all wondered about over George W. Bush and Berlusconi.

Simply put, how can people continually elect a moron? Žižek calls this the ‘double-cynical wager’, that if someone acts like what they are, then people will expect them not to be that. The explanation of this surface-phenomenon might be complex, but we’re still working within the confines of empirical data.

When attempting to explain such phenomenon, using cinema as a means to extrapolate meaning, whether by analogy or some other process, is as valid as reaching for any of the other items in our shared cultural universe. Cinema is as common a language as any, and there’s the added value that it’s entertaining – though even here, I think, we locate a flaw in our esteemed theorist.

He suggests that the current situation demands that we wake people up to the ideology that they live and breathe as part of their daily routine. Yet there are very few people who are going to read the tracts of any of the current shower of academics – Marxist, liberal, libertarian, whatever. Presumably it is through this entertainment, which include several visual endeavours and lecturing at a rubbish tip, that we might wake people up.

I think this loses sight of the need to approach people where they are, in languages with which they are familiar.

Žižek also suggests that if he were taken seriously, it would mean that he is ‘integrated’ into the cosseted, cultural buffer against revolutionism that universities so often form. While this is probably true, and Zizek’s antics make him stick out like a sore thumb, being taken seriously and being integrated need not mean the same thing. It really depends on who Žižek wants to take him seriously.

If it’s fellow academics, then being taken seriously and being integrated often are the same thing. One need only compare the lives of academic socialists such as Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson. However, if Žižek wishes to be taken seriously by the people he wishes to carry out the revolution (however he wishes to define them, assuming they’re not an intellectual elite), then he needs to get his hands dirty at public meetings and on the doorsteps as well as writing such stylish prose.

That will prevent his integration to the Academy.

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  1. January 31, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    I agree that Zizek has some useful things to say, but actually your examples point to exactly the problem that he causes for dialectical thought. Without the primacy of the object, with the “master-signifier” (which incidently is very different in Zizek’s Lacanian symptomatology from, say Marx’s consideration of the commodity form at the beginning of Das Kapital”), we consistently see Zizek offering an ideological application of theory. I always think he should return to The German Ideology – so many of the criticisms against the Young Hegelians there seem to appl to him too: “In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, nd on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process.” All too often Zizek’s Hegel-Lacan matrices descend from heaven, and the only cure is the sort of immanent analysis (going back to Hegel), which he ignores!

  2. January 31, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Precisely so.

  3. January 31, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    I think you’re bang on at the end there. As much as I love Zizek I think he is more an ivory tower intellectiual that he despiese than he realises.

    His retreat from active politics is a major weakness, it’s hard to imagine this is the same man who once saw himself governing Slovenia…

  4. February 1, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    I’m not a fan of Zizek but to be fair, he has a point about the “double cynical wager”.

    If you talk a lot of meaningless higher bullshit and develop a comical public persona, people will come to think of you as an important thinker with a serious message.

  5. February 15, 2010 at 3:20 am

    Simon, this is a false dichotomy. There is no ideal political field on which to intervene upon. It is the liberals that tell us the immediacy of politics require pragmatic acts. What we need is more thinking, planning large scale social acts. This is not the same as some professor who cares about giving radical agency to black kids in south chicago.

  6. February 15, 2010 at 3:27 am

    Whose corner are you arguing there Yunus?

  7. February 25, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    “Simply put, how can people continually elect a moron? Žižek calls this the ‘double-cynical wager’, that if someone acts like what they are, then people will expect them not to be that. The explanation of this surface-phenomenon might be complex, but we’re still working within the confines of empirical data.”

    Strikingly naive or disingenuous, Slavoj. The morons are elected because they (or the machine behind them) will it.

  8. February 25, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Not really seeing the disingenuity behind it. Yes, the morons have to want it, the machine behind them has to want it…but who elects them and why? This is what SZ is asking, and where he’s getting the idea of the double-cynical wager, as a confidence trick.

  9. February 26, 2010 at 1:34 am

    But they aren’t “elected”; there is no “vote”. The movie called Politics, like all movies, is not participatory; it’s not interactive. The *feeling* that things are otherwise is the “magic” of film that SZ should be (MUST be) up on. But he has to eat; he has to live. You can’t do either by standing up in the theater and making trouble. Was Bush elected? Is Obama the “change” “we” expected? Was Clinton? Come on, SZ. At least *wink* at us…

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