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.
Reading over the speech Michael Gove made to the Conservative Conference, I’m glad that I’m already trying to get out of teaching. If the period of the last twelve years in education has been marked by increasing spin, pointless bureaucracy and policy announcements, the next five under a Conservative government appear unlikely to be any different, judging by the Shadow minister for Children, Schools and Families. In fact, in some aspects, the future promises to be worse, with plans to turn our kids into ‘patriotic’ automatons.
Most of the words that come out of Gove’s mouth are in fact piffle; meaningless. They only have meaning and relevance to a lot of people who for years have been imbibing every scare story printed in the Daily Mail about riotous kids and political correctness gone mad. Gove praises a headteacher who apparently spoke to the Conservative conference:
“He insists on a proper uniform – with blazer and tie – respect for authority, clear sanctions for troublemakers and no excuses for bad behaviour. He sets classes by ability – so the brightest can be stretched and the weakest given special support.
He teaches traditional subjects in a rigorous way and when the bureaucrats try to insert the latest fashionable nonsense into the curriculum he tells them where to get off.
There are fantastic extra-curricular activities, proper competitive sports and an amazing team of teachers – who work into the evenings and on Saturdays to give their pupils the best possible chance in life. Why isn’t every state school like that?”
Except that most schools have a proper uniform, “respect for authority”, clear sanctions, classes by ability and support for the weakest. Except that not every school is funded to the same degree and thus you have secondary schools which can afford special units for literacy and so forth, while others languish. So in the first sentence above, Gove is not proposing anything new – and he will find, if he gets his feet underneath the ministerial desk, that his hot air counts for very little when set against the cuts by which the Tories are promising to outdo their Labour equivalents, against even capitalist economic sense.
Of course it wouldn’t be Conservative conference is someone didn’t get a dig in at the curriculum. Yet, perhaps overcome by the sort of adrenaline-testosterone high that waving your cock about on stage tends to give, Gove has said something patently stupid. He has conjured up the image of the heroic headteacher fending off the bureaucrats; except that the headteacher in question is from an Academy, a group of schools to which Labour gave specific powers to shape their own curriculum. Whoops.
Not that I’m praising the system of Academies: despite double-figure millions being poured into such schools, some forty of them are still failing. Apparently the all-conquering initiative and cost-efficiency of private and third sector enterprise isn’t so all-conquering. As for the rest, where Gove discusses extra-curricular activities etc, every State school is like that. I have spent my fair share of evenings after school and friends of mine have spent their fair share of Saturdays running activities for the kids.
Even where there are no Saturday activities, the government’s Extended Schools programme is pushing every state school to offer more services during the week – whether it is breakfast club or track and field competitions. Even some of the worst schools in this part of the country are fiercely competitive at sport – the Abbey School in Faversham, for example. So Gove is laying out nothing new – but what I suspect will happen is that even more pressure is piled on without funds or personnel to achieve the goals, and yet more teachers will suffer.
Gove’s not done there though. Other pointless declarations include giving “teachers effective power to confiscate banned items and restrain violent pupils”, powers which we already have and which are clearly laid out for every new teacher. We can confiscate anything and we can restrain any pupil who is a danger to themselves or others. Plenty of state schools even have teachers given a free period once a week to wander the halls and to call into classrooms to ensure that the teacher has an effective grip on classroom discipline.
There’s also the claim that the Tories will
“…change the law so that when a head teacher expels a violent pupil– that pupil cannot plead that his human rights have been violated and then stick two fingers up to authority.”
When I was at school, I was part of the movement which organised a walk out on Day X, the day the bombing of Iraq began in 2003, I was lucky, in that some three hundred pupils walked out of my school and there was safety in numbers. A friend of mine was expelled from his school, however. He took the school to court, arguing that the expulsion was a victimisation of political dissent – which it was, whatever bureaucratic language one wishes to dress it up in. School kids, like any other section of the workforce, have the right to withdraw their consent from the State.
Walking out of school was our way of showing it – and it was remarkably successful. Literally thousands of school kids all around Northern Ireland took a (brief) interest in what was going on when people their own age began getting interviews on local and national radio stations in the run up to the outbreak of war. When war happened anyway, interest waned, which is to be expected – but the actual gesture changed the attitude of many young people. Protecting that right is important – and the basic point is that authority is not always right.
I was threatened with expulsion not just for organising the walkout but also for speaking on the radio and identifying myself as a student of Our Lady and St. Patrick’s College, Knock. The principal was raging because I brought the school into what he called ‘disrepute’ and he and the Vice-Principle kept me behind school one day in order to lecture me about appropriate behaviour. If I had been kicked out of school, it would have been a flagrant breach of my right to free speech. The sort of human right which kids don’t have, when it comes to school, according to Michael Gove.
Other elements to Gove’s speech are simply the re-announcement of existing policies, such as city technical schools to supply apprenticeships, which have existed since John Major’s government if not before and have continued under Labour. The only seeming exception is covered by Lee Griffin at Liberal Conspiracy.
Talk of social mobility rings a bit hollow in the mouth of Michael Gove when we know the cap for third-level education fees will be coming off under the next government. It rings hollow when we realise that no matter how hard anyone – everyone – works, poverty, deprivation and worklessness will continue to exist under capitalism and potentially get worse if George Osborne gets his wish to attack the deficit by massively slashing government expenditure – some of which keeps people in socially useful jobs. Like, er, teachers, teaching assistants and their support.
Then there are the elements to Gove speech which are plain fabrication or wishful thinking:
“Teachers have been deprived of professional freedom, denied the chance to inspire children with a love of learning and dragooned into delivering what the bureaucrats decree.
And we’ll ensure that experts in every field – especially mathematicians, scientists, technicians and engineers – can make a swift transition into teaching so our children have access to the very, very best science education”.
Teachers do not deliver what the bureaucrats decree. Most teachers, though I will explicitly limit this to my own experience, deliver what they want – and so long as it gets results, no one asks any questions. So long as the teacher controls the class and the exam results reach the expected target, teachers are left to do what they want. Even in terms of teaching methods, which Ofsted can be shit-hot on seeking, so long as a teacher makes a few gestures towards active learning (which actually works), then they’ll get a grade one on their observations.
As for ensuring that “experts in every field…can make a swift transition into teaching” I will be watching that policy with eyes glued. The few “experts” in their field – PhDs in history and chemistry and so on – that I’ve seen try and cut it as teachers failed miserably. They weren’t cut out for speaking in front of a class, or class discipline or some other aspect of teaching. Which isn’t something to be ashamed of because teaching is a hard job. These experts were weeded out at PGCE or GTP or NQT level, during training. So any policy planning to fast-track experts better have exactly the same safeguards as the extended training, and I doubt that it will.
This rant could continue but I shall end it with the following:
“There is no better way of building a modern, inclusive, patriotism than by teaching all British citizens to take pride in this country’s historic achievements. Which is why the next Conservative Government will ensure the curriculum teaches the proper narrative of British History – so that every Briton can take pride in this nation.”
What is surprising is just how similar this is to Labour ideas from the most recent version of the national curriculum. So similar, in fact, that there’s no difference. Every Key Stage 3 class studies British history from 1066 to late 20th Century. All the key periods are there: the wars with France, the English Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the world wars and so on. The ‘historic achievements’ notably left off are the millions of people the British Empire killed through mass starvation, war, colonization and the occasional genocide.
Which seems to match up precisely with what Gove wants us to teach. It’s bullshit. Any self-respecting academic would choke to see the sort of drivel that gets ladled out for KS3 history. Names, dates, places, inventions. Causes are occasionally talked about but these are largely focused on individuals; Did Charles cause the English Civil War? The fight between crown and church becomes a tiff between Henry II and Thomas Becket. Actually some of this is unfair; on subjects like the Crusades, the new Folens books are excellent, especially on religion.
My point, however, is that the “achievements” of this country are often achieved or paid for by one part (the rich part) employing another part (usually poor) to slaughter and rob the rest of the poor part, or the Catholic part, or the ancestors of the immigrant parts: Pakistani, Indian, Middle-Eastern, African or Afro-Carribean. I’d teach that til the cows came home, then point to the Tory Party with the words “And those fuckers are the ones who sat back and got rich off all of it”. Then see how happy Michael Gove is when confronted with a generation aware of real ‘British’ history.
Truly there is little difference between Tory and Labour education policy. They’re both equally rubbish. The only difference is in emphasis; whereas the Tories want teachers to construct a semiotic civic code based on “modern patriotism”, Labour call that “multiculturalism”. Where the Tories simplistically emphasize “discipline” and attack “bureaucracy”, in their bid to win Daily Mail approbation, Labour are more about the multisyllabic spinning into six paragraphs of what could be said in one – but the actual proposals are relatively similar.
So once again the country seems set to elect a party which can talk a good show to its supporters whilst fundamentally changing nothing. The real change is being exacted by ‘economic circumstances’, forcing cuts, in which Labour are equally complicit. The bottom line: if you want education reform don’t vote for New Labour MPs and certainly don’t vote Tory.