Beyond the Dream of Ideology

TRAILER: The Pervert's Guide to Ideology from Blinder Films on Vimeo.

In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, 2012) Slovene philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek re-enacts himself in films ranging from Taxi Driver to Sound of Music and from A Clock Work Orange to Titanic (and many more) to guide us in a razor sharp and hilarious cinematic journey into the heart of ideology: showing the psychological mechanisms of (any) ideology, revealing why it hurts to step out of it and how we are responsible for our dreams.    

“Never forget that every revolution is not only directed towards the future but also redeems the past failed revolutions.”Walter Benjamin quoted by Slavoj Žižek in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

For some introductory words about The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology:

Slavoj Žižek is one of the most well-known pop-philosophers of our times. Whether you agree with him or not, he certainly is a remarkable and entertaining critical thinker who is always interesting and thought provoking. References to cinema, especially all genres within Hollywood cinema, are very often at the heart of his observations. In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (Sophie Fiennes, 2006) Žižek argues even that if we want to understand our contemporary world, we need cinema. This is because all films (Hollywood films) contain a phantasmatic kernel that hides (or reveals) our deepest fears and desires that (unconsciously) motivate our actions and even political organization.

As someone interested in film, philosophy and politics I have been following Žižek for a long time. I must admit that until I saw The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology I considered his thought very interesting but only up to a certain point. But in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology there is a more explicit step towards another way of thinking, beyond (psychoanalytically defined) desire and collective Ideology that Žižek so convincingly puts forward time and again.

Zizek’s theoretical approach is heavily psychoanalytic: with every film analysis he revives Freud and Lacan’s theory of Oedipal sexuality, while adding his own sharp and witty flavors and philosophical insights. In the earlier film Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, for instance, we see Zizek in a little boat in Bodega Bay re-enacting Tippi Hedren being attacked by seagulls in Hitchcock’s The Birds. Staged within this well-known setting, he argues that the bird attack is actually the attack of the maternal super ego, the ultra- dominant mother not willing to let go of her son (and to be fair, this interpretation does match with the content of the film; it is not far-fetched at all). At another moment Žižek is watering the plants and flowers in the garden of David Lynch’s Blue velvet, while he exclaims: look at those ‘utterly obscene tulips, they are inviting insects to penetrate them,’ adding an even more existential and ecological dimension to our desires and fears, the fear of Nature and the fear of Death. Titles like Enjoy your symptom! and Everything you wanted to know about Lacan but were afraid to ask Hitchcock are just a few of the countless telling book titles on Žižek impressive publication list.

From within that psychoanalytic framework, Žižek has made sharp observations about the perverse structure of our fantasies and desires both on the level of the individual psyche and on the level of the collective Ideology. These observations are always cutting edge and give important insights in understanding what is wrong and why it’s wrong (in our minds, in society). In his later work, in his support for the Occupy movement and many other recent revolutions, for instance, he does indicate that we need to start working on a different world and step out of the framework of Ideology all together. Or, in any case that we need to be careful about what we dream, careful that we do not fall back in the same old traps of Ideology. However, what happens once we do this? Once we have gone through the phantasms, do we have any alternative ways of thinking? Before returning to that question, just a few points that Žižek addresses in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, a film that is like a roller coaster of ideas. So by way of highlighting ten observations.

1. Žižek demonstrates brilliantly that Ideology is not something that is imposed on us, but it is something spontaneous, we enjoy our ideology, every ideology has a kernel (like the kernel of a Kinder-Surprise Egg) that speaks to our desire: the desire to keep on desiring (for that little extra, that unobtainable object, fame, etc.). This is part and parcel of our psychological make –up (at least when one defines desire in the psychoanalytic way as a desire something that one lacks; think of Jacques Lacan’s nick name as ‘Jack the Lack’).

2. The structure of Ideology is like an empty container that can take any form – as Žižek proves with an interesting analysis of the use of the first part of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony ‘Ode to Joy’ that is used as a classic hymn in all ideologies, ranging from the far right in fascism and Nazism to the far left in Maoism and Stalinism.  (The second part of ‘Ode to Joy’ is much more a critique of Ideology, Žižek adds).

3. It is wrong to see Žižek as somebody who simply wants to replace capitalism by communism, a thought one can find expressed online, as in a blog entitled ‘Waarom zo mild voor filosoof Zizek?’(‘Why so mild about philosopher Zizek?’). Here one can read: “It’s shocking that Žižek acts as if the 20th century has not taken place. Between 1900 and 1987 communist regimes have killed about 110 million of their own citizens. To compare: in the same period democratic regimes only killed 2 million of their own people.”… Apart from the fact that comparing the legitimacy of an ideology measured against the amount citizens it killed is rather perverse in itself; and, apart from the fact that in the same period western regimes killed countless communist citizens in all kind of foreign countries, the fact is that Žižekdoes not vote for the return of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or whatever failed Ideological revolution. 

4. Žižek does refer to communism as in the search for the common but without the Ideological dreams that are always following the same structure. Žižek argues (in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology more strongly than ever before) that we have to step out of Ideology. But he also repeats time and again that this hurts! It hurts precisely because our ideologies are so intimately intertwined with our secret/perverse/desires. The big problem with all the failed revolutions, Žižek argues, is that they changed the social body, the social order (the chocolate around the surprise) – but did not change the fantasy, the dream (the plastic toy in the middle) that sustains it.

5.  Žižek guides us through a cinematographic landscape where he re-enacts as the characters in the films he discusses, explaining for instance, why the countless outbursts of (extremist) violence that we are witnessing today are related to an outburst against the overwhelming power of global capitalism; how the power given to Ideology as Big Other (God/The State/The People/Efficiency/...) can be used as an excuse in the name of which we can reject or deny individual responsibility; or how in an atheist world the ‘divine enjoyment’ of impenetrable bureaucracy (see Brazil) may function as a Big Ideological Other in itself.

6.  Žižek does suggest some ways to break with the idea of the Big Other of Ideology. One way out is related to addressing our desires and fears on a more raw, pre-ideological level (and here Žižek’s analysis of the German rock band Ramstein is very interesting). Another is by mocking the Mythical Idea of The People that justifies all acts committed in the name of that People. Showing (as some filmmakers do) that this Mythical People does not exist, mocking ourselves as mythical perfect beings, is a good strategy to undermine the power of The Big Other. 

7. If there is a lesson to learn from Žižek it is the lesson to be careful about what we dream, to take responsibilities for our dreams and not to fall prey of the dangerous and perverse machinations of any ideology. You may just end up repeat what you are fighting under ‘another flag.’

8.  This does not mean Žižekis utterly cynical; he does acknowledge the need and the striving for a better more just world. After a rollercoaster of sharp witty analysis of many things that we recognize as the impossibilities that we see ourselves faced with in todays’ world, Žižek does get serious when he talks about the revolutions connected to the Occupy movement, Taksim Square, Greece, and more. He is asking us why it seems so impossible to simply ask for a modest change in our economic order. And he reaches out by reminding us of Walter Benjamin who said about more than a hundred years ago: “Never forget that every revolution is not only directed towards the future but also redeems the past failed revolutions.”   

9. In order to ‘fail better’ we have to take this lesson from psychoanalysis serious and work ourselves through the phantasm of ideology; we have to step out of the framework of ideology. As Žižek says repeatedly, this hurts. However, for Žižek himself this may hurt too, because it would also mean that he himself would have to step out of his theoretical framework that he masters perfectly; and find other, perhaps more uncertain concepts and ideas to experiment with.

10. If we take Žižek’s lessons at heart, we might need to investigate thinkers and filmmakers who have proposed alternative ways of conceptualizing both desire and politics. Spinoza, Hume, Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari, Jameson, Berland and Brenez and a range of classic and contemporary filmmakers might be other guides from the traditions of the humanities whose words, worlds and ideas are worthwhile revisiting.