This review was first published by internationalsocialist.org.uk on 30/10/2013, and republished at redwedgemagazine.com on 12/11/2013. Please click on the links or see Publications & Contributions for the original text and other articles I have published elsewhere.
Most people with a passing interest in contemporary philosophy by now are aware of the curious character that is Slavoj Žižek. For those who are not he can adequately be summed up in this description – the world’s foremost Slovenian philosophical rock star come wind up merchant. A regular on the global lecture circuit and academic at the University of Ljubljana, he has for over a decade represented a Marxist current concerned primarily with psychoanalysis and its application for political and cultural philosophy.
As a vocal opponent of neo-liberalism with a global reach, Žižek’s ideas have traction, something that cannot be said for a great many present day philosophers on the left. He holds that we are both consciously and unconsciously subscribing to capitalist power structures in every aspect of our being. This is all par for the course of a socialist critique but where Žižek has received both criticism and praise is in his utilisation of psychoanalysis in order to reach this understanding. The basic focus of psychoanalysis is to distinguish between enjoyment (see the concept of ‘jouissance’) and pleasure, and to Žižek this is the space within which ideology operates and therefore the underlying focus of Sophie Fiennes’ 2013 documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.
This film is another attempt to broadcast Žižek’s philosophy and place the cinematic microscope directly over the point at which culture and power merge. In the director’s 2006 outing we saw Žižek in the similarly titled and equally surreal The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Both iterations follow a largely recognisable style. Slavoj shows a clip, talks over it, and then appears interspersed into the subject speaking directly to camera. Imagine your youth spent watching afternoon children’s television and replace the cheery London accented presenter with everyone’s favourite disheveled Slovenian and you will have a fair idea of how things play out. To casual watchers this can appear humorous, and it is, especially when you see such an eccentric awkward character in the repose of Travis Bickle or quite inexplicably traversing an arid environment to contest the true meaning of Coca-Cola.
I suspect Žižek is more than happy to play the clown in this regard as he urges us to maintain an ‘ironic distance’ from the superego of society and see the obscenity and hilarity of our rituals. If we fail to do so we may ultimately descend into self destruction like Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket, as is explained during the documentary while Žižek sits on the toilet. At just over two hours with a single talking head as the primary focus there is a danger that you will find yourself transfixed more by the unique mannerisms of Žižek than the content itself. There is something altogether loveable about this philosopher however, and the colourful set pieces present do little to damage his reputation as that rarest of things: a Marxist intellectual with a sense of humour.
There are some notable high points in the documentary such as Žižek’s explication of the conflicting uses of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 as a means of exerting political influence, or using Jaws to explain why we are inclined towards creating single tangible fears to cover up the reality of our systemic problems (e.g. immigrants as folk devils). This said, the film does suffer when it attempts to go beyond this politics and power remit. This is most notable when Slavoj presents a convoluted (even by his standards) case for seeing the story of Jesus Christ as the removal of the unseen perceived regulation which constrains us (see Lacan’s ‘big Other’ concept). Another less confusing but equally abstruse example includes comparing the film Titanic to the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 – his point being that Jack’s death maintained at least the romantic dream of the couple’s love, and so too the quelling of the uprising in Czechoslovakia maintained the dream of communism if not the reality. If those seem like relatively difficult or in fact nonsensical comparisons then this film will likely leave you bitterly cold as that is the method and madness present throughout. In order to enjoy this documentary you must in a way accept Žižek’s own pseudo ideology that we are cognizant of all things at all times and yet never at all.
Despite covering more interesting directors like Miloš Forman and John Frankenheimer, Žižek does tend towards bland truisms about touchstone pop culture references like The Dark Knight Rises or The Sound of Music. In the former instance pointing out the clear neo-liberal undertone of the recent Christopher Nolan epics, something the director himself has never really denied. This extends to further obvious musings like the clever marketing of Starbucks and the endlessly noted fact that Lenin really liked children and cats.
For all this opprobrium it has to be said that this is often an entertaining and erudite watch. Fiennes and Žižek have to be applauded for bringing this kind of subject material to the big screen in a way that is not completely debilitating. Those who have sat through Astra Taylor’s An Examined Life will know this is far from a simple task. It is apposite to mention therefore that if you are the kind of person who enjoys watching ageing academics gesticulate for hours then you will get a lot from this film. If you are completely new to the philosophical tropes so ingrained in the contemporary Hegelian psychoanalytic rhetoric that Žižek espouses then you may also find this an intriguing way to spend an evening. If however you are quite frankly fatigued from years of hearing the lectern centric patter that has become so key to any kind of ‘theoretical’ cultural philosophy then this film will likely have you reaching for the nearest blog outlet available (guilty as charged).
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology offers a plethora of intriguing if not particularly remarkable insights into how we come to navigate the competing narratives of power that define our complex world. As socialists however the most important message we can take from the film is that we must change our dreams regardless of how much it hurts our desires. We should consider whether the true revolutionary force of the 20th century was actually capitalism and thereby accept the reality of our temporary defeat. If this is true then consumerism is the only functioning ideology, and it is by locating our dreams outside this dominant ideology that we can overcome it. We must in short envision and work towards a better world to redeem the failures of the past. For many socialists these are uncomfortable notions, alas, as Žižek states quite categorically at the start of the film: freedom hurts.