Words: Jack Brindelli
Speaking frankly, as is his custom, Slavoj Žižek said in a 2011 Guardian interview, “most of the left hates me even though I am supposed to be one of the world’s leading communist intellectuals.” Two years on, with the DVD release of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the shape of the British left might be changing (the SWP who fiercely criticised him for his words on an old Russian proverb regarding the horrors of rape, have effectively collapsed because of their actions regarding rape accusations in their own party) but the collective disdain remains. And whilst of course, we should always be willing to have conversations with even the loftiest of figures when they take problematic lines on any subject, there is something opportunistic about the way the orthodox left have approached this in writing off Žižek and his methods entirely.
In his previous screen outing, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Žižek looked at the implications of Chaplin’s Great Dictator on anti-fascism, utilised the Marx brothers to explain Freudian theory, and used The Matrix to illustrate how illusion and reality may often be inextricably linked. If it is possible to believe, his latest project is even grander. This time, Žižek turns his unique brand of philosophy and theatrical panache on deconstructing ‘common sense’ ideas and exposing them as constructs of capitalist ideology.
From sitting aboard a plane bound for Nazi Germany in a Riefenstahl propaganda piece, to staging his own icy death in Titanic, the Slovenian radical makes his sequel engaging and often hilarious. He examines everything from the London riots to Rammstein gigs, in order to show how ideology shapes our world, and how it might be challenged. By looking into the assumptions and contradictions of widely known and loved culture, he not only flags up “the dictatorship in liberal democracy”, but creates an accessible framework for doing so – so that people who didn’t come out of the womb clutching a copy of Kapital might even find it interesting!
So why does the man remain so polarising to the left? Observing the widespread snobbery directed at Russell Brand after his now infamous Paxman interview, it is perhaps easy to work out why the left’s hostility toward Žižek persists. It seems for a broad swathe of the left’s hierarchy, socialism, the ideology of the ordinary people, is conversely not something that should be easily accessible. It’s a position you should arrive at after intense study of voluminous texts and hyper verbose, po-faced lecturing. So when somebody cracks jokes whilst arguing for radical change, or when somebody uses film and popular culture to explain Marxism to the masses, they are often charged with a “lack of genuine analysis” and with trivialising the almost sacred institution of dusty academia.
But this is precisely what makes Žižek so compelling to watch – and so important as a philosopher. He has a fantastic grasp of Lacanian jargon, well-honed anti-capitalist rhetoric and all the fashion sense of a blind, inebriate Oxbridge Professor. And yet, he doesn’t play it safe, consigning himself to some buttoned down monastery like so many other leftist thinkers. On the contrary, he continuously enters realms of mass culture to interface with millions of people, many of whom may totally disagree.
His work often delves into areas considered too vulgar for other Marxist academics to dirty their hands with. The established left commonly write these subjects off as “bourgeois distraction” at the best of times, preferring instead the safety of the academic enclave, or engage with them as a token gesture at worst, with ‘working man speak’ in their papers mirroring the Mockney of Chas and Dave. Yet cinema, sport, music, comedy, these contain ample opportunities to challenge the economic system that is the base of these aspects of civil society – and to do so on a level millions of people can relate to.
What Žižek shows us, is that things like cinema do embody many ideological myths that we are brought up within capitalism thinking to be natural occurrences, to be ‘reality’. Obviously it is not enough to simply point to the fallacies before you expect revolution. However, lefties the world over should be engaging with and analysing mass entertainment rather than avoiding it! Because when they do, it becomes a tool to show these constructs for what they are – no more natural than the fictions flickering across a screen. From there, anything can be challenged.