by Phil James
Slavoj Žižek is a one-of-a-kind celebrity. Even in the most esoteric academic circles, It is rare in this day and age that a literary and psychoanalytic theorist gets the light of day. And when the very purveyor of such complex philosophical ideas comes out with a movie called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, it is even harder to believe that a cult audience has grown around him. Žižek, however, has given his input to Occupy protestors, and even recently penned an editorial on the recent government shutdown. His ideas address Hegel, Marx, Heidegger and other major philosophers, but he chooses to analyze contemporary cinema and everyday events to prove his point.
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is a 2-hour dissertation of Žižek’s philosophy clarified through various movies and major global events. Director Sophie Fiennes humorously superimposes the philosopher into the films he’s analyzing. At one point, he stretches out onto Travis Bickle’s bed from Taxi Driver. At another point, he’s looking out the window the plane from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Žižek has all the gusto and phlegm of a mad scientist, but his explanations are never boring. You either become fixated on his monologic diatribes or eager to unravel the iconic scenes he looks at. It’s a highly participatory film.
At least on the surface, his argument is quite simple: The human race lives in an ideological world created by their subconscious management of desires. Everything from Coca Cola to rioting to A Clockwork Orange all fall under this very paradigm, and he sees these ideologies as the basis for the majority of our cultural artifacts.
The ‘Pervert’ in the documentary’s title refers not to creepy voyeurism or sexual subversion, but rather to the tensions that wrack the movies he analyzes. To Žižek, the song “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music (censored in his native Yugoslavia during Communist rule) reveals the sexual amorality of religious institutions. He also believes that the love story in Titanic is nothing more than a continuation of an artistic fantasy that permits the mingling of the aristocracy with the poor to re-establish social hierarchies. If you think the content sounds disputatious, you’re right. Žižek has had his fair share of criticism, and there are evident stretches of analysis. This is what makes the film so engaging, though. The films he looks at may not all be hiding secret messages, but he believes that most of the tropes that survive in the modern Romance or drama have roots in our collective subconscious. Such is the nature of ideology.
Another contentious aspect of the film is his analytical treatment of major socio-political events. Citing the late German philosopher Walter Benjamin (pronounced ben-ya-meen), Žižek posits that some of the biggest events in recent history have been fueled by a subconscious need to seek out a common “other”. Capitalism, he says, has created its own cyclical process of history that prohibits ideological struggle, so the fantasy of such a division must be created to move history forward. The Occupy movement and the London Riots of 2011 are, to him, failed attempts to create an “other” within a capitalist society.
Complicated, yes, but as the world continues to transition into an age more cynical (and to some, more “postmodernist) than the next, it becomes important to have voices to contextualize the events of the present. His analysis may not be revolutionary, but at least it reminds us that pop culture is not a self-evident display of random objects. It is a mechanism fixated towards our desires, and one so strong that it can alter our approach to politics, sexuality and life in general.