“In order to understand today’s world, we need cinema, literally. It’s only in cinema that we get that crucial dimension which we are not ready to confront in our reality. If you are looking for what is in reality, more real than reality itself, look into the cinematic fiction.” – Slavoj Žižek
It’s safe to say Slavoj Žižek’s reputation is anything but consistent. At times, his analysis can be spot on – even for films he openly admits he hasn’t actually watched (his review of Avatar, “Return of the Natives” was based on a viewing of the trailer I’m told), but this is also one of his most notable downfalls. He has a hard-earned notoriety for playing fast and loose with facts in his often-polarising essays, and is notably at the centre of an ongoing academic cat-fight with Noam Chomsky – having accused him of supporting the Khmer Rouge in Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent” (which having read, I can categorically state, Chomsky did not do). Combine this with the fact he has allegedly said some rather horrible things about the Roma, women and Tibetans, and you can see why the left might often flirt with abandoning him all together. With such a reputation, it is all too easy to reduce all his work to the ravings of a mad king – drunk on his own influence – but this in my opinion would be a tragic mistake.
By no means does that mean we can ignore his problematic side – indeed it must be challenged wherever possible – but what I am saying is, some aspects of his work do have valuable lessons to learn from.
For some time now, I have been attempting to find his brilliant 3 part series “The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema” in full, for free on the webternets, and I have finally stumbled upon it this week. The series has something of an X-factor that has been sorely missed in socialist discourse for some time – accessibility. Despite going into considerable detail about the occasionally bemusing, all too regularly hyper-verbose worlds of psychoanalysis, philosophy and Marxism, the show still managed (thanks in no small measure to Žižek’s constant reference to popular cinema) to be engaging on a level that is all too rare in those fields.
It is especially important considering Marxism aims to be the emancipatory theory for the masses – yet has all too regularly become the preserve of dusty professors sitting atop ivory towers. This quality itself has at times marked Žižek out for criticism from other members of ‘the left’ who accuse him of dumbing down – of shoehorning in film references to pedal some kind of substandard pseudo-Marx to ordinary people. This criticism would perhaps be easier to swallow, were it the case that the left generally wrote fantastic, imaginative and inspiring texts that ordinary people were willing to engage with en masse. Broadly this is not the state of affairs.
Unfortunately, leftist, socialist, and Marxist theories exist in two different bubbles. One addresses ideology, without being relatable to people’s every day experiences. This sphere of academic debate discusses the empowerment of the oppressed but is written in impenetrable jargon that would drive away anyone but the most hard-nosed scholar (so relatively few of “the oppressed”). Even to those who understand it, it often resembles what Mark Steel (another fantastically accessible socialist) called “the cream cracker test”, where the text is so dry you need to regularly down pints of water just to get through it.
The second bubble addresses “the world” without addressing ideology (which thanks to the previously mentioned articles, is seen as a turn-off). This is where writers within that same ilk attempt to write for the rest of us – and the articles they produce are condescending in the extreme, not to mention completely unengaging. A good example of that is whatever front page the Socialist Worker is currently running… it’s probably “Oi Mate, David Cameron Is Very Fackin’ Rich, Kill All Tories NOW!” or along those lines…
They generally use an over-compensatory – often insultingly cliché – “workers lexicon”, in order to loosely attach demands they feel are relevant to a political event that’s in some way in vogue. And whilst it is important to contextualise individual debates within a bigger picture as an argument for systemic change, if your demands on the working class are so completely aloof from their current situation they are unclear whether you are in fact from the same planet, let alone class, then you might as well be singing West Ham United songs at them sitting in a greasy spoon with Chaz and Dave playing in the background – it wont make any difference.
What I’m saying is: neither approach really works. They both basically appeal exclusively to people inside of a own revolutionary clique – both perhaps because of a snobbish belief that anything but impenetrable nonsense is beneath them meaning when they write amongst themselves, it is impossible to engage with or when they write to engage because of their disdain it comes out as parody. This is where the Mark Steels and the Žižek’s of this world become so important. They can contextualise what were previously considered ‘high level’ discourse in terms of popular culture – like comedy, television, sport, music and films.
These are subjects commonly written off as bourgeois distraction at the best of times, or engaged with as a tokenistic gesture at worst – yet ordinary people engage with them on a daily basis, and they contain ample opportunity to make ideological arguments, 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.
So when, in Pervert’s Guide, Žižek concludes:
“In order to understand today’s world, we need cinema, literally. It’s only in cinema that we get that crucial dimension which we are not ready to confront in our reality. If you are looking for what is in reality, more real than reality itself, look into the cinematic fiction.”
What we can infer is that cinema does embody many of the fictions, 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 (or indeed phalluses) before you and expect revolution. However, by engaging in cinema, and by analysing mass entertainment rather than avoiding it, film becomes also a tool to show to the many, these constructs for what they are – no more natural than the fictions that flicker across the screen. From there, anything can be challenged.