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How Ideology Seduces Us – and How We Can (Try to) Escape It

(Image: P Guide Productions)

In the first of a series from the Copenhagen Film Festival, Yosef Brody reviews Sophie Fiennes’ new movie, which demonstrates how “the hidden universal framework of ideology must be unmasked in order for liberating political change to be given a chance.”

“When we think we escape it, with our dreams, at that point we are within ideology.”
– Slavoj Žižek

Sophie Fiennes’s latest film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, which screened this week at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX), is a revelation for fans of cinema, especially politically-minded ones. Shatteringly funny and deeply intellectual, the Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek analyzes Hollywood cinema from the inside – literally – as a method of differentiating between scaffolds that are common to all ideologies, on the one hand, and their specific contents, on the other. Žižek analyzes our favorite movies – our collective dreams – in order to understand our social reality for what it is. According to Žižek, the hidden universal framework of ideology must be unmasked in order for liberating political change to be given a chance.

A truly unique personality, Žižek provides piercing social criticism by examining, in what is perhaps the most effective and entertaining way possible, the social and psychological meanings concealed within popular culture and mundane consumer objects. His main thesis is that ideology in its most powerful form is hidden from the view of the person who submits to it. Once it can be clearly perceived it effectively loses its power of social control; obversely, to believe oneself to be non-ideological is actually equivalent to being driven primarily by ideology.

No matter which orthodoxy we may live under, Žižek explains, we usually enjoy our ideology, and that is part of its function. Paradoxically, it hurts to step outside of it and examine it critically; by default we tend to resist seeing the world from any angle other than the one fed to us.

Žižek’s many examples are pleasurable in themselves, whether you agree with his analysis or not. Take Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Žižek sees this piece of music, at least the first part of it, as presenting the quintessence of an ideological frame, a structural template. He shows how this composition has been used as an anthem by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, South Rhodesia under colonial control, far left Peruvian guerilla forces, a pre-unified Germany when East and West participated in the Olympics as one nation in 1988, and the contemporary European Union. Ode to Joy provides an attractive but completely empty container that is devoid of all meaning, one that can be filled with any ideas whatsoever. The clichéd emotional image it provides effectively works to seduce and neutralize individuals, blinding them to their own reality.

Moving on from Beethoven we take a long, winding tour through cinema, traveling with Žižek through uncompromising socio-psychoanalytic analyses of A Clockwork Orange, West Side Story, Titanic, Jaws, Cabaret, Brazil, Full Metal Jacket, The Sound of Music, The Dark Knight, and many others. Watching key sequences from each, we enter the mind of Žižek, who sometimes appears inside set reconstructions of the films he is analyzing as he is analyzing them, a hilarious gimmick used to excellent effect (and one first used in Fiennes’ lesser The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema from 2006). In one of the more memorable moments, he interprets the inner monologue of the Taxi Driver and its greater meaning while lying in Travis Bickle’s grungy bed, Scorsese camera angle and all. This method, skillfully used by Fiennes, serves to underscore Žižek’s main idea since, just like with Ode to Joy, we’re confronted with a potent and seductive framework that can reliably accommodate various contents.

Interlaced with his often-priceless film analyses are worthy and helpful looks at recent events, including the Breivik massacre of young leftists in Norway, the London consumer riots, Tahrir Square, and Occupy Wall Street, as well as examinations of the role of fear in modern society, suicidal violence, obscenity in the military, misguided fantasies about saving resistant women from victimhood, official lies as forms of social control, the psychoanalytic differences between Judaism and Christianity and the urgent need for all of us to take responsibility for our dreams. If this seems like a lot, it is, but it also all fits together quite beautifully in a lightening-quick 134 minutes. And if you watch through the end of the credits you’ll be rewarded with a gem of a moment, a radical reimagining of an iconic film that effectively brings together his primary points.

Žižek starts the journey off with a brilliant analysis of a sequence I have been using in my media course for the last several years, from early in John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live. The philosopher sees the film as a forgotten masterpiece, one that perfectly encapsulates contemporary liberal capitalist ideology and its discontents. Through the use of special sunglasses that allow the wearer to see hidden messages in everyday reality, the film provides a powerful metaphor for social control in contemporary democratic society. A bizarre, extended wrestling sequence between the protagonist and his best friend – a scene that until now I had dismissed as a cheesy relic of the era – describes, for Žižek, the extreme resistance that faithful ideologues feel compelled to put up in order to keep them blinded. Remaining ideologically submissive is much easier than forcing oneself to critique the dominant worldview, Žižek seems to be saying, but it’s also more oppressive and more destructive. Seeing reality clearly can be painful, and it also brings new responsibilities.

In his analysis of the German metal band Rammstein, which has elsewhere been critiqued for its seemingly dangerous use of fascistic elements in live performances, Žižek peels away the ideological filter in a different way. Watch them closely, he argues, and it should become clear that Rammstein, rather than promoting it, has actually found the key to undermining Nazism. By clearing fascist propaganda of all its content and presenting only the empty frame – the “gestures without precise ideological meaning” – Rammstein is able to denude fascism, emptying it of its power as a solution for social ills. By fighting Nazism like this in its “pre-ideological state,” music fans can enjoy the meaningless collective gestures while the band critiques fascism from within.

“How does ideology seduce us into this edifice?” asks Žižek. It offers us little bribes. Take for example what he calls the high point and ultimate form of consumerism, a cup of Starbucks coffee. The posters in the cafés tell us that while the coffee may cost slightly more, Starbucks also donates a tiny portion of each purchase to some humanitarian cause in some poor country. With this cup of coffee we can be a “consumerist without a bad conscience”: the bribe we are offered is that we can save the world and enjoy ourselves at the same time. Because the price of guilt is already included in the cup of coffee – and thus we are doing our ostensible duty to the environment, or whatever it may be – we can fulfill our personal desires completely conscience-free.

Through often brilliant psychoanalytic analysis of popular culture, Žižek and Fiennes offer viewers a Freudian cigar while at the same time questioning our use of those ideological sunglasses. When is a cup of Starbucks not just a cup of Starbucks? When it’s in the hands of Slavoj Žižek.