Sunday, February 22, 2009


It is strange to write a short commentary about such a film, because my comments do not really address filmmaking or the ideas of the filmmaker; only what I think about Žižek’s ideas after watching him talk for an hour and a half.

Here are a few observations and points of contention:

The film begins with Žižek explaining that nothing is real and insisting that he means that in a “literal” sense. My short response to that is: Bollocks. (Sometimes a British idiom seems more appropriate than the American version.) I do not understand this kind of thinking. Ontology never made sense to me. One may suppose that the world was created by a Judeo-Christian God who gave humanity a set of rules to live by or one may suppose that all of existence is the dream of a mad man. One may speculate a thousand other hypotheses. I cannot see that it matters. It is quite likely that this is my problem and that I should not judge Žižek for espousing ontology that seems futile to me. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that it is a serpent eating its tail. Is it a useful idea? Does it help one to reach tenable conclusions about the world around him or her? Does it help one to negotiate society, to move closer to what Plato called communion with the One and what today is called more commonly living authentically? For me it has the opposite effect, and I find in Žižek! numerous assertions and arguments that are contradictory, and instead of arriving at a Hegelian synthesis, they end up being self-defeating.

For several months I have been arguing with a friend and colleague about the fundamental mistake of post-modernism, at least when it address artworks. The contemporary critical theorist is always more interested in his own ideas than in the ideas of the work of art or the artist(s) that created it. It is a pet theory of mine that this began when Freud took his observation that a patient reveals more in the latent content of his or her dreams than in the manifest content, and applied it to art works, as if the point of art was to diagnose the artist. Roland Barthes develops this into a full-fledged theoretical approach to art and the rest of cultural production in a book that I believe has secretly had the most influence on critical thought in the past fifty years, Mythologies. The most important thing Barthes does in his work is dissolve the boundary between art and the rest of cultural production. A discipline was born in that book, and despite the fact that Žižek calls himself a Lacanian and Marxist, his discipline is Cultural Theory and it is Roland Barthes who brought it into being.

It is of course unfair to characterize Žižek in this one-dimensional way. He does make a distinction between his serious books and light cultural theory. From memory I believe his serious books are The Sublime Object of Ideology, The Ticklish Subject, The Fragile Absolute and The Plague of Fantasies. Whether I got the list right is not as important as the idea that he acknowledges a difference between his meaningful work (which I will talk about momentarily) and the cultural theory stuff which frankly seems silly to me. There is a point in the documentary at which he says the best American film ever made is King Vidor’s 1949 adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. Bollocks. This is either arch irony or over thinking. He is either trying to be clever, trying to shake up people like me who cling to their sacred cows like Tarkovsky, Bresson and Ozu, or he is making the typical culture theory move that makes what he can do with the movie more important than what the movie really is.

I know that he calls into question the notion of “what it really is.” I think I throw off one or two of my more classically trained philosopher colleagues when I use the possessive to describe the ideas that are in a film. For instance, in another documentary Žižek says he is not interested in any of the subjects that Tarkovsky addresses in his narratives, but in the pre-narrative density of Tarkovsky’s films. I don’t want to say “bollocks” again I just want to point out that all this really means is that Žižek is more interested in Žižek’s ideas than he is in Tarkovsky’s. This is a fine approach to take to King Vidor’s films, because he is not very interesting. One has to be very clever to watch Fountainhead and find anything profound in it. Tarkovsky requires different skills. His meanings require sensitivity rather than cleverness. They require attention to detail instead of free association. And when I talk about Tarkovsky’s ideas I mean the ideas that are in the film. I use the possessive as shorthand so that I don’t have to redefine where truth in art comes from every time I write about the meaning of a film. Tarkovsky often described himself as a medium (he had a fairly Platonic view of how art comes into being). Ultimately I find it prohibitive to get into such ontological discussion when I merely want to address meaning in a film. In Umberto Eco’s great Interpretation and Overinterpretation he uses the following analogy: When you receive a letter from a friend you are supposed to read it to find out what he or she is trying to communicate to you. You could no doubt spin endless meanings from it, even deconstruct it into meaninglessness, but your friend ostensibly wrote it to communicate something to you and you owe it to him or her to suss that out.

The other half of this problem is that Žižek and the like do not approach philosophers the same way. Žižek is not interested in Marx and Lacan for what he can do with them; he is interested in what they mean. Some of his critics will say that he changes the meaning of Marx by superimposing Lacan upon him, but Žižek insists, quite accurately in my view (though I cannot claim to be an expert in either Marx or Lacan), that his Lacanian Marxism is not a game but a clear understanding of Marx. He is not making the connection out of whole cloth, in other words, he is elucidating it. Žižek is most interesting when he diverges with his contemporaries, and his failure to treat artists as thinkers places him among the bulk of contemporary critical theory. Perhaps this treatment of the artist as a second-class thinker goes back even further. Maybe it is a fundamental problem for philosophy. Off the top of my head it seems that only the American Pragmatists (I have in mind Emerson, James, Santayana, Dewey and Pirsig, but probably not Rorty and certainly neither Quine nor Fish) and possibly Nietzsche have had the balls to admit that anyone who does not study and write philosophy for a living would be capable of addressing the mysteries of existence. According to the philosopher only another trained philosopher, and never an artists, is capable of complex philosophical expression.

The philosopher tends to treat art as a cultural expression rather than an individual expression. Žižek has a wonderful bit about what he can learn about various cultures from their toilets. He looks at toilets in, if I recall correctly, France, Germany and… is it England or the US? In any event he sees in these toilets Catholicism and Protestantism, Romanticism and Pragmatism and it is all there. It is a tour de force of Barthesian mythology. But it ceases to be true once you take it out of the abstract. I mean that the toilet, Keats, Mozart and Delacroix are all romantic, but the toilet is only interesting for what it reveals about Romanticism while the artists are interesting for all the unique ways they reach beyond their category.

Writing about art requires a degree of humility that is unusual in a philosopher, especially a continental philosopher. Žižek readily admits to being narcissistic. There is a brief section in which he discusses his fear that if he stops talking he will disappear. However, the documentary stops well short of showing him trying to resolve this problem. Clearly it is a tension that persists. In one of the many prefaces to the latest edition of Enjoy Your Symptom! that I have just begun reading, Žižek says that the best thing to do right would be to stop talking and writing; to go somewhere and (he quotes Lenin) “just learn, learn, learn.”

Finally I would mention the question that proved the most interesting for me, that of freedom. I should say that I reject Žižek’s linking of freedom to pleasure as he seems to mean pleasure in the Freudian sense. Still the discussion of freedom as an impossibility (though I would be less pessimistic and say that it is very nearly impossible) in our culture penetrates far deeper than anything Chomsky has written (and Chomsky is very good!) His discussion of pleasure as a wholly manufactured emotion is equally important, and he ties them together. In fact, this is the proof of that Lacanian psychoanalysis logically extends Marxian theory into the emotional sphere. It is a shattering analysis, and if I have dwelled too much on the points at which I disagree with Žižek it is only because his passion is infectious. It makes one want to argue.