A THEORY OF FILM – SLAVOJ ZIZEK AND HIS IDEOLOGICAL BASIN
Hollywood cinema is well known for marking ideological content. After all it is only an extension of the American dream. However, let’s dig deeper and use some of the contemporary theories of radical thinkers like Slavoj Zizek to help us get there. We are concerned with Hollywood and the cinema it promotes, and we are concerned with it because we are part of the ideological machine, in fact, we have come to love it.
To what extent can ideological content manifest itself? Is ideology not limited and defined by the very term ideology? Ideology can therefore not be defined, in other words, ideology is constituted everywhere, for any thing has a contingent value that will inevitably manifest itself in ideological terms. We are on the path to denouncing ideology, but our key concern here is how can this space be analysed, how can it manifest itself? If all content gives way to a naturalism i.e. it forms a system that becomes the natural way of doing something (such as economy being tied to social responsibility etc.), then the space of an ideological basin can not exist a priori to the event that forms it; the space where ideology is denounced must remain empty. The problem is arguably an irresolvable one: any material content becomes ideology, but an empty space can’t have any meaning, ideology is therefore a trap of the highest degree.
For the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek it is this empty space underneath ideology that forms a potential cyberspace. In society, this notion by Zizek is clearly a critique of the liberal elite in left politics, what Zizek calls the ‘passive-interactive’ dynamic. Zizek is not a fascist, but he does wish to take over the radical ground occupied by the extreme right by way of revitalizing Marxist political action. The liberals ignorance hides in plain sight, their passive-interactivity is not externalised, not enacted upon and, thereby, does not actually deal with any real world consequences. A subject must be enacted to make a difference. A literal example of this would be the liberals in support of multiculturalism, but remaining at a distance and therefore evidently not willing to live in multicultural communities. In such an instance, ideology is useless; it does not function as an act, it is denounced in cyberspace. Essential antagonisms are not resolved, for example, multiculturalism, sexual differences, the rising global economy, and so on. What does this mean for Hollywood cinema? It means exactly what it means for ideology and the liberal elite, which is that Hollywood doesn’t have to deal with it, it can denounce ideology as cyberspace and the consequences will not be sought after, but will hide in plain sight.
We live in a society where the avoidance of suffering is addictive and this is the impotence of our culture. One always wants more. Could consumer society and capitalism function were this not the case? It is the difficulty of Zizek’s thought that a post-modern sensibility cannot tolerate, rather than an adequacy on part of the thinker himself. There is desperation in the climate of contemporary thought, and cinema is a direct way to channel this desperation into a format that hides from reality, yet is essentially made up of it. As cinema is so fully materialised, ideology has to function, even if it is not easily denounced, as we have just established. This is the function par excellence then of ideology as a political tool, a function of power. However, Zizek is not arguing that modes of ideology are essentially this simple and already giving, rather that the latter can manifest itself in a variety of instances, of which all are intimately complex and indefinable.
The cinema can formally embody certain beliefs and provide examples of certain falsified implications for society, for example, running from coast-to-coast will not make you famous and happy, but it will for Forrest Gump. Is this film not the ultimate simplification of life and its various obsessions? A man with a disastrously low IQ can cascade through a destructive, and yet wonderful life for the sole reason of good intention. Despite the lack of reality, and investment in any form of Lacan’s Big Other (or, the Real), in other words, a false rejection of fantasy (“it’s just a film”), Forrest Gump is able to pass as a grand romantic drama with a powerful message of common sense (ideologies hidden form): “…life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Or, life is unpredictable, but that is life and you will always come out on top as long as you go with it (and get lucky). In Hollywood, there is enough space for everyone in the world to get lucky. We can see how Hollywood is telling a universal lie in order to sustain public morale, a ‘Noble lie’ because it is knowingly told as untruthful.
This concept of the Noble lie originated in Plato (The Republic) as the telling of a fictional tale. We can then take cinema itself, according to Plato, as the grandest of all noble lies. Cinema could be “a contrivance for one of those falsehoods that came into being in case of need” (414b-c). This is Hollywood cinema. It is intended for good effect, but the authorities know otherwise. Ideology is often referred to in the guise of knows, “he knows that we know that he knows that we know.” The last know is a Zizekism, the fact that we know that he knows that we know renders us stupid and powerless. They act anyway and we let them knowingly do so, yet we invest in our false belief (that we don’t know) so much that we end up believing in what we are subscribing too. Do we believe that Bruce Willis will come and save us when we are taken hostage by German terrorists in a tower? Yes we do. This is Zizek’s message of the “unbearable” universality. “The secret to be unveiled through analysis is not the content hidden by the form… but, on the contrary, the ‘secret of this form itself” (1989: 11). The form presents this uncanny belief, that “the failed mediation [or medium] is the message”.
The self-referential nature of cinema and the performance of the spectator is also an important position for Zizek. It follows what we previously mentioned of false belief: the spectator will “kneel down and you will thereby MAKE SOMEONE ELSE BELIEVE!” (2006: 353) This is the parallax view that belief is de-sublimated onto an Other which is belonging to the Symbolic order and can therefore become universal, and so on. The problem of this universality is that there are now “impossible positions of enunciation we all recognise only when they are pointed out to us” (2010: 95). How can we see beneath these subtle effects when “a thing is its own best mask” (2006: 28)? The simple answer is by thinking about it, “As a matter of face, I’ve always known it; only I’ve never thought of it” (1995: 192). Here, Thompson captures the essence of Zizek’s thought when he talks about the mediascape. A landscape that tells us what it is doing but doesn’t give us a chance to think about it, quite literally shown by programs that give speakers two minutes to comment on a topic that would realistically need over an hour’s analysis or debate to come to any rational conclusion or detailed explanation.
Let’s not forget that cinema is moving-images and moving-images require a significant level of audience attention to process in there entirety, as Rene Clair claimed, “if there’s an aesthetics of cinema it’s movement”. Hollywood’s technical brilliance, beautifully rendered worlds and action-packed sequences, serve to cover up their conservatism. A recent Oscar smash-hit American Sniper had invigorating scenes of Army SEALS in battle over during Middle Eastern conflict. These scenes are exciting for teenage boys who carry one perspective under their hood – that of the American hero/dream – yet in reality War is, of course, a damning activity. We do not suffer as the victims, we do not witness any pain from their perspective, however we can certainly witness the pain of an American death, which is to be glamorised in the film with marvelous funeral proceedings. The Hurt Locker is a similar film that deals with recent turbulence and continues to ignore the debate about US intervention. “In its very invisibility, ideology is here, more than ever; we are there, with our boys, identifying with their fears and anguish instead of questioning what they are doing there” (2012). Zizek also uses the term “white man’s fantasy” to conjure up these glorified images that Hollywood produces. For example, the aborigines in Avatar, the agents in The Matrix, or more explicitly, every superhero movie or film starring Harrison Ford.
However, cinema is not all so explicitly ideological like Hollywood that it is able to hide in plain sight, or rather, run over and into the minds of the viewer without any apparent awareness of what is actually taking place. There is also cinema that enables the viewer to see shades of grey, which almost acts as a critique of ideology itself by open-ended interpretations to psychoanalytic theories and the subject’s experience. Such cinema beyond Hollywood allows us to greater see the dichotomy of various ideologies. European cinema, for example, can offer refreshing interpretations in a less distilled form of ideological content, a form in which the content is not so telling or exclusive. The films of Michael Haneke, an Austrian writer/director, are layered with an underlying trauma, which Lacan would term elements of the Real. His cinema reveals less to the audience, yet in doing so provides a far richer experience – the aphorism “less is more” has never been more effective. Funny Games is an exploration of the terror and games involved in home-invasion. The pace is slow, threatening, and intimidating, just as we imagine the act to be if it took place. Amour has a similar theme of death in which Haneke never looks away from the truth surrounding an old couple’s last moments alive together, the truth being the piercing reality that not even love is unbounded enough to escape our mortality, and so on.
In the above examples, technique is also used to emphasise meaning, such as the use of realist tricks (the long and wide takes, the subtle nature of the camera etc.). Technique does not drown out meaning like it often does in Hollywood. However, as Kraceur noted on cinema, “the transmitting apparatus overwhelms the contents transmitted” (1960: 293). Here, Kraceur is foreshadowing McLuhan’s aphorism the “medium is the message.” This is evident of Tarantino’s films in which he purposefully showcases his flair, or the recent Birdman, for example, in which the whole film is made to look as if it was shot in one take (without any cuts). Such cinematic bravado serves to get in the way of, rather than compliment the story and its meaning. We can escape the ‘apparatus’ if the latter becomes invisible by effective modes of storytelling (invisible cinematography and editing). Yet still, this cannot distill ideology, as the camera is what gives birth to ideology.
Like ideology, pre-existing models of subjectivity are always hiding in plain sight. There is no unique benefactor, for example, models of love and beauty do not feature in exclusivity, they are part of a process. This is according to Julie Kristeva who accounts for the subject in-process, instead of being subjected to phenomenological accounts that posit the transcendental ego-subject. For example, love is an “open system”, the psychic space of love’s subject is consistently modified and such can expand and enrich the symbolic and capacities of the imaginary (1984). Hollywood cinema abolishes any notion of this ‘open system’, as ideology does not allow for a subject to posit such space; they are always refrained by their material value, by the knowledge and interpretation of ideologies own content. However, in reference to earlier examples, cinema as a medium is able to offer alternatives, in which spaces can be consistently modified in the viewer’s speculation of ideological content, if the film is unassumingly open-ended. When a film is open-ended, as is the case with Haneke (when Cache ends, we can only guess who the culprit was by certain clues, not even Haneke himself has the answer) the subject is always enacted in-process and never subjugated to a defined discourse.
Guy Debord is another thinker whose critique is highly engaged with ideological discourses. His conception of The Society of the Spectacle features a society of representations and surfaces with no depth, and no layers other than exchange-value. It is a display that makes the commodity one mediated by a fetishisation of the image – “images which have become detached from their essential position: the true has become the false” (1967: 19). These images are the “unreality” at the heart of a real society; ideology is the heart of this ‘unreality’. And, therefore what hides in plain sight, the ‘unreality’, actually becomes more real in effect than what is left over: “reality rises up in the spectacle, and the spectacle is real” (1967: 19). However, the spectacle is in exact opposition to the opening up of ideas or exposing being (the unconscious mind for example). Hollywood is part of the network of egos that construct this spectacular world – a battleground for capitalism to emerge. Ideology, or the Noble lie, does not allow for an environment of being, In other words, it does not gives access to ideas which by-pass the ego, and therefore this system becomes a central aspect to how ideology is allowed to function in Hollywood films.
A movement of thought that arrived largely before and inspired the post-modern thinkers of Zizek, Badiou, Habermas, and so on, is that of structuralism, a French undertaking that initiated deep analyses of the underlying structures widespread amongst the mixed fashions of society. While an ‘objectivist’ illusion often occurred at this level, structuralist thinkers like Foucault, Derrida and Bourdieu can provide a valuable insight into ideological functions. For example, in a critique of television, that can also be applied to films, Bourdieu exclaimed that in the pretense of being open to the world was in fact a form of censorship because intrinsic to its mode of production and format is a limitation to what could be said and communicated (1996). This critique does not function at an ideological level, but instead introduces an epistemological relationship, which serves not to get caught in a battle between either-or issues of a singular truth, or the reductionist thought that Marxism often provokes. Is cinema not reductionist in its matter of inevitable singularity? For psychoanalysis, such considerations are irrelevant as the spectator is just as aware of what they are not shown as what is shown. In fact, the power of the film director comes often from what he doesn’t show, a clear example of this uncanny notion is seen in horror films where the monster is never actually revealed – The Blair Witch Project is a well-known case.
Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou is deeply concerned with a truth, and sees it as an epistemological split i.e. “knowledge does not give access to truth” (2011: 234). Truth exists in a void, perhaps the same void that we must find in order to denounce ideology, but this would reduce truth to an empty space, yet for Badiou truth can only be presented and not represented, hence why it is able to exist in a non-ideological form. Badiou uses set theory and the ontology of mathematics to present the void (truth) as a singular multiplicity, the paradoxical being present due to the fact that there is no “set of all sets”, which presents being as a unity that engages with the infinite. This is the realm of truth, as opposed to interpretation (ideology, hermeneutics, and so on) that is always concerned with finitude, or the meaning in the thing. When applied to cinema, Badiou’s framework of truth is a method of showing how this empty space can pre-exist a form of ideology in cinema, unlike Zizek’s framework in which this space is equivalent to ideology and the subject. For Badiou, the subject, or ideology, does not exist until the event has taken place. In other words, it is the experience that brings something into being. By analysing a film’s truth content, we will never be able to exist as a subject equivalent to what is taking place, we will exceed the content as we enter from an above position and thus, become restricted from the truth because we are not able to exist prior to this actual event. We cannot know what came before, but is this not the truth of cinema? As we experience it, we are subjectivised under a new guise of knowledge and so ideology is able to blossom at its most pure.
“Philosophy can always go astray, which is the sole reason why it can go forward” (1990: 14). Ideology can always wane, but this is the sole reason why it is able to exist in such powerful form. The minute we believe ideology has vanished is the exact moment when it is functioning at its purest. In this sense, ideology functions like philosophy; it is a system of mediating life that will never, and can never, strike a cord with its absolute function. The cinema suffers the same result, and is therefore a medium with an infinite resource of functioning for ideology, ideas and philosophies. Quite literally, the cinema has endless resources. However, Hollywood cinema seeks to diminish its own resources to the extent that ideology can repeat itself and this is Hollywood’s ultimate function, to enable ideology to work at the level of near invisibility.
Badiou, A (2011). Being and Event. 2nd ed. London: Continuum. 234.
Bourdieu, P (1996). The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Chicago: Stanford University Press.
Debord, G (2000 ). Society of the Spectacle. London: Black and Red. 19.
Kracauer, S (1997 ). Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 293.
Kristeva, J (1984). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.
Plato (2000). The Republic. London: Dover Publications.
Taylor, P (2010). Zizek and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press. 95.
Thompson, J (1995). The Media and Modernity. Redwood City: Stanford University Press. 192.
Sider, J. (2012). Slavoj Žižek on War and Cinema: The Hurt Locker Between Theory and Post-Theory. Film Matters. 3 (2).
Zizek, S (2006). The Parallax View. London: The MIT Press. 353.
Zizek, S (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso. 11.
Eastwood, C (2014). American Sniper. USA: Warner Brothers.
Hanake, M (2012). Amour. France: Wega Film.
Hanake, M (2005). Caché. France: Wega Film.
Zemeckis, R (1994). Forrest Gump. USA: Paramount Pictures.
Hanake, M (1997). Funny Games. Austria: Wega Film. The Matrix
Bigelow, K (2008). The Hurt Locker. USA: Voltage Pictures.
On a final note, and if you have made it this far, you will definitely be interested in watching Sophie Fiennes documentaries on Zizek: The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.