I have been participating in a Badiou, Zizek and Lacan reading group for a couple of years now. Reading these authors in the same reading group has been all the more productive since they overlap a great deal. Recently, we have been expanding our projects with these authors beyond just close readings of their works. For instance, we are currently finishing up a reader’s guide to Badiou’s most intimidating text, Being and Event. And last night, we finished our Lacan Ciné club, where we watched a few of the movies that Zizek analyses and ended with the two of Zizek’s own movies: The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.
Zizek is notoriously scattered. He continually bombards his audience with examples and bits of dense theory which are supposed to explain the examples. The examples are supposed to explain the dense theory. Usually, everyone ends up being confused. His movies are no exception.
Unless, however, one has watched these movies a number of times, as I have.
Tonight we ended the club with The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. The audience (made up of an assortment of people, not just my reading group) had a standard reaction: confusion.
The first few comments were basically this: he seems cynical; it was hard to follow; I didn’t agree with this one thing, etc. So, yes, pretty standard. But this is where it gets interesting. The conversation started to zero in on Zizek himself, rather than the film: he is too cynical, superficial, even evil, and so on. The confusion was slowly drained away, and it was replaced with confident scorn for Zizek. People even began to enjoy seeing him as an “empty shell” of a man.
The irony is that this is exactly what Zizek’s film was about: the reduction of complex ideas into an easily understandable enjoyable simplification, in other words, the critique of ideology. So, for Zizek, in the simplest of terms, ideology is being convinced that all of your problems can be explained through a single lens; this lens even allows you to enjoy your oversimplification. For Germany, The Nazis were able to explain that all of the problems plaguing them now and that have plagued them in the past could be explained by the foreign element of the Jew. In Capitalism, it is a little bit more varied: it can be communism, big business, terrorism, etc.
The basic idea is this: an ideology allows you to blame all of the complex problems of your world basically on one thing. But it also allows you to enjoy this scorn by giving you bits of pleasure here and there. And this is what happened tonight: I did not understand the entire film; bits of it made sense, and the bits that did I disagreed with what the author was saying; his words were to scary; he seemed evil; the author, as a person, must be flawed; So, we can reduce anything that he has to say to being problematic because he, himself, is problematic. He threatens our way of enjoying films and this should be avoided at all costs.
I claim, then, that Zizek’s films critique ideology in form and content: they give you a seemingly complex picture of how things are, and if you do not understand it right away, you reduce it to an easily understandable idea which allows you to retain and enjoy your superiority over what you don’t understand. However, you are able to break out of this ideology — If you investigate it further: watch it again, do some research, and watch the films he analyzes, then you are able to break out of ideology. This move, breaking out of an ideology, is painful. But it can also be revolutionary.