The pervert’s guide to Slavoj Zizek
Firebrand Slovenian academic Slavoj Zizek has spent his entire career dismantling culture and exposing the banality of conventional wisdom. He’s delivering his splenetic opinions again in Sophie Fiennes’s ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’. “Life is shit,” he says. “But it’s relatively okay today.”
‘I’m never enjoying myself. Life is shit. But it’s relatively okay today,” Slavoj Zizek splutters in his famously abrasive English.
But this is not such a bad life for an academic, right? While his colleagues in the field of cultural studies are lecturing to distracted freshmen in overheated halls, the eccentric Slovenian is promoting the second movie constructed around his startling opinions on contemporary culture. Sophie Fiennes’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology – her follow-up to The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema – finds Zizek mouthing off about a startling range of significant films. The public reaction to Jaws tells us something about the Nazis’ vilification of the Jews. Titanic deals in appalling reactionary attitudes to class. The Sound of Music reveals the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church.
It’s all heady, forceful stuff. Nothing is what it seems. Virtually ever manifestation of the entertainment industry is a vehicle for deceit. The message has helped Zizek – a large, grey man with an anarchic beard – to become a celebrity. His extraordinary, forceful, machine-gun delivery makes the package even more saleable. What does he make of being properly famous?
“Contrary to what many people think, I don’t even enjoy it as a guilty pleasure,” he says. “I would prefer to be without it. I accept that in this way, I may be able to get the message out. This way, the writing in my political work gets through. It’s not some big positive message. It’s to make them wonder. It’s to encourage them to not accept society the way it is.”
There is a very great deal more where that came from. Fiennes’s film is more than two hours long. But you suspect that editing his musings down to that length must have been something of struggle. Previous interviewers have reported, in mild despair, how the answer to one question has taken up all 30 minutes of an interview. By golly, he can talk.
“I very much admire – though he was too liberal for me – George Orwell, ” Zizek says. “He said something in The Road to Wigan Pier that I admire. He said that when progressive intellectuals talk about changing society, they repeat this all the time to make sure that nothing really changes. I am an obsessive, neurotic guy. I know what that means. When I was in psychoanalysis, I talked all the time – as you can imagine. I was afraid that if I stopped talking, the psychoanalyst might ask a real question.”
He goes on (some summarising is necessary) to point out that – though environmental activism is worthwhile – we all are fussing over recycling and so forth as a way of distracting ourselves from the need for real, meaningful change in society. The likes of Bill Gates are urging us to “be nice” rather than engage with the serious underlying problems.
“This is taking us away from the true questions about how we organise our industrial structures. Recycling won’t safe us.”
So what exactly are these changes he so greatly desires? In the past, Zizek has identified himself as a communist. But the real enemy seems to be liberal complacency. He tells me that he greatly prefers committed, intelligent conservatives over “naive progressives”. The new film opens with a study of John Carpenter’s They Live, in which a drifter finds a pair of sunglasses that reveal the hidden, mind-controlling messages that lie beneath the surfaces of contemporary life. Carpenter does, indeed, identify himself as a conservative. So, what sort of communist is Zizek?
“I spent my life until I was 30 in a communist country,” he says. “That means that I know that the 20th-century communist experience – though it did some good things as regards healthcare and so forth – ended up as the greatest ethical-political fiasco in the history of humanity. I don’t think we need a new Leninist party. But we are confronting a whole array of problems.”
He launches into a discussion of looming ecological, economic and social disasters. How will we save the planet if the larger states remain hostile to regulation? If all economic planning is abandoned and the market retains control, then chaos surely awaits.
“I am a communist out of pessimism. What worries me is what happens if we do nothing. I am not like these old-fashioned Marxists who believes in the ‘train of history’. History is not working in our favour. It is leading us to ecological catastrophe and new forms of economic apartheid.”
Slavoj Zizek was born 64 years ago in Ljubljana – then part of Yugoslavia – to a comfortable family of intellectuals. He received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Ljubljana and then went on to study psychoanalysis in France. Not surprisingly, he occasionally found himself falling foul of the Titoist regime. But he is keen to clarify that life was much easier for writers in Yugoslavia than it was for their colleagues in the Soviet sphere of influence.
“To be honest, I consider those times to be good times,” he splutters. “It was a relatively liberal Communist dictatorship. It was still a dictatorship, blah, blah. And intellectually, I did have some problems. I was openly non-Marxist. Now, I remind myself of Ken Livingstone. He approached the Labour Party and reminded himself of a unique biological species: the rat that climbs up upon the sinking ship. I was a dissident then. But now I am a communist. You see what I mean?”
I suppose so. But I suspect that if all of Europe were converted to Communism, he would still find a way of being an outsider.
For all these political convolutions, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology can still be classed as a work of film theory. One wonders why he still pays so much attention to the medium. (For the record, he approved of the last Batman film and is devoted to Brit Marling, the radical American writer and actor.) Those of us who love cinema are delighted that he retains the interest. But shouldn’t the curious cultural commentator have moved on to other less creaky forms.
“This is a very good question,” he says with a flourish. “Up to a point, I still love classical cinema. But the main point is that, I think, if you want to discover where we are, you do get it in films. Nonetheless, I agree with you. I myself am convinced that cinema was the art of the 20th century, I now see two candidates for the 21st: one would be TV series; the other would be videogames. Good computer games should not be dismissed as . . .”.
And he’s off on a fresh tangent towards new digital worlds. You’ll have to wait for the next film to discover where he’s headed. Or the next three films. He’s still talking. Maybe Ms Fiennes might consider a boxed set.
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is out now on limited release and is reviewed on page X