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Elvis is on the Screen!

A Pervert’s Guide to Zizek

by LOUIS PROYECT

Full disclosure: I have written at least ten critiques of Slavoj Zizek over the years so I approached the new documentary “A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” with some skepticism. Despite this, I found much of it entertaining and even a little enlightening. At two hours and thirty minutes, however, it begins to lose its charm especially since the film is essentially one long lecture by the man called the Elvis of cultural theory. As is the case with all super-stars, critical self-reflection goes by the wayside when adoring fans surround you all the time telling you how great you are. It probably never entered the mind of director Sophie Fiennes (sister to actor Ralph) that the film was a half-hour too long and least of all that of the Slovenian Elvis himself.

What keeps it moving along briskly is the steady stream of films that Zizek uses to illustrate his analysis of ideology. Nearly all of them are Hollywood mainstream films like “Titanic” that I tend to avoid. Zizek’s voice-over ranges wide, making some telling points along the way. For example, he compared John Ford’s “The Searchers” to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” on the basis of self-appointed heroes trying to rescue a young woman from monsters whose company they might actually prefer, whether they are Comanches or pimps. He extends this analogy to “humanitarian interventions”.

I have no idea if Zizek ever taught a film course, but Pervert’s Guide reminded me of how film professors at your “better” schools tend to use pop culture staples as a platform for philosophy, cultural theory, psychoanalysis and the like. A class I took at Columbia University on documentary films in order to learn the craft that people like Robert Flaherty and Frederick Wiseman perfected was less about camera angles and interviewing techniques than it was about ontology, specifically whether there can be such a thing as a “truthful” documentary. For Zizek, films like “Titanic” serve as fodder for his psychoanalytic/philosophical mill. His goal is to show how “ideology” governs our lives and makes resistance nearly futile. Breaking free from ideology becomes a kind of therapeutic first step in developing a revolutionary struggle against capitalism in the same way that someone under psychoanalysis might finally acknowledge that he or she harbored an unconscious desire to have sex with a parent. Sadly such therapy often has little effect on patients who have been on the couch for decades, starting with Woody Allen who had a conscious desire to have sex with his stepdaughter.

The first film Zizek discusses is John Carpenter’s 1988 “They Live”, a perfect peg for his theory. Starring pro wrestler Roddy Piper as John Nada, a homeless worker, it is a tale of social control by space aliens who secretly project messages of the need to conform to a consumerist society through what amounts to subliminal messages on billboards, magazines, and television commercials. When you put on special sunglasses you can see the word “OBEY” instead of a harmless soft drink commercial. In effect, Zizek has styled himself as a cultural theory version of John Nada trying to get young people, especially those going to places like Columbia University and NYU, to put on the sunglasses available from Verso Press in the form of “Mapping Ideology” or “The Ticklish Subject”. Even if you don’t find them of much use in building a trade union for teaching assistants, they will at least provide for some interesting observations you can share with people at a cocktail party.

One surmises that Zizek is much more afraid of being boring than being wrong. Throughout the film, he ties together disparate strands of high and low culture to get across his points. For those unused to a professor discussing Lacan and “The Sound of Music” in the same breath, the effect can be quite dazzling, like watching David Blaine card tricks. Unfortunately, sometimes a card or two gets dropped in the process as is the case of his discussion of the Ode to Joy final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, whose anti-hero adores Beethoven as much as he does beating up total strangers.

Zizek uses the Ode to Joy as an illustration of how malleable ideology can be since it was an anthem for the Nazis as well as the Communists in the 1930s. In trying to show that Beethoven was implicitly subverting the universalist message widely understood to be at the heart of his symphony, he refers to the seemingly inappropriate marching band tune that crops up unexpectedly in the middle of the main motif and that goes something like “ka-boom, ka-ching, ka-boom, ka-ching.” He likens this crude musical interruption to the violent assaults of Alex DeLarge on law-abiding citizens in “A Clockwork Orange”. Of course, this is absurd. The passage was simply Beethoven’s appropriation of the Turkish Janissary military bands that fascinated European musicians, including Mozart who imitated their sound in the final Alla Turca movement of the Piano Sonata in A, K. 331.

As fascinating as all this is, one has to ask what this has to do with Marxism. In the German Ideology, Marx wrote: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” This is a point that Marx made in one form or another throughout his life but his primary interest was not in examining ideology but the class relationships and economic conditions that prevailed at the “base” or as Marx put it in the very next sentence: “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships…” It is those “dominant material relationships” that Marx explored over his lifetime, especially in the three volumes of Capital that covered such matters as the wage scales of textile workers and the price of land.

Despite Zizek’s constant and reverential references to Marx and Lenin, one can only conclude that his real discipline is cultural studies, a field that was the culmination of a long exodus by intellectuals from revolutionary party building to academia. As Perry Anderson pointed out in his 1976 “Considerations of Western Marxism”, there was a philosophical “turn” after the Soviet Union ceased to be an inspiration and fascism became the dominant trend in European politics.  Anderson rendered this verdict: “The consequence of this impasse was to be the studied silence of Western Marxism in those areas most central to the classical traditions of historical materialism: scrutiny of the economic laws of motion of capitalism as a mode of production, analysis of the political machinery of the bourgeois state, strategy of the class struggle necessary to overthrow it.” (Of course, one should not hold it against Anderson that he too became a casualty of “Western Marxism”. It is rather contagious, especially in the academy.)

For Zizek and everyone else operating in the philosophical and psychoanalytic framework falling under the rubric of Western Marxism, the unit of analysis is not the social class but the individual. Most frequently, the Hollywood film is essentially about heroes and heroines involved in struggles to become more fully human by coming to terms with who they are and where they come from. That being the case, it is natural for Zizek to undertake a deep analysis of Julie Andrews’s sexually aroused nun in “The Sound of Music” and Kate Winslet’s rich girl in “Titanic”. The two women are trapped by ideological straightjackets defined by faith and by class, and both ultimately fail to transcend ideology whose power surpasses that of a billy club or a timecard in some ways. While overcoming the billy club and the timecard involves collective action, you are left with the conclusion that overcoming ideology is a project for the individual navigated through Lacanian psychoanalysis or Kantian metaphysics or some cocktail blend of the two brands.

As impressive as Zizek’s bravura performance is, one is finally left with the feeling that you are getting the same sort of thing as Adbusters puts out but on a much more sophisticated basis. That was especially true when Zizek lit into Coca-Cola, a drink whose ad campaign about being “the real thing” appalled Zizek as right-to-work laws might appall a socialist involved in trade union organizing today, a roadblock to genuine change. It is a little hard to believe that anybody would waste time “exposing” Coca-Cola advertisements but Zizek admittedly does do it with panache.

I had never considered it worth a moment of my time to write about soft drink commercials but I did attempt in my own modest way to analyze cola drinks in an article about Colombia and cocainewritten more than a decade ago:

Dr. David F. Musto, a psychiatric clinician and medical historian at Yale University, and author of ”The American Disease,” points out that among the most prominent early promoters of cocaine for medicinal purposes was Sigmund Freud, who used it and prescribed it to try to cure his friend and colleague Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow of opium addiction. In his famous essay ”On Coca” in 1884, Freud wrote that cocaine ”wards off hunger, sleep and fatigue and steels one to intellectual effort.”

One of the most notable attempts to use cocaine in this way led directly to the formation of the Coca-Cola Company, which to this day uses non-intoxicating residues of the coca leaf for flavor. John Smith Pemberton, the Civil War veteran and morphine addict who invented the drink in Atlanta in 1886, thought that the soft drink was the answer for old-fashioned American malaise, as well as being a good substitute for opium addiction, including his own. It was also intended to be a substitute for alcohol, which was under attack from the temperance movement. As his hometown Atlanta was threatening to soon go dry, he saw the need for a soft drink that might prove as a substitute for beer, wine and whiskey. His solution, fruit-flavored sugar syrup that combined the caffeine kick of the kola nut and the narcotic buzz of the coca leaf, mixed with plain water. Only when it was diluted with seltzer did it become the monstrously successful drink that eventually dominated world markets. It can also be used to remove rust from automobile radiators reputedly.

Now if I had the money to spend on a documentary, it would be about Coca Cola not about the commercials. And you can also be assured that it would not be more than ninety minutes.

“The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” opens at the IFC Theater in New York on November first and nationwide later on. I do recommend it, especially for those who consider Slavoj Zizek the Elvis of cultural studies.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.