The poverty of Žižek’s philosophy

October 11, 2013 at 9:32 am (AWL, celebrity, cinema, fantasy, film, intellectuals, Marxism, philosophy, post modernism, posted by JD, wild man)

The Perverts Guide to Ideology, reviewed by Matt Cooper at the Workers Liberty website:

It is difficult not to warm to a film that places a radical left wing philosopher into mock ups of various film sets to lecture on his theory of ideology. That is what film maker Sophie Fiennes has done with Slavoj Žižek.

So we have Žižek dressed as a priest talking about the ideology of fascism in the mother superior’s room from The Sound of Music, about the vampiric attitude of the ruling class towards the working class in the lifeboat from Titanic and about the nature of political violence in Travis Bickle’s single iron bed from Taxi Driver. All of this is amusing enough and makes a long and in places opaque lecture pass pleasantly enough, but the ideas that underlie it are rotten.

Slavoj Žižek has been proclaimed by some as the greatest political philosopher of the late twentieth century — there is even an International Journal of Žižek Studies. His work is popular with a layer of the radical left, although maybe the kind who consumes rather than acts on their politics.

He has somewhat replaced Chomsky as the author of the coffee table books of choice for the armchair radical, and he sold out the Royal Festival Hall when he spoke there in 2010.

His ideas have been developed in a series of books since the late 1980s, and fit with the themes of anti-globalisation, Occupy, and other radical struggles that are often one side of class struggle.

It is noticeable that Žižek does not attack capitalism as such. The exploitation of workers as workers is notably missing from this film. Rather he attacks consumerism, particular in its Coca-Cola/Starbucks form. This is despite, or maybe because, his philosophy is obtuse.

Although Žižek places himself in the revolutionary tradition and draws on Marx, he does not see himself primarily as a Marxist. He says he wants to reinvigorate German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Hegel, through the application of the French post-Freudian, Jacques Lacan.

There is no feeling in this film (or in Žižek’s numerous books) that this view emerges from a study of society and the forms of ideology in it. Rather, consistent with his idealist philosophical approach, the ideas emerge from the realm of pure thought, albeit cut with some empirically based psychoanalytic theory The world is sampled, squeezed and (mis)interpreted to fit this theoretical view.

His evidence about society is what many of us would not think of as evidence — mainly film. This is not an affectation, but central to Žižek’s view of the world. Ideology is fantasy, and film is the purest form of the projection of such fantasy. Film is not the mirror which we hold up to ourselves, but feeds us the fantasies by which we constitute ourselves. The films are, for Žižek, reality. Thus M*A*S*H and Full Metal Jacket are used to understand the American military, Brief Encounter the nature of social control, and Jaws, fascism!

To say that the shark in Jaws stands for nothing other than fear itself is hardly a startling insight. Alfred Hitchcock spoke in similar terms about how the purpose of his films was not essentially narrative or plot, but to create an emotional response in the viewer. To say this kind of work gives us an insight into how the Nazis scapegoated the Jews is little short of ridiculous.

Onto his argument, Žižek bolts some bits of other people’s theories as if they were his insights. So he goes on to say that underlying the fantasy of Nazi ideology was one of a modernising revolution that preserved tradition. But the idea of fascism being “reactionary modernism” was asserted by Jeffrey Herf in 1984, and has antecedents stretching back to the 1930s.

Similarly, Žižek’s assertion that the riots in the UK were driven by consumerism (the “wrong dream”) is both unoriginal and, in Žižek’s case, seems to be based on the most casual of acquaintance with the evidence.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology also demonstrates a wilful failure to engage with a Marxist understanding of ideology. In this film (and elsewhere) Žižek has dismissed the Marxist theory of ideology which he claims can be summarised by Marx as “they do not know it but they are doing it”. The line is a rather obscure one (from the first German edition of volume one of Capital, but not in future editions).

Nor is the line directly about ideology; the “it” here is people producing exchange values for the market. For sure, this has a relationship to ideology, Marx argues that it obscures the real nature of production to satisfy human needs, a veil that will only be lifted by once production is carried out by “feely socialised man under their conscious, planned control.” But the Marxist view of ideology based on the nature of social life is not understood, far less developed, by Žižek.

For Žižek both the nature of ideology and the liberation of humanity is based on the idea of fantasy. For him, people’s relation to ideology-fantasy is “I know very well what I am doing but am I still doing it.” The project of liberation is not to end fantasy, but to replace it with a better fantasy, or to dream with the right desire.

Thus Žižek goes down the road of anarchist cliché, we should “be realistic, demand the impossible”, and he argues that the dream should not be of wanting the working class to awake, but that new dreams and revolution become a subjective act of will.

Žižek’s politics are, ultimately, mere fantasy.


  1. The poverty of Žižek’s philosophy | OzHouse said,

    […] Oct 11 2013 by admin […]

  2. finbar said,

    So is he a Anarchist, a Syndicalist or a Bourgeois arty farty,making a quick buck to stash in tax havens.

  3. Mike Killingworth said,

    Žižek’s politics are, ultimately, mere fantasy.

    Hasn’t history clearly shown that that’s true of everyone to the left of Tony Blair?

  4. blerGC OMCemntyaryere said,

    Whilst I found this film enjoyable as a piece of entertainment, I have to agree with this review. The film had no coherent thesis and was largely made up of a string of unconnected propositions: some interesting, some prevocative, some preposterous. It certainly didn’t provide a systemic or systematic analysis of ideology, lest still any practical guidence to change the world, which is what the whole point of Marxism is.

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      His own pre-emptive defence is that he didn’t make the film himself and claimed on Newsnight a week or so ago not to have watched it as he finds viewing his own tics and mannerisms unendurable.

      But he doesn’t have to have members of the liberal jeunesse d’oree (Sophie is one of the Twistleton-Wykeham Fiennes’s and her cv might well have inspired the painfully earnest film-maker in Nathan Barley….) following him around with cameras

      If only he could find the genuine via media between entertainer and writer of unreadable post-structuralist tomes.

  5. blerGC OMCemntyaryere said,

    provocative wOT EcAYH

  6. SIS said,

    “dream should not be of wanting the working class to awake”

    Awake to what? Zizek is correct that humans inhabit a world of fantasy, and the evidence his clearly on his side. Every single construct of society is built in the mind, built on decisions and choices. The King is King because there is a shared fantasy of how that system should work and what our roles as individuals should be. The same for the Capitalist system. A real awakening is accepting the fantastical basis for human community and working within that construct, not continuing to state, sans evidence, that there is some material reality that forms the basis for human choices of community.

  7. Sue R said,

    SIS: You can’t eat fantsy, it doesn’t keep you warm or the rain out. I think there is a quote from Brecht along the lines of only men(people) will full bellies are properly civilized. There was an article about Zizek on the ‘In Defence of Marxism’ website last week (it’s stillup) pointing out that he is nothing more than the same old same old reformist. He was urging Syriza to compromise with caitalism. The King is King not because he is generally accepted, but because he has the military might to enforce his reign. Read history and you will see that most Kings/dynasties only last a few generations at most. The fact that our own dear queen and her clan have lasted a couple of hundred is to do with the nature of modern society.

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Not at all sure what you are on about here but will have to correct you on whatever your historical analogy is supposed to be.

      Our own royal dynasty can plausibly trace its descent back to William the Conqueror in 1066 if not to Cerdic the Saxon (who proper historians now regard as a largely fictional construct) who supposedly landed his 5 ships in the Solent in 495.

      (that the dynasty name changed multiple times is largely a convention amongst historians who need to chop time up into manageable chunks rather than reflecting any radical institutional change).

      The Japanese Imperial dynasty claims to be at least 2,700 years old and can plausibly trace its descent to the iron age chieftains of the Yamato region c.500 (although arguably it only had real political power at the beginning and end of its long history – being reduced to roi faineant status between c.1000 and the Meiji restoration in 1867 (or thereabouts – I am doing this from memory).

      The Capetians ruled France for 800 years, the Habsburgs ruled Austria and varying parts of Europe for 650 years, the Hohenzollerns ruled Prussia for 400 years, even the poor Romanovs lasted just long enough to celebrate their tricentenary in 1913.

      And of course ‘the nature of modern society’ is far more inimical to monarchies than feudalism was – just ask Louis XVI, Nicholas II, Wilhelm II, Karl I, Umberto II, Michael I of Romania, Simeon II of Bulgaria (these last two still being alive at least as of this afternoon), Zog I of Albania, Bao Dai of Vietnam, Farouk of Egypt, Idris of Libya, Muhammad Reza Shah of Iran etc, etc….

  8. Robert R. Calder said,

    Slobbo, as I call him, is a great Slobbo enthusiast, he is in love with his own enthusiasm, which is focussed on a stock vague supposed objection to ideas and proposals which would imply social change (the sorts of thing represented by Votes for Women or the 1932 Reform Act or extensive reform of the economic system or by various revolutionary proposals)
    To cook up a dish of Slobboism you start with a sweeping conservative dismissal, such as would apply to unworkable schemes too, and you stand it on its head.
    Then you disguise it heavily with all manner of citations or psittacisms which echo the enthusiasm implied by standing generalised caution on its head, and the intended impression is of something only the superior learning (actually virtuoso deployment of scissors and paste) of a Slobbo could in some cases seem to understand.
    There is some exhilaration to be had from doing dangerous things, participating in risky sports. Of course all the overpaid Slobbo has to worry about is being found out, not found out in general, but found out by the academic and ill-informed left wing non-financial vested interests on whose compliance Slobboism is founded.
    To say that he delivers a lot of drivel, with lumps of intelligent stuff to conceal the rubbish, is to engage at a level of clear statement which cannot according to the self-serving dogmas of Slobbo-promotion be sound, because comprehensible.
    Philosophically, his work is an example of the rubbish dragged in by the evacuation of proper philosophical concerns which occurred with the triumph of linguistic philosophy, of G,E. Moore and Gilbert Ryle, etc., which was not as alleged a matter of seeking clarity, but rather the devising of a Newspeak according not to the Big Brother of Orwell’s book, but rather a bluff theophobic or shallow Englishman convinced of the rightness of every sentence supposedly purged of what Ryle, engaging in the same systematically misleading expression which was the book he published contemporary with Orwell’s dystopian fantasy 1984 (1948), called ‘systematically misleading expressions’.
    Most important European philosophers since (and including) Descartes have been concerned to change the world for the better by way of understanding it.
    Slobbo’s enthusiasm extends only to extending an invitation to enthuse, everything has to be a metaphor of, who knows? His relief at no longer living in a country where some things were even worse than where he is earning now?
    March to the barricade? Bark at the marinade!

  9. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    So can anyone detect anything particularly Marxist at all in our man’s latest utterance over at the Guardian?:

    However I suppose it is possible that he’s playing some Straussian exoteric mind game here.

  10. Sue R said,

    Roge, are you a metamorphic incarnation of Jimmy Glasgae?

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      I am a lifelong SF and fantasy fan with a thing about Eastern mysticism and a great love of pretentiously torturing the English language – but I still have no idea whatsoever of what a ‘metamorphic incarnation’ might be.

      But associating me with that imbecile in any way at all is easily the most hurtful thing anyone’s ever said to me in about fifteen years of being abused on the internet……

      • Rosie B said,

        Well if it cheers you up I can’t think of two commenters who could be more unalike.

      • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        Bless you for that – but some wounds are just too deep…..

        And is it just me but do half of the recent comments on this site seem to be coming from some Harry Pollitt Home for elderly lefties where the new nurse isn’t doing a very good job of getting everyone to take their meds?

      • Mike Killingworth said,

        No, mate, it isn’t you.

        It’s the passage of time during the long, long defeat…

  11. Sue R said,

    As alife long fan of SF and fantasy fiction, you must be aware of ‘shapeshifting’?

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Of course.

      But that is just metamorphosis (literally to change form or shape in Greek).

      incarnation is a quite different concept and combining them together makes little sense.

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