This book out of a series of lectures that Slavoj Zizek delivered at London’s National Film Theatre in the summer of 1998. My invitation to give these lectures had a very precise purpose. I wanted Slavoj to address the weaknesses and insularity of film studies as they had developed in the university sector over the previous two decades. The lectures were intended to mark the end of a cycle of work in which at every level from primary school to graduate studies, the BFI had attempted to place the study of the moving image at the centre of a revived and revised traditional curriculum. This had been the then newly-appointed director of the BFI Wilf Stevenson’s aim in setting up a research division in 1989 and inviting me to head it.1
Most of the initiatives that followed took years of planning and preparation. I decided, however, that there was a speedy way of beginning the process of bringing thinking about cinema back into the intellectual mainstream and that was to invite as visiting fellows a series of thinkers who were centrally concerned with film but were not specialised film scholars; thinkers who kept closer to the contemporary form of our culture in which the image is encountered at every turn but in the most complicated of juxtapositions. Cornel West was the first visitor and he was followed by John Berger, Fredric Jameson, Marina Warner and bell hooks. In each of these cases the reason for the invitation was to bring to the Institute someone who was passionately engaged with film, but who placed it in the widest possible intellectual and cultural context. Zizek was the perfect final lecturer in this series because he had the closest professional contact with university film studies and I was thus able to ask him to address directly the problems of the narrowness and sterility of the university discipline that had promised so much a generation before.
If the creation of a separate discipline of film studies has enabled the carrying out of vital and important historical work, film theory itself has become less interesting within its new university home. It was Zizek himself in the early 90s who showed how film theory could be genuinely developed instead of banally rehashed or obtusely opposed. He is a thinker who understands absolutely that French theory of the 60s cannot be understood outside the intellectual context of the German philosophical tradition and, most importantly, Hegel and Heidegger. He is himself an intellectual who naturally inhabits the broad currents of European thought from which Lacan’s paradoxical account of subjectivity came. In addition Zizek is absolutely immersed in the cinema – someone who understands films not as structures, which could illustrate this or that theoretical claim, but as living effective forms that themselves lucidly sketch out the structures of desire and lack that psychoanalysis theorises in less vivid terms. The priority that Zizek affords to the film text is wittily encapsulated in the title of one of his best-known works: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock).
To give a full introduction to the range of Zizek’s thinking and writing would require a book in itself but in giving an account of the initial context of this book it is impossible not to say a word about the extraordinary experience of hearing Zizek lecture. When as a young researcher I was investigating the Puritanism of the Civil War period, I never quite understood how a congregation could be so enthralled by a Puritan divine’s three-hour sermon that, on its conclusion, they would beg and entreat the minister to continue. To hear Slavoj speak is to understand this reaction with ease. I have never seen anyone so obviously enthralled by the movement of thought, so determined to follow the logic of any concept or text through to its bitter or sweet end and to take his audience with him to that conclusion.
Zizek’s work, and this book is as good and ambitious as anything he has done, could be taken as the exemplar for a project of renewing the study of cinema by intensifying its theoretical ambition. For those followers of fashion who look for a retreat from Marx and Freud, a hideous mimicking of the threadbare nonsense of the ‘third way’, this book will be a grave disappointment. This book intervenes in one of the most contemporary intellectual debates – concerning ‘Post-Theory’ and cognitivism – but it does so without ever abandoning questions of class struggle and the unconscious. Zizek’s engagement with Post-Theory lays bare both its obvious fallacies and its more hidden vanities. He then goes on, via extended readings of Kieslowski’s films, to offer a dazzling alternative that sacrifices neither the particularities of individual texts nor the nuances of broad philosophical argument. Like all of his work The Fright of Real Tears combines polemic and rigour, wit and insight. It makes clear that there can be no fundamental analysis of film which is not theoretically informed – but that theory must always revive itself in a real love of the cinema.
Professor of English, Universities of Pittsburgh and Exeter
Head of Research, British Film Institute, 1989-98
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- The most important element of this work was a research programme on literacy and the media conducted with King’s College London. This programme was abandoned by the BFI when it was ‘restructured’ in the wake of New Labour’s 1997 election victory. Also abandoned was the Master’s programme directed by Laura Mulvey and the London Consortium, a taught Ph.D which linked the Institute with the Tate Gallery, the Architectural Association and Birkbeck College. Although all these initiatives continue in different forms, they no longer inform the work of the Institute. That was presumably the aim of Labour’s anti-intellectual policy. For an overall account of the situation which saw many longserving members of staff, myself included, leave the Institute, see John Caughie and Simon Frith, “The film institute and the rising tide: an interview with Colin MacCabe’, Screen vol. 41 no. 1, Spring 2000, 51-66.