They Live (1988)
I’ll give you a choice: either put on these glasses or start eating that trashcan.
I already am eating from the trashcan all the time. The name of this trashcan is ideology. The material force of ideology makes me not see what I am effectively eating. It’s not only our reality which enslaves us. The tragedy of our predicament when we are within ideology is that when we think that we escape it into our dreams, at that point we are within ideology.
They Live from 1988 is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood left. It tells the story of John Nada. Nada, of course, in Spanish means nothing. A pure subject, deprived of all substantial content. A homeless worker in L.A. who, drifting around one day enters into an abandoned Church and finds there a strange box full of sunglasses. And when he put one of them on walking along the L.A. Streets he discovers something weird; that these glasses function like critique of ideology glasses. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, publicity, posters and so on. You see a large publicity board telling you have a holiday of a lifetime and when you put the glasses on you see just on the white background; a grey inscription.
We live, so we are told, in a post-ideological society. We are interpolated, that is to say, addressed by social authority not as subjects who should do their duty, sacrifice themselves, but subjects of pleasures. ‘Realise your true potential. Be yourself. Lead a satisfying life.’
When you put the glasses on you see dictatorship in democracy. It’s the invisible order, which sustains your apparent freedom. The explanation for the existence of these strange ideology glasses is the stand-up story of the invasion of the body snatchers. Humanity is already under the control of aliens.
Hey buddy, you gonna pay for that or what? Look Buddy, I don’t want no hassle today; you either pay for it or put it back.
According to our common sense, we think that ideology is something blurring, confusing our straight view. Ideology should be glasses, which distort our view, and the critique of ideology should be the opposite like you take off the glasses so that you can finally see the way things really are. This precisely and here, the pessimism of the film, of They Live, is well justified, this precisely is the ultimate illusion: ideology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relation to our social world, how we perceive each meaning and so on and so on. We, in a way, enjoy our ideology.
To step out of ideology, it hurts. It’s a painful experience. You must force yourself to do it. This is rendered in a wonderful way with a further scene in the film where John Nada tried to force his best friend John Armitage to also put the glasses on.
I don’t wanna fight ya.
I don’t wanna fight ya.
It’s the weirdest scene in the film. The fight is eight, nine minutes…
Put on the glasses.
…It may appear irrational cause why does this guy reject so violently to put the glasses on? It is as if he is well aware that spontaneously he lives in a lie that the glasses will make him see the truth but that this truth can be painful. It can shatter many of your illusions.
This is a paradox we have to accept.
Put the glasses on! Put em on!
The extreme violence of liberation. You must be forced to be free. If you trust simply your spontaneous sense of well being for whatever you will never get free. Freedom hurts.
The Sound of Music (1965)
The basic insight of psychoanalysis is to distinguish between enjoyment and simple pleasures. They are not the same. Enjoyment is precisely enjoyment in disturbed pleasure. Even enjoyment in pain and this excessive factor disturbs the apparently simple relationship between duty and pleasures. This is also a space where ideology up to and especially religious ideology operates. This brings me to maybe my favourite example, the great classic Hollywood film: The Sound Of Music.
We all know it’s the story of a nun who is too alive with too much energy, ultimately sexual energy to be constrained to the role of a nun.
Oh! Oh, Reverend mother I’m so sorry I just couldn’t help myself.
The gates were open and the hills were beckoning and before I…
I haven’t summoned you here for apologies.
Oh please mother, do let me ask for forgiveness.
One two three, one two three, one two three, step together now, step touch…
So, mother superior sends her to the Von Trapp family where she takes care of the children…
Kurt, we’ll have to practice.
Do allow me will you?
And at the same time of course falls in love with the baron Von Trapp. And Maria gets too disturbed by it cannot control it, returns to the convent.
Oh there were times when we would look at each other. Oh mother I could hardly breathe.
Did you let him see how you felt?
If I did I didn’t mean to show it.
That’s what’s been torturing me I was there on God’s errand.
No wonder that in old communist Yugoslavia where I saw this film for the first time exactly this scène or more precisely the song which follows this strange hedonist, if you want, advice from the mother superior. Go back. Seduce the guy. Follow this path. Do not betray your desire.
Namely the song which begins with ‘Climb Every Mountain’; the song which is almost an embarrassing display and affirmation of desire. These three minutes were censored.
Climb every mountain
Search high and low
Follow every byway
Every path you know
I think the censor was very intelligent. He knew as probably an atheist communist where the power of attraction of catholic religion resides. If you read intelligent catholic propagandists and if you really try to discern what deal are they offering you. It’s not to prohibit, in this case, sexual pleasures. It’s a much more cynical contact as it were, between the church as an institution and the believer troubled with, in this case, sexual desires. It is this hidden, obscene permission that you get. You are covered by the divine being, you can do whatever you want, enjoy.
This obscene contract does not belong to Christianity as such. It belongs to Catholic Church as an institution. It is the logic of institution at it’s purest. This is a gain a key to the functioning of ideology. Not only the explicit message: renounce, suffer and so on… but the true hidden message: pretend to renounce and you can get it all.
My psychoanalytic friends are telling me that typically today patients who come to the analyst to resolve their problems feel guilty not because of excessive pleasures. Not because they indulged in pleasures which go against their sense of duty and morality or whatsoever. On the contrary, they feel guilty for not enjoying enough. For not being able to enjoy.
Oh my god, one is thirsty in the desert and what to drink but Coke? The perfect commodity. Why? Because already Marx who long ago emphasised it: a commodity is never just a simple object that we buy and consume. A commodity is an object full of ideological even metaphysical niceties. Its presence always reflects an invisible transcendence and the classical publicity for Coke quite openly refers to this absent, invisible quality: Coke is the real thing. Coke, that’s it.
What is that it? The real thing? It’s not just another positive property of Coke, something that can be described or pinpointed through chemical analysis. It’s that mysterious something more.
The indescribable excess which is the object cause of my desire. In our post-modern, however we call them, societies we are obliged to enjoy. Enjoyment becomes a kind of a weird perverted duty. The paradox of Coke is that you are thirsty you drink it but as everyone knows the more you drink it the more thirsty you get.
A desire is never simple the desire for a certain thing. It’s always also a desire for desire itself; a desire to continue to desire. Perhaps the ultimate quarrel of a desire is to be fully filled in, met, so that I desire no longer. The ultimate melancholy experience is the experience of the loss of desire itself.
It’s not that in some return to a previous era of natural consummation where we got rid of this excess and we’re only consuming for actual needs like you are thirsty you drink water and so on. We cannot return to that. The excess is with us forever.
So let’s have a drink of Coke. It’s getting warm… it’s no longer the real Coke and that’s the problem. You know this passage from sublime to excremental damage. This Coke properly served it has a certain attraction. All of a sudden this can change into shit. It’s the elementary dialectics of commodities.
We are not talking about objective, factual properties of a commodity. We are talking only here about that illusive surplus.
Kinder Surprise egg, a quite astonishing commodity. The surprise of the Kinder Surprise egg is that this excessive object the cause of your desire is here materialised in the guise of an object, a plastic toy which fills in the inner void of the chocolate egg. The whole delicate balance is between these two dimensions. What you bought, the chocolate egg and the surplus probably made in some Chinese gulag or whatever, the surplus that you get for free. I don’t think that the chocolate frame is here just to send you on a deeper voyage towards the inner treasure, what Plato calls the agalma, which makes you a wealthy person, which makes a commodity the desirable commodity. I think it’s the other way around. We should aim at the higher goal, the goal in the middle of an object precisely to be able to enjoy the surface. This is what is the anti-metaphysical lesson, which is difficult to accept.
What does this famous Ode to Joy stand for? It’s usually perceived as a kind of ode to humanity as such to the brotherhood and freedom of all people. And what strikes the eye here is the universal adaptability of this well-known melody. It can be used by political movements which are totally opposed to each other. In Nazi Germany it was widely used to celebrate great public events. In Soviet Union, Beethoven was lionised and the Ode to Joy was performed almost as a kind of communist song. In China during the time of the great Cultural Revolution when almost all of western music was prohibited, the 9th symphony was accepted. It was allowed to play it as a piece of progressive bourgeois music. At the extreme right in South Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe, it proclaimed independence to be able to postpone the abolishment of apartheid. There, for those couple of years of independence of Rhodesia again, the melody of Ode to Joy, with changed lyrics of course, was the anthem of the country. At the opposite end when Abimael Guzman President Gonzalo, the leader of Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path, the extreme leftist guerrilla in Peru. When he was asked by a journalist which piece of music was his favourite he claimed, again Beethoven’s 9th symphony Ode to Joy. When Germany was still divided and their team was appearing together at the Olympics, when one of the Germans won golden medal, again Old to Joy was played instead of either East or West German national anthem. And even now today Ode to Joy is the unofficial anthem of European union.
So it’s truly that we can imagine a kind of a perverse scene of universal fraternity where Osama Bin Laden is embracing President Bush, Saddam is embracing Fidel Castro, white races is embracing Mao Tse Tung and all together they sing Ode to Joy. It works, and this is how every ideology has to work. It’s never just meaning. It always also has to work as an empty container open to all possible meanings. It’s, you know, that gut feeling that we feel when we experience something pathetic and we say: ‘Oh my God, I am so moved, there is something so deep.’ But you never know what this depth is. It’s a void.
Now, of course there is a catch here. The catch is that of course this neutrality of a frame is never as neutral as it appears.
Clockwork Orange (1971)
Here, I think the perspective of Alex from the Clockwork Orange enters.
We were all feeling a bit shagged and fagged and fashed. It having been an evening of some small energy expenditure, oh my brothers. So we got rid of the auto and stopped off at the Coroba for a nightcap.
Why is Alex, this ultimate cynical delinquent hero of Clockwork Orange, why is he so fascinated, overwhelmed when he sees the lady singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy?
And it was like for a moment, oh my brothers, some great bird had flown into the bar and I felt all the malanky little hairs on my body standing endwise and the shivers crawling up like slow malanky lizards and then down again because I knew what she sang. It was a bit from the glorious ninth by Ludwig van.
Whenever an ideological text sets all humanity unite in brotherhood, joy and so on, you should always ask: ok, ok, ok, is this all, really all, or some are excluded?
I think Alex, the delinquent of Clockwork Orange, identifies with this place of exclusion. And the great genius of Beethoven is that he literally states this exclusion. All of a sudden the whole tone changes into a kind of a carnavalesque rhythm. It’s no longer this sublime beauty.
Excuse me brother I ordered it two weeks ago, can you see if it’s arrived please?
Just a minute.
We hear this vulgar music precisely when Alex enters a shopping arcade and we can see from his movements that now he feels at home. He is like fish in the water.
Pardon me ladies.
Beethoven is not the cheap celebrator of the brotherhood of humanity and so on, we are one big happy family enjoying freedom, dignity and so on.
Enjoying that are you my darling?
The first part, which is falsely celebrated today, you hear it in all official events, is clearly identified with Beethoven as ideology and then the second part tells the true story of that which disturbs the official ideology and that of the failure of ideology to constrain it, to tame it. This is why Beethoven was doing something which may appear difficult to do. He was already in the purely musical work, practicing critique of ideology.
If the classical ideology functioned in the way designated by Marx in his nice formula from Capital Volume One: ‘Sie wissen es nicht, aber Sie tun es’ (They don’t know what they are doing but they are nonetheless doing it). Cynical ideology functions in the mode of ‘I know very well what I am doing but I am still nonetheless doing it.’
West Side Story (1961)
This paradoxical constellation is staged in a beautiful way in the famous song Officer Krupke in Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s West Side Story.
Who me, officer Krupke?
Give me one good reason for not dragging you down to station house you punk.
Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand, it’s just our bringin’ up-ke that gets us out of hand. Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks. Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks!
Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset…
The delinquent gang enact a whole explanation, as a musical number of course, of why they are delinquents.
There is good, there is good, there is untapped good ! Like inside, the worst of us is good !
Addressing the police officer Krupke, who is not here but all is addressed at the police officer.
That’s a touchin’ good story.
Lemme tell it to the world!
Just tell it to the judge.
So one of them adopts the position of a judge.
Dear kindly Judge, your Honor, my parents treat me rough. With all their marijuana, they won’t give me a puff.
Then the psychological explanation.
He shouldn’t be here.
This boy don’t need a couch, he needs a usefully career. Society’s played him a terrible trick, and sociologically he’s sick! I am sick. We are sick…
The paradox here is how can you know all this and still do it? This is the cynical function of ideology. They’re never what they appear to be cynical brutal delinquents. They always have a tiny private dream. This dream can be many things. It can even be something quite ordinary.
Let’s take the English riots of august 2011. The standard liberal explanation really sounds like a repetition of the Officer Krupke song. ‘We cannot just condemn this riot as delinquent vandalism. You have to see how these people live in practically ghettos, isolated communities, no proper family life, no proper education. They don’t even have a prospect if a regular employment.’
But this is not enough because man is not simply a product of objective circumstances. We all have this margin of freedom in deciding how we subjectivise these objective circumstances which will of course determine us. How we react to them by constructing our own universe.
The conservative solution is ‘We need more police, we need courts, which pass severe judgements.’ I think this solution is too simple. If I listen closely to some of David Cameron’s statements, it looked as if ‘Ok, they are beating people, burning houses, but the truly horrible thing is that they were taking objects without paying for them.’ The ultimate things that we can imagine. In a very limited way, Cameron was right, there was no ideological justification. It is the reaction of people who are totally caught into the predominant ideology but have no ways to realise what this ideology demands of them so it’s kind of a wild acting out within this ideological space of consumerism.
Even if we are dealing with apparently totally non-ideological brutality (‘I just want to burn houses, to get objects’), it is the result of a very specific social and ideological constellation where big ideology (striving for justice, equality, etc.) disintegrates, the only functioning ideology is pure consumerism, and then no wonder what you get is a form of protest. Every violent acting out is a sign that there is something you are not able to put into words. Even the most brutal violence is the enacting of a certain symbolic deadlock.
Taxi Driver (1976)
The great thing about the Taxi Driver is that it brings this brutal outburst of violence to it’s radical suicidal damage. We are not dealing here with something which simply concerns the fragile psychology of a distorted person, what Travis in Taxi Driver is, it has something to do with ideology.
Listen you fuckers, you screw-heads, here is a man who would not take it anymore. Who would not…
Listen you fuckers you screw-heads, here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is someone who stood up.
In the Taxi Driver, Travis, the hero, is bothered by the young prostitute played by Jody Foster. What bothers him are, of course as is always the case, precisely his fantasies. Fantasies of her victimhood, of her hidden pleasure; and fantasies are not just a private matter of individuals – fantasies are the central stuff our ideologies are made of.
Don’t look at him.
Fantasy is in psychoanalytical perspective fundamentally a lie. Not a lie in the sense that it’s just a fantasy and not a reality, but a lie in the sense that fantasy covers up a certain gap in consistency. When things are blurred, when we cannot really get to know things, fantasy provides an easy answer. The usual mode of fantasy is to construct a scene, not a scene where I get what I desire but a scene in which I imagine myself as desired by others.
I take many scalps.
In both films, the hero tries to save a young woman who is perceived as a victim of brutal abuse. In The Searchers the young Nathalie Wood was kidnapped and lived for a couple of years as the wife of an Indian chief. InTaxi Driver the young Jodie Foster is controlled by a ruthless pimp.
You walk out with those fucking creeps and lowlifes and degenerates out on the streets and sell your little pussy for nothing, man? For some low life pimp? Stands in a hall. I’m the… I’m square? You’re the one that’s square, man. I don’t go screw and fuck with a bunch of killers and junkies the way you do.
The task is always to save the perceived victim. But what really drives this violence of the hero is a deep suspicion that the victim is not simply a victim. That the victim, effectively in a perverted way, enjoys or participates in what appears as her victimhood, so that, to put it very simply, she doesn’t want to be redeemed, she resists it.
Let’s go home Debby.
And this is the big problem, if I make an immediate jump to the political dimension, the big problem of American military interventions, especially so-called humanitarian interventions. From Iraq to already Vietnam half a century ago. We try to help them, but what if they really did not want our help? The result of this debilitating deadlock can only be an outburst of violence. We do get, towards the end of the film, Travis exploding in a killing spree. Killing the pimps, all the people around the young girl.
Violence is never just abstract violence. It’s a kind of brutal intervention in the real to cover up a certain impotence concerning what we may call ‘cognitive mapping’ – you lack a clear picture of what’s going on. Where are we?
Exactly the same holds for the terrifying bouts of violence Anders Behring Breivik’s murder spree in Oslo. Exploding a bomb in front of the government building and then killing dozens of young members of the social democratic party in an island close to Oslo. Many commentators tried to dismiss this as a clear case of personal insanity. But, I think Breivik’s manifesto is well worth reading. It is palpably clear there how this violence that Breivik not only theorised about but also enacted is a reaction to the impenetrability and confusion of global capital.
It’s exactly like Travis Bickle’s killing spree at the end of the Taxi Driver. When he is there, barely alive, he symbolically with his fingers points a gun at his own head; clear sign that all this violence was basically suicidal. He was on the right path, in a way, Travis of the Taxi Driver. You should have the outburst of violence and you should direct it at yourself, but in a very specific way, it won’t in yourself change you, ties you to the ruling ideology.
Oh do you know the muffin man?
Pippin? Pippin? Pippin!
In Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, a shark starts to attack people on the beach. What does this attack mean? What does the shark stand for? There were different, even mutually exclusive answers to this question. On the one hand, some critics claimed that obviously the shark stands for the foreign threat to ordinary Americans. The shark is a metaphor for either natural disaster, storms or immigrants threatening United States citizens and so on. On the other hand, it’s interesting to note that Fidel Castro who loves the film once said that for him it was obvious that Jaws is kind of a leftist Marxist film and that Jaws is kind of a metaphor for brutal big capital exploiting ordinary Americans.
So which is the right answer? I claim none of them and at the same time all of them. Ordinary Americans, as ordinary people in all countries, have a multitude of fears. We fear all kind of things. We fear, maybe, immigrants or people whom we perceive as lower than ourselves attacking us, robbing us. We fear people raping our children. We fear natural disasters, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis. We fear corrupted politicians. We fear big companies, which can basically do with us whatever they want.
The function of the shark is to unite all these fears so that we can in a way trade all these fears for one fear alone. In this way, our experience of reality gets much simpler. Why am I mentioning this? Because isn’t it that, for example, the most extreme case of ideology maybe in the history of humanity, the Nazi fascist anti-Semitism work precisely in the same way.
Imagine an ordinary German citizen in the late 20s early 30s. His situation is, in an abstract way, the same as that of a small child. He’s totally perplexed. His social authority, symbolic order is telling him you are a German worker, banker, whatever, but nothing functions. What does society want from him? Why is everything going wrong? The way he perceives the situation is that newspaper’s lie to him. He lost his work because of inflation. He lost all his money in the bank. His moral degradation and so on; so what’s the meaning of this all?
The original fascist dream is to, of course as the dream of every ideology, to have a cake and to eat it. As it was often pointed out, fascism is, at it’s most elementary, a conservative revolution. Revolution – economic development, modern industry, yes. But a revolution which would none the less maintain or even reassert a traditional hierarchal society. A society which is modern, efficient, but at the same time controlled by hierarchal values with no class or other antagonisms.
Now, they have a problem here, the fascists, but antagonism, class struggle and other dangers is something inherent to capitalism. Modernisation, industrialisation, as we know from the history of capitalism, means disintegration of old stable relations. It means social conflicts. Instability is the way capitalism functions.
So how to solve this problem? Simple. You need to generate an ideological narrative which explains how things went wrong in a society not as a result of the inherent tensions in the development of this society but as the result of a foreign intruder. ‘Things were ok until Jews penetrated our social body. The way to restore the health of our social body is to eliminate the Jews.’
It’s the same operation as with the shark in Jaws. You have a multitude of fears and this multiplicity of fears confuses you. You simply don’t know what’s the meaning of all this confusion and you replace this confused multitude with one clear figure: the Jew, and everything becomes clear.
The search for cuts in the social security provision to lone parent families in part spurred this report. The social security department fears that the accelerating budget for single mothers on benefits could reach nearly 5 billion pounds by the end of the decade. But the issue of the lone parent has increasingly been seen as the heart of John Major’s back to basics crusade.
Remember I think around two, three decades ago when the prime minister of the United Kingdom was John Major, there was a kind of ideological campaign to return to morality and so on.
And all the evils of society were embodied in the conservative narrative in the figure of unemployed single mother. Like ‘there is violence in our suburbs? Of course, because single unemployed mothers cannot take care of their children, don’t properly educate them and so on.
We have a lack in our budget, not enough money, of course, because we have to support unwed single mothers and so on and so on.’
In an ideological edifice, you need some pseudo-concrete image like this to fixate your imagination and then this image can mobilise us. Imagine ideology as a kind of a filter, a frame, so that if you look at the same ordinary reality through that frame, everything changes. In what sense? It’s not that the frame actually acts anything; it’s just that the frame opens the abyss of suspicion.
The Jews alter their appearance when they leave their Polish haunts for the rich world.
If we look at the anti-Semitic image of the Jew it’s crucial to notice how contradictory this figure of the Jew is.
The relativity Jew, Einstein, who masks his hatred of Germans behind his obscure pseudo-sciences.
The Jew, Kestenberg, controller of German music in the Prussian Ministry of Culture.
Jews are at the same time extra-intellectual like mathematicians, whatever—and vulgar.
In plain language, Jewish dwellings are filthy and neglected.
Not washing regularly.
The Jew Charlie Chaplin, was welcomed by an enraptured crown when he visited Berlin.
Seducing innocent girls all the time and so on and so on.
Then much of the German public acclaimed the newcomer Jew, a deadly enemy. How could this happen? Of course, these ghetto Jews do no yet move well in their clean European clothes. Somewhat more adept are the Jews of Berlin. Their fathers and grandfathers lived in the ghetto, but that’s not outwardly noticeable. Here in the second and third generation, the assimilation has reached its zenith. Outwardly, they try to act just like the host peoples. People without good instincts, let themselves be deceived by this mimicry and consider the Jews the same as they are, therein lies the enormous danger. These assimilated Jews remain forever foreign bodies in the organisms of their host peoples, regardless of appearances.
This is typically for racism. You try to imagine how the other enjoys all the secret orgies or whatever because in racism the other is not simply an enemy, usually it is also invested with some specific perverse enjoyment. Or, in an inverted way, the other can be someone who tries to steal from us our enjoyments, to disturb, as we usually put it, ‘our way of life.’
We should be here very precise not to fall into the usual trap of disqualifying all elements out of which the Nazi ideological edifice is composed, to disqualify all of them as proto-fascist. We should never forget that the large majority if these elements which we today associate with fascism were taken from the worker’s movement. This idea of large numbers of people marching together, this idea of strict bodily discipline as our duty. The Nazis directly took this over from social democracy, from the left.
Let me just take some other central concepts of the Nazi worldview: the solidarity of the people. My God there is nothing bad in this notion as such. The problem is solidarity to what kind of people? If by people you mean Volksgemeinschaft, the organic community of people where then the enemy is automatically the foreign intruder, in this case we are in Nazism.
The crucial thing is to locate ideology where it belongs. Let’s take a clear example. The well known song ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ from the film Cabaret.
The sun in the meadow is summery warm, the stag in the forest runs free…
Some of my friends after seeing the film, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, thought that after they heard this song they finally understood what at it’s deepest emotional impact, what fascism is.
But I think this precisely is the mistake to be avoided. This song is rather ordinary popular song. Incidentally, it was composed while they were shooting the movie by a Jewish couple. Nice irony. If you look not only at the music, at the way it is sung, but even at the words:
‘awakening of a nation, tomorrow belongs to me…’
One can well imagine with a slight change of words radically leftist, communist song.
But soon says the whisper, arise, arise.
The German hard rock band Rammstein are often accused of flirting, playing with the Nazi iconography. But if one observes closely their show, one can see very nicely what they are doing. Exemplarily in one of their best known songs ‘Reise Reise.’
Reise, Reise, Seemann, reise,
Jeder tut’s auf seine Weise,
Der Eine stösst den Speer zum Mann,
Der andere zum Fische dann…
The minimal elements of the Nazi ideology enacted by Rammstein are something like pure elements of libidinal investment. Enjoyment has to be, as it were, condensed in some minimal tics: gestures, which do not have any precise ideological meaning. What Rammstein does is it liberates these elements from their Nazi articulations. It allows us to enjoy them in their pre-ideological state.
Reise, Reise, Seemann, reise,
Jeder tut’s auf seine Weise,
Der Eine stösst den Speer zum Mann…
The way to fight Nazism is to enjoy these elements, ridiculous as they may appear, by suspending the Nazi horizon of meaning. This way you undermine Nazism from within.
So how does nonetheless ideology do this? How does it articulate pre-ideological elements? These elements can also be seen as a kind of a bribe. The way ideology pays us to seduce us into its edifice. These bribes can be purely libidinal bribes, all those tics which are condensed enjoyment. Or, they can be explicit discursive elements like notions of solidarity of collective discipline, struggle for one’s destiny and so on and so on. All these in itself are free floating elements which open themselves to different ideological fields.
Let’s turn to the high point of our consumerism.
Let me take a drink. Some of it… Starbucks coffee. I am regularly drinking it, I must admit it. But are we aware that when we buy a cappuccino from Starbucks, we also buy quite a lot of ideology. Which ideology? You know when you enter a Starbucks store, it’s usually always displayed in some posters there, their message which is: ‘Yes our cappuccino is more expensive than the others but,’ and then comes the story, ‘we give one percent of all our income to some Guatemala children to keep them healthy. For the water supply for some Sahara farmers, or to save the forests, enable organic growing coffee, whatever, whatever.’
Now I admire the ingeniosity of this solution. In the old days of pure simple consumerism you bought a product and then you felt bad. ‘My God, I’m just a consumerist while people are starving in Africa.’
So the idea was you had to do something to counteract your pure distractive consumerism. For example, I don’t know, you contribute to charity and so on. What Starbucks enables you is to be a consumerist and… be a consumerist without any bad conscience because the price for the counter measure, for fighting consumerism is already included into the price of a commodity. Like, you pay a little bit more and you are not just a consumerist but you do also your duty towards environment, the poor starving people in Africa and so on and so on. It’s, I think, the ultimate form of consumerism.
We should not simply oppose a principal life dedicated to beauty and enjoying our small pleasures. Let’s take today’s capitalism. We have, on the one hand, the demands of the circulation of the capital which push us towards profit making, expansion, exploitation and destruction of nature and, on the other hand, ecological demands. ‘Let’s think about our posterity and about our own survival, let’s take care of nature and so on.’
In this opposition between ruthless pursuit of capitalist expansion and ecological awareness duty, a strange perverted duty of course, duty is on the side of capitalism, as many prestigious analysts have noted. Capitalism has a strange religious structure. It is propelled by this absolute demand: capital has to circulate to reproduce itself to expand, to multiply itself and for this goal anything can be sacrifices, up to our lives, up to nature and so on. Here we have a strange unconditional injunction. A true capitalist is a miser who is ready to sacrifice everything for this perverted duty.
What we see here in Mojave Desert at resting place for abandoned planes is the other side of capitalist dynamics. Capitalism is all the time in crisis. This is precisely why it appears almost indestructible. Crisis is not its obstacle. It is what pushes it forwards towards self-revolutionising permanent, extended self-reproduction – always new products. The other invisible side of it is waste, tremendous amount of waste.
We shouldn’t react to these heaps of waste by trying to somehow get rid of it. Maybe the first thing to do is to accept this waste. To accept that there are things out there that serve nothing. To break out of this eternal cycle of functioning.
The German philosopher Walter Benjamin said something very big. He said that we experience history, ‘what does it mean for us to be historical beings’, not when we are engaged in things, when things move, only when we see this, again, rest waste of culture being half retaken by nature, at that point we get an intuition of what history means.
I am Legend (2007)
Maybe this also accounts for the redemptic value of post-catastrophic movies like I Am Legend and so on. We see the devastated human environment, half empty factories, machines falling apart, half empty stores. What we experience at this moment, the psychoanalytic term for it would have been the ‘inertia of the real’; this mute presence beyond meaning.
What moments like confronting planes here in Mojave Desert bring to us is maybe a chance for an authentic passive experience. Maybe without this properly artistic moment of authentic passivity nothing new can emerge. Maybe something new only emerges through the failure, the suspension of proper functioning of the existing network of our life – where we are. Maybe this is what we need more than ever today.
What does the wreck of the Titanic stand for? We all know the standard reading of the impact of the sinking of the Titanic. Not only the film but the real accident. This sinking had such an impact because it happened in a society still at that point in all its glitz and glory unaware of the decay that awaited it in the near future – the World Wars and so on.
But there is something in excess of this entire field of meanings which is the very fascinating presence of the ruin of the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean. When James Cameron organised a trip to the real wreck of Titanic, he also made a similar remark. When the explorers approached the wreck, they had this almost metaphysical experience that they are approaching a forbidden territory in which the sacred and the obscene overlap.
Yeah, Roger that, ok drop down and go into the first class gangway door.
I want you guys working with…
Every effective political, ideological symbol or symptom has to rely on this dimension of petrified enjoyment. Of the frozen grimace of an excessive pleasure in pain.
What am I doing here in the middle of the ocean alone in a boat surrounded by frozen corpses?
I am in a scene from James Cameron’s Titanic, which is the supreme case of ideology in recent Hollywood. Why? Beause of the imminent tension of the story through out the film.
I don’t understand.
Neither do I. Just go with it. Don’t think.
You have at least three levels. First there is what people ironically refer to as James Cameron’s Hollywood Marxism, this ridiculous fake sympathy with lower classes. Up there, first class passengers they are mostly al evil, egotistic, cowardly…
You know I don’t like that Rose.
…embodied by Kate Winslet’s fiancé played by Billy Zane. This whole narrative is sustained by a much more reactionary myth.
Did you see those guys’ faces?
We should ask what role does the iceberg hitting the ship play in the development of the love story.
When the ship docks I’m getting off with you.
This is crazy.
My claim is here a slightly cynical one. This would have been the true catastrophe. We can imagine how maybe after two three weeks of intense sex in New York the love affair would somehow fade away.
As a paying customer, I expect to get what I want.
Kate Winslet is an upper class girl in psychological distress confused, her ego is in shatters. And the function of Leonardo Dicaprio is simply that he helps her to reconstitute her ego.
Her self-image, literally he draws her image.
Tell me when it looks right.
Put your arm back the way it was.
It’s really a new version of one of the old favourite imperialist myths. The idea being that when the upper class people lose their vitality they need a contact with lower classes. Basically, ruthlessly exploiting them in a vampire like way as it were sucking from them the life energy. Revitalised they can join their secluded upper class life.
My heart was pounding the whole time.
It was the most erotic moment of my life.
Up until then at least.
The ship hits the iceberg not immediately after sex but when the couple goes up to the open space and decide to stay together.
Hey look at this.
Often in history the event which may appear as a catastrophe saves persons or an idea, elevating it into a myth. Remember the intervention of the Soviet army and other Warsaw pack (?) armies in 1968 in Czechoslovakia to strangle the so-called Prague Spring.
The attempt of the Czech democratic communists to introduce a more human faced socialism. Usually we perceive this brutal Soviet intervention as something that destroyed the brief dream of Prague Spring. I think it saved the dream. Either Czechoslovakia would have turned into an ordinary liberal capitalist state or at a certain point, which was usually the fate of reformist communists, the communist in power would be obliged to set a certain limit. ‘Ok you had you fun, your freedom, that’s enough, now we again define the limits.’ Again, the paradox is precisely the Soviet intervention saved the dream of the possibility of another communism and so on and so on.
So here again through the temporal catastrophe we have a love story which is at it were, redeemed in it’s idea – saved for eternity. We can ultimately read the catastrophe as a desperate manoeuvre to save the illusion of eternal love.
We can see how ideology works effectively here. We have two superficial levels. All the fascination of the accident, then the love story. But all this which is quite acceptable for our liberal progressive minds, all this is just a trap. Something to lower our attention threshold, as it were, to open us up, to be ready to accept the true conservative message of rich people having tried to revitalise themselves by ruthlessly appropriating the vitality of the poor people.
There’s no one there sir.
There is a wonderful detail which tells everything.
When Kate Winslet notices that Leonardo Dicaprio is dead she, of course, starts to shout…
I will never let go. I promise. I will never let go.
…while at the same moment she pushes him off.
She is what we may call ironically a vanishing mediator. This logic of the production of the couple has a long history in Hollywood. Whatever the story is about, it may be about the end of the world, an asteroid threatening the very survival of humanity, or a great war, whatever.
As a rule, we always have a couple whose link is threatened and who somehow through this ordeal at the end happily gets together. This logic does not count only for Hollywood films.
The Fall of Berlin (1949)
We are under Himmler’s house.
Here is the Reichstag.
In the late forties, in Soviet Union, they produced arguably one of the most expensive films of all times: The Fall of Berlin. The chronicle of the Second World War from the Soviet standpoint. And it’s incredible how closely this film also follows the logic of the production of a couple. The story begins just before the German attack on the Soviet Union when the model worker who is in love with a local girl but is too shy to propose to her, is called to Moscow to get a medal from Comrade Stalin. There Stalin notices his confusion, distress, and Stalin gives him some advice, which poetry to quote and so on.
This part unfortunately was lost because in the background of this scene there was Beria, a Soviet politician who after Stalin’s death became a non-person, was shot as a traitor. But we know from the screenplay what was there. If Stalin gives you love advice it has to succeed so the couple embraces.
Natasha, come here!
He tells her probably to make love. At that very moment there is the triumphant violent entrance of the obstacle: German planes come, dropping bombs.
It’s all right.
The girl is taken prisoner.
These slaves will be given into German iron hands.
The boy of course joins the red army and we follow him through all the great battles. The idea being that in a deeper logic of the film, what these battles were about was really to recreate the couple. The boy has to get his girl. This is what happens at the end, but in a very strange way, which reconfirms Stalin’s role as the supreme divine matchmaker.
The scene itself, Stalin emerging himself into a crowd of ordinary people never happened. Stalin was totally paranoiac about flying, about taking planes. But, none the less when he saw this scene he cried.
Comrades, today we celebrate a great victory over German Fascism.
Of course, he himself, as you know, wrote the lines. When the couple encounters each other the girl first sees Stalin, then she turns around and, surprised, sees her lover for whom she was waiting all the time of the war. So it’s only through the presence of Stalin that the couple gets reunited.
This is how ideology works. Not the explicit ideology of the film which we hear at the end Stalin saying: now all the free people will enjoy peace and so on and so on, but precisely ideology at its more fundamental. This apparently totally subordinated motive, unimportant in itself – the story of a couple – this is what is the key element, which holds the entire film together, that small surplus element which attracts us, which maintains our attention. This is how ideology works.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Nice. Everything clean. Oiled. So that your action is beautiful. Smooth shot.
We usually think that military discipline is just a matter of mindlessly following orders, obeying the rules. You don’t think you do what is your duty. It’s not as simple as that. If we do this, we just become machines. There has to be something more. This more can have two basic forms. The first more benign form is an ironic distance. Best epitomised by the well known movie and TV series M.A.S.H.
Where the military doctors are involved in sexual escapades, make jokes all the time. Some people took Robert Altman’s movie M.A.S.H. as a kind of antimilitary, satiric product but it’s not. We should always bear in mind that these soldiers with all their practical jokes, making fun of the superiors and so on, operated perfectly as soldiers. They did their duty.
Doctor this one’s for you babe.
Much more ominous is a kind of obscene supplement to pure military discipline. In practically all movies about U.S. Marines, the best-known embodiment of this obscenity are marching chants – a mixture of nonsense…
Eskimo pussy is mighty cold.
…and obscenity. This is not undermining, making fun of military discipline. It is it’s inner most constituent. You take this obscene supplement away and military machine stops working.
Well no shit. What have we got here? A fucking comedian. A private joker. I admire your honesty. Hell I like you. You can come over to my house and fuck my sister. You little scum bag. I’ve got your name. I’ve got your ass. You will not laugh. You will not cry. You will learn by the numbers. I will teach you. Now get up. Get on your feet. You had best unfuck yourself or I will unscrew your head and shit down your neck.
Sir yes sir.
Private Joker. why don’t you join my beloved corps?
I think that the drill sergeant, the way it is played in an exemplary way in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, that the drill sergeant is rather a tragic figure.
I always like to imagine him as the person who after his work returns home is quite decent and so on.
This is my rifle, this is my gun…
All this obscene shouting is just a show put on, not so much to impress ordinary soldiers whom he is training, as to bribe them with bits of enjoyment. It’s not just a question of these obscenities, which sustains the military machinery; it’s another more general rule which holds for military communities but even more, I would say, for all human communities. From the largest nations, ethnic groups, up to small university departments and so on. You don’t only have explicit rules. You always, in order to become part of a community, you need some implicit unwritten rules, which are never publicly recognised but are absolutely crucial as the point of the identification of a group.
In the U.K. everyone knows about the obscene unwritten rituals, which regulate life in public schools.
I want to see your whips in my study after break.
Oh how was India? Enjoy it?
Just think about Lindsay Anderson’s classic If. The public life is democratic, we have professor which interact with their pupils, nice atmosphere, teaching, friendship, spirit of cooperation but then we all know what happens beneath the surface. Older pupils torturing, sexual abusing the younger. This same mixture of obscenity and sadistic violence. And again, what is crucial here is we should not simply put all the blame or all the enjoyment on the older pupils. The victims even are part of this infernal cycle of obscenity. It is as if in order to really be a member of a community you have to render your hands dirty.
And I think even the Abu Ghraib scandal of American soldiers torturing or especially humiliating Iraqi prisoners is to be read in this way. It’s not simply we the arrogant Americans are humiliating others. What Iraqi soldiers experienced there was the staging of the obscene underside of the American military culture.
In Full Metal Jacket it’s the character of Joker played by Matthew Modine who is close to what we would call a normal soldier – a M.A.S.H. type of soldier. He has proper ironic distance. He proves, at the end, militarily, the most efficient soldier.
Returning back to me. Why then will I soon shoot myself. Something went wrong there. But what?
Lock and load!
I did not just run amuck.
Order. This is my riffle. There are many like it but this one is mine.
But I got too directly identified with this obscene rituals. I lost the distance. I took them seriously.
…what are you two animals doing in my hair.
If you get too close to it, if you over identify with it, if you really immediately become the voice of this super ego it’s self destructive. You kill people around you, you end up killing yourself.
The Dark Knight (2008)
So you think Batman’s made Gotham a better place? Look at me. Look at me.
You see this is how crazy Batman’s made Gotham. If you want order in Gotham Batman must take off his mask and turn himself in. Every day he doesn’t people will die, starting tonight. I’m a man of my word.
So who is Joker?
If we’re gonna play games…
Which is the lie he is opposing?
…I’m gonna need a cup of coffee.
The good cop bad cop routine?
The truly disturbing thing about The Dark Knight is that it elevates lie into a general social principal, into the principal of organisation of our social political life. As if our societies can remain stable, can function, only if based on a lie. As if telling the truth, and this telling the truth is embodies in Joker means distraction. Disintegration of the social order.
Never start with the head the victim gets all fuzzy. He can’t feel…
Toward the end it is as if lie functions as a hot potato passing from one person’s hand to another person’s hand. First there is Harvey Dent… the public prosecutor who lies claiming that he is the real person behind Batman’s mask. That he is Batman. Then we have got honest policeman, Batman’s friend, who fakes, stages his own death.
I’ll see you later.
Five dead, two of them cops you can’t…
At the end, Batman himself takes upon himself…
The Joker cannot win.
…the crimes, murders committed by Harvey Dent, the public prosecutor turned criminal…
Gotham needs its true hero.
…in order to maintain the trust of the public into the legal system. The idea is if the ordinary public were to learn how corrupt was, or is, the very core of our legal system then everything would have collapsed so we need a lie to maintain order.
A hero. Not the hero we deserve, but the hero we needed. Nothing less than a knight. Shot.
There’s nothing new in this. This is an old conservative wisdom asserted long ago by philosophers from Plato, but especially and then, Emmanuel Kant, Edmond Burke and so on and so on. This idea that the truth is too strong. That a politician should be a cynicist who although he knows what is true, tells to ordinary people what Plato called a ‘noble fable’, a lie.
Um, the United States knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. The U.K. knows that they have weapons of mass destruction. Any country on the face of the earth with an active intelligence program knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.
Which could be activated within forty five minutes, including against his own Shia population.
The choice is his, and if he does not disarm the United States of America will lead a coalition and disarm him in the name of peace.
Let’s be frank. We can have a state, public system of power, as legitimate as you want submitted to critical press, democratic elections and so on and so on, apparently it just serves us. But nonetheless if you look closely into how even the most democratic state power functions in order for it to display true authority – and power needs authority – there has to be, as it were, between the lines all the time this message of: ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, we are legalised through elections but basically we can do with you whatever we want’.
Because that’s what needs to happen. Because sometimes, truth isn’t enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.
One of the great platitudes which are popular today when we are confronted with acts of violence, is to refer to Fjodr Dostoyevsky’s famous statement from The Brothers Karamazov: ‘if there is no God then everything is permitted’. Well, the first problem with this statement of course is that Dostoyevsky never made it. The first one who used this phrase that as allegedly made by Dostoyevsky was Jean-Paul Sartre in 1943. But the main point is that this statement is simply wrong. Even a brief look at our predicament today clearly tells us this.
It is precisely if there is God that everything is permitted to those who not only believe in God but who perceive themselves as instruments, direct instruments of the divine will. If you pose it or perceive or legitimise yourself as a direct instrument of the divine will, then of course all narrow petty moral considerations disappear. How can you even think in such narrow terms when you are a direct instrument of God? This is how so-called religious fundamentalists work, but not only them. Every form of so-called totalitarianism works like that, even if it is presented or if it presents itself as atheist.
Let’s take Stalinism, officially Stalinism was based on atheist Marxist theories, but if we look closely at the subjective experience of a Stalinist political agent, leader, we see that it’s not a position of an arrogant master, leader, who can do whatever he wants, it’s on the contrary the position of a perfect servant. In a Stalinist universe there definitely is what in psychoanalytic theory we call the ‘Big Other’.
This Big Other in the Stalinist universe has many names. The best known of them are ‘the necessity of historical progress towards communism’ or simply ‘history’. History itself is the Big Other – history as the necessary succession of historical stages.
A communist experiences himself as simply an instrument whose function is to actualise a historical necessity. The people, the mythic people, whose instrument the totalitarian leader is, are never simply the actually existing individuals, groups of people and so on. It’s some kind of imagined idealised point of reference which works even when, for example in rebellions against the communist rule, like in Hungary 1956, when the large majority of actually resisting people raises up, is opposed to the regime. They can still say no, these are just individuals, they are not the true people. When you are accused of ‘My God, how could you have been doing all of these horrible things?’ You could have said and this is the standard Stalinist excuse, ‘Of course my heart bleeds for all the innocent victims, I am not responsible for it, I was only acting on behalf of the Big Other… As for myself, I like cats, small children, whatever’.
This is always part of the iconography of a Stalinist leader. Lenin in Stalinism is always presented as someone who likes small children and cats. The implication being Lenin had to order many killings and so on but his heart was not there, this was his duty as instrument of historical progress and so on and so on.
The way to undermine Stalinism is not simply to make fun of the leader. This can be, up to a point even tolerated. It is to undermine this very reference, mythic reference, which legitimises the Stalinist leader: the people.
The Fireman’s Ball (1967)
This is how I read the by far best work if Milos Forman, his early Czech films – Black Peter, The Loves of a Blond and Fireman’s Ball – where he mocks precisely the ordinary people; in their daily conformism, stupidity, egotistic lust and so on and so on.
Come on, look lively! Let’s go.
Come on girls, smile, look happy! Left, right…
It may appear that this is something very arrogant, but no, I think that this is the way to undermine the entire structure of the Stalinist universe. To demonstrate not that leaders are not leaders, they are always ready to say ‘Oh but we are just ordinary people like you’. No! That there is no mythic people, which serves as the ultimate legitimisation.
So what is the Big Other? This basic element of every ideological edifice? It has two, quite contradictory aspects. On the one hand, of course, the Big Other is the secret order of things; like divine reason, fate or whatever, which is controlling our destiny. But it is maybe the least interesting aspect of the Big Other – as the agents, which guarantees meaning of what we are doing.
Much more interesting is the Big Other as the order of appearances. Many things which are prohibited are not simply prohibited but they should not happen for the Big Other.
Hurry… Jesus Christ…
Brief Encounter (1945)
A supreme example of this agency of the Big Other as the agency of appearance is the prattling busybody in David Lean’s masterpiece, the Brief Encounter. At the very beginning of the film, the two lovers, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, arrange for their last meeting in a cafeteria of a small train station.
Laura, what a lovely surprise.
My dear I’ve been shopping till I’m dropping. My feet are nearly off and my throat’s parched. I thought of having tea at spindles but I was terrified of losing the train. Oh dear.
This is Doctor Harvey.
How do you do ?
Oh would you be a perfect dear and get me a cup of tea I really don’t think I could drag my poor old bones up to the counter.
Why is this situation so interesting? Because on the one hand we cannot but experience this annoying lady as a brutal intruder.
There’s your train.
Yes I know.
Oh, aren’t you coming with us?
No I go in the opposite direction, my practice is in Shirley. I’m a general practitioner at the moment.
Dr. Harvey’s going to Africa next week.
Oh, how thrilling.
Instead of the two lovers being allowed at least their final moments alone they have to maintain the appearances that nothing is happening between them, that they are just acquaintances and so on and so on.
He’ll have to run or he’ll miss it. He’s got to get right over to the other platform…
This precisely is the function of the Big Other. We need for our stability, a figure of Big Other for whom we maintain appearances.
…and I arrived at the station with only half a minute to spare. I flew.
But are things really as simple as that? The next scene Celia Johnson totally desperate, she knows she will never again see her lover…
Yes, he’s a nice creature. Have you known him long.
No, not very long.
I hardly know him at all really.
Oh my dear, I’ve always had a passion for doctors.
Then we hear the line of Celia Johnson’s thought.
I wish I could trust you. I wish you were a wise kind friend, instead of a gossipy acquaintance I’ve known casually for years and never particularly cared for.
What is the nature of this deadlock of Celia Johnson? She is split between the two figures in the film of the Big Other. On the one hand, it’s her husband, the ideal listener, but it’s out of question to confess to him.
Fred, dear Fred, there’s so much that I want to say to you. You’re the only one in the world with enough wisdom and gentleness to understand.
Wild horses wouldn’t drag me away from England and home and all the things I’m used to. I mean one has one’s roots after all hasn’t one?
Yes, one has one’s roots.
On the other hand, you hear this stupid person who is available as a confessor but there is not even an elementary trust.
I wish you’d stop talking. I wish you’d stop prying and trying to find things out. I wish you were dead… No, I don’t mean that, that was silly and unkind. I wish you’d stop talking…
My dear, all her hair came out and she said the social life was quite, quite horrid. Provincial and very nouveau riche.
What’s the matter darling? Are you feeling ill again?
So that’s the tragedy of our predicament. In order to fully exist as individuals we need the fiction of a Big Other. There must be an agency which, as it were, registers our predicament, an agency where the truth of ourselves will be inscribed, accepted, an agency to which to confess.
But what if there is no such agency? This was the utmost despair of many women raped in the post-Yugoslav war in Bosnia in the early 1990s. They survived a terrible predicament and what kept them alive was the idea ‘I must survive to tell the truth’. If when if they survived they made a terrible discovery, there is no one to really listen to them. Either some ignorant bored social worker or some relative who usually made obscene insinuations like are you sure you were not even enjoying a little bit the rape and so on and so on. They discovered the truth of what Jacques Lacan claims: there is no Big Other. There may be a virtual Big Other to whom you cannot confess. There may be a real other but it’s never the virtual one. We are alone.
I think Kafka was right when he said that for a modern secular non-religious man bureaucracy, state bureaucracy, is the only remaining contact with the dimension of the divine. It is in this scene from Brazil that we see the intimate link between bureaucracy and enjoyment. What the impenetrable omnipotence of bureaucracy harbours is divine enjoyment.
Yes. No. Definitely no.
My name is Lowry sir, Sam Lowry.
The intense rush of bureaucratic engagement serves nothing. It is the performance of it’s very purposelessness that generates an intense enjoyment ready to reproduce itself forever.
I’m expecting big things…
Between you and me Lowry this no, no… …is about to be upgraded… Ah…
Here we are your very own number on your very own door. And behind that door your very own office. Congratulations D1 stroke O15. Welcome to the team.
Yes. No. Cancel that. Send two copies to Finance.
The adverse of that is a wonderful scene more towards the beginning of the film.
Harry Tuttle heating engineer at you service.
The hero who has a problem in his apartment with plumbing tries to get the State agency to fix it.
Are you from central services?
Of course, two guys come, they just want forms to fill in, they do nothing.
I called central services.
And then the ultimate subversive figure comes; a kind of clandestine plumber comes, played by Robert De Niro…
Just a minute, what was that business with a gun?
Just a precaution sir, just a precaution.
Who tells him ‘just tell me what is the problem’ and promise quickly to fix it. This of course is the ultimate offense to bureaucracy.
Are you telling me that this is illegal?
Listen kid, we’re all in this together.
In the ordinary theological universe your duty is imposed onto you by God or society or another higher authority and your responsibility is to do it. But in a radically atheist universe you are not only responsible for doing your duty, you are also responsible for deciding what is your duty.
There is always in our subjectivity, in the way we experience ourselves a minimum of hysteria. Hysteria is what? Hysteria is the way we question our social, symbolic identity.
You’re sure it’s God? You’re sure it’s not the devil.
I’m not sure. I’m not sure of anything.
If it’s the devil, the devil can be cast out.
But what if it’s God? You can’t cast out God, can you?
What is hysteria at it’s most elementary. It’s a question addressed at the authority which defines my identity.
It’s ‘why am I what you are telling me that I am’. In psychoanalytic theory, hysteria is much more subversive than perversion. A pervert has no uncertainties, while again the hysterical position is that of a doubt which is an extremely productive position. All new inventions come from hysterical questioning and the unique character of Christianity is that it transposes this hysterical questioning onto God himself as a subject.
Who’s that? Who’s following me? Is that you?
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
This is the ingenious idea of The Last Temptation of Christ as Kazantzakis’ novel and Scorsese’s film, namely the idea that when Jesus Christ in his youth is told that he is not only the Son of God, but basically God himself, he doesn’t simply accept it. This is for Jesus Christ, boy, traumatic news like, my God, why am I dead? Am I really dead?
How did we come to that unique point, which I think, makes Christianity an exception? It all began with the Book of Job as we all know things turn out bad for Job. He loses everything. His house, his family, his possessions and so on. Three friends visit him and each of them tries to justify Job’s misfortunes. The greatness of Job is that he does not accept this deeper meaning. When, towards the end of the Book of Job, God himself appears, God gives right to Job. He says, ‘Everything that the theological friends were telling Job is false; everything that Job was saying is true: No meaning in catastrophes.’
Here we have the first step on the direction of delegitimizing suffering.
Father stay with me, don’t leave me.
The contrast between Judaism and Christianity is the contrast between anxiety and love. The idea is that the Jewish God is the God of the abyss of the other’s desire. Terrible things happen, God is in charge but we do not know what the Big Other, God, wants from us, what is the divine desire. To designate this traumatic experience Lacan used the Italian phrase ‘che vuoi?’ What do you want? This terrifying question: but what do you want from me?
The idea is that Judaism persists in this anxiety, like God remains this terrifying other. And then Christianity resolves the tension through love. By sacrificing his son, God demonstrates that he loves up. So it’s a kind of imaginary, sentimental even resolution of a situation of radical anxiety.
Father, forgive them.
If this were to be the case then Christianity would have been a kind of ideological, reversal or pacification of the deep, much more shattering Jewish insight.
But I think one can read the Christian gesture in a much more radical way. This is what the sequence of crucifixion in Scorsese’s film shows us. What dies on the cross is precisely this guarantee of the Big Other. The message of Christianity is here radically atheist. The death of Christ, is not any kind of redemption of commercial affair in the sense of Christ suffers to pay for our sins. Pay to whom? For what? And so on. It’s simply the disintegration of the God, which guarantees the meaning of our lives. And that’s the meaning of that famous phrase: ‘Eli ele lama sabachthani’ Father, why have you forsaken me?
Why have you forsaken me?
Just before Christ’s death, we get what in psychoanalytic terms we call ‘subjective destitution’ – stepping out totally of the domain of symbolic identification, cancelling or suspending the entire field of symbolic authority, the entire field of the Big Other. Of course, we cannot know what God wants from us because there is no God. This is the Jesus Christ who says, among other things, ‘I bring sword, not peace. If you don’t hate your father, your mother, you are not my follower.’ Of course, this does not mean that you should actively hate or kill your parents. I think that family relations stand here for hierarchic social relations.
The message of Christ is ‘I’m dying but my death itself is good news. It means you are alone, left to your freedom, be in the Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, which is just the community of believers.’ It’s wrong to think that the second coming will be that Christ as a figure will return somehow. Christ is already here when believers form an emancipatory collective. This is why, I claim, that the only way really to be an atheist is to go through Christianity. Christianity is much more atheist than the usual atheism which can claim there is no God and so on. But nonetheless it retains a certain trust into the Big Other – this Big Other can be called natural necessity, evolution or whatever. We humans are none the less reduced to a position within a harmonious whole of evolution, whatever. But the difficult thing to accept is again that there is no Big Other – no point of reference which guarantees meaning.
We are in John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, a neglected Hollywood masterpiece from 1966, from the very heart of the hippy era, which preached unrestrained hedonism. ‘Realise your dreams, enjoy life fully.’ The film is the story of a late middle age businessman leading a grey totally alienated life and then he decides at some point that he has enough of it. Through one of his friends, he contacts a mysterious agency, which offers him a deal. They will reorganise his life so that he will be reborn.
The cost runs in the neighbourhood of thirty thousand dollars. I know this seems rather high but in addition to the rather extensive cosmetic renovation by way of plastic surgery for you, CPS has to provide a fresh corpse that perfectly matches your physical dimensions and medical specifications.
Oh, Cadaver Procurement Section.
They use some corpse; they change it to look like his own body. They plant this corpse, stage a pseudo-accident, so that police think he is dead.
Now mister Wilson you represent something of a milestone around here.
And then, the agency organises an ultimate life in a nice villa somewhere around L.A. They even organise a nice lady who conveniently stumbles upon him when he is taking a walk along the beach.
He is thus reborn… no longer as a boring business man but as a modernist painter called Tony Wilson played by none other than Rock Hudson.
So, the woman, Nora, his new love, tries to engage him in life, even takes him to some wine orgy where people get drunk, dance naked and so on, everything seems ok … but Tony Wilson starts to miss his old life. More and more he is haunted by his past. Finally he breaks down, approaches again the agency telling them that he wants to return to his old life. The boss of this mysterious company, a kind of kindly cruel…
…superego paternal figure tells him the truth. He disappointed them by not being able to adapt himself to his new life.
Ah, you know, I sure hoped you’d make it. Find your dream come true.
I said I sure hoped that you’d make it. Find your dream come true. Oh, you can call it wishful thinking, Sam. life is built on wishes, and you gotta just keep plugging away at ’em. You can’t give up and you can’t let the mistakes jeopardise the dreams.
So what went wrong here? The problem was that his past in it’s material existence was erased.
Well, here is your transportation.
He lived in a totally new environment, new job, new friends and so on. What remained the same were his dreams because when the company organised his rebirth, when the company provided a new existence for him they simply followed his dreams. His dreams were wrong dreams and this is quite a deep lesson for the theory of ideology.
Just remember son; we have to keep plugging away at the dream. The mistakes teach us how. It wasn’t wasted, remember that.
On the way to the operation hall, he discovers the horrible truth. He will not be reborn but he will be used as a cadaver for another person who wants to be reborn.
We should draw a line of distinction within the very field of our dreams. Between those who are the right dreams pointing towards a dimension effectively beyond our existing society and the wrong dreams: the dreams which are just an idealised consumerist reflection, mirror image of our society.
Zabriskie Point (1970)
We are not simply submitted to our dreams – [i.e.] they just come from some unfathomable depths and we can’t do anything about it. This is the basic lesson of psychoanalysis and fiction cinema. We are responsible for our dreams. Our dreams stage our desires and our desires are not objective facts. We created them, we sustained them, we are responsible for them.
This is an area of ancient lakebeds deposited five to ten million years ago.
The scene of mass orgy in Zabriskie Point is a nice metaphor of what went wrong with the 1960s hippy revolution. It’s crucial that Zabriskie Point was made in 1970 when the authentic revolutionary energy of the sixties was already losing its strength. This orgy is somewhere between subversion of the existing social order and already the full estheticised reincorporation of this allegedly transgressive activities into the hegemonic ideology. Although Antonioni meant this as a kind of transcendence of the existing constraints, we can easily imagine this shot in some publicity campaign.
The first step to freedom isn’t just to change reality to fit your dreams it’s to change the way you dream. And again, this hurts, because all satisfactions we have come from our dreams.
The great supreme commander, Chairman Mao, issued a world-shaking call to us, ‘You should pay attention to state affairs and carry the great proletarian Cultural Revolution through to the end.’
One of the big problems of all great revolutionary movements of the 20th century such as Russia, Cuba or China, is that they did change the social body, but the egalitarian communist society was never realised. The dreams remained the old dreams and they turned into the ultimate nightmare. Now what remains for the radical left waits for a magical event when the true revolutionary agent will finally awaken. While the depressing lesson of the last decades is that capitalism has been the true revolutionising force. Even as it serves only itself. How come it is easier for us to imagine the end of all life on earth – an asteroid hitting the planet – than a modest change in our economic order?
Perhaps the time has come to set our possibilities straight and to become realists by way of demanding what appears as impossible in the economic domain. The surprising explosion of Occupy Wall Street protests, the mass mobilisation in Greece, the crowds on Tahrir Square – they all bear witness for the hidden potential for a different future. There is no guarantee that this future will arrive. No train of history on which we simply have to take a ride. It depends on us, on our will.
In revolutionary upheavals, some energy, or rather some utopian dreams, take place, they explode; and even if the actual result of a social upheaval is just a commercialised everyday life, this excess of energy, what gets lost in the result, persists – not in reality but as a dream haunting us, waiting to be redeemed. In this sense, whenever we are engaged in radical emancipatory politics, we should never forget as Walter Benjamin put it almost a century ago that every revolution is not only, if it is an authentic revolution, is not only directed towards the futures but it redeems also the past failed revolutions. All the ghosts as it were, the living dead of the past revolution, which are roaming around unsatisfied, will finally find their home in the new freedom.
[Singing in Russian]
I may be freezing to death but you’ll never get rid of me. All the ice in the world cannot kill a true idea.