Thursday, February 18, 2010

"It's Ideology, Stupid!"

That's the title of the first half of First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, and it also conveniently summarizes the main purpose of Žižek's entire intellectual project: subjecting the dominant ideology of liberal capitalist society to wide-ranging criticism. By ideology, Žižek does not simply mean the ideas or beliefs held by specific individuals or groups of individuals. In the Marxist framework in which Žižek operates, ideology is the "common sense" of a society that serves to justify the interests and power of its dominant group(s). It is the shared set of often unquestioned assumptions about the way the world is supposed to work that gives a social system popular legitimacy by conditioning subordinate groups to freely accept their inferior position as natural. As such, ideology attains a status similar to our knowledge that the sun will rise tomorrow morning - it is simply taken for granted and seems beyond question. Žižek gets at this paradox on page 39:

"On account of its all-pervasiveness, ideology appears as its own opposite, as non-ideology, as the core of our human identity underneath all the ideological labels."

For Žižek, the political figure that embodies the nature of ideology today is Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister and media mogul who is probably more well known for his many tawdry scandals than his political accomplishments. On page 50, he writes:

Oriana Fallaci (who was otherwise rather sympathetic to Berlusconi), once wrote: "True power does not need arrogance, a long beard, and a barking voice. True power strangles you with silk ribbons, charm, and intelligence." In order to understand Berlusconi, one has only to add to this series a talent for stupid self-mockery.

We're about to head deep into Žižek-land with his somewhat bewildering comparison of Berlusconi to the animated film Kung Fu Panda, so bear with me here:

Kung Fu Panda, the 2008 cartoon film hit, provides the basic coordinates of the functioning of contemporary ideology. The fat panda bear dreams of becoming a sacred Kung Fu warrior, and when, through blind chance (beneath which, of course, lurks the hand of Destiny), he is chosen to be the hero to save his city, he succeeds...However, throughout the film, this pseudo-oriental spiritualism is constantly being undermined by a vulgar-cynical sense of humor. The surprise is how this continuous self-mockery in no way impedes on the efficiency of the oriental spiritualism - the film ultimately takes the butt of its endless jokes seriously. Similarly with one of my favorite anecdotes regarding Niels Bohr: surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr's country house, the fellow scientist visiting him exclaimed that he did not share the superstitious belief regarding horseshoes keeping evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr snapped back: "I don't believe in it either. I have it there because I was told that it works even when one doesn't believe in it at all." This is indeed how ideology functions today: nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware of their corrupted nature, but we participate in them, we display our belief in them. This is why Berlusconi is ou own big Kung Fu Panda. Perhaps the old Marx brothers quip, "This man looks like a corrupt idiot and acts like one, but this should not deceive you - he is a corrupt idiot," here stumbles upon its limit: while Berlusconi is what he appears to be, this appearance nonetheless remains deceptive.

If one accepts Žižek's critique of politics under contemporary capitalism, then you're led to the conclusion that it has all become something like a Japanese kabuki dance. The proceedings are highly stylized and and imbued with high drama for the purposes of media consumption, but we all know from the start how things will end. But this begs an important question: if we all know that the show is rigged, then why doesn't anyone seem to want to get up and leave the theater? What do you make of Žižek's critique of contemporary ideology?

1 comment:

Ludwik Kowalski said...

What does the term leaving the theater mean in this context? It means drifting to a more acceptable ideology (system of ideas).

Ludwik Kowalski, the author of

“Diary of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality.”

The link to this FREE on-line book is

It is my autobiography, based on a diary kept between 1946 and 2004 (in the USSR, Poland, France and the USA).