Philosopher Slavoj Zizek and filmmaker Sophie Fiennes use their interpretation of moving pictures to present a compelling cinematic journey into the heart of ideology – the dreams that shape our collective beliefs and practices.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek and filmmaker Sophie Fiennes

A philosopher located in a montage of set designs collected from film history might sound like an unlikely concept – he is explaining abstract concepts in a documentary where he plays himself. When it comes to the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, though, it is a perfect medium for his theatrically driven way of thinking. As all readers acquainted with him know, he draws heavily upon film history when he writes. He also, notoriously, moves with exemplary ease within all areas of culture with the credo that nothing is forbidden: Kant, hardcore pornography, Wagner, The Matrix and caffeine-free coffee – to give some recurring examples – mixed up in his style of philosophy. The backdrop as usual is a blend of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Hegel, dirty jokes and anecdotes (often from old communist Yugoslavia) and a number of Hitchcock films (most often Vertigo). Žižek’s thought doesn’t operate in an abstracted, theoretical space, where the thinker himself is blotted out. It is the other way around: he is the conceptual persona giving face, bodily presence and temperature to his texts, frenetically jumping from one stage to another. The series of Zizekian gestures is fundamentally essayistic as it never adds up to any given insight, where his philosophy attains equilibrium, but travels along a horizontal topography making up his theatre of thought.

Žižek’s philosophy continually refers to sequences in films, books and current events with which most people are familiar. Like Fight club, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and Michael Crichton’s thrillers. While he sometimes might be hard to follow conceptually, at least when it comes to Hegel, the material which fuels his positions and the comedy involved always relieve the pressure. The referenced scenes also expose, dramatize, and drive home Žižek’s points. They are the flesh and blood – the rhythm – of his style. This was already clear in his groundbreaking book Sublime object of ideology, which mixed Marx and psychoanalysis as no one had done before, but it is even more evident in Sophie Fiennes’ film essays starring the Slovenian philosopher in the only main role.

Žižek explains thoroughly the crucial link between human desire, fantasy and fiction

Fiennes’ first cooperation with Žižek was in the brilliant Pervert’s guide to cinema (2006). Here Žižek explains thoroughly the crucial link between human desire, fantasy and fiction. Cinema doesn’t just show us what we desire, he muses, but “tells us how to desire”. Fictions are not something added to reality, but the structure of reality itself. Love, for instance, needs narrative structures to work, to be functional. A structure is delivered by cinema, the philosopher claims. The great stories of love – e.g. In Vertigo, by Hitchcock, or Persona by Ingmar Bergman – provide us with narrative arrangements that shape our amorous reality, reshaping the chaotic whirls of animal desire into grand stories of eternal love. In fact, stories like these always already structure our amorous realities – without them, love would not even exist. But films like these also have a cognitive surplus: while they give meaning to desire, they also function, reflectively, as analytical tools for the very same structures. It is here, as a thinker – making use of cinema from within –  Žižek excels in Fiennes’ films. He becomes, like Gilles Deleuze in his books on film, a philosopher who thinks conceptually from within the cinematic imagery itself.

Slavoj Zizek

This becomes even more evident in Fiennes’ last collaboration with Žižek, The pervert’s guide to ideology (2012). While the duo was trying to come to grips with cinema itself in the previous film, this time around they go head-on into explaining the infamous dichotomy reality/fiction and its intermediary concept “ideology”.

The film begins with a crucial scene in John Carpenter’s underrated sci-fi-flick They Live! (1988), where the protagonist John Nada has just found the sunglasses that make him see the reality hidden behind the illusion. The world is, it turns out, colonized by aliens dressed up as humans. Underneath the texts in newspapers and commercials the hidden message – how the aliens control humanity becomes unmistakable. Shocked, Nada decodes the real messages “obey”, “marry and reproduce”, “stay asleep.” This, of course, is the classical tale of emancipation. It’s well known and has been told several times, notably, and for the first time, by Plato with the allegory of the cave in his Republic. We are blind, but through the right criticism of the ruling ideology, we will be able to see and free ourselves. But, for Žižek, ideology is not something we can get rid of, but rather the form of both life and thinking.

Dramatically this point is interesting to ponder, because in both in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology Žižek is not located outside his object, but talks to us from within the space of cinema, the fiction, as it were. He talks to us from the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange, but also from well-known set pieces from A Dark Knight, The Sound of Music, Full Metal Jacket, Titanic and Triumph of the Will.

Slavoj Zizek

In a particularly memorable sequence he draws a line between Travis, played by Robert de Niro, in Martin Scorseses Taxi Driver and Anders Behring Breivik’s killing spree in Norway in 2011: The violence in both cases is not so much a case of insanity, Žižek tells us, but rather a reaction to an experience of the world, and its meaning, disintegrating. When we do not have stories that unite us with others, when a community is no longer available to us, the very structure of the real breaks apart and the only answer left is, the philosopher goes on, to fictionalize it or to cover up the void with violence.

His philosophical point and the site from where he talks underscores that enlightenment is only possible within the illusion. “At the point where we think we escape it [the illusion], at that point we are within ideology,” Žižek repeatedly tells us. There is no outside, no point of certitude or objectivity where we can observe and think without being affected. This, however, is far from a hopeless position, if we follow Žižek. Knowing that we never can escape the grasp of ideology does not prevent us from reflecting upon it. It is not about reaching the moment of objective truth, then, but rather a stage of experience where one can survey the structure of the fictions which constitutes one’s life.

Also, Žižek argues, it’s all about choosing the right coordinates for the future. In this sense he becomes a religious thinker – it is not a question of empirical or conceptual truth, but commitment to an idea. For him it is – among other things – communism, for others it might be love, music, even money.