So, this blog post is not really a critique of Sophie Fiennes’ film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, but more a critique of things that are said in it by its star and writer, pop philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
The film contains many delightful moments, with the usual interesting insight from Žižek, but ultimately I completely disagree with its core philosophy.
I think that this is summed up by Žižek towards the end of the film, when he says that each of us must realise that we are fundamentally and incontrovertibly alone in the universe.
Perhaps I take Žižek out of context slightly; he offers up our solitude as the logical consequence of there being no God.
However, I’d like to consider this matter from a slightly different angle: humans are not, to paraphrase John Donne, islands – and they cannot be so. And yet, Žižek would seem to suggest ultimately that we are all lost in our solipsistic little bubbles, with no real connection to anyone else ever happening.
While I recognise the emotion of solitude, and while I recognise the inevitability of perhaps never knowing any other human being, never being inside their head, never sharing entirely their life, I still shall argue that ultimately humans are not alone.
In effect, epistemologically speaking, humans might be alone – each knows only what each knows, and one cannot – necessarily – experience the world from without one’s own self/being (although more on this later); meanwhile, ontologically, we are not alone.
And if our ontological ‘withness’ can be accepted, then Žižek’s solipsistic worldview might be forced to crumble accordingly.
But we have to build towards this. And this is a blog post. So we shall do so as succinctly as we can and, alas, imperfectly.
How we are not alone
I lie in my bed. I feel my toes touching the end of the bed – a wooden frame. I cannot see the wooden frame, but I can feel it. I can only feel it because it is solid, and because it is supported by a floor, which itself is supported by a building, itself supported by the earth. I feel because I have a body, which itself functions as a result of blood flowing around me, which is possible in part as a result of my breathing oxygen on a planet whose atmosphere can support the life that has evolved to inhabit it. And while I may have great thoughts, even dreams, when I am on that bed, fundamentally I can only do so because I have a body, which exists on a planet whose atmosphere allows me to exist, and whose atmosphere is allowed thanks to planetary age and distance from the sun.
In other words, I am entirely embedded within a physical universe from which I cannot be separated. I am not alone.
That I speak language – any language, but in this instance English – and that I can recognise other human beings as such, as well as their emotions, is as a result of my having all my life interacted with other human beings.
A thought experiment: humans could be raised by machines, and thus human existence is not predicated upon the existence of other humans.
Indeed – it possibly true. We might run the argument of ‘who made those machines’ (although this points to the need for other humans). And we could follow the Bifo line of thought and say that humans are already raised predominantly by machines (mainly televisions) and that this machine-led life leads to humans being autistic (although this does not mean that those humans are not real humans).
But while the thought experiment is valid(-ish), the fact remains that I speak and think according to the conventions that have come about as a result of social living. I am not alone. This is what, for example, mirror neurons tell us: that humans are hard-wired to be social and sociable, to imitate and to learn from others. If Žižek did not believe this, he would not make a film to communicate with us.
Did Žižek make a film to communicate with us? (Becoming light)
I am not convinced that communication is really Žižek’s primary ambition in getting Sophie Fiennes to make this film (or in going along with Sophie Fiennes if it was she who proposed this and its predecessor, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (UK/Austria/Netherlands, 2006) to him).
This is not to say that Žižek does not communicate a plethora of interesting thoughts in his film. He does. But I think the chief rationale for Žižek to make this film is – facile though it may sound – self-promotion.
Žižek believes that we are all alone. To make a film in which he stars, and which basically features only him, would reaffirm as much. Let’s delve into this a bit more, though, because there is a nexus to be worked out that features something along the lines of cinema-neoliberalism-solipsism-Žižek, and all of which can be encapsulated under the concept of ‘becoming light.’
Becoming light is, simply put, the desire to make one’s life cinematic. It is recognisable in the highly visual culture of the contemporary world: people posting photos on Facebook, Tumblr or wherever, and which photos conform to a certain quality and style of image (often to do with warm lighting and a particular Hollywood-inspired aesthetic); people feeling alive at moments when their life conforms to moments in cinema that they have seen; people taking selfies so as to exist more as an image rather than as a flesh and blood human being – since our image is now considered the ‘real’ us ahead of the, er, real us; people desiring to transcend their real bodies to exist as light, as a star, on a silver screen; our fame and celebrity obsessed culture.
To become light, though, is also to divest oneself of a real body and to exist instead on an immaterial plane, or at least on a photonic plane – on a screen, projected to everyone.
If it is as a result of having a body that I realise that I cannot but be with the world and with other people, then it is in a desire to divest myself of my body and to become light that I dream of becoming cinematic, of existing on a plane without touch. This is falling in love with images of other people – masturbating over images of other people – as opposed to living with and being with other people (co-itus = going with other people).
The desire to live one’s life as if it were a film requires one to buy the sort of props that people in films have. This is about advertising, it is about stuff, and it is about what I shall broadly fit under the umbrella of neoliberalism: looking rich costs a lot of money, but if one does not look rich, one’s chances of becoming rich are slim – so one is forced to enter into the world of chasing material products in the pursuit of becoming rich, becoming immaterial, becoming light.
In this way, the desire to become cinema/to become light is tied to capitalism more generally, its neoliberal mode perhaps more specifically. For, if in becoming light I no longer touch anyone, I become a solipsist, living on my own.
But it is not just in becoming light that the solipsism starts. It is in the pursuit of becoming light. It is in ‘social Darwinism’ and ‘competition’ and the need to go further than anyone else to be the one who is noticed. It is a generalised need for exceptionalism. It is celebrity cult. It is the desire to be ‘famous’ at whatever cost – and better to be famous than a nobody, right?, because a nobody, paradoxically, only has their body, while a famous person has become light, has lost their body (even if dreams of sexual union with [images of] people is what drives the desire to become light).
We are all alone: this is the ethos of neoliberal capital. And it is the ethos that Slavoj Žižek also puts forward in an attempt to critique neoliberal capital. But, then again, Slavoj Žižek is saying this in a film about himself, starring himself. Of course Žižek says that we are alone at the moment when he becomes alone as a result of, finally, becoming cinema (inserting himself into movies, a kind of documented truth about set-jetting and the desire to ‘feel a bit of the magic of the movies’). Because not only is he alone, but he also sets himself apart from other people at this moment to become the celebrity that he wishes to be. Žižek wants to convince us that we are all ultimately alone because he is also at heart a stooly for the capitalist system that he otherwise proclaims to see through via his ideological critique.
Žižek consistently touches his nose during A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (and probably in his real life). There is something a bit obscene about this; but really it is Žižek’s ‘tell’.
What he is telling us is that he is indeed a pervert, but the perversion is not based upon any desire for a true encounter with the other, the nature of which is so twisted (say he likes copraphilia, or something) that he dares not speak its name. Rather, Žižek’s darkest desire is his solipsism – that he prefers masturbation over sex with another human being.
Of course, I am not making libellous claims about the ‘real’ Slavoj Žižek. We are in the realm of a metaphorical Žižek here. But the nose in the film is of course Žižek’s (metaphorical) cock, and of course he wants us to see him touching it in public, but he does not want to put it anywhere – because he must indulge in that most solipsistic and cinema-inspired act of jizzing not in his sexual partner, but on his sexual partner, or preferably just out in the open more generally (pornography’s infamous money-shot; sex becomes display and power games rather than going with someone).
Because of course a solipsist who believes in their own exceptional nature also believes that they cannot have offspring that will match them for brilliance, and so they do not see the point in reproducing. Instead, they just masturbate in public – asking everyone to behold their priapic prowess, while in fact being, ultimately, a solipsistic wanker.
So… Here we are with Žižek now indulging himself and asking us to indulge him by watching him become light while we mortals continue to lead our bodily existence.
That we are alone, that there is at the heart of reality, the Real of the Void itself is for Žižek the ultimate truth.
But in fact there is no void. The thing that is intolerable for humans is not the emptiness of the world and our sense of underlying solitude; what humans really fear through the capitalist ideology that demands solipsism as the most successful means to gain ‘happiness’ is touch, it is others, it is withness.
In other words, the void is the invention of capitalism. The void is not what lies ‘beyond’ ideology; it is ideology itself.
What lies ‘beyond’ ideology is the Real – but it is a Real so mundane as to be beautiful. It is our bodies, usurping our intentions at every turn, it is us bumping into things, tripping up in public, knocking into each other, seeing each other, smiling when someone else smiles at us, getting angry when public transport does not bend to our will. It is the everyday experience of waking up and getting frustrated and contradicted by a world that is always more profound and complex than our mere imaginations can wonder.
Don’t get me wrong; this is not an apology for leading a dreary life. On the contrary, it is an exhortation to find life in even the most dreary moment, rather than conferring to fetishised and cinematic moments a sense of being ‘really alive’. Because alive is all that we are ever are (and when we are not alive, we are, quite literally, not).
Otherness, withness, being not alone: this is all that we ever are. And to remember and to become as conscious as possible of this is the ultimate critique that one can enact upon the capitalist ideology that has naturalised the sense of the void, that has naturalised a sense of solipsism, that has naturalised a sense of being alone in the world.
Epistemology and ontology
Of course, Žižek probably knows all of this already. And the contention will always be: but even if we are with other people, how can we know this if we cannot know other people? And if we cannot know other people, or that we are with other people, then can we really be with other people? Upon what can one base this claim? Surely one bases this claim upon, ultimately, a leap of faith. An act of faith. An act.
This is a great contention. Here’s my reply.
Firstly, there is perhaps inevitably an over-emphasis in a capitalist culture like ours on the visual: one must have visible evidence to prove the existence of an object – and without it, it is as good as non-existent.
Well, if this perspective is indeed a by-product of a capitalist ideology, it perhaps can be re-thought. That is, we can perhaps consider what constitutes evidence through an alternative framework. And that framework might be touch – we can feel that we are not alone.
Furthermore, to stick to the visible realm, it is a question of what I shall term ‘incessant excess’. Black holes: we by definition cannot see them, because light cannot escape from them. And yet we know that black holes exist. Why? Because we can see the effects that they have on all that surrounds them.
Even if we cannot see, or know, others, because they are the equivalent of an epistemological black hole, we can nonetheless feel the presence of others, we can see their effects. Perhaps we cannot see them directly, but this speaks only of a deficiency in our perceptual systems (in our ideology) more than it does in anything else.
In other words, even if others exceed our perception, and even if it is in an incessant fashion that they do this, nonetheless, the excess always allows for something to ‘inceed’ from outside – an effect, a sense, a touch – not us touching ourselves, but a touch from the other.
We are not alone.