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The Symbolic, the Sublime, and Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Film (2012)

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A Book Review by Brandon Konecny. 

Slavoj Žižek is by far one of the most prominent intellectuals active today, gaining much of his popularity from his frequent engagement with popular culture, expansive bibliography, and endlessly entertaining lectures. To the chagrin of figures like David Bordwell, the Slovenian philosopher—perhaps the small country’s main export—has become an increasingly influential voice in film studies, where his ideas have reignited interest in hardline engagement with Theory. But it is peculiar that, in spite of praise by those in the field, Žižek is, first and foremost, a philosopher fully dedicated to revolutionary politics, and is thus concerned with cinema only insofar as it serves as a means of probing the function of ideology in postmodern society. This begs the question that, if cinema is, at best, only of marginal interest to him, can one validate a truly Žižekian approach to film? In his new book The Symbolic, the Sublime, and Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Film, Matthew Flisfeder takes on this case and provides an impressive exposition and application of Žižek’s ideas on cinema.

I must first admit to the reader that I am, indeed, a fan of Žižek, and it will probably come through in my review. Not as rabid of one as, say, some of my acquaintances at other universities, but I find him very insightful and have been eagerly awaiting a book of this kind for some time. Originally conceived as his doctoral thesis, Flisfeder’s book is, to my knowledge, the only one that has taken up a full examination of Žižek’s work on cinema, considering it in its immense totality—a big undertaking since he averages about two books a year! But what I find most impressive, more than its sheer novelty, even, is the accessibility it gives to Žižek’s theories, even those that are his toughest. Flisfeder devotes numerous pages to distilling Žižek’s philosophy into succinct and lucid explanations, yet he never strays into the dangerous territory of oversimplification or dumbed down renditions, always giving the appropriate intellectual reverence. This is not to say that this book is an easy read—far from it, at times—but it provides a good point of entry into the implications of Žižek’s ideas on cinema for all levels of interest, arming the reader with the appropriate information necessary to approach film in a Žižekian manner.

To demonstrate this, let us consider the book’s remarkable thoroughness. Before even diving into Žižek, it commences by laying an impressive groundwork on which it will build by detailing the salient theories of Lacan, Althusser, Barthes, Sausser, the British “Screen” theories, and the overall progression from film Theory to post-Theory. By the end of the first chapter, the reader will be familiar with such notions as Lacan’s “Mirror Stage,” basic semiology, Laura Mulvey’s “Foucaultized” conception of the gaze, Suture theory, and cognitivist approaches espoused by David Bordwell. What makes the inclusion of this propaedeutic information particularly refreshing is that, as many “Theory junkies” might have noticed, critical theorists love to engage in what I casually call “academic name-dropping,” whereby they bombard the reader with barrages of scholars with difficult last names and four-syllable terminology, hinging their arguments on these esoteric references without ever fully defining them. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, since mature theories, as in both the hard and soft sciences, frequently refer to and build on each other, it nevertheless makes it difficult, if not impossible, for someone not steeped in the subject matter to fully comprehend the text.

This tendency is especially present in the work of Žižek, who can, as Flisfeder puts quite well, “[in a single sentence] pass from details in the films of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch to the most complex conceptualizations of enjoyment, subjectivity, ideology, and politics in the works of Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Marx, and Lacan (among others).” Such texts can leave your head spinning, making you flip back pages to see if there is some piece of information you missed and trying to find some familiar ground on which to put your feet—I know this from firsthand experience. But Flisfeder’s inclusion of this expository chapter largely ameliorates this potential problem, and puts the reader on equal footing with the demands of Žižek’s theories, enabling them to tackle the rest of the book with confidence.

In the proceeding chapter, the reader finally gets to sink his or her teeth into Žižek himself (though not literally) and explore his methodology as well as the legitimacy of his analyses of film. It also delivers us to another important dimension of the book, which is that it appropriately frames, with exhaustive detail, the intent of Žižek’s involvement with cinema and its implication of film scholarship as a whole. It is, moreover, the strongest chapter of the book, I claim, for it takes up a question that can be, for those familiar with the philosopher’s oeuvre, somewhat of an elephant in the room: Does Žižek simply use cinema to allegorically interpret dense Lacanian theory, and thereby read Theory into film? And Flisfer’s answer is, well, yes—but his designation has a contingency. While it is true that Žižek is not necessarily concerned in the technical apparatus or medium of film itself, to condemn his exegetic use of it is to naively miss the point of his overall project, which is, as he points out, the critique of ideology. As Flisfeder writes, “Because much of his work is centered on the critique of ideology in daily life, his analyses often involve references to numerous examples of popular culture taken from daily life.” Thus, in order to explore the symbolic coordinates of society—that is, the unconscious organization of human society, which manifests itself via language, laws, social structures, the Other (le grand autre), etc.—he observes its cultural products as material examples of ideology. It must be understood, then, that his cinematic references are purely strategic.

To carry out such a project, Žižek is very selective in the films he chooses to analyze; it is in no way arbitrary. He is not concerned with the run-of-the-mill, mainstream film, those that are, to use Badiou’s terminolgy, “Saturday night art.” Instead, he fixates on those that are of exceptional quality, ones whose symbolic textures have a certain peculiarity, a je ne sais quoi, that seem to defy the universal standards of conventionality. From there, Žižek engages in a rigorous (and, in all honesty, sometimes exhausting) dialectic, referencing a long stream of examples in accordance to some overarching, formulated theory. And in doing so, he reveals a gap of sorts in the Symbolic order (that of societal organization—Law, Time, Word, etc.) by way of cinema, says Flisfeder, and illuminates the falsity of universal form. (Note: here, I do not mean “form” in the sense of stylistic practices—editing, framing, etc.—but, rather, the manifest structure that perceived universality takes.) It is here that we find that Žižek attempts to reach an underlying law of societal order by way of finding its exception, its “not-This,” causing a fissure in the very notion of universality and opening it up to critique. He, therefore, uses films, which are, in his view, instances of crystallized ideology, as a springboard to address the problematic of ideology itself in contemporary society.

Critics of Žižek, who see him as nothing more than an “associationist,” so often miss this point, and try to evaluate his approach in accordance to their own critical perspectives. But to do so is absolutely folly, since they are entirely dissimilar, apples and oranges. It is clear that Flisfeder has spent long hours in the philosopher’s work, dissecting its underlying methodology, and, thankfully, he reveals that, although Žižek does not necessarily conform to the doxa of film scholarship, his work, if understood correctly, can be illuminative for the field. It shows that film can serve as an entryway into the arena of contemporary politics and sociology and not be constrained by historico-formalistic approaches; it can take film from the “micro” to the “macro,” as it were, showing us the state of ideology today. It can be so much more.

Taken in its entirety, Flisfeder’s book is a major step in film studies. Not only does it give accessibility to and frame the mission of Žižek’s work in the context of film scholarship, but it allows us to rethink the place of cinema in the present, a time where passivity and postmodern cynicism are raging at full throttle, and where general intellectual skepticism seems to be increasingly superseded by the quantifiable. Within this context, Flisfeder propounds that Žižek’s significance for the field lies in the importance he places on theorizing ideology by way of film criticism, thus re-politicizing it and making it a force for revolutionary politics. To follow the thinker’s lead, he proposes the adoption of what he calls “film theory of ideology,” using cinema to understand, expose, and perhaps alter the current dynamics of society, to fundamentally change it. Whether this approach gains some prevalence is only known by the future, but I tend to be hopeful. Who knows? Maybe contemporary film theory will become more and more Žižekian!

Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

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