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Slavoj Žižek. Hollywood Today: Report from an Ideological Frontline.

Slavoj Žižek. "Hollywood Today: Report from an Ideological Frontline." in: Lacan.com. 2009. (English).

Ideology in Hollywood? Let’s begin, quite arbitrarily, with Michael Apted’s Enigma (2001, scenario by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Robert Harris), which takes place in 1943, among the cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park working day and night to crack the German “Enigma” code. They are rejoined by Tom Jericho, a troubled working class mathematical genius who is back after a period of recuperation brought on by overwork and an unhappy love affair with Claire, the easygoing fatal beauty, which led to his psychic breakdown. Jericho immediately tries to see Claire again and finds she has mysteriously disappeared. He enlists the help of Claire’s housemate Hester to follow the trail of clues and learn what has happened to her; the two repeatedly break the rules of the Bletchley Park establishment and the law as their hunt gets more intense. Jericho is closely watched by Wigram, an upper class MI5 agent, who plays cat and mouse with him throughout the film. Jericho is tolerated at the Park, despite his transgressions, because of the brilliant plan he invents for uncovering the new key. Tom and Hester at the same time uncover a British government plot to bury the intelligence information of the Katyn massacre for fear it might weaken American willingness to remain in the war on the same side as the Soviet Union. This in turn leads to their discovery that a Polish cryptanalyst Jozef Pukowski was so incensed by his own learning of the massacre that he is prepared to betray Bletchley’s secrets to the Nazis in order to take revenge on Stalin. The fate of Clair remains unclear to the end: was she killed or just disappeared? All we learn is that she was in reality also a MI5 agent under Wigram’s control.

The film was criticized for its manipulation of historical facts: apart from minor a series of changes (say, the only known traitor at Bletchley Park was John Cairncross, who worked for the Soviet Union), the film’s biggest alteration concerns the character of Jericho who is obviously a sanitized version of the legendary Alan Turing, a key figure at the real Bletchley Park in both the cracking of Enigma and the development of the digital computer; in the 1950s Turing was prosecuted for homosexual acts, lost his security clearance, and submitted to brutal chemical treatment, which resulted in his suicide in 1954. In the film, a firmly heterosexual Turing-Jericho finally gets over his traumatic crush on Claire – in the final scene, we see him in 1946, meeting Hester, pregnant with his child, in front of the National Gallery in London… [1]

However, such an analysis moves at the level of what one is tempted to call constituted ideology, following the distinction proposed by Alain Badiou between two types (or, rather, levels) of corruption in democracy: the de facto empirical corruption, and the corruption that pertains to the very form of democracy with its reduction of politics to the negotiation of private interests. In a homologous way, one should distinguish between constituted ideology – empirical manipulations and distortions at the level of content – and constituent ideology – the ideological form which providers the coordinates of the very space within which the content is located. [2]

To discern the contours of the “constituent ideology” of Enigma, one should focus on how the film rather obviously plays upon the register of two enigmas: the enigma of the German secret code and the enigma of the Woman. No matter how complex the military codes are, they can be cracked – the true enigma which cannot ever be cracked is woman. (The split between Claire and Hester is crucial here: the only way for a man to normalize sexual relation is to erase the enigmatic Woman and accept as a partner the ordinary woman.) What the re-framing of the story about the Bletchley Park efforts to break the German “Enigma” code into a story about the enigma of woman adds to the narrative is ideological surplus-enjoyment: it is this re-framing which sustains our pleasure in the otherwise narratively rather dull work of cracking secret codes. This feature is also what makes the film part of the Hollywood ideological universe: if a film on the same topic (efforts of military decoding) were to be shot, say, in Soviet Union, there would have been no erotic re-framing of the “enigma” (which is why the film would also have been much more boring…).

What Does the Joker Want?
Today, this fundamental level of constituent ideology assumes the guise of its very opposite, of non-ideology – how? David Grossman stands for the Jewish attitude at its purest, as rendered in a nice personal memory: when, just prior to the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, he heard on the radio about the Arab threats that they will throw Jews into the sea, his reaction was to take swimming lessons – a paradigmatic Jewish reaction if there ever was one, in the spirit of the long talk between Josef K. and the priest (the prison chaplain) that follows the parable on the door of the law in Kafka’s The Trial. Grossman’s work is marked by a strange line of separation. His non-fiction texts deal almost exclusively with what the Israelis refer to as hamatzav, “the situation,” a neutral-sounding word that encompasses everything from the intifada to the security fence to the coming withdrawal from Gaza. (Its equivalent in Cuba would be “special period,” a code-word for the economic catastrophe that followed the disintegration of the Soviet block.) “The situation” is not a specific event but every event; it bleeds into every part of life. In stark contrast, his fiction withdraws into the claustrophobic space of private passions and obsessions. However, even when he writes of marriage and desire, jealousy and motherhood, loyalty and betrayal, he is mapping an entire country’s anxieties and longings. Rather than explicitly reporting the facts on the ground, Grossman constructs his own alternate reality that evoke “the situation” as their absent Real-Cause.

We already mentioned “Frenzy,” the first novella of Grossman’s Her Body Knows; its central character of “Frenzy” is Shaul, an official in the Ministry of Education, who has convinced himself that his wife, Elisheva, is having an affair. Consumed with jealousy, he conjures up every detail of the lovers’ time together. When Elisheva goes off for a few days alone, Shaul insists on following her. Because his leg has been fractured in a mysterious accident, he enlists the help of his brother’s wife, Esti, who agrees to drive him to where Elisheva is staying. On this hallucinatory journey, the normally reticent Shaul finds himself telling Esti the elaborate story of Elisheva’s affair. Is the affair real or is it a fantasy? Is it rooted in Elisheva’s actual emotions or in Shaul’s obsessive jealousy? Somewhere along the way, that distinction stops mattering: Shaul blurs into the figure of his wife’s lover and the Elisheva of his imagination blurs into the Elisheva of real life. Esti is transformed as well: as their journey stretches deeper into the night, Shaul’s story stirs Esti’s own longing for a past love.

The second novella, “Her Body Knows,” is also about jealousy and betrayal; at its center are two women: a yoga teacher named Nili who is dying of cancer, and her estranged daughter Rotem, a writer living in London who has returned to Israel to read her mother a story she’s been working on – about a yoga teacher named Nili. In the story, which takes place during her own childhood, Nili is asked by the father of a shy teenage boy to initiate him into the secrets of sexuality and thus “make him a man”… It is easy to recognize here the logic of fantasy at its purest: inventing a scenario which touches on the mystery of the parents’ sexual lives.

What both novellas really are about is the transformative power of storytelling, the need to construct alternate fictional realities: what actually happened is beside the point, both Shaul and Nili refashion reality to create a story they need to tell. Rewriting the past is an act of generosity which enables the subject to change her future. Even if the fictional realities they construct aren’t pretty (there are no happy marriages in these fantasies, no idyllic childhoods), even if it appears that one pain is merely “replaced with another in a widening, an opening up, of the past,” there is a secret “pathological” profit in this shift, a “surplus-enjoyment” is generated.

And it is here that ideology enters: such retreats into intimate reality take place against the background of hamatzav, of “the situation.” No wonder that, in recent years, this same desire for an alternate reality has become a part of Israel’s national psyche: dealing with “the situation” generates an atmosphere of anxiety, of a deep sense of claustrophobia, of the retreat into the relative safety of the indoors. Though an Israeli writer need not directly address the political atmosphere that surrounds him, these concerns do seep in, quietly and evocatively. The properly ideological function of this retreat is thus clear – its underlying message is: “we are just ordinary people who just want piece and normal life…” A similar attitude is part of the mythology of the IDF: Israeli media love to dwell on the imperfections and psychic traumas of Israeli soldiers, presenting them not as perfect military machines, but as ordinary people who, caught into the traumas of History and warfare, commit errors and can get lost as all normal people.

This ideological operation accounts for the success of two recent Israeli films about the 1982 Lebanon war, Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, and Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon. Lebanon draws on Maoz’s own memories as a young soldier, rendering the war’s fear and claustrophobia by shooting most of the action from inside a tank. The movie follows four inexperienced soldiers inside a tank dispatched to “mop up” enemies in a Lebanese town that has already been bombarded by the Israeli Air Force. Interviewed at the 2009 Venice festival, Yoav Donat, the actor who plays the director as a soldier a quarter of a century ago, said: “This is not a movie that makes you think ‘I’ve just been to a movie’. This is a movie that makes you feel like you’ve been to war.” In a similar way, Waltz With Bashir, renders the horrors of the 1982 conflict from the point of view of Israeli soldiers. Maoz said his film is not a condemnation of Israel’s policies, but a personal account of what he went through: “The mistake I made is to call the film Lebanon, because the Lebanon war is no different in its essence from any other war and for me any attempt to be political would have flattened the film.” [3] This is ideology at its purest: the re-focus on the perpetrator’s traumatic experience enables us to obliterate the entire ethico-political background of the conflict: what was the Israeli army doing deep in Lebanon, etc. Such a “humanization” thus serves to obfuscate the key question: the need for the ruthless political analysis of the stakes of what we are doing in our political-military activity. Our political-military struggles are precisely not an opaque History which brutally disrupts our intimate lives – they are something One of the lines of separation between Inside and Outside, between those who are included and those excluded, is thus definitely psychology: only those “inside” have the right to a “depth of personality.”

Should we be surprised that we encounter the same ideological mechanism in Leonardo Padura’s Mario Conde police procedurals set in today’s Havana? In a first approach, these novels provide such a critical image of the situation (poverty, corruption, cynical disbelief…) that one cannot but be shocked to learn that not only Padura lives in Havana, but that he is there a totally accepted figure who received big state prizes. His heroes, although disappointed, depressed, seeking refuge in alcohol and dreams of alternate historical realities, mourning all the time their lost chances, and, of course, depoliticized, ignoring the official socialist ideology, nonetheless fundamentally accept their situation: the novels’ underlying message is that one should heroically accept one’s situation the way it is, not escape to the false paradise of Miami. This acceptance is the background of all critical remarks and dark descriptions: although totally disillusioned, they are from HERE and here to stay, this misery is their world, they struggle to find a meaningful life within its coordinates, not to fight it in any radical way. Back in the Cold War era, Leftist critics often pointed out the ambiguity of John le Carre’s stance towards his own society: his critical portrayal of the opportunist cynicism, ruthless maneuvering and moral betrayals nonetheless presupposes a basic positive stance towards one’s own society – the very moral complexity of the secret service life is a proof that one lives in an “open” society which admits such complexities. Does, mutatis mutandis, exactly the same not hold also for Padura? The very fact that he is able to write the way he does within Cuban society is its legitimization.

There is a tiny line that separates this “humanization” from the resigned coming to terms with lie as a social principle: what matters in such a “humanized” universe is authentic intimate experience, not truth. At the end of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a film which also “humanizes” its superhero, presenting him as full of doubts and weaknesses, the new DA Harvey Dent, an obsessive vigilante against the mob rule who got corrupted and himself committed murders, is dead, Batman and his police friend Gordon realize the loss of morale the city would suffer if Dent’s murders became known. Batman persuades Gordon to preserve Dent’s image by holding Batman responsible for the murders; Gordon destroys the Bat-Signal and a manhunt for Batman ensues. This necessity of a lie to sustain public morale is the film’s finale message: only a lie can redeem us. No wonder that, paradoxically, the only figure of truth in the film is Joker, its supreme villain. [4] The goal of his terrorist attacks on Gotham City is made clear: they will stop when Batman will take off his mask and reveal his true identity; to prevent this disclosure and thus protect Batman, Dent tells the press that he is Batman – another lie. In order to entrap Joker, Gordon stages his own (fake) death – yet another lie…

The logic of Batman’s (or Superman’s or Spiderman’s) mask is given a comical twist in The Mask with Jim Carrey: it is the Mask which changes the ordinary guy into a superhero. The link between the Mask and sexuality is rendered clear in the second Superman movie: sex (making love to a woman) is incompatible with the power of the Mask, i.e., the price Superman has to pay for his consummated love is to become a normal mortal human. The Mask is thus the a-sexual “partial object” which allows the subject to remain in (or regress to) the pre-Oedipal anal-oral universe where there is no death and guilt, just endless fun and fight – no wonder the Jim Carrey character in The Mask is obsessed with cartoons: the universe of cartoons is such an undead universe without sex and guilt, a universe of infinite plasticity in which every time after a person (or animal) is destroyed it magically recomposes itself and the struggle goes on…

Who, then, is Joker who wants to disclose the truth beneath the Mask, convinced that this disclosure will destroy the social order? He is not a man without mask, but, on the contrary, a man fully identified with his mask, a man who IS his mask – there is nothing, no “ordinary guy,” beneath his mask. (Recall a similar story about Lacan: those who got to know him personally, to observe him how he is in private, when he was not enacting his public image, were surprised to learn that, in private, he behaved in exactly the same way as in public, with all his ridiculously-affected mannerisms.) This is why Joker has no back-story and lacks any clear motivation: he tells different people different stories about his scars, mocking the idea that he should have some deep-rooted trauma that drives him. [5] How, then, do Batman and Joker relate? Is Joker Batman’s own death-drive embodied? Is Batman Joker’s destructivity put in the service of society?

A further parallel is to be drawn between The Dark Knight and E. A. Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”. In the secluded castle in which the mighty retire to survive the plague (“Red Death”) ravaging the country, Prince Prospero organizes a lavish masked ball. At midnight, Prospero notices one figure in a blood-spattered, dark robe resembling a funeral shroud, with a skull-like mask depicting a victim of the Red Death. Gravely insulted, Prospero demands to know the identity of the mysterious guest; when the figure turns to face him, the Prince falls dead at a glance. The enraged by-standers corned the stranger and remove his mask, only to find the costume empty – the figure reveals itself as the personification of the Red Death itself which goes on to destroy all life in the castle. Like Joker and all revolutionaries, the Red Death also wants the masks to fall down and the truth to be disclosed to the public – one can thus also claim that, in Russia in 1917, the Red Death penetrated the Romanov castle and caused its downfall. [6]

Does, then, the film’s extraordinary popularity not point towards the fact that it touches a nerve of our ideologico-political constellation: the undesirability of truth? In this sense, The Dark Knight is effectively a new version of the two John Ford western classics (Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) which deploy how, in order to civilize the Wild West, the Lie has to be elevated into Truth – in short, how our civilization is grounded onto a Lie. The question to be raised here is: why, at our precise moment, this renewed need for a Lie to maintain the social system?

The Sad Lesson of Remakes
The Dark Knight is a sign of a global ideological regression for which one is almost tempted to use the title of Georg Lukacs’ most Stalinist work: the destruction of (emancipatory) reason. This regression reached its peak in I Am Legend, a recent blockbuster with Will Smith as the last man alive, whose only interest resides in its comparative value: one of the best ways to detect shifts in ideological constellation is to compare consecutive remakes of the same story. There are three (or, rather, four) versions of I Am Legend: Richard Matheson’s novel from 1954; the first film version, The Last Man on Earth (Italian title: L’Ultimo uomo della Terra, 1964, Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow), with Vincent Price; the second version, The Omega Man (1971, Boris Sagal, 1971), with Charlton Heston; and the last one, I Am Legend (2007, Francis Lawrence), with Will Smith. The first cinema version, arguably still the best one, is basically faithful to the novel. The starting premise is well-known – as the publicity-slogan for the 2007 remake says: “The last man… is not alone.” The story is yet another fantasy of witnessing one’s own absence: Neville, the sole survivor of a catastrophe which killed all humans except him, wanders along desolate city streets – and soon discovers that he is not alone, that a mutated species of the living dead (or, rather, vampires) is stalking him. There is no paradox in the motto: even the last man alive is not alone – what remains with him are the living dead. In Lacan’s terms, they are the objet petit a which adds itself to the 1 of the last man. As the story progresses, it is revealed that some infected people have discovered a means to hold the disease at bay; however, the “still living” people appear no different from the true vampires during the day while both are immobilized in sleep. They send a woman named Ruth to spy on Neville, and much of their interaction focuses on Neville’s internal struggle between his deep seated paranoia and his hope. Eventually Neville performs a blood test on her, revealing her true nature to him before she knocks him out and escapes. Months later, the still living people attack Neville and take him alive so that he can be executed in front of everyone in the new society; before execution, Ruth provides him with an envelope of pills so that he will feel no pain. Neville finally realizes why the new society of the living infected regards him as a monster: just as vampires were regarded as legendary monsters that preyed on the vulnerable humans in their beds, Neville has become a mythical figure that kills both vampires and the infected living while they are sleeping. He is a legend as the vampires once were… The first film version main difference with the novel is a shift in the ending: the hero (here called Morgan) develops in his lab a cure for Ruth; a few hours later, at nightfall, the still living people attack Morgan, who flees, but is finally gunned down in the church where his wife has been buried.

The second film version, The Omega Man, takes place in Los Angeles, where a group of resistant albinos calling themselves “The Family” have survived the plague, which has turned them into violent light-sensitive albino mutants, and affected their minds with psychotic delusions of grandeur. Although resistant, the members are slowly dying off, apparently due to the plague mutating. “The Family” is led by Matthias, formerly a popular Los Angeles television newscaster; he and his followers believe that modern science, and not flaws of humanity, are the cause of their misfortune. They have reverted to a luddite lifestyle, employing medieval imagery and technology, complete with long black robes, torches, bows and arrows. As they see it, Neville, the last symbol of science and a “user of the wheel,” must die. The final scene shows the human survivors departing in a Land Rover after the dying Neville gives them a flask of blood serum, presumably to restore humanity.

In the last version, which takes place in Manhattan, the woman who appears to Neville (here called Anna, accompanied by a young boy Ethan and coming somewhere from the South (Maryland and Sao Paolo are mentioned), tells him that God has sent her to bring him to the colony of survivors in Vermont. Neville refuses to believe her, saying that there cannot be a God in a world with such suffering and mass death. When the Infected attack the house that night and overrun its defenses. Neville, Anna, and Ethan retreat into the basement laboratory, sealing themselves in with an infected woman on whom Neville was experimenting. Discovering that the last treatment has successfully cured the woman, Neville realizes that he has to find a way to pass it on to other survivors before they are killed. After drawing a vial of blood from the patient and giving it to Anna, he pushes her and Ethan into an old coal chute and sacrifices himself with a hand grenade, killing the attacking Infected. Anna and Ethan escape to Vermont and reach the fortified survivors colony. In the concluding voice-over, she states that Neville’s cure enabled humanity to survive and rebuild, establishing his status as a legend, a Christ-like figure whose sacrifice redeemed humanity.

The gradual ideological regression can be observed here at its clinical purest. The main shift (between first and second cinema version) is registered in the radical change in the meaning of the title: the original paradox (the hero is now the legend for vampires, as once vampires were for humanity) gets lost, so that, in the last version, the hero is simply the legend for the surviving humans in Vermont. What gets obliterated in this change is the authentically “multicultural” experience rendered by the title’s original meaning, the experience of how one’s own tradition is no better than what appears to us as the “eccentric” traditions of others, the experience nicely formulated by Descartes who, in his Discourse of Method, wrote how, in the course of his travels, he recognized that “all those whose sentiments are very contrary to ours are yet not necessarily barbarians or savages, but may be possessed of reason in as great or even a greater degree than ourselves.” The irony is that this dimension disappears precisely in our era in which multicultural tolerance is elevated into official ideology. [7]

Let us follow this ideological regression step by step. The first cinema version is marred by its conclusion: instead of dying by being burned at stake as a legend, the hero’s death reasserts his roots in his lost community (Church, family). The powerful “multicultural” insight into the contingency of our background is thus weakened, the finale message is no longer the change of places (we are now legends the way vampires were legends for us) which renders palpable the abyss of our rootlessness, but our irreducible attachment to roots. The second cinema version completes this obliteration of the topic of legend by way of displacing the focus on the survival of humanity rendered possible by the hero’s invention of a medicine against the plague. This displacement reinscribes the film into the standard topic of a threat to humanity and its last-minute survival. However, as a positive bonus, we at least get a dose of liberal anti-fundamentalism and enlightened scientism, rejecting the obscurantist hermeneutics of searching for a “deeper meaning” of the catastrophe. The latest version puts the nail in the coffin turning things around and openly opting for religious fundamentalism. Indicative are already the geo-political coordinates of the story: the opposition between the destitute New York and the pure eco-paradise of Vermont, a gated community protected by a Wall with security guards, and, to add insult to injury, a community rejoined by the newcomers from the fundamentalist South who survive the passage through devastated New York… A strictly homologous shift takes place with regard to religion: the film’s first ideological climax is Neville’s Job-like moment of doubt (there is no God if such a catastrophe was possible) opposed to Anna’s fundamentalist trust that she is an instrument of God who send her to Vermont on some mission whose meaning is not yet clear to her. In the film’s final moments, just before his death, Neville changes sides and rejoins her fundamentalist perspective by way of assuming a Christological identification: the reason she was brought to him was for him to give her the serum that she will take to Vermont. His sinful doubts are thus abolished and we are at the exact opposite of the original book’s premise: Neville is again a legend, but a legend for the new humanity whose rebirth was made possible by his invention and sacrifice…

A more refined case is that of the two versions of 3.10 to Yuma, Delmer Daves’ original and James Manigold’s remake. The relationship between Daves’s original and Manigold’s remake is best encapsulated by the title change: the Germans (who as a rule reinvent the title for their release) called the first version Zaehl bis drei und bete, that is Count to Three and Pray, and the remake Todeszug nach Yuma, which means Death-Train to Yuma. The original 3.10 to Yuma tells the story of a poor farmer, Evans, who, for 200 dollars that he needs badly in order to save his cattle from drought, accepts the job of escorting a bandit, Wade, with a high price on his head from the hotel where he is held to the train that will take him to prison in Yuma. What we have, of course, is a classic story of an ethical ordeal; throughout the film, it seems that the person submitted to the ordeal is the farmer himself, exposed as he is to temptations in the style of the (undeservedly) more famous High Noon: all those who promised him help abandon him when they discover that the hotel is surrounded by the gang sworn to save their boss; the imprisoned bandit himself alternately threatens the farmer and tries to bribe him, etc. The last scene, however, in retrospect totally changes our perception of the film: close by the train which is already leaving the station, the bandit and the farmer find themselves face to face with the entire gang waiting for the right moment to shoot the farmer and thus free their boss. At this tense moment, when the situation seems hopeless for the farmer, the bandit suddenly turns to him and tells him “Trust me! Let’s jump together on the wagon!”. In short, the one effectively on ordeal was the bandit himself, the apparent agent of temptation: at the end, he is overtaken by the farmer’s integrity and sacrifices his own freedom for him.

In James Manigold’s 2007 remake, Evans’ adolescent son Will is accompanying his father to help him in the mission; Evans’ bravery redeems him in the eyes of his son. At the last moment, when they reach the train, Wade’s gang guns down Evans; Wade is freed, but he turns his gun on his own gang members and then allows Will to put him onto the train… The (regressive, again) shift of accent with regard to the original is here double. First, the film is re-focused from the duel concerning the test of moral endurance between Wade and Evans to the father-son relationship: father fears to appear weak, so his entire effort is to assert his paternal authority in the eyes of his son – following the Oedipal formula, the ultimate way to do it is to die and return as the Name, a symbolic authority, thereby enable his son to assume his real place. Far from being the figure whose ethical integrity is tested, Wade is reduced to the role of a “vanishing mediator” in the transference of the paternal authority. There is a feature which may appear to contradict this analysis: is Wade’s change of heart not over-emphasized in the remake – he not only helps Evans, but even turns his gun on his comrades and eliminates them? However, the dimension of the ethical act that pertains to this change in the original is here nullifies by its very overdoing: what is in the original a momentary decision, an act of “something in me more than myself,” now becomes a fully conscious changing of sides which no longer transforms the subjective identity of its agent and thereby loses its character of an act. [8]

Les non-dupes errent
So when even products of the allegedly “liberal” Hollywood display the most blatant ideological regression, are any further proofs needed that ideology is alive and kicking in our post-ideological world? Consequently, it shouldn’t surprise us to discover ideology at its purest in what may appear as Hollywood at its most innocent: the big blockbuster cartoons. “The truth has the structure of a fiction” – is there a better exemplification of this thesis than cartoons in which the truth about the existing social order is rendered in such a direct way which would never be allowed in the narrative cinema with “real” actors? Recall the image of society we get from aggressive cartoons in which animals fight: ruthless struggle for survival, brutal traps and attacks, exploiting others as suckers… if the same story were to be told in a feature film with “real” actors, it would undoubtedly be either censored or dismissed as ridiculously over-pessimistic. Kung Fu Panda (2008, John Stevenson and Mark Osborne), the latest Dreamworks animated hit, does the same for the way beliefs function in our cynical society – the film is ideology at its embarrassing purest. Here is the story: Po, a panda who works in a noodle restaurant owned by his goose father Ping, in the Valley of Peace in China. He is a kung fu fanatic with secret dreams of becoming a great master in the discipline; however his weight and clumsiness seem to make his goal unattainable. Ping hopes instead that Po will one day take over the restaurant, and waits for the perfect opportunity to disclose the secret ingredient to his family’s noodle recipe. The tortoise Master Oogway, the spiritual leader of the Valley, has a premonition that the evil leopard warrior Tai Lung, the former student of his own protégé, the red panda Master Shifu, will escape from prison and return to threaten the Valley of Peace. Oogway orders a formal ceremony to choose the mighty Dragon Warrior who can defeat Tai Lung. Po arrives too late and finds himself locked outside the walled palace square. As a last-ditch attempt to get in, he ties several fireworks to a chair and ignites them, which sends him crashing into the center of the arena. Inspired by this sudden appearance, the old master tortoise designates Po the Dragon Warrior to everyone’s shock. Meanwhile, Tai Lung escapes the prison; upon learning of Tai Lung’s return, Po confesses to Shifu his deep self-loathing due to his obesity and his belief that he may never be a match for Tai Lung; Shifu is at a loss for a solution. The following morning, Shifu discovers that Po is capable of impressive physical feats when motivated by food. Shifu leads Po to the countryside for an intensive training regime in which Po is offered food as a reward for learning his lessons. Po excels; Shifu now decides he is ready to face the villain and gives him the sacred Dragon Scroll, which promises great power to the possessor. When Po opens it, he finds nothing but a blank reflective surface. Both are stricken with despair at the scroll’s apparent worthlessness. Strolling alone in the city, Po meets his father, who tries to cheer him up by telling him the secret ingredient of the family’s noodle soup: nothing. Things become special, he explains, because people believe them to be special. Realizing that is the very point of the Dragon Scroll, Po rushes off and challenges Tai Lung. Despite Po’s skill, Tai Lung temporarily stuns him and gains the Dragon Scroll, but is unable to understand its symbolism. Po counter-attacks and defeats him in an explosion of light that ripples through the valley. The villagers, including Po’s father, hail Po as a hero. In the very last scene, Po rests on a floor with Shifu; after a few seconds, Po suggests that they get something to eat and Shifu agrees.

The first thing that strikes the eye is a language detail: the abundance of ironically-tautological statements, from the trailer’s claim that the film is about “the legend of a legendary warrior,” to father’s reference to the “special ingredient of my soup with special ingredient.” In the Lacanian “logic of the signifier,” tautology stands for the point at which, as Lacan put it, signifier falls into its signified. Recall the old Polish anti-Communist joke: “Socialism is the synthesis of the highest achievements of all previous historical epochs: from tribal society, it took barbarism, from Antiquity, it took slavery, from feudalism, it took relations of domination, from capitalism, it took exploitation, and from socialism, it took the name…” Does the same not hold for the anti-Semitic image of the Jew? From the rich bankers, it took financial speculations, from capitalists, it took exploitation, from lawyers, it took legal trickery, from corrupted journalists, it took media manipulation, from the poor, it took indifference towards washing one’s body, from sexual libertines it took promiscuity, and from the Jews it took the name… Or take the shark in Spielberg’s Jaws: from the foreign immigrants, it took their threat to the small US town daily life, from natural catastrophes, it took their blind destructive rage, from big capital, it took the ravaging effects of an unknown cause on the daily lives of ordinary people, and from the shark it took its image… In all these cases, the “signifier falls into the signified” in the precise sense that the name is included into the object it designates.

What this means is that, to be a true anti-Semite, it is not enough to say that Jews are dirty, exploiting, manipulative, etc.- one has to add that they are dirty, exploiting, manipulative, etc., because they are Jews. What accounts for these visible positive properties is the mysterious je ne sais quoi which makes them Jews – this mysterious ingredient, “what is in a Jew more than a Jew” (or, in Kung Fu Panda, ”what is in the soup more than the soup itself, more than its usual ingredients”), is what Lacan called objet petit a, the object-cause of desire. Here we encounter the first paradox of objet a: the X beyond words is a pure effect of words. This object which is by definition ineffable, the je ne sais quoi which cannot be adequately translated into any explicit positive determinations, whose transcendence only shines through the flow of speech, is, with regard to its genesis, totally immanent to language, the product of the signifying reversal or self-relating. It emerges at the point where “the signifier falls into the signified,” i.e., its transcendence is the inverted mode of appearance of its immanence. This is why its presence is indicated by tautology: the two terms in a tautology are not at the same level: the first occurrence of the term is as a signifier, and the second occurrence as a signifier within the signified. When one says “A Jew is a Jew,” one expects, after the first occurrence (“A Jew is…”), an explication of its signified, a definition of the term (the answer to the question “what is a Jew?”), and when one get the same term repeated, this signifying repetition generates the spectre of an ineffable X beyond words. The paradox is thus that languages reaches “beyond itself,” to the reality of objects and processes in the world, when it designates these objects and processes by means of clear denotative/discursive meanings; when it refers to an ineffable transcendent X “beyond words,” it is caught in itself, the specter of radical Otherness is the mode of appearance of pure immanence, or, to put it in Hegelese, the truth of the relation to transcendent Otherness is self-relating.

Should we then read Kung Fu Panda as a somewhat naïve, but nonetheless basically accurate, illustration of an important aspect of the Lacanian theory? When Po opens the Dragon Scroll and sees nothing, only the empty surface, does he not thereby confirm Lacan’s thesis that objet a is a lure, a stand-in for the void in the very heart of the symbolic order, that it has no positive ontological consistency? When Lacan proposes as the formula of fantasy $ ◊ a, does he not thereby indicate that objet a is ultimately the fantasmatic object? The elementary operation of fantasy is the belief in the actual positive existence of objet a, of the “special ingredient,” the quintessence, the sublime “fifth elements” over and above the ordinary four ones (earth, fire, water, air), so when Po realizes that “/t/here is no special ingredient. It’s only you. To make something special you just have to believe it’s special,” does he thereby not accomplish a kind of wild traversee du fantasme, breaking out of its spell?

There are effectively some surprisingly complex moments in Kung Fu Panda. When Po enters the forbidden hall in which the Dragon Scroll is kept, he sees a precious sacred painting and exclaims with awe: “I’ve only seen paintings of this painting” – an authentic Platonic moment, with its reference to the distinction between copy and copy of a copy… Furthermore, there is an interesting moment of psychological (and narrative) vacillation in the big confrontation between Shifu and Tai Lung: aware of his responsibility for Tai Lung’s failure to become a Master, Shifu apologizes to him, confessing how, out of his love for Tai Lung, he blinded himself for the dangerous path Tai Lung was taking and thus helped his downfall. At this moment, Tai Lung’s expression changes: he looks at Shifu with a perplexed gaze mixed with sympathy, taken aback, and we (the spectators) are led to believe that a moment of authentic existential contact took place between Shifu and Tai Lung, well beyond the simplistic confrontation of the good and evil hero… however, the moment passes quickly and Tai Lung explodes in rage, ferociously attacking again the paternal figure of Shifu. It is as if, at the level of the narrative logic, Shifu makes the offer to Tai Lung “Let us change the rules and move from stupid cartoon confrontation to authentic drama!”, the offer which is rejected by his opponent.

So, again – is the film’s insight into the illusory nature of the object-cause of desire, into the primacy of void over every object that occupies the place of void, effectively proto-Lacanian? It is – IF we misread Lacan’s notion of “traversing the fantasy” as a new version of traditional wisdom. That is to say, what is wisdom at its most elementary? In the film, it is embodied in the old tortoise Oogway – the ultimate wisdom is: there is no objet a, no quintessence, every object of our desire is a lure, and we have to accept the vanity of all reality. But what about the obvious opposite of wisdom, the sarcastic denunciation and unmasking of all pretense to sublimity which abounds in the film? Kung Fu Panda continuously oscillates between these two extremes, serene wisdom and its cynical commonsense undermining via the reference to common needs and fears? Such undermining is almost a running gag throughout the film – say, when Shifu runs to Oogway and tells him he has some bad news, Oogway replies with the standard wisdom “There are no good or bad news, there are just news.” However, when Shifu informs him that Tai Lung has escaped, Oogway says: “Well, this is bad news…” Or, in the very last scene of the film, Shifu and Po are laying on their backs, meditating in silence; Po quickly gets agitated and says: “What about getting something to eat?”, and Shifu agrees… But are these two levels (wisdom, everyday commonsense) really opposed? Are they not the two sides of one and the same attitude of wisdom? What unites them is the rejection of objet a, of the sublime object of passionate attachment – in the universe of Kung Fu Panda, there are only everyday common objects and needs, and the void beneath, all the rest is illusion. This, incidentally, is why the universe of the film is asexual: there is no sex or sexual attraction in the film, its economy is the pre-Oedipal oral-anal one (incidentally, the very name of the hero, Po, is a common term for “ass” in German). Po is fat, clumsy, common, AND a Kung Fu hero, the new Master – the excluded third in this coincidence of the opposites is sexuality.

In what, then, does the ideology of the film reside? Let us return to the key formula: “There is no special ingredient. It’s only you. To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.” This formula renders the fetishist disavowal (split) at its purest – its message is: “I know very well there is no special ingredient, but I nonetheless believe in it (and act accordingly)…” Cynical denunciation (at the level of rational knowledge) is counteracted by a call to “irrational” belief – and this is the most elementary formula of how ideology functions today.

Notes

[1] We all know of Alan Turing’s famous “imitation game” which should serve as the test if a machine can think: we communicate with two computer interfaces, asking them any imaginable question; behind one of the interfaces, there is a human person typing the answers, while behind the other, it is a machine. If, based on the answers we get, we cannot tell the intelligent machine from the intelligent human, then, according to Turing, our failure proves that machines can think. – What is a little bit less known is that in its first formulation, the issue was not to distinguish human from the machine, but man from woman. Why this strange displacement from sexual difference to the difference between human and machine? Was this due to Turing’s simple eccentricity due to his homosexuality? According to some interpreters, the point is to oppose the two experiments: a successful imitation of a woman’s responses by a man (or vice versa) would not prove anything, because the gender identity does not depend on the sequences of symbols, while a successful imitation of man by a machine would prove that this machine thinks, because “thinking” ultimately is the proper way of sequencing symbols… What if, however, the solution to this enigma is much more simple and radical? What if sexual difference is not simply a biological fact, but the Real of an antagonism that defines humanity, so that once sexual difference is abolished, a human being effectively becomes indistinguishable from a machine.

[2] In the same way, apropos the ongoing healthcare debate in the US, one should distinguish between the “constituted” level of empirical falsifications (like the absurd charge that Obama’s healthcare reform will lead to the establishment of “death committees”), and the “constituent” level of the threat to the freedom of choice which informs the entire field of the attacks on Obama – not to mention the Benjaminian distinction between constituted violence (empirical acts of violence within society) and constituent violence (violence inscribed into the very formal institutional frame of a society).

[3] Silvia Aloisi, “Israeli film relives Lebanon war from inside tank,” Reuters September 8 2009.

[4] I rely here on Andrej Nikolaidis’s outstanding “Odresujoca laz,” Ljubljanski dnevnik, August 28 2008 (in Slovene). Nikolaidis, a younger generation Montenegro writer, was sued by Emir Kusturica and scandalously condemned for writing a text in which he denounced Kusturica’s complicity with aggressive Serb nationalism.

[5] I owe this idea to Bernard Keenan.

[6] There effectively is an early Soviet film (Vladimir Gardin’s A Spectre Haunts Europe from 1922) which directly stages the October Revolution in the terms of Poe’s story.

[7] In order to bring about peace and tolerance between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo, the UN forces which control its independence distributed all around Kosovo posters with a photo of a dog and a cat friendly sitting side by side, accompanied by the message: »If they can leave peacefully together, you can do it also!« If there ever was an example of multicultural racism, this is it: as we all know, in reality, dogs and cats do not tolerate each other too well, with the exception of circuses and other places where they are trained to do so – Albanians and Serbs are implicitly treated as two different wild (animal) species who have to be properly trained to tolerate each other’s proximity.

[8] And, to add insult to injury, two further details spoil the film’s last moments. When a member of Wade’s gang shoots Evans to death and then throws to Wade his gun, Wade takes a quick glance at the gun’s handle, notices there a metal relief of Christ on the cross and then changes sides, coldly and quickly killing his entire gang, as if the divine intervention pushed him to betray his rescuers. Furthermore, in the very last seconds, when the train is leaving for Yuma with Wade on, Wade whistles to his horse outside train on the station, which then starts to run after the train – a clear hint that Wade already plans his escape, so that everything will finish well for him…