Interview: Slavoj Žižek

"What is this? Is that what I think it is?" Slavoj Žižek husks while approaching a monochrome gadget in the corner of the room. He stares at the object before jumping back aghast. It's a premium lager tap system. Clearly ruffled by its presence, the Slovene philosopher launches into a sprawling and hilarious critique on capitalist theory all down to the existence of this one functioning machine. His response rate is almost infinite. If you don't interject, it seems he will never break to inhale. But, on the release of The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (2012), CineVue were able to cover how one of this generation's great thinkers feels on the series' progression, the issues with improvisation and the death of film theory.

Tom Watson: Did you find it a struggle to establish a dichotomy between film language and public speaking?

Slavoj Žižek: The origin of this technique is a modest one. Since my youth I've been obsessed with clarity; especially with my filmic Lacanian psychoanalysis. I have always strived to make things tangible. I claim that if I cannot make it clear through reference to popular literature or cinema, then I am the one that doesn't understand it. Thankfully, cultural examples offer a perfect critique of ideology conceptually. I strongly believe that film in its current form and the transition of popularity to TV series and computer games is extremely important in following the ideologies of today. Hollywood films, more so, are a wonderful indicator of where we stand in ideology. The distilled clarity of where we are ideologically is measured by Hollywood.

TW: Can you find this clarity from independent world cinema or do you still find yourself bored by it?

SZ: I must admit my opinion of it is better now. If you refer to European cinema like really big guys, Haneke for example, I love it. Other works like von Trier’s Melancholia I absolutely love. I just read it in slightly perverted way - not as a pessimistic film at all. It's a happy movie where good things finally happen and all human bullshit disappears. I like that. Third world cinema and Asian cinema is wonderful. So I do follow other cinema formats. My last hit was a Greek, extremely 'off-hollywood' movie called Strella. It's a totally crazy film constructed in such a tender way.

TW: So there is space for ideological criticism in independent cinema?

SZ: What I reject is adopting this classical/politically correct division. The popular argument of "If it's a big Hollywood blockbuster, it must be bad. If it originated in the third world it must be good." No, sorry - I've seen many of these third world or even American movies made for almost no money - it's still boring shit. We should accept, on the other hand, the classic days of Hollywood. Take someone like Ernst Lubitsch - he created wonderfully conservative films. So I just don't want to be part of this politically correct blackmail I shouldn't feel guilty about enjoying Hollywood or classic cinema.

TW: Even France's 'Tradition of Quality' movement was completely overlooked in favour of the Young Turks.

SZ: We tend to forget even from the twenties to the thirties that in Europe, and not only in France or Germany, but places like Denmark were mega-powers in cinema and it makes it so sad for me that it is, to a certain extent ignored. There were and are great things going on and I'm not talking about Bergman - some Swedish friends even told me that Bergman may be the greatest catastrophe that fell upon Swedish cinema simply because he overshadowed all others. He had such an overbearing presence that other cinema exports went unnoticed.

TW: Regardless, it must be easier focusing on Hollywood when structuring The Pervert's Guide to Ideology?

SZ: This is what we talked about with Sophie [Fiennes]. We precisely wanted this instant effect of recognition only then to provoke in the viewer some kind of effect of exponential estrangement. First, we wanted to show examples where we were pretty sure that if the audience didn't know, they would at least be aware of it. Then, we wanted to make them look in a new way at what they already know. Time is precious in film so if you present some shitty unknown film that no one's seen you have to spend at least five minutes just explaining what it is. If you use a big Hollywood hit, you don't have to do that.

TW: What's the real differentiation between your latest release and The Pervert's Guide to Cinema?

SZ: The progress from Guide to Cinema was that everything has been better organised. Here I'm grateful to Sophie. All I did was stand wherever she wanted and improvise. She spent months before shooting going through my books and selecting possible lines of thought. I would mockingly refer to her as "mein Leni Riefenstahl". After Riefenstahl finished shooting Olympia, she kept an enormous amount of material spending over a year organising it. It was almost the same with Sophie. She spent just over a year going through all of our material.

TW: On books, you are incessantly prolific. How do you find the time to fit everything in?

SZ: I repeat myself and often rearrange the same material [laughs]. Contrary to what people think, I'm not over-productive, but it's true that I work a lot. I was extremely lucky in my life not only in spite of through communist oppression. I now have three jobs - I have a part time job at Birkbeck School of Law here in London, a job in Slovenia and now one in Korea. I come here twice a year to deliver three talks and that's it. This gives me absolute freedom in my work. I'm lucky especially in these shitty times. Slovenia is even worse than you may hear what with philosophy departments closing and so on.

TW: With that in mind, would you argue philosophy's influence is dwindling in modern society?

SZ: I think philosophy is needed more than ever. Why? Because with all these new-founded problems - racism, biogenetics and so on - we all are confronted with dilemmas where we cannot solve them simply by returning to ancient wisdom. We have to make decisions. We are approaching times when we will all have to behave like philosophers. Scientists such as Hawking claim that philosophy died. But the more science is predominating the more it is losing its truth value. We no longer have simple objective knowledge any more.

TW: Finally, how do you intend for the Pervert's Guide series to evolve? What's next?

SZ: We wanted to do The Pervert's Guide to Opera, but it's obviously not commercial enough. Instead, we are to study love. Not sex, just love. It will be a very conservative defence of absolute passionate love. That is and will be very important to me.

To read our review of  Sophie Fiennes' The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, simply follow this link.

Tom Watson


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