Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky is not sure he can warm up to any philosopher who claims The Fountainhead is the best American movie of all time.
"In a way, we could say that the function of fascination is precisely to blind us to the fact that the other is already gazing at us."—Slavoj iek, Looking Awry 114
Back in the days when I thought it was a good idea to make my undergraduate pop culture students actually read cultural theory articles that required a graduate degree to understand (later, I figured out it was better to actually let them read novels, watch movies, and talk about them until they deduced the basics of those same cultural theories on their own), I used to include a unit on post-psychoanalytic criticism. Don't fret if you have no idea what I am talking about. Nobody else does either, even if they claim to. The centerpiece of the unit was Jacques Lacan, who transformed Freud's ideas into the most opaque writings you will ever fall asleep to. Knowing that my students would never make it through Lacan (and these were students I had reading Foucault and Derrida), I substituted the much more accessible Slavoj iek. I like iek's stuff. He talks about Hitchcock and Kafka and porn movies. He has a cynical wit that defuses some of his academic pretentiousness.
But is he the "Elvis of cultural theory," as proclaimed proudly on the DVD case for the 2005 documentary iek!? No, not really, but he is a compelling enough figure in the world of philosophy to warrant the hour or so we spend with him in this film.
To give you a taste of what iek might say about iek!, I want you to look at that exclamation point in the film's title. The phallic impression of that mark calls attention to the significance of the name. This is not just another film title that blends in with the smooth surface of Hollywood product. iek stands in as a figure of the superego, calling attention as a exclamation, but at the same time reduces the name to object status, separating it from the continuity of narrative as the pornographic image (the literal phallus) stands out and disrupts its peculiar narrative. As iek remarks in Looking Awry, "Pornography thus misses, reduces the point of the object gaze in the other. This miss has precisely the form of a missed, failed encounter" (110). The oversignification of iek's name forces us past the object, our subjective desire unable "to keep pace with the object of its desire" (110). We see the object exposed as a grotesque thing, less than we thought it was. In documentary biography, as in pornography, the object is held up (the exclamation point) and broken down (edited and enclosed by the filmmaking process) at the same time. Thus, we can anticipate, even before we watch iek!, that the man we see will be less exciting than we imagined him.
And if you understood that, you should be able to handle the actual documentary iek!
The real iek is a twitchy, ferocious man, a cross between a brilliant philosopher and a half-crazed street person. The film begins with a rant in which iek announces that love is a "cosmic imbalance" and "a violent act," and the look in his eyes makes you want to step back a few feet. It also makes you want to keep watching to see what other strange wisdom might fall out of his mouth. This is not a look of canny and confident humor like Jacques Derrida had in Derrida. This is a look of a man whose thoughts run so fast that he constantly has to look around to make sure none of them are running away. Reality is "stupid" and he "hates the world"—and dammit, he is going to make some changes.
He has every reason to be pissed. A believer in Lacan, he has seen psychoanalysis co-opted by marketing and turned into an excuse to medicate the population. A believer in Marx, he has seen the collapse of political debate over class issues in favor of panic over global environmental apocalypse. The iek we see in this film is not so much the academic that I first met through his writings, but a more political figure. He talks about his 1990 bid for the presidency of Slovenia. He complains about modern culture. He brings Freud and Lacan to the table as social thinkers concerned as much with the excesses of capitalism as Karl Marx.
In an effort to mimic iek's borderline paranoia, director Astra Taylor avoids the talking-head approach of standard documentaries through nervous editing, grainy film stocks, and minimalist music. The film still has its pretentious moments (iek is filmed while naked in bed ranting about comets hitting the Earth), but generally, the film tries to turn theory into something accessible. In one sequence, a brief quote from iek's work about the cultural masking of political ideology is followed by a rant from the man himself about how American toilets reveal our national pragmatism. He rips deconstruction (and Derrida by name) for not getting to the point. He claims to hate philosophy, because it is not practical. He charges into political discussions like an Eastern European Noam Chomsky.
On the other hand, he seems genuinely frightened by his own fans, dismissing them as "idiots" as he scurries away. While watching old television footage of his hero Jacques Lacan, he rails against the notion that the image of a public figure can be portrayed as having "a warm human being behind" it: "I think this is ideology at its purest. The most horrible and ideological act for me—and really horrible, terrifying—is to fully identify with the ideological image." In other words, don't assume that because you follow Slavoj iek as your political and philosophical guru, that they guy behind the public image is a nice person.
Indeed, iek only really seems happy when playing with his son. The rest of the time, he is a pretty pissed off guy.
So, kids, enjoy the cheery fun of Slavoj iek's overcaffeinated ravings in your own home, as you pop iek! into your DVD player and embrace the illusion of human contact with another intellectual. You dupes of capitalist imagemakers will also receive for your fake dollars a solid but virtual assortment of extra features. There is an assortment of deleted scenes and interview fragments, iek's 2003 appearance on a Boston local TV talk show (the host gamely calls iek "Denis Leary from Slovenia," a phrase which cracked me up), and as an Easter egg, a very long (36 minutes) audio lecture by iek recorded during a press conference to promote the film. If you like to hear the man talk, you will enjoy this stuff very much.
You may find yourself agreeing with some of what Slavoj iek has to say about the illusion of western complacency, but you may also find yourself frustrated a little with the man saying it. And yet, he will keep on saying it. In the end, perhaps nothing better sums up Slavoj iek than his own explanation of his career: "My eternal fear is that if, for a brief moment, I stopped talking, you know, the whole spectacular appearance would disintegrate. People would think there is nobody and nothing there."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• Deleted Scenes and Interviews
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