The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

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29 March

First batch of Coca Cola made, 1886

On this day in 1886, Colonel John Pemberton made his first batch of Coca-Cola. It was a non-alcoholic version of his popular Pemberton’s French Wine Coca and he introduced it because Atlanta, where he was based, had just announced the prohibition of alcohol. Pemberton’s French Wine Coca contained alcohol mixed with psychoactive coca, caffeine-containing kola nut and the aromatic aphrodisiac damiana. Pemberton had originally formulated it as a way of weaning himself off an addiction to morphine he’d picked up after being injured in the Civil War. Like the European Vin Mariani, which it resembled and was probably modelled on, it was very popular as a nerve tonic. Coca-Cola (so called because it contained cocaine leaves and kola nuts) was initially sold as a medicine. In May 1886, Coca-Cola embarked on its first advertising campaign – “a valuable Brain Tonic, and a cure for all nervous affliction” – in the Atlanta Journal.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012, dir: Sophie Fiennes)

The follow-up to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and director Sophie Fiennes’s documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema sees Žižek getting stuck into his theme immediately as he discusses “one of the great forgotten left-wing classics of Hollywood”, John Carpenter’s They Live.

The film under discussion features a character called John Nada (ie nothing) who finds some glasses which show things as they really are. The conceit of this documentary is that Žižek launches into his dissection of the film from what looks like the set of They Live itself – a dark back alley where dirty deeds have either just happened, or are about to. Žižek states his thesis – that we live in a supposedly post-ideological society where we are positioned as “subjects of pleasure” and as such must indulge ourselves in order to lead a satisfying life. This, he contends, is the underlying ideology of our time. And he proceeds to deliver evidence of the ideology at work in a typically wide-ranging cultural analysis which jumps from one example to another at breakneck speed.

So one minute Žižek is talking about The Sound of Music, the next about Coca-Cola (finding something sinister in the phrase “It’s the real thing”), then it’s a Kinder Surprise Egg, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the Norwegian killer Anders Breivik, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, on and on and on he goes. “What does the shark stand for?” he asks of Jaws. “What does the wreck of the Titanic stand for?” he asks of Titanic.

To make this more than just a stodgy lecture, Fiennes reconstructs – as she did in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema – many of the sets. So Žižek talks about Jaws from the boat, about Taxi Driver from Travis Bickle’s bed. At one point he’s on Hitler’s plane. It’s all very disorienting, which is of course the point. It’s also vastly entertaining, if this sort of mad cultural analysis is your bag. And for those who are wary of bearded intellectuals, fearing they might pick up a taint of socialism from close contact, it must be said that Žižek is not your typical leftie.

For all the bashing of Starbucks (“the ultimate form of consumerism”) and religion (“We cannot know what God wants from us because there is no God”), Žižek makes some refreshingly unexpected points – “the depressing lesson of the last decades is that capitalism has been the true revolutionising force”. And he offers as a take-away the sort of statement that seriously undermines the Hollywood offer – “the first step to freedom is not just to change the reality to fit your dreams, it’s to change the dream… and this hurts.”

Why Watch?

  • Slavoj Žižek, surely the most camera-friendly intellectual alive
  • Žižek has a sense of humour
  • His analysis of Titanic is like a plunge in iced water
  • Fiennes’s elegant visuals, always in the service of the words

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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