My ambition to write a musical about the arrival of Lacanian theory in Tito-era Yugoslavia has always hinged on the zestiness of the intended title: Å½iÅ¾ek! The music would be performed, of course, by
Laibach, those lords of industrial-strength irony; and the moment of psychoanalytic breakthrough that Lacan called la Passe would be conveyed via an interpretative dance, to be performed by a high-stepping chorus of Slovenian Rockettes.
Alas, it was all a dream. (Either that, or a symptom.) The funding never came through, and now Astra Taylor has laid claim to the title for her documentary, shown recently at the Toronto Film Festival.
Å½iÅ¾ek! is distributed by Zeitgeist, which also released the film Derrida. The company provided a screener DVD of Å½iÅ¾ek! that I've now watched twice -- probably the minimum number of times necessary to appreciate the intelligence and style of Taylor's work. The director is 25 years old; this is her first documentary.
It's not just her willingness to let Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek be Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek -- responding bitterly to an orthodox
deconstructionist in the audience at a lecture at Columbia University, for example, or revisiting some familiar elements of his early work on the theory of ideology. Nor is it even her willingness to risk trying to popularize the unpopularizable. The film ventures into an account of Å½iÅ¾ek's claim of the parallel between Marx's concept of surplus value and Lacan's "object petit a." (This is illustrated, you may be relieved to know, via a cartoon involving bottles of Coke.)
Beyond all that, Å½iÅ¾ek! is very smart as a film. How it moves from scene to scene -- the playful, yet coherent and even intricate relationship between structure and substance -- rewards more than one
In an e-mail conversation with Taylor, I mentioned how surprising it was that Å½iÅ¾ek! actually engaged with his theory. It would be much easier, after all, just to treat him as one wacky dude -- not that Å½iÅ¾ek quite avoids typecasting himself.
"I wanted very much to make a film about ideas," she told me. "That said, I think the film betrays a certain fascination with Å½iÅ¾ek's personality. He's got this excess of character and charisma that can't be restrained, even when we would try to do an interview about 'pure theory.'"
Å½iÅ¾ek! isn't a biography. (For that, you're probably better off reading Robert Boynton's profile from Lingua Franca some years ago.) Taylor says she started work with only a hazy sense of what she wanted the documentary to do -- but with some definite ideas about things she wanted to avoid. "I didn't want to make a conventional biopic," she recalls, "tracing an individual's trajectory from childhood, complete with old photographs, etc. It's not even that I have anything against that form in particular, it just didn't seem the right approach for a film about Å½iÅ¾ek."
Her other rule was to avoid pretentiousness. "Especially when dealing in theory, which has quite a bad name on this front, one has to be careful," she says. "I decided to veer towards the irreverent instead of the reverential. Granted, this is fairly easy when you're working with Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek."
Fair enough: This is the man who once explained the distinctions between German philosophy, English political economy, and the French Revolution by reference to each nation's toilet design. (Å½iÅ¾ek runs through this analysis in the film; it also appeared last year in an article in The London Review of Books.)
Just to be on the safe side, Taylor also avoided having talking heads on screen "instructing the audience in what to think about Å½iÅ¾ek or how to interpret his work." The viewer sees Å½iÅ¾ek interact with people at public events, including both an enormous left-wing conference in Buenos Aires and a rather more tragically hip one in New York. But all explanations of his ideas come straight from the source.
In preparing to shoot the film, Taylor says she came up with a dozen pages of questions for Å½iÅ¾ek, but only ended up asking two or three of them. Having interviewed him by phone a couple of years ago, I knew exactly what she meant. You pose a question. Å½iÅ¾ek then takes it wherever he wants to go at the moment. The trip is usually interesting, but never short.
One of the funniest moments in Å½iÅ¾ek! is a video clip from a broadcast of a political debate from 1990, when he ran for president of Yugoslavia as the candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party. At one point,
an old Communist bureaucrat says, "Okay, Å½iÅ¾ek, we all know your IQ is twice that of everybody else here put together. But please, please let somebody else talk!"
Taylor says she soon realized that her role was less that of interviewer than traffic director, "giving positive or negative feedback, telling him when to stop or when he'd said enough, and directing the flow of the conversation as opposed to conducting a straightforward interview with stops and starts."
She kept a log throughout the various shoots, "summing up everything he said in what would eventually be a one hundred page Excel spreadsheet. That way, I knew what subjects had been addressed, in what setting, and if the material was useful or needed to be reshot." About halfway through the production, she and Laura Hanna, the film's editor, assembled a rough cut.
"At that point," Taylor recalls, "I began to choose various passages for the animated sequences. I knew there needed to be some recurring themes and a broader theoretical argument to underpin the film.... But that makes it sound too easy and rational. The majority of choices were more intuitive, especially at the beginning when we were trying to cut down eighty hours of raw footage. When you're editing a film it is as much about what feels right, what flows, as what makes sense logically."
One really inspired moment came when Taylor learned of Jacques Lacan's appearance on French educational television in the early 1970s. She obtained a copy of the program and sat down with Å½iÅ¾ek in his apartment to watch it.
The transcript of Lacan's enigmatic performance is available as the book Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment (Norton, 1991). But to get the full effect, you really have to see Lacan in action: Self-consciously inscrutAble, yet also suave, he utters short and gnomic sentences, looking for all the world like Count Dracula ready for a nap after a good meal.
The contrast with the stocky and plebeian Å½iÅ¾ek (a bundle of energy and nervous tics) is remarkable; and so is the highly ambivalent way he responds to hearing his Master's voice. Å½iÅ¾ek takes pride in being called a dogmatic Lacanian. But the video clearly bothers him.
"I think Å½iÅ¾ek reacts to the footage on different registers at once," as Taylor puts it, "which is what makes the scene so interesting. He's obviously disturbed by Lacan's delivery, which seems very staged and pompous. Yet he attempts to salvage the situation by discussing how the very idea of a 'true self' is ideological or by arguing that the substance of Lacan's work should not be judged by his style."
The scene is also plenty meta. We are watching footage in which the most psychoanalytic of philosophers watches a video of the most philosophical of psychoanalysts. And yet somehow it does not feel the least bit contrived. If anything, there is something almost voyeuristically fascinating about it.
Taylor told me that the sequence "evokes what I see as one of the film's central themes: the predicament of the public intellectual today, and Å½iÅ¾ek's strategies for coping with it."
Early in the documentary -- and again at the end -- he denounces the fascination with him as an individual, insisting that the only thing that matters is his theoretical work. He gives a list of what he regards as his four really important books: The Sublime Object of Ideology, For They Know Not What They Do, The Ticklish Subject, and a work now in progress that he has provisionally titled The Parallax View (a.k.a. the sequel to Ticklish).
There is a clear hint that his other and more popular books are negligible by contrast; he speaks of wanting to kill his doppelganger, the wild-and-crazy guy known for obscene jokes and pop-culture
"And yet," as Taylor notes, "Å½iÅ¾ek, despite his frustrations, continues to put on a good show, albeit one quite different in demeanor from Lacan's." That is what makes the final images of Å½iÅ¾ek! so interesting.
I don't want to give the surprise ending away. Suffice it to say that it involves a spiral staircase, and makes explicit reference to Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock's great meditation on Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle. (Whether or not Hitchcock ever actually read Freud is sort of beside the point, here.) The scene also harkens back to earlier comments by Å½iÅ¾ek -- and yet it really comes out of
Taylor says they improvised it at the very last moment of shooting. She calls the scene "fantastically head-scratching," and not just for the audience.
"Over the last few months," she says, "I have come up with all sorts of pseudo-theoretical justifications and interpretation of it, all the different layers of meaning and resonances with Å½iÅ¾ek's work and life and the intersections of the two. But all of these, I must admit, were created
after the fact ( après coup, as Lacan would say)."
So what are her theories? "I feel like I would be ruining the fun if I elaborated on them," she told me. "That is, after all, precisely what people are supposed to debate over a beer after seeing the movie."
For more on Å½iÅ¾ek! -- including information about its availability and a clip from the film -- check out its Web site.