Cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek offers a thought provoking analysis of how ideology embeds itself by structuring the way we react to the conditions of our daily lives
John Carpenter's 1988 film They Live, one of the neglected masterpieces of the Hollywood left, is a true lesson in the critique of ideology. It is the story of Nada - Spanish for "nothing" - a homeless labourer who finds work in Los Angeles as a construction worker. One of the other workers, Frank Armitage, takes Nada to a local shantytown to spend the night. Noticing some suspicious behaviour at a nearby church, he decides the next day to investigate. Upon searching the church he discovers several boxes full of sunglasses in a secret wall compartment. When he first puts on a pair of the glasses he notices that a publicity billboard now simply displays the word "OBEY" while another billboard urges the viewer to "MARRY AND REPRODUCE". He also sees that paper money bears the words "THIS IS YOUR GOD". He soon discovers that many people are actually aliens. When the aliens realise he can see them for what they are, the police suddenly arrive.
Nada escapes and returns to the construction site to talk over what he has discovered with Armitage, who is not initially interested in his story. The two fight as Nada attempts to convince Armitage and force the sunglasses onto him. When he does, Armitage joins Nada and they get in contact with a group from the church, organising resistance. At the group's meeting they learn that the aliens' primary method of control is a signal being sent out on television, which is why the general public cannot see the aliens for what they are.
In the final battle, after destroying the broadcasting antenna, Nada is mortally wounded; as his last dying act, he gives the aliens the finger. With the signal now missing, people are startled to find the aliens in their midst.
There is a series of features one should take note of here. First among them is the direct link to the classic Hollywood topic of the "invasion of the body snatchers" (aliens among us who, invisible to our gaze, already run our lives), to class antagonism, to ideological domination and exploitation. One cannot but be impressed by the down to earth depiction of the miserable shantytown lives of poor workers.
Then there is, of course, the beautifully naive mise-en-scène of ideology: through the critico-ideological glasses we directly see the "master-signifier" beneath the chain of knowledge - we learn to see dictatorship within democracy. There is, of course, a naive aspect to this staging, reminiscent of the not so well known fact that in the 1960s the leadership of the Communist Party of the USA, in order to account for its failure to mobilise workers, seriously entertained the idea that the US population was controlled by the secret use of drugs distributed through the air and the water supply.
But we do not need aliens or secret drugs or glasses - the form of ideology does the work without them. It is because of this form that the depicted scene nonetheless stages our daily truth. Look at the front page of our daily newspapers: in every title, even and especially when it pretends just to inform, there exists an implicit injunction. When you are asked to choose between liberal democracy and fundamentalism, it is not only that one term is obviously preferred. What is more important, the true injunction, is to see this as the true alternative, to ignore third options.
Marxists accept this aspect of struggle for dictatorship. They render it visible and openly practise it. Why? Let us return to the film: once you put the glasses on and see it, it no longer determines you. This means that before you saw it through the glasses, you also saw it, but were not aware of it.
Back in the film, when Nada tries to convince Armitage to put the glasses on, Armitage resists and the fight that follows is long and violent, worthy of Fight Club (another masterpiece of the Hollywood left). It starts with Nada saying to Armitage, "I'm giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start to eat that trash." (The fight is taking place among overturned trashbins.) The fight, which goes on for an unbearable ten minutes, with moments of exchange of friendly smiles, is in itself totally "irrational". Why doesn't Armitage accept putting the glasses on, just to satisfy his friend? The only explanation is that he knows that his friend wants him to see something dangerous, to attain a prohibited knowledge which would totally spoil the relative peace of his daily life. The violence staged here is a positive violence, a condition of liberation. The lesson is that our liberation from ideology is not a spontaneous act, an act of discovering our true self.
We learn in the film that when one looks for too long at reality through the critico-ideological glasses one gets a strong headache. It is very painful to be deprived of the ideological surplus-enjoyment. When we see a scene of starving children in Africa, with a call to do something and help them, the true message visible through the glasses would have been something like, "Don't think, don't politicise, forget about the true causes of their poverty, just act, contribute money, so that you will not have to think!" To see the true nature of things we need the glasses. It is not that we should put ideological glasses on to see directly reality as it is: we are "naturally" in ideology; our natural sight is ideological.
This brings us to the proper base of ideology. When we read an abstract "ideological" proclamation we are well aware that this is not how "real people" experience it. In order to pass from abstract propositions to people's "real lives" one has to add to the abstract propositions the unfathomable density of a life world context.
Take military ideology: it becomes "livable" only against the background of the obscene unwritten rules and rituals (marching chants, fragging, sexual innuendo) in which it is embedded. Which is why, if there is an ideological experience at its purest - its zero level - it is at the moment when we adopt the attitude of wise ironic distance and laugh at the follies we are ready to believe. At this moment of liberating laughter, when we look down on the ridicule of our faiths, we are pure subjects of ideology; ideology exerts its pure hold on us. This is why, say, if one wants to observe today's ideology at work, all one has to do is to watch some of Michael Palin's travel reports on the BBC: their underlying attitude of benevolent ironic distance towards different customs, taking pleasure in observing local peculiarities while filtering out the truly traumatic data, is postmodern racism at its purest.
So where is ideology? When we are dealing with a problem which is undoubtedly a real one, the ideological designation/perception introduces its invisible mystification. Similarly, tolerance designates a real problem. When I oppose it I am often asked, but how can you be for intolerance towards foreigners, or for anti-feminism, for homophobia? Therein resides the catch: of course I am not against tolerance, but what I am against is the perception of racism as a problem of tolerance. Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than as problems of inequality, exploitation or injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, rather than emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle?
The cause of this culturalisation is the retreat or failure of direct political solutions. "Ideology", in this precise sense, is a notion which, while designating a real problem, blurs a crucial line of separation.
Slavoj Žižek's latest book is First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (Verso, £7.99)