Zizek for Twelve-Year-Olds: Ideology and Rebecca Black

Noam Chomsky, in his now-infamous interview from last December, declared that the works of critical theorists such as Slavoj Zizek and Jacques Lacan were guilty of meaningless theories dressed up in fancy words.  Chomsky offered a litmus test: whether or not these theories could be explained to a 12-year-old in five minutes. Of course, the claim is from the start ridiculous in light of a man who literally explains his theories in terms of children’s movies.

Now, a video emerged on this blog where a father explains Zizek to his young daughter in terms perfectly intelligible to a tween: Rebecca Black’s magnus opus “Friday.”

The video is the work of Douglas Lain, an author and host of the philosophy podcast Diet Soap. His daughter isn’t necessarily 12, but close enough, right?

[Via Agent Swarm]

  • Sean_68

    I’m 42 and I don’t understand what the Douglas is trying to say

    • Doug Lain

      What is confusing you particularly?

  • wesleypresley

    I’m afraid I’m also confused, although it is possibly due to my not having access to the cultural reference points of 12 year olds (I’m 49). Here are the main claims as I understood them. 1) Our identities are (partly?) constructed by relations with others as they see us (e.g policeman). 2) This process is most effective if invisible (I didn’t understand the Tom Hanks video relevance, but I’m not up on that show, so the effectiveness was lost on me). 3) This process is most effective if we disagree with it on some level (e.g., laugh tracks). I’m ok with simply accepting the claims for the sake of argument because a short video doesn’t leave time for all the studies and examples necessary to back up such claims. Where I get lost is how this connects to Rebecca Black’s video and happy pac man consumerism. Something about it being popular precisely because we don’t like it (so this maybe brings in claim 3, but maybe not because disliking something isn’t the same as disagreeing with it), and since it advocates consumerism, and we don’t like it, we construct our identities as consumers? Aside from the fact that I’m not clear on how the associations are supposed to go, that must be too simple. On watching Dexter, for example, I don’t place myself in his point of view because I disagree with it, I place myself in his POV because he’s the main character of the show. We tend to see ourselves as the heroes of our own movies, and project that onto the hero of other shows. I enjoy the show because of the cognitive dissonance it produces (as well as the fact that the characters are engaging, good looking, and they gave Dexter a rather admirably strong moral code).

    • Doug Lain

      The claim isn’t that all points of identification work in the same way as Rebecca Black’s Friday, but rather that identification with a work doesn’t require conscious acceptance of the values exhibited in the work. The cognitive dissonance you experience while watching Dexter seems to me to vindicate this perspective, namely that one can be fully enmeshed or taken in by a set of ideological premises even while consciously rejecting these premises.

      The main point of this video was to point out that our subjectively held opinions about cultural works (of all sorts) are not what we should turn to in order to understand how these various cultural products work on us.

      • wesleypresley

        Thanks for your reply. If I’m understanding you correctly, Zizek’s project is to provide explanations of how cultural products work on us, and the one area that isn’t profitable is looking at the opinions we have that we are aware of. We should instead look at the more hidden influences, and that those influences are effective precisely because they are hidden. Fair enough. As a feminist, I’m already on board. What I don’t have an idea of is the scope of this project or its details (what the various tools are, when they get used or not used, how adequacy of explanation is measured, etc.) but I don’t expect that to be explained to me in a blog post and do expect that it would be my job to read Zizek and find that out (which I would do if I weren’t already busy decoding Newton, which is my full time job right now).

        I don’t know if this works so much in the Dexter case because I think I can adequately explain the cognitive dissonance by appealing to stuff that’s all on the surface. Serial killers are bad. People with strong moral codes are good. Watching a show “properly” involves suspending disbelief and taking on the perspective of the protagonist. Argh, cognitive dissonance generated by my subjectively held opinions! That’s all pretty surface, and is the obvious point of the show. This isn’t to deny that there aren’t more coded things happening with Dexter. For example, his physique and how it relates to his physical effectiveness reinforces my negative body image and makes me want to go to the gym more, etc. I don’t hold the opinion that one needs to be as fit as Dexter in order to be worthy of being the hero of one’s own movie. But that’s the lesson I seem to take away from it. That’s stuff that’s less surfacy and I probably wouldn’t be aware of it were I not already aware these forces in media from a theoretical perspective. But the cognitive dissonance stuff doesn’t seem to be in need of any deep explanation.

        • Doug Lain

          I could respond in a variety of ways, but I’ll just pick up one thread. The surface of a work is often what is rejected, not ignored, but subjectively perceived as irrelevant. So, for example, the notion that we are each of us the heroes of our own movies sets up a certain individualistic and impotent relationship to the world. The heroes in a movie do not, cannot, change the terms of the story, and this is why a writer and storyteller like Brecht would aim at disrupting this kind of one to one identification with a protagonist. Instead the aim was to set the audience at a critical distance from the tale so that they would be able to resist identification and see the entirety of the work as a kind of socially produced mechanism with its own internal logic. The extent to which Brecht was successful is debatable, but I would suggest that the kind of identity required for radical transformation would have to be collective and would have to be aimed at changing the internal logic (paradoxically the same thing as the surface) of the world.