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Why I Think Slavoj Zizek's Film Analysis Is Tripe

Actually, there is a lot I dislike about Slavoj Zizek.  I have never seen him as either a rigorous/useful marxist academic, let alone a principled and committed communist.  As much as I respect the fact that he is partially responsible for the repopularization of Lenin in academia, his "hipster marxism" (as one of my good comrades calls it) has generally offended my political sensibilities.  His lack of respect for actual historical materialism (such as his willingness to promote a rightist analysis of Mao in his introduction to the most recent Verso release of Mao's writing) demonstrates a serious failing for a supposed marxist scholar––without investigation there should be no right to speak.  And his seeming disdain for political economy (as judged by a somewhat recent interaction he had with Samir Amin) demonstrates a strange refusal to engage in a concrete analysis of a concrete situation.  Generally I find, when it comes to any of Zizek's writing, that there is a quality-bullshit ration of around 1:30––so in a book of 300 pages, you can probably find 10 good pages.

Zizek's analysis of film, however, is paradigmatic of his overall failings as a revolutionary scholar.  It's also the perfect paradigm to critique Zizek considering the man's "hipster marxist" tendency to pepper his texts with random pop-cultural references and lapse into the most arcane, and most often banal, tangents about television shows, jokes, and popular movies.

Although Zizek has always annoyed me, it wasn't until I read his review of the movie 300 that I was truly angered.  And though I encountered this review years ago, I was reminded of it recently due to a discussion thread where a commentator reproduced Zizek's argument in the aforementioned review in order to argue that 300 was, secretly and subversively, a progressive film.  The point being: Zizek basically chose to argue, for no apparent reason except intellectual masturbation, that this movie was not a piece of racist-imperialist art and, in point of fact, possessed a secret and liberatory message.

For those unfamiliar with the film, 300 is a movie about how a massively outnumbered Sparta defeated the Persian army but at great sacrifice.  Directed by Zack Snyder (recently responsible for defiling Watchmen and directing the sexist action film Sucker-Punch), the film is based on Frank Miller's comic of the same name––in fact, so closely based that all the characters strongly resemble the drawings and the movie is shot almost panel-for-panel.  In this film Persia is presented as the barbarous Orient whereas the Spartans are presented as the civilized Occident.  The former are even dehumanized in their depictions, some of them resembling monstrous savages from the opium dreams of the most racist colonizer.  Very European/white looking Greeks are the heroes against very dark-skinned (and often savage-looking) Persians.  At one point, the white Spartan king kicks a black Persian messenger down a well yelling, to much applause in the theatres, the movie's best known line (and now internet meme): "This. Is. Sparta!" And this is also a film that appeared at the height of Islamophobia, a film that seems designed to conflate Greece with America and the Persians with Muslim terrorists.

According to Zizek, however, 300 is not a reproduction of a racist imperialist narrative where the centres of capitalism like to see themselves as embattled victims facing an onslaught of savagery.  Ignoring the logic of the film, and how this logic fits into dominant ideology, Zizek decides to remind us that in actual history Greece was a tiny nation facing the onslaught of a more economically developed empire––therefore, he reasons, we should be able to see the Sparta as somewhat akin to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and the Persians akin to Reagan's America.  And the very artificiality of the film (everything is shot on green-screened background and heavily digitized) should tell us that we are watching a film about spectacle itself!  Hence 300 is not actually dehumanizing the Orient in its depiction of non-white savagery but is making an extremely subtle and sophisticated critique of dehumanization itself.

Clearly Zizek is engaging in some sort of "death of the author" analysis, a literary theory that is near the nadir of post-modern critique.  In Zizek's analytic framework there is no inherent meaning to the text––except (and this is often what the "death of the author" approach ends up permitting) the meaning provided by the critical expert.  So for Zizek neither the intent behind the production of the film, nor the way in which this film was consumed, matters: only his interpretation, due to its expert understanding, matters.  This is where the "death of the author" thesis allows an invisible college of experts, academics trained to understand hidden meanings of any text, to have the only interpretative authority.

In any case, Zizek's analysis is dead wrong if 300 is held up to an actual historical materialist analysis.  And his failure to provide such an analysis, and lapse into assertions of secret meanings that only he is expert enough to understand (perhaps this is a product of his background in pscycho-analysis), demonstrates his failure to be the supposedly "marxist" scholar we are supposed to believe him to be.

300 is a piece of reactionary film-making for three reasons.  First of all, the author of the graphic novel source material, Frank Miller, has openly bragged that his comic is meant to be a metaphor for the war on terror and "Western civilization" standing courageously against tides of "Eastern barbarism."  Miller is a right-wing libertarian racist (who currently really wants to write a "Batman versus Al Queda" graphic novel) who intentionally drew the Persians as dark and grossly monstrous, and the Spartans as white and altogether human, because he actually believes the myth imperialists ideologues propagate that the "western world" is engaged in a clash of civilizations with those who hate America because they hate freedom.  Secondly, in order for 300 to be a critical film, Snyder would have to shoot the bloody thing in a way to intentionally disrupt the narrative: and yet, judged by his interviews, he was interested in doing an utterly faithful adaptation, transposing the comic identically panel-for-panel unto the screen.  Nor is Snyder someone capable of doing a critical piece of political film-making: his adaptation of Watchmen removed the majority of the source material's critical content; his Sucker-Punch was predictably sexist.  Third and finally, the vast majority of viewers interpreted the film 300 in the way that Miller intended the comic book to be interpreted: as propaganda about the War on Terror––audience members at some theatres even cheered the ending of the film by chanting "USA! USA!"

So if the 300 was both produced and consumed as racist-imperialist propaganda, any historical materialist worth hir credentials as an historical materialist would have to accept that, by this very materialist fact (production/consumption), the film is racist-imperialist propaganda.  Otherwise, by the very same logic, we could argue that Triumph of the Will or Birth of the Nation are secretly progressive pieces of film-making: Reifenstahl is really satirizing the Nazi Party, D.W. Griffith is interrogating the dehumanization of African Americans!  Only the most banal apologists for fascism and racism pretend that these films were not works of reactionary propaganda: we understand the social-historical context––a context of production and consumption––in which these films were made; we would look like fools to pretend that these films were not racist.  And we can speak of a more sophisticated understanding of the "death of the author" thesis by arguing that even if Reifenstahl or Griffith had other intentions (which is doubtful), then it didn't matter because the films were produced within a context that made them reactionary propaganda.

And yet Zizek, our supposed marxist scholar, fails to understand the context of the film's production and its consumption.  Apparently he can circumvent the meaning behind its production and consumption with his own expert analysis which, for some bizarre reason we are supposed to accept, approaches some inner truth.  This is akin, again referring to the above examples, of a film critic claiming that, regardless of how important Reifenstahl films were for propagating Nazi ideology, none of that matters because they were "secretly critical."  The appeal to some esoteric understanding of a cultural product that wears its values openly is not only elitist, it is counter-revolutionary because it allows reactionary art to be whatever we want it to be.  If we extend that logic outside of art and into other areas of production––which we should do if we, as marxists, do not believe that art is more special than other forms of social production––then why not just imagine that the ideas produced by Glen Beck and the Tea Party are secretly revolutionary?  Or, if we extend that logic to its opposite, why not argue that there is a hidden meaning to Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto and, lo and behold, it is secretly a text that is arguing satirically for capitalism!  All we need to understand anything is an invisible college of experts to explain the hidden meaning of every act of social production––and if they don't agree, well, they'll probably work it out.

So what does Zizek's inability to do an honest and historical materialist analysis of a film like 300 tell us?  Only that if he cannot do the simple investigation required to analyze an obvious reactionary propaganda film, and still shoot of his mouth without any materialist investigation, then it is doubtful that he can perform significant historical materialist analyses of the complexities of human life in general.


  1. The only question I have is why intelligent people who can easily find better things to do with their lives would waste more than 5 minutes on watching, discussing and analyzing an idiotic film like that.

  2. Hahahahaha... Yeah, maybe that's a very good point. At the same time, though, I think these sorts of films are worth discussing (as long as they're discussed properly) because they do have some sort of influence. *300* gained a popular following despite the fact that it is racist (and homophobic and sexist) and people are watching this sort of thing. So it deserves a good analysis... which is not the analysis that Zizek provided.

  3. Funnily enough, I am a big fan of "death of the author" theory, think it's a crowning achievement of post-modernism (with a few reservations) instead of its nadir, and I still hate Zizek's analysis. I don't believe that just because a text is opened up to multiple, possibly contradictory, readings it means all readings are equally defensible, and Zizek's frequently make little to no sense. He's so invested in his rockstar contrarian status that if an edgy, "épater les bourgeois" idea pops into his head he'll find some way to prop it up. Reading his take on 300 made me question if we had, in fact, seen the same film. The man is not particularly rigorous or principled, not in his film analysis, and not in his political analysis.

  4. Hi irateadri: in some ways I accept a "death of the author" but I do not think the post-modern theory "death of the author", especially as it was first put forward by Barthes, is a very good theory. Its more than just opening a text to multiple readings (which I'm all for); it leads to a rejection of reading altogether due to its idealist and anti-materialist foundations.

    As I indicated somewhere (and probably messily) above, historical materialist analysis is much better at having a "death of the author" position than the post-modern version. The post-modern position does end up vacating the social, since it rejects any epistemic level of "totalizing" discourse, and replacing authors with theorists. The author is a product of social history, and this is what marxist analysis always maintained, and literature/film/art, being nothing more than a social production, is produced within circumstances directly encountered in society and history: so these stand above the author. This was the analysis prior to post-modernism, and the post-modern thesis of "death of the author", being more about critical play and a rejection of universals, really cannot grip this fact. Because it cannot say what art *is* [a social production] then it cannot explain how multiple readings are possible, or the limits of these readings, thus opening the door to a text-is-whatever-we-want-it-to-be (we being expert theorists) position that is ahistorical and anti-materialist.

    Because some texts do have very specific social meanings (i.e. like fascist propaganda, or a piece of political economy by Marx) the groundless and decentred death of the author thesis that emerged in post-modernism (initially and most specifically in Barthes), would permit us to read these films as "progressive" or make them whatever we want them to be... Things are not just open to whatever readings are possible, just as a screw is not a milk-shake, and we can't interpret it as such - though the screw *is* more than just its function because it is also the product of a social history... and this is where the two possible "death of the author" theses part ways. And the historical materialist one is older and more of an achievement than what Barthes was trying to argue.

    And Zizek is rather invested in his "rockstar contrarian status." He does make me laugh every time I see him appear on television as an "expert." Just the way he glowers intensely at the camera causes me to giggle.

  5. Oh dear, sorry, I really was not trying to pick a fight about literary theory, nor was I trying to give a definition of that particular sort of analysis. I just wanted to say that even though I might have different views than you do about how we ought to approach art, I still think Zizek is shit... and now I've gone and opened a can of worms. Whoops.

  6. Hey, I never thought you were trying to pick a fight but bringing up an important point. The can of worms was worth opening because it forced me to explain what I wrote rather poorly in my article. No "whoops" about it. Yeah Zizek is still shit: I don't think he even watches half of the films, or reads half the texts, he analyzes.

  7. Hey man,

    I mostly agree with your assessment of Zizek’s reading here and how his errors in judgment in this instance are symptomatic of much of his writing. He’s good at setting up the familiar terms of a familiar problem and then flipping them upside down or turning them inside out and declaring that “it is, I think, the exact opposite, and so on and so on.” What follows is often very clever or even ingenious, but just as often not, and after you’ve seen it performed a dozen times or so it starts to have the feel of a parlor trick. It’s not exactly dialectics, at any rate.

    But while I do agree with your criticisms here and some of your arguments against the “death of the author” thesis implicitly used in Zizek’s reading, I think there is a kernel of truth, or a kernel of something, in what he was saying (if I’m remembering him properly). It’s true what you say about the context of the film’s production and consumption—the allegorical meaning of “Sparta” and “Persia” is very clearly spelled out in a number of scenes, images and topoi that tie this representation of an ancient, quasi-mythic battle to a contemporary “clash of civilizations.” Zizek’s inversion of the terms of the allegory is clever, but not very convincing, especially given his dismissal of the conventional interpretation as a mere surface reading—surely convention (and the context of production and consumption) is relevant when interpreting the ideology of a work of mass culture! And while authorial intent does not fix the meaning of the text, it is certainly not entirely irrelevant either.

    But the clever inversion is not all smoke and mirrors, I think. There’s something to it, but Zizek is too lazy to move from simple inversion to dialectics. The inverted allegory is not, I believe, a “secret meaning” or a “hidden subversive content” that is placed in the text by a wily or conflicted author and accessible only through the sophisticated hermeneutic of the critical theorist; rather, the inversion is expressive of the instability and internal contradictions of the conventional topos itself. What Zizek is tracing is not a hidden unconscious intent of the author, but a contradiction within the structure of imperialist ideology which is gets played out in even (or especially) its most emphatic expressions.


  8. cont...

    The contradiction, I think, lies in the identification of the enemy. The film begins with the pretense that Persia is the barbarous oriental Other, “the hordes of the east,” and Sparta is the defender of western civilization at the moment of its birth linked teleologically to America in the present. But as the film progresses we find there are 5th column “liberal” Athenian traitors within the Greek alliance. These Athenians claim to represent the height of Greek (and “Western”) civilization, but are unable or unwilling to defend it, and are even willing to betray it for purely cynical, self-interested motives. But more importantly, Persia itself comes to be equated with the “worst” of liberal America, and here, I think, Zizek’s eye for contradiction is useful. We can see liberal America in the multicultural Persian Empire, in its technological sophistication, its sexual “diversity,” its “effeminacy,” its Roman cultural/religious tolerance. Even Xerxes is represented as a colossal drag queen; that doesn’t jive easily with the topos of Arab religious zealotry. It better reflects an image of liberal America from a right-perspective, an image of America that is at once cosmopolitan and totalitarian. But what Zizek is missing is, I think, the obvious: this inversion of the terms of the conflict is supposed to be read (and indeed is read by most people) as only a partial inversion in which the conflict between the West and the East is displaced onto a conflict internal to the West, between “Real America” and the decadent, corrupt, cosmopolitan America of its liberal elites. Those elites are very unlike the external enemy, but in their infinite “tolerance” they have become the enemy, and the good American republic threatened with an (internal/external) transformation into the Evil Empire.

    Zizek wants to imagine that this inversion is not transposed onto a culture war internal to the West, so he imagines these contradictions in the identification of the enemy allow us to indirectly identify with the external enemy—the colonized, backwards, indigenous, unassimilated nations on the periphery, struggling to maintain or regain their self-determination. This would be nice, wouldn’t it, but while Persia resembles both the barbarous East and the decadent liberal West, Sparta is not so unstable a signifier (if we want to put it that way). If this secondary association exists, as Zizek claims, then it is very well-repressed. The Spartans’ rhetoric of the right of resistance is straight out of Locke or the American revolution, certainly not Louverture and the Hatian revolution. It is the anti-tyrannical rhetoric of traditional liberal ideology, with all the bourgeois qualifications regarding who is and is not a free subject. The right of resistance in this context applies only to those men “born free,” not those “races” which are naturally servile or must endure servitude because they cannot govern their own inordinate passions. The Spartans continually display their capacity to govern their passions; not so much the Persians and Athenians, who must suffer tyranny as punishment for their uncontrollable desires.

    But one thing Zizek got right, and that’s the unstable and potentially subversive allegorical meaning of “Persia,” for if Persia is not the Other external to us but the Other within, then it is but one more step to recognize the Other as oneself. This, admittedly, is a very big step, and Zizek trips when he attempts to take both steps in one leap. But the truth of the rightest critique of liberalism lies in its turn inwards toward the internal elites. But this is also the same step from conservatism to fascism if the concept of class is erased or made invisible, for then the internal elite is not seen to be a class enemy, but is naturalized as a racial enemy, or as the rot of cultural decadence (often both). Its interesting, I think, to see this darkly fascistic film touch on, and at the same time utterly distort, the contradiction at the heart of the struggle between the so-called East and West.

  9. And I kind of agree with Clarissa that this is a lot of energy wasted on trash. But trash of this kind is interesting in terms of its ideological structure; it has a lot more influence on the popular imagination than most good art, which is also of course ideological, but also interesting on several other levels on which 300 is just utter garbage. I watched this movie with someone who, after enduring my angry ranting, stressed that it was just a movie and therefore couldn’t really mean as much as all that, and who cares anyway because movies don’t invade countries. His argument stands, I suppose, but politics and the ideological consensus that is necessary to invade another country is shaped by more than just parliamentary debates, I think.

  10. First of all, I don't think this is energy wasted on trash *if* (and only if) these films do connect to the overall imperialist ideology of the rightist public... And I think they do. In fact, based on your explanation of your experience with this film, I would think you agree. True: ideological consensus is shaped by broader things, but propaganda still exists to encourage this consensus. 300 is part of something larger, but was still a part of that, and also a reflection.

    Also, as much as I do get what you're saying, my points about the source material and the director's idiocy still stand. I will not accept a reading of a film that ignores that its narrative was produced by an unashamed reactionary. Period. Zizek can say whatever he wants, but the fact that he neglects this point - neglects the fact that Miller wrote the bloody thing to support American imperialism, and that the film is IDENTICAL to the art work of this reactionary comic - is telling. There are readings of Birth of A Nation that *try* to imagine a queer politics to two dead Confederate soldiers embracing, but that doesn't change the fact that that film was a piece of pro-KKK trash.

  11. Note: this is also in recognition of our larger agreement and, regardless, the importance of allowing for contradictory analyses. Even still: I think it is vary important, in light of the director's tendency to keep cranking out shit, and in light of Frank Miller's continued right-libertarian comics, to use this as a moment to demonstrate why Zizek is problematic.

  12. Yes, and of course as I stated earlier in my awfully long post, I do agree that authorial intent is not irrelevant to the development of the meaning of the text. And more important than authorial intent is the social or generic conventions that structure meaning and the "context of production and consumption." Of course, contexts change, they are not immutable, and that is why certain very powerful and rich stories at the heart of a people's self-image may undergo radical transformations that could never be imagined or anticipated by its authors or the society in which it was created. The meaning of particular biblical stories for instance, which have been appropriated at various moments in history for both liberatory and repressive ends.

    This is perhaps beside the point here. 300 is never going to be such a text! But it's clearly reinterpreting such a text, an ancient text by Herodotus, in a way that could never be imagined by Herodotus. If there is anything interesting in this movie besides the reflection of imperialist ideology it is the way its ahistorical reinterpretation also reflects the distortions and contradictions in that ideology, and so the *possibility* (unimaginable now) of the story, with its layers of reinterpretation, being read in an entirely new light. That doesn't make the movie "secretly subversive" as Zizek seems at times to claim, but it does reveal something about the rifts and crevices and instabilities within the structure of imperialist ideology, at the very least. The instability of the signifier "Persia" is symptomatic of this, I think.

  13. And again, I totally agree with your main point, that Zizek willfully ignores social and historical context, and this can play into rather than subvert the rightest ideology that he claims to oppose.

  14. Yeah, I get what you're saying... I also laughed out loud when you said "300 is never going to be such a text"... Although I think the film-maker does seem to think that (judging from some of the interviews surrounding the travesty that was Watchmen) he is some sort of brilliant auteur.

  15. Zizek occasionally makes some good arguments, but in general I find him mostly just another "academic Marxist" - meaning he talks big about class struggle, etc., but won't go so far as to actually take concrete steps towards building a revolutionary organization.

    A highly intelligent, articulate comrade of mine has enough of a love of Zizek (while mindful of his flaws) that I decided it was time to check out one of his books. I picked up "Did Somebody Say 'Totalitarianism'?" The overall premise of the book is very important and relevant: namely, that the concept of "totalitarianism" has been used to argue that any alternative to liberal (bourgeois) democracy must necessarily end in a new gulag. Unfortunately, from the first chapter on, Zizek couldn't help himself from constantly going into these endless tangents about obscure literature, films and the like. After a while I got irritated that he seemed to have basically abandoned his main argument, and his prose was full of pretentious, needlessly obscure academic jargon. I ended up putting the book down and haven't returned to it since.

    (More recently, Zizek's review of "The Dark Knight Rises" seemed overly verbose and weakly argued. Compare to the review of Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone, "Batman Shrugged", which makes the same points in a much more succinct, pointed and humourous way.)

    Regarding "300", I will tell you straight up that in fact, I kind of PREFER my action movies to be more right-wing. Part of that is for irony, and the other part is due to my fascination with propaganda of all kinds. I always have a good laugh watching movies like "Dirty Harry" and "Cobra" arguing that (to quote the Ruthless Reviews 80s Action Guide) "cops could end crime tomorrow if they were allowed to use their guns at least fifteen times a day."

    Nevertheless, providing ironic cheesy entertainment doesn't change the fact that a large segment of the audience will internalize the implicit messages in them, which is obviously very dangerous. People say that movies are just entertainment and don't affect them, but that's clearly mistaken - just look at how much Navy recruitment skyrocketed after the premiere of "Top Gun" ( actually has a prescient article on this called "5 Ways You Don't Realize Movies Are Controlling Your Brain", which I highly recommend).

    So yes, although I always felt that "300" was a piece of War on Terror propaganda, the extent of that is even clearer to me now after reading your post.

    1. I'm pretty much in agreement with your thoughts on Zizek. As I said in the first paragraph of this article, I tend to find his quality-to-crap ration is 1:30. He has (as you've pointed out) a lot of intriguing premises in his books, along with excellent aphorisms, but usually the core argument I found interesting to begin with is swept away in a typhoon of random tangents and, most often, Lacanian jargon. At the very least I respect the guy for repopularizing the kind of marxism that wasn't very cool to embrace in academia over a decade ago. From my own experience I can say that, when I was doing my PhD and working on philosophical engagements with communist theory that was more obviously Leninist and, then, Maoist (or quasi-Maoist), doing this became decidedly less difficult after Zizek co-edited the "Lenin Reloaded" book that was an attempt to make academics confront Leninism again. The fact he edited and wrote the introduction to the the Verso Mao collection also helped (though, as usual, his introduction started well and then became quite shitty). So, my complaints with him aside, this is worth respecting.

    2. Watchmen is by Alan Moore, not Frank Miller. Get your facts straight.

    3. Actually, how about you get your reading skills straight? Nowhere in this article do I say that Watchmen was by Frank Miller––I mention Synder's adaptation of it *in brackets as an aside* while I am talking about his adaptation of Miller's *300*. I am very aware that Alan Moore wrote *Watchmen* and I think I was probably aware of this before you, anonymous poster, since I collected Watchmen issue by issue when it was released and I am assuming, based on the tone and style of this troll intervention, that you weren't even born then.

  16. Frank Miller is no propagandist-apologist for imperialism, he is propagandist for Zionism and Israel !
    I really think there is a difference there, if not huge difference, it's still a big difference.

    1. No, he's an apologist for imperialism in general. He has said repeatedly that the US is a bulwark against terrorism. He has a notion of Western democracy versus everything non-West, which is a very particular Imperialist discourse.


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