Anyway, we were thinking about Fromm and also Rob Weatherill's book 'Cultural Collapse', which bears the influence of Fromm's observations on paranoia and repression but places certain strains of everyday dysfunction (narcissism, loneliness, obsessive consumption) in a more specific, culturally contemporary context. Weatherill was writing just before we all got caught up in the net, but he presents a familiar account of that restless, dissatisfied and desensitised mindest in which nothing is mysterious, nothing private, and where meaning is only equated with value. (It'd be interesting to see a study on the psychological impact of social media, which simultaneously prompts us to consume, confess and manage a public image which may or may not have any basis in the real world.)
Then (and the leap into trivia would appall both these writers, but cognitive dissonance is how we roll round here) I spotted superstar Slovenian thinker and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek standing outside a hotel in London. I would have liked to have asked him what I thought I was doing. But I couldn't.
Instead, tugged from the hoard, is this piece on his great documentary, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, in which Zizek puts the history of cinema, and its relationship with the unconscious, on the couch...
The Pervert's Guide To Cinema
For Jean Luc Godard, cinema told the truth 24 times a second, but for philosopher, psychoanalyst and wild man of theory Slavoj Zizek it's not the truth of the form that needs uncovering but the collective fantasies which films reveal and arouse. His three part analysis of filmmaking from Possessed in 1934 through to Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Fight Club and The Matrix, is a rigorous, controversial and exhilaratingly high-minded voyage through the secret life of cinema in which Zizek strives to perceive "not the reality behind the illusion, but the reality in the illusion."
Zizek sets out his manifesto early on. Film, he argues, both infiltrates and expresses the subconscious: "Cinema doesn't give you what you desire," he says, "it tells you how to desire." As befits a zealous Freudian, Zizek's favoured filmmaker is Hitchcock, and he sees evidence of Freud's tripartite theory of the unconscious everywhere: the three floors of the Bates residence in Psycho correspond to Norman's id, ego and super-ego; the ornithological onslaught in The Birds is the maternal super-ego running riot. And in the Marx brothers we have not three distinct personalities, but aspects of a single mind corresponding to, you guessed it, super-ego, ego and id.
Some may find these readings excessively convenient or over-artful, but they're the jumping off point for Zizek's exploration of some fascinating issues. Bodily intrusion in Alien and The Exorcist become examples of the ego as an alien psychic force - a ghost in the human machine. Ed Norton's character beating himself up in Fight Club and Dr Strangelove's Nazi salute become expressions of the death drive - not, by Zizek's reading a desire to return to a state of inorganic insensibility, but an involuntary response to echoes from a netherworld to which forbidden desires are dispatched.
Sitting happily on the same toilet out of which flowed a torrent of blood in The Conversation, Zizek wonders if cinema isn't really an opportunity to apprehend those forbidden desires from a safe distance. "Are we basically not staring into a toilet bowl and waiting for things to reappear out of the toilet?" he asks. "Is the entire spectacle shown from the screen not a kind of a deceptive view trying to conceal the fact that we are basically watching shit?"
It's in part two that Zizek's analysis is at its most potent, and his discussion of sex in the cinema puts an alarming spin on that old adage that most of us learn how to do it from the movies. The libido, like the Matrix, he argues, can only function properly if it is sustained by a fantasy that cinema itself helps create. Summoning Vertigo and Tarkovsky's Solaris, Zizek considers the different ways in which (mostly male) protagonists respond to the nightmare of their fantasies being realised.
Feminists may take exception to his suggestion that for women sex is essentially undertaken for the purpose of gossip, but he offers a persuasive interpretation of The Piano Teacher in which sex, for Isabelle Huppert's character, has no "phantasmic" basis - she has no romantic fantasy in which to frame it. Few would disagree with Zizek's assertion that the scene in which her desires are finally acted on is among the most grimly distressing of the noughties.
Part three lacks some of the first two episodes' iconoclastic punch, but also contains the most intriguing theory. Here Zizek argues that to understand the significance of film we need to acknowledge its artificiality, while at the same taking its fictions seriously. The stories we choose to tell ourselves - or which executives deem are worthy of being told - tell us important things about our culture's preoccupations. Zizek's theory of 'cinematic materialism' takes this a step further and uses film - with its fantasies, fades and efficient deceptions - as a key to understanding our own subjective experience of the world.
Zizek's inspiration is the Freudian fundamentalist Lacan who, like Zizek sought to translate Freud's ideas into a contemporary arena, but Zizek himself is on a mission similar to that of post-war America's populist theoretician Marshall McLuhan, for whom the media was as significant as the message, and for whom the artist operated as society's antenna.
Zizek is as fascinated with the form of film as he is with the content of movies themselves, and his own antenna are up and twitching. There's a lot to engage with here, much of it contentious, but The Perverts Guide To Cinema is a fascinating lecture by a brilliantly unpredictable thinker. In looking at, through, to and for meaning in the movies, he gives credence to Oscar Wilde's words: "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is in the visible, not the invisible."
This is a fascinating, idiosyncratic and brilliantly provocative analysis of the secret drives behind the moving image. Those films which Zizek examines will never look quite the same again.