Desire, Coca-Cola, Terrorism
Why do people do things even though they know that they are wrong? Why do we refuse to challenge and resist institutions and powers which act to our detriment? Why do we fail to see the implicit meaning behind supposedly meaningless objects? All of these questions relate to the concept of Ideology; the process through which domination is sustained without coercion. Slavoj Žižek is arguably the most notable academic to have engaged with critique of Ideology in recent years, bringing in Lacan’s work on the unconscious and psychoanalysis to revitalise the discipline. The feature-length documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012) works as an excellent introduction to Žižek’s output and as a gateway to Lacanian-inspired ideology critique. In this film, Žižek presents a variety of key Lacanian concepts that help to understand his work on Ideology via interspersing his analysis with clips from a number of other films or pop culture references. Žižek’s arguments given in this film have profound implications for how we understand the political world which we inhabit, ranging from how we allow Capitalism to persists, to why the War on Terror was able to gain so much support.
Two of the more profound sections of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology tackle the content of Coca-Cola advertising, and the film Seconds (1966). Both scenes engage with the concept of desire. For Lacan, desire is the unconscious difference between ‘demand’ and ‘need’ (Evans, 2006, p.38); in other words, that which is wanted but is perpetually lacking. The section on Coca-Cola develops the idea that desire is not a desire for any particular object. Rather, desire relies on the desire for an unspecified ‘thing’. To illustrate this, Žižek walks through a desert, holding a cold bottle of Coca-Cola. He knows that he is thirsty, and knows that drinking the Coca-Cola will temporarily quench his thirst. However, he acknowledges that drinking the Coca-Cola will ultimately make him thirstier due to its high sugar content, thus defeating its apparent purpose. Moreover, as time progresses, the Coca-Cola becomes warmer and warmer, likewise becoming less and less attractive. Žižek realises this, and becomes aware of the fact that he does not actually desire Coca-Cola itself.
As an object, Coca-Cola is not what Žižek desires. Like in the Coca-Cola advertising of the early 2000s, where the product is referred to as ‘the real thing’, Coca-Cola fills the role of an unspecified ‘thing’ which is desired. Whilst this pastiche may initially seem mundane, it is packed with political content. Desire concerns more than the desire of products of capitalism; not only does the unconscious desire for these products prop up the system of capitalism through the production of effective demand for material objects necessary to the reproduction of the circuit of capital, but desire also concerns identity, universal rights, or development. We may desire each of these things, but Žižek acknowledges that this is ultimately driven by a desire for desire itself. True desire is perpetually lacking. The perpetual and inescapable desire for desire is Ideological insofar as different objects or polices purport to fill the void of desire, structuring our experiences around an illusion.
In his discussion of Seconds, Žižek returns to the concept of desire. The subject of the film is a middle-aged businessman who desires a new life. Through a secretive agency, he is given a new body, a new lifestyle, and a relationship. However, he soon tires of his new life and requests a return to his life as a businessman. He returns to the agency, before he is taken to be killed so that his corpse may be used to fake the death of a new client who also seeks a new life. Žižek uses this film to illustrate that desires may not just be empty, but misled; what we desire may not actually be what we think we desire. This aspect of desire demonstrates the opaque nature of Ideology; just as the businessman’s desire is misled, desires held by society as a whole may too rest on empty foundations. The desire for things such as capitalism, identity, and war is opaque as it may, in fact, be a read as a desire for a false version of reality. At this point, society is consequently shaped by a fantasy; social reality and what we seek to obtain from it becomes nothing more than an illusion. Capitalism becomes an arrangement of autonomous individuals and commodities, divorced from the conditions of their production. Identities are seen a collection of manufactured and fixed differences between communities, paying no attention to how malleable and flexible they can be. War is read in terms of heroism, valour, and bravery, rather than as the site of horrific and unspeakable traumatic events. The unconscious ‘Real’, continues to be repressed and excluded from language and symbolisation by the ‘Imaginary’, an idealised view of what the world is.
By understanding Ideology to function in terms of desire, and in turn understanding this desire as illusory, we can apply Ideology critique to make sense of real world issues, in particular those which revolve around contradictions. For Žižek (2008, p.30), Ideology is best summarised by the statement ‘they know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still, they are doing it’. Whilst Ideology critique is typically concerned with how capitalism is able to sustain itself, it may be applied to a variety of other political matters. Ranging from the everyday, such as understanding why horse racing is supported despite knowledge of the potential for horrific injuries to riders and runners, to global issues such as why there are calls for sweeping policy measures to combat climate change yet the willingness to radically alter our everyday practices to benefit the environment is low.
Another issue which falls within the domain of Ideology critique is terrorism. One contradiction identified in counter-terrorism practices is that, in aiming to safeguard Western ‘freedom’, they undermine the very civil liberties which they attempt to protect and lead to a ‘dirty war on terrorism’ (Jackson, 2005, p.183). Ideology critique offers an insight in to why this contradiction persists. In particular, through viewing terrorism in terms of desire, the Ideological functioning of terrorism and subsequent responses becomes apparent. Žižek (2012) has previously applied Ideology critique to the events of September 11, 2001, demonstrating that the collapse of the Twin Towers was traumatic not as a result of pure, visceral destruction, but through constituting the realisation of a latent desire for the destruction of the West. Žižek observes the visual parallels between the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, and the iconic image Hollywood of the exploding Capitol building in Independence Day; the West apparently enjoys the image of its own destruction, yet when it is realised it begins to resemble a misled desire.
This desire may seem suspicious at first. However, to appreciate the full role of desire, it is important to understand the function of the desire for destruction. Every act of terrorism requires a terrorist perpetrator. This person becomes the object of a dramatic hunt by the West, where the only possible ending is the apprehension or killing of the terrorist in a cathartic moment of dramatic conclusion (Spens, 2019, p.37). Here, the terrorist is not an individual criminal. Instead, the terrorist is an archetypal figure, the bogeyman of the West; a figure which represents barbarism, evil, and impurity (ibid., p.4). The destruction of the terrorist at the end of this narrative has immense symbolic value; we only need to look at how the death of Bin Laden was praised despite its negligible tactical advantages in the War on Terror. The West is thus able to produce its self-perceived status as the inverse of the terrorist as a civilised, good, and pure figure through destroying Symbolic representations of the dramatic terrorist figure.
The constant reaffirmation of Western identity requires the juxtaposition of the binaries of civilisation/barbarism, good/evil, and purity/impurity, achieved by the West through confronting the image of the terrorist. In other words, the desire for desire causes the West to desire the existence and subsequent destruction of the terrorist ‘other’. Any policy which works towards this destruction and promises to fulfil this desire will then achieve widespread support, even if it undermines the very idea of the West it aims to protect. After all, who would turn down the fulfilment of a desire? However, as the terrorist functions as a perpetual dramatic figure rather than a collection of individuals, this desire is ultimately impossible to achieve. Thus, by relying on desire, support for counter-terrorist policies continue indefinitely as long as the identity of the West is structured around the Imaginary terrorist.
By structuring ideals of what it means to be ‘the West’ around the cathartic end to individual manifestations of the terrorist figure, the West necessarily requires terrorism to create this desire and fill the void of desire for desire itself. The terrorist has become the new Coca-Cola, eminently consumable and desired by the West.
Ideology, seen in terms of desire, is an incisive tool in understanding the complex and contradictory nature of power relations. Moving beyond notions of ‘false consciousness’ and being something which obscures reality, as I previously explored for the Juncture Review (White, 2018), Ideology can be understood as an illusion. However, this illusion is something which we desire and ultimately enjoy; our capacity to resist and enact change is limited by our unconscious. Next time you think you want something, take a step back and ask yourself why I want what I want, and what this desire works towards.
Evans, D. (2006) An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. 2nd edn. London: Routledge.
Jackson, R. (2005) Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics, and Counter- Terrorism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Seconds (1966) Directed by John Frankenheimer [Film]. Hollywood: Paramount.
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012) Directed by Sophie Fiennes [Film]. New York City: Zeitgeist Films.
White, E. (2018), “‘Outfoxed’ and Ideology”. The Juncture Review. Available at: https://www.junctureuom.co.uk/blog/outfoxed-and-ideology (Accessed 18/10/2019).
Žižek, S. (2008) The Sublime Object of Ideology. 2nd edn. London: Verso.
Žižek, S. (2012) Welcome to the Desert of the Real. 2nd edn. London: Verso.