Denial: The Liberal Utopia

by Slavoj Zizek
from Lacan Dot Com

I. Through the Glasses Darkly (revisited, enlarged and re-edited)

John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), one of the neglected masterpieces of the Hollywood Left, is a true lesson in critique of ideology. It is the story of John Nada – Spanish for “nothing”! -, a homeless laborer who finds work on a Los Angeles construction site, but has no place to stay. One of the workers, Frank Armitage, takes him to spend the night at a local shantytown. While being shown around that night, he notices some odd behavior at a small church across the street. Investigating it the next day, he accidentally stumbles on several more boxes hidden in a secret compartment in a wall, full of sunglasses. When he later puts on a pair of the glasses for the first time, 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.” Additionally he soon discovers that many people are actually aliens who, when they realize 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 initially uninterested in his story. The two fight as Nada attempts to convince and then force him to put on the sunglasses. When he does, Armitage joins Nada and they get in contact with the group from the church, organizing resistance. At the group’s meeting they learn that the alien’s 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 the direct link of 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 shanty-town lives of poor workers. Then there is, of course, the beautifully-naïve mise-en-scene of ideology: through the critico-ideological glasses, we directly see the Master-Signifier beneath the chain of knowledge: we learn to see dictatorship IN democracy. There is, of course, a naïve aspect in this staging, reminding us of the not-so-well-known fact that, in the 1960s, the leadership of the CP of the USA, in order to account for its failure to mobilize workers, seriously entertained the idea that the US population is controlled by the secret use of drugs distributed through air and water supply. We do not need aliens and secret drugs or gasses – 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: every title, even and especially when it pretends just to inform, 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. more

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