Recently I finally got around to watching ‘They Live’, a cult classic made in 1988 directed by John Carpenter. I was inspired to watch this truly brilliant work of art after re watching Slavoj Žižek’s ‘A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’. If you are not familiar with his work allow me to summarise: he is a psychoanalytical philosopher who engages in fields such as Lacanian linguistic structuralism. You got that? If not then don’t worry, they’re just words and, as far as I can tell, understanding them really means that you don’t understand them at all. Or is it that understanding them means you understand that there is nothing to understand? No it means that once you understand you recognise that the thing you once understood was a construct but then that means that your enlightenment is also a construct, just one that deviates from the social norm. What was I saying?
If you find yourself watching either Žižek’s guide or Carpenter’s Hollywood blockbuster, you may find yourself just as confused as I am. What I plan to achieve in my first instalment of ‘A viewer’s guide to’ is ease the transition between reality and existential crisis. I am going to take you on a little thought provoking journey through psychoanalytical philosophy that will hopefully ease that throbbing in the top of your skull after watching these flicks.
I will begin by providing a link to a YouTube video that shows Žižek’s critique of ‘They Live’ in ‘A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’ as it may help give a bit of context and is only six minutes or so long.
So what is Žižek going on about and why should we care? Well his analysis helps address something that most of us have felt many times before – that society holds some control over us and moulds us in various ways. The difference between our thoughts and Žižek’s is that we struggle to eloquently explain HOW society does this and why. This is where structuralism comes into play. Structuralism, put simply, is a form of analysis that evaluates culture, human behaviour and experience by focusing on the relationships between them. So, for example, Ferdinand de Saussure premised that society functions through binary opposition. When there is love there is hate, when there is death there is life, when there is wealth there is poverty and so on. This is a structuralist view and is clearly demonstrated in Žižek’s perspective on IDEOLOGY. Ideology being a system or structure reinforced through coercive state power (though there are many different interpretations and definitions). Žižek explains that ‘They Live’ categorises Western society rather fittingly.
Imagine for a moment that ideology was just a projected image and the only way to see it is through magical glasses that make the joys of consumerism come to life. When you take the glasses off, the real image is too hard to bare, so we keep our glasses on to protect ourselves from the deep and dark dissatisfaction that is reality. This would be how a lot of people view and define ideology. That it is a thing we choose to embrace by wearing our hypothetical, magical ideology glasses. However, Žižek praises the reverse interpretation from ‘They Live’. That if ideology could be seen through glasses it would be the other way around. Ideology means that we believe our reality to be right before our eyes. That it is common sense and obvious. So instead we need a pair of magical glasses to see the true meaning of the system that controls us. Ideology is not something we choose to embrace, instead it is forced upon us and it is up to us to put on the glasses and see the true messages behind the symbols, much like ‘They Live’ protagonist George Nada. He was completely happy with the world he lived in despite being unemployed and homeless. When he comes across a box of sunglasses made by some underground resistance group he becomes curious and puts them on only to discover that humanity is being overrun by body snatching Aliens who have colonised us through divisive, capitalist exploitation. They reinforce the elite’s exploitation of the weak by rewarding them with economic growth and in turn are allowed to control society, or indeed, the entire planet.
So what is the relevance of all this? These analogies of our structures and symbols presented by structuralist theorist Žižek and Carpenter’s’They Live’ are themselves symbols for the struggle against the structures and symbols. My interpretation of this is as follows: George Nada’s ideology glasses clearly aren’t real, we know that you can’t physically see through the metaphysical structures of society. Instead, the sunglasses represent a realisation or understanding. Much like taking the red pill in the Matrix. This is where I want to add to Žižek’s analysis. That the glasses are a symbol of education/critical thinking and the immense struggle to break free from our ideological influences. Once we open ourselves up to delving deeper into the system and power plays of our lives, we in turn see their messages and values. This is of significance to our daily lives, especially considering the current instability within the international economic and political sphere . We must be willing to put on the glasses, and see through the seemingly obvious, to establish the true message behind the structures and symbols.
It makes it clear that we need to encourage ourselves to be critical and somewhat defiant (viva la revolution and so on). The Alien body snatchers in ‘They Live’ are also a symbol. I believe them to represent the inhumanity of the apparent ‘humanity’ of meritocracy and capitalism. It addresses the potential truism that our daily lives are not compatible with the essence of our own existence, that we are becoming heartless, body snatching aliens and, in a sense, transforming human nature into the ‘other’ category. Just imagine, you want to make a new email address, you go to create an account, they ask your name, then your gender, then your species to which you reply ‘other’. When they ask you to clarify your race you put ‘Ideology Following Alien Body Snatcher’. I bet you’d still have to do those annoying ‘I’m not a robot’ tests, they always do. It’s funny how they are Robotist (robot racist) yet they are fine letting ideology following alien body snatchers make a new gmail account. Sorry where was I? A that’s right, the trouble is that we have succumbed to the will of ideological enforcement so believe that consumerism is a ‘normal’ human attribute.
So ‘They Live’ is critiquing the symbols and structures of society through the use of structures, such as the alien body snatcher overlords who dominant the economy and human freedom, and symbols, such as the ideology glasses that are a symbol for critical thought, to address the exploits of ideological enforcement. And breathe. In simpler words, they are critiquing ideological structuralism by using exaggerated structures and symbols.
Of course, the symbols of structured society can themselves be corroded. ‘They Live’ has encouraged deep critical thought about our consumer culture and encouraged a critical view point of its exploits. However, capitalism is no worse because of it. Capitalism is malleable and robust, it can take something that wants to destroy it and metaphysically consume it and then turns it into the capitalist ideal. So, for example, the iconic phrase from ‘They Live’ “OBEY” is now turned into a mass produced phrase printed on T-shirts. The very word is one of the largest criticisms of popular culture, that advertising and exterior stimuli are simply reinforcements of a greater ideal. The word represents an anti-system perspective and viewpoint, yet capitalistic consumerism has turned it on its head and has made it become the very thing it was trying to defy – popular culture. This, as defined by Jan D. Matthews in “an Introduction to the Situationists”, is known as ‘Recuperation and Detournement’. It is:
“the channelling of social revolt in a way that perpetuates capitalism. To understand recuperation is to understand how working class struggles are kept under control and how working class demands become integrated into capital’s strategy.”
(I actually recommend giving the above a read as it will provide further insight into the capitalist critique.)
So ask yourself, is ‘They Live’ simply a science fiction film from the late 8Os, or is it a complex structuralist critique of psychoanalytical philosophy? Only you can know, though when you do it is meaningless, for the body snatching aliens… I mean…. capitalism… will have taken your new found perspective and turned it into a nice T-shirt available at a all reliable retailers near you! (Comes with ideology glasses as standard, no batteries included).