- Between lack and abundance: Introducing the Zizek/Connolly exchange on film and politics
The following two articles, which initially appeared in the Danish journal Politoligiske Studier (www.politologiske.dk), represent the first-ever published exchange between two of the leading thinkers in contemporary political theory: Slavoj Zizek and William E. Connolly. Both thinkers are acknowledged for their provocative innovations in theories of politics and ethics. Zizek, on his part, has shown how the psychoanalytic approach of Lacan helps us to understand the view that identities always remain incomplete and that ideologies of nationalism and populism only can operate if they succeed in convincing us otherwise. Connolly, equally preoccupied with the theme of identity, has shown how the same incompleteness of identity holds the promise of an ethics of cultivation that is more sensitive to new ways of life than other frameworks of ethical thought (including the discourse of liberalism). Together, the works of Zizek and Connolly surely represent some of the most interesting appropriations of French post-structural philosophy within contemporary political theory.
Concerned with questions about ideology, micropolitics, interpretation, textuality, authority, and contestability, the present exchange between Zizek and Connolly explores the intersection between film and politics.  Zizek, who is the one of the two contributors that has written most extensively on the relationship between film and politics, begins his article by reviewing The Duel, a recent movie by Jean-Jacques Annaud that premiered at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival. The movie tells the epic story of the Second World War battle for Stalingrad through the lenses of a Soviet sniper and his fight against the Germans. Placing the movie in its proper historical perspective, Zizek argues that The Duel fails, especially because it refuses to confront the trauma of reality (the pursuit of a meaningless war), and instead dresses up the battle in an illusive narrative about romantic heroes. As a result, the “most expensive European film of all times (200 millions DM), destined to assert Europe against Hollywood, marks the ideological defeat, the subordination to Hollywood.”
In his reply to Zizek, Connolly does not contest this analysis per se, nor does he disagree with Zizek about the ideological use of film in Nazi Germany. What Connolly does contest is the sufficiency of Zizek’s interpretation. Fundamental to Connolly’s view is the idea that politics and ethics cannot be reduced to the level of text and narration. Instead, politics and ethics are the reflexive production of multiple layers of thought and practice. While some of these layers are available to narrative interpretation (like the layer of text), others are not; and those that are not, Connolly contests, come only to our attention once we concede the insufficiency and contestability of textual interpretation. As Connolly finds Zizek’s psychoanalysis hesitant to make such concession, he suggests that we explore alternative approaches to the question of film and politics, especially approaches that are attentive to the multiple techniques of film-making (irrational cuts, use of music and so on). Connolly says: “I am interested in an approach to the nexus between film and politics that is inflected differently. As the hegemony of narrative interpretation is relaxed, attention to technique is accentuated.”
The disagreement between Zizek and Connolly is interesting because it reveals two very different modes of thought. These modes of thought cut across Zizek and Connolly’s shared concern for identities and common commitment to French post-structural philosophy. Whether the two modes of thought differ fundamentally, or whether they may be reconciled at some point in the future, still remains to be determined. For the time being, we can only sketch-out the modes’ differences and internal disagreements. On the one hand, Zizek represents a mode of thought concerned with what we might call the “lack of being.” Arguing that that the structural dislocation of the lack makes any identity incomplete, the most controversial suggestion of this mode of thought is that we never shall attain the object of our pursuits. For example, we may strive toward a perfect democracy where the relationship between the rulers and the ruled is completely transparent. However, we are taught by this mode of thought, such...