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Netflix, Žižek, and Beethoven

A fertile documentary on Netflix includes a gem about Beethoven

Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek
Movie

Pervert's Guide to Ideology

thumbnail

Slavoj Zizek — you will no doubt remember him from <em>The Pervert's Guide to Cinema — </em>riffs his way into more erudite climes. Ideology! It sounds so...intellectual. But movies are still his mode of movement. So maybe the rest of us can play along.

Find showtimes

Slavoj Žižek has a documentary on Netflix called The Pervert's Guide to Ideology in which he discusses the pervasiveness of ideologies and our general inability to recognize them. He uses several examples from movies to get his points across.

One of the movies is, unsurprisingly, A Clockwork Orange, but he uses it to examine the ideology of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9: The Ode to Joy. Žižek points out that the character Alex is an outsider when it comes to brotherly affection for humanity, yet he is drawn to Beethoven’s music.

Video:

Beethoven's "Ode to Joy"

...sung by a choir of 1000

...sung by a choir of 1000

Žižek also makes the point that this piece of music, which celebrates the brotherhood of all humanity, has been used by several ideologies, some which are not very accepting of humanity.

The extreme leftist Shining Path movement of Peru admired Beethoven’s Ninth. The Soviet Union used it as a symbol of communism. In Maoist China, the Ninth was one of a few Western pieces of music that was deemed worthy of the People’s Republic. Zimbabwe seceded from Rhodesia in order to continue using apartheid and their national anthem was The Ode to Joy. The unofficial anthem of the European Union is also The Ode to Joy, and of course, the Nazi’s.

What gives?

Why do all these opposing ideologies admire and use Beethoven in their propaganda? I’m not sure there is a satisfactory answer except that it’s great music.

Think about this for just a moment. Who doesn’t love or at least admire Beethoven’s Ninth? If you were at a cocktail party with Hitler, Stalin, and Mao you would have something in common with them. You could have a fruitful and satisfying conversation about how much Beethoven’s music means to all of you.

Slavoj Žižek's theory is that after the initial statement of the unity theme the music changes. This is the existing ideologies resisting the new idea of humanity and pushing back before Beethoven’s new humanity comes storming back at the conclusion.

The music at the top of the final movement does have a disruptive quality. The Ode to Joy theme tries to emerge several times but is shouted down each time until it has it’s first comprehensive statement quietly in the cellos. The theme is then developed in the orchestra until returning to the disruption at the top of the movement and adding the voices.

Whether or not Žižek is correct, that Beethoven was trying to portray the birth of a new world order, is debatable but plausible. The idea is seductive and that’s usually good enough for an idea whore such as myself.

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Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek
Movie

Pervert's Guide to Ideology

thumbnail

Slavoj Zizek — you will no doubt remember him from <em>The Pervert's Guide to Cinema — </em>riffs his way into more erudite climes. Ideology! It sounds so...intellectual. But movies are still his mode of movement. So maybe the rest of us can play along.

Find showtimes

Slavoj Žižek has a documentary on Netflix called The Pervert's Guide to Ideology in which he discusses the pervasiveness of ideologies and our general inability to recognize them. He uses several examples from movies to get his points across.

One of the movies is, unsurprisingly, A Clockwork Orange, but he uses it to examine the ideology of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9: The Ode to Joy. Žižek points out that the character Alex is an outsider when it comes to brotherly affection for humanity, yet he is drawn to Beethoven’s music.

Video:

Beethoven's "Ode to Joy"

...sung by a choir of 1000

...sung by a choir of 1000

Žižek also makes the point that this piece of music, which celebrates the brotherhood of all humanity, has been used by several ideologies, some which are not very accepting of humanity.

The extreme leftist Shining Path movement of Peru admired Beethoven’s Ninth. The Soviet Union used it as a symbol of communism. In Maoist China, the Ninth was one of a few Western pieces of music that was deemed worthy of the People’s Republic. Zimbabwe seceded from Rhodesia in order to continue using apartheid and their national anthem was The Ode to Joy. The unofficial anthem of the European Union is also The Ode to Joy, and of course, the Nazi’s.

What gives?

Why do all these opposing ideologies admire and use Beethoven in their propaganda? I’m not sure there is a satisfactory answer except that it’s great music.

Think about this for just a moment. Who doesn’t love or at least admire Beethoven’s Ninth? If you were at a cocktail party with Hitler, Stalin, and Mao you would have something in common with them. You could have a fruitful and satisfying conversation about how much Beethoven’s music means to all of you.

Slavoj Žižek's theory is that after the initial statement of the unity theme the music changes. This is the existing ideologies resisting the new idea of humanity and pushing back before Beethoven’s new humanity comes storming back at the conclusion.

The music at the top of the final movement does have a disruptive quality. The Ode to Joy theme tries to emerge several times but is shouted down each time until it has it’s first comprehensive statement quietly in the cellos. The theme is then developed in the orchestra until returning to the disruption at the top of the movement and adding the voices.

Whether or not Žižek is correct, that Beethoven was trying to portray the birth of a new world order, is debatable but plausible. The idea is seductive and that’s usually good enough for an idea whore such as myself.

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1

That really isn't Žižek's point at all. He interprets the Ode to Joy as a critique of the ideology of a new world order founded on the brotherhood of mankind, on the grounds that it often depends in practice on a "zone of exclusion" for people who don't count as part of that mankind. For example, the Nazis, who were very much into "brotherhood" and whatnot... as long as you were German. By that interpretation, the middle alla turca march section doesn't represent "existing ideologies resisting the new idea of humanity", it represents the zone of exclusion that illustrates the hypocrisy and emptiness of the "new idea of humanity" contained in the original theme. (The use of a Turkish march style for that section is an obvious giveaway, especially since the European humanism of Beethoven's era often totally excluded non-Europeans.) Žižek's point in bringing up A Clockwork Orange is that Alex subscribes to this interpretation of Beethoven, and identifies personally with the zone of exclusion articulated in the alla turca section.

Watch the movie again, and pay attention this time.

Feb. 17, 2016

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