297. Breakthrough (III)
In Iron Man (2008) there is a moment that perfectly exemplifies what Slavoj Žižek means by ideology. Tony Stark, billionaire playboy and arms manufacturer, visits US forces in Afghanistan to show off his latest weapon, the Jericho—a kind of multi-missile launcher named with reference to the Ark of the Covenant that precessed around Jericho’s walls accompanied by trumpets and so led those walls to tumble. While out on patrol in “the funvee”, as the slick charmer dubs his Humvee, Stark is blown up by an IED and taken captive by the Taliban and their allies from the Muslim world; in captivity, Stark constructs an exoskeleton from detritus in the Taliban hideout that facilitates his escape and eventually, with modification, allows him to become the titular “Iron Man”.
As the story progresses, Stark, a libertarian in a Randian mould, collaborates with the US military—his company’s major client—while retaining a strict independence as regards his exoskeleton. Stark becomes aware that somehow the Taliban have come to possess a Jericho and are using it, as a CNN anchor puts it, to create a “heart of darkness”. In particular, the CNN announcer intones, it is the “foreign fighters”, including the man who captured Stark, who are responsible for the latest extreme cruelty to afflict the Afghans. Stark duly dons the Iron Man suit and flies to Afghanistan to subdue the foreign interlopers and put an end to the “heart of darkness”.
It is this moment that encapsulates ideology perfectly, for it is assumed—as naturally as a fish cannot see the water in which it swims—that the Taliban’s allies from the Muslim world are interlopers and that, further, since they are foreigners they are more cruel than any local. Perhaps this is true, but the ideological assumption is that the American military forces and Stark himself are not foreign at all. For the US military to be in Afghanistan—for Tony Stark to make an individual intervention—is just natural. Their presence in Afghanistan is as natural and normal as the rocks, streams, and fields—as natural as Kabul or Kandahar. Unlike the “foreign fighters” who aid the Taliban there is nothing foreign about the American military or Stark—it is the Afghan’s co-religionists who are the strangers.
What makes this ideological, in Žižek‘s sense, is the way the worldview is assumed without reference. There is no self-consciousness about it; nobody says: “We’re strangers here too, but we’re strangers with a decent vision for Afghanistan.” No, the worldview is completely assumed; it makes what is unnatural—what is unreal—to be perceived as if it is natural and an unalterable part of reality; and this is ideology.
Actually, it is the American military and Stark who are the real foreigners in Afghanistan; granted, some Saudi hothead with the Taliban is foreign, but he is closer to the Afghans in culture and religion than any Westerner. To picture him as the “foreign element” that does not belong is true reality inversion. To refer to the foreign fighters as creating a “heart of darkness” is a further step: Conrad’s novel is famously anti-colonial—anti-Western colonialism—but here the Muslim internationalists become cast as savage colonialists; ergo, the American military, as conceptualised by the country’s leftist ideology, represent anti-imperialist liberation forces.
It is only crude propaganda that casts “our side” as the goodies versus the baddies. True ideological thought is more sophisticated, it starts with a complete assumption: our enemies do not even belong in the country and their ethical views are null; whereas we belong here as if we were the country’s soil, and our mores are naturally normative. The technique is what salesmen call “assuming the sale”: treat the customer as if she has already decided to buy the product and immediately start to discuss terms. Hence in Iron Man, Stark uncovers American corruption that aids the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the basic premise—the sale, Americans should be there—is assumed; we are only discussing terms.