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The lie that society is founded on

In Living in the End Times (London: Verso, 2010) that inimitable Slovenian philosopher cum psychoanalytical theorist Slavoj Žižek performs a dazzling analysis of Christopher Nolan’s genealogical Batman film The Dark Knight (2008). What his analysis brings to light is something that, Žižek reminds one, John Ford also explored cinematically years ago in Fort Apache (1948) and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). This was to “ … demonstrate how, in order to civilise the Wild West, the lie had to be elevated into truth — in short, how our civilisation is grounded on a lie” (Žižek 2010: p. 61). (I leave it to readers to find out how this is done in Ford’s films.)

Briefly, Žižek’s interpretation of Nolan’s The Dark Knight was prompted by the film’s “extraordinary popularity”, which many people probably ascribed to the fact that it “humanised” the superhero, Batman, by uncovering his “doubts and weaknesses” (p. 59). As Žižek argues, a “very thin line” separates such “humanisation” from “a resigned coming to terms with lying as a social principle” (p. 59).

What does he mean? It will be recalled that, when Batman and his policeman friend, Gordon, discover that the newly deceased district attorney, vigilante Harvey Dent, was in fact a multiple murderer, they realise that the truth about this popular figure’s criminal activities would undermine citizens’ trust in Gotham City administration as a whole. Hence Batman persuades Gordon to attribute the murders in question to himself (Batman), in this way compounding the lie (in fact, as Žižek shows, lies abound in the film).

Significantly, it is only the villainous Joker (who does not “wear” a mask, but IS his mask) who wants the truth to be revealed, specifically the identity of Batman beneath his mask, because he believes (with good reason) that the truth will “destroy the social order” (pp. 59-60). The message: at any given time, society is founded on a lie that the people “need” to believe, hence supplying what one may perhaps call the “mythic foundation” of society.

How this plays out in The Dark Knight is not important here; what is important is Žižek’s psychoanalytic insight into the constant need for a society to have an unquestioned, mythical “lie” — which functions as the “truth”, however — as a foundation of sorts. At the end of his analysis of Nolan’s film he raises the question (p. 61): “ … why, at this precise moment, this renewed need for a lie to maintain the social system?”

Žižek’s answer is disconcerting in the extreme, but makes perfect sense against the backdrop of the meaning of his book’s title: Living in the End Times. Lest it be fundamentally misunderstood, Žižek is not proclaiming the apocalyptic “end of the world” as it is understood in various religions; he was writing about a different kind of apocalypse — the fact that we live in the midst of a colossal transition to a world the contours of which we can only dimly guess at.

What is certain, however, is that the established, so-called democratic (but really oligarchic) neoliberal order has its back against the wall, as Žižek demonstrates in this complex book by elaborating on the instabilities in the neoliberal capitalist system, on what might be called a revolution in biogenetics, on the regular occurrence of social conflict (witness the most recent one in Jerusalem, which is linked to a larger one) and — perhaps most important and far-reaching — the increasingly visible ecological crisis. All of these things are subject to the big lie, of course: the leading powers in the world will never admit that they constitute (for them) insurmountably problematical areas of human activity, given their possible consequences.

Hence Žižek’s considered opinion of the significance of the lie in Nolan’s film (p. 61): “The Dark Knight is a sign of a global ideological regression … the destruction of (emancipatory) reason.” In a nutshell, if I understand him correctly, what he means by this is that the film is symptomatic of the felt need for a foundational lie in the present era. But one may add another interpretation of Žižek’s understanding of Nolan’s popular movie: it reveals his underlying insight that it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is no justifiable foundation (or believable myth) to the current social, political and economic order any longer. Hence the prominence of the “need for a lie” in Nolan’s film — something that surpasses its fictional boundaries and points to the need for fictions to sustain the extant global order.

Just how irrational this search for suitable fictions, with their inescapable ideological implications, can be, is cleverly demonstrated where Žižek traces the “ideological regression” from a novel through three film versions based on it, each remake registering a further regression (no doubt under pressure of the ideological needs of a later time). The novel in question is Richard Matheson’s 1954 text, I am Legend, which has spawned three films — all of them deviating from the novels’ plot to differing degrees — namely The Last Man on Earth (in Italian, 1964), The Omega Man (1971) and most recently I Am Legend (2007), where Will Smith plays the central character, Neville.

The crucial differences, discussed by Žižek (p. 61-63) between the original novel and its cinematic derivatives register the degrees of ideological regression in question, where such regression is an index of the felt need, in contemporary society, for some kind of spurious justification in the shape of a “lie”. In the novel the protagonist, who is the sole human survivor of a cataclysm, discovers that he is not alone, but is stalked by the undead (vampires) and infected humans. The novel’s title, I am Legend, is a “multicultural” paradox, according to Žižek, because it reverses what humans assume about vampires, namely that they are legendary. In the novel Neville finds himself in the situation where he has become the monstrous “legend” for the vampires (he kills both vampires and “still living” humans), and he has to pay the price by being executed.

In the first film version of 1964 the only deviation from the novel is Neville’s death in the church where his wife is interred. This is the first regression, says Žižek. Instead of retaining the radical “multicultural” message of the novel, which shows that one’s own (here, human) culture has no claim to being “better” than others (here, the vampires’ culture), the hero returns to his roots, affirming its vaunted superiority. The second (1971) film version regresses further by showing the protagonist handing the mutant survivors of the catastrophe blood serum he has developed to restore their humanity: as Žižek remarks, this places the film in the “standard” category of a last-ditch prevention of the extinction of humanity. Again the radical message is lost.

The third (2007) version goes the whole hog in ideological regression. Instead of facing the “multicultural” truth about the contingency of human cultures, we witness Neville sacrificing himself in Christological fashion so that a woman and child can deliver the cure he has developed for infection to a community of survivors. Instead of the original paradox of the title (a man becoming a legend for vampires), Žižek observes, in the last film the hero, after his death, merely becomes a legend for surviving humans.

What’s wrong with this, and what does this tell us about the lie underpinning society? The final message of film-version three is simply fundamentalist, demonstrating what Žižek means by the annihilation of “emancipatory reason”: if one can no longer depend on enlightened reason to provide a way out of the mess, revert to an irrational surrender to fundamentalism. The lie involved is the refusal to acknowledge the spurious status of this surrender to religious fundamentalism (which one also witnessed in M Night Shyamalan’s Signs of 2002).

In the final analysis these films are symptomatic of what is the case in extant society today: instead of exposing the lie(s) underpinning the global order, they are continually reinforced, and Hollywood is metonymically implicated in this reinforcement of an irrational surrender to blind faith by the powers that be. If it is indeed the case that the social order cannot dispense with a foundational lie or myth of some sort, the remaining question is the one Friedrich Nietzsche tried to answer with his Thus Spoke Zarathustra: what myth do we need today, to sustain the transition to a different kind of society?


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 19 October 2015

    To the persons who tried to communicate with me about this post, and about other topics, via LinkedIn, as well as to the many who have tried to ‘friend’ me through Facebook (and still do), I need to emphasise that I have never been on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or any other so-called social networking site. Apparently my name is on LinkedIn, but I have no idea how it got there. I don’t have the time to spend on such, to my mind, redundant activities, and besides, I shall not add my support to Zuckerberg’s organisation, which is one of the main drivers of the ‘space of flows’ exacerbating ecological conditions on the planet. E-mail is more than enough participation in this space for me, and I can hardly keep up sustaining what I regard as necessary and sensible e-mail communication with family, friends and colleagues all over the world.

  2. Peter Watermeyer Peter Watermeyer 20 October 2015

    Thank you for exposing the observation that society is based on a lie. I suggest this is a limited exposition: you might have gone on to emphasise that all cohesive societies are based on “assertions” which are not to be questioned – I would rather call them that than lies, but lies they invariably and eventually are seen to be. At various levels of compulsion or brainwash, society is so ordered as to accept authority. Traditionally through religion – questioning is a heresy – more recently through pseudo-science (including various brands of economics and sociology etc). The latter include the foundations of post-neoliberal socialism, the belief that it is possible to satisfy people’s entire needs without simultaneously addressing the resources required and the full implications of the means of achieving this. A society so ordered drives the rational person to such conclusions as the inevitability of population control – by dictate or attrition. But raising this and many similar issues is regarded as heretical and banned in polite society by that most modern of curses: “It will be hurtful”.
    May I also add that your conclusions from these excellent philosophers’ works might be qualified by mentioning that their texts are lengthy, often rather abstruse, and subject to a number of conclusions. The most important one common to the two being that a better world for its children requires that we question absolutely everything, and especially that which is regarded as self-evident or unquestionable: the marker of the social lie.

  3. Maria Maria 20 October 2015

    Nice soft way to put a hard fact … The birth [and thus also death] of tragedy from the spirit of music … from a taste for the secret (se-cernere, separation) … for “active forgetfulness” … for writing … for an absolute solitude: “[…] for as long as multiplicity and alterity are not understood as the absolute solitude of the existent in its existence” (Derrida, in “Violence and Metaphysics” [1978:110-111]) there is little chance of choosing the lesser violence … “Maurice Blanchot speaks of his disagreement with this preeminence of oral discourse, which resembles ‘the tranquil humanist and socratic speech brings us close to the speaker.'” – Derrida (1978:127).
    How about “quality education” as the myth “we need today, to sustain the transition to a different kind of society”?

  4. Richard Richard 20 October 2015

    I think the reason society seems to need a lie (the most potent of which inevitably is religious) is that we relate to metaphor. Indeed, everything we do is mediated by metaphor, even where we least expect it. When we decorate our homes, we metaphorise (to coin a term) them into what provides intellectual or emotional comfort to us, dependent on what we prioritise. For some, it might be emulating the style of classical antiquity, for some, Palladian dreams, or perhaps a conjectured authentic Africa? In this way, we reach some sort of cultural “truth” into which we can immerse ourselves, and feel “authentic”. The laws of physics are manipulable metaphors for understanding the natural world. A foundational lie is a metaphor, a story, that transcends critique. It is a source to which we can appeal, rather like the Crown was in pre-republican South Africa: it underpinned the legal and social structure of the busyness of the day. The pliability of this story is what confers longevity to its consequent manifestations, i.e., the society to which it gives rise. But, as Zizek seems to imply, that pliability can only be extended so far, after which it reaches a point of unsustainability.

    Until we are able to apprehend the thing in itself (Kant’s noumenon) we are doomed ever to live like this. That is why art will always exist, because it provides a greater reality than reality itself can.

  5. Richard Richard 20 October 2015

    Modern communication is all about showing your social standing, isn’t it? Facebook reveals how many friends you have (the more the greater your social standing) and that you are able to access particular resources. That is why commercial enterprises are so keen to join Facebook. It is the ultimate commodification of social intercourse, of course, and most people don’t even realise they are being bought and sold.

  6. Rod MacKenzie Rod MacKenzie 20 October 2015

    Hi Bert could you elaborate on how Zuckerberg’s organisation, as one of the main drivers of the space of flows (agreed), exacerbates ecological conditions on the planet….or give me links on where you have written about this, thanks Rod

  7. Tim Tim 21 October 2015

    Truth is I shared your piece via FB and Twitter engaging with conversations that needed this input. To deny the opportunities afforded by social media tools is to negate the wider conversation.

  8. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 21 October 2015

    Thanks for all the constructive comments.

    Richard, as usual, your take on this makes a lot of sense. What you say about metaphor is accurate, and emphasises what Lacan argues about the difference between ‘reality’ (an amalgam of the symbolic and the imaginary) and the ineffable ‘real’, which we approach via the other two registers, but can, at best, suggest, and never capture. Not even science can, but works with theories that have the same role as metaphors in language.

    Peter, texts like this one are abstruse indeed, and anyone who is completely unfamiliar with psychoanalysis would have a hard time comprehending it. I don’t profess to understand everything that Žižek writes, but I do my best. I do think that this is a hugely important book, though, which is why I try and share it with the public. I have written about Žižek’s work before on Thoughtleader (look for “What is a liberal communist?”), because it needs a kind of interpretive mediator, although no one would be perfect. You should try to get hold of his movies, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, and The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which are very instructive.

    Maria, thanks for that lesson from Derrida – the lie that founds society is indeed closely related to the violence on which it is grounded, and, related to this, the violence that metaphysics does, of necessity, to our inescapable desire to interpret our place in the world. About “quality education” being a candidate for the role of the lie we need in our transition I’m not so sure, although one could argue that it has already been functioning in that role in South Africa for some time.

    Rod, I have written about that stuff in several academic journals, but I’m not sure whether you would be able to get hold of them. Your best bet would be the Journal Alternation, which should be available online. Look for the article:

    The ‘Network Society’, Social transformation, and the ‘Ecological Rift’. Alternation – Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of the Arts and Humanities in
    Southern Africa, 21 (2), 2014, pp. 122 – 155 (ISSN 1023-1757).

    At any rate, what I meant by that remark is simply that the dominant mode of space today, the ‘space of flows’ (Castells), is the space of the electronic communications, quasi-instantaneous investments transactions, rapid movements of merchandise and of tourists, etc., across the globe, all of which are inextricably linked to the neoliberal colonisation of our life-world. Castells shows that this is taking us towards a ‘showdown’ of sorts with ‘glacial time’ – geological time – which is SLOW compared to the accelerated time-mode that accompanies the space of flows. and which reduces time as much as possible to zero in all economic/financial transactions. The upshot of this is that, the more these newly dominant modes of space and time permeate the world, through sites like Facebook especially, the more do people exacerbate and extend them, and the more we move away from an awareness of planetary needs, captured by the concept of ‘glacial time’. For more on this, look at the texts listed below.
    (relevant Thoughtleader posts):

  9. Voldemort Rupert Voldemort Rupert 22 October 2015

    I think you may be right – about education. The quality of the current syllabus is to ensure the kids have no risk of intellectualisation. (Is that a word?) As long as they can say with supreme confidence “Yes I know that” They can pass their grades – it’s immaterial whether it’s true or not, it’s the charisma that counts.
    Invariably the next generation will have more chance of creating a totally different kind of society. Their knowledge base will be wikipedia (Libraries? That was grandma’s knowledge base!!) and other narrow sources.

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