Not Radical: Against Žižek’s Take on Coriolanus

Coriolanus-650x327I wrote a bit about Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus film some days back. In that missive I mentioned Slavoj Žižek’s introduction to Sophie Wahnich’s In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution, a little book I just finished reading some days back. Žižek concludes his introduction by mentioning Fiennes’ Coriolanus and briefly comparing the Volscians to left-wing rebels.

He cites the way Aufidius mixed freely with commoners in what seemed to him like a liberated guerrilla zone “in clear contrast to the stiff formality of Rome.” This claim is made by Žižek in order to depict Coriolanus as “the unique figure of a radical freedom fighter” who has “no fixed class allegiance and can easily put himself in the service of the oppressed.”

But while this interpretation is tempting, I think it stretches the limits of the imagination too far. That the Volscians are simply another city-state waging war against the Roman city-state rather than a liberation army bent on seizing political power for the oppressed can be easily gleaned in Fiennes’ depiction of the Volscians themselves.

Instead of exemplifying a typical liberation army guerrilla camp, the way the Volscians acted in their camps do not differ from that of any other regular army. Instead of educational discussions and collective living, the Volscians indulge in rave dances and drinking matches. There are no women fighters. There is no jovial sense of comradely solidarity or militant determination among the soldiers.

Setting the film footage in war-ravaged Serbia with all its associations of ethnic and religious conflicts devoid of class dimensions also goes against any such conclusion. If Fiennes wanted to offer the Volscians as Marxist-Leninist guerrillas, then a Latin American setting or perhaps a partisan front in World War 2 Europe or the Spanish Civil War would have better served the purpose.

In short, Žižek is simply up to his old antics and does not deserve to be treated seriously in this (mis)reading of Fiennes’ Coriolanus


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