Dis-ideology in A Clockwork Orange
“It is necessary for man to have choice to be good or evil, even if he chooses evil. To deprive him of this choice is to make him something less than human -- a clockwork orange.” Stanley Kubrick (Strick and Houston)
A Clockwork Orange, cinematic masterpiece directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1971, narrates the story of young man Alex DeLarge and his three “droogs” who are used to hanging around the city committing crimes of “ultraviolence”.
The movie points out the struggle for a society to respect the human freedom of an individual choosing evil instead of good, and in so doing, the movie also offers a peculiar perspective over the use of violence, which is supposedly accepted if it is used for a presumably fair social punishment. While the theme of violence appears unfiltered on the screen, the ideology carried on by the narrative itself lies beneath the gore of the surface.
Director Kubrick, adapting his movie from Anthony Burgess’s homonymous novel, made choices related to graphic and sound representations, in order to convey the powerful messages we get from the screen. Furthermore, the connection between image and sound changes throughout the narrative, and so does our perspective towards them. In the first part of the movie we get used to seeing protagonist Alex obsessed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which pleases him incredibly and empowers him to the point that he becomes excessively mentally and physically violent as he hears the tune; by the end of the movie, instead, the unhuman psychological ‘therapy’, to which Alex is subject as a form of treatment adopted by the government to heal extremely violent individuals, makes use of screened images of violence accompanied by the very Ninth Symphony. As a consequence, for the way the Symphony is employed, that music makes Alex sick to the point that, after the treatment, every time he happens to hear his beloved tune, he goes crazy and even tries to kill himself, as he unconsciously links the music to the suffering he had experienced during the treatment.
By filling up the movie with a meaningfully overwhelmed essence, Kubrick creates a whole realm of messages and image-sound connections, which, in turn, shape the world and the movie to a new form of ideology that works only in the dystopian society of A Clockwork Orange.
“According to our common sense, we think that ideology is something blurring, confusing our straight view. Ideology should be glasses that distort our view. And the critique of possible should be the opposite: you take off the glasses so that you can finally see the way things really are. […] This is precisely the ultimate delusion. Ideology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world, how we perceive it. We in a way enjoy ideology. To step out of ideology hurts, it is a painful experience. You must force yourself to do it.” (Žižek).
Ideology works spontaneously as a way for us to make sense of the world, as Althusser, before Žižek, would argue. However, our understanding of the world varies according to the kind of world we deal with. While Žižek talks about ideology taking into consideration the actual world we live in, in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange the concept of ideology is completely reversed, as the whole movie portraits a dystopian society. Ideology, although in a different shape, owns its fundamental role even in a dystopia.
If we analyze the movie merely from formal point of view, we can easily identify the whole social structure from which ideology starts off. Social institutions such as family and politics do exist in the world of the movie, as well as cultural objects such as music and art. However, differently from the real world, in A Clockwork Orange the entire media system appears completely distorted by the immoral use the protagonist makes of the cultural objects he is exposed to.
“It was a bit from the glorious ninth by Ludwig van. Whenever an ideological text sets all humanity unite in brotherhood, joy and so on, you should always ask : ok, ok, ok, is this all, really all, or some are excluded? I think Alex the delinquent of A Clockwork Orange identifies with this place of exclusion. And the great genius of Beethoven is that he literally states this exclusion. All of a sudden the whole tone changes into a kind of a carnavalesque return. It’s no longer this sublime beauty. We hear this vulgar music precisely when Alex enters a shopping arcade and we can see from his movements that now he feels at home. He is like fish in the water.” (Žižek)
While the Ninth Symphony has always been considered as an ode to brotherhood because usually only the first part of the masterpiece is played in official events, in Kubrick’s movie the Symphony acquires a completely different sense. While classical music is commonly thought of as a mean to raise mind and soul almost in a pure sense, to Alex that particular ‘carnavalesque’ bit of Beethoven has the opposite effect. However, as the narrative is entirely constructed over a dystopia, we, as audience, tend to forget about the universal meanings of brotherhood attached to the Ninth Symphony as we engage with it only by listening to the ‘perverted’ bit, and in addition, we do so only through the protagonist’s distorted perspective. In fact, as we are given mostly Alex’s point of view only, we have the chance to understand him and take his side, and consequently to blame the institutions around him for their being unfair and even brutal towards him. Social institutions punishing Alex with violence may look like they contradict themselves; however, certain types of violence are socially […] acceptable than others (Gehrke), especially if the violence we deal with comes directly from society.
“By ideology I mean the mental frameworks – the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation – which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, figure out and render intelligible the way society works.” (Hall)
Taking into account Stuart Hall’s definition of ideology, we see how Alex and his droogs have their own ideology, as they, in fact, have their own language, values, and imagery of thought, which differ from the all the other people around them. In a way, Alex and his droogs do not want to belong to the common social construction they live in, and yet they are forced to do so, because of their being a minority. Their language and dystopian values empower them and lead them to the alienation from the mainstream British society they live. The alienation then brings them to justify the violence they commit towards the mainstream citizens (Booker). Their ideology is their spontaneous way of living, which crashes with the mainstream.
Unconsciously, Alex and his friends, for their being such a group of outsiders, reinforce their group and sense of belonging to it, simply by acting according to their own values, similarly to what the bikers of Scorpio Rising do. Those values, naturally, include also a peculiar fashion, which, funnily enough, has been adopted by our very popular culture.
What lies at the basis of A Clockwork Orange is the struggle that Carey wrote about in his essay on the ritual and transmission views of communications. Carey, indeed, points out the fundamental need for a society to maintain both views alive and to make them counterbalance one another (Carey). Ritual and transmission are in a way two sides of the same coin: they need to coexist and eternally fight each other. If transmission takes over ritual, the society falls into a crisis which has no more a form of communication over time, but merely a form of communication over space, i.e. the transmission.
Alex and his droogs attitude lies precisely in what Carey defines as ritual. However, as their lifestyle is so far from the mainstream, and has no actual connection with the surroundings, Alex is repressed and deprived of his freedom by the mainstream society. The ideology he lives by and through which he makes sense of the world around him does not work anymore because it does not fairly fight against the ideology of mainstream society: hence, Alex’s ideology is his ultimate reason for the punishment he receives from society. It is his ideology, indeed, to push him to rape women and mistreat old bums in the streets. It is his ideology to mislead him from the supposedly right way of living within the society. And the unfair fight between Alex and society comes precisely from the very nature of society: a hyperrational reality that refuses every ideological perspective different from its own.
Between Alex’s intrinsic nature of openly violent individual and the more slyly socially violent nature of the mainstream institutions, only one figure appears on the scene: a priest. James Carey, for his fostering ritual over transmission, here would have triumphed, as in fact religion is, as he would argue, The Ritual of all the ritual views of communications. Strangely enough, however, it is precisely the figure of a priest who comes out of the blue finally arguing against social institutions and, consequently, oddly supporting Alex, a delinquent and murderer. Nevertheless, every institution and even single individual in the narrative seems to be wearing their own ‘glasses’, i.e. ideology, so that none of the characters is skilled enough (or has the will) to step back, take off their glasses, and try to look at the unhuman situation that society has built up; a situation that limits individual freedom by changing the very nature of that individual. The problematic circumstance lies not simply in a matter of limitations in terms of rules and laws which have to be accepted, followed, and respected; A Clockwork Orange rather shows a dystopian social policy of changing what is not acceptable, which by the way, coincides with the ‘evil’. Besides being in first place difficult to discern as absolute values what is good from what is bad, as Žižek argues in his movie essay, ideology is difficult to eradicate too: it is “the extreme violence of liberation […]. Freedom hurts.” (Žižek). None of the characters will eventually abandon their ideology; they see and rule the world from their own ideology, which slightly becomes a unique pedestal for each of the character.
Religion, therefore, places itself into an uncomfortable position of blaming the evil and forgiving the sinner at the same time. This, itself, is an ideological perspective which, however, seems to make religion able to open more possibilities so to balance the opposing views of Alex and the mainstream society. If on the one hand Kubrick does not leave a way to escape from the drama by giving both his protagonist and his opposed mainstream society a bad name, on the other hand, the figure of the priest is given a conscientiousness which forces the two sides to confront each other. The system religion-individual-society may be referred to as a Freudian mindset, where the priest looks like the Ego balancing the forces of the ID embodied by Alex, moved by pure instincts and will to please his desire of violence, and the force of the Superego, embodied by the puritan mainstream society, which, for its being excessively rational, cannot even conceive a form of freedom for violent individuals.
The world portrayed in A Clockwork Orange, even though it is dystopian, perfectly mirrors the real society and the ideology we live by. What differentiates the real world from the one of the movie is merely the self-conscious extreme to which the ideological discourses are pushed by the narrative. In fact, besides its being drastically pushing both Alex’s and the mainstream society’s ideologies to the edge, the movie does travel through the whole system we truly live by and are subject to. As there is no such a thing as mental therapy to change one’s natural dispositions, one might think of A Clockwork Orange simply as a story with no roots in the real world. And yet, Kubrick could have never told a story completely detached from reality. Indeed, where we see, in the movie, social institutions, including the family, the government, and the healthcare and judicial systems, mistreating psychologically and physically Alex, we may be reminded of very similar historical events that are strictly linked to dictatorships and Nazi-fascist policies.
Ideology is always at work in a society; nevertheless, the only aspect that allows us to strongly discern the fictional story of A Clockwork Orange from our real social context seems to relate to what Althusser denominated the ISA (Ideological State Apparatus) and the RSA (Repressive State Apparatus) (Althusser). The former, which Althusser explains as the system of all the non-state institutions, such as family and religion, should be balanced by the latter, which includes all the state institutions, such as the police aimed to repress criminality. In Kubrick’s masterpiece, however, those two appear to be greatly opposing instead of integrating one the other. This way, RSA almost takes over ISA, hence a form of violent repression achieves the power and begin to rule the society. As the conclusion and consequent solution of the struggle between Alex’s and social institutions’ ideologies lies in the very return to the initial situation of the delinquent reaffirming his freedom and values, it is extremely dismal to think of whether Kubrick wants to argue for the impossibility to fill in the gap between individual’s and institutions’ ideologies, or at least, he may argue so when the discourse comes to life within a dystopian society.
Apart from the director’s will to either directly ask the audience for an alternative solution opposing his own depressing perspective, Kubrick still points out the complicated issue that will eternally exist within a society. If we need ideology to make sense of the world and, as Žižek argues, we do use ideology spontaneously, then there would not be any issues, socially speaking, to live by that very ideology; in fact, however, only if the individual’s ideology matches the mainstream ideology, the individual is called free. In the opposite case, not only does the individual become marginalized for her being an outsider, but she could rather run the risk of being even killed, psychologically and physically, precisely like Alex DeLarge, who, by the end of the movie, from a delinquent almost looks like a martyr in the audience’s eyes.
“It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.” Alex DeLarge (Kubrick)
Althusser, Louis. “Lenin and Philosophy”. La Pensée. France, 1970. Print.
Booker, M. Keith. Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. Greenwood Press, Connecticut (USA). 1994. Print.
Carey, James. “A Cultural Approach to Communication”. Communication as Culture: Essays of Media and Society. Unwin Hyman Inc, USA. 1989. Print.
Gehrke, Pat. “Deviant Subject in Focault and A Clockwork Orange: Congruent Critiques of Criminological Constructions of Subjectivity.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 18:3 (2001): 270-284. Print.
Hall, Stuart. Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. Routledge, UK. 1996. Print.
Kubrick, Stanley. A Clockwork Orange. Polaris Production, Hawk Films, UK. 1971. Film.
Strick, Philip and Penelope Houston. “Interview with Stanley Kubrick regarding A Clockwork Orange”, Sight&Sound, British Film Institute, United Kingdom. Spring 1972. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Zeitgeist Films, United Kingdom. 2012. Film.