Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 27, September 2003

 

 

Jamie Clarke

 

The Parallax Review:

On _Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories_

 

 

_Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories_

Edited by Janet Bergstrom

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999

ISBN 0-520-20747-5 (hbk); 0-520-20748-3 (pbk)

307 pp.

 

The volume of essays _Endless Night_ was born out of a conference entitled 'Psychoanalysis and Cinema: Parallel Histories' at UCLA in November 1993. The conference was designed to mark the hundred year anniversaries of the two pursuits, and to bring together film scholars and practising psychoanalysts in order to rub the two historical lines together and spark debate in what has been increasingly considered a somewhat beleaguered enterprise. Yet as Janet Bergstrom admits, in her excellent Introduction, the conference itself provoked an overriding sense of non-convergence, with the understanding that 'the reasons that psychoanalysts reflect on the cinema are not the same as those that motivate film theorists to draw on psychoanalysis' (1). However, it is Bergstrom's consideration that this very incompatibility need not be experienced as a catastrophe, but moreover signals that this particular area remains a fecund zone for research. It is in this context that _Endless Night_ surfaces with 'unfinished business' (2), as Bergstrom puts it, not so much like the traumatic return of the repressed, but in a more modest fashion as a further specialised sector of film enquiry rendered more fireproof from its engagement with the clinical extra-academic community.

 

Bergstrom details that psychoanalytic film theory 'has renewed itself over time and remains one of the most vital areas within contemporary film theory' (2). This assertion seems to me to require unpacking. Cine-psychoanalysis, throughout the 1970s the hegemonic school alongside Althusserian Marxism, has come under a sustained attack from more historically sensitive, social science inspired paradigms of film analysis, most notably cultural studies and more recently the cognitive psychological approaches of 'Post-Theory'. In parallel, clinical psychoanalysis has been overtaken by behavioural psychology and pharmo-therapy. The renewals and evolutions within film studies and psychoanalysis in this context are, as much as anything, a response to fighting a rearguard action against more normative approaches, and I would argue that the consensus now is that the psychoanalytic paradigm is largely residual. As a consequence of these countervailing tendencies, there is something of a splintered and uncertain focus to the volume with a number of the contributions ruminating on the collapse of the cine-psychoanalytic paradigm; a number providing close readings of specific texts using psychoanalysis as a decoding instrument; a handful speculating on Freudian psychoanalysis's (coincident?) historical interrelationship with (or as it turns out non-convergence with, or outright avoidance of) the historical development of cinematic technologies; and finally, Slavoj Zizek's article that surpasses the properly cinematic paradigm in an analysis of the new cyber-subject, with its ramifications for the hard-shelled, corn fed Oedipal subject presupposed by the Classical cinema. I shall take each of these on their own terms.

 

Zizek's 'Cyberspace, or the Unbearable Closure of Being' involves a complex and theoretically dense analysis of the effects of digital technologies and virtual reality on subjectivity, that hinges on the exchange of imitation for simulation. Zizek revisits a series of philosophical commonplaces from Plato's cave, through Hegel's suprasensible effect, to Lacan's theory of anamorphia, to argue that these produce an interface between 'himself and his raw natural environs' (99). However, Zizek repudiates the proto-Baudrillard argument that this condemns the subject to a relativisitic nihilism by stipulating that this effect is not accelerating but is rather a trans-historical effect of all technologies. In this respect his position is closer to Derrida's than he himself often allows, whereby, 'there is no Spirit without Spirits, no pure spiritual universe of Ideas without the obscene' (99). Where Zizek claims to differ from deconstruction is in his argument that simulation, by drawing attention to its own computated reality effect, demonstrates more effectively the plastic and contingent nature of reality itself. This then prompts Zizek to reject both the referential argument (of some stable support in reality) for representation, and the converse understanding that there is no external reality beyond the stream of simulacra. For Zizek acknowledgment of this essential, mediatory, phantasmatic support is then the route to '('dialectical') materialism' (99) and the early Marxist understanding that the sensory ecology is programmable.

 

However, whilst Zizek's ability to navigate between popular culture and high-flown theory and philosophy often results in unexpected insights, there persists the impression that his analysis can become a little too free-wheeling, and Zizek himself a little too enamoured with his own somersaulting rhetorical argumentation. There can be little doubt that Zizek has a exemplary understanding of the intricacies of Lacanian theory, not to mention enlightenment and post-enlightenment philosophy, however these are mostly deployed as explanatory ends in themselves and their convergence (to use Bergstrom's term) with the cinematic or digital technology as an historical fact is often sidelined. For instance, Zizek's analysis of the cyber-subject does not immerse itself in the harsh realities of the actual production of digital technologies nor the super-accumulation, consolidation, and monopolisation of the likes of Microsoft and AOL Time Warner. In this sense his claims to a dialectical materialism are somewhat idealist, even superstructural. Indeed, Zizek seems to bang these types of analysis out at will and regular readers of his now prolific output will no doubt recognise some of the themes that I have outlined above.

 

A similar problem stymies the text-centred analyses in the volume, for instance Joan Copjec's contribution on melodrama. Indeed Copjec is often positioned alongside Zizek as providing the most sustained commitment to contemporary cine-psychoanalysis as a paradigm for making meaning. Copjec's avowedly contentious argument is that 'crying was an invention of the late eighteenth century' (249). To substantiate this claim Copjec relies on the creation of a new type of space, namely public space, that did not allow the specific particularities of the cogito to be effectively symbolised. There does seem to be an unacknowledged debt here to the more historically sensitive work of the late Frankfurt School on the public sphere, represented by Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, and the more recent adaptation of the model by Miriam Hansen. In this respect, it is my belief that Copjec attempts to out-manoeuvre such material by situating the emergence of psychoanalysis as the underside, obscene, in her terms 'unabsorbable' (252) remainder that failed to be satisfied by the collapse of differences represented by the public sphere. Crying in this respect emerged as a howl of dissatisfaction with the consensus. I am hospitable to this argument and certainly believe that it marks a corrective to certain proto-Habermasian understandings of communication predicated on rational interaction. Copjec then proceeds to hook an argument that melodrama effectively attempted to represent this repressed other where 'the lack of lack . . . defines melodrama's excess. It's failure to construct a world for its characters to inhabit' (260). She proceeds with a close reading of _Stella Dallas_ that serves to bulwark her argument. This example is convincing in itself, but as a model of thematised reading I personally would want more convincing that melodrama operated in the manner she argues. I appreciate that this would be difficult to sustain within the confines of a chapter, but having opened up this area it is somewhat disappointing that Copjec ultimately retreats into a largely subjective reading of an individual text.

 

Again, Ayako Saito's article 'Hitchcock's Trilogy: A Logic of Mise en Scene' deploys psychoanalysis to provide close readings of Hitchcock's successive series of films _Vertigo_, _North by Northwest_, and _Psycho_, arguing that they represent a movement from the logic of melancholia through mania to paranoia/schizophrenia. Saito provides a succinct explanation that what she intends to do is not to diagnose these films but analyse them in terms of affect. It seems to me that this caveat is designed to admit that psychoanalytic paradigms of reading individual films have been largely torpedoed. In response she argues that affect is a relatively uncharted area in cine-psychoanalysis given the Lacanian antipathy to the term. She continues that: 'The analysis of affect, then, lies in the process of analysing the textual movement in which affects are manifested through cinematic form and the structure of repetition.' (203) This understanding then licenses Saito to argue that the Hitchcockian trilogy of films enacts an ongoing repetition and logical progression wherein affect is displaced marginally through the three films from Scottie's melancholia; through Roger's mania; to Norman's paranoid schizophrenia. Certainly Saito argues her case well and the attached notes were very valuable in uncovering an area of psychoanalysis that this reader was comparably unfamiliar with. Where I would problematise Saito's reading is that it does seem to me that the Hitchcock canon often lends itself too easily to psychoanalytic paradigms that testifies as much to the climate of the late 1950s when psychoanalysis was in its comparative heyday as much as any pre-existing essential truth of psychoanalysis as a knowledge system. Certainly I would have found it more interesting to see how affect could inform more recent films that deal with mental health such as _A Beautiful Mind_ or _Iris_ whose structure seems designed to ratify more voguish understandings of illness such as cognitive therapy.

 

I would argue that a similar historical problem then effects the reading of Janet Walker in the volume. In her article 'Textual Trauma' she draws parallels between the Freudian understanding of sexual abuse as a fantasy and the excision of the topic of sexual abuse from the films _King's Row_ and _Freud_ that come to be regarded as 'dissociated texts' (182) on the basis of this repression. As Walker understands, Freud's exploration of fantasy is not to say that sexual abuse was a fiction but rather that it had an entangled relation to experience that was activated retroactively. However, the illicit cooption of fantasy as fiction and sexual abuse as fiction then has a profound impact on a feminist politics. As Walker powerfully surmises, during the 1980s literature was produced that 'argue convincingly that in the United States somewhere between 10 and 25 percent of children are subject to childhood sexual abuse' (172). It is her argument that attention to the symptoms in cinema where this incest taboo is repressed can then inform and mobilise a feminist politics. I agree with this absolutely. My only reservation would be that, as with Saito, her texts relate to a very specific moment in Hollywood history. It seems to me that incest and sexual abuse have been somewhat fetishised more recently -- in texts as diverse as _Festen_ and _Good Will Hunting_ -- as the secret to be discovered. I would have liked to know Walker's opinion on this more recent phenomenon.

 

Other contributions also focus on John Huston's biopic of Freud, most obviously Peter Wollen's 'Freud as Adventurer' and David James Fisher's 'Sartre's Freud'. For the most part these historically precise reflections and elucidations on the production history and intellectual background that underpinned the emergence of Huston's film are more accessible and less contentious than the other contributions detailed above. Fisher details that although Sartre was a lifelong fan of both cinema and psychoanalysis his own existential philosophy had problems assimilating an unconscious which 'served to rationalise and create alibis for bad faith' (127). As a consequence Sartre worked for 'a more reciprocal, egalitarian model for what he called existential psychoanalysis' (128). It seems to me that such a model is more consistent with American ego psychology and more tellingly perhaps with the ideology of the Classical Hollywood narrative trajectory. However, both Wollen and Fisher outline the problems that Sartre (who provided the screenplay) and Huston had in working together (the only thing that they apparently agreed upon was that Marilyn Monroe be cast as Cecily Kortner, a decision that was thrown out after an intervention by Anna Freud). Fisher proceeds to analyse the film and demonstrate that Sartre's Freud presents psychoanalysis as a model where the subject comes to terms with their own alienation.

 

Wollen takes a slightly different track by arguing that the emphasis on ego psychology in the film stems from the fact that Huston, Freud, and Sartre all shared a certain self-possession and conception of themselves as pioneers in their respective fields (which in turn explains the problems in collaboration). As Wollen writes, it was 'Freud the adventurer' that John Huston 'admired, identified with and saw as the object of the film' (155). The fact that Sartre makes Freud's relationship with his father the central dynamic in the film then resonates for Wollen. Sartre's own father had died when he was only one. As Wollen details, this then prompted Sartre to argue 'I have no superego' (160). Wollen then makes the connection in parenthesis, 'is this so very different from Huston's remark about the unconscious which Sartre derided: 'In mine, there's nothing at all'' (160). What emerges from both Fisher's and Wollen's excellent articles is a clash of egos that to some extent at least adulterates psychoanalysis as a model where the subject is in conflict with itself. For Sartre at least, as Wollen recognises, this was the product of his always uneasy marriage of a somewhat liberal version of Marxism to a bourgeois ethics.

 

In a connected fashion psychoanalyst Alain de Mijolla looks at the home movies of Freud taken by his contemporaries, together with fiction films like Huston's. If Wollen presents Sartre's Freud as a crusading egocentric adventurer, de Mijolla's clinical experience suggests to him that there is something radically inconsistent between psychoanalysis and the cinematic apparatus. For de Mijolla the drawn out temporality of analysis simply does not lend itself to the accelerated dynamics of the moving image.

 

Mary Ann Doane's analysis, 'Temporality, Storage, Legibility', registers in a Benjaminian mode how the production of modern technologies had profound ramifications for the conceptualisation and organisation of time itself. She writes: 'As Friedrich Kittler has pointed out, the cinema and phonography held out the promise of storing time at the same time that they posed a potential threat to an entire symbolic system.' (58) Doane then proceeds to determine how the psychoanalytic understanding of time emerges in this context (and there is a perceptible overlap with Copjec here) as a resistance and blocking of the saturation of stimuli. Using Derrida, Doane thus shows that, for psychoanalysis, memory, and by extension the subject, emerges on the basis of its own constitutive failure to totalise itself. Doane then moves to an analysis of the photography of Etienne-Jules Marey, who she sees as a precursor of film in that he undertook 'the photography of film' (67) by capturing and sequencing bodies in motion. There is something slightly obsessive about Marey's project and it represents for Doane 'a dream of representation without loss' (78) that again is dialectically linked for her to the emergence of new technologies of representation which, as she explains, both Freud and Marey themselves rejected. Doane, as ever, is insightful and clear. I would be interested in an expansion of this theory to see how it would fit into a digital understanding of representation and the overlaps in this respect with the work of Sean Cubitt. In this regard her article is complemented by Marc Vernet's 'The Fetish', an article that looks at the consequences of digital audiovisual technologies on the concept of the archive. As head of the new library of film in Paris, Vernet argues that there is a connection between the invisible in scoptophilia (aka scopophilia) and the unknowable in film archives. He argues that the loss of aura connected to the digital image constitutes a blocking of desire, ensuring that the digital text continues to be 'unattainable' (as in Bellour's famous formulation).

 

Janet Bergstrom's own article on Chantal Ackerman argues that up to now critical reflection on Ackerman's mother/daughter films has tended to be read via the kind of feminist theory of the 1970s (most obviously Irigaray and Kristeva in the psychoanalytic tradition) that idealised communication between the mother-daughter circuit. Alternatively, Bergstrom compellingly draws attention to the fact that Ackerman's own mother reportedly would never talk to her daughter about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor. For Bergstrom this then effects the mode of enunciation in her films where there is a certain splitting between the represented world that seems stylised.

 

My personal favourite article is Stephen Heath's lengthy 'Cinema and Psychoanalysis: Parallel Histories', which takes a more meta-institutional perspective on precisely why cinema and psychoanalysis have been conjoined within the academy. Indeed, with the exception of Bergstrom's Introduction, Heath is the only contributor that admits to a crisis in psychoanalysis and cine-psychoanalysis in particular. Heath demonstrates that the leading pioneers of psychoanalysis, from Klein to Freud himself, really tended to actively dislike the cinema, and maintains that cinema tends to be more enamoured with psychoanalysis than the other way around (a fact confirmed by the distribution of papers in _Endless Night_). As for cine-psychoanalysis, he explains of the status of certain buzz terms, 'suture is no longer doing so well, nor on the whole is fetishism; the phallus is mostly holding up, while fantasy is fine but prone to disparate appreciations; as for real and symptom, they have come up strong indeed' (33). Heath proceeds to investigate the reasons for these fluctuations and positions himself against the backdrop of the _Screen_ journal project. If criticism of cine-psychoanalysis usually stems from some accusation of ahistoricism, for Heath, it is precisely because the _Screen_ project was a politicisation of psychoanalysis, together with the fact that cinema forced psychoanalysis to pass through the social arena, that ensured its resolute historicism.

 

On the whole I would recommend _Endless Night_ to anyone with an interest in the field of cinema studies, although I am less qualified to speak on behalf of the clinical community. I do believe that the parallel lines of cinema studies and psychoanalysis need to be re-negotiated and books such as this are an excellent way to continue. It is my own belief that perhaps Doane, de Mijolla, and Copjec go some way towards explaining the non-convergence of the two lines, whereby there is a dialectical relationship that sees psychoanalysis almost as a refuge of the private, away from the hustle and bustle of twentieth century experiences exemplified by their somewhat invasive technologies. This tends to drive a wedge between the understanding of the two whilst provoking a sense of mutual fascination, with each conceptualised as the other's underside that meet only ever at vanishing point.

 

Sheffield University, England

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Jamie Clarke, 'The Parallax Review: On _Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 27, September 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n27clarke>.

 

 

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