Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Andrew Murphie

I'm Not Joking -- Lacanian Nostalgia Ain't What It Used To Be

 


 

 

_Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock)_

Edited by Slavoj Zizek

London: Verso, 1992

ISBN 0-86091-592-1

279 pages

 

Nearly twenty years ago I emerged from a fairly thorough education in the residua of nineteenth-century thought (which I still greatly value) to find myself reading Lacan's _Ecrits_. Every day for three months I poured over this mysterious text. Even the dictionary was little help to me. It changed my intellectual life (though it did not render me a Lacanian), but now I cannot help thinking that the transition would have been easier had I been confronted first, not with _Ecrits_, but with Zizek's book on Lacan and Hitchcock. Not only is it a great introduction to a hefty percentage of the ideas of the West in the 20th century, it is more refreshingly a refutation of the sometime obscurity of the ideas of Lacan's followers, and even of the romance with Lacan.

 

One of the favourite tropes among Lacanians over the years has been the Moebius strip, and here Slavoj Zizek and the other contributors give this already playful image another couple of twists. For here, firstly, Lacan and Hitchcock seem inevitably to lead into each other in a never-ending loop from which there seems little escape. Secondly, according to the book, if you follow the logic of Hitchcock's thrillers and films about psychotics long enough you end up finding yourself confronting the general and heartfelt desire for a Lacanian psychoanalyst! Whether this is all true or not seems beside the point in this finely worked, elegant and often witty collection of essays on the various points at which Hitchcock and Lacan slip into each other. The book is not new and doubtless many have read it already, so I shall have to address those who have not read it.

 

I myself have only flirted briefly with Lacan, and have long since headed in other directions, but would nevertheless recommend this book for three good reasons. It is firstly a great introduction to Lacan. It does not reduce Lacan's work to the notions of intersubjectivity that informed his earlier, slightly better known work. Instead, the primary concerns here are the stain of the Real and 'das Ding', and their complication of intersubjective relations. Indeed, one of the high points of the book is Zizek's clear discussion of exactly these complications and their relation to the production of universal knowledge and notions of ideology. The book is secondly a great introduction to Hitchcock's work. It is not a discussion of all his films. In fact, some of the films which feature, such as _The Wrong Man_, would normally be regarded as lesser works -- symptoms rather than subjects. Yet, despite, and perhaps because of this fairly narrow focus, the book is full of some very clear general assertions about Hitchcock's work which seem to me, in this context at least, to be exciting and hard to refute. Thirdly, the book is a great sustained analysis of what it is that film does. Just to name one aspect of this, it gives one of the most sophisticated accounts of the gaze I have yet read. For many, of course, this would immediately suggest obscurity and obsfucation but that is, as with much of Zizek's writing, the miracle -- that these issues are discussed with such a sense of play and clarity that I would almost recommend this book to some of my better undergraduate film students to see what it is that one can do when one has both a good grasp of film theory and an ability to write.

 

The book opens and closes with essays by Zizek. The opening essay, 'Alfred Hitchcock, or, The Form and its Historical Mediation', is about as large an overview of Hitchcock's work as you could hope to get. Zizek starts with a commonsense differentiation between modernism and postmodernism, in which modernism is the involvement with obscure objects that require interpretation before they can be comprehended, and postmodernism an involvement with apparently clear and popular cultural objects which require work to reveal what is esoteric within them. At first it seems that Hitchcock is decidedly postmodern within this scheme, but this turns out to be far from true. Instead, Hitchcock has moments of modernism (as a great auteur), postmodernism (as the maker of popular and seemingly banal films in which every detail leads us somewhere else), and even of the kind of realism associated with Classical Hollywood cinema (as a film maker who follows realist narrative rules, even in his eccentricity). These categorisations splinter further when Zizek creates five periods for Hitchcock's films. The first and last are 'before' and 'after' periods -- that is, before and after Hitchcock was 'Hitchcock' (his own notion). The other three correspond, only roughly, to: realism (films shot in England in the second half of the 1930s); modernism (from _Rebecca_ to _Under Capricorn_ with a rough modernism revealed in anamorphosis and so on); and postmodernism (1950s and 1960s -- _Rear Window_, _Psycho_, _The Birds_ and so on). At the same time as these categories begin to fragment a little they find other associations, with dominant forms of subjectivity and with different forms of capitalism. The first of the three is associated with a fairly simple Oedipal journey through which a couple travel (often quite literally), and with liberal capitalism. The second, in which things get pretty difficult for the female heroines suffering the authority of a corrupted paternal metaphor, is associated with imperialism and State capitalism. The third, in which it is now the male hero who is to suffer from an overbearing maternal superego, is associated with late, post-industrial capitalism. Why link these Lacanian investigations with history and economic considerations? It is because Zizek is concerned to show why it is that Hitchcock's work is not just a question of titillation or bourgeois indulgence, but rather one of a whole set of social fields that are worked through to their limit -- and at the limit found to be rather empty. Hitchcock's films then *are* froth and bubble, but they are not just that -- something that anyone who knows them will tell you. The difference here is that Zizek can tell us why there is more to them.

 

Specifically, he works through the different kinds of objects in the film. Again there are three (why always three, why there is this constant desire for triangulation is perhaps an important question we can let lapse). Firstly there are the McGuffin's, the empty objects that set stories in motion and keep them there -- the tune with a message (that we never apprehend) in _The Lady Vanishes_, for example. The McGuffins, if you like, provide the froth and bubble. Secondly, there are objects that escape the imaginary play of mirrors and crystallise the symbolic structure. These are objects (leftover fragments of the Real) that take us out of the balanced play and bring us, through the disruption of this play, into the harsher realities of the demands of the symbolic structure that forms around their constant movement and exchange. An example is the wedding ring in _Rear Window_. Yet there is an even harsher lesson to be learnt as we move further towards the Real, or as it impinges more and more upon our safe if indifferent play within the auto-reflexive. This lesson comes in the third set of objects, such as the birds in _The Birds_, objects which move us towards death, the disintegration of both play and symbolic structures and even of imaginary possibilities of relation. In their material presence, which refuses to signify, they enter into the world of intersubjectivity and exchange as intruders who bear no gifts except poison.

 

The rest of the book is mostly a working through of these themes, culminating in Zizek's own major essay -- an essay which would bear reading in many different contexts -- which I shall come to later.

 

The essays by other authors begin fairly simple, if precisely, with Pascal Bonitzer's 'Hitchcockian Suspense'. In this essay Bonitzer writes that the cinema's early move from innocence to an obsession with gaze (as demonstrated in Kuleshov's Mozhukhin experiment and the development of the close-up, etc.) is also a move from exuberance to fetishism, from straight dirtiness to desire. For Bonitzer, it was Hitchcock who understood the profound significance of this change. In a theme that resounds throughout this book, Bonitzer points out that the narrative details surrounding the events of murder and crime are relatively insignificant compared to the central importance of the gaze within them which gives them meaning. In cinematic crime in particular, it is the gaze which potentially transforms any image into an image of death. More than this, the evil which the gaze recognises is a stain which calls forth the gaze, and the excitation in this calling forth is what gives rise to suspense. This stain disrupts the 'natural' order which seemed to be bubbling along so nicely. It eroticises the image -- makes it fascinating. In the process, it changes the very time of the image (introducing a question of how the event will turn out) of what past lives within in, and what future is erupting within it.

 

Mladen Dolar seeks to discover Hitchcock's major fantasy in _Shadow of a Doubt_, a film full of mirroring (such as the uncle and niece both named Charlie), but in which again this mirroring is disrupted by a stain or third figure which disrupts it, even if a figure of absence -- such as the ring that stands in for the absent (unrepresented) murders. Here also, in a twist to the normal family romance, Charlie deliberately seeks her double as a form of narcissistic escape from her humdrum life, encounters it, and finds it is laden with death.

 

In other films, such encounters are accidental -- something that gives rise to another notion found throughout the book: that Hitchcock's universe is a somewhat malignant one. These encounters are not just encounters with a double, a mirror-image, or even a romantic complement. They are encounters with the emptiness on which the subject's own structure -- even his or her narcissism is based. At the core of this emptiness, as we shall discover in the final essay of the book, is the gaze as a kind of autonomic machine. The importance of the object here is as a kind of lure, and as an object of exchange that brings that encountered into a (non)relation.

 

The object as McGuffin is relatively harmless, but neither is it a great lure in many ways, because perhaps it signifies only its own emptiness only too clearly. It is not that enchanting or mesmerising. Other objects *are* mesmerising, and these, objects of desire -- are laden with death. There is, as Dolar points out, the necklace in _Vertigo_ or the key in _Dial M for Murder_. These are not innocent objects. The two types of objects lead to another major concern of the book, and this concern operates as a suitable corrective to those readers of Lacan who see Lacan's work as only about desire as metonymy, and eroticism only as slippage in the free flow of signifiers. There is this, but in this we are only in the world of the McGuffin and not yet in the world of lethal objects. These lethal objects summon up a real materiality which can only destroy the fabric of the structure of signification. They operate not within the realm of desire but in the realm of the drive. They summon up the Thing -- 'das Ding'! They are the end of our fantasies in more than one sense.

 

Fredric Jameson's essay, 'Spatial Systems in _North by Northwest_', is obviously concerned with space and, though an interesting essay, seems to be the only one that slides away from the general concerns of the others. Jameson quite reasonably calls for film text analysts to recognise the peculiarity of their situation, in that, though they may experience the text as episodes, they will inevitably attempt to impose some totality upon it. I would question this inevitability, but Jameson himself recognises the tension between the two levels and calls for a mediation between them. Here Jameson turns towards the way in which space produces itself. In one of many Hegelian echoes throughout the book he is interested in the dialectic of space between the unconscious and differential experiences of space. I like this approach because it means that psychology comes second, to some extent, to space as the principal carrier of the purpose of images. In this, Jameson locates much of the force of Hitchcock's film in the fact that objects are often more significant and expressive than many human gestures -- something that informs thrillers and horror films to today (I'm thinking of Spielberg's _Duel_ for a start). Of course, this was not Hitchcock's discovery, but many would argue that he did perfect the *expression* of the object, gave it the ability to look back, and the perfection of the object as the Thing evokes the return of the Real. Again this is inflected towards the political, in that once one takes into account the ambiguities and expressiveness of space and objects first, distinctions such as public and private space become more difficult to maintain. Perhaps this also explains the tensions which so often seem to envelop and poison the family romance in Hitchcock's films -- even if it receives a cursory nod at the end of many films. Jameson travels far in these directions -- towards, in fact, the limit of space, in the emptiness of several spaces, such as the field in _North by Northwest_, which for Jameson reveals an attempt to think through to the very end of the Being of space. At this point, space takes on something of the character of an evil God. It is a pure surface without depth that operates without considering those who are forced to deal with its constant upheavals.

 

Alenka Zupancic's essay, 'A Perfect Place to Die: Theatre in Hitchcock's Films', is fine and clear. He firstly points to the fact that for Sir John in _Murder!_, intimacy without the mediation of the gaze is all too much to bear. This, of course, is why he stages things in the film, and it brings us back to the theatre within the film as an image of this threshold of the gaze, the stage's edge as the threshold of safety or threat. The camera, of course, can cross this threshold with technical ease but not, as Zupancic suggests, with as much subjective ease, for it is on the stage that we find both truth and death. Anyone who has worked in the theatre knows that the stage is a dangerous place, and it is suggested that death is the fee exacted when one breaks the rules of representation and steps onto the stage. More than this, it is the fee exacted when the real is brought into representation -- when they coincide. Films make this very clear in that, as Zupancic puts it, when the film narrative and the theatre narrative within it align themselves, there is always a dead body. Discussing the play-within-the-play so central to films such as _Murder!_, Zupancic summons up both Lacan and Deleuze to affirm that 'the truth has the structure of fiction' and that 'fiction-within-fiction is the moment where fiction is faced with its own exterior at its interior' (82). The crime that we cannot see becomes the 'crime par excellence' but, because this crime par excellence arrives from the outside, it is excluded by fiction, just as the Real is excluded in the attempted formation of subject. It is only in duplicating this crime theatrically that its trace can be caught -- as guilt. Of course, all of us watching this take place are back in the realm of the gaze animated by desire -- we want to see guilt revealed. The guilt is, of course, in our eyes as much as, if not more than, in the eyes of the guilty. Yet perhaps, at the same time, we are once again heading for the Real (the crime, the corpse, the staging of a real suicide in _Murder!_), our desire about to be turned head over heels in the drive.

 

Well, there is a lot more to Zupancic's essay, and there are another eleven essays I do not have space here to discuss. These include Miran Bozovic's excellent essay on _Rear Window_, 'The Man Behind His Own Retina' (a gift for film studies courses), and Renata Salecl's wonderful feminist use of Lacan in 'The Right Man and the Wrong Woman'. I will not say any more about these essays except to recommend them to anyone interested in the area. Instead, I shall leap briefly to Zizek's concluding essay, which would make a perfect essay to set in almost any critical theory or advanced film studies class.

 

The title, 'In His Bold Gaze My Ruin Is Writ Large', is taken from Racine's _Phaedre_. It refers to Phaedre's misinterpretation of Hippolytus's 'grim expression' after she has confessed her love to him, the son of her husband. This is, of course, a misinterpretation that will breed disaster. Zizek here starts with _The Wrong Man_ but quickly heads towards the gaze in _Psycho_. He suggests that this line from _Phaedre_ could well serve,

 

'as an appropriate epithet to Hitchcock's universe, where the Other's gaze -- up to Norman Bates's final look into the camera in _Psycho_ -- epitomizes lethal threat: where suspense is never the product of a simple physical confrontation between subject and assailant, but always involves the mediation of what the subject reads into the other's gaze. In other words, Hippolytus's gaze exemplifies perfectly Lacan's thesis according to which the gaze I encounter 'is not a seen gaze, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other'' (214).

 

Zizek brings together a Jansenism he ascribes to Hitchcock, a prolonged meditation upon the gaze as that which reveals the Real as a merciless, autonomic and lethal position which is only in the end our own, as well as the mark of our desire, and a concern with ideological interpellation. How this all fits together is something that I will not rehearse here as the essay should be read in its entirety. I shall just report that the Hitchcockian universe is far less *fun* in Zizek's version than in many others, and far more serious a disrupter of the workings of ideological positions and interpellations than many would allow for. Hitchcock's films reveal a bleak world where human affairs are fairly trivial compared to the background in which they take place. They also, however, provide an opportunity in which ' the viewer is forced to face the desire at work in his/her seemingly 'neutral' gaze', to question the ideology of a pure gaze which 'pretends to float freely in an empty space, not charged by any desire' (223). How does this questioning occur? In the section called 'a triumph of the gaze over the eye' Zizek notes the importance of the gaze, but also its fundamental emptiness as far as meaning or symbolic use is concerned. For Zizek, the transfixed gaze,

 

'isolates a stain of the Real, a detail which 'sticks out' from the frame of symbolic reality -- in short, a traumatic surplus of the Real over the Symbolic; yet the crucial feature of these scenes is that this detail has no substance in itself -- it is, so to speak, 'substantiated', caused, created, by the transfixed gaze itself. The objet petit a of the scene is therefore the gaze itself, the gaze imposed upon the viewer for a brief moment . . .' (236).

 

This, it seems to me, is at the heart of the book. It is this that brings about the split between reality and the Real. This is also, of course, not something that promises stability. Once this is all realised there seems no limit to the fundamental struggles and tensions between these two -- particularly in Hitchcock's films. What makes Zizek a great *cultural* theorist is that he can trace the history of the fluctuations of these tensions, suggesting, for example, that the 'gigantic statues' in Hitchcock's films (the Statue of Liberty, the four Presidents at Mount Rushmore -- 'monuments to petrified enjoyment') are 'an indication of how today, the substitution of the Name for the Thing is losing its edge -- of how 'Gods' are reverting to the Real' (240). And while the Name gives us at least the illusion of content, the reversion to the Real will strip this illusion bare. All we shall be left with is the gaze of Norman Bates . . . although we do gain at least something, and this perhaps is the shattering of our other illusion -- the illusion provided by various ideologies that it 'could have been otherwise', the illusion of 'openness' (241) so sought after in Modernism and in much liberal humanist thought. Zizek will have none of this illusory freedom. Neither would the Hitchcock of _Psycho_. In this sense some of Hitchcock's films, presenting us with the stains of the Real that they do, force us to confront our ideological interpellation. More than this, even, we are forced to learn 'the ultimate Hegelian lesson . . . that the place of absolute transcendence, of the Unrepresentable which eludes diegetic space, coincides with the absolute immanence of the viewer reduced to pure gaze' (244). There is no depth here. There is nothing behind the wizard, not even a cheap little man (last resort of a desperate Hollywood). For Zizek, what we learn unwillingly in _Psycho_ is that 'depth' is a 'periscope without a hull' (257). The Thing is not even a thing-in-itself. It is just the gaze.

 

Cruel but fair I suppose, although Zizek is not quite done. Once again there is a 'social-ideological lesson' in which the 'collapse of the very field of intersubjectivity as medium of Truth in late Capitalism' has led us into the twin dangers of the shattering of intersubjectivity into the 'two poles of expert knowledge and psychotic 'private' truth' (262). Whether the only hope lies in the fact (it is only a joke, is it not?) that we once again long for the Lacanian analyst, crueller than Hannibal Lecter in that we have to pay him to 'allow us to offer our Dasein on a plate' (263), I will leave to the reader to decide.

 

Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

 

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Andrew Murphie, 'I'm Not Joking -- Lacanian Nostalgia Ain't What It Used To Be',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 37, November 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n37murphie>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

 

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