Tag Archives: Jacques Lacan

The Ideology of Wonder Woman

Diana’s ideological apprenticeship begins in her childhood, when she inherits a Manichaean account of her history, both personal, and familial. According to the schema provided by Queen Hippolyta, all humans used to live in a golden age of conflict-free egalitarianism which was destroyed by Aries, the film’s intermittently real antagonist, who sewed discord in the hearts of men, and made them turn against one another. The Amazons were a superhuman race created by Zeus in order to mediate relations between men, and for a time this was apparently successful, until the Amazons rose up in a violent insurrection against this narrowly circumscribed role (which is compared with slavery), to establish a militaristic community on the island of Themyscira. The film gives no indication that it’s a collectivist society, but there’s no direct evidence of private property, and everyone seems to know each other. It also suits my argument to assume that it’s a communist utopia.

Diana’s objective on leaving the island with American spy-pilot Chris Pine is to kill Ares, the divine agent of conflict that she believes to be the only possible explanation for World War I. Once Ares dies, she believes, the war will come to an immediate end, as the corruption within men’s hearts will be done away with . Chris Pine indulges Diana in this regard for most of the film, but believes it to be unlikely that Ares truly exists in the way that Diana envisions.

When Erich Ludendorff is dispatched, the avatar, as Diana believes, of Ares, she is dismayed to find that the military-industrial infrastructure, and the great war more generally, seems to be proceeding anyway. Chris Pine then explains to Diana that the conflict is the inevitable outcome of mankind’s inherent flaws (tendencies towards violence, militarism), than the influence of Ares, though in his account, the number of squabbling aristocrats in Eastern Europe and nationalism don’t gets a mention, nor the Aristotelean account of the ways in which unequal societies are more unstable, a view Diana would be familiar with, given the extent of her erudition. I consider this within the context of Chris Pine’s general demeanour and/or blatant impatience when Diana challenges his analyses in any given context and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Chris Pine’s explanations for Anglo-American societal customs are unsatisfactory or simplistic; it’s indicative of a general condescension his character exhibits towards Diana.

It turns out that David Thewlis’ character, the seemingly benign member of Imperial War Cabinet, is in fact Ares, and I think what is at stake in this is the text’s perspective on revolutionary violence.

As Diana’s childhood understanding holds it, the struggle for a better society is a question of fights between the already empowered, the god Ares and herself. Ordinarily I would say this they are analogous to the landholder class, but Noam Chomsky’s impressionistically applied, and vaguely conspiratorial ‘masters of mankind’ category might be more adequate in this case. As such, the political struggle is a war of personalities, one which is, in Diana’s words, not about what one ‘deserves’, i.e. the fulfilment of the social compact, but what one ‘believes’, the sincerity of one’s desire to improve the world. That one’s intentions are sufficient justification for any given course of action in contrast to an appeal to inherent human dignity overlooks the fact that the Amazons initially emancipated themselves from slavery by violent means and further re-endorses the reactionary aspects of her binaristic childhood education of good v. evil, without leaving space for possible change in the future. Ares, as the linchpin of all evil, avarice and imperialism exists, a transcendental representation of evil, but no such space is provided for an aspiration to true good, only a belief, or faith, that one’s ‘good’ actions amount to an improvement, which is due to woman and man’s essential nature, as flawed.

In many ways this film traces the trajectory of a young woman moving away from home, finding her reality was not as straightforward as she imagined, but accepting a sequence of base level facts as a foundation for any further analyses or beliefs, facts provided by Chris Pine, that skulduggery and incrementalism are the only legitimate path to political change. Which is very open to argument.

This political reality Diana is re-construed within requires a Lacanian account. Wonder Woman relates Diana’s entry into a relation with the name of the father; a repressive and constrained reality beyond the complete pleasure and authentic relation with her mother/the broader community of Amazons on Themyscira, which runs parallel to the rather simplistic bildung maturity narrative. The scene where Diana quizzes Chris Pine about his penis size, then talks about his watch is the most revealing in this context, given that the watch was a gift from his father, it’s freighted with patriarchal baggage, which is bolstered by the fact of him giving it to her in the moment that he consolidates their relationship with his male speech act. Chris Pine’s watch, represents both mechanistic industrial and patriarchal time, and his phallus, and exists in contrast to the nostalgic eternal past of Themyscira, reflects Diana’s internalisation of a patriarchal capitalistic modality of existence. At a crucial moment in the film’s final battle, the film’s utterly spurious love-sex plot with Chris Pine, allows her to break out of a steel enclosure Ares forms around her, rather than for example, having her aunt/her mother/the fate of collectivism in Themyscira prove sufficient motivation. Further, when in London, the smoky, industrialised, poverty-striken landscape, her ‘feminine’ attributes come to the fore to a greater extent, she is drawn to a baby she sees in the street, for example.

Utopias in Wonder Woman are usually framed and evoked by the opposite of the London landscape; foliage and greenery, as in Themyscira, the moment that Ares reveals his own prospective vision of a conflict-free utopia to Diana, and in one of the final shots in the film, which features Diana and the soldiers, formerly on opposite sides in the war, embracing in a bombed-out airfield, framed by trees and the setting sun. This reflects a fusion of the industrialised, capitalist and patriarchal order and the soft, pre-industrial, earth mother that Diana and the Amazons embody.

The final point to grasp is that the film provides the audience with a personification of transcendental evil in the figure of Ares, but no means of grasping a transcendental good, because the evil is also present within people. People are capable of carrying out good acts, but only in the form of futile sacrifices of themselves as representatives of the lumpen or in moments of collective celebration as in London at the end of the war, but these cannot be translated into broader political action, or a societal paradigm.

Far from the usual case wherein, as a revolutionary communist, one identifies with ‘the bad guy’ in films such as these because of the extent to which these films endorse ownership of private property, these models of agrarian utopia do not provide a stable means of proceeding. If that utopia is in any way analogous to the one that prompted the Amazons to revolt, it’s fairly obvious that it will depend on female exploitation. The notion that the Amazons provide a curative for man’s hardness (industrialisation, time, violence) with their softness, is a binary construction, which is why Isabel Maru is the villain of the film; she is deformed, ugly, Other, she fails to live up to the soft feminine ideal and crosses over into monstrosity, due to her interest in science, industrial processes. Both women, of course, go weak at the knees over Chris Pine.

Wonder Woman proves that Maoism is the only true revolutionary struggle as it mobilises the lumpen, but after or during the revolution, you have to kill all the men.

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A Lacanian Theory of Literary Style

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This post will begin, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a disclaimer. Any attempt to conclusively map Jacques Lacan’s theoretical network of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic onto my own notion of textual ontology, is likely to fall short, or fall to the kind of failure that Louis Althusser’s attempts to hybridise Marxist theory and Lacan’s psychoanalytic framework was prone to. Althusser incidentally neglected to take account of the Real, perhaps because of the difficulty involved in understanding it. But this is to perhaps miss the point, none of these categories can be expected to give a full account of themselves, let alone phenomena that they could be mapped to. As Malcolm Bowie puts it:

each of these three orders is singularly ill-equipped to be a guarantor or even a responsible custodian of Truth. The would-be truth-seeker will find that the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are an unholy trinity whose members could as easily be called Fraud, Absence and Impossibility.

This is not because Lacan’s theories are incomprehensible, I don’t believe that they are. But if they’re not, they’re just about to cross that boundary. The difficulty of applying these to the act of literary criticism, let alone the apprehension of literary style, has to pass over, to some extent, the degree to which Lacan was engaged in formulating a particular mode of clinical practice. Most of his seminars and lectures, as they appear in the collection Écrits at least, are motivated by the act of analysing a particular patient, partially subverting the popular notion of these French theorists fecklessly knocking back the absinthe while stewing themselves on the divan.

As the polemic aspects of his seminars make clear, Lacan was acutely aware of what we might call the Californian School, which had taken Sigmund Freud’s writings, in a commercial, lifestyle-oriented direction, which aimed to ‘heal’ the subject, de-fragment their psyches and ‘cure’ them of their neuroses. Lacan was horrified by the anti-intellectual tendencies of this school, as well as its simplistic ideation of ‘the ego,’ the actualisation of which the Californian school, and some other French analysts who should know better, took to be the aim of the psychoanalyst. Lacan’s writings, if we could treat them monolithically, therefore aim to complicate the notion of the ego, and undermine our sense of ourselves as a single, complete, individual subject.

The irony of this is that what is probably Lacan’s most well-known contribution to psychoanalysis, the mirror stage, has come to represent this very same tendency of egocentric psychoanalytic thought. The mirror stage is the point at which the human subject, in their first or second year of life, will understand themselves, in simplistic terms, as a singular being, or an autonomous self. It should be noted that no actual mirror is required for this to take place, it can occur in as simple a gesture of the baby moving their arm or something. Some might mistake this moment as something to be celebrated, the moment of the subject declaring itself, or developing a sense of mastery over its own body, but this would be an error. Instead, the mirror stage inscribes the tragic condition of the human subject, as it is not the ego that they identify with, but an ego-effect or Imaginary of the self, which now exerts power over them. In his words:

What is involved in the triumph of assuming…the image of one’s body in the mirror is the most evanescent of objects, since it only appears there in the margins.

This identification is a prelude to the subject’s fall into the Symbolic, an ever-extending network of exchanged meanings in consistent flux. This Symbolic order functions in much the same way as Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories regarding differential economies of signification. As we all know, no signifier (word or image) can be said to truly mean anything. If they do convey sense, it is in the distinction that exists between them and other signifiers, i.e. a tree is a tree because it is not a cat. This ego-effect instantiated at the mirror stage plays much the same role, and as a result it is fragmented, indecipherable and unknowable, as it is wrought out of milieu composed of everything that we understand it not be; it is how we, and our desires, remain mysterious and imperceptible, even to ourselves.

So, how can we make these theories, an amalgam of psychoanalytic discourse and theoretical linguistics pertinent to the reading of a literary text? Well, if we elaborate embroider our sense of the position of the reader somewhat, and transpose it into Lacan’s terms, we might be able to make something productive of the model. He saw the unconscious as not only constructed through language, but by the laws that govern our understanding of language, which explains his dependence on linguistics. We might quarrel with Lacan’s somewhat reductionistic take on the mind’s processes, and many did. The dead end that structuralist linguistics presented was too much for some, and Jacques Derrida gave him a sidelong rebuke once or twice but thereafter both remained too proud to overtly respond to the other. One could at least accept the fact that even if the unconscious isn’t structurally analogous to language, it must be outlined in these terms in the therapeutic encounter. Thereby, the repressions and other operations of the mind remain literary and rhetorical tropes.

One of Lacan’s concern in egocentric psychology was that the analysand was being overwhelmed and projected onto by the ego of the analyst, who, Lacan also believed, was insufficiently analysed themselves in the process. The myopia of both patient and analyst should be equally subject to these techniques, making the therapeutic process truly dialectical:

He communicates to the analyst the outline of his image through his imploring, imprecations, insinuations, provocations and ruses…as these intentions become more explicit in the discourse, they interweave with the accounts with which the subject supports them, gives them consistency…the analyst, who witnesses a moment of that behaviour, finds in it…the very image that he sees emerge from the subject’s current behaviour is actually involved in all of his behaviour.

In the apprehension of a literary text, I think, we see a similar process. Any given reader is driven to exert mastery over the textual materials; as we run our eyes over every word, we wish to understand them, to make them submit or yield themselves up to us. When they do not, we become frustrated. In pursuit of meaning, we also bring our own preconceptions, the discourses of which we are composed of and determined by; only very specific segments of the text’s meaning will be accessible to any given reader. To give an example, a reader of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway who is familiar with London’s topography, will come away with an acute sense of the novel’s landscape, and substantially more detail about Mrs. Dalloway’s position in the social hierarchy of the society of her time than someone who is not. This latter reader, from Paris say, who is familiar with impressionist painting, might notice a certain tendency in Woolf’s prose, to emulate the impressionist style of ambiguous expression, distorted subject and object relations and the use of interior sensibilities to depict reality. In this way, both readers are reading the same book, but very different ones at the same time.

And of course, both these readings develop their own momentum, and move irrevocably towards a certain conclusion. We notice phenomena that accord with our perspective, and gloss over material that contradicts it, especially when outlining an argument in a paper or blog post, as these media require demonstrative examples, rather than lengthy quotations. In this way, we come to identify with a textual imaginary, reminiscent of the ego imago of the mirror stage. Unbeknownst to us, the text is readily circulating through the Symbolic, iterating diffuse and infinitely referential meanings which are created and disbarred in our act of reading. In this schema, the Real would correspond with the unread sections of the text, that which is inaccessible or missed in the act of reading. It is important to say that the Real does not correspond to reality, Lacan means two very different things when he uses these words. In this case, I cannot give a direct example, as this would be antithetical to the notion; it’s slightly impossible to literalise as a phenomenon.

As a prose stylist in his own right, Lacan favoured digression, paradox and wordplay. Incoherence, excess, wordplay, these compose the lexicon of the experimental psychoanalyst.  He praised James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for its supposed capacity to access the language of pure signification, without offering any footholds for the reader; in apprehending his style we are confronted with the impossibility of tracing the turning over of signifiers. This is perhaps a simplistic view of the Wake, but it nevertheless allows us to develop an idea of what we should be looking for when we interpret our novels, not merely pursuing similarity, or seeking in it our own reflections; such is the role of the naive positivist; not the serious interpreter. A unified textual style or meaning is therefore a consolatory myth, one which we erect as a buttress agains the impossible, overwhelming quantity of meaning which confronts us when we read a novel. But this is perhaps the point. Lacan’s sense of the ego depends on paranoiac knowledge and networks based on exclusion. Our very ‘selves’ are just images; our personalities alienated responses to indifferent forces.

William H. Gass’ ‘The Tunnel’ and the Sad Man Monologue

William H. Gass’ novel The Tunnel strikes me, in one way, by its similarity to a particular kind of fiction written by a particular kind of novelist of a particular age and gender, a sub-genre I call ‘The Sad Man Monologue.’ This form was, I would argue, pioneered by Samuel Beckett in his Trilogy of Molloy, Malone meurt and L’innomable, though I am open to being corrected on that, (damienrants at https://iscriptorblog.wordpress.com/ suggests Goethe, Heinrich Von Kleist and Fyodor Dostoevsky as plausible pre-modernist progenitors) and is practiced nowadays by the aforementioned Gass, occasionally by Paul Auster and exclusively by John Banville.

Below are some key features of the genre, for your perusal and edification:

The narrator is a middle-aged man – This is a fairly consistent feature of the genre, as these texts generally depict the narrator as writing the account as we read it, hopping back and forth in time, from a bathetic present to a Kodak-distant youth in which feelings were felt intensely. The neither/nor in-between space of middle age is crucial for bringing together the pathos of departed days with the anxiety of a more proximate death.

The writing is of an extremely heightened sort – More so, I think than any other invented sub-genre today, the authors of sad man monologues embroider with densely worded baroqueries. The reason behind this linguistically charged and seductive register is that the sad men are, generally speaking, shits, and often unrepentant shits at that, probably necessitating its glossy surfaces and (sometimes) exquisite proliferation of sub-clauses.

The narrator complains about the unattractiveness of their spouse – A bugbear I have as regards this genre is that each sad man finds time, ample time in fact, to denigrate the attractiveness of their wife and log their resentment over how little gratifying sex they get. I find it so bizarre that in the works of these writers, time and time again, half the novel is devoted to the fundamental pain of the human condition, epistemological, phenomenological uncertainty, the unreliability of memory, the indignity of having an infinite intellect yoked to a decaying body, yet the narrator still finds time to harp on his petty domestics chauvinistically, as if this had some sort of universal significance. This annoys me because 1) I suspect the narrator is no spring chicken, 2) I have no idea what they expect, holing themselves away authoring the story of their life and being so angst ridden all the time, 3) it comes across like a male author getting a dig in at their wife.

The narrator is an erudite and studious sort, well up on contemporary thought – These novels are shot through with flirtations of references to The Jacques. This is fun, but wears quickly, especially when one reads Gass, who makes the effort to traduce this theoretical terminology into his own inimitably mad register, then returns to these other authors, who make use of phrases like ‘unconscious,’ ‘meaninglessness,’ ‘fracture,’ or god help us, that familiar clattering of the undergraduate, ‘signifier.’

Scanning my bookshelves for a gender counterpoint, the sad woman monologue, (again, examples please), I come away with J.M. Coetzee’s In The Heart of the Country and Anne Enright’s The Gathering. Both bring productive knottiness into the formulae above, Enright’s Veronica moves back before her own birth, introducing impossible pre-natal perspectives, just as Coetzee’s Magda, allows others to speak their own pieces in dialogue, committing a cardinal sin against the genre. This is complicated by the fact that both narrators inflect what they see or narrate to suit their own interests; their supposed capacity to deal in heteroglossia in fact points towards a more insidious variant of monomania.

The Gathering is class. Read The Gathering.

Thoughts on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or ‘Revenge of the Cringe-Inducing Marginalia’ Part 2

In the previous post I confessed to having a first-year-of-undergraduate-itis when it came to annotating books that I was reading, taking up space in margins that should probably be reserved for my future self who (hopefully) knows a thing or two more about a thing or two than I do.

In the library, it’s generally the texts that are prescribed in first year that are in the worst nick, not least for the often jaw-dropping levels of hubris exhibited by its readers. If you want to see a sequence of teenagers who have recently encountered Karl Marx for the first time quibble uselessly with Terry Eagleton about his definition of a novel, you’ll know where to look. It sometimes impresses me that students in later years make an effort to respond; as if the page functions as an analogue comment board and that the conversation is some way ongoing.

As was made clear below, I wasn’t immune from the tendency myself, I also once explained Roland Barthes’ theory of the honest sign as reminiscent of the way Heath Ledger’s Joker moves in the Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight. But occasionally my notes aren’t as oppressively baffling, as I found in my copy of James’s Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The paragraph in question reads as follows:

“Now it seemed as if he would fail again but, by dint of brooding on the incident, he thought himself into confidence. During this process all those elements which he deemed common and insignificant fell out of the scene. There remained no trace of the tram itself nor of the tram-men nor of the horses: nor did he and she appear vividly. The verses told only of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden lustre of the moon. Some undefined sorrow was hidden in the hearts of the protagonists as they stood in silence beneath the leafless trees and when the moment of farewell had come the kiss, which had been withheld by one, was given by both. After this the letters L. D. S. were written at the foot of the page, and, having hidden the book, he went into his mother’s bedroom and gazed at his face for a long time in the mirror of her dressing-table.”

My note helpfully notes: “Women, Freud, Lacan.”

What set me of on this trail was the presence of the mirror in the above scene, a bit of home décor that can get the interpretative ball rolling in any novel handily.

This is due to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, a juncture in a person’s life in which their self begins to exist. According to Lacan, this happens when a child first perceives themselves as an individual subject, a being that is distinct from their mother. It doesn’t necessarily involve an actual mirror.

This is fitting and is a loaded scene because of how Portrait is a novel concerned with how its precocious child Stephen Dedalus grows into a pretentious aesthete. Portrait is an extended exploration of Dedalus’ mirror stage, as he begins to see himself ‘mirrored’ as a literary artist. This can be seen in Dedalus’ emulation of Narcissus, cosying up to his new self-image as a writer.

Anne Enright once said that becoming a writer is to adopt a position of importance. Dedalus’ swollen ego certainly comes across in his preening, gazing and autographing a piece of juvenilia with his whimsical pseudonym “L. D. S.,” as if mindful of future antiquarian Christmas addicts who will come calling for the relic of the author’s manuscripts.

Joyce is ambivalent about his creature, not just in the above quotation, but in this novel in general. Throughout, he leans a bit more heavily than he does in Dubliners on the irony dial, giving us plenty of hints that the reader shouldn’t be taking the antics of this aesthete seriously. Far from a budding Joyce, Dedalus may be what Joyce was at risk of becoming, if his self regard and consciousness had overwhelmed his capacity to write anything of note.

The rather ingenious way that Joyce has this come across in this scene is the fact that Dedalus’ mirror stage takes place while he inspects his reflection in his mother’s mirror, after having written what sounds like a horrendous poem.

It is just as likely that Dedalus’ mirror stage marks the futility of his adolescent declaration of “Non serviam!” He pinched the line from Milton anyway.