The Thing about Das Ding: Desire and Cinema

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In his essay “The Ethics of Psychoanalysis,” Lacan names what constitutes both the object and cause of desire as Das Ding. This unknowable Thing possesses qualities of an imaginary object but operates in the real, a lost object that can never be found. The mother is the original objet petit a, the [m]other that is prohibited and therefore desirable. The emergence of the father who enacts this proscription through the symbolic “no” sees the emergence of law wherein prohibition dictates desire. This reveals three fundamental things about Das Ding. First, it is a negative subject that encompasses what is not rather than what is. Second, in order to maintain its desirable status, Das Ding must forever remain out of reach. Finally, our whole existence is founded on the pursuit of Das Ding, causing an implosion of purpose and selfhood if it is ever truly found. In this way, desire maketh man.

How is desire manifested in the symbolic realm? Zizek proffers an answer in his Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, stating that “cinema tells you how to desire.” Just as the law makes us desire by prohibiting Das Ding, cinema causes desire through the cut, a loss of wholeness. The fragmentation of cinema through the camera’s subjectivity and editing produces a selectivity, and therefore fettishization, of the image. Censorship can also operate as a Freudian castration where “the point is to gamble simultaneously on the excitation of desire and its non-fulfilment,” (“The Imaginary Signifier page 77.) As Christian Metz proclaims, cinema is an imaginary signifier that the viewer simultaneously believes in and rejects as reality, and can therefore “sustain their credulousness in all incredulousness” (page 72-73.) In this way, cinema presents superficial desirable objects that are merely representations, or signifiers, of a non-existent signified. It does not show us what we desire, because what we desire does not exist. Cinema tells a story so convincing, part of us believes it as truth. This relates to Lacan’s notion of animorphosis, in which one interprets a signifier as a signified, deriving meaning from an empty representation