*Extraneous Essay* Desire, Masochism, and Femininity in “Circe”‘s Two Trials of Leopold Bloom

Out of all of the chapters in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the fifteenth chapter “Circe” is arguably the most explosive. “Circe” is the longest chapter in the book and is written in the style of a theatrical play, which allows it to split from the usual stream-of-consciousness internal dialogue that is inserted throughout the rest of the book. Despite its exclusion of his first-person internal thought, “Circe” dynamically exposes the frames of desire that Leopold Bloom operates through, using hallucinatory scenes to pierce the repressive veil of shame that Bloom is so often shown to internalize throughout the book. Through the surreal chapter’s two trials of Bloom, the workings of Bloom’s desire, oscillating between a desire for proximity to the masculine ideal and a moral universal goodness, are unveiled in their full absurdity. 

Extending Sigmund Freud’s link of the superego with subjective desire, French psychoanalyst-linguist Jacques Lacan, using the different but similar ethics of Immanuel Kant and the libertine the Marquis de Sade as examples, enumerated on the paradoxical quality of desire in his essay “Kant with Sade.” The Lacanian distinction between the subject of the statement and the subject of the enunciation is used in the essay to demonstrate the unconscious psychic workings of the desiring subject. The subject of the statement is the subject who consciously identifies himself in his enunciated statement, while the subject of enunciation is the true subject of the statement, whereby unconscious desire makes itself known in the statement. In “Kant with Sade,” Lacan formulates how the Kantian assertion of an autonomous moral duty based on the categorical imperative represses the subject of enunciation of this assertion, which he figures as the Marquis de Sade’s torturer-executioner. The Kantian categorical imperative treats the Other and his freedom as an end-in-itself, while the Sadian moral duty of unconditional bodily usage perverts this imperative, reducing the Other to a partial object of sexual pleasure. The unconditionality of Sadian (im)morality can be shown in Lacan’s description of Sade’s maxim that is featured in his book Philosophy in the Bedroom: “‘I have the right to enjoy your body,’ anyone can say to me, ‘and I will exercise this right without any limit to the capriciousness of the exactions I may wish to satiate with your body’” (“Kant with Sade,” 648). Both the Kantian and the Sadian duty find enjoyment through functioning as unconditional imperatives as related to the superego. If the subject does not cede to the superegoist demand of (Kantian) altruism, he will feel humiliation, and thus the superego, as the subject of enunciation, takes (Sadian) pleasure in controlling the subject of the statement. Lacan uses this similarity to expose how the superego, and its unconditional demands on desire, in actuality represses the fact of its own oscillation between these two duties in order to construct its own illusory purity. Beyond the normativity of conscious desire, then, is the center of the Lacanian drive that disturbs this oscillation of desire between Sade’s sadism and Kant’s categorical altruism. Centering Lacanian psychoanalysis is apt for a reading of Joyce’s “Circe” precisely because “Circe” ruptures this oscillation of Bloom’s desire in the same way that the Lacanian drive does for the subject’s desire. Transcending normative gender representation in order to show the truth of Leopold Bloom’s desire, a truth that has its bearings in an openness to femininity through masochism, “Circe” radically discloses how Bloom’s often-characterized altruism and his anxieties about sexuality/gender are irreducibly entangled.

 The first hallucinatory trial in “Circe” begins with various accusations being thrown at Bloom by phantom figures of Dublin, such as writer Philip Beaufoy accusing Bloom of being a plagiarist “masquerading as a litterateur” (Ulysses, 374). The trial truly begins when it devolves into the mass proliferation of accusations from women centered around Bloom’s sexual misconduct. Described as Dublin’s “plebeian Don Juan” (381), Bloom is unable to defend himself amidst the ruckus of the trial, and attendees scream for the implementation of violent acts of punishment against him. Bloom’s lawyer J.J. O’Molloy defends Bloom by saying that his misbehavior is due to an “aberration of heredity” (378), thus deeming him irresponsible for his actions. This “defense” is the first of two times in “Circe” when Bloom is characterized by an expert of a profession (such as a lawyer or doctor) as abnormal behaviorally and thus biologically. The societal marking of Bloom as behaviorally “aberrant” is often shown throughout Ulysses in the covert comments from various men of Dublin speaking on the ambiguity of Bloom’s sexuality. This can be seen, for example, when, in chapter twelve, the Citizen directly demeans Denis Breen’s mental illness and rudely implies Bloom’s bisexuality when he calls Breen a “half and half” (263) in front of Bloom in chapter twelve. In this way, “Circe” continues to expand on how society mandates a normative association of bisexuality or womanliness and madness in the trials of Bloom. This oppressive societal mandate is not just external to Bloom though; it has installed itself into Bloom’s psyche, as shown in how the trials of “Circe” are depicted as hallucinatory manifestations of Bloom’s internal guilt over his contradictory desires. The anxiety of an ideal masculinity haunts Bloom throughout Ulysses, as Bloom, because of his strict altruism that is deemed feminine by much of society, eludes this ideal. But Bloom’s altruism is also distorted in “Circe” through the true anxiogenic quality of his psyche: his repressed masochism. Bloom’s masochism is shown in “Circe” to be a repressed psychic quality for the most part of the book, insofar as it unmans him and distances him irreducibly from the masculine ideal. The first sign of Bloom’s masochism in “Circe” comes when, after being threatened to be flayed alive by the Dublin court, he mutters that he “love[s] the danger” (381). This admission introduces the chapter’s focus on the truly repressed facet of Bloom’s psyche that evades the double bind of altruism and sadistic masculinity. 

The first trial of “Circe” ends with the societally “aberrant” Bloom being saved by the ghost of Paddy Dignam, who, transformed into a dog “[b]y metempsychosis” (386), proffers the court a validation of Bloom’s alibi that Bloom attended Dignam’s funeral. Bloom, in his “aberrancy,” can only be defended from a literal or social death by the dead itself, an impossible defense that demonstrates the extent of heteronormative society’s sadistic oppression of those that it conceives of as differing from the masculine ideal. “Circe”’s second trial of Bloom begins not immediately with a sadistic trial of death, but instead with a political fantasy in which Bloom is venerated as “the most serene and potent and very puissant ruler of [Dublin]” (393). Newly revered as the “world’s greatest reformer” (392), Bloom claims Dublin as “the golden city which is to be” (395) under his rule and, when a man suddenly contests his rule, he enacts “[t]he instantaneous deaths of many powerful enemies, graziers, members of parliament, [and] members of standing committees” (396). Following this performance of political sadism, Bloom launches into a humanist speech, calling for the instantiation of “[f]ree money, free rent, free love and a free lay church in a free lay state” (399). The exaltation of Bloom ends with a mass suicide where “[m]any most attractive and enthusiastic women…commit suicide” (401). This political fantasy thus merges Bloom’s humanist altruism and his desire to be in proximity to the sadistic power of the masculine ideal in order to finally posit himself as finally accepted, and even worshiped, by Dublin. Soon after this fantastic rally, though, the second trial of Bloom begins. A dissident describes Bloom as a “fiendish libertine from his earliest years” (Ibid), leading to the creation of a large lynch mob, which once again leads Bloom to have to find himself defense. Just as in the first trial, a professional, this time the sex specialist Dr. Malachi Mulligan, is called on to testify on Bloom’s lack of responsibility for his actions. This time, Dr. Mulligan, as opposed to the lawyer O’Molloy, directly deems Bloom “bisexually abnormal” (402). Bloom’s sexual “abnormality” becomes a gender “abnormality” when Dr. Mulligan is corroborated by another doctor who calls Bloom “a finished example of the new womanly man,” furthermore calling Bloom’s moral nature “simple and lovable” (403). Then, in a striking move, “Circe” completely transcends normative gender representation in the second trial by transforming Bloom into a pregnant woman who “bears eight male yellow and white children” (Ibid). And, even more shockingly, Bloom voices his enjoyment of this transformation, exclaiming how he “so want[s] to be a mother” (Ibid). The second trial of “Circe” thus begins with a masculinist fantasy of sadistic power and ends with Bloom’s masochistic identificatory relationship with femininity. In the trials of “Circe,” Bloom’s masochism, a repressed desire beyond normative conscious desire, perturbs the desiring oscillation between sadism and altruism that Lacan describes as the function of the demanding superego in “Kant with Sade.” The second trial in particular reflects how Kantian altruism can be inflected with the pleasure of Sadian sadism in the form of extreme political power, which is furthermore linked with the masculine ideal. But, undergoing a transgendered transformation in the second trial, Bloom’s untraditional (and masochistic) openness to the experience of femininity becomes separated from Lacan’s described dual forms of repressive unconditional duty. The masochism of the first trial gives way to a more pure masochism in the second trial whereby Bloom can finally accept the impossibility of a masculine ideal, and thus (in fantasy and in reality) can live more authentically. 

The conclusion of “Circe,” though it seems not to be connected to Bloom’s feminine masochism, actually does speak to Bloom’s openness to the repressed femininity of the psyche. Seeing the changeling apparition of his dead son Rudy as he looks down on a prostrate Stephen Dedalus, Bloom has to decide between the continued mourning of his son, feeding the monstrous trauma inhabiting his psyche, or the accepted loss of his son, perhaps to be aided by becoming the mentor, or supplanting the dead mother/lost father, of Stephen. In the end he chooses the latter, shedding the despair over what Michael Ullman calls “not-Rudy” and coming to accept the void of subjectivity that the subject encounters when mourning lost objects of love. This is not a simple rejection of the void and Otherness of subjectivity, but instead what Lacanian psychoanalyst Cristiana Cimino would connect with the feminine position as “an extreme openness between oneself and the world” (“The Kiss of the Panther-Woman”). Accepting loss and recognizing the impossibility of simply overpowering or rejecting it, “lovelorn longlost lugubru Booloohoom” (Ulysses, 354) finally chooses to open himself up to Otherness and loss, thus (in Lacanian terms) repositioning himself in feminine terms. 

12/27/21: _Eve’s Bayou_ and the Production/Disruption of Futurity

Kasi Lemmon’s 1997 film Eve’s Bayou has as its unknowable kernel what orthodox psychoanalysis uses to predicate the slippage factor of all relationality – incest. Writing in “Totem and Taboo” on the enjoyment of excessive sexual conduct that the primordial hoard of brothers perceive their father to have, Freud locates incest as the center of familial relations, and civilization itself, that radically divides the desiring subject. The hoard of brothers desire the primal origin of retroactively perceived full enjoyment, the hold of the Mother that Jacques Lacan goes on to conceptualize as the objet petit a. To approach the the objet petit a, though, insofar as it reveals the irreducible gap between need and demand, becomes an encounter with the Real of enjoyment, or the encounter with the division of desire and the jouissance of the unlocalizable drive. It should be noted then that, as an exploration of dramatization, narratives, and myth making, psychoanalysis is the study of exactly what dissolves the coherence of these Symbolic representations so repetitively. In the history of clinical analysis, the analytic experience of running against the beyond of coherent speech reveals what must be unnamable. This is why the task of predicating this beyond has been the stake of all ideologies, insofar as ideology marks our Symbolic worlds, including the ideological study of psychoanalysis. Freud called it incest, Lacan called it the Real or jouissance, and, in an even more specified manner that produces the violence of set embodied identities, the historical-political ideologies produced by various historical/mythological events have manifested the signifiers of the woman, the Black, the queer, and other figures as predicates of the beyond of incomprehensibility. Looking towards Eve’s Bayou, then, I aim to use Jacques Lacan’s elaborations on feminine jouissance and Kara Keeling’s notion of the black femme in order to realize how the film (impossibly) queers narrative futurity (in the Edelmanian sense) insofar as it disrupts its illusory security.

The film begins with indiscernible black-and-white images of hazy figures, which end up being clarified as the primal scene of Eve Batiste as she watches her father and Matty Monreaux engage in adulterous sex. The unblurring of this entangled image of a watched-upon sexual encounter transgressive of the normative nuclear family is delivered in an image of Eve’s eyes reflecting the unblurred image (figure 1). Then, the voice of an adult Eve begins to describe the mythic origin story of the Batiste family, which includes the story of the slave Eve and the slaver John Paul Batiste who, after Eve saves him from illness, rewards her with her freedom and the bayou that comes to be known as “Eve’s Bayou.” Eve is described to have, “perhaps in gratitude,” bore him sixteen children, who end up generating the Batiste family depicted in the film. At the very structural center of the Batiste family and the film, then, is the “perhaps” of why the family was produced in the first place. But this question of “why” is irrelevant, insofar as the slave’s relation to consent, as Saidiya Hartman aptly reiterates throughout her ouvre, is a non-relation entirely. Nonetheless, as the origin story is being told, the mysterious figure of Eve appears and vanishes into the land that she is rewarded, first into the bayou itself (figure 2) and then into the trees of the land (figure 3). She is an image that cannot be looked at and set in place without dissolving into incomprehensibility, as opposed to the incomprehensible image of the primal scene that is projected into comprehensible sight through Eve’s gaze. Speaking to the dangerous prophetic gaze of Eve and Eve’s Aunt Mozelle, then, which functions as both a curse and a gift that eludes formal causation and determination in normative temporality, the two feminine subjects’ sight pierces incomprehensibility and clarifies the unknowable, becoming both productive and non-productive in their associations with the surrounding community, and thus with futurity. People throughout the bayou community are shown to validate the truth of Mozelle’s gaze in their trust of her gaze, thus authenticating its productive function. But, on the side of non-productivity, the events prophetically gazed at are determined absolutely, and, such as with the death of all of Mozelle’s husbands and the film’s final death of Eve’s father, this gaze harbors death, which is completely non-relational. Kara Keeling associates the affective labor of the African slave woman in slave relationality (that Angela Davis describes in “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves”) with what she calls “the black femme function” that “refers to the affectivity that disentangles itself from the project of reproducing capitalist relations (but does not [yet] break with that project) in order to participate in an enterprise that is more consistent with sustaining the conditions such affectivity perceives to be necessary to its own survival” (The Witch’s Flight, 146). Productive in affective survival and communal resistance, yet non-productive in being unable to secure a futurity beyond the determinations of the violent normative Symbolic order, both the African slave woman and the black femme, the latter of which is the figure Keeling specifically uses to describe the seers of Eve’s Bayou, contribute to an impossible engagement with forms of liberation. Appearing and disappearing into the contours of the Symbolic Order, both the enigmatic slave Eve, in her ambiguous “perhaps,” and the young Eve Batiste and her aunt Mozelle open up to an Otherness beyond their selves. 

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3

This described function of a passive opening up onto Otherness beyond futurity recalls Jacques Lacan’s formulation of feminine jouissance. Feminine jouissance eludes totalization under the phallic function of castration insofar as the feminine subject feels beyond themselves an openness to “[t]he nonexistence of the Other [that] is itself inscribed into the Other” (Alenka Zupancic, What is Sex?, 53). Cristiana Cimino frames feminine jouissance in the context of the 1942 horror film Cat People, where the main character Irena undergoes, without any control, a transformation into a ravenous panther during intense affective experiences. Cimino allegorizes Cat People as a filmic depiction of unknowable feminine desire and feminine jouissance that, as a horror film influenced by normative heteromasculinity, must discard Irena at the end of the film without care. The masculinist history of murder, mutilation, rape, and general discarding of the feminine subject psychically centers on how the unknowable “feminine not whole is generally associated with madness, with destruction” (“The Kiss of the Panther-Woman”). Echoing this sentiment, in Eve’s Bayou, Eve’s father Louis Batiste comments on how his sister Mozelle is “not unfamiliar with the insides of a mental hospital.” Eve’s Bayou differs from Cat People‘s treatment of feminine jouissance, or what Keeling calls the black femme function, insofar as it discards the father Louis Batiste at the end of the film in service of a vaguely impossible and non-agential futurity of feminine jouissance. Neither the Father as image nor the Father as word (as shown in the rejection of Louis’ letter to Eve at the end of the film) is saved in Eve’s Bayou. An ambiguous emergence paralleling the matriarchal slave origin of Eve can be anticipated in the final moments of Eve’s Bayou, as Eve and her sister Cecily look out into the bayou together. The final image of the film shows the two sisters, after sinking their father’s note into the water, with their backs turned to the camera, projecting an intimate sisterhood. Then, the camera zooms out to make the two sisters finally dissolve into the vast imagistic realm of the bayou (figure 4). With their backs turned to the camera and vanishing into the milieu that they are bound to both resist and support following the death of the image/word of the Father, Eve and Cicely directly recall the image of the slave Eve as she dissipates into the bayou with her back turned to the camera at the beginning of the film. 

Figure 4

Finally, I wish to shift my focus to the unknowable kernel of incest that determines the end of the film. The question of who initiated incestuous encounter between Cicely and her father is never resolved by the film’s conclusion. The film reproduces its typical series of black-and-white rapid images when Eve, taking Cicely’s hands in hers, is able to finally see what happened during the encounter. But this does not result in a pure knowledge of the unknowability of incest for both Eve and Cicely, and specifically not for the spectator. Following the “reveal” of the truth, Cicely, crying, tells Eve that she still “does not know what happened.” Not a seer like Eve, Cicely occupies the place of the spectator in this scene insofar as there is no (signifiable) clarification of the images that the spectator sees of the incestuous encounter, differing from what has usually been happening with the various seer-sequences throughout the film. Taking from Lee Edelman’s No Futureregarding the image of the ideal Child as the emblem of futurity, repressing the sinthomosexuality that accompanies all of sexuality and professed knowledge (of it), the ambiguity of consent in Eve’s Bayou‘s incestuous encounter disrupts the pure image of the Child, thus disrupting a projected heteronormative futurity. Jouissance, as indicative of the drive that exposes divided desire, is never formally stabilized in a perfectly imposed conceptualization of consent. Eve’s Bayou, then, shattering the pure image of the Child through the unresolved muddling of consensual sexual activity provides no futurity whatsoever that can be coherent in narrative form, just as the atemporal images of the seer’s gaze is incoherent narratively without the cohesion of signification. I take the film’s queering of futurity, insofar as it produces no normative futurity, as doubling Keeling’s argument regarding the black femme function, and its productivity/non-productivity that works to disentangle, but not break from, heteronormative and capitalist conceptions of desire and life. Eve’s Bayou then treads on the dangerous ground of virtually implying a space that represents that which can never truly be signifiable in the normative Symbolic order: an impossible queered futurity for, what Keeling writes on as, the figure of the black femme.

12/10/21: _Bad Education_ and the Child’s Materiality

Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education is interested in identity positions insofar as identity is always founded on an illusory logic of wholeness that is founded on retroaction and anticipation. As Jane Gallop makes pointedly clear in “Where to Begin?,” the mirror stage that heralds the Imaginary and gives the subject a conceptualize of his ego founds itself on “the self [being] constituted through anticipating what it will become, and then this anticipatory model is used for gauging what was before” (81). Identity, then, is entangled in an illusory process of cohesion that is, ultimately, forgetful of its (non-)place in the Real, though it can never escape from this forgetfulness. As an exploration of the slipping masks, as attached to faces, names, and voices, of characters inhabiting, through the inhibition by, the darkness of the past, Bad Education provides a glimpse into the Otherness that intrudes every relation to the self. As the emblem for the articulation of (anticipatory) pureness in Bad Education is Ignacio as a child, the Child consistently returns as the image of natural wholeness that marks every character in the film’s relation to the desired Ignacio they used to know. But insofar as Bad Education‘s Child is in relation to Ignacio in the supposed form of self-identity, the Child brings the characters of the film right back to the ambiguity of the self-difference that seeps into their lives. The actual adult Ignacio that represents, imagistically, the Real of the Child as separate from its supposed purity; however, as Lee Edelman writes on in his reading of Bad Education in “Learning Nothing,” “the corporeal transformation he aims anticipates to resolve, not affirm, such division” (156). This is to say that no subject can be a subject unless it harnesses the Symbolically valued objects of futurity and totality to the image of the Child, even if experiences of jouissance demonstrate the impossibility of suturing the gap between the Symbolic and the Imaginary.

The Ignacio that was used to be known, the Child of Bad Education, is therefore, paradoxically, the most unsettling character of the entire film. If the Child is the illusory image used by subjects to anticipate wholeness, the child as a living entity in the world is violently erased from its own potentials. Stagnant in the frame of natural innocence and beauty, with the innocence corresponding to an ignorance of the knowledge of the queerness of sexuality, the Child must be separated from the child insofar as its ideological underpinnings commits violence to children. Bad Education provides a reading of the child as separate from the Child especially in multiple ways. When, in Enrique’s phantasmatic projection of the script of La Visita, Father Manolo reads Ignacio’s story that exposes his abuse, the young Ignacio’s voice provides the voiceover for the disturbing words. Later in La Visita, when Ignacio gives himself to Father Manolo in exchange for Enrique’s continued enrollment at school, the voiceover that provides the line that the event was the “first time” Ignacio sold himself is similarly the voice of young Ignacio. The floating voiceover of the young Ignacio, firstly imagistically and secondly temporally, is disconnected from the pure figure of the Child. The Child thus becomes a monstrosity insofar as the Child is revealed to be nothing but the living entity of the child with his own desire. But, nonetheless, the Child is repetitively cast up by all characters of the film to attempt to secure an anticipated security in selfhood, a security that is constantly disturbed by the materiality of the Child as the child.

12/03/21: _The Silence of the Lambs_ and the Scales of Jouissance

Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is undoubtedly one of the most acclaimed horror films of the century, precisely through its attention to the ways in which the figure of the serial killer, in the contemporary American sense, can imply the underside of so-called normativity in a culture of prohibition. The serial killer is intriguing to the (American) public in its position as the manifested form of destructive jouissance that stalks upon the “normal” public. More specifically, as The Silence of the Lambs emphasizes, the serial killer reflects the subject who has an excessive enjoyment in the violent destruction, mutilation, and consumption of the figure of the citizen. The Silence of the Lambs depicts two different versions of this figure: Hannibal Lecter, the analyst who poses a (desired) threat intellectually more so than in his cannibalism, and Buffalo Bill, the working class man who functions as the normative imago of the “depraved trans” subject. Lecter seems to know all, with relation to both the Buffalo Bill case and the psychic lives of the FBI agents who interrogate him. His knowledge is both desired in its totalized nature, and feared in its destructive capacity. Through the acknowledgement of the materiality of language, Lecter manipulates language, and exposes the ways in which the so-called experts of pathology, the FBI agents in the film, are unable to look to the obscure to procure their answer to criminal cases. This results in the generalized fear throughout the movie that Lecter will “get into your head,” a phrase that implies the forceful imposition of his analytic prowess into the psyche, metaphorically figured as the physical head of the interrogator. But the dual danger of Lecter, one not as consistently realized as the latter danger, is his cannibalistic jouissance, an enjoyment that is visually shown as consuming the faces of people. Between the consumption of the Other’s face, the surface of the head, and the imposition into the Other’s “head,” the psyche of the Other, is the absolute unknowability of Lecter by the Other. Lecter’s jouissance is oral and revolves around pure consumption, not phallic, though his unknowable knowledge that brings out something in the Other more than the Other is figured as phallic by the Other. The film’s humanization of Lecter, though, is traced through its insistence on his understanding of the feminine Othering of Clarice. The only “male” figure that is able to understand Clarice’s predicament as constantly being watched, always having “eyes moving over [her] body,” is Lecter, in (neutral) contempt of the blatant misogyny imposed on Clarice. Whether this misogyny is obscenely imposed by the incarcerated Miggs or the various men in law enforcement that objectify her doesn’t matter. Lecter is the one man out of the film – he is closest to Clarice’s experience of being the feminine Other. 

So how does Buffalo Bill figure into the Othering of Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs? Bill is the absolute Other of the film, the kernel of pure immorality that founds the humanity of all characters, specifically through his particular murderous jouissance that differs from Lecter’s. Bill’s jouissance is initiated through the collection and refinement of the skin of his (women) victims. As opposed to Lecter’s oral jouissance, Bill’s jouissance is a disturbingly extreme alterity in its status as a premeditated project towards a telos. What is this telos of collecting the skin of his victims? The desired endpoint of Bill is the creation of a “woman skin suit” that he can don in order to become the woman he wants to be, and is rejected as being from numerous transgender clinics for bodily transition. Thus, the central point of The Silence of the Lambs’ narrative of differing scales of alterity revolves around the question as to what a legitimate demand for transgender bodily transition is, and therefore what is the deciding line between (psychoanalytically) desire and the undead force of singular desire that is the drive. “I’d fuck me” says Bill as he applies lipstick to complete his woman-imago in the mirror. His identity in the statement itself is from the position of the man looking at his woman-imago as the objectified feminine Other that he desires sexually. Bill’s treatement of women, insofar as he murders them, is predicated on the framing that the feminine Other is an “it” that can be desired, but is desired insofar as their skin is the medium which can transform him into the ultimate auto-erotic object of desire. This can be discerned when Bill calmly refers to his captive Catherine as “it,” commanding her by telling her that “it puts the lotion on its skin.” Describing a case study about the analysis of Primeau, a man who believed he was becoming a woman against his will, by Jacques Lacan, Patricia Gherovici describes how Lacan’s questioning of Primeau distinguished “the case of a man that he sees as psychotic from a more legitimate demand for sex change” (“Depathologizing Trans,” 545). The Lacanian case of psychosis, akin to how Judge Schreber’s transsexual jouissance attached to the imposed pleasure of God, relates specifically to the imposition of a Big Other that does not exist. In this sense, Primeau’s feelings of transsexual jouissance were not a legitimate demand for a sex change, as it did not arise from a singular excess of jouissance only for, and yet beyond, the subject. Buffalo Bill’s transsexual jouissance is markedly different. Instead of an imposition from a fictional Big Other, Bill’s desire to become-woman is tied to the ungendering of the feminine subject, and a masculine desire for phallic authority over the Other, to the extreme apex of an auto erotic jouissance wherein he is able to figure himself as the (ungendered) feminine Other. This is what, at least from a Lacanian perspective, makes his demand for a sex change wrongful, and instead a delusion unable to come to live as founded by the excessive singularity of the sinthome

The feminine appropriation of the (male) gaze, as Mary Ann Doane describes it, is not a true appropriation, and can only function under the structural logic of masculinity. Doane describes this feminine gaze in terms of Joan Riviere’s masquerade and what she describes as “transvestism,” the latter of which is when a feminine subject masochistically over-identifies with the masculine position. This “transvestism” can be shown in the depiction, and praise, of Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. She takes jouissance in the killing of the obscene imago of the trans Buffalo Bill, thus ensuring her place in the superegoist Law of the FBI, and the film depicts this as a promotion of an authentic feminist authority. Instead, through not placing a distance between the masculinist logic of Bill and the trans imago of Bill, the film uses Bill and the phantom of transgenderism in order to promote Clarice’s Symbolic transvestism which recedes into masculinist logic itself. We can say, then, that this is where The Silence of the Lambs fails in its representation of transness, instead reproducing the anxiety of the imago of the trans as depraved in autogynephilia.

11/19/21: _Phantom Thread_ and the Impossible Agreement

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There are few films in the last decade as unnerving as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. The film begins by confronting two positions of sexual relationality: Alma as the hopelessly desirous muse of Reynolds, the indifferent man concerned with nothing other than his art and the phantom of his dead mother. Alma is destined to wait ad infinitum for Reynolds to finally shed his veneer and consummate his love for her – a consummation that, by being purely the object of the drive, has no true telos. So, how does Phantom Thread provide Alma the consummation she desires? In continuity with the film’s enigmatic narrative indecision regarding sexual positionality, Phantom Thread makes Reynolds “open” to, and for, Alma. In an agreement that escapes every normative definition of an “agreement,” Reynolds submits to Alma’s poisoning of his food, and agrees to repetitively undergo intense illness. But the question that Phantom Thread does not truly answer is why Reynolds, in such a sublime Event that evades any normative autonomy, so immediately submits to the supposed phallic authority of Alma. To begin to explore this question, we must begin with Reynolds’ obsession with his dead mother, and the psychic implications this has. When first poisoned unwillingly by Alma, Reynolds, while being cared for by Alma in his bed, sees a hallucinatory image of his dead mother in his room. He verbalizes his deep mourning for her, and the phantom image refuses to answer to his childlike grief. After he recovers from the poison, gets married to Alma, and then violently regrets the decision, Alma suddenly becomes voiceless herself, returning a silent gaze towards Reynolds that disturbs him to no end and causes him to proclaim that there is the presence of an “air of quiet death” in his house. From the voiceless mother, the phantom thread impossibly present in the psychic life of Reynolds, to the suddenly voiceless Alma, the materialized oscillation between the caring Mother of the Imaginary and the obscene Mother of the Real begins to produce an intense psychic interference that necessitates a decision on the part of Reynolds. He cannot live on like this – he has recognized the limits of life, and has furthermore realized the tear in him (the very cut of the unassumingly threatening Alma) that has begun to shred his usually orderly and routined Symbolic world. What more can he do but decide a new mode of sexual relationality that can keep him put in his neat Symbolic world but provide him a jouissance that reaches far beyond the Symbolic and, paradoxically, sustains “normality” itself? This is a decision that is far from normatively autonomous, as a response to the (M)other, yet nonetheless is depicted as shockingly autonomous. Thus, Reynolds becomes “open” to, and for, Alma, the one muse who cares for him like she is his Mother, but, contrary to the other muses, also allows Reynolds to be penetrated by the desire of the Other, therefore allowing Reynolds to identify with the position of the Mother herself.

Glowing with pride, Alma, explaining her and Reynolds’ “agreement,” tells Dr. Hardy that “[i]f he wasn’t there tomorrow, he would be waiting for me in the afterlife.” It is obvious that this “agreement” is transformative beyond the Symbolic, and has taken on a mystical dimension that secures an illicit enjoyment from what Alenka Zupancic describes as the “fundamental antagonism” (What is Sex?, 41) that both founds and exceeds the Symbolic Order. The differentiality of the realm of signification is not a pure differentiality secured by a Big Other, but instead is produced precisely as the means to master the contradictions inherent to the Symbolic, which lacks the binary signifier that can immediately secure meaning. Alma and Reynolds, in the Event of their “agreement,” settle on their constant Symbolic miscommunication and different ways of desiring, all of which is internal to the Symbolic itself. This settlement is an attempt of suturing structural lack, but is symptomatically a failure: it exudes the ambiguity of sexuality, that which is “placeholder of the missing signifier” (42), by providing both partners the enjoyment of fluctuating in the realm of sexual/gendered positionality. The lack persists, and Alma brings Reynolds closer to the Real, that which lacks nothing, by way of the stasis of illness, while Reynolds encounters the Real of being near death, being “open” to a radical alterity, enjoying it all the same.

Slavoj Zizek has effectively demonstrated, by way of Lacan, how the Marquis de Sade figures the torturer/executioner as the absent subject of enuncation in the Kantian Moral Law. Thus, “the phantasmic ‘truth’ of the [Kantian] immortality of the soul [is] its exact opposite, the immortality of the body, its ability to sustain endless pain and humiliation” (“Kant and Sade: The Ideal Couple”). But the ethical implications of Lacanian analysis do not endorse the Sadian perversity of assuming the externally imposed duty of the Other, nor do they endorse the Kantian determination of Moral Law being separated from all “pathology.” So, does Alma and Reynolds’ “agreement” adhere to the incoherent and impossible ethical position of Lacan? Alma can be figured as the Sadian executioner, immortalizing the love of her relationship through infinitely poisoning Reynolds’ body. What is clear about Alma is that this is a role that she adheres to deeply, but not in the sense of a Kantian duty, but as something she recognizes as and embraces as pathological. But what about Reynolds? Does Reynolds perform his role as a duty that assumes a perversity that derives enjoyment from situating himself as the object of the Other’s drive? There is no obvious way of telling how Reynolds affectively feels about his new role produced by the “agreement” – after willingly poisoning himself and consummating the “agreement,” the film ends without a single other spoken word from Reynolds. But if this is the only assumption we can make about Reynolds’ reasoning for becoming the infinitely-tortured, then it would contrast to Lacan’s late conception of the end of analysis as the singular identification of the analysand with the sinthome. As the “outrageous kernel of [] mindless enjoyment” (Zizek, “The Undergrowth of Enjoyment,” 27), the sinthome gives credence to Lacan’s often misinterpreted aphorism “[t]here is no sexual relation,” an aphorism that could be aptly refigured as “[t]here is no relation.” The sinthome has no space in relationality, or the phantasm love as such – it is an ex nihilo production by the analysand that has nothing to do with anyone but the analysand. Reynolds becomes “open” to Alma, and for Alma, and this is a jouissance that is only coherent in the Symbolic as a response to a presupposed Big Other. So, if Reynolds is able to identify with the Mother, the only means by which the illusory category of Woman could ever be conceived of in the unconscious, this does not mean that he escapes phallic authority, the structural lack of the Symbolic. In contradistinction, the Lacanian end of analysis, escaping the cycle between Kant and Sade, promotes the impossible task, a radical identification of the analysand with the lack itself. This necessitates an opening of the subject to radical Otherness, no doubt, but the opening of Reynolds to and for Alma, restraining itself to the realm of relations, is an impossible opening up to, and for, the Other, without recognition of the lack in the Other.

11/16/21 (Extraneous Essay): Mariolatry and Mourning in Joyce’s “Nausicaa”

Contemporary interpretations of James Joyce’s modernist opus Ulysses often foreground the novel’s concerns with paternity and sonhood; however, as the thirteenth chapter of the novel, “Nausicaa,” reveals, the spectre of an absent femininity haunts the novel profoundly. “Nausicaa,”eponymously titled after the princess in Homer’s Odyssey, progresses the novel’s Homerian thematic focus on mourning narratively. This thematic continuity is nonetheless slightly disturbed by the chapter’s status as the novel’s first sustained depiction of the conscious thought of a female character. “Nausicaa” is sectionally structured in its exploration of femininity firstly through an examination of the divided psyche of the young Irish girl Gerty Macdowall, and then with Leopold Bloom’s post-ejaculative contemplation of the nature of Woman. The one thread that psychically binds both portions of the chapter is its approximately 200 allusions to the Virgin Mary. Through a psychoanalytic lens, this intermediate term of mariolatry offers Ulysses a reflection on how femininity, as connected with the image of the Mother, subjects the feminine and masculine subject to parallel, though dissimilar, ways of constructing (sexual) desire, and thus ways of mourning the lost object(s) of the past. 

Ulysses’ narrative, following the Homerian motif of mourning as part of the novel’s allegiance to the structure of Odyssey, is deeply interested in how its two male protagonists, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, attempt to overcome their grief over lost familial objects. With relation to the event of familial death, Bloom has lost his father and his eleven-day old son, while Dedalus has lost his mother. But, coextensively, Bloom has psychically lost a connection with his adulterous wife Molly, while Dedalus has abandoned his family, including his father Simon, who is living in poverty. From a perfunctory examination, the novel seems to highlight the dialectics of paternity and sonhood; however, both Ulysses and psychoanalytic interpretation acknowledge that the primordial loss of the Mother results in the most traumatic grief. Disavowed by the castrated child, yet manifesting an absence that results in lifelong mourning, the loss of the Mother is a loss that structures subjectivity as such. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan details in his extension of the Freudian stages of psychosexual development how the dyadic relationship between the child and the Mother becomes disrupted once the Father enters the kinship relation, thus enabling the child to recognize that he is not the object of the Mother’s desire. This simultaneously produces a subjective aggressive jealousy towards the all-powerful Father, as further explicated in Freud’s “Totem and Taboo,” and a mimetic relationship with the perceived (though fictional) sexual prowess of the Father who has “obtained” the lost Mother.  Thus, the feminine (M)other is “always addressed by man on the side of the maternal phantom” (Cristiana Cimino, “The Kiss of the Panther-Woman”), which is the phallic object-cause of desire, and is unreachable as such. In his merging of structural linguistics with Freudian analysis, Lacan affiliates the Father’s (illusory) phallus with the universalized presupposition of present linguistic meaning in speech. The universalization of the category of Woman is thus a nonexistent status in an innately phallocentric society: Woman is only always the (mourned) Mother in the unconscious. It makes sense, then, that the question of (the desire of) the absent Woman, unconsciously figured as the Mother, is the question that Ulysses’ characters disavow constantly and yet keep returning to, never able to coherently speak on it.

Returning to “Nausicaa,” the absence of the Woman reverberates even in how Joyce writes Gerty’s perspective versus how he writes Bloom’s. Gerty’s perspective, as the first prolonged description of the psychic life of a female in Ulysses, emerges through third-person narration, as contrary to the frequent first-person angle of Bloom’s portion of the chapter. This difference troubles the veracity of the representation of Gerty’s consciousness, and returns to the question of if there is any way to articulate the Woman separately from the vantage of a phallocentric society. For example, while intimate points of Gerty’s life are exhaustively detailed in the third-person, the occasional intrusive phrase, such as the masculinist question asking “[w]hy have women such eyes of witchery?” (286), oftentimes appears and muddles the presupposed autonomy of Gerty in detailing her own desire, in contradistinction to Bloom. Taking this into account, it is still obvious that the provocative play of seeing and being seen, without spoken contact, between Gerty and Bloom indicates a similar sexual enjoyment both characters receive when framing each other in their sexual fantasies, albeit in divergent ways. What makes this oscillation of optic fantasies intriguing is that, on the side of both Gerty and Bloom, they are situated regarding the unstable status of femininity. Bloom gazes at Gerty as the innocent Irish girl that still retains a part of herself that represents a “[h]ot little devil all the same” (301). Gerty, interestingly, takes a parallel enjoyment in her sexual fantasy through envisioning herself as the “womanly woman…. [who can] make [Bloom] forget the memory of the past” (293-294), while additionally being aroused by the prospect of “rais[ing] the devil in him” (295). Bloom’s desire for Gerty is composed by directly petrifying her as an object of desire; juxtapositionally, Gerty’s sexual fantasy speaks to how her arousal is not caused by (the image of) Bloom himself, but instead by the self-reflexive image of her two seemingly contradictory roles in his fantasy, one of which is able to (maternally) assist Bloom through his mourning of the past, and the other of which sexually arouses him. Gerty’s sexual fantasy is irreversibly tied to an unconscious recognition of her teetering role as the other in Bloom’s gaze, while Bloom derives pleasure only through his voyeurism pointed at the feminine other. Both the masculine and feminine subjects in “Nausicaa” thus situate their desires with respect to the dual image of the Mother, who is the initiator of maternal care and is the object of (phallic) desire. Gerty’s more self-referential mode of enjoyment, however, indicates a difference in her relation to feminine desire (and the image of the Mother) that perplexes Bloom, threatening the (illusory) security of his masculine image. 

Feminine sexual desire is thus unable to be conceptualized in the phallocentric  foundations of, what the narrator/Gerty comically classifies as, “the conventions of Society with a big ess” (299). The psychic locus of phallocentrism is the same for both masculine and feminine subjects, both of whom are subjectivized under the function of psychic castration. This is why Gerty struggles with, and yet derives pleasure all the more from, her (societally) contradictory desires to be both the sweet maternal figure and the erotic spark that causes Bloom to “literally worship[] at her shrine” (296) through his passionate gaze. These are the paradoxical positions placed on the constructed category of Woman as such; however, as can be derived from the latter quote, the feminine (M)other is associated with a feminine phallic authority that mandates a male reverence. “Nausicaa” associates the feminine phallus with the “intercessory power [of the Virgin Mary] that it was not recorded in any age that those who implored her powerful protection were ever abandoned by her” (292). One of the first references to the Virgin Mary in the chapter is when it is described that Gerty’s mourned love interest Reggy Wylie is a Protestant, a fact that the narrator/Gerty quickly glides over by evoking her allegiance to Catholicism, mentioning that “of course [she] knew Who came first and after Him the Blessed Virgin and then Saint Joseph” (287). So the Virgin Mary is firstly referenced as the figure Gerty must admire, constituting the religious cut between her lost object of desire and herself. The ideological sanctioning of mariolatry is furthermore emphasized by the chapter’s interruptive descriptions of a Catholic temperance group praying to the Virgin Mary near Sandymount Strand. The veneration of Mary by the temperance group, then, is associated with a conformity to Catholicism, but also to the obsessive adulation of a feminine protection “almost maddening in its sweetness” (295). The latter association is, obviously, a parallel description to how Gerty views her erotic framing in the gaze of Bloom, the gaze that worships her. In this striking identificatory move, Joyce critiques a mariolatry founded on the asexual purity of immaculate conception, which he writes on earlier in the novel, through Stephen Dedalus, as the myth that “the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe” (170). The passionate veneration of the Virgin Mary, the Abrahamic Mother par excellence, is far from being attached to her purity; instead, it is irreparably bonded to an erotic hysteria appositional to the function of the (fundamentally lost) maternal figure. 

Metonymically associated with the Virgin Mary, then, Gerty self-reflexively enjoys the imagined double image of her position as the “[r]efuge of sinners” and as the “[c]omfortress of the afflicted” (294). As the “[r]efuge of sinners,” Gerty imagines herself caring for Bloom, thus ridding him of his mourned “sins” of the past. As the “[c]omfortress of the afflicted,” however, Gerty desires to provide a sexual comfort to Bloom, a (both literally and figuratively) masturbatory relief that Bloom gives “much thanks” (305) to her for. In both ways, Gerty functions like the Virgin Mary, the signifier exposed in this chapter as being far removed from the sexual purity of immaculate conception, which, for historical reference, was a Roman Catholic concept that only began to be taught in 1854, approximately 68 years before the publication of Ulysses in its entirety. After masturbating to his fantasmatic image of Gerty, Bloom’s extended post-ejaculative diatribe on the nature of Woman reveals the impossibility of this nature to be articulated, and thus its nonexistence in the phallocentric linguistic order. Bloom is characterized throughout the novel as being admirably adherent to reason and knowledge, contrasting with the reckless insensibility associated with other characters, such as the Citizen who attempts to assault him in the twelfth chapter. When it comes to his ceaseless insecurity regarding women, however, Bloom repetitively fails to procure any comprehension. For example, when describing women’s interactions with each other, he contemptuously derides women “kissing and whispering secrets about nothing” (302). Shortly after this derision, though, he expresses a deep insecurity in his inability to know what it was that his wife Molly “[s]aw…in [him]” (Ibid). Bloom must defend himself against the unknowable feminine desire that threatens his attainment of phallic mastery by denying the existence of meaningful feminine desire, disparaging spoken feminine desire as “nothing.” Nevertheless, this unknowability primes the female as the repetitively unreachable object of desire, and the bodily “relief” that Bloom thanks Gerty for providing him simultaneously “[d]rain[s] all the manhood out of [him]” (308). Alternating between the threat of castration and sexual catharsis, the unutterable Woman exceeds the epistemology of phallocentrism. While Gerty does not (and cannot) consciously wield knowledge of pure feminine desire, as a feminine subject she situates herself closer to this feminine obscurity than Bloom. Bloom views the (feminine) other as the radical alterity against his male subjectivity, but Gerty regards the (feminine) other as immanent to her own subjectivity, despite the inability to acquire any conscious knowledge of the feminine. Paradoxically, this disparity in common outlooks emphasizes how, as Lacanian scholar Alenka Zupančič writes on, for the female “[t]he nonexistence of the Other is itself inscribed into the Other” (What is Sex?, 53). This explains why Gerty’s sexual fantasy on Sandymount Strand is framed self-reflexively: she enjoys herself being seen as the feminine Other, and thus unconsciously knows her position as the impenetrable female, and yet is unable to posit her fantasy without reference to the male gaze, and hence cannot harbor any existent knowledge of female desire in the phallocentric world. 

Both Bloom and Gerty still mourn for their respective lost objects of desire, but the one psychically lost object that neither have ever had, nor will ever attain, is the coherence of their selfhoods. They are both removed from the Mother and her incomprehensible desire, and are subjected to the law of the unobtainable phallic authority of language that refuses a clear articulation of their identities. This fundamental loss, displaced onto various objects of desire that are inevitably lost themselves, is the ground that both the masculine and feminine subject must disavow and yet comply with. What Joyce recognized is that, despite this similitude of psychic castration, the male and female operate in differently structured realms of conscious (sexual) desire. Much of Ulysses, including “Nausicaa,” may erase Woman from the domain of (phallic) articulability, but this is only insofar as it understands the inevitable absence of the feminine (M)other. By repetitively conjuring the mythic signifier of the Virgin Mary, “Nausicaa” exemplifies this shared structural lack between the gendered positions that nonetheless constitute their different psychic approaches to desire, sexual enjoyment, and thus to mourning the absent Mother herself. 

11/12/21: _Cat People_ and the Terror of Feminine Jouissance

The meanings of the feminine in psychoanalytic theory have always been as multiplex as the vast quantity of psychoanalytic schools that have generated them. One element of the feminine nonetheless tends to broadly remain constant in psychoanalytic schools – the “feminine” is invariably figured as an alterity, an Otherness, that phallic desire is unable to completely assimilate. Freud’s bodily conception of castration anxiety, while often critiqued as being reductively misogynist, nevertheless recognizes the universality of castration, and the Real threat (in the form of a reminder) from the female body towards the male subject that “like the female subject, [he] has already been deprived of being” (Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror, 15). The (mis)recognition of a feminine lack (of the penis) thus figures itself symptomatically as a defense against the returned recognition of the absent phallic authority structuring (male) subjectivity itself. Moving from Freud to psychoanalytic theorists like Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva, the impermeably desired woman, as perpetual (M)other, is understood as a Symbolic position that eludes biological essentialism, and instead designates a field of subjective supplementarity. In its exploration of a kinship, and social order, menaced by the enigmatic jouissance of the woman, Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 low-budget horror classic Cat People is emblematic of the cinematic workings of the classical horror genre that produces images of excess, only to expel them from the (cinematic) world as a renunciation.

Cat People focuses on the relationship between the politely accommodating American Oliver, and the exoticized and mysterious Serbian immigrant Irena, who slowly become romantically involved and eventually married. Irena resists the temptations of affective “sins,” that are nonetheless normative through their very inevitability, such as erotic temptation and envy. Irena’s resistance is, for both the spectator and Oliver, suspiciously linked with her compulsion towards the image of the black panther and, moreso, towards the subjective myth of the cat people she claims to genetically descend from. Oliver, less violently involved with the hermeneutic decoding of Irena than, say, Mark is with Marnie from Hitchcock’s Marnie, sends Irena to a psychoanalyst, Dr. Judd, who blabbers on with stereotypical Freudian mimicry. Thus, the terror of Cat People, as Deborah Linderman rightly points out, is that the cat transformation is not symptomatic, as the devalued “endoscopic eye” (“Cinematic Abreaction,” 82) of the psychoanalyst claims, but that it is phenomenally Real. Cat People is disinterested with orthodox psychoanalytic attempts to reduce bodily effects to the realm of (repressed) Symbolic kinship, and instead posits the question: what if the “symptom” is truly a cause of a Real archaic genetic constitution that is only thought to be a phantasmatic production in the normative social order? Accordingly, Irena’s first murder following her transformation into a panther is, of course, the narcissistically duped psychoanalyst Dr. Judd himself. Nonetheless, the film’s replacement of the normative psychoanalytic question with the one described finds itself confused when it ties the genetic transformation, the involuntary becoming-cat, of Irena, to the consummation of affect. Cat People does not discard the behavioral factor of kinship, displacing psychoanalysis’ interest in the Symbolic workings of kinship to the Real of genetic influence. Still, by recapitulating to the salient effect of affect in Real transformation, Cat People merely begins to operate in the same interpretive space of psychoanalysis once again. One must remember that Irena’s “desire,” though not conscious, to give into affect is strengthened by her superego’s resistance, as shown through her refusal to acquiesce to Dr. Judd or any help offered to her, despite her obvious suffering. Also, Irena’s transformations, never directly depicted, are shown in (a) her envious stalking of Oliver’s coworker Alice and (b) when Dr. Judd attempts a countertransference, through kissing Irena, which leads to his death. So, oscillating between genetic and affective influence, Cat People never truly releases a hold on psychoanalysis, despite its representative mockery of it. This is all the more reason why, as Linderman aptly writes on, the cinema, attempting to replace psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic, instead re-places itself in the realm of the priestly function of orthodox psychoanalysis once again, “affirm[ing], as fiercely as those other exorcists it has supervened against, the cultural imperatives of exclusion” (83). The cinematic exclusion of Irena is depicted in the final scenes of Cat People, where Irena is knocked down and killed by a panther she releases from a zoo cage. After Irena is knocked down, the film shows the aftermath of the released panther first, depicting the town police finding its dead body after it is hit by a car (figure 1). Immediately following this image, when Oliver and Alice arrive to the panther section of the zoo in search of Irena, a distant image of Irena on the ground, as a nebulous black mass akin to the dead panther, is shown (figure 2). By both the metonymic succession of these images, and their imagistic similarity, Irena is, finally, excluded from the film as the the phobic object of pure jouissance, the animalistic panther itself. She does not die as Irena, the peculiar woman who is, firstly, the objet petit a of Oliver, but instead dies as her manifested death drive, what is in her more than her, the undifferentation of the human and the animal in the figure of the black panther.

Figure 1
Figure 2

Irena’s jouissance, then, is a jouissance past the simple human capacities of desire, and is instead an inhuman pulsation thrusting her body towards an animalistic dislocation of the Symbolic world. Lacan’s primary ethical descriptions of this pure singular jouissance are clearly founded in his examination of Antigone in Seminar VII. Antigone is the embodiment of the death drive, acting upon the terrifying stain of her jouissance in her singular duty to bury her brother Polyneices; however, through the anamorphosis of this stain, Antigone’s beauty becomes the barrier between the (illusory) subject and the void of the mechanistic death drive that Antigone is possessed by. Antigone is truly the representative of a phobic object in every Symbolic Order, as she is the one who threatens the social world’s presumed Law, and thus threatens the constitution of stable subjectivity. Her jouissance is not universal and is not phallic. When reading Lacan, one musn’t forget that jouissance, while always being indicative of the dissolution of coherent identities, in its most universal form accedes to the jouissance of the (lost) phallus, associated with the aporias of the Symbolic Law. In contradistinction, Antigone’s jouissance is unlimited by the phallus, and signals the (non)presence of a jouissance unable to be discursively petrified: a feminine jouissance. To conceptualize feminine jouissance, one must begin with the Freudian differentiation between “having” and “being” the phallus, with relation to the Symbolic positions of man and woman. The male desires to be the phallus, while having the phallus, and thus desires to penetrate the female, the hole in the position of not-having the phallus. But the male’s desire to penetrate the lack of the (female) Other in order to be the phallus is founded, paradoxically, on the (female) Other being the phallus itself, as the (female) Other occupies the place of the desire of the (male) subject. From this, Lacan, going further than Freud ever could, makes the claim in Seminar X that “[woman] lacks nothing” (133), through her condition of being not-whole. The woman, then, enjoys without reference to the illusory mimesis of subjectivity with the phallus that constructs the social world. Feminine jouissance is unable to be spoken in the discourse of the Symbolic, and marks the singular (non)relation of every woman to their enjoyment, describing the non-totalizable feminine position in, through a de-inscribing from, the libidinal economy of (gendered) subjectivity.

One can connect the Symbolic terror of feminine jouissance with the shocking recognition of the Mother’s enjoyment, which signifies the retroactively constituted primordial moment that founds desire and the drive. The Imaginary stage of Lacanian psychoanalysis, as described in Lacan’s Mirror Stage, provides the subject stability through the anticipated (imagistic) coherence of self and the (M)other. Nonetheless, the stage denies “true” stability through the retroactive anxiety of falling into a corps morcelé (fragmented body), thus strengthening the imperative to secure the image as a whole. The anamorphotic security of Antigone’s image as beautiful provides the limit between knowing the feminine as the objet petit a, to be penetrated, and knowing the feminine as the terrorizing (and terroristic) materialization of an unstoppable mania. As Julia Kristeva, in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, inspects with great clarity, this antagonism is parallel to the distinction between the Mother as the impossible objet petit a in Imaginary relations and the Mother as associatively the not-I that must be “radically excluded” (2) in order to inaugurate Symbolic subjectivity. The Mother-as-abject is a production of the terrifying truth of being engulfed by the Mother’s desire, which results in the loss of subjective stability and meaning itself. Feminine jouissance, then, is, in the Symbolic Order, to be probed and known through the subject’s paranoid longing to be desired by the (M)other, as shown by Oliver’s jealousy of the obsession Irena has for the “myth,” but seemingly not for him (Oliver says to Irena in the beginning of the film that the familial cat people “myth” will, in some futurity, be subsumed as a story to be told to their grandchildren, thus enviously displacing Irena’s mythic obsession with a projected kinship narrative featuring him). But once feminine jouissance is recognized as unable to be assimilated with phallic jouissance, the woman ceases to be the objet petit a, and is instead figured as the abject (M)other that must be “radically excluded.” Irena’s jouissance, driving her through the bodily and psychic limit of the social world, terrorizing both the Symbolic and herself, reflects that, in the phallic founding of the Symbolic, “not even woman knows anything about [feminine jouissance], she simply experiences it when it occurs” (“The Kiss of the Panther-Woman,” Cristiana Cimino).

Cat People conjures Irena as, first, objet petit a, the beautiful image of enigma, then as the abject panther-woman, the bodily materialization that (Juddian) psychoanalysis disavows as being materially real. But, revitalizing the discourse of psychoanalysis by recapitulating to the question of affect, Cat People, re-figuring Irena as the objet petit a by Dr. Judd in his countertransferential kiss, doubly announces the necessity of her abjection. Which is to say that Cat People, and classical horror films more generally, views the remedial measures of psychoanalysis, even if figured as an exorcism, as too easy on the (feminine) (M)other. Exorcism (and the film’s representation of psychoanalysis) presupposes that there is a subject to be restored from the abject undifferentiation of the subject/object; the classical horror genre instead conjures up the image of a supposed fantasy that it filmically recognizes as being truly Real in every sense, and thus endorses not a traversal of fantasies, but the violent abjection of that Real phenomenal threat. Autonomy and the responsibility attached to causation is not Cat People‘s, as representative of the classical horror genre, interest: instead, violent abjection and the strengthening of the Symbolic Law is, through a filmic enjoyment of the aporias of the Symbolic.

Therefore, examining one of Cat People‘s only scenes depicting a (non)correspondence between the two central women of the film, Irena and Alice, is necessary to analyze how the film links an abject alterity with femininity. Alice is narratively figured in Cat People as the antithesis to Irena: she is blunt about her desires, and is visibly loving and caring to Oliver, and so Alice figures psychoanalytically as Oliver and the film’s transferentially projected Good Mother figure. More specifically, in the Imaginary realm, Alice is the filmic figure of the Mother that (impossibly) figures the child as her objet petit a, and provides an Imaginary stability to the child-subject who desires to be objet petit a. In the scene where Irena stalks Alice in a dark sidewalk, for a moment, the opposition between Irena/Alice can be read as dissolved, with the third term of (animal) feminine jouissance marking the distance between, and closeness of, the two women. The stalking scene features two parallel shots, the first operating in three stages, and the second operating in two stages. The first time the shot is shown, the frame depicts Alice walking to the right-exit of the frame (figure 1), followed by a linger on the wall structuring the background-limit of the sidewalk (figure 2), and then thirdly followed by Irena following Alice to the right-exit of the frame (figure 3). This is followed by two binary shots of Alice and Irena’s heels walking, providing the intradiagetic soundscape of the anxiogenic scene. Then, the first shot described is refigured by the camera, only this time with two stages instead of three. First, once again, we see Alice walking to the right-exit of the frame (figure 4), and then the camera lingers on the wall (figure 5), only this time for a longer time than in the first iteration of this shot. Irena does not arrive in a similar fashion as before, signifying, as shown in what follows when a panther growl audibly frightens Alice, Irena’s transformation into the panther. At the end of the scene, Alice is obviously unsettled by the incident as she gets on a bus for transportation to her residence, but Irena seems even more unsettled, in an obvious daze as she gets on a cab.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 5

As the the end of this scene refers us to, it must be said that Cat People places very little responsibility on Irena for her transformation towards destructive tendencies – she suffers from her transformation as much as anyone in the film suffers the consequences of her transformation. Thus, the stalking scene’s parallel, yet nonidentical, shots, and the conclusion of the scene, demonstrate that, while representing two very different feminine subjects, Alice and Irena’s similarity is founded on the inexplicability of feminine jouissance. In the context of the frame, the foregrounded background-limit of the bare wall, the pure materiality of a singular meaningless enjoyment, is the tertiary term that intervenes in blurring the Mother-Ideal (Alice) and the abject Mother (Irena). If “[i]t is not possible to write the subject woman because in the unconscious Woman does not exist, only Mother exists” (Ibid), the bare wall reflects both Alice and Irena’s inability to represent the Symbolically revered position of “having” the phallus, and being unable to be inscribed in the unconscious. However, in the Real position of “being” the phallus, not-lacking through being not-whole, the feminine, through an automatic feminine jouissance, is violently uninhibited by phallic authority, and, such as with Antigone, claims the authority of an immanent law beyond the Symbolic Law. This is the difference between Alice and Irena – Alice retains her status of the illusory Mother-Ideal, acceding to the phallic authority that requires abjection, while Irena, like Antigone, in her transformation that occurs beyond her self, rejects the futurity of the Symbolic and becomes-panther, driving towards annihilation.

In Cristiana Cimino’s essay “The Kiss of the Panther-Woman,” she describes, as an example of feminine jouissance, French archbishop François Fénelon’s controversial literary attempts to render a “pure love” singularly connected to an abandonment of self towards God. The ecclesiastical rejection of this exegesis is necessitated by Fénelon’s mythical challenge against “that form of extreme mastery that is [religious] knowledge” (Ibid). Thus, it is clear to see the link between Fénelon’s repudiated exhibition of a singularity in mythical experience and Cat People‘s insisted demarcation between the cat people’s mythical world of Serbia and the normative, “modern” world of America. The primeval Law of the Mother that dictates the cat people’s Serbia calls forth the conveyance of feminine jouissance that inoculates Irena, and installs itself as a foreign body in the normative American Symbolic. This mythic Law beyond the phallic Law is a category both non-totalizable and unknowable, representing a pure immanence that threatens the social order based on the transcendental Other (what Lacan calls the Big Other). Consequently, as explicated, Cat People, and the classical horror genre more broadly, repetitively basks in the filmic image of this immanent feminine jouissance, and then, ultimately rejecting the mythic singularity of transformative enjoyment, abjects the feminine, finally reproducing the excretory movements of “the main ideological project of the New World” (Linderman, 77).

11/04/21: _Moonlight_ and the Contingent Encounters of (Queer) Touch


For Hortense Spillers, writing in her seminal essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” the theft and reduction of the (Black) captive body to flesh during, and consequently following, the historical rupture of the Trans Atlantic slave trade contributed to, what she describes as, the ungendering of the Black. Figured as the undifferentiated mass of viscosity, the ambiguously threatening and desired-upon desubjectivized body of jouissance, the Black (male/female) is thus, far from rendered in the petrifying discourse of the (white) world, removed from the nexus of Symbolic positionality. If the Black is abolished from (gendered) positionality, this is because the (white) Symbolic, metonymically associating whiteness with the patriarchal family, has detached the (Black) captive body from any resemblance of kinship, and consequently denigrates the matriarchal succession of the Black as the cause of “deviancy.” This denigration of the Law of the (Black) Mother, the cultural substitution of the Law of the Father (who has been erased from mimetic focus), is the derogation Spillers wishes to transvaluate in her essay, highlighting her desirous projected futurity, in which “the African-American male must regain [the heritage of the mother] as an aspect of his own personhood” (80). Speaking to the commonality of a psychoanalytic foundation, Spillers’ writing on the disavowal of the Law of the (Black) Mother operates closely with other feminist theorists’, such as Kaja Silverman’s, insistence on the presence of a (though non-racialized) “general cultural disavowal of male lack” (The Acoustic Mirror, 37). Spillers though, writing through psychoanalysis but not of it, particularizes her study on (fe)male lack through tracing the American Symbolic following the Trans Atlantic slave trade’s perversion of Black kinship relations, engendering the condensation of Black social life into a non-normative matriarchal, and horizontal, structure. This is to say that Spillers’ emphasis on the Black mother as the materialized imago of an obscene feminine phallus in the American Imaginary allows her to interpret the ways in which conceptions of identity, gender, and performativity affect the Black differently than (though intimately with) the white in the Symbolic Order.

If the (white) Symbolic disavows the Law of the (Black) Mother and repudiates it as a cause for Black “deviancy,” as symptomatically made clear in the infamous Moynihan Report, and this matriarchal relatedness of the Black is distinctly associated with slavery’s ungendering of the Black, it is easy to see how the (white) Symbolic queers the Black forthright, without any reference to a sexual orientation. The examination of motherhood and queerness’ intimate relation in Barry Jenkins’ critically acclaimed 2016 film Moonlight, then, speaks well to Spillers’ implications regarding Black positionality and identity. Firstly, it is necessary to highlight that the “queerness” I believe Moonlight to depict is one disassociated with a nominal identity, and instead designates a field of sexual desire sometimes, and sometimes not, consummated in non-heterosexual (specifically male-to-male) sexual behavior. The described link of “queerness” with male-to-male sexual behavior also necessitates noting that only since the eighteenth century has male-to-male sexual behavior been associated with the culturally essentialized figure of “the homosexual.” Thus, I follow Lee Edelman’s detailing of “the homosexual” as the signifier of an alien, and pathogenic, queerness in Homographesis, embodied as a male body that is violently read by a homophobic Symbolic that desires to project lack onto it, inscribing it with arbitrary signs of “homosexual” meaning. Still following Edelman, the reason why the homophobic (heterosexual) Symbolic (and body) must project lack onto the phantasmatically inscribed homosexual body is to disavow its self-difference with the homosexual body. The ambiguity inciting the investigation of the male body resides in the anxiogenic homosexual body’s homographic relation to the heterosexual body – both share the same form to be gazed at, and thus the homophobic Symbolic must distinguish itself from “the homosexual” through the construction of identities through the metaphorization of desire, synecdochally petrified through essentializing (as holistic) the various established “signs” (parts) to be deciphered, bodily or figuratively.

Moonlight does not narratively depict any white characters, and thus is interested in focusing on the facets of Black sociality in the film’s setting of Miami, Florida. As Spillers presents, however, the absent enunciator of whiteness, and the cut of the Trans Atlantic slave trade, remains the master signifier in the social and psychic lives of Black Americans. The (white) Symbolic’s immediate queering of the Black with relation to the Law of the Mother doubly marks the Black male with the (mis)recognition of the perceived lack of woman. The Black is, to reiterate, figured in mimetic relation to the condition of their mothers, a condition that “produces the human as man and everything else as, not even ‘woman,’ but non-man” (Teresa de Lauretis, “Desire in Narrative,” 46). As Edelman rightly describes, then, with relation to this prompted perception of the (feminine) lack of phallic authority and “the homosexual” then, the Black man, operating under the same structural logic of the (white) heterosexual patriarchy, “cannot afford to acknowledge, as it cannot afford to deny, the centrality of its narcissistic investment in, and hence the intensity of its desire for, the culturally institutionalized authority of the phallus that never fully distinguishes itself from the anatomical penis” (Edelman, Homographesis, 48; emphasis added). The jouissance of “the homosexual,” tainting the heterosexual’s (misrecognized) psychic desire for the phallus and threatening, through a homographic appositeness, bodily security, is thus deeply connected with the Law of the Mother. Due to “the homosexual” eluding the bodily difference of sexual difference, the homophobic Symbolic thus endeavors for the male body to be read and deciphered as text, transforming perceived “homosexual” differences metaphorically into the essential identity of “homosexual,” synecdochally recasting the partial factors of contingent differences as the whole of an identity. The putative violence of this logic is illustrated in the first three minutes of Moonlight, when boys chase the ten year old Chiron with sticks, one yelling at the other to catch his “faggot ass.” In fact, the constant homophobic bullying of Chiron in the first two acts of the film never occur parallel to Chiron’s own sexual self-identification: this is because the film is not interested in the narrative reclamation of a nominal sexual identity throughout its entire runtime. Chiron is named as “homosexual” by the heterosexual patriarchy that has read his (effeminate, non-reactive, and feeble) body as “homosexual,” or queer, since he was a prepubescent child. The “homosexual” figures the projected disavowed relation of the heterosexual patriarchy to (feminine) lack, but “the homosexual,” nevertheless, through the perceived homosexual desire of “opening” the man and penetrating him, signifies the phallus who “sodomitically unmans the very body through which that dominant order represents itself” (65). So, in Moonlight, when Chiron’s main bully, the sadistically homophobic Terrell, mocks him, saying “I ain’t with that gay shit, but if you fuck with me, I’ll give your ass more than you can handle,” Moonlight demonstrates the way in which the homophobic Symbolic depends on the enjoyment emanating from the irreducible conflict between “having” and “being” the phallus. More specifically, the (heterosexual) masculinized figure desires to be the phallus, while having the phallus, and thus desires to penetrate the feminized subject, the hole in the position of not-having the phallus. But the masculinized figure’s desire to penetrate the lack of the (feminine) Other in order to be the phallus is because, paradoxically, the (feminine) Other figures as being the phallus itself, as the (feminine) Other occupies the place of the desire of the (masculinized) subject. Terrell’s enjoyment in his homoerotic/homophobic comment to Chiron is thus produced because of the jouissance associated with oscillating between being figured as having and being the phallus. In the heterosexual Imaginary, “the homosexual,” with relation to male-to-male sexual activity, is mockingly figured as this oscillation – both opening up the male (which determines the jokes from heterosexual/homophobic/homographic male about being the desire of “homosexual” men), and being opened up (as shown by Terrell’s threat of giving Chiron’s “ass more than [he] can handle”). The position of “the homosexual” thus both threatens the homophobic man and provides a figural and (possibly) bodily enjoyment to be disavowed. Pertaining to the homophobic association of “the homosexual” with the phallus that “unmans” the male subject, in a chiasmus, the disavowed queer(ed) subject associates the heterosexual man with the phallus, through a linkage of the phallus with totalizing political and social power. The homographic male body, then, becomes the site of a performative (heterosexual) masculinity for the male subject then, as clearly shown in Chiron’s bodily transformation into a muscular, rugged, and “hard” body in the third act of Moonlight, a rendering of the (illusory) phallus in form.

Moonlight‘s attention to the disavowed violence of metaphorically produced essential identities thus makes space for inspecting the contingency of (sexual) desire, and its continual slippage that defers the (impossible) telos of a master signifier. The film never places a nominal identity on Chiron (the closest encounter being when Juan tells a prepubescent Chiron “You can be gay, but you can’t let nobody call you no faggot,” which precedes Chiron asking how he would know if he was gay), nor on Chiron’s lover Kevin, who is shown to engage in sexual intercourse with a woman as a teenager and grows up to have a child with a woman. Instead, the sexual encounter between teenage Chiron and Kevin, as well as the other scenes linguistically/physically depicting slippages between “having” and “being” the phallus, figures queerness as both excess and kernel of sexual desire, and as being contingent in the subjective histories of each of Moonlight‘s character. More specifically to Chiron and Kevin’s sexual history together, the erotic moment came and went, on the shorelines of a prohibited jouissance, and its eroticism returned in a future that, while potentially implying the potential of a sexual reunion, instead eventuated itself as a scene of touching that remains as resistant to any interpretation as the queerness inherent to any proclaimed “selfhood.”


“the African American male has been touched… by the mother… in ways he cannot escape…” (Spillers, 8)

Spillers connects disembodied Black flesh with, what she describes as, the “cultural vestibularity,” a liminal space with no inside or outside, “where ‘kinship’ loses meaning, since it can be invaded at any arbitrary moment by the property relations [that enforce the desubjectivization of the captive body]” (74). Ungendered Black flesh then, queered by the (white) Symbolic, is nebulous, disarticulating identity, and figures the impossible dissolving of the boundaries between self and Other, a (Symbolic) impossibility, as described by Edelman, such as the conception of “the geometry of two non-identical objects each of which contains the other while being contained, at the same time, within it” (Homographesis, 70). Moonlight‘s fixation on the (physical) touch (of Black flesh), as the film’s imagistic “vestibularity,” disintegrates the binary opposition between eros and violence, exposing both as being situated as the self-difference of a more undefinable intimacy, the specter of queerness. In the third act of Moonlight, an older Chiron, now living as a masculinized drug dealer in Atlanta, resembling his father figure mentor Juan, is haunted by queerness specifically through the memories of touching. This ghostly touch is a touch ungendered, engendered through contingent encounters between Chiron and Kevin, and Chiron and his mother. Both Kevin and Chiron’s mother are emblems of a disavowed queerness that manifests from contigency, not from any illusory metaphorized claim to an identity. The sexualized eros of (queer) touch is firstly figured for Chiron through his sexual encounter with Kevin on the beach, where Kevin (in an almost paternalistic image) holds Chiron’s head to his shoulder while simultaneously masturbating him (figure 1). This erotic image of touch is annihilated immediately after this scene, when Kevin is egged on, by Terrell, to assault Chiron as part of a sadistic “game.” As visible in my attempts to capture the image of Kevin’s violent touching of Chiron (figure 2), the framing of the two scenes of touch are blatantly different. While Chiron and Kevin’s sexual encounter is shot from behind the two, fitting both bodies into the frame, Kevin’s assault of Chiron is shot frantically, with either only Chiron or Kevin in the frame, the camera never framing them together. In the erotic (queer) touch, Chiron and Kevin are faceless, blending into the nebula of undifferentiated Black flesh in the mise-en-scène of the formless, grey beach. In contrast, Kevin’s assault of Chiron, in its delirious framing, implicates a touch founded on a violent homophobic logic splitting the heterosexual body from the anxiogenic “homosexual” body, in contradistinction to the touch consummating a queer(ed) eros. Now, this interpretation of these two widely differing scenes of touch may seem to underwrite my emphasis on touch as vestibular, and as a specter of queerness; however, the differences in the narrative logics of the touches illustrated in the film are self-differences of the extimate queerness that cannot be a grounding of any logic attempting to make itself, and its produced identity, as coherent. Once again, I highlight queerness not as a particular sexual desire, or identity, but instead as the field of a disavowed desire, the drive, that necessitates the production of a (misrecognized) identity, and yet generates an illicit (and possibly sexual) enjoyment. In this way, (queer) touch as Moonlight‘s vestibular emblem, in the scenes analyzed, is figured as a transitory space between eros and violence, dissolving the stability of the two signifiers, and thus further intensifying the anxiety of the (bodily and psychic) (non)presence of an extimate, and contingent, queer(ed) sexuality running through both Chiron and Kevin, threatening to obliterate their own subjective stabilities. It makes sense, then, that Moonlight ends with a shot of an older Chiron, after reuniting with an older Kevin in Miami, being held by Kevin in the same way that Kevin held Chiron on the beach when they were adolescents (figure 3). Both men are situated in the vague darkness of the frame, and the differences between this conclusive shot and the shot of the beach encounter are that the mens faces are now shown to the camera, and that, narratively, the final shot of the film does not imply any sexual connotation, nor any purely non-erotic connotation. This conclusive scene of touch is, (im)purely, an illustration of an indefinite queerness (impossibly) held, at least in the fleeting moment in which the touch, the joining of Black flesh, transpires. The violent (heterosexual) reading of the inscribed-upon male body disappears for an instant, and meaning ceases to be produced from the (queer) touch, instead remaining just another extension of metonymic desire.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3

This (queer) oscillation between eros and violence, “having” and “being” the phallus, through touch is also figured by the interactions between Chiron and his mother Paula, thus re-emphasizing the primary queering of the Black through the (white) Symbolic’s metonymic association of the Black with the “deviant” Law of the Mother. During act two of Moonlight, when an adolescent Chiron must psychically survive, amongst his other psychic pressures, his crack-addicted mother, a scene of touch occurs where, when returning back home from his sexual excursion with Kevin, Chiron covers his drug-addled mother with a blanket, who is sleeping on a couch. Paula, half-waking up from an intoxicated sleep, holds Chiron’s face in her hands, telling him that he is the “only one” for her, and vice versa (figure 4). Disavowing the intense psychic trauma she has caused Chiron, Paula’s figuration of Chiron as the sole object of her desire is a scene of emotional violence and manipulation towards Chiron. In act three, however, when an older Chiron visits Paula at a rehabilitation center, the scene climaxes with Chiron accepting Paula’s remorseful apology for the irreversible trauma she caused Chiron to carry throughout his life. Chiron engulfs Paula with a hug (figure 5), a touch figuring an eros that, not endeavoring any task of psychic reparation for the contingent effects of Paula’s past jouissance, represents the Imaginary unity of the infant and the figure of the Mother; however, in the context of Spillers’ deformation of psychoanalysis through historicization, the touch of Chiron’s hug can be read as contributing to her endorsement of the Black male “regain[ing] [the heritage of the mother] as an aspect of his own personhood” (Spillers, 80), refusing to contribute to the (white and heterosexual) Symbolic “disavowal of male lack” (Silverman, 37).

Figure 4
Figure 5

The male body (and psyche), threatened by, yet garnering enjoyment from, feminine lack is shown to, in the dominant Symbolic ideology of homophobic heterosexual masculinity, be read into an illusory identity that misrecognizes the contingency of desire. The image of “the homosexual,” figuring the drive endlessly (and joyfully) circling around (feminine) lack, oscillating around, and thus annihilating, the purposed stability of identities, is truly a projection of an extimate lack that possesses the (heterosexual) male. Queerness, then, as the field of subject-annihilating desire, manifesting the imago of “the homosexual” in the homophobic cultural psyche, is, as described, both the excess and the kernel of (sexual) subjective positionality. As a historically produced phenomenon, the primary queering of the Black, through the (white) deprecation of the matriarchal structure of a Black sociality removed from kinship, coupled with the founding psychic dimension of male anxiety, produces the Black male subject as having a double recognition of (feminine) lack, and, as Spillers writes, “embod[ying] the only American community of males which has had the specific occasion to learn who the female is within itself” (80). Moonlight, through the motif of the (queer) touch of Black flesh, views the specter of queerness as the cultural vestibularity oscillating the subject between “having” and “being” the phallus, disarticulating the violent essentialism of claiming identity. Edelman’s geometric elaboration on the impossibility of culturally conceiving of such a queerness that deconstructs the (non)relation between self and Other can be linked, though disparately, to Moonlight‘s held emblem of (queer) touch, and its imagistic movement away from, yet Real movement towards, the metaphor of “containment” that is (in the homophobic Symbolic) associated with male-to-male sexual activity. Edelman’s example illustrating the impossible conception of two geometrically non-identical objects “each of which contain the other while being contained, at the same time, within it” (Homographesis, 70) is irreconcilable with Moonlight‘s linkage of the Black flesh and queerness through the motif of touch. If Edelman means to metaphorically connect two “non-identical objects” with the two (queer[ed]) subjects of male-to-male intercourse that open up and “contain” each other, Spillers’ reading of the undifferentiated, and practically speaking, in the (white) Symbolic, identically (un)gendered, complicates this conception, making it not of use to the Black queer(ed) subjects Moonlight filmically represents. Furthermore, Moonlight shows no male-to-male anal intercourse, instead showing the touch of male-to-male masturbation, and thus the geometric metaphor of the touch of two lines intersecting into an irreducible, and conceptually impossible, point is more apt for an analysis of the film’s Spillerian reading of (Black) queerness. The Oxford English Dictionary defines touch, geometrically, as “a point of contact between two lines… [especially] one at which neither passes through the other (even if extended).” The two lines described, undifferentiated in imagistic form, akin to the undifferentiated form of marked Black flesh, intersect and touch at a singular point. The point of contact, however, is defined as especially a point in which neither line passes through the other, which is an interesting element of the proposed definition, as the touch would not relate to an intersecting line, per se. As a sort of refraction of two undifferentiated forms on one irreducible and self-contained point that does not allow a passing of trajectories, then, the proposed touch as a Black, queer touch is a pure jouissance, and impossible reduction of self and Other, though purely contingent and not maintaining a similar passing of trajectories. While this geometric metaphor proposed is not impossible to conceive of, as is Edelman’s, the imp(oss/ass)ible point of touch is, in its very minute particularity, a fleeting, and ultimately illusory, contact that resembles the contingent vestibularity of the touch illustrated in Moonlight. A Black queerness, then, is the plane of a culturally unfeasible enjoyment – there is no possible project to integrate a Black queerness into the Symbolic Order. Neither “neither,” nor “nor,” escaping the coherence of every binary opposition, a Black queerness is antithetical to the world structured by the heterosexual patriarchy, as part and parcel of the longue durée of slavery. And yet, as Moonlight demonstrates, a Black queerness is held in the diminutive moment of touch that escapes time and space, floating in a nether region that both threatens and eludes the grasp of the subject founded on the kernel of jouissance.

10/29/21: _Pressure Point_ and the (Racial) Jouissance of the (Black) No-body

The phallic signifier, as representative of a full enjoyment that sutures the gap between the Imaginary and Symbolic orders, is the signifier lacking from the metonymic chain of desire. Precisely through this absence, the phallus structures the object-cause of subjective desire, with the consequence of engendering the circular aim of the drive beyond signification itself. Undertaking a Lacanian interpretation of racism, and racial enjoyment, Derek Hook describes the racist subject as externalizing the fundamental lack of phallic authority, the (impossible) possession of the objet petit a, onto the racialized Other. The 1962 film Pressure Point narratively explores the story of a Black psychoanalyst in his analysis of a white fascist criminal whose uncovered childhood traumas result in the phenomenon Hook writes on. The analysand, as witness to his drunkard father’s mistreatment of his mother and wild sexual exploits, associates the paternal function with an obscene possession of jouissance. This association results in the analysand’s ambivalent relation to his father, developing in a mimetic relationship with phallic authority, as the patient desires to possess the father’s jouissance, and yet is anxious of its destructive quality. Thus, Pressure Point‘s depiction of the subject’s relation to phallic authority is perfectly reflective of Sigmund Freud’s myth of the parricidal primal horde of brothers in Totem and Taboo. The question still remains: how does the patient displace this parricidal drive onto the figures of the racialized Other and the (white) woman? Is there any fundamental difference in the way he violates the two figures? Furthermore, how is the film’s safely satisfying ending undermined by its own filmic slippages? The former question functions similarly to the analyst’s analysis of the patient, while the latter confronts how the film’s neoliberal conclusion is underwritten by its filmic necessitation of a harsh truth that the film, and the (white) Symbolic Order more broadly, disavows.

The film’s illustration of the analysand’s primal trauma, as connected with his larger mimetic relationship with the phallic signifier, is his experience being harassed by his father with a slab of raw liver, and consequently “blacking out,” in his father’s butchery. The analysand’s major childhood anxiety is directed towards raw meat, the object that figures as the phallic authority of the father. The unsettling nature of raw meat, in its grotesque formlessness and indestructible quality that contribute to its potential for dissection and consumption, is grounded on an affectively ambivalent relation to it. As a metaphor for the Real, raw meat is the monstrous de-subjectivized body, the no-body, that is, quite literally, in us more than us. Nonetheless, this infinitely malleable feature marks raw meat as an object of consumption, and thus enjoyment. To become-butcher, and to be able to wield and penetrate the raw meat, is, for the analysand in Pressure Point, to become-Father, and to claim phallic authority, suturing lack. The primal trauma of the analysand, however, refuses this claim to the phallic emblem, as once his father rubs the raw liver in his face, exposing his skin to the primordial slime of the Real and making him “black out” (shot 1), the meat remains petrified in his psyche as an anxiogenic object. This anxiogenic quality, however, strengthens the analysand’s desire to claim the Father’s meat, which is not merely object, but object-cause of desire.

Shot 1: The analysand-as-child, with the moist substance of raw liver on his face, fainting.

Displacing a parricidal hatred of his father who he admires, then, the analysand, as a child, is shown in Pressure Point to indulge in an Orientalist fantasy, where he is positioned as an Eastern potentate surrounded by Black(ened) slaves who do the deed of executing his mother with the foot of an elephant. Why does this fantasy indulge in the murder of the mother? Precisely because the analysand’s father indulges in his jouissance, the enjoyment the analysand desires, instead of caring for the sickly mother. Accordingly the analysand-as-child must (in some deeply intimate and bodily ways) care for his mother. As a child, forced to renounce the desired jouissance of his father to, ironically, take his role as the caretaker of his mother, the analysand blames his lack on the mother’s demands of him instead of on his father’s mistreatment of the family. This fantasy is more complex when considering the Imaginary Black(ened) slaves that function to murder the mother. The slaves, shirtless and physically strong, as compared to the fragile analysand-as-child, are a clearly eroticized image of masculine authority (shot 2). This allows them to be the ones who enact phallic authority and physically hold down the mother; however, this act is framed as being necessitated by the slaves’ subordination to the child potentate. So, in this way, the Black(ened) slaves are figured, in the fantasy of the analysand-as-child, as possessors of illicit enjoyment, and therefore, through this possession, are to be useful to the child potentate in enacting the enjoyment he desires but cannot partake in, though he himself enjoys the cruel subordination of the Black(ened) slaves. Similarly to the Father’s raw meat, then, the Black becomes psychically associated with some Thing emanating the anxiogenic vitality of the destructive Real, and also with a Thing to be enjoyed (consumed, dissected, marked) due to this very (non)essence. This can be clearly shown in the end of the fantasy, where the murderous elephant foot (of the phallic Black) (shot 3) sharply cuts to the raw meat being butchered by the analysand’s father (shot 4).

Shot 2: The mise-en-scène of the analysand-as-child’s matricidal fantasy, featuring the small child potentate as compared to the eroticized and muscular Black(ened) slaves.
Shot 3: The elephant foot stomping down on the analysand’s (pictured) mother’s head, as she is physically held down by the Black(ened) slaves.
Shot 4: The analysand’s father’s raw meat being prepared.

Interpreting the parallel nature of the phallic emblem of raw meat and the analysand’s image of the Black in Pressure Point speaks clearly to Hortense Spiller’s delineation between “flesh” and “body” in her timeless essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.” Spillers reads the Trans-Atlantic slave trade as a theft of the (Black) body that then violently severs “the captive body from its motive will, its active desire” (67). Therefore, the captive body is reduced to flesh, what comes retroactively prior to the subjectivized body of will. The (subjectivized) body is the form of the desiring subject, able to positioned, and thus petrified (aphanisis), in the discourse of the Symbolic. The flesh, however, is that which “does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse” (Ibid), and is thus figured by Spillers as of a primordial (non)essence, filled and bound to jouissance, similarly to Pressure Point‘s raw meat. The Black captive, reduced to flesh, is a Thing-for-the-captor, removed of subjective desire and of Symbolic positionality (which is crucial to Spillers’ understanding of the Black female captor being “ungendered” by slavery’s enjoyment of her flesh). The reduction of the Black captive body to flesh produces the Black, in the (white) Symbolic, as possessors of pure enjoyment, in an imago of physical/sexual prowess tied to the labor of slavery, and as that to be enjoyed, through externalized acts of torture and hence “undecipherable markings on the captive body” (Ibid). Spillers’ conception of the Black as marked flesh in the (white) Symbolic speaks to Pressure Point‘s sketch of the analysand-as-child’s image of Black(ened) subjects, as linked to the Father’s intolerable (and desired) raw meat, and finally as linked to the analysand’s conscious adult life, where he positions the Black to be violently annihilated.

In the analysand-as-child’s foundational racial fantasy, the Black(ened) slaves are forced to labor for the child potentate (to murder his white mother) using their (illusory) claim to phallic authority, which their eroticized physicality is emblematic of. As the flesh of pure enjoyment, the Black is thus associated, in the psyche of the analysand, with vast physical and sexual prowess. This Imaginary prowess is, while an intermediary enjoyment for the analysand-as-child in its function to kill his mother, also undoubtedly a source of the analysand’s jealousy, and hatred, of the Black, demonstrating racism’s feature of being a response to “the perceived theft of enjoyment” (Hook, “Racism and Jouissance,” 3). Due to Pressure Point portraying only two female characters, both white women, it is important to note that the imago of the Black-as-phallus has always traditionally been the Black male as the defiler of the white woman. Whether as depicted in one of modern cinema’s founding films, the white supremacist D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, or as seen in the long history of Black men lynched or executed due to false accusations of the rape of a white woman, the (white) Symbolic has often necessitated that, as Frantz Fanon writes, “[w]hoever says rape says Negro” (Black Skin, White Masks, 166). In Pressure Point, the Black-as-phallus is (phatasmatically) used to hold down and murder the analysand’s white mother (who is the first of two female characters in the film) (shot 5), a murder fantasy which is described by the analyst as forming the analysand’s aggressive sexual desires. The second female character in the film is, notably, the white woman who is the bartender’s wife in the flashback scene precipitated by the analysand narrating the cruel “game” of tic-tac-toe he played in a bar in the past. One cannot forget that this “game” ends with the analysand stripping the bartender’s wife and sadistically inscribing the “game” onto her bare body, a scene of Symbolic rape (shot 6). Can the terrorized woman in this scene be equated to the terrorized Black who is figured as flesh? As the violated subject of an oppressive Symbolic Order, yes; however, the victimization (enjoyment) of the Black is inseparable from the Black-as-phallus, and the Black’s capacity to claim an illicit enjoyment. This is clearly exemplified when the analysand, prior to verbalizing the tic-tac-toe memory to the Black analysand, smiles smugly and asks, with reference to the “real game” of tic-tac-toe, “You ever play it?” As David Marriott notes, there remains a hierarchical dissimilarity between the suffering of the white woman and the Black in this scene, and in the (white) Symbolic more generally. The analysand understands this, and takes enjoyment in slyly mentioning it, “catch[ing] the black man up into this sexual gaming as both persecutor and persecuted” (Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity, 79). The particular white mythology of the Black man as the rapist of the white woman is symptomatic of the radical violence enacted by the (white) Symbolic Order, condensing the Black body into bare flesh, marked as indestructibly anxiogenic, and simultaneously enjoyed through vicious denigration.

Shot 5: The (white) mother of the analysand, held down by one of the Black(ened) slaves to be executed in his childhood fantasy.
Shot 6: The finale of the analysand’s sadistic tic-tac-toe “game,” when the bartender’s (white) wife has the “game” inscribed onto her naked body.

Pressure Point focuses mainly on the racist psyche of the singular character of the analysand, who is described as pathological in his hatred; however, the film directly contradicts this described “pathological” nature of racism in both the depiction of the anti-Black colleagues of the Black analyst, and its corollary portrayal of the rapid growth of white fascist organizations. The tumorous growth of fascist organizations may lead us instead to the word “pathogenic” to describe racism, but the Black analyst’s anti-Black colleagues seem to assent to the analyst’s lie of being “cured” without any racist “pathogenic transmission.” Instead, occluding their psyche is the discourse of the (white) Symbolic itself, necessitating no need for a pathogen. Moreover, in a scene where the analysand rants on the founding anti-blackness of America, asking the Black analyst why he concedes allegiance to the nation-state whilst condemning the analysand’s own similar fictive ideology, the analyst, in a voiceover, states “Right then and there, I knew what I was frightened of.” What is the analyst frightened of if not that he knows the irreparable cruelty of American anti-blackness all too well, and thus, in at least one way, mutually understands something with the analysand, a person he vehemently despises. Both analyst and analysand understand this – that the cruelty of the American Symbolic is irreparable precisely because, as historicized with relation to the rupture of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, “the ruling episteme that releases the dynamics of naming and valuation, remains grounded in the originating metaphors of captivity and mutilation so that it is as if neither time nor history, nor historiography and its topics, shows movement” (Spillers, 68).

As shown, Pressure Point has no trouble implying the psychic petrification of the subject to the master signifier of whiteness, but the ending’s all-too-gratifying ending devours its key observations. The film ends with the Black analyst declaring allegiance to America in a dramatic rant directed towards the analysand, contradicting his earlier fear and authoritatively praising an illusory democratic center of America that he believes is bound to “defeat” the white fascists of the country. The film’s ending further validates this declared American “defeat” of fascism when, in a flash-forward, the Black analyst, now older, tells a fellow analyst what happened to his (now) ex-analysand: after leaving prison, he beat an old man to death, was put on death row, and was executed. Ergo, the American justice system, one of the many repressive state apparatuses in the country that is founded on brute anti-blackness, is restored to its Imaginarily pure function in Pressure Point, and the threat of the unbridled jouissance of racism is abolished by the Law. What is at stake in reading Pressure Point is identifying the film’s disavowed knowledge of the longue durée of slavery, and the resultant gratuitous violence of anti-Blackness that remains the essence of the (white) Symbolic Order, and thus at the impermeable psychic core of America. Pressure Point‘s ending refers us ultimately to the mistake of all visions of politics that project a future where, as also faultily promoted by Sheldon George, society can perform a “traversal of the fantasy of race” (“From Alienation to Cynicism: Race and the Lacanian Unconscious,” 371). Society cannot escape race just as it cannot escape the psychic externalization of jouissance onto the Other. Incompatibility is the kernel of societal relations, and the absence of the phallus, in its illusory status as the ownership of pure Symbolic authority, will always render the Black as raw meat, bare flesh, and, ultimately, no-body.

10/22/21: _Peeping Tom_ and the Question of Sexual Difference

The suicide of Mark, as he turns the camera towards himself.

As Kaja Silverman aptly identifies in the preface to her 1988 book The Acoustic Mirror, Michael Powell’s provocative 1960 film Peeping Tom was wildly disliked by critics on release due to “its refusal to be complicit in a general cultural disavowal of male lack” (Silverman, 37). The film’s ending, which showcases the finality of the wish-fulfilling suicide of serial murderer Mark, is a testament to an unconventional death-driven embrace of male castration, an Event imperceptive in classic cinema, and its adherence to pervasive patriarchal ideals. But, due in part to classic cinema’s contribution to the strengthening of interpellative apparatuses of patriarchy, Peeping Tom‘s ending threatens the collective conception of (gendered) subjectivity, precisely due Mark’s (inevitable) descent into the abyss of the Real, which precludes the possibility of (gendered) Symbolic positionality. Peeping Tom can thus be read in many ways as a part of a queer cinema, unraveling the mirage that characterizes the “[t]he process of petrification, by which the subject’s identity is solidified in the signifier of the Other” (Sheldon George, “From Alienation to Cynicism,” 367).

Mark’s childhood is characterized only by the terror his father subjects him to, due to Mark being used as the subject in his father’s experimental attempts to discover the pure psychology of fear. As the subject of these experiments, Mark is submitted to extreme voyeurism as he is unwillingly tormented by various endeavors to scare him. Thus, Mark’s domination in his adulthood by the unlocalizable voice-without-a-body of his father reflects how his subjectivity is inseparable from the master signifier of his (deceased) father. This voice-without-a-body is Mark’s referent to the pure phallus, the superego affliction that commands Mark not to cry, and thus to stay petrified in his repressive Symbolic position of masculinity, disavowing male lack. The manner in which Mark disavows his lack is, as clearly shown, the fetishization of the fear of the women he kills with the apparatus of the camera, the same apparatus his father used in his sadistic experiments that fossilized him as the master signifier in Mark’s psyche. Despite Peeping Tom‘s past reception of being excessively violent in depicting Mark’s murders, the film focuses mainly on the moments in which the illusion of fetishism breaks apart, revealing in Mark that the uncanny lack of his women victims is something in him more than him, a moment of concession that “he, like the female subject, has already been deprived of being” (Silverman, 15) through the Symbolic Order. For example, when Mark shows Helen (the woman who Mark cannot kill, as she does not occupy the Symbolic position of the castrated, and fearful, woman) his father’s documentary, he attempts to film her reaction to it. By filming Helen’s reaction to his childhood trauma, Mark reflexively attempts to capture his own reaction, the expression of his own lack, to the terror which he was subjected to. Apart from this example, Mark’s murderous deliberation is examined as separate from any direct sexual sadism, and instead is always metonymically associated purely with the jouissance Mark experiences with the return of the repressed, the repressed being his own primal trauma related to fear itself. Therefore, Mark is depicted, in most of the film, as a “man” disavowing what is closest in him, the “female lack,” through the murder of women, though in an asexual manner.

The finale of Peeping Tom brings Mark to the rapturous climax of his own destructive fantasy. As Mark embraces his castration, recognizing the extimate objet petit a constituting all (Symbolically gendered) subjects, turning the camera, and jouissance, upon himself, the boundary between subject and object of his enjoyment collapses. But the (non)result of this death-driven fulfillment is neither subject, nor object, but the void of non-meaning that characterizes the inaccessible Real. Mark’s suicide is not a suturing of the gap between the Symbolic and the Imaginary; instead, the object-relations of the Imaginary, and the significations/positions of the Symbolic, decompose into formlessness. Into this formlessness is the lack of substantive identities, the (non)result of the death drive, no-body, no function. Connecting this collapse with the inherent transgenderism of both masculinity, and the camera that Mark uses (as both aperture and extension), the psychoanalytic question of sexual difference is renewed in Peeping Tom as a question of a nothingness, or queerness, extimate to subjectivity. As Lee Edelman writes, “queerness undoes the identities through which we experience ourselves as subjects, insisting on the Real of jouissance” (Edelman, No Future, 24). The end of Peeping Tom, then, through Mark’s embrace of lack and relation to the transgendered camera, is the exposed kernel of the disavowed queerness that embodies subjectivity itself.