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.

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