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.

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