10/14/21: _The Piano Teacher_ and the (Unintelligible) End of Analysis

The Piano Teacher Blu-ray (La pianiste)
An image depicting Erika’s demand for Walter to fulfill her sexual fantasy

The truth of Freudian psychoanalysis lays in the revelations that occur when the analysand is able to untangle the signifiers that enunciate his/her subjective history, and thus to the ambivalence of desire that characterizes his/her (infantile and thus projected) relations. Lacanian psychoanalysis, however, veers towards the end of analysis as the analysand’s identification with the sinthome, aptly described by Slavoj Zizek as “the point which functions as the ultimate support of the subject’s consistency” (Zizek, “The Undergrowth of Enjoyment,” 24). Lacan’s departure in the direction of the sinthome as the non/anti-subjective identificatory substance of enjoyment is prescribed through the phantasmatic act of the crossing of the fundamental fantasy in analysis itself. To become the objet petit a, or the residual excess, of desire is predicated on the absolutely singular act of (something like) a Kantian freedom that shatters the belief in the existence of the Other of the Other. As can be told from the extreme wording of this Event, this end of analysis is a fantasy in its own right, begging the question of, as Freud writes on, the potential interminability of analysis. But precisely this Lacanian fantasy enjoys its status as a fantasy situated at the limits of the encounter of the Real, unanalyzable, as opposed to the analyzable fantasy that sets up the analysand’s Symbolic world around a particular form of jouissance. So the question of the Lacanian sinthome is the question of fantasy, subjective autonomy, and fantasy’s relation to the Real. Michel Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, a film Zizek interprets in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, is narratively indicative of (sexual) fantasy’s violent eruption into the Real when performed in the domain of the Symbolic, and thus helpful in distinguishing between subjective fantasy and the analytic fantasy of the sinthome.

The Piano Teacher‘s plot features the eponymous character, Erika Kohut, whose sexual repression, based in her abusive relationship with her controlling mother, leads symptomatically to her sexual jouissance in voyeurism and sadomasochism. As she begins to become sexually involved with her adolescent student, Walter Klemmer, Erika is able to express and request her sexual fantasies, which include a violent rape fantasy. By the end of the film, Walter, who was once audibly disgusted with her rape fantasy, acts on it as it is told to him, leaving Erika with the realization of her desire, the outcome being a catatonic state. Fundamentally, the ending of the film reads as a commentary on Lacanian jouissance, and what Freud describes as the primal “ambivalent emotional attitude” (Freud, “Totem and Taboo,” 493) of desire; and yet, if Lacan’s end of analysis is one contingent on identification with the sinthome, which figures as the “outrageous kernel of its mindless enjoyment” (Zizek, 27), how is the sinthome fundamentally different from the harmful jouissance of Erika, or the analysand? While the sinthome begs to be unanswerable in a simple blog post, what can be said about it is its singularity in its truth-making with the analysand, and thus its inability of being positioned in the analyzable chain of causal determinations. To refer back to The Piano Teacher, if Erika’s paraphilias are analytically interpretable through the Symbolic world surrounding her, in the subject-positions of her mother, her occupation, her obsession with porno shops, or whatever else, the sinthome that results from analysis is the “meaningless fragment of the Real” (11) that changes the analysand’s relationship to his/her desire, its sublimated drive, and thus jouissance itself. This is not to say that the “freedom” one experiences at the end of analysis is “freedom” in the mainstream frame of understanding, but instead is a “freedom” that is, as Lacan defines, “extimate” to the psychoanalytic subject. Neither purely chosen by the subject’s psyche, nor a reproach towards the Other, the extimate sinthome is the Event that cuts through the analysand’s chain of signifiers and catapults him/her to the status of the Real. Despite this identification with the sinthome being a fantasy in its own right, this Lacanian fantasy is one ethically circumferential to the Real of being a human subject, and results in not a cure, but an odd autonomy unable to be clearly defined contemporarily.

10/08/21: _Persona_ and the Ethics of Love

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Love is psychoanalytically interpreted as the rapturous fantasy of the blur between subject and object, as Sigmund Freud describes in Civilization and its Discontents. In Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 Persona, this particular (non)relation between subject and object makes itself clear in terms of a love which resembles the transferential relationship of analysand and analyst. The relation between Alma and Elizabet is narratively introduced as a relationship between nurse and patient respectively. The narrative of Persona is subversive primely because it takes this originary hierarchical relationship and inverts it gradually throughout the film, upturning Symbolic and Imaginary roles by dissolving the occupational frame of Alma, acted by Bibi Andersson, through Alma’s behavior speaking towards the void that is the mute Elizabet, played by Liv Ullman. Elizabet, as a famous actress suddenly disillusioned by the performativity she must engage in for public consumption, is. brought into the world of Persona through her silence, which is one psychically founded on a renunciation of the Symbolic wor(l)d. Thus, her function as the representation of the bare screen of the non-receptive Other is consummate for Alma’s flurry of signifiers, in which Alma details her subjective history with the expectation of a lack of judgement. Through the precarious paradigmatic positions of Alma and Elizabet, and through Bergman’s brilliant introductory and outro scenes, Persona signifies Metz’s explication of cinema as the Imaginary Signifier. One can take, for instance, the introduction of the film where Bergman places emphasis on the sexual difference that marks cinematic creation, as demonstrated through the split-second image of an erect penis followed by the parallel lighting of a cinematic arc light (shot 2). Through metonymy, the successive images emphasize the apparatus of cinema as suturing the gap of the Real, or the gap of non-meaning produced by the gulf between enunciation and the field of enunciation. This gulf is narratively figured by the (mis)recognition that characterizes the (loving) relationship between Elizabet and Alma, and in extension, the relationship between spectator and screen. All of this is to say that Bergman, through both narrative and visual tomography, plays with the undecidability of the interpretability in the most broad sense.

Following the film’s significant focus on the void underneath, and yet constitutive of, interpretative power, the film reaches a tense fissure when Alma realizes the blank, and non-receptive, screen of Elizabeth is a dupe. Opening and reading the signifier that is Elizabet’s letter, a presence reciprocal to the absence of Elizabet herself, Alma’s veneer of naivety is shredded, and her immediate vengeful gaze at Elizabet brings the entire screen of Persona to a closing. The film’s screen breaks in half, and burns through a hole that engulfs the entire screen towards the pure absence of a white screen (shot 1). As opposed to the erect penis and the arc light at the beginning of the film, Bergman presents the absence that is the orifice resembling the Real itself. The phantasmatic screens of identification between Alma and Elizabet, and spectator and screen, have disintegrated, resulting in the psychosis that characterizes Alma’s confusion over selfhood in the latter half of the film. Psychoanalytically, this is what defines the fantasy of love itself, as related to the Biblical commandment of “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” the commandment that is fundamentally “impossible to fulfill” (Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 771).

09/30/21: _Marnie_ and Encounters with the Real

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Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic subject is a subject irreparably divided by the méconnaissance, or (mis)recognition, of the Mirror Stage, signifying the entry into the Imaginary Order, and by the Symbolic Order of language, a figuration of the Law of the Father and the social realm. While the Mirror Stage constitutes the formation of the “I,” and the development of egoistic fantasies of desire, the Law of signifiers that dictates the Symbolic Order is that which instantiates linguistic identity (proper nouns) and retroactively threatens the subject’s illusory agency, producing the anxiogenic threat of falling back into the pre-Symbolic corps morcelé (fragmented body) of the Real beyond language. We must begin with these Lacanian concepts in order to understand the particular odd temporalities and identifications at play in the narrative of Hitchcock’s 1962 film Marnie. The central woman-object-title Marnie lives her life compulsively structured around a precarious cycling of identities, in order to steal the white collar man’s money, and project the “sexual aggression which her reality as an image has sealed in her nature” (Bellour, 80). Revolving through Imaginary identities (e.g. the trap of colored hair) and Symbolic placements (e.g. multiple illegal SSN cards, with various names), Marnie’s deceptions seem to designate the ultimate femme reclamation of the phallus through a subversion of the (masculinist) subjective realms which constrain women. That is, until Hitchcock, as enunciator, ruptures Marnie’s fantasy of (feminine) mastery through the introduction of Mark (played by Sean Connery), who kidnaps and blackmails Marnie in order to marry and possess her. As a representation of the Symbolic Law, Mark’s perverse enjoyment of Marnie’s identificatory lack, and his violent urge to penetrate into her (in more ways than one), leads to the film’s disturbing rape scene. Hitchcock’s framing of the scene is telling of its sadism – a zoom into Mark’s incisive gaze (shot 1), and then a wide shot of Marnie’s face in catatonic shock (shot 2). Gone is the ecstasy Marnie’s face conveys at the beginning of the film when she dyes her hair blonde (shot 3), the moment where she recuperates her phantasmatically objectified image. Instead, Mark’s rape of Marnie signifies Marnie’s encounter with the Real, paradoxically through the intrusion of the immobilizing force of the Symbolic Law.

Extending this provocative scene from the binary relationship of Marnie and Mark to the tertiary relationship of Marnie, Mark, and the spectator, Christian Metz’s writing on the cinematic spectator as the Oedipal voyeur primes the scene to be analyzed with relation to the voyeuristic (non)encounter and (non)consent. The voyeur “is very careful to maintain a gulf, an empty space, between the object and the eye” (Metz, 60), and in the context of cinema, apart from other voyeuristic art forms, the voyeuristic gulf is maintained perfectly by the split between filmic development and the scene of spectatorship. The temporal difference of the presence of the actor (object) and spectator (voyeur), in terms of the film’s development and its distribution, allows “a failure to meet of the voyeur and the exhibitionist” (63). Thus, cinematic scopophilia is lacking in consent on the part of the voyeuristic object, and in this sense, the voyeurism is strikingly analogous to the experience of the primal scene. Hitchcock, however, naturalizes the camera throughout Marnie, and, specifically during the rape scene, interrupts the impersonal voyeuristic gulf through the introduction of Mark’s own brutal stripping of Marnie’s consent. The close framing of Mark’s fetishistic gaze, the eye, or the source of the scopic drive, as juxtaposed with Marnie’s unresponsive face, the object, implicates the spectator in Marnie’s psychotic encounter with her own nonconsensual consumption, by both Mark and the spectator. While Mark is characteristically enigmatic in its shift from the paradigms of “obsessive abductor” to “heroistic detective (or analyst?),” Marnie‘s controversial rape scene embroils the spectator in Mark’s objectively appalling behavior.

09/24/21: _Freud: The Secret Passion_ and The Problem of Self-Analysis

John Huston’s 1962 film Freud: The Secret Passion follows a young Sigmund Freud during the prime developmental years of psychoanalysis, when Freud began to advance his provocative theories regarding Oedipal conflict and infantile sexuality. In this respect, the film functions as a biographical account of these years, in the style of mid 20th century Hollywood melodramas. Nevertheless, the same question that we raised while interpreting 1926’s Secrets of a Soul remains: how is it possible to make a “psychoanalytic film,” especially when the film (Freud) confronts the kernel of both psychoanalytic origin and mystery that is Freud’s self-analysis? Freud’s self-analysis in The Interpretation of Dreams was foundational to the generation of the modernist symbolic penetration of dreams, an event unexplored since, what Freud calls, “the rejection of the [so-called pre-scientific] mythological hypothesis” (143). From his admiration of mythological meaning-making through that which evades it, Freud’s detailing of the dream-work processes of displacement and condensation was interested in the confused elements of dreams that were dismissed simply by “empirical” claims. In the case of the analytic work, the dream-work which processed latent thoughts to (oftentimes nonsensical) manifest content must be reversed, in order to make conscious what is unconscious in the psyche. The difficulty of analytic work is thus the ruse of the representative images which must be transmitted to the state of spoken signifiers and which unconsciously compel a projection of affect from the analysand towards the analyst. The latter element of analytic work, transference, is undoubtedly important in the relational aspect of the singular symptoms of the neurotic analysand. Freud’s self-analysis, as demonstrated in the “Irma’s Injection” dream, is respectably candid, though the significance of transference in analytic work raises the question of who Freud may have utilized, whether intentionally or not, as a transferential Other. Could there be a transferential relationship between Freud and the public of which he (albeit reservedly) expressed his dreams towards? Could there be a chance that Freud’s relationships with his analysands were reciprocally transferential, especially with regard to his earlier patients such as Elizabeth von R.? The latter question is the question that Huston’s Freud touches on in an interesting scene between Freud and fictional analysand Cecily.

Freud: The Secret Passion‘s depiction of transference between Freud and a fictional analysand Cecily features a scene in which Freud asks Cecily during a session about a past incident in which she fainted. This question is spurred by Freud’s own interest in the triggers of fainting, following his own recent incident where he fainted in front of the cemetery where his deceased father was to be laid to rest. This scene highlights the intriguing component of Freud’s self-analysis, which is his investment in the signifiers of his (female) analysand with the goal of self-analysis, and thus with the higher goal of developing psychoanalysis as a theory. Working through Cecily as a means towards theory, (the fictional) Freud’s own relationship with Cecily could possibly be viewed as, at least partially, reverse-transferential, and, most certainly, filled with jouissance that disrupts the analyst’s position as the subject-supposed-to-know. In this way, Cecily, as the seductive, yet childlike and suffering, female subject of the film is almost a reversal of the femme fatale character of film noir cinema. Cecily’s psyche and body are used by the analysts to discover a deeper truth, or more specifically the “secret passion” the film’s title refers to. The fictional scene may bring a truth out at the historical core of psychoanalysis and Freud’s enigmatic self-analysis: the convergence of Freudian psychoanalysis with the used (and arguably erased, if not [impossibly] subsumed) psychic suffering of women. What is psychoanalysis if not the question of the precarity of the pre-Symbolic mother, the Thing itself? Or, as Freud told Marie Bonaparte, “[t]he great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'”

09/13/21: _Secrets of a Soul_ and Spectatorial Enjoyment

In an image (shown below) from 1926 “psychoanalytic film” Secrets of a Soul’s brilliant dream sequence, the protagonist, Martin Fellman, seems to be plagued by an oddly indiscernible affective fusion as he watches his wife and her cousin traverse on a love boat together, while he is confined in a tower. Though Martin’s mouth contorts in obvious disgust and intense envy, his eyes are fixated on the scene of cuckoldry passionately, as if the scene was a restaging of the childlike delirium that occurs during the child’s spectatorial gaze of the primal scene. While Secrets of a Soul ultimately fails in its (impossible) task of showcasing the truth of psychoanalysis, various moments from the film, like the scene I described, are undoubtedly, and perhaps unintentionally, ingenious in conveying the primal enjoyment of voyeurism and scopophilia. This enjoyment, beyond the pleasure principle, as duly expressed in Martin’s face, is an enjoyment of the gaze mirrored in the experience of cinema. Martin’s psychic dilemmas, as reflected in his dream, are a problem of a repressed and non-reciprocal gaze, and thus a problem of his false identification with an emasculated image of himself. The spectator of cinema finds himself in a different position. Instead of the gaze unrequited, the spectator identifies with elements of the film that are infallible in the (and by the) Real sense of the wor(l)d i.e. the camera, the characters of the narrative. Therefore, with the spectatorial gaze being catered to by the film, the fantasy of transcendent plentitude is constituted for the viewer. Despite differences in identificatory perspectives, the vantage points of both Martin and the cinematic spectator intersect at the level of a similar bodily anxiety far from anything properly signifiable. 

In the history of psychoanalytic film theory, the focus on particular sects of (Lacanian) psychoanalytic terminology has veered from the Symbolic, or linguistic order, to the Imaginary, and most recently (thanks to Slavoj Zizek) to the Real, at the level of disavowed enjoyment and bodily disruption. For the cinematic spectator (and film theorist), the anxiety of the encounter of the Real can be figured by Virginia Woolf’s fantasy of cinema presenting “anger in the image, breaking across it, out of the screen.” (31) The threat of the Real is a threat of which there is no answer to, something obscene that affects the body, and yet, as can be discerned from Woolf, the threat of the Real is the very Thing cinema and the spectator desire. Thus, while the (cinematic) spectatorial gaze is catered to by the film, the Real looms as a force of enjoyment and bodily anxiety never to be accessed. Similarly, the Real manifests itself in Martin’s life as a desire for and anxiety of the Real, figured narratively as his tumorous desire to stab his wife to death. While, as mentioned, Secrets of a Soul fails to adequately express the psychoanalytic truth, instead opting for a psychoanalysis-as-magic-cure ending, its rare, and disavowed, moments of brilliance retroactively disclose the common anxiety of spectatorship and (non) reciprocation.