Thursday, June 22, 2006

Haecceities Revisited

Brueghel: Hunters in the Snow (1565) [featured in the pre-zero-gravity library scene in Tarkovsky's Solaris, one of cinema's finest manifestations of the haecceity].

Delighted to see Mark K-punk [as also noted by Daniel/Josef K at Different Maps] revisit the haecceity, the thisness of this, in his review of John Foxx's latest LP, Tiny Colour Movies:

This is not an inner but Outer calm; not a discovery of a cheap New Age 'real' Self , but a positive alienation, in which the cold pastoral freezing into a tableau is experienced as a release from identity.

Dun Scotus' concept of the haecceity - the 'here and now' - seems particularly aposite here. Deleuze and Guattari seize upon this in A Thousand Plateaus as a depersonalized mode of individuation in which everything - the breath of the wind, the quality of the light - plays a part. A certain use of film - think, particularly, of the aching stillness in Kubrick and Tarkovsky - seems especially set up to attune us to hacceity; as does the polaroid, a capturing of a haecceity which is itself a haecceity.

From Solaris production design. Artist: Michail Romadin.

From Mirror production design. Artist: Nikolai Dvigubsky

Monday, June 19, 2006

... That We Are Basically Watching Shit, As It Were

Edited transcription [with notes and cross-media re-formatting] of the two-and-a-half hour Sophie Fiennes-directed The Pervert's Guide To Cinema, narrated and presented by Slavoj Zizek.

The problem for us is not whether our desires are satisfied or not. The problem is how do we know what we desire?

There is nothing spontaneous, nothing natural about human desires. Our desires are artificial - we have to be taught to desire.

Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn't give you what you desire, it tells you how to desire.

[Note: Perversion in psychoanalysis: The basic structure of perversion is that you perceive yourself as the instrument of others' jouissance. This is why, for example, Don Giovanni is a pervert. What is his big trick? His gift is not that he is beautiful, but that he can guess or discern the fantasy of each woman, and he tries to stage that fantasy. Which is why Lacan says une par une--une pour une; for each her own specific fantasy. For the pervert is totally void, he is there only to serve the other, to be the slave of the other's fantasy. This is very nicely expressed by Lacan: the formula of perversion is the simple reversal of the formula of fantasy. This is precisely what happens in psychoanalysis. The psychoanalyst is a passive blank, an empty screen onto which the analysand projects his or her own fantasies. Of course, as we all know, here is where the difference begins: rather than serving the fantasy, the analyst undermines it.]

[1] Possessed (1931; Director: Clarence Brown; Joan Crawford, Clarke Gable).

What we get in this wonderful clip from Possessed is commentary on the magic art of cinema within a movie. We have an ordinary working-class girl living in a drab small provincial town. All of a sudden she finds herself in a situation where reality itself reproduces the magic cinematic experience. She approaches the rail, and it is as if what in reality is just a person standing near a slowly passing train turns into a viewer observing the magic of the screen.

We get a very real ordinary scene onto which the heroine's inner space, as it were, her fantasy space is projected, so that, although all reality is simply there, the train, the girl, part of reality in her perception and in our viewer's perception is, as it were, elevated to the magic level, becomes the screen of her dreams.

This is cinematic art at its purest.

[2] The Matrix (1999; Directors: Andy and Larry Wachowski; Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fisburne, Carrie-Anne Moss)

But the choice between the blue and the red pill is not really a choice between illusion and reality. Of course Matrix is a machine for fictions, but these are fictions which already structure our reality: if you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you lose reality itself

I want a third pill.

So what is the third pill? Definitely not some kind of transcendental pill which enables a fake fast-food religious experience, but a pill that would enable me to perceive not the reality behind the illusion but the reality in illusion itself.

If something gets too traumatic, too violent, gets too, even too filled in with enjoyment, it shatters the coordinates of our reality: we have to fictionalise it.

[3] The Birds (1963; Director: Alfred Hitchcock; Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy).

The first tip of horror films is to say - let's imagine the same story, but without the horror element. This gives us, I think, the background.

We [Zizek in boat with outboard motor] are in the middle of Bodega Bay, where the action of Hitchcock's The Birds takes place. The Birds is a film about a young socialite girl [Melanie] from San Francisco who falls in love with a guy [Mitch], goes after him to Bodega Bay where she discovers that he lives with his mother. And then there is the standard edible imbroglio of incestuous tension between mother and son, the son split between his possessive mother and the intrusive girl.

The big question about the birds of course is the stupid obvious one: why do the birds attack? It is not enough to say that the birds are part of the natural setup of reality, it is rather as if a foreign dimension intrudes that literally tears apart reality. We humans are not naturally born into reality. In order for us to act as normal people who interact with other people who live in the space of social reality, many things should happen, like we should be properly installed within the symbolic order and so on. When this, our proper dwelling within a symbolic space, is disturbed, reality disintegrates.

So to propose the psychanalytic formula, the violent attacks of the birds are obviously explosive outbursts of maternal superego, of the maternal figure trying to prevent sexual relationship. So the birds are raw incestuous energy.

[Cut to Zizek losing control over the steering of his boat].

What am I doing? I'm sorry, I'm sorry, now I got it. My God, I'm thinking like Melanie! You know what I'm thinking now? I want to fuck Mitch! That's what you were thinking [laughter], no, no [losing control over boat's steering again]. Oh sorry, sorry, sorry [corrects steering]. I got this spontaneous confusion of directions.

[4] Psycho (1960; Director: Alfred Hitchcock)

We are in the cellar from the mother's house from Psycho. What's so interesting is that the very disposition of mother's house, events took place in it at three levels, first floor, ground floor, basement. It is as if they reproduce the three levels of human subjectivity. Ground floor is Ego, Norman behaves there as a normal son, whatever remains of his normal ego taking over. Upstairs its the Superego, maternal superego, because the dead mother is basically a figure of superego. And down in the cellar its the Id, the reservoir of these illicit drives. And so we can then interpret the event in the middle of the film when Norman carries the mother - or as we learn at the end of the film, mother's mummy, corpse, skeleton - from the first floor to the cellar. It is as if he is transposing her in his own mind, as a psychic agency, from superego to id.

Of course the lesson from it is the old lesson elaborated already by Freud that superego and id are deeply connected. The mother complains, first as a figure of authority, "How can you be doing this to me? Aren't you ashamed? This is a fruit cellar!," and then mother immediately turns into a figure of obscenity: "Do you think I'm fruity?" Superego is not an ethical agency, superego is an obscene agency bombarding us with impossible orders, laughing at us when, of course, we cannot ever fulfill its demand. The more we obey it the more it makes us guilty. There is always some aspect of an obscene madman in the agency of the superego.

[5] Duck Soup (1933; Director Leo McCarey). Monkey Business (1931; Director: Norman Z McLeod) ( The Marx Brothers).

We often find references to psychoanalysis embodied in the very relations between persons. For example, the three Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico, Harpo. Its clear Groucho, the most popular one, with his nervous hyperactivity, is superego. Chico, the rational guy, egotistic, calculating all the time, is ego. And the weirdest of them all, Harpo, the mute guy, he doesn't talk - Freud said that drives are silent - he doesn't talk, he of course is id.

The id in all its radical ambiguity. Mainly what is so weird about the Harpo character is that he is so childishly innocent, just striving for pleasure, likes children, plays with children and so on, but at the same time possessed by some kind of primordial evil, aggressive all the time. And this unique combination of utter corruption and innocence is what the id is all about.

[6] The Exorcist (1973; Director: William Friedkin)

Voice is not an organic part of the human body, it is coming from somewhere in-between your body. Whenever we talk to another person, there is always this minimum of ventriloquist effect, as if some foreign power took possession. Remember that at the beginning of the film this was a beautiful young girl. How did she become a monster that we see? By being possessed? But who possessed her?

A voice, a voice in its obscene dimensions.

[7] The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933; Director: Fritz Lang).

The first big film about this traumatic dimension of the voice, the voice which freely floats around and is a traumatic presence, feared the ultimate moment, object of anxiety which distorts reality, was in 1931 in Germany, Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr Mabuse. We do not see Mabuse until the end of the film: he is just a voice.

[8] Alien (1978; Director: Ridley Scott).

So the problem is - which is why [in The Exorcist] we have the two priests at her side - how to get rid of this intruder, of this alien intruder. It is as if we are expecting the famous scene from Ridley Scott's Alien to repeat itself. As if we have just waited for some terrifying, alien, evil-looking small animal to jump out.

There is a fundamental imbalance - gap - between our psychic energy, called by Freud libido, this endless undead energy which persists beyond life and death and the poor finite reality of our bodies. It is not just the pathology of being possessed by ghosts: the lesson that we should learn and that the movies try to avoid is that we ourselves are the aliens.

Our ego, our psychic agency, is an alien force distorting, controlling our body.

[9] The Great Dictator (1940; Director: Charles Chaplin).

Nobody was as fully aware of the properly traumatic dimension of the human voice, the human voice not as the sublime, ethereal medium for expressing the depth of human subjectivity, but the human voice as a foreign intruder, nobody was more aware of this than Charlie Chaplin.

Chaplin himself plays in the film two persons, the good small Jewish barber and his evil double Hindle, dictator, Hitler of course. The Jewish barber, the tramp figure, is of course the figure of silent cinema. Silent figures are basically like figures in cartoons, they don't know death, they don't know sexuality even, they don't know suffering, they just go on in their oral egotistic striving, like cats and mouse in a cartoon: you cut them into pieces, they're reconstituted. There is no finitude, there is no mortality here. There is evil, but a kind of a naive, good evil, you are just egotistical, you want to compete, you want to hit the other, but there is no guilt proper. What we get with sound is interiority, depth, guilt, pulpability, in other words the complex edible universe.

The problem of the film is not only the political problem, how to get rid of totalitarianism, of its terrible seductive power, but it is also this more formal problem, how to get rid of this terrifying dimension of the voice. Or, since we cannot get rid of it, how to domesticate it, how to transform this voice nonetheless into the means of expressing humanity, love, and so on. The German police [in the film] thinking [the Jewish barber] is Hitler and he has to address a large gathering.

There of course he delivers his big speech about the need of love, understanding between people, but there is a catch, even a double catch: people applaud exactly in the same way as they were applauding Hitler. The music that accompanies this great humanist finale, the overture to Wagner's opera Lohenngrin is the same music as the one we hear when Hitler is daydreaming about conquering the entire world and where he has a balloon in the shape of the globe, the music is the same.

This can be read as the ultimate redemption of music, that the same music which served evil purposes can be redeemed to served the good, or it can be read - and I think it should be read - in a much more ambiguous way, that with music we cannot ever be sure, insofar as it externalises our inner passion music is always potentially a threat.

[10] Mulholland Dr (2002; Director: David Lynch).

There is a short scene in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr which takes place in the theatre where we are now, where behind a microphone a woman is singing. Then out of exhaustion or whatever she drops down. Surprisingly, the singing goes on. Immediately afterwards it is explained it was a playback [actually, it was explained beforehand, but the effect is the same nonetheless], but for that couple of seconds when we are confused we confront this nightmarish dimension of an autonomous partial object ...

... like in the well-known adventure of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland where the cat disappears, the smile remains. "You may have noticed that I'm not all there myself."

The fascinating thing about partial objects, in the sense of organs without bodies, is that they embody what Freud called Death Drive. Here we have to be very careful. Death Drive is not a kind of a Buddhist striving for annihilation, I want to find eternal peace, no!, death drive is almost the opposite: death drive is what in the Stephen King horror fiction is called the dimension of the undead, of living dead, of something that remains alive even after it is dead, and in a way it is immortal in its badness itself, goes on, exists, you cannot destroy it, the more you cut it the more it exists, it goes on. This dimension of kind of diabolical undeadness is what partial objects are about

[11] The Red Shoes (1948; Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger).

The nicest example here for me I think is Michael Powell's Red Shoes, about the ballerina. Her passion for dancing is materialised in her shoes taking over. The shoes are literally the undead object.

[12] Dr Strangelove (1964; Director: Stanley Kubrick).

Perhaps the ultimate bodily part which fits this role of the autonomous partial object is the fist or, rather, the hand . This hand rising up: that is the whole point of Dr Strangelove. It is not simply something foreign to him, it is the very core of his personality.

[13] Fight Club ( 1999; Director: David Fincher).

Far from standing for some kind of perverted masochism or reactionary fantasy of violence this scene [the character in the film attacks himself with his own fist] is deeply liberating. I'm here, as it were, on the side of the fist. I think this is what liberation means: in order to attack the enemy you first have to beat the shit out of yourself. To get rid in yourself the debt which in yourself attaches you to the leader, to the conditions of slavery, and so on and so on.

There is always this conflict between me and my double. It is as if the double embodies myself, but without the castrated dimension of myself

[14] Dead Of Night ( 1945; Director: Alberto Cavalcanti).

There is an episode in the wonderful British horror classic Dead of Night, in which Michael Redgrave plays a ventriloquist who gets jealous of his puppet. In an outburst of violence he destroys the puppet, then breaks down, and then in the very last scene in the film we see him in the hospital slowly regaining consciousness, coming back to himself. First his voice is stuck in the throat, then with great difficulty, finally he is able to talk, but he talks with the distorted voice of the dummy.
And the lesson is clear: the only way for me to get rid of this autonomous partial object is to become this object.
[15] The Conversation (1974 ; Director: Francis Ford Coppola).
I'm standing on the very balcony where the murder, the dramatic murder scene occurs in The Conversation, the murder of the husband observed through the stained glass in front of me by the private detective, Gene Hackman. The detective is in the nearby room. Significantly, just before he sees the murder, he observes the balcony through a crack in the glass wall. Whenever we have this famous proverbial peeping tom scene of somebody observing a traumatic event through a crack, it is never as if we are dealing with two parts on both sides of the wall of the same reality.
Before seeing anything or imagining to see something, he tries to listen, he behaves as an eavesdropper, with all of his private detective gadgets. What does this make him? Potentially at least it makes him into a fantasised, imagined entity. He doesn't fantasise the scene of the murder, he fantasises himself as a witness to the murder. What he sees on the blurred window, glass, which effectively functions as a kind of elementary screen, cinematic screen even, that should be perceived as a desperate attempt to visualise, hallucinate even, the bodily material support of what he hears.
[16] Blue Velvet (1986 ; Director: David Lynch).
Dorothy's apartment is one of those hellish places which abound in David Lynch's films, places where all moral and social inhibitions seem to be suspended, where everything is possible. The lowest masochistic sex, obscenities, the deepest level of our desires that we are not even ready to admit to ourselves, we are confronted with them in such places.
From what perspective should we observe this scene? Imagine the scene as that of a small child hidden in a closet or behind a door witnessing the parental intercourse. He doesn't yet know what sexuality is, how we do it, all he knows is what he hears, this strange deep breathing sound. And then he tries to imagine what goes on.
At the very beginning of Blue Velvet we see Geoffrey's father having a heart attack, falling down, we have the eclipse of the normal paternal authority. It is as if Geoffrey fantasises this wild parental couple of Dorothy and Frank as a kind of phantasmatic supplement to the lack of the real paternal authority. Frank not only obviously acts but even overacts, it is as if he is ridiculously excessive, gesticulating, shouting, and so on - are here to cover up something. The point is of course, the elementary one, to convince the invisible observer that father is potent, to cover up father's impotence, so the second way to read the scene would have been as a spectacle, a ridiculously violent spectacle, set up by the father to convince the son of his power, of his over-potence. The third way would have been to focus on Dorothy herself. Many feminists, of course, emphasise the brutality against women in this scene, the abuse, how the Dorothy character is abused. There is obviously this dimension in it. But I think one should risk a more shocking and obverse interpretation. What if the central, as it were, problem of this entire scene is Dorothy's passivity. So what if what Frank is doing is a kind of a desperate, ridiculous, but nonetheless effective, attempt of trying to help Dorothy, to awaken her out of her lethargy, to bring her into life. So if Frank is anybody's fantasy, maybe he's Dorothy's fantasy. There's a kind of a strange mutual interlocking of fantasies. Its not only ambiguity but ossillation between three focal points. This I think is what accounts for the strange reverberations of this scene.
[17] Vertigo ( 1958; Director: Alfred Hitchcock).
This brings us to our third [ after The Conversation and Blue Velvet] and maybe crucial example, what is for me the most beautiful shot in the entire Vertigo. The shot in which we see Scottie in the position of a peeping tom observing through a crack. It is as if Madeleine is really there in common reality while Scottie is peeping at her from some mysterious interspace, from some obscure nether-world.
This is the location of the imagined, fantasised Gaze.
Gaze is that obscure point, the blind spot, from which the object looked upon returns the gaze.
After suspecting that a murder is taking place in a nearby hotel room, Gene Hackman, playing the private detective, enters this room and inspects the toilet. The moment he approaches the toilet in the bathroom it is clear that we are in Hitchcock territory. It is clear that some kind of intense, implicit dialogue with Psycho is going on. In a very violent gesture as if adopting the role of Norman Bates' mother, the murder in Psycho, he opens up the curtain, inspects it in detail looking for traces of blood there, even inspecting the gap, the hole at the bottom of the sink, which is precisely another of these focal objects, because in Psycho the hole, through fadeout, is morphed into the eye, returning the gaze.
We say the eye is the window of the soul, but what if there is no soul behind the eye, what if the eye is a crack through which we can perceive just the abyss of a netherworld.
When we look through these cracks, we see the dark other side where hidden forces run the show. It is as if Gene Hackman establishes no we are nonetheless not in Psycho, let us return to my first object of fascination, the toilet bowl. He flushes it and then the terrible thing happens.
In our most elementary experience, when we flush the toilet excrements simply disappear out of our reality into another space, which we phenomenologically perceive as a kind of a netherworld, another reality, chaotic primordial reality, and the ultimate horror of course is if the flushing doesn't work, if objects return, if remainders, excremental remainders return from that dimension.
Hitchcock is all the time playing with this threshold. The most effective for me, even the most touching, scene of the entire Psycho is after the shower murder when Norman Bates tries to clean the bathroom. I remember clearly when in my adolescence I first saw the film how deeply I was impressed by, not only by, the length of the scene - it goes on for nearly ten minutes, details of things and so on and so on, but also by the care, the meticulousness, how it is done, and also by our spectators' identification with it. I think that this tells us a lot about the satisfaction of work, of a job well done, which is not so much to construct something new, but maybe human work at its most elementary, work as it were at the zero level, is the work of cleaning the traces of a stain. The work of erasing the stains, keeping at bay this chaotic netherworld which threatens to explode at any time and engulf us.
I think this is the fine sentiment that Hitchcock's films evoke. It is not simply that something horrible happens in reality. Something worse can happen which undermines the very fabric of what we experience as reality. I think it is very important how the first attack of the birds occurs in The Birds, precisely when Melanie crosses this bay. First we even don't perceive it as a bird, as if some stain appeared within the frame.
When a fantasy object, something imagined, an object from inner space, enters our ordinary reality, the texture of reality is twisted, distorted. This is how desire inscribes itself into reality, by distorting it.
Desire is a wound of reality.
The art of cinema consists in arousing desire, to play with desire, but at the same time keeping it at a safe distance, domesticating it, rendering it palpable.
When we spectators are sitting in a movie theatre looking at the screen, you remember at the very beginning before the picture is on, its a black dark screen and then light is thrown on. Are we basically not staring into a toilet bowl and waiting for things to reappear out of the toilet? And are, is the entire magic of spectacle shown from the screen not a kind of a deceptive view trying to conceal the fact that we are basically watching shit, as it were ...