CHAPTER III: Cinema and Psychoanalysis

Posted on May 4, 2009


 1. The Cinematic Apparatus and The Psyche

 Ideology is a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.[1]

Ideology has a material existence.[2]


For Freud dreams are the beholders of the sleeping subject; dreams prevent waking up by turning a repressed desire into images.[3] How does the dream do that? To be able to answer this question we have to look at Freud’s concept of the Unconscious and how the repressive mechanism works.

With Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America the civilized were brought face-to-face with primitive groups of people. In the case of Freud’s concept of the unconscious, the civilized were facing their own wild side, the other within them. By discovering the unknown continent Columbus opened new fields for exploitation. As for Freud’s concept of the unconscious, it was its inescapable destiny to be subjected to exploitation. And with the advance of technology it becomes easier and easier to exploit the unconscious. Hollywood, political strategists, advertisement writers and many others burning with desire for more money and power thought it was a merit to develop technologies for the manipulation and exploitation of the unconscious. But Freud’s discovery was aimed at serving almost exactly the opposite purpose. Freud meant the unconscious to stand in for the other of a way of thought that tended to explain and define everything in terms of its exchange-value and conformity to the established order. Freud aimed at bringing people face to face with the truth of their being; that their rationality couldn’t exist without its opposite, the unconscious. In the unconscious, the drives that resist symbolization are in constant interaction with one another and yet without this chaotic interaction between the unconscious drives there can be no reason. How hard civilization tries to escape from the Real of desire by establishing truths with no basis and how hard it must have been for them to face the non-reason inherent in their reason, which they so proudly prohibited. Freud not only opens the way of access to that forbidden zone, but also names the unconscious mental processes, and calls this long forgotten forbidden zone the unconscious. So, in a way, Freud is not only Columbus but also Amerigo Vespuci. 

Freud calls the content of the unconscious the latent dream-thoughts. That which one sees in a dream is already a translation of this primal scene. The images in a dream stand in for the gap in the symbolic order; they symbolize the latent content of the dream, which are the unconscious drives. A dream turns these unconscious drives into the manifestations of the subject’s objects of desire. The subject’s dream is already a semi-symbolized form of the unnamable traumatic kernel, the Real of the subject’s desire. In the unconscious there is no desire, but only an oscillation between the life-drive and the death drive. What the dream does is to supply the unconscious with objects to which it can attach its drives, give them a meaning and turn the unconscious drives into conscious desire. Dreams keep the natural and the cultural separate but contiguous to one another. Dream language is closer to the dynamics of the unconscious than the logic of fantasies. Fantasies are more social than dreams and are the supports of the symbolic order, they are the products of a desire to fill the gap between the Real and the social reality. So the objects of desire, with which the subject finds itself bombarded by, shape the subject’s unconscious drives and determine what the subject will desire, what it will not.

The object of one’s desire plays a dominant role in the subject’s identification processes. But there remains a gap between the object of desire and the object of identification. This split between the subject’s objects of desire and objects of identification, the choice the subject makes at this very moment determines the subject’s identity, and yet the subject is not conscious enough to make the simplest choices, so this choice always turns out to be a forced choice.

We can see an example of this forced choice in Levity directed by Ed Solomon (2002). It is a film about a murderer who kills a young cashier and consequently gets jailed for life. He is released on good behaviour but when it comes to getting out of the prison he refuses to do so. They tell him that he has no choice but to choose freedom, the life outside the prison. He unwillingly leaves the prison. This man was feeling so guilty that being in prison was his only way of surviving the anxiety caused by his aggressive behaviour in the past. He believed he deserved this punishment and was happy to participate in its execution. He was, if not his own persecutor, at least his own executor. He became his own crime and punishment at the same time. It was his free choice to be in prison, that way he fantasized he was being redeemed. And with this phantasm he was cutting himself off from carrying the burden of his crime as a free man. With the jury telling him that he is now free, he does not have to be punished anymore, his fantasy collapses. He realizes that redemption requires an external source. That by believing he was being redeemed didn’t mean that he was really being redeemed. He has to be redeemed in the eyes of another, in the eyes of the one’s who suffered the most because of his crime.

In a standard process of development the subject is expected to choose the objects of desire from the opposite sex and the objects of identification from the same sex. The subject introjects the objects of the same sex as objects of identification and the objects of the opposite sex as objects of desire. In turn the subject projects his introjected objects of identification onto his objects of desire, the other sex, strengthening his image of self in the eyes of the objects of the same sex who are his/her objects of identification.

What turns the latent content into the manifest-content and manifest-content into symbols is called the transference mechanism, or the dream-work. The analyst becomes the machine interpreting the patient’s free associations, which is what the dream-work does to the unconscious drives and turns them into metaphors.

For, owing to the fact that dream-interpretation traces the course taken by the dream-work, follows the paths which lead from the latent thoughts to the dream-elements, reveals the way in which verbal ambiguities have been exploited, and points out the verbal bridges between different groups of material—owing to all this, we get an impression now of a joke, now of schizophrenia, and are apt to forget that for a dream all operations with words are no more than a preparation for a regression to things.[4]

Freud’s technique of interpretation aims at a reversed metamorphosis; the analytical process tries to reach the hidden-content through the manifest-content. So Freud has to retranslate the manifest content as close to the hidden content as possible. The hidden content is unattainable, and yet the reversed metamorphosis at least makes some progress in the way of initiating a backward motion, a regressive process. To initiate this regressive process Freud uses the technique of free association. Free association is used to make hitherto unmade connections between the manifestations of the unconscious in the way of translating the unconscious into conscious or semi-conscious terms. Repression produces the hidden content of the unconscious. Free association aims at making the hidden content manifest itself in and through metaphorical constructions of reality. If the therapeutic process is successful the subject begins to use metonymies.

With Freud’s free association and Klein’s play therapy, the subject learns to give a voice to the traumatic kernel, the Real of his unsatisfied desires. The subject’s realization of the unnamability of the Real is a sign of progress in the therapeutic process. So in a way the therapeutic process has to fail for progress to take place. The quality and the quantity of gaps, black holes, or white spots within a discourse produced by free association show the extent of loss and dissatisfaction of the subject.

  According to Freud the dream-work deforms the unconscious drives and turns them into a more acceptable form so that the subject can come face to face with them. This is like an actor who changes his costume and appears with a different identity in the second stage of a play. There are two psychic processes involved in the dream-work. These are displacement and condensation. For Freud the process of displacement involves a kind of change of roles between cultural values and libidinal energy. The aim of displacement is to project substitutes for the unnamable and disowned aspects of the self so that the subject can reintroject those split off parts of the self in more acceptable forms. This process of displacement can be clearly observed in fetishism. A fetishist directs his/her desire to an object other than the real object of desire. For instance if the object of desire is the penis the subject of desire replaces penis with a shoe; the shoe stands in for the real object of desire.

As for condensation, it involves a concentration of secret thoughts at one single point, a kind of movement towards one single object, so all the thoughts intermingle and disappear, they become an unrecognisable multitude of thoughts. Condensation is a kind of unconsciously willed confusion; a defence mechanism to keep the unwanted qualities of the self at bay.

 2. Dream, Fantasy, and Film

If the film and the daydream are in more direct competition than the film and the dream, if they ceaselessly encroach upon each other, it is because they occur at a point of adaptation to reality – or at a point of regression, to look at it from the other direction – which is nearly the same; it is because they occur at the same moment: the dream belongs to childhood and the night; the film and the daydream are more adult and belong to the day, but not midday – to the evening, rather.[5]

In The Imaginary Signifier Christian Metz emphasizes a very important aspect of the relationship between cinema and the unconscious. The dream belongs to childhood, to the night, to the unconscious, the Real; whereas film and fantasy belong to adulthood, the symbolic, and the consciousness; and yet, this consciousness itself belongs to the evening. What Metz actually wants to say is that even though cinema has shown us a lot it has at the same time hidden a lot of things from us; for each film is a veil on the Real, a single beam of light comes out of the projector and in the dimness of the cinematic apparatus one is almost hypnotized, looks semi-consciously at what he is being shown.

Imagine yourself sitting in a cinema auditorium on a rather comfortable seat. This is one of the very rare occasions when you would agree to sit quietly in the dark with a crowd of other people. The only source of light is the projector projecting the images onto the white wall. The white wall turns the projected light into motion pictures and you are looking at the pictures in wonderment. On your comfortable seat you are relaxed, passive, and your ability to move is restricted by an external force. This condition of yours is very similar to the condition of a half-asleep person between reality and the dream world. Watching a movie is like a passage from being awake to being asleep. As a spectator you are aware that what you are watching is not real and still you make yourself believe that it is not totally fictional. Watching a movie you are like someone who is just about to wake up or just about to fall asleep.

The dream materials are visual and audio images, just like the matter of cinema. Nevertheless, there are three fundamental and semiological differences between dreams and films. In The Imaginary Signifier Christian Metz distinguishes these three differences between dream and film as follows.

[…]first, the unequal knowledge of the subject with respect to what he is doing; second, the presence or absence of real perceptual material; and third, a characteristic of the textual content itself(text of the film or dream), about which we are now going to speak.[6]

            All of these differences are linked to the degree of wakefulness of the subject. In sleep there is total illusion, the subject may play a role in the dream’s text. But in cinema the subject cannot see itself on the screen, unless, of course, he is an actor or an actress who has taken part in the film. In cinema there is a sense of reality which puts a distance between yourself and what you see. When you are awake you are to a certain extent aware of the fact that what you are watching is fictional.

The second difference which Metz points out is concerned with the existence of the matter of perception. The cinematographic image is a real image, an image that is of a material; visual, audio. But in dreaming there is no matter of the dream, dream material is completely illusory, it doesn’t exist as an external object.

The third difference involves the textual content of the film itself. Compared to a dream the fictional film is much more logical. If we keep the likes of David Lynch movies apart the plot of the film mostly develops with a certain order conforming to the expectations of the spectator. But in dreams there is no plot for no one is telling anything to another person. The dream belongs nowhere.

After distinguishing these differences between cinema and dream Metz introduces another term. This is what Freud called ‘Tagtarum,’ or the daydream, a conscious fantasy. The daydream is closer to film in that there is a certain degree of consciousness operating within the subject when he/she is daydreaming, or fantasizing. Daydreams too, are experienced when one is awake. The reason why film has a logical structure is that the actors, directors, and spectators are all awake. Making and watching a film involves conscious, pre-conscious, and sub-conscious psychic processes. Fantasizing also involves these three psychic processes, and yet since a film is produced by conscious choices, it has a certain purpose, a certain meaning to convey; what it will become is planned beforehand, its every detail is written down. But fantasizing is a totally psychic process which has gaps and disconnections in it. When we are fantasizing our intention is not to convey a certain meaning to another person. In both processes Metz sees at work a kind of voluntary simulation. Both the daydreamer and the film spectator know that what they are seeing or imagining is not real; but they still make themselves believe that the case is the opposite.

Both the film spectator and the daydreamer replace the reality principle with the pleasure principle. In both cases there is a willed belief in an illusion that what one is seeing or imagining is actually taking place. Without this belief the subject cannot take any pleasure in fantasizing and watching a film. The sole purpose of these activities is to compensate for an unsatisfying reality. Fantasies and films are the supports of social reality, with them the Real is kept at bay, and the gap between the subject and nothingness is maintained. Nothingness is internal to the symbolic order. Just as the dreaming subject is governed by the unconscious the cinema spectator and the fantasizing subject are turning the Real into a source of pleasure, translating it into the symbolic order. The filmmakers try to communicate directly with the unconscious of the spectator. The unconscious is their target and they find images to match the unconscious drives. It is precisely this matching process that forms the unconscious, for there is nothing prior to the naming of the unconscious drives. Cinema turns the object of drives into socially acceptable and symbolically comprehensible forms through metaphor and metonymy.

According to Lacan metaphor is a product of condensation and metonymy is a product of displacement. The reason why these two forms of expression are so effective is that they are closer to the workings of the unconscious than the literal. So Lacan is able to say, “the unconscious is structured a like language.”

A metaphor is a product of repression and involves the replacement of an image with another image that will have a stronger effect. Metonymy is the product of using a part of the object to stand in for the whole of it. Metaphor and metonymy fill the gap between the unconscious and the social reality. They are the mediators between the two worlds.

“The ordinary reality we know dissolves into the proto-ontological Real of raw flesh and replaceable mask.”[7] Zizek is referring to a film, Face/Off, starring John Travolta and Nicholas Cage. In this film Travolta and Cage find themselves in a situation where whatever they do they act against themselves. They have each other’s faces. The message is that behind our faces there is the Real, the raw flesh, nothing to identify us as and with ourselves. The gap between the social reality and the Real is opened and two men find themselves playing the role of their enemy. The face becomes the mask veiling the Real. What we have here is rather than the mask being a metaphor standing in for the Real, is the face as a metonymy standing in for the Real.

Before this unveiling of a lack (we are already close to the cinema signifier), the child, in order to avoid too strong an anxiety, will have to double its belief (another cinematic characteristic) and from then on forever hold two contradictory opinions (proof that in spite of everything the real perception has not been without effect).[8] 

In some movies the failure to keep apart two contradictory positions is itself the cause of these movies’ good effect. A process through which the ordinary reality dissolves into the Real can be seen in David Lynch movies. In Mulholland Drive we have a young actress at the beginning of her Hollywood career. The movie narrates her process of dispersal. The imaginary, the symbolic, and the real progressively dissolve into one another and she becomes incapable of distinguishing between what is fictional, what is in her mind and what is social. It is only at the end of the film that we understand her real situation, namely, that she has lost the plot of her life, and she has lost it in the fictional world of Hollywood. To fill the space opened by this loss she becomes addicted to drugs and alcohol, and the more drugs she takes the bigger the internal space grows, the more the internal space grows the less she is able to make conscious choices.

 3. Projective Identification and Introjection

Klein makes a distinction between introjected objects and the internal objects. The internal objects include the introjected objects as well as the objects of identification and the a priori fantasy images. According to Klein introjection is a defence mechanism against the anxiety and the fear of the horrible inner world of the child. The child assumes itself populated by bad, aggressive, and tormenting objects and attempts to introject the external good objects. In other words the child tries to replace the internal bad object with the external good object. So introjection is a defence mechanism to protect not only the me but also the internal good objects.

For Klein the unconscious fantasy sets the foundation of all psychic processes. But Freud had said fantasizing is a defence mechanism to compensate for the frustrating and unsatisfying reality. Klein thinks that the unconscious fantasmatic production is the manifestation of instinctive processes. In Klein’s hands the unconscious becomes a much more active and productive dynamism in touch with what’s going on in the social reality. The importance of Klein’s discovery is that she shows how intimately related the child is with the social reality from the beginning of life. The child is turned towards the mother and the unconscious moves towards consciousness in and through relating to the objects surrounding him/her. For Klein one of the first external objects the child relates to is the mother’s breast. In the face of hunger the child starts crying for he/she has no other means of communication. The mother understands that the child wants milk. Presented with milk from the mother’s breast the child comes to realize that there is an external good object that is the solution to the problem of hunger. But when the flow of milk is interrupted the child becomes confused, with the effect of hunger. The child considers the breast as a bad object and becomes more aggressive. When the milk comes the child realizes that he/she had been attacking not only the source of bad but also the source of good. So the child understands that every object is good and bad at the same time, and it is the use into which the object is put that determines its particular goodness or badness. It is the way in which one relates to social reality that matters.

In the first year of life introjection and splitting are dominant; the child is governed by the death drive, which is the drive that emerges as a response to the frustration in the face of the impossibility of going back into the enclosed space and time of the womb in which all that the organism needs is supplied without the organism having to make any effort to obtain it.

To be able to cope with the death drive the subject projects some of his/her aggressiveness onto the external world represented by the mother. Resultantly the child recognizes the external world as divided within itself and populated by good and bad objects which are not good and bad in-themselves but become good or bad in relation to the other objects. Projective identification is another defence mechanism the child uses to cope with the difficulties of life. With projective identification, to protect the me and the internal good objects from a possible attack from the external bad object, the child projects the internal bad objects onto the external good object. The child confuses the external good objects, external bad objects, internal good objects, and internal bad objects. Everything is intermingled so the child becomes aggressive towards himself/herself and towards the external world. To cope with this difficult situation the child projects unities onto the external world and makes no distinction between the good and the bad. This means that the child has passed from the state of being governed by the death drive, to the state of being governed by the life drive.

In the third stage of development there is the depressive position. With the depressive position the child feels guilty for attacking not only the good object but also the bad object in the paranoid-schizoid position of introjection and projective identification. The child realizes that the loving and caring mother had been the target of paranoid attacks all this time. To compensate for the damage caused the child strives to make reparations to the relationship with the mother embodying the social reality. For Klein depressive anxiety is a sign of progress.

These psychic processes go on until the end of life. The child identifies his/her image on the mirror as himself/herself. Lacan calls Klein’s depressive position ‘the mirror-stage.’

In the Lacanian sense, too, in which the imaginary, opposed to the symbolic but constantly imbricated with it, designates the basic lure of the ego, the definitive imprint of a stage before the Oedipus complex (which also continues after it), the durable mark of the mirror which alienates man in his own reflection and makes him the double of his double, the subterranean persistence of the exclusive relation to the mother, desire as a pure effect of lack and endless pursuit, the initial core of the unconscious (primal repression). All this is undoubtedly reactivated by the play of that other mirror, the cinema screen, in this respect a veritable psychical substitute, a prosthesis for our primally dislocated limbs.[9]

In the mirror stage, a period of imaginary and narcissistic identifications, the child believes in the illusion which he/she sees on the mirror. He/she sees himself/herself as a totality and believes that that’s what he/she really is. It is a period of conflict between the self as the other’s object of desire and the self as the subject sees it. The reflection on the mirror starts the process of introjection and projective-identification that will go on until death.

[…] the experience of the mirror as described by Lacan is essentially situated on the side of the imaginary (=formation of the ego by identification with a phantom, an image), even if the mirror also makes possible a first access to the symbolic by the mediation of the mother holding the child to the glass whose reflection, functioning here as the capitalized Other, necessarily appears in the field of the mirror alongside that of the child.[10]

            The screen is the site of projective identification. I put myself in the place of the character and try to see the film from his perspective. In a way I narcissistically try to situate myself in the context of the film as a whole person. But as soon as the screen gains this mirror like quality it loses it. With the screen there is a more advanced process at work, and this process is called projective-identification, not merely identification. The subject is aware that he is not the character in the movie, but still takes on this other identity on himself as though he is the one experiencing all those adventures.

When I am watching a movie I become the eye of the camera. Everything happens around me and I am a mere observer of all these things. In a way, as I’m watching a movie I become a semi-god-like creature, seeing not-all hearing not-all from a position not above all; from a position which renders the binary opposition between the transcendental and the immanent irrelevant. I am within and without the events and I am at once here and somewhere else with my body and everything else. It is the eye of the other that makes the eye of the self possible. 


4. Cinema and Fetishism

Even shit has a commercial value, depending of course, on whose shit it is. While in the case of human shit you have to pay to get rid of it, in the case of animal shit it is said to be a very efficient and sufficient fertilizer for one who has learned to use it, rather than seeing it as something worthless because it cannot be eaten. “Inversely, it is this very terror that is projected on to the spectacle of the mother’s body, and invites the reading of an absence where anatomy sees a different conformation.”[11]

Since even the instincts are produced by the superpanoptic projection-introjection mechanism in which the subject finds himself/herself, giving free rein to the unconscious to express itself only produces projections of the evil within onto the without. For Freud the death drive is the effect of a striving for infinity, nothingness, and death. I would say it is also the cause of it.

Commodity fetishism is equal to will to nothingness in that it is the desire for the inorganic objects to stand in for nothingness, the Real of the subject’s desire. Capitalism replaces the use value of the objects with two-dimensional commercial value, so the subject desires to be desired, and he/she can only do that by adapting to the two dimensional sphere of commodity fetishism; by becoming a fetish object himself. If we recall Marcuse complaining that the one-dimensional is absorbing the two-dimensional  and also keep in mind that Marcuse’s two-dimensional culture has become the pre-dominant culture of today, we can see why the solution is to say, “I don’t see myself as you see me,” to the big Other in whatever form it appears in our lives.

In our opinion fetishism only occurs in sadism in a secondary and distorted sense. It is divested of its essential relation to disavowal and suspense and passes into the totally different context of negativity and negation, where it becomes an agent in the sadistic process of condensation.[12]

So the death drive produces new objects of desire by splitting the already existing objects. The subject as death drive, by splitting the symbolic, opens up spaces for the emergence of new objects of desire to stand in for nothingness and death.

The good object has moved to the side of knowledge and the cinema becomes a bad object (a dual displacement which makes it easy for ‘science’ to stand back). The cinema is ‘persecuted’, but this persistence is also a reparation (the knowing posture is both aggressive and depressive), reparation of a specific kind, peculiar to the semiologist: the restoration to the theoretical body of what has been taken from the institution, from the code which is being ‘studied.’[13]

Writing about cinema is essentially a criticism of the symbolic order, for both writing and cinematic production are themselves symbolic social activities. Since cinema exploits the life drive by satisfying the desire for something covering nothing, writing about cinema is essentially governed by the death drive which tries to expose the nothingness behind the symbolic. That which a film veils is nothing other than nothing; and exposing this nothingness behind the film introduces a split between the subject and the signifier. When looked at like that psychotherapy becomes critical of the existing social order, for by criticizing the film the critic heals the film industry hence having a healing effect on the spectator.

It is clear that fetishism, in the cinema as elsewhere, is closely linked to the good object. The function of the fetish is to restore the latter, threatened in its ‘goodness’ (in Melanie Klein’s sense) by the terrifying discovery of the lack. Thanks to the fetish, which covers the wound and itself becomes erotogenic, the object as a whole can become desirable again without excessive fear.[14] 

According to Metz cinema is a fetish object. Films stand in for an object that is absent. The reflection of images on the screen veil the nothingness behind them without which they would not have been seen. “The fetish is the cinema in its physical state. A fetish is always material: insofar as one can make up for it by the power of the symbolic alone one is precisely no longer a fetishist.”[15]

Cinema produces unattainable objects of desire. By filling in a gap they render the nothingness more unattainable. They give the impression that there is something they are hiding and that way they produce the desire for nothingness. Cinema’s power of exploiting the will to nothingness, however, is the only tool one has at hand to criticize the cinematic apparatus as a form of ideology.

Sublimation of the objects of desire takes place through cinema and television. The more they are rendered unattainable the more sublime they become. What cinema does is to create the illusion of presence. Cinema shows an absent object through presenting an object to substitute for the nothingness. So it is the presence of an absence that we see on the screen. To enjoy cinema the subject has to know that what he/she is watching is only a presence covering an absence, that it is that which stands in for the Real of the subject’s desire. So Metz can say, “the fetish is the cinema in its physical sense.”[16] Looked at that way fetish is that which is produced to stand in for the Real object of desire, which is nothingness, and is therefore produced to satisfy the will to nothingness.

Cinematic narrative doesn’t show events in their real sequence. There are cuts, gaps, spaces between the scenes. All those, cuts, gaps, spaces between the scenes are openings to an external reality; they give the impression that there is something external to that which is actually being shown. The spectator is made to believe that there is something he/she doesn’t know as to what’s really going on in the film. This curiosity for that which is unknown inherent in every human is that which cinema exploits. By making the spectator simultaneously believe and not-believe at what he/she is seeing on the screen, cinema creates an ambiguous relationship with itself and the spectator.

 By leaving gaps within the narrative, cinema invites projective identification. The spectator projects what he has inside him onto the absence within the filmic text. He fills those gaps with his internal partial objects and imposes a unity and continuity on the split narrative of the film.

The death drive involves splitting and introjection. The subject as death drive splits given unities and continuities. It is impossible for a spectator governed by the death drive to identify with the characters in the film. On the contrary, he desires nothing, identifies with nothing, without which he knows there can be no meaning. Rather than filling in the gaps within the narrative death drive puts them into the spotlight, it shows that those gaps are interior to the narrative itself. The incompleteness of the narrative is the condition of possibility for its meaning.

We can differentiate these two different types of spectatorship, one governed by the life drive and the other by the death drive, as associationism and dissociationsim.

In associationism the subject immerses himself in the medium of the imaginary and identifies with the characters in the movie. In dissociationsim the subject introduces new splits between the internal and the external objects and hence renders identification impossible for himself.

The life drive is the will to become one with the world, it is the force behind mimicry and associationsim. It is wrong to associate the death drive with mimicry and associationism. The subject as death drive dissociates and splits given unities and continuities. In horror movies the absence of the knowledge of truth for the spectator, that is, not being given the role of the omniscient eye, the spectator becomes curious and to understand what’s really going on in the movie he/she identifies with the characters. In the face of the abundance of gaps to be filled in the process of watching the film the life drive grows less and less strong for doing all the job throughout the watching process, while the death drive is oppressed and because of this very oppression it grows more and more strong. Eventually the life drive collapses and the death drive overflows the auditorium.

Although it is itself a product of the death drive, horror film exploits the life drive, that is, the spectator’s will to form unities, bind the action, desire to get rid of all gaps and inconsistencies within the narrative. The death drive negates negation and reaches the highest possible degree of affirmation. Thanatos wills nothing, whereas Eros wills nothingness. We can see that the Thanatos case is the reverse of what Nietzsche says, “man would much rather will nothingness than not will.” Eros wants to want nothing; and strives to form such unities that everything will fit in its place; the system will lack nothing, so Eros will want nothing. Thanatos introduces splits, and tries to reach the nothingness behind the symbolic. Thanatos wants nothing rather than nothingness. He wants nothing to show the nothingness in the midst of everything, that there is nothing behind all that there is.

While Eros wants to lack nothing, wants the lack of lack, Thanatos affirms life as it is and wants lack, wants something to lack, wants that lack to remain after all is said and done, so that he can desire the nothingness which that lack presents. Thanatos doesn’t want something to replace nothing, but rather wants the lack in everything. By negating negation the death drive affirms life as it is, that is, in its incompleteness, and with nothingness and death in its midst.


5. Butterfly Effect 

The main character in the Butterfly Effect “seizes hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”[17] Butterfly Effect is a film from 2004 directed by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, in which Chaos Theory is applied to history and psychoanalysis. According to Chaos Theory an event which seems to be very insignificant in a sequence of events is in fact as important as any other event and the effects of a minor cause require some time to manifest themselves in relation to the macro situation.

With the Butterfly Effect the audience sees everything from the perspective of a young man who not only has flashbacks in the form of dreams, but who is also able to travel in time through reading his journals. As he reads the journal, first the words, then himself, and finally the whole room starts shaking and immediately after this falling into pieces of the scene the subject travels in time, or perhaps only in his personal history, and wakes up at another period of his own life. His aim is to change something so crucial to the present but which has taken place in the past, and so that way make some things a little bit better for the people surrounding him. But to be able to be present in the past he has to occupy the place of his presence in that particular slice of the past. That is why, as a child he has occasional blackouts during which disastrous things happen, such as a mother with her baby in her arms being blown up. His gift of travelling in time turns out to be his curse locking him up in a mental hospital as a hopeless case who believes he has journals through the reading of which he can go back and forth in time and put things right or wrong when in fact there are no journals and he has simply made all these things up in his mind. Each time he goes back in time to fix something bad, he causes something worse to happen. But that worse thing which happens takes place because of his intervention in the first place. Caught in this vicious cycle of a self-fulfilling prophecy he finally strikes the right chord, he goes back to the right time and fixes the right thing. Where he goes is not in the journals this time, for he is in the mental hospital, in a time where his journals do not exist or are not recognized as such. This time he goes back in time through an amateur home movie recorded when he and his girlfriend were kids, that is, before the girl makes the decision to stay with her father rather than her mother who moves to another city after their divorce. Her decision to stay with her father leads to her friendship with the boy and to the eventual disasters. In this time they are at a garden party. When the girl approaches him he says, “If you come near me again I’ll destroy you and your family.” And the little girl runs and hides behind her mother. What he is actually doing there is giving a voice to the evil at the right time, hence causing less worse things to happen in the future. Bringing out that repressed and anti-social behaviour out at the right time, or situating this free floating sign beneath the social reality, turns out to be less evil than the most good of society. It is all a matter of situating the act in the right time and the right place.                            

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.[18]  

Intervention in history, seeing in the past something which has never taken place, is itself an act opening up spaces for new possibilities to emerge. The fear of serving that which one thinks one is struggling against prepares the grounds for the realization of what the subject was afraid of.

A potential for change that has never initiated actual change cannot be a lost chance for a change. For since it has never taken place it cannot be a lost possibility.  Benjamin’s point when he says, “only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins,” is that “even the dead will not be safe” unless the enemy loses. How can even the dead not be safe? For when the enemy loses the lives of the dead will have been wasted for nothing, for these now dead people will have struggled and suffered for nothing. For then, not the enemy but “we, the friends of those who died for a good cause” will have written the history. For Benjamin it’s all a matter of who represents what happened.

“The spark of hope” that is to be fanned is not the hope of redemption, but the hope that redemption has already taken place. That we are already redeemed and yet it is precisely this state of being redeemed that makes it a forced-choice and yet a responsibility to tell the story of the past in such a way as to introduce a split between the past and the future which generates a new mode of being and initiates change. It is out of the space between the past and the future, or the subject of statement and the subject of enunciation, that something new emerges ex nihilo. The subject writes its difference from itself, all writing is writing the difference of the subject from the void. And yet since the void against which the subject writes is the subject itself, with each word the subject moves further away from itself. This performative contradiction inherent in language is the way things are in the world. The outside, the unconscious, is the shadow of language and the social reality.         

 6. The Island: Waiting for a day that will never come

The Island is a science-fiction movie directed by Michael Bay. Our hero, Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) wakes up from a nightmare in which he sees himself drowning. What we, the spectators don’t know yet is that Lincoln has actually woken up to a sterile world which has nothing do with the real world. Lincoln wakes up from a nightmare to what appears to be an unreal reality. As Lincoln wakes up he sees a screen in front of him on which is written “Erratic REM Sleep Cycle Detected,” followed by “Please Report to Tranquility Center.” Lincoln gets out of his bed and goes to the toilet. As he urinates, another screen appears in front of him with the words “Sodium Excess Detected, Advising Nutritional Control.” On top of all these a speaker intervenes: “A healthy person is a happy person.”

Lincoln is living in an environment in which he is surveilled and controlled at all times. This environment is in fact an underground factory which produces human clones. Lincoln is nothing but a clone produced to be consumed when the time comes. We, the spectators, will later on learn that this environment was an institution used by American Ministry of Defence for military research. Now it has been passed on to a medical corporation sponsored by extremely rich people to produce clones. These clones are the copies of those rich people who have various illnesses. Lincoln Six-Echo, for instance, is the clone of a Scottish man named Tom Lincoln who suffers from Hepatitis and who is expected to die in two years. This means that in two years time Lincoln Six-Echo will be killed and his organs will be transferred to his sponsor Tom Lincoln.

The DNA samples taken from the sponsors are used to produce clones. These clones are then grown in a womb-like environment until they reach the age of their sponsors. Some of the clones are grown for their hearts, some for their eyes, skins, and some for their internal organs. As they are grown they are almost injected a memory through audio-visual imagery, their consciousness is completely artificial just like themselves. Although they look no different from a normal human being they are in fact programmed to desire to go to The Island. They are continually told that they are the chosen ones, that they are the only survivors from a terrible epidemic which destroyed almost all life on earth, that they are lucky for being where they now are. Of course these clones need some kind of motive to be able to bear their monotonous existence. Their motive is waiting for the day on which they will win the lottery and go to the last piece of beauty left on earth after the epidemic; an exotic island, a heaven on earth. Through this lottery business the life in this institution is invested with a meaning. Educated to the level of fifteen year old children, the clones do not question their lives. They think that they really are chosen and they really want to go to the island. But Lincoln is unhappy and unsatisfied. He thinks there should be more to life than waiting for the departure towards the island. When he talks with his psychiatrist who is in fact the manager of the corporation, his psychiatrist tells him this: “You can’t see how lucky you are Lincoln. You have survived the epidemic, you are comfortable here, what else do you want?” Lincoln is not satisfied with this answer and goes to places he shouldn’t, sees things he better not. Following an insect Lincoln finds himself at a hidden section of the institute, a hospital, where he sees that those who are chosen to go to the island are in fact killed for their organs. Lincoln understands that there is no such thing as an epidemic, and no such place as the island, that all this island business is merely a fantasy to keep the clones operating efficiently as they wait.

On the night of the day that Lincoln learns the truth his lover Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlet Johansson) wins the lottery. Realising that the turn of death has come to Jordan, Lincoln goes to her room to warn her. After that the movie turns into a typical adventure movie in which many cars explode and many people die. At the end our hero and heroine destroy the corporation and save all the clones from their miserable existences.

The importance of this movie derives from the way in which it criticizes modern power structures which produces subjects in such a way as to serve the system which consumes them. The subjects are subjectified so as to feel happy and content with being locked in hopeful dreams. The Island shows that even what we call the unconscious is a construct, that the drives are not natural, but rather cultural products. 

            What we see here is how the life drive turns out to be the death drive. As the clones wait for the day they will finally start living a real life full of pleasures, they are in fact waiting for the day they will die. As they die the system in which they are locked gains strength. Through the death of the subjects the system prolongs its own life.

 Intermediation 2

In the previous chapter I attempted to analyze the cinematic apparatus in relation to psychoanalysis. Although I haven’t mentioned his name, Deleuze’s influence was pervasive in the previous chapter. Already in Difference and Repetition Deleuze understands the brain as a screen. To my mind Deleuze’s understanding of the brain as a screen is rooted in his recreation of the concept of death drive in Difference and Repetition. His argument against the representational mode of being is actually an attack on the transcendence oriented conceptualizations of Freud’s drive theory. Deleuze’s corpus can also be read as an enquiry into the relationship between unconscious drives and conscious desires. In this context fidelity in Deleuzean philosophy requires a re-conceptualization of the brain not only as a screen, but also as a projector.

I think the cinematic apparatus stimulates not only the conscious mind, but also the unconscious drives, hence producing not only consciousness, but also the unconscious. I agree with Deleuze that the unconscious is productive of desire, but what I think to be missing in Deleuze is that the unconscious itself is always already produced by external forces such as cinema, media, and television. So the desire produced by the unconscious is always already adaptive to the predominant form of desiring which serves the reproduction of the predominant order of things.

In the next chapter I shall attempt to provide a detailed analysis of Cronenberg’s movies in relation to the concepts of projective identification, introjection, creativity and destructivity.


[1] Louis Althusser, The Ideological State Apparatuses, from “Mapping Ideology,” ed. Slavoj Zizek (London: Verso, 1994), 123

[2] Althusser, 125

[3] Sigmund Freud, The Interpreation of Dreams, 101-8

[4] Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology, trans. James Strachey, ed. Angela Richards (London: Penguin, 1984), 237

[5] Christian Metz, Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier, trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzetti (London: Macmillan, 1982), 136-7

[6] Metz, 120

[7] Slavoj Zizek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? (London: Verso, 2001), 183

[8] Metz, 70

[9] Metz, 4

[10] Metz, 6

[11] Metz, 69

[12] Gilles Deleuze, Coldness and Cruelty, trans. Jean McNeil (New York: Zone, 1989), 32

[13] Metz, 80

[14] Metz, 75

[15] Metz, 75

[16] Metz, 75

[17] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (Glasgow: Fontana Press, 1973), 257

[18] Benjamin, 257

Posted in: Non-Philosophy