ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 15

 - The Postmodern Psyche


In this lecture on the postmodern psyche, Professor Paul Fry explores the work of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Slavoj Žižek. The notion of the “postmodern” is defined through the use of examples in the visual arts and architecture. Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of “rhizomatic” thinking and their intellectual debts are elucidated. Žižek’s film criticism, focused on the relation between desire and need, is explored in connection with Lacan.

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 15 - The Postmodern Psyche

Chapter 1. Žižek, Deleuze, and the Political [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: So today we’re still focused on individual consciousness. “Why?” you might ask. Well, we can speak of the psychogenesis of the text or film as the site or model for symbolic patterning of one sort or another, perhaps in the case certainly of Žižek, to some extent also of Deleuze. Therefore we can still understand today’s readings, unlike Thursday’s readings, as belonging to the psychological emphasis in our syllabus. This is actually our farewell to the psychological emphasis, and it is so arranged because there are intimations in today’s authors that there are political stakes. That is to say, in one way or another we are to understand their argument about the way in which the psyche functions as having political implications.

Žižek is fascinating, it seems to me, in his brilliant reading of The Crying Game at the very end of your essay, in the moment when he says in effect, “Look. This isn’t just a kind of abdication from responsibility for the Irish Republican Revolution. The soldier has not merely walked away from his role in revolutionary activity; he has discovered in his private life–that is to say, in the erotic dimension of his consciousness–the need for revolution from within. He has necessarily disrupted his own thinking in ways equally radical to and closely parallel to the disruption of thinking that’s required to understand one’s relationship with the emerging Republican status of Ireland. And so,” says Žižek in effect, “there are political implications for the upheaval in consciousness that an ultimately tragic encounter with the Big Other entails.

I should say in passing also about Žižek that –and your editor, I think, goes into this a little bit in the italicized preface–that there are temptations, political temptations, entailed in this fascination with an obscure or even perhaps transcendent object of desire for the individual, but also for the social psyche. In religious terms, there is a perhaps surprising or counterintuitive friendliness toward religion in Žižek’s work on the grounds that faith or the struggle for faith, after, all does constitute an effort to enter into some kind of meaningful relationship with that which one desires yet at the same time can’t have. By the same token–and this is where, in certain moments, he confesses to a kind of instability in his political thinking, even though he is by and large on the left and partly needs to be understood as a disciple of Marx–nevertheless, he recognizes that in politics there is a kind of excitement but also, perhaps, potential danger in fascination with a big idea. It could be, of course, some form of progressive collectivity. It could, on the other hand, be the kind of big idea that countenances the rise of fascism. Žižek acknowledges this– that public identification with a kind of almost, or completely, inaccessible otherness, either as a political idea or as a charismatic political leader, can, after all, open up a vertigo of dangerous possibilities.

I use the word “vertigo” advisedly because I’m going to be coming back to Hitchcock’s Vertigo in just a minute, but in the meantime there are also obviously political stakes in Deleuze. Deleuze, of course, presents to us in this first chapter of his book, A Thousand Plateaus, he presents to us a kind of thought experiment, both as something recommended to the reader–see if you can think in this new, radically innovative way–but also providing a model for thinking of this kind in the style and organization and composition of the chapter itself. So in making a thought experiment, once again, Deleuze has to perform in thought what you might call a revolution from within, but the implications once again in politics, as indeed also for Žižek, are somewhat ambiguous. That is to say, the rhizomatic mode of thinking–and we’ll come back to the rhizomatic mode of thinking as we go along–which is radically de-centering and which lends itself to identification with, as it were, the mass movement of collectivity, can plainly be progressively democratic: that is to say, democratic beyond even what our social and cultural hierarchies accommodate. But at the same time it can once again be fascistic, because the organization of fascistic culture, while nevertheless a kind of top-down arrangement with a fervor involved as the mass is mobilized, nevertheless is, in this mobilization, rhizomatic.

Deleuze is careful to point out that rhizomes are, and rhizomatic thinking is, as he says repeatedly, both for the best andworst. [laughs] Rats are rhizomes. Crabgrass is a rhizome. In other words, everything which organizes itself in this fashion is rhizomatic; much of it, though, as I’ll be coming back to try to explain with a little more care, is for the good in Deleuze’s view. By the way, I say “Deleuze” in the same way I said “Wimsatt.” Guattari is an important colleague and ally. They wrote many books together including one that I’ll mention later. They also wrote things separately, but “Deleuze,” simply because his oeuvre is more ample and people feel somehow or another that he’s more central to this work, is a synecdoche for “Deleuze and Guattari.” So I’ll be saying “Deleuze,” but I don’t mean to slight Guattari. In any case, so we’ll be examining the Deleuzian rhizome a little bit more closely, but in the meantime, as to its political implications–and we are moving closer to the political as we begin to think about figures of this kind–they’re really on the admission of both of them somewhat ambiguous. In other words, they’re introducing new possibilities of thought and they’re very different from each other, as we’ll see. They’re introducing new possibilities of thought, but they are candid enough to admit that they don’t quite know where these possibilities are going–that is, what the implications or consequences of successfully entering the thought world of either one of them might be.

Chapter 2. What Is Postmodernism? [00:08:37]

All right. So yes, they certainly have very different ideas. I wouldn’t blame you for saying, “Why on earth are we reading these two texts together?” The overlap isn’t altogether clear. I’m going to suggest what it is in a minute, but in the meantime they are certainly on about very different things. Deleuze is concerned with, as I say, introducing a kind of thought experiment which has to do with the de-centering of thought, getting away from the tree or arboresque model of thought–we’ll have more to say about that; and Žižek, on the other hand, following Lacan’s distinction between the object, ready to hand, that you can have if you want, and the object of desire which–such is the chain of signification–is perpetually something that exceeds or outdistances our grasp–in developing this idea, and thinking about what the object of desire, in all of its manifold forms, might be, he develops this curious idea, which is at the center of his thinking, of the blot–the element in narrative form, the element in the way in which our storytelling capacities are organized, which really can’t be narrated, which really can’t lend itself to meaning. That sort of meaning is, of course, concrete, specific meaning, that which can be tied down to an accessible object. So the central idea that Žižek is attempting to develop in his essay has to do with this notion of the relationship between the Big Other and the blot, as we’ll see.

So these strike one as being extremely different ideas, and as I say I wouldn’t blame you for wondering just what overlap there can be. Well, at the same time I would think that as you read the somewhat bouncy and frantic prose of both of these texts, you did see that they had a kind of mood, stance, or orientation toward the critical and theoretical project in common. They seem, in other words, to be of the same moment. Even though their ideas seem to be so very different–that is, the basic ideas they’re trying to get across seem to be so very different–you could perhaps imagine these two texts as being written, if it was just a question of considering their style, by the same person. Actually, I think that’s not quite true, but at the same time the kind of high-energy, too-caffeinated feeling that you get from the prose of both is something that might give you pause and make you wonder: well, just what moment does this belong to?

The answer is important and, in a way, obvious. I’m sure all of you are ready to tell me what moment it belongs to. It belongs to Postmodernism. These are two exemplars of what is by far the most slippery–if one likes it, one wants to say versatile, [laughs] and if one doesn’t like it, one wants to say murky–concepts to which we have been exposed in the last twenty or thirty years. I think that, in a way, we can bring both essays into focus as a pair a little bit if we pause somewhat, simply over the concept “Postmodernism.” Maybe that’s one of the things you wanted to learn in taking a course like this, so I’m just providing a service. [laughter]

So Postmodernism. What is Postmodernism? I think we know what it is in artistic expression. We have encountered enough examples of it. We have, perhaps, even taken courses in which, in the context of artistic form and expression, it has come up. Postmodernism in artistic expression–particularly in the visual arts, but I think this is true of certain movements in both narrative and poetry as well–postmodernism is an eclectic orientation to the past. In a certain sense, it’s a return to the past; it’s an opening up of textual possibility to traditions and historical moments of expression which Modernism had tended to suppose obsolete and to have set aside; so that in artistic expression, as I say, Postmodernism is an eclectic return to possibilities thrown up by the history of art and literature; in architecture, many examples are quite extraordinary and many, unfortunately, are also hideous. You know that there was a certain point fifteen or twenty years ago when every strip mall, every shopping mall, was redecorated or–what’s the word I want?–renovated. Every shopping mall was renovated, and how did they renovate it? They’d been flat. They’d been sort of Mies van der Rohe, sort of sixties-modern before then. They just sat there flat, and so the renovators came along and put little gables on the shopping mall so that each little shop in the mall now has a gable, and this is postmodern. The most awful things were done with suburban houses, also in the name of a kind of blind, completely tasteless return to the neoclassical and certain other aspects of tradition.

So the postmodern in what you might call suburban culture has been pretty awful, but at the same time it has entailed a great deal of interesting work in painting. All of a sudden, the New York scene isn’t just one school, and that’s the sign of it. It’s not just a certain kind of abstraction. It’s not just a wholesale return, agreed on by everyone, to Realism. It’s a mixture of everything. Artists are always just completely obsessed with their place in art history, but it’s not just groups of artists together wanting to identify a certain place for themselves in art history. It’s every artist in a kind of anarchic independence from the thinking of other artists coming to terms with art history in his or her own way so that the scene–the art scenes of New York and Berlin and Los Angeles and so on–the scene isn’t something that you can identify as having a certain character anymore. It’s postmodern precisely in that it’s gone global, it has a million influences and sources, and there is very little agreement among artists about how to amalgamate and put these sources together; so that in terms of artistic expression, the postmodern moment–after Modernism, in other words–the postmodern moment presents itself, and I put it deliberately, as a medical symptom, the bipolar way the postmodern moment presents itself in artistic expression.

Chapter 3. Postmodernism, Doubt, and Vision [00:16:22]

Now philosophically, Postmodernism can be understood as doubt not just about the grounds of knowledge or the widespread sorts of doubt which we have been talking about more or less continuously in this course, but as doubt in particular about the relationship between or among parts and wholes. In other words, can I be sure that my leg is part of my body when plainly it is at the same time a whole with respect to my foot? How is it that I know in any stable way what a part or a whole is? To take a more interesting example–this is in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations–there is the flag, the French flag, which is called the tricolor, right? Now the tricolor is made up of three strips of color: white, blue, and red. I’m sorry if I’ve gotten the order wrong. In fact, I am almost positive that I have, [laughter] but there are those three strips of color existing in relation to each other, and plainly those three strips of color are parts of the flag, and they have a certain symbolic value. That is to say, each color represents something and enters into the symbolic understanding of what the flag is. But at the same time red, white, and blue–sorry–yes, red, white, and blue aren’t confined to this piece of cloth. The little strip of white is obviously part of whiteness. It can’t be understood simply in and of itelf. These strips of color are parts of other things as well; and what’s more, if you look at the tricolor without knowing what you’re looking at, how can you say that it’s the part of a whole? You say, “Well, they’re just parts,” or “They’re wholes unto themselves which somebody happens to have laid side by side.” By the same token, if you look at the part of the tricolor which is white and you say, “White,” well, obviously with respect to the vast universalizing concept “white,” a little flag is simply a kind of metonymic relationship with that sense of white. But, in short, to concretize this idea of the problematic relationship between part and whole in a different way, why are we so confident about what we see?

As most of you know, I’m sure, philosophical thinking tends to be tyrannized by metaphors of vision. We assume that we understand reality because–not altogether as consciously metaphorically in speaking about this as perhaps we might be–we say that we can see it; but how do you see it? You see it because of the lensing or focusing capacities of the eye, which exercise a certain tyranny over the nature of what you see. If you look too closely at something, all you can see is dots. If you look at something and close your eyes, that, too, becomes a kind of vast retinal Mark Tobey painting. It has a relation to what you see but is at the same time something very different. And if you get too far away from objects, they dissolve. What you thought was an object dissolves into a much vaster, greater space which seems to have another objective nature. If you’re in a jet and you’re looking down, what you’re seeing certainly looks like it has form and structure, but the form and structure is not at all what you’re seeing if you’re standing on the ground looking at exactly the same, shall we say, square footage insofar as you can. You’re simply seeing different things, and if you recognize what might be called the tyranny of focus in the way in which we orient ourselves to the world, you can see this perpetual dissolve and refocus constituting objects perpetually in new ways.

This happens, too, in the history of science. The relationship between subatomic particles sometimes turns itself inside out, and the particle that you thought was the fundamental unit turns out, in fact, to have within it a fundamental unit of which it is a part. I’m just referring to what happened during the golden age of the linear accelerator when all sorts of remarkable sorts of inversions of what’s taken to be fundamental seemed to be made available by the experimental data; so that in all of these ways, ranging from scientific to the most subjectively visual ways of understanding the world, there are possibilities of doubt that can be raised about part-whole relations. What is a whole? How do we define a unity? Should we be preoccupied with the nature of reality as a set of unities? Obviously, Deleuze is extremely upset about this. He doesn’t want anything to do with unity. The whole function of his thought experiment is the de-centering of things such that one can no longer talk about units or wholes or isolated entities. It’s the being together, merging together, flying apart, reuniting, and kinesis or movement of entities, if they can even be called entities, that Deleuze is concerned with.

Chapter 4. Dehumanization[00:22:52]

Now another aspect of the postmodern is what the postmodern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, in particular, has called “the inhuman” or the process of the dehumanization of the human. Now this is a weird term to choose because it’s not at all anti-humanistic. It’s really a new way of thinking about the human. Deleuze, you’ll notice, talks–not just here in this excerpt, but repeatedly throughout his work, which is why he has so little to say about it here that’s explanatory–about “bodies without organs.” That might have brought you up short, but what it suggests is that we are, as Deleuze would put it, machinic rather than organic. If the problem with centered thought is that it thinks of everything as arboreal, as a tree, that problem has to do with the fact that a tree is understood in its symbolic extensions to have organs. The roots are muscles and circulation; the blossoms are genital in nature; the crown or canopy of leaves is the mind of the tree reaching up to the sky, the mentality of the tree. By the same token, if we think of our own bodies as arboreal, we think of certain parts of those bodies as cognitive, other parts of those bodies as having agency, as doing things. If that’s the case, then we think of a centered and ultimately genital or genetic understanding of the body as being productive.

Deleuze wants to understand the body as being interactive, as being polymorphous perverse, among other things. He wants to understand it as being everywhere and nowhere, an un-situated body among other bodies. In order for this to happen, its interface with other things has to be without agency and also without cognitive intention on the model of “I think, therefore I am; the world comes into being because I think,” without any of this in play. In other words, the dehumanization of the postmodern has to do not at all with denying the importance of the human but with this radical way of rethinking the human among other bodies and things.

Plainly, this emphasis involves a kind of dissolving into otherness, a continuity between subject and object in which the difference, ultimately, between what is inside me, what is authentic or integral to my being me, and what’s outside me become completely permeable and interchangeable. The late nineteenth-century author and aesthetic philosopher Walter Pater, in the conclusion to a famous book of his called The Renaissance, had a wonderful way of putting this: he said in effect, “We are too used to thinking that we’re in here and everything else is out there and that, somehow or another, our perspective on everything out there is a kind of saving isolation enabling our power of objectivity.” Then Pater says, paraphrased, “How can this be, because we’re made up of the same things that are out there? We, too, are molecular, in other words. What is in us ‘rusts iron and ripens corn’ [his words]. There is a continuousness between the inside feeling we have about ourselves and the exteriority with which we are constantly coming in contact.”

Deleuze and Guattari, of course, have their own excited, jumpy way of putting these things, but it’s not really a new idea that we exaggerate the isolation of consciousness from its surroundings. There is a permeability of inside and outside that this kind of rhizomic, or de-centered, thinking is meant to focus on. Now you could say that what Deleuze is interested in–if you go back to our coordinates that we kept when we were talking about the formalists, Saussure through structuralism, through deconstruction–if you go back to those coordinates, you could say that what Deleuze is interested in, like so many others we’ve read, is a rendering virtual, or possibly even eliminating, of the vertical axis: in other words, of that center or head or crown of the tree which constitutes everything that unfolds on the horizontal axis–be it language, be it the unconscious structured like a language, be it whatever it might be. You could say that the project of Deleuze, too, is the undoing or rendering virtual of this vertical axis.

Chapter 5. Deleuze, Guattari, and Lacan [00:28:31]

Well, in a way, I think that’s true, but then what is the horizontal axis? That is where the relation of Deleuze to, let’s say, deconstruction becomes a little problematic and where we can actually see a difference. I’m going to compare him in this one respect with Lacan, but I want to hasten to point out, as I will in a minute, a divergence from Lacan as well. You remember that in Lacan’s “Agency of the Letter” essay, he doesn’t just talk about the axis of combination as a series of concentric circles, each one of which is made up of little concentric circles. He doesn’t just talk about that. He also talks about the way in which the combinatory powers of the imaginary in language, or desire in language, take place is like a musical staff, so that the organization of signs, in their contiguity with each other, can be either melodic or harmonic; but in any case, you can’t just think of the axis of combination as a complete linearity. It has dimensionality of different kinds.

That’s why Deleuze and Guattari introduce the concept of plateau. The book in which your excerpt appears is called A Thousand Plateaus. Ultimately, the concept of plateau is even more important to them than the concept of rhizome, but when they introduce the concept of plateau they’re doing exactly the same thing. They are saying, “We jump from sign cluster to sign cluster and not all sign clusters are linear and uniform.” This is where there is perhaps a difference from deconstruction. Deleuze and Guattari are interested in “multiplicity of coding,” as they put it. They’re interested in the way in which when I think, I’m not just thinking in language, I’m not just thinking pictorially, and I’m not just thinking musically, but I am leaping around among codes so that the actual thought process is eclectic in this way.

Now you could say that this is something actually anticipated also by Lacan. You remember also in the “Agency” essay that Lacan reminds us, true inheritor of Freud which he takes himself to be, that at the beginning of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud said that the decoding of the dream work is like figuring out the puzzle of a rebus–a rebus being one of those trick sentences which are made up not exclusively of words but of the odd syllable or of pictures: for example, “I ‘heart’ New York.” “I ‘heart’ New York” is a rebus. The dream work functions constantly, in Freud’s view, as a rebus. So you could say that Lacan already introduces for Deleuze the possibility of thinking of a multiple coding that needs to be decoded on a variety of plateaus if it’s going to make any sense.

Now Deleuze’s relationship with all the figures we have been reading is rather problematic, really. The book precedingA Thousand Plateaus was called Anti-Oedipus, and it is a continuous systematic attack on–he always calls Freud “the General”–the idea that Freud feels that the whole of our psychic lives is completely saturated and dominated by the Oedipus complex. Deleuze with his idea of de-centered thinking, of the rhizome, sets out to show in a variety of ways how limiting and how unfortunate for the legacy of psychoanalysis this kind of focus on a particular issue turns out to be–this is Deleuze’s critique of Freud, not mine. You would think that Deleuze, then, would be a lot closer to Lacan just for the reasons that I have just described, but Lacan, too–at the very bottom of page 034 in your copy center reader, on the right-hand column–he says: “…[I]t is not surprising that psychoanalysis tied its fate to that of linguistics…” Now it’s impossible to say– I think quite by design–it’s impossible to say whether Deleuze is referring to Freud or Lacan in saying that, because it’s Lacan who claims that Freud said it: in other words, that The Interpretation of Dreams is the text in which we discover that the unconscious is structured like a language; but at the same time, posterity has taken Lacan’s focus on linguistics to be a massive, perhaps inappropriate revision of Freud and to be a very different matter. So it’s interesting that Deleuze quite ambiguously seems to suppose that Freud and Lacan are part and parcel of each other. The reason he can do that is that he is interested in a form of thinking about language which no linguistics has successfully accommodated, as far as he’s concerned. In other words, he keeps talking about Chomsky. Chomsky seems to be, in a way, the villain of your essay. But I think, in a way, that’s just a way of evading talking about Saussure, because you wouldn’t want to get in trouble with all those structuralists; because the problem with Saussure, too, is that there is a certain tyranny or arboresque tendency in Saussurean thinking to be focused on the binary–that is, the relationship between the signified and signifier as fixed, as inflexible, and as lacking in what Derrida would call “free play” and therefore, too ,a kind of tyranny.

Chapter 6. The Rhizome [00:35:16]

So, very quickly, on the rhizome. How do we know a rhizome when we see it? Whatever frustrations Deleuze’s essay puts in your path, I think probably in the long run you’re pretty clear on what a rhizome is, but if there is any lingering doubt just think about the flu. There is what Deleuze calls “rhizomatic flu.” That’s something we get from other people, the circulation of disease. As we all come down with it around midterm period, the circulation of disease is rhizomatic. It’s a perfect example of–to use another instance from Deleuze–the relationship between the wasp and the orchid. The wasp, like the virus, sort of flits about from blossom to blossom, descends, and then constitutes the flu. By contrast there is hereditary disease–that is, that which is lurking in us because we’re programmed for it, we’re hard-wired for it, and it is genetically in our nature. This Deleuze associates with the arboresque. It comes from an origin. It is something that is a cause within us or a cause standing behind us, as opposed to something coming out of left field in an arbitrary and unpredictable fashion and descending on us–perhaps this is also not unlike Tynjanov’s distinction between modification and evolution. The arboresque evolves; the rhizomatic is modification. The give and take of tensions among entities–the rats tumbling over each other, the maze of the burrow, the spreading of crabgrass–all of this has a kind of randomness and unpredictability. The power of linkage at all conceivable points without any predictability–all of this is entailed in the rhizomatic.

Now as to what’s being attacked–and again, the value system surrounding these things is not absolute, Deleuze is not going so far as to say “arboresque bad, rhizomatic good.” He’s coming pretty close to it, but he acknowledges the perils, as I say, of the rhizomatic–but in the meantime just one point in passing–because I’m running out of time to talk about Žižek–just one point in passing about the arboresque. There are actually, in the first pages of your essay, two forms of it. One is what he calls the “root book,” the traditional classical book which presents to you a theme: “I am going to write about so-and-so, and I’m going to do so systematically, one thing at a time in a series of chapters.” That’s the root book. Then there is what he calls the “fascicle book,” a book which consists of complicated offshoots of roots but nevertheless entailing a tap root. This is what he associates with Modernism, precisely, in your text. He says in effect: “The fascicle book is like Joyce’s Ulysses. Everything including the kitchen sink is in it. It looks as though it were totally rhizomatic, but it is, of course, controlled by, unified by, and brought into coherence by a single focusing authorial consciousness so that it is not truly rhizomatic; it’s a fascicle book.” And here, now, A Thousand Plateaus is going to be a rhizomatic book. So you have not just two kinds of books in this idea but three.

Chapter 7. Žižek [00:39:25]

All right then, very quickly about Žižek. I think he can help us understand Lacan. I hope you agree with this in having read it, but I think in a way, it also takes us back to, or allows us to revisit, Peter Brooks. The best example, it seems to me, of the way in which the tension of desire in narrative works for Žižek is–although these are splendid examples and I think largely self-explanatory–the best example is actually in another book by Žižek called Everything You Wanted to Know About Lacan But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock. In that book, of course, you get a lot of attention paid to Vertigo. Just think about Vertigo as an instance of the kind of plot Žižek is talking about. There is that–I’ve forgotten her name–really nice woman. You remember, the painter, and Jimmy Stewart just pays absolutely no attention to her. She’s right there. She’s available. She’s in love with him. He doesn’t even see her except as a confidante: “Oh yes, you; I’m so glad you’re here.” But he is, on the other hand, obsessed with a woman whose identity he can’t even be sure of. It’s not just that she’s inaccessible for some reason or that she’s a distant object of desire. Her identity and the question of whether or not she’s being play-acted by somebody else remains completely unclear–unclear for many spectators even as they watch the ending of the film, completely unclear. That is an obscure, not just a distant but an obscure object of desire. Of course, the premise of her inaccessibility is what drives the plot.

Now I think that it’s interesting to think about the relationship between the element of detour and delay, as Žižek implies it, in understanding narrative and what Peter Brooks is talking about. Peter Brooks is talking about the way in which middles in plots protract themselves through episodes, all of which manifest some sort of imbalance or need for further repetition in a new key. Much of this–because the characteristic plot of the kind of fiction Brooks is mainly thinking about is the marriage plot–much of this has to do with inappropriate object choice. That indeed can also in many cases, à lawhat I began by mentioning in Žižek, lead to inappropriate political object choice. Think, for example, about the plot of Henry James’ Princess Casamassima in that regard. Poor Hyacinth Robinson strikes out on both counts in rather completely parallel ways. He ends up on the wrong side of politics, and he ends up on the wrong side of love. In a way, the Princess Casamassima is an exploration of these two sides of the issue. So in any case, for Brooks the resolution of the plot is a way in which closure can be achieved. It is a final moment of equilibrium, as one might say, or quiet or reduction of excitation, such that the Freudian death wish can be realized, as we know, in the way we want it to be realized, as opposed to our being afflicted by something from the outside. So in Brooks, whose closest ties are to structuralism, there is an achieved sense of closure which is an important aspect of what’s admirable in fiction.

Žižek is more postmodern. Žižek sees, following Lacan, the object of desire as asymptotic, as being ultimately and always inaccessible; or if it becomes accessible–as, for example, on page 1193 in the right-hand column–or one might say, almost accessible, this gives rise to as many problems as it seems to eliminate. At the bottom right-hand column, page 1193, Žižek says:

… [P]erhaps, in courtly love itself, the long-awaited moment of highest fulfillment, when the Lady rendersGnada, mercy, to her servant is not the Lady’s surrender, her consent to the sexual act, nor some mysterious rite of initiation, but simply a sign of love on the part of the Lady, the “miracle” that the Object answered, stretching its hand out towards the supplicant.

The object, in other words, has become subject. In this moment of exchange, mutuality of recognition, or becoming human on the part of the lady–whom of course Žižek has associated with the dominatrix in a sadistic relationship–in this moment of becoming human and of offering love, the object becomes more accessible. That is to say, there is now the possibility of some form of mutuality, but in her becoming more accessible, the energy of desire is threatened with dissolution. In other words, closure in Žižek is a threat to the energy of desire. Desire is something which inheres in our very language, according to Žižek, and which, were it to be understood as brought to closure, the lady–Žižek gives lots of examples of the lady, after all of this sort of seeming inaccessibility–the lady says, “Sure, why not? Of course.” The person is completely upset and then refuses the act because there’s nothing more to desire. All of a sudden, the whole structure of that energy that drives language and consciousness comes tumbling to the ground, and desire has become need. It’s become merely a matter of gratification through what’s ready-to-hand and no longer a question of sustaining a dream. This, generally speaking, is what Žižek wants to focus on in talking about these plots. The object of desire must be not just distant but also obscure.

Chapter 8. Holbein’s The Ambassadors [00:46:53]

I’m going to make two more points. First of all, as you can no doubt tell, this is a perfect replica of Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors. I’d be amazed if anyone in the room hadn’t recognized it, [laughter] but there it is. [Gestures to drawing on the board.] There’s two guys. There’s a table between them. They are negotiating probably over one of Henry the Eighth’s marriages, and this I think is not insignificant. They are there in the service of Henry the Eighth negotiating one of those extremely complicated marriages, possibly even the one that led to the abdication of the Anglican Church from the Roman Catholic Church–who knows? But the lore about the painting is that it has to do with the negotiation for an object of desire, and that object is absent. In other words, it’s something really only implied by the painting.

In the foreground of the painting, notorious to art historians, there is this thing. [Gestures to drawing on the board.] Now this is pretty much what’s in the painting. This is not a replica of the two guys standing there, granted but this is pretty much what you see when you look at the foreground of the painting. If you look sort of from the side, it turns into something very much like a skull. Generally speaking, there’s a kind of consensus among scholars that it may be a weirdly distorted shadow or representation of a skull, although what a skull is doing in the foreground, of course, causes us to wonder as well. Obviously, you can have some ideas on the subject, but it’s still not exactly realist painting we’re talking about if he sticks a skull in the foreground. Well, it also has a certain resemblance to other things we could mention, but the main point about it is that we don’t really know what it is. It is, in other words, something we’ve already become familiar with in thinking about Lacan. It is that signifier, that ultimate signifier, which is the obscure object of desire called sometimes by Lacan “the phallus,” and it seems simply to be there before us in this painting.

Now both in the book on Hitchcock, where he finds something like this in just about every film Hitchcock ever made, and also in Holbein’s painting, Žižek calls this “the blot.” We have nothing else to call it. It’s a blot. What’s it doing there? In fiction, we would call it irrelevant detail. We can find a way of placing formally absolutely everything in fiction. The weather, the flowers on the table, whatever it might be: we can place these formally, but there may be something in fiction which is simply unaccountable. We cannot account for it, and that’s the blot for Žižek.

Chapter 9. Language and Desire [00:50:08]

All right. Now finally, on desire on language: there’s a part of Žižek’s essay which you may have thought of as a digression. He’s suddenly talking about J. L. Austin’s ordinary language philosophy. He’s suddenly talking about the linguist Ducrot’s idea of predication. What’s important about, in the one case, the element of performance in any utterance and, in the other case, the dominance of an entire sentence by predication–what’s important in both of those elements is that they take over an aspect of language of which they were only supposed to be a part. In other words, in Austin there are both performatives and constatives; but in the long run, the argument of How to Do Things with Wordssuggests that there are only performatives: I thought this was a constative, he says in effect, I thought this was just straightforward language, but I can now see an element of performance in it. That’s the way that there’s a gradual changing of his own mind in Austin’s book to which Žižek is sensitive. By the same token, Ducrot talks about the way in which the predicate element of a subject, the predicate relation, has a kind of energy of agency that simply takes over the grammatical subject and constitutes a kind of performance in the sentence–performance in both cases meaning “desire.” When I promise to do something, I also desire to fulfill the promise. When I predicate something, I’m also evoking a desire that that something be the case possibly through my own instrumentality. This is the argument. That’s what Žižek means by “desire in language,” by the inescapability of desire in language, and the way in which it permeates everything we can say to each other–most particularly, the way in which it permeates the plot or, as they say in film studies, the “diegesis” of the kinds of film examples that Žižek gives us.

I’d better stop there. I hope that this somewhat rapid-fire survey of some key ideas in these texts are helpful. I think in the long run perhaps, I hope, mainly that you see these two energetic authors as exemplars of what we call Postmodernism and see the relevance of the concept of the postmodern to the study of literary theory. Thanks.

[end of transcript]

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