Analysis A Foucault reading

In a Foucault-inspired reading of The Silence of the Lambs, a central place would be occupied by the FBI as an institution externally dedicated to law enforcement and internally to disciplining its members and recruits. What is interesting about the figure of Clarice in this context is that her Oedipal trajectory masks a more fundamental and more paradoxical journey, namely one that signifies Agent Starling's successes (killing Buffalo Bill, graduating from the FBI academy) as also her failures. She now finds herself inscribed in the official, male power-desire-domination machine, but - one may ask - at what cost to her personhood?

The reason why Clarice's triumph is also her failure is that, when gauged by this trajectory, she in fact undergoes a series of 'tests' which are not so much concerned with her individual suitability for the job as devised around the trope of'professional' and 'woman'. This is to some extent also an 'initiation', but one that would be more accurately described as interpellation (the first word heard in the film is the call 'Starling!') and as a 'staging' of her femaleness (highlighting her as sexed, via body size and bodily manifestations): besides the voyeuristic/fetishist looked-at-ness that surrounds Agent Starling/Jodie Foster, the most startling thing is the extent to which other markers, mostly body-based and connoting 'femininity' are deployed: body fluids, body odours, swallowing, ingestion, excretion, secretion - all potentially coded as transgressive (Hannibal comments on her perfume, he makes her repeat Midge's words about her body odour, we see underarm perspiration on her sweat-shirt in the lift after her morning training session in the woods, Midge throws his semen at her, and we note the white smelling salts applied to her upper lip when inspecting the corpse).

The whole journey from being the object of the look (and exposed to male possessors of the look) to becoming herself possessor of the look, described above, could in fact be seen as a ruse, a lure: precisely the one that feminist critics found themselves caught up in. Consider the opening scene: the setting, the music, and the sound effects conjure up the atmosphere of a horror film with a hidden stalker lurking in the woods, but these turn out to be a 'false' set of anticipations because the stalker is a fellow FBI employee, calling her by her name to tell her she has to present herself to the chief of her section, where she is subsequently rewarded with an assignment. In other words, the 'trick' suspense has revealed another kind of truth: that she has been trapped by the promise of preferment, and that there is, at this level of interpellation, no different between a stalker and a messenger: either role suits her FBI boss, himself a test-and-surveillance machine.

Empowerment for a female, the film suggests, is an ambiguous gift: thanks to Foucault's concept of power, the empowered female (one side of the opposition of the feminist reception of the film) now emerges as both alienated from and constituted by her subjectivity. The contested reception of The Silence of the Lambs by different groups of feminists can thus be seen to be inscribed into the film from the beginning. For the trajectory that she actually undergoes is the transformation from a body-and-gender being, with various (and, as Lecter sadistically points out, still contradictory) class ambitions and personal histories, into an odourless, sexless bureaucratic 'agent'. In this sense, her body is the 'price' she has to pay for participating in the 'equal opportunity capitalism' of the corporate-military-forensic-criminal-justice complex which here is the FBI-. Agent Starling/ Hannibal Lecter connect along the heterosexual axis, and their eyes communicate along perception as sensation, but even more so they are joined along the line of knowledge-power-confession as described by Foucault, and cited by him in his critique of the psychoanalytic paradigm.

In this perspective Hannibal Lecter becomes not the opponent but merely the 'excessive' embodiment or supplement of the incorporeality of this corporate system, doubled in the intrusiveness and ubiquity of the information society, supported by forensic science, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis. The FBI not only 'needs' Hannibal to help them solve a series of crimes in which he is obscurely implicated; rather, Hannibal is part of the FBI machinery, he and they work hand in hand. In a way, he is the 'obscene enjoyment' (as Zizek would say) of the system, the uncanny database intelligence of the modern administrative government, figured in a quasi-mythological but also palpably contemporary monster. If characters like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane were the human face of capitalist America during the era of 'primitive accumulation', of the robber barons, the tycoons, and the press tsars, then Hannibal Lecter proves that today's corporate capitalism in collusion with the federal government no longer needs a 'human face' but a leather-faced grimace, attached to a 'super-brain', ubiquitously penetrating minds and feasting, gourmet-fashion, on human flesh and brain-matter.

By contrast, Buffalo Bill, the 'Gumb/dumb' character, would in this light attain a more positive reading. Indeterminate as far as sexual difference is concerned (and hence a source of contention in the reception of the film by gays), he becomes an 'authentic' figure precisely to the degree that he shows the contradictory workings of the 'history of sexuality' on his own body. But he also literalizes the invitation to self-improvement and 'self-storage' which contemporary society addresses to its subjects as consumers. Not only does Buffalo Bill contest all definitions of gender and elude its categorizations, his performativity of sexual allure can have a perversely liberating, even 'resisting' dimension, insofar as it executes one kind of logic of the system. If in the Lacanian paradigm mentioned above he seems to be comprehensible as a being caught within the Imaginary of the mirror-stage, and slave to the most alienated of self-images, in the Foucaultian paradigm Buffalo Bill becomes a subversive, because wholly dedicated, worker at the site of body- and self-commodification. By taking the system more seriously than it takes itself, he is in the vanguard of a particular form of consumption, that of self-expression turned 'self-fashioning', engaged in the permanent bricolage art of identity formation.

A body-artist and avant-gardist of constructed gender, Buffalo Bill and his makeover identity is reminiscent, because rendered parodic-pathological, of the periodic self-invention of pop performers and music-video icons such as Madonna, Prince, or Michael Jackson. The line between the criminal (the extreme embodiment of the system itself, which takes the system at its word) and the resister/contester of the system (Buffalo Bill as the one who refuses to have his body/self 'written' by the dominant binary divides) becomes a fine one indeed, and in a sense he is Agent Starling's double, his ethics of transgression the inverse of her law enforcement: the meticulous skin-and-needlework is testimony to his dedication and professionalism, which is why one could say that, unlike Clarice, his failure is in fact his triumph, making his death a heroic self-sacrifice, in that it vindicates his refusal of normative heterosexuality. Perhaps this is how one might explain his enigmatic gesture of tenderly stroking Clarice's hair before letting himself be killed, by a panicky Clarice firing in his general direction, after hearing the clicking of his gun's safety catch. What if the lamb that Clarice 'saves' is not Catherine Marshall, but Gumb/lamb, by granting him a sacrificial death and salvation?

Such a slightly perverse conclusion might already indicate the general direction that a Foucault reading could take. For instance, one might ask: in what 'discursive space' do these three protagonists come together? First of all, the institutional/discursive sites of the federal justice system, of medical and criminal pathology: who is mad and who is sane, where to draw the line? What do we make of figures such as Dr Chilton, who may not be criminally insane but who is certainly shown to be dangerously stupid? Foucault's point that madness in the pre-classical period had its own spaces within and at the margins of society - as in the Ship of Fools - and only in the classical period became the spectacle and 'theatre' of the asylum, marked off from the sane by framing, separating and encasing them in ways that accentuated their visibility while silencing their words, could be said to be held up for (post-classical) renegotiation in The Silence of the Lambs.

Then, there is the discursive space of the body, once we think of these bodies differently. The 'quid pro quo' trading of knowledge between Clarice and Lecter, heavily eroticized and pleasurable to both, opens up an exchange, a deal that puts Clarice level with Buffalo Bill regarding the secrets of their respective pathologies (childhood trauma/childhood abuse), but it also pits Clarice against Hannibal Lecter, because of the offer she makes him which turns out to have been a ruse for which he nearly falls ('"Anthrax Island" -nice touch, Clarice'). This cat-and-mouse game (not just a 'ping-pong game', as Klaus Theweleit calls it (1994:37), because of the additional dimension that includes Buffalo Bill, who is intercut as the third player, with his own cat-and-moth game), enfolds the characters in a self-monitoring, self-surveillance system ('Look deep into yourself,' Hannibal mockingly and riddlingly tells Clarice), yet one that is not primarily based on vision.

More directly panoptic is the gaze relayed between the three men on the 'inside' - Dr Chilton, Crawford, Hannibal - and the(ir political masters) outside: Krendler, from the Justice Department, and Senator Marshall, going live on TV. What makes it different from the male gaze of feminist film theory is not only that its 'sexual difference' import is either directly thematized (by Lecter, for instance, regarding Crawford and others: 'Don't you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice?') or not relevant (in the case of Chilton, Krendler, and Senator Marshall), but also that each of the characters is both looking and knowing him/herself observed, by the internalized gaze of the respective institution or their own self-scrutinizing ambition/conscience. They all, at a certain point, make a spectacle of themselves, in the knowledge that they are being watched: from Senator Marshall, pleading for her daughter in front of the national TV audience, to Hannibal Lecter, fully aware, of course, that his interviews/conversations with Clarice are being recorded and monitored.

On the other hand, the Foucaultian reading also reaches its limits, in that it does not adequately account for the eccentric position and personality of Hannibal Lecter, when mostly seeing him as part of the 'system'. The refusal embodied in his dandyism, but also in his excessive heterosexuality, would not be fully valorized, although there is a line of argument which would say that Hannibal is in fact a 'homosexual' who wears his verbal and social heterosexuality as a disguise, a mask and masquerade. It is here that Deleuze may offer a way forward, because neither sexual difference nor the gaze, panoptic or otherwise, are for him the most salient categories.

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