Freud and Lacan theory

What is a classic Freudian reading? Although psychoanalysis has always been controversial and in recent years has been subject to devastating critiques, it continues to command support, in the humanities, and especially among literary scholars and film analysts. This is partly because, in many respects, psychoanalysis is in the mainstream tradition of Western hermeneutics, reaching back to biblical exegesis and Renaissance humanism. The most unacceptable part of psychoanalysis for contemporary psychology and the cognitive sciences is the idea of the unconscious, i.e. the existence of a psychic entity inaccessible to introspection, voluntary recollection or conscious reasoning, and yet crucial in determining our actions, motives, and desires. What Freud claimed to have achieved was a 'Copernican revolution': decentring identity from consciousness and relocating it in the unconscious-. In doing so, he pioneered a number of concepts and techniques whereby a specially trained expert ('the analyst') can have access to the unconscious. To Freud, the unconscious was the result of repression, the 'burying' of experiences or psychic events too painful or threatening to the subject's survival and wellbeing to remain conscious.

The so-called royal road to the unconscious were dreams, which Freud sought to decipher via interpretation. He argued that their form and manifest content are the result of dream-work. Dream-work in Freud, is constituted by a number of formal operations, such as condensation and displacement, and secondary elaboration: all in the service of a dynamic structure of wish-fulfilling fantasy. Operating even in the case of nightmares, the purpose of dreams is to protect sleep, and help resolve problems we are not able to cope with in waking life. Apart from dreams, the unconscious manifests itself also in slips of the tongue ('Freudian slips'), in bodily symptoms, and in other, physiologically hard to explain signs of bodily or mental dysfunction, such as lapses of memory or hallucinations.

Why assume that a film has an unconscious? According to Freud, the unconscious follows the pleasure principle (dreams are a form of wish-fulfilment), and dreaming is vital to our fantasy life. Insofar as films deal with fantasies, they could be considered analogous to dreams and qualify as manifestations of the unconscious. Yet much of Lacanian film theory was dedicated to establishing a different relation between desire, the drives, the screen, and the cinematic apparatus, in which the unconscious is the effect of certain incompatibilities and misalignments activated by the cinematic situation but not confined to it. Moreover, mainstream films are also narratives whose purpose, according to one prominent school of narratology, is to propose 'imaginary resolutions to real contradictions' (see Chapter 2 above, on Die Hard), where 'imaginary' could be understood as involving unconscious fantasy scenarios.

But are we talking about the film-maker's unconscious, the spectator's unconscious or would we wish to endow the filmic text with an 'unconscious' - if, for instance, we assume it to be 'authorless' - and ascribe to it the status of a collective product of a given society and period? In more anthropological terms, does it make sense to see a film as 'cultural text' whereby a society talks about itself to itself, and would this justify us speaking of it as having a textual 'unconscious'?

All these hypotheses and premises have been put forward, at one time or another, more or less convincingly. For our purposes, we shall ignore the ramifications of these issues - well explored in the literature - and settle for the notion that a film has an unconscious, here understood in the Lacanian sense of the effects of contradictory textual traces and incompatible significations noted by the analyst. This unconscious, therefore, is not hidden, but on the surface; it does not only point to classic symptoms and disorders, but also manifests itself in 'coincidences', so-called parapraxes (fehlleistungen) and slips of the tongue (what Freud called the 'psychopathology of everyday life'). As to the actual 'existence' of such an unconscious we adopt a robustly pragmatic stance: does the assumption of its presence 'work' in practice? Does a Freudian and Lacanian approach to a given film bring something new into view and foreground otherwise overlooked features? And finally, how does such added information clarify our response to, or render more complex our understanding of, a film?

Film Making

Film Making

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