Lacan

Jacques Lacan is one of the most radical of Freud's interpreters. He returned to Freud's work and subjected it to a linguistic/semiotic/structuralist reading, in an attempt to make explicit Freud's 'message'. This message concerns the formation of an individual's subjectivity rather than his (ego-)identity, and particularly the role played in that formation by a speaker's position in language (which, according to Lacan, 'speaks me', even though I may think that 'I am speaking'). 'Identity' would be the illusion of autonomous agency and self-coherence, while 'subjectivity' names the contradictory structures and processes that make the effect of identity possible. Lacan theorized the dynamics of subject formation on two levels - the level of the imaginary and the level of the symbolic. In the 1970s and 1980s film scholars used these two concepts to argue that the uncanny manner in which a film engages or seems to address the spectator, even though s/he is absent from the film, is proof of the presence of the self-alienating instance Lacan called 'the other'. This 'other' is endowed 'with the power to transform or sustain categories of subjectivity' (Rodowick 1991: 6). Watching a film gives us a strange sense of empowerment, the illusion of being in control of the events, when in fact it is some other - apparently absent - cause, that controls us.

• The imaginary. Lacan uses this term to designate the formation of an individual's sense of self-coherence and identity by means of images - or, more specifically, by means of the individual's perception of its body in a mirror image. The young child first conceives of itself as a unified entity by perceiving its body image in a mirror, and then identifying with (i.e. internalizing or assimilating) that image. The mirror image therefore provides the young infant with a unified sense of itself. This sense of self (what psychoanalysts call 'the ego') is imaginary not only in Lacan's sense that it derives from images, but also because the individual's sense of self is an illusory, fictional unity. It is a sense of self that derives from the outside, from 'the other'. Christian Metz (1982)-and Jean-Louis Baudry (1986) argued that this process of ego formation is re-enacted every time we go to the cinema (in Rodowick's words, the cinema is so seductive, because it [transforms or] sustains categories of subjectivity, by re-enactment and repetition). The cinema screen is posited to act as a mirror for the self, with the exception that the spectator identifies first with the look of the camera (primary identification) and second with characters on screen (secondary identification), rather than with a literal self image (Metz 1982: 42-57). The concept of the imaginary presents an optical-visual theory of identity formation, or at least the formation of the ego, the latter an essential part, according to Freud, of a human being's sense of being in the world and of possessing self-worth. • The symbolic. The formation of the ego in the realm of images (the imaginary) is, however, only the first stage of identity formation. The second stage is the realm of the symbolic, a term Lacan uses to designate the formation of a sexual identity by means of experiencing the Oedipal conflict, as well as by having to come to terms with other symbolic codes, such as the acquisition of language. Again, our sense of sexual identity derives from outside, but this time Lacan designates the outside as 'the Other', or the law of the father. Moreover, as with the realm of the imaginary, the symbolic involves the individual assimilating, enacting or internalizing Oedipus/the Other/the law of the father. But the symbolic does not enrich the formation of the ego; instead it forms the unconscious. It is here that Lacan's different idea of the unconscious becomes crucial. Rather than denoting a neuropsychological concept that indicates an area of the mind housing primitive instincts or individual repressed memories, the Lacanian unconscious names the Other, the laws of language and society that control each individual. These the individual can never master or even be aware of: they remote-control and mastermind our self-presence, reminding us of our status as 'subjects'. We can only discern the influence of the Other/the unconscious in symptoms located in our behaviour, our dreams, and our speech (we discuss symptoms below). Moreover, in the symbolic the look becomes the gaze. Whereas the look can be mastered (in fact, it is a narcissistic look, hence its mastery is always self-mastery), the symbolic gaze, like all symbolic codes, can never be mastered. The gaze may be in the field of the visual, but need not be, because it is fundamentally discursive and not optical: 'Semiotics, not optics, is the science that enlightens for us the structure of the visual domain' (Copjec 1994: 34).

8.3. Freud and Lacan: analysis 8.3.1. Freud and Oedipus

Our chosen film, Back to the Future, fairly readily lends itself to a Freudian reading. The story is centred on Marty McFly, a small-town middle-America teenager in trouble at home and in school. A budding pop musician, he hangs out with Doc Brown, a scatterbrained inventor, but also Marty's friend and mentor. Near midnight on the day the story is set, Doc Brown expects Marty at the Twin Pines Mall, to demonstrate his latest invention, a time-machine in the shape of a plutonium-powered DeLorean car. After successfully 'teleporting' Doc's dog Einstein for 60 seconds, Doc gets shot by Libyan terrorists, from whom he stole their stolen Plutonium, but Marty manages to escape in the DeLorean, which accidentally transports him 'back' to his home town in 1955. There he arrives just in time - after a series of adventures, mishaps, and near-misses - to bring about the meeting of his parents and thus ensure his own and his brother and sister's (continuing) existence.

Back to the Future is a comic version of the well-known time-travel paradox, or time loop. Assuming you can travel back in time, so the paradox goes, what happens if you murder your own grandfather and thereby prevent yourself from being born? How can you travel back in time and not affect the future, which has already happened? Marty's story dramatizes this paradox, when he realizes that his escape from the Libyans has indeed taken him back in time, but not displaced him in space. One of his first encounters is with his future father, George, in 1955 a shy and bullied schoolboy, and his mother, Lorraine, an outwardly prim but sexually precocious teenager who promptly falls in love with Marty. His task, as he soon realizes, is to deflect these amorous and incestuous attentions away from himself and toward his future father, and to steer his father, too timid and immature to make advances on his own initiative, in the direction of female conquest. His dilemma is how to act decisively without seeming to act, and how to 'bring about' something that has already been accomplished.

The film thus thematizes an Oedipus complex, but in inverted form. Instead of the usual story of initiation involving good and bad fathers or punishing authority figures, flanked by an alluring but dangerous female (standing for the sexualized mother image), Marty encounters a weak father figure and his mother's desire for him, rather than his desire for her. Thanks to the time-travel device, Marty realizes that at the 'origins' of his troubles in life is a paternal instance who is no authority figure (and unlikely to become a father). The 'normal' Oedipal incest taboo of symbolically killing the father and sleeping with his mother is here, dream-like, turned into its opposite, with Marty strenuously rejecting the advances of Lorraine and equally strenuously trying to turn George into a 'man'. What makes this subterfuge of the plot necessary is not only the 'dream logic', where repression and primary process inversion are the signs of a censored wish-fulfilling fantasy. The 'dream/transport/time-travel' theme is itself a response to the fact that there is a problem in the present of 1985. There, Marty's father is a singularly inept, bullied, and immature individual, unsuitable as a paternal authority, too weak to even rebel against, but fit only to pity and despise. George lets himself be sadistically manipulated by his supervisor, Biff, he still eats breakfast cereal like a baby, and uncontrollably laughs at television reruns of The Honeymooners. His mother, on the other hand, is an untidy, overweight housewife, who drinks her breakfast out of a vodka bottle and puritanically tries to prevent her children from having friends of the other sex. Appalled by this dysfunctional family (his siblings are almost equally unappealing, and his mother's brother is in jail), Marty prefers the company of Doc Brown, the archetypal mad scientist, who is surrounded by clocks, but whose social skills and civic virtues also leave much to be desired. Marty's options for male role models are a choice of evils: between his father and Doc Brown, the choice is between two kinds of immaturity and self-indulgence; between his father and Strickland, the schoolmaster, the choice is between a born loser and a discipline-obsessed authoritarian.

The film develops a curious set of symmetric-asymmetric analogies between the two: both do not seem to grow old in the 30-year interval, but while Strickland, as Marty notes, seems to have been born bald and stayed that way, Doc Brown has too much unruly hair. One can also note that Strickland's strict timekeeping is parodied in Doc's collection of clocks, while his father's disgusting breakfast habits are anticipated in the mess of dog food and burnt toast Marty finds in Doc's Heath Robinson mechanized home. Marty's major anxiety is being a loser like his father (a prediction made by Strickland and seemingly born out by his rejection at a school audition), but he is unwilling to emulate the asocial (Doc Brown) or follow the anti-social (Biff) authority figure. The only 'sight for sore eyes' is his girlfriend, Jennifer, but their 'night under the stars' is threatened by the fact that Biff has wrecked George McFly's car which Marty had been hoping to borrow for the weekend. While she is the Oedipal 'substitute' for his mother, their kiss or consummation is several times interrupted and remains deferred even at the end. Back to the Future presents an initial situation, in which the 'normal' Oedipal trajectory has been doubly blocked, making the purpose of the narrative evident: to restore 'proper', i.e. heterosexual, Oedipal identity.

For this solution, the time-machine with which Doc Brown has fitted the DeLorean offers itself as the suitably paradoxical vehicle. Time travel becomes the (generically motivated) means for restaging the Oedipus complex as a 'deferred action' which is also a therapeutic anticipation. By travelling to the circumstances preceding his own birth, Marty both realizes the incest fantasy at the heart of Oedipus and engineers what in Freudian terminology is called the 'primal scene', the fantasy of witnessing the moment of one's own conception, i.e. the act of parental lovemaking. Finding himself back in 1955 allows Marty, in other words, to use his hindsight knowledge not to change history, but to make (his) history possible. He is able to repair a lack - his father's masculinity - and he is able to forewarn Doc Brown about the deadly assault of the Libyans with their missile-launching VW camper. In order to accomplish this, Marty has to substitute for his father several times. He is literally the 'fall guy' in the 'peeping torn' episode, where he gets run over by his future (grand-)father (a graphic submission to symbolic 'castration'), the prelude to becoming the object of Lorraine's desire. He repeatedly has to fight, defeat, or humiliate Biff, tormentor of his father and rival suitor (near-rapist) of his mother.

When Marty finally returns to the present and wakes up the next morning, his parents have turned into a sleek suburban couple. His mother is trim and beautiful, his father is about to become the successful author of science fiction novels, and his brother is wearing a suit to his upscale office job. To top it all, a brand-new four-wheel drive is in the garage, ready to take Marty and Jennifer on their night under the stars. In other words, having posed the problem of Oedipus in terms of a lack of a credible father figure, the film makes out of the time travel episode a comic nightmare that is the perfect wish-fulfilling fantasy. Now that he has 'ordinary' parents, we are meant to infer, Marty can face up to the Oedipal challenge. He can emerge as a fully constituted male (i.e. in the terms of the story: summon the courage to send his demo tape to the record company) and proceed with the heterosexual bond, eventually founding his own family.

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