Timetravel and the superegos demand

Whatever this trouble is in the sequel (and it seems a fair bet that Biff will have a role to play in it), our analysis has uncovered a complex network of relations that ties paternity and masculinity in this film not so much to gender (as is traditionally the case in classical Hollywood) but to race and international politics, centred on shame and humiliation, of which the reverse side, according to the New Lacanians, is the 'obscene enjoyment' of the superego.

What distinguishes Back to the Future, furthermore, is that few Hollywood films from the 1980s get as close to hinting at a truth about the nature of American race relations, namely that it is centred on rituals of humiliation, which is its way of suggesting - albeit in the form of the symptom - that some sort of debt may have to be acknowledged. While in one sense Back to the Future could be seen as covertly making use of race, in order to shore up a very traditional all-white American masculinity, in another sense the film speaks of a difficult debt and even guilt. Explicitly, Marty manages to become a man by enlisting race in order to improve the father-image that allows him to become adult. His emancipation and empowerment seems purchased not only at the price of rewriting history (especially the history of American popular culture) but also at the price of once more stereotyping black Americans with the very same gesture that begins to acknowledge their place in this American history. Such would be the case if this rewriting and stereotyping of race were not taking place around the figure of Biff, incoherently but symptomatically placed at different discursive sites: fairy-tale villainy, white supremacist racism, 'international terrorism', black-and-white minstrelsy, and finally black gangland brotherhood.

Such a reading of Biff as the 'symptom' of Marty redefines the symptom as synthome, as the coded message in which the subject receives, but does not recognize, the truth about his own desire. Hill Valley with Orgy American Style playing highlights a significant dimension of half-acknowledged awareness of superego enjoyment, and thus also of guilt and responsibility regarding white America's more troubling impact on the world and on part of its own citizens. What do the New Lacanians and the 'ethics of psychoanalysis' have say about such guilt? If Biffs appearance and actions function as both the truth and the mask of America's bad conscience, he does not so much fulfil the structural place of the superego as mark the place where its effects can be registered - in the absence of the symbolic order, ┬┐iiek has argued that the more one pays tribute to the superego, the more tribute it extorts. Not only that: following the call of the superego makes you feel guilty, but the more you follow it, the more you feel you have betrayed yourself and thus you feel even more guilt. According to Zizek, this dilemma forms a perfect vicious circle, what he calls 'the ethics of guilt', to be distinguished from the traditional workings of the symbolic order, which in fact it replaces:

The parental figure who is simply 'repressive' in the mode of symbolic authority tells a child: 'You must go to grandma's birthday party and behave nicely, even if you are bored to death -1 don't care whether you want to, just do it!' The superego figure, in contrast, says to the child: 'Although you know how much grandma would like to see you, you should go to her party only if you really want to - if you don't, you should stay at home'. The trick performed by the superego is to seem to offer the child a free choice, when, as every child knows, he is not being given any choice at all. Worse than that, he is being given an order and told to smile at the same time. Not only: 'You must visit your grandma, whatever you feel,' but: 'You must visit your grandma, and you must be glad to do it!' The superego orders you to enjoy doing what you have to do. 'You can do your duty, because you must do it' is how Kant formulated the categorical imperative. The superego inverts the Kantian 'You can, because you must' in a different way, turning it into 'You must, because you can'.

(2izek 1999)

In Back to the Future, it is in the first instance the slogan 'You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it' that could be seen as a command from the superego: the impossible demand made on the American psyche by the existence of the American dream. But it is precisely insofar as the film puts this slogan under erasure that it opens itself up to that darker superego negatively outlined by Biff. Faced with the conundrum represented by George (absent paternal law) and Biff ('terrorist' response to this absence), Marty begins to realize that America's 'can do' optimism is no longer an option - that his future is blocked until and unless he goes back to where the (postwar) American dream was arguably first dreamt, the 1950s middle America of the emerging suburbs - Hill Valley, in other words. Marty's time-travel, instead of being a Reaganite apologia for keeping things the way they are and rewriting the past in the image of the present, is in fact almost the exact reverse. It is an attempt to make use of the time-travel paradox - i.e. that you can go back to the past, on condition that you change as little as possible and yet make the big difference -in order for him to fashion from it a new 'ethics', that of'deferred action', which says: your mode of agency, now that you can travel back in time, is to will and accept what has happened, which is to say, to take responsibility for it.

To recapitulate the two modes of how to interpret the travel and the timeloop paradox with respect to Hollywood: one is to say that history is only a discourse or a set of representations which we can make or fake, rewrite and alter (the airbrushed photograph or the digital images, as in Zelig or Forrest Gump - though in both films matters are a bit more complicated than that). The other way is to say that since we cannot change anything in the past, we might as well learn to love that which we don't like about our past (for instance our parents, all that which has made us what we are, or black popular culture, all that which has made us want what we now imagine we are).

It is along the latter line of reasoning that Zizek might place time-travel: he effectively says, 'Accepting what you cannot change is the essence of the Kantian notion of freedom: do as if you were morally free to choose the right action (for the common good).' It is also where John Rawls's notion of 'justice' meets Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea of 'freedom': if you want to do what you ought to do, then you are free. For 2izek this has become contaminated and perverted by the command of the superego: 'Enjoy' (an 'ethical' reworking of Marcuse's ideas on consumerism, once consumption becomes the basis of capitalist economic growth and social reproduction. Leisure is now serious business, and having fun is a civic duty).

Back to the Future itself fulfils a (utopian) wish, in order to assuage a historical guilt: to undo a historical wrong about race and politics. It uses the genre of sci-fi and time-travel, and refigures individual agency and responsibility. If we now look briefly at some of the other films mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, we can recognize similar constellations, often enough articulated also around race and masculinity (Pulp Fiction), the failing symbolic order and the obscene enjoyment of the Father (as in Twelve Monkeys and Brazil), or the need to travel in time in order to assure yourself of your own identity, i.e. to 'accept' castration (which now appears in the guise of the inevitability of the past itself) in Total Recall and Twelve Monkeys.

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