The Picture of Abjection
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The Picture of Abjection

Film, Fetish, and the Nature of Difference

Tina Chanter

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eBook - ePub

The Picture of Abjection

Film, Fetish, and the Nature of Difference

Tina Chanter

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"A timely and important project that changes our understanding of the role of abjection both in cultural politics and in the structure of film." —Ewa Ziarek, State University of New York at Buffalo Tina Chanter resolves a fundamental problem in film theory by negotiating a middle path between "gaze theory" approaches to film and spectator studies or cultural theory approaches that emphasize the position of the viewer and thereby take account of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Chanter argues that abjection is the unthought ground of fetishistic theories. If the feminine has been the privileged excluded other of psychoanalytic theory, fueled by the myth of castration and the logic of disavowal, when fetishism is taken up by race theory, or cultural theory, the multiple and fluid registers of abjection are obscured. By mobilizing a theory of abjection, the book shows how the appeal to phallic, fetishistic theories continues to reify the hegemonic categories of race, class, sexuality, and gender, as if they stood as self-evident categories. "An intriguing read, especially for those who favor psychological models of criticism in film theory... Recommended." — Choice

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1
Abjection as the Unthought
Ground of Fetishism

It is hopeless to attempt to isolate the three elements of mimetic desire: identification, choice of object, and rivalry ... whenever any one of them appears, the other two are sure to follow.
—Girard, Violence and the Sacred
ACCORDING TO FREUDO-LACANIAN psychoanalysis, identification is reserved for the father, the law, the symbolic, while object-relations are aligned with the maternal, or with the relation that develops following on from the auto-eroticism of the mother-child dyad. Feminist theorists have good reason to point to the problematic set of assumptions informing this distribution, assumptions that construe the mother-child relation in terms of need, as one primarily concerned with self-preservation, that is, with animality, or the biological. By contrast, adhering to Hegel’s distinction between need, demand, and desire, the symbolic realm of language is construed as the specifically human, as opposed to the merely animal, domain. It does not seem to have occurred to Lacan (or if it did, it was of little consequence) that the application of Hegelian triplicity to early infantile development might be a product of a Western imaginary, rather than a universal state of affairs. If Oedipal triangulation amounts to a naturalization of the modern, postindustrial familial relations unique to the nuclear, Western family, what would it mean to rethink the imperative of separation, individuation, or realization of autonomy in a way that no longer aligns biology, need, and self-preservative instincts with the mother, and humanity, desire, and orientation to the Other with the father? Lacan’s appropriation of the Hegelian tripartite structure extends not only to the distinction between need, demand, and desire, and its rebirth as the real, imaginary, and symbolic, but also to the abiding importance of Freud’s Oedipal triangle. What informs the association of the father with the law, desire, and prohibition, and the mother with the provider of biological needs? Isn’t there a heterosexist, reproductive teleology that requires the mother to assume the limited and singular function of biological provider, and the father to assume that of disciplinarian?
The conceptual importance of separation on the psychoanalytic account is bound up with the child’s self-reflective comprehension of maternal love as meaningful, that is, as directed toward the child in its particularity, to employ Hegelian terminology—the child as having its own, clean, and proper body, to use Kristeva’s language from Powers of Horror. Hence the insistence of the dramatic importance of the child’s realization that it is not the sole object of the mother’s desire, the child’s inculcation of the phallus as a sign that signifies that the mother’s desire lies elsewhere. It is, says Kristeva, with respect to the father that the mother is proud of, and loves, the child (see Kristeva 1987). For love to be distinct from that which satisfies need (food, warmth, clothing—the bare necessities), for it to figure as significant—as abstracted from the oceanic universe in which the child is immersed—the child must be differentiated from the mother, and from the world of necessity she traditionally provides. Without such differentiation, no object can exist for the child. Ironically, in the assumption that the child’s relation with the father must be the site of this differentiation, one can discern a characteristic failure of the psychoanalytic narrative to separate the mother from the background of all that she offers and makes available to the child. In this sense, psychoanalytic theory itself might be said to have separation issues. We find here too resonances with Hegel’s deification of Antigone on the one hand for her pure ethical intuition, and his denigration of her on the other hand for her failure of self-consciousness: she is, in Klein’s language, the good and the bad mother, rolled into one. So too, parallels with Levinas’s elemental and those shadowy, feminine figures that inhabit the dwelling, making it a home, do not fail to impose themselves.
The need for the child to individuate itself from the mother is conflated, in the psychoanalytic narrative, with the assumption that individuation must be a function of a paternal third. Kristeva’s refusal of the question of the origin of identification—is it with the father or the mother?—is symptomatic of her refusal to question as rigorously as she might the Hegelian legacy of Lacan, and the heteronormative imaginary that fuels the psychoanalytic scenario (see Kristeva 1987). She does, however, challenge the habitual association of the mother with object relations and the father with identification (see 1982, 32), in order to focus attention on the instability of the object relation, thereby highlighting the formative, preoedipal period, in which the child’s ego is not yet fully formed—the period prior to the mirror stage, prior to the visual synthesis that enables the child to confer stability on the object relation through naming. For Kristeva, influenced by Klein, fantasmatic, pseudo-object relations—the good or bad object—exist prior to the child’s initiation into language.1 Fantasmatic objects do not adhere to the stable contours of the imaginary body or corporeal schema that results from the bodily projection of the ego, but they do operate according to the still-unstable borders of what will be inside, and what will be outside, to adopt the language of Freud’s important essay, “Negation.”
The instability of the object relation is characteristic of early infantile, fantasmatic attempts to order the world according to what is good and what is bad, in terms of likes and dislikes, pleasure and displeasure, taste and repulsion. Symbolic language brings stability to the early mapping of inside and outside, facilitating meaningful communication, while at the same time inviting the risks of reification, burdened as it is with all the normative injunctions a given political community entails. Among these normative injunctions is the importance of separating out the specifically human from the merely animal, a moral and philosophical imperative that has found its way into aesthetic judgments. Accordingly, there is not only a denigration of biological need and a concomitant devaluation of the domestic sphere, which is historically marked as feminine; but also a denigration of everything that is useful and an association of usefulness and need with ugliness.2 Such a denigration finds its corollary in the formalist conception of art, originating from the eighteenth century, for which, as Arthur Danto puts it, “art, taste, beauty and pleasure” are bound together in a “tight, conceptual package.”3
One wonders how much the horror that Freud associated with female genitalia was derivative of the aesthetic proclivities of the eighteenth century. Is the horror of castration anxiety provoked not only by the “nothing to see,” but also by the associations of female genitals with birth, need, biology, usefulness—self-preservation of the human species? Against the context of an aesthetics of taste, in which, as Keats famously said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” the effort of artists to bring back in ugliness, to point to the horrific underside of all that formalist aesthetics considers beautiful, is also an attempt to ask at what cost is the Kantian analogy between beauty and moral goodness sustained.4 Who is relegated to the outer reaches of ugliness, primitivism, and bestiality in order for the “civilized” world to celebrate it own mimetic and perspectival art as great? Abject art points to the hypocrisy that is evident in the wielding of the criteria according to which that which is rejected by civilized society— as animal/feminine/primitive-need, usefulness, ugliness—is precisely necessary in order for the pursuit of ideals of freedom, goodness, and beauty that transcend the merely animal and qualify as specifically human traits. The latter come to be marked as white, as masculinist, but their flourishing depends upon keeping hidden or under wraps the realm of biological need—marked as the feminine/primitive. The suggestion that sublime terror expands the soul, while horror contracts the body, might be read along similar lines.5
The psychoanalytic terms that are taken up by film theory constitute a highly contested terrain. The status of reality and its relation to fantasy, the meaning of identification, the importance of castration theory, and the significance of each of these for the Oedipus complex and sexual difference—none of these can be presupposed. Christian Metz has been criticized for the way in which he took over Freud’s problematic theory of identification, and for failing to address the question of sexual difference, difficulties that were then recycled throughout film theory. In attempting to solve these difficulties, even critics of psychoanalytic theory have held fast to a theory of castration and its attendant Oedipus complex, without confronting the ways in which Freud’s Oedipal account of castration is fraught with an unacknowledged tension over the relative importance, and precise function of, the mother and father. Identification, and in particular, Freud’s inability to sustain a coherent distinction between paternal identification and maternal object-choice, has become a notoriously problematic site.6 This problem can be addressed by establishing the connection between Freud’s failure to sustain a coherent distinction between object-choice as maternal and identification as paternal with his “discovery” of the phallic phase and the concomitant development of the logic of fetishism. In this sense the introduction of the phallic phase can be read as symptomatic of Freud’s repression of maternal identification, while Kristeva’s theory of abjection figures as a response to the dominant logic of fetishism, a logic that governs Freud’s texts and film theory as well. I draw on the discourse of abjection to open up a way of questioning that requires that psychoanalysis be answerable for its exclusion not only of feminized others but also of “other” others—those who are subject to racialized, classed, and sexualized regimes. In doing so, I both locate in Freud the problem Kristeva designates abjection, and go beyond Kristeva’s own elaboration of abjection.
In its attempt to understand the cinematic experience, spectator gaze or apparatus theory, as it has come to be known, has privileged Lacan’s mirror stage. The audience is said to identify with the images with which they are presented in a way that is similar to the child’s recognition of itself in the mirror. The language of the cinematic screen thus functions analogously to the mirror, its vocabulary consisting of a range of codes that take the place of signs. In both cases, there is a relatively inhibited motor activity on the part of the spectator/infant, and an illusory and idealized quality in the apparent perfection, completion, and mastery of the projected screen/mirror image. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, cinema spectators are in a dark, womblike environment, enthralled by the images that pass before their eyes, images that seem to emit sounds, phantoms that are taken for reality. If not in literal chains, the audience is subjected to a powerful fascination exerted by the screen image, which encourages the immobility, isolation, gullibility, and passivity of the spectator. The protagonists onscreen appear to drive the action of the narrative that unfolds before the spectators, yet behind the scenes and before the screening of the film an absent director presides over that vision. By means of actors and the narrative in which their characters are embedded, idealized versions of the spectators are thereby represented to themselves. The typical action hero survives the dangers he confronts, gets the girl he pursues, or conquers the mystery he investigates. What might be unattainable in real life, is attainable through identification with the larger-than-life characters onscreen. The symbolic goals of the rich, the famous, and the beautiful are enacted in a way that both renders them accessible to us, and reminds us of the distance that separates us from the perfectible, illusory world of Hollywood.7
Like Lacan’s infant, we are both captivated, enchanted by the image confronting us, and at the same time alienated by it. We are not, after all, the hero who gets the girl, conquers the world, or lives a life of luxury and leisure—but we could be. Lacan’s mirror image presents the child with an image of himself not as he is—for he is still submerged in nursling dependence, still unstable, still unable to stand by himself—but as he will become: stable, whole, autonomous. Modeled on the lack of motor coordination of the infant, film theory reads the split between the passivity of the spectator, and the idealized mastery of the characters onscreen, in terms of the ideological processes by which the audience understands the message of the cinematic images with which it is presented. The subject thus constitutes the meaning of the film by taking over the perfection of the image, at the same time becoming (potential) master of his own fate. Hollywood holds out to us the possibility of realizing the American dream. Presenting us with a salutary image of what the future might hold, the film text offers us a vision of what we hope to achieve, just as the mirror presents the child with an anticipatory grasp of what he could become. Although he has not yet achieved it, the child can attain the mastery and independence that his image reflects back to him. In the same way, the cinematic screen offers us a glimpse of the dreams we could realize. We are able to temporarily lose ourselves in the world opened up by the screen, a fantasy world of possibilities that goes beyond the restrictions of our everyday life. In psychoanalytic terms at issue is how narcissism is structured in relation to the other, how the (symbolic) ego ideal is related to the (imaginary) ideal ego, and how their relationship plays out in terms of identification. The ego ideal or superego is associated with the law of the father, while the ideal ego is associated with maternal omnipotence, which for Freud and Lacan is interpreted as the phallic mother.
If “film is like the mirror” it is, as Christian Metz says, a “strange mirror” (1982, 45–49). It is “very like that of childhood, and very different. Very like, as Jean-Louis Baudry has emphasized, because during the showing we are, like the child, in a sub-motor and hyper-perceptive state; because, like the child again, we are prey to the imaginary, the double, and are so paradoxically through a real perception. Very different, because this mirror returns us everything but ourselves” (49). The “one thing ... that is never reflected,” Metz maintains, is “the spectator’s own body” (45). On the contrary, I would say that there is an important sense in which mainstream film does reflect, again and again, imaginary bodies that, while not empirically the spectator’s “own” body, certainly serve to render that body symbolically intelligible precisely through depicting bodies that operate according to sanctioned regimes of sexuality, race, and class. In this sense, it is not at all clear that because “the spectator has already known the experience of the mirror” he is “thus able to constitute a world of objects without having first to recognize himself within it” (46). Rather, our recognition of ourselves in a world of objects is one that is accomplished only through a series of repetitive operations that signify and resignify identity in a temporal dialectic that cannot be contained by Metz’s suggestion that the spectator already “knows himself and he knows his like” (46), as if identity were completed once and for all after the child has gone through the experience of the mirror stage. In fact, film functions in a way that participates in, endorses, reifies, and sometimes challenges the codes by which we become recognizable even to ourselves, such that it can sometimes show us that what we thought we knew about ourselves is open to question. To say that “the spectator knows that objects exist, that he himself exists as a subject, that he becomes an object for others” (46) is to assume too much about the knowing subject, the assumption of which Lacan’s mirror stage served to put into question. Lacan’s subject was precisely not the knowing Cartesian subject, but one who in confronting the image in the mirror experiences recognition as misrecognition—alienation (see Lacan 1977a, 22). Whatever mastery is achieved through identifying with an image, whatever self-unity must be assumed in order to construct an image as meaningful, when an image confounds or challenges the meanings we bring to it, that mastery is displaced. Through the deformation of meaning the subject reconstitutes itself.8
Along with the mirror stage, castration theory and fetishism have taken center stage in the transcription that Freudian and Lacanian ideas have undergone in film theory. Thus disavowal, the operation put in play by fetishism, has also played a leading role. It has done so at two levels, first in terms of the spectator’s disavowal of reality: the spectator knows that the images unfolding onscreen are fantasy, but nonetheless suspends this knowledge, and believes in their reality. Second, the model of fetishism operates at the level of diegetic identification: the spectator knows that women are castrated, but nonetheless attributes to them a phallus, or a fetish, a phallus substitute. Just as psychoanalytic theory tends to assume as normative a male subject by default, a subject whose masculinity and heterosexual desire operates invisibly, so the cinematic viewing subject is taken to be neutral, while in fact fetishistic theory marks it as anything but. It becomes clear that the implied spectator of film theory is not some disembodied subject, but the subject of castration. Since the inception of language is bound up for Lacan with the recognition of sexual difference, and since the castration complex is construed by Freud as a resolution (albeit incomplete) of the Oedipus complex, castration theory becomes an indelible part of the story that film theory tells itself about the cinematic experience. At the same time, its partiality is made unavailable for interrogation, precisely because any and all meaning is understood to derive from a subject that has always already taken a position in relation to castration.
To insist, as psychoanalytic theory does, that all subjects (irrespective of sex/gender) are subjects of castration is to fail to engage the work that castration theory does at the level of metatheory. Insofar as this narrative assumes the experience of the male subject as paradigmatic, one might have expected the status of castration to become a focal point for feminist critiques. Curiously, while Kristeva herself responds to this predicament by casting women’s role as “ironic” in the mode of Hegel’s Antigone, feminist critiques have been driven by a dynamic that has remained, for the most part, within the confines of masculinist film theory discourse, in that fetishism—one of the defenses exhibited by the (usually) masculine/male subject against castration anxiety—has remained a centerpiece.9 This puts feminist film theory in a somewhat awkward position vis-à-vis the masculinist discourse it seeks to contest. On the one hand, the assumption that the spectator is male/masculinist needs to be upset, but on the other hand the privileged role that castration theory has accorded to fetishism has gone unquestioned. The explanation for the apparently ubiquitous legacy of fetishism for film theory lies in its having inherited from psychoanalytic theory the apparent inseparability of the acquisition of language from the recognition of sexual difference. The inseparability of the subject’s entry into language from the acceptance of sexual difference concerns the role of the phallus, as symbolic of the penis and of its lack. It also derives from an attachment to the Hegelian tendency to think difference in terms of self-recognition through the other, such that one’s particularity is bound up with a process of conceptual differentiation between myself and others, predicated not on my sensuous sense of self but on the comprehension that I am not other. The status of symbolic lack in relation to the recognition of sexual difference therefore needs to be parsed out carefully. The phallus, under the auspices of castration theory, has been understood as the emblem of language, as the very possibility of representation. An interrogation of the precise ways in which the phallus has come to stand in for the conditions under which it is possible to conceive of a speaking subject reveals a repression not only of feminized, but also of racialized identification.
The mechanism that distinguishes disavowal (Verleugnung)—as the operation of fetishism—on the one hand from repression (VerdrĂ€ngung) and on the other hand from negation (Verneinung) is developed by Freud hand in hand with his theories about the castration complex, which in turn is implicated in the Oedipus complex.10 Permeating these theories is a discourse about femininity and a narrative about “primitives.” This discourse about femininity and this narrative about primitivism turn out to be decisive in gauging the psychoa...

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Citation styles for The Picture of Abjection
APA 6 Citation
Chanter, T. (2008). The Picture of Abjection ([edition unavailable]). Indiana University Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/568606/the-picture-of-abjection-film-fetish-and-the-nature-of-difference-pdf (Original work published 2008)
Chicago Citation
Chanter, Tina. (2008) 2008. The Picture of Abjection. [Edition unavailable]. Indiana University Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/568606/the-picture-of-abjection-film-fetish-and-the-nature-of-difference-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Chanter, T. (2008) The Picture of Abjection. [edition unavailable]. Indiana University Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/568606/the-picture-of-abjection-film-fetish-and-the-nature-of-difference-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Chanter, Tina. The Picture of Abjection. [edition unavailable]. Indiana University Press, 2008. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.