‘Peace at Last’: Subjective Destitution and the End of Analysis in Peaky Blinders

By Jack Black

Such a subjective destitution entails the possibility for a radical form of separation, paving the way to the real being of the subject, son ‘être du sujet’. (Verhaeghe 2019, 378).

… the remainder that as determining his division brings about his fall from his fantasy and makes him destitute as subject. (Lacan, 1968)[1]

There is much hope, according to Slavoj Žižek, in fictional characters, such as, Hannibal Lecter. Here, the heinous crimes of a serial killer, fuelled by the predilection for consuming his victims, reveals a public fascination that ‘bears witness to a deep longing for a Lacanian psychoanalyst’; or, as Žižek adds, “a desperate, ultimately failed attempt of the popular imagination to represent to itself the idea of a Lacanian analyst” (1993, 48). Indeed, for Lacan (2004), the act of analysis, and the efforts of the Lacanian analyst, is where the very kernel of the analysand’s being—the objet petit a—is laid bare. In so doing, the subject’s ontological consistency, that which makes the subject a subject, is, much like Lecter, the very “‘stuff’ that the analyst … ‘swallows’” (Žižek 1993, 48). Certainly, while Žižek’s interpretation of Lecter reveals a public fascination for the process of analysis, today we can ask whether such forms of analysis produce the very radicality they seek to achieve? With the widely recited demise in symbolic efficiency, can fictional characters and popular media forms succeed in portraying the radicality that Lacan attributes to the analyst?

The finale to the British crime drama, Peaky Blinders (2013—2022), suggests its own answer to the power of Lacanian analysis. Here, “The ultimate aim of psychoanalytic treatment is for the subject to undo the ultimate ‘passionate attachment’ that guarantees the consistency of his/her being, and thus to undergo what Lacan calls ‘subjective destitution’” (Žižek 1999, 266). Such ‘undoing’ is echoed in Hegel’s “‘absolute knowledge’ … a subjective position which finally accepts ‘contradiction’ as an internal condition of every identity” (Žižek 2008a, xxix). Accepting this contradiction works to disclose how, in the case of subjective destitution, it is the subject’s very consistency which is called into question. Evidently, such destitution does not eradicate the subject, but only their subjectivity—that which the analyst, as Hannibal Lecter, carnivorously devours: the objet a. Subjective destitution can therefore be conceived as an occurrence whereby one’s fundamental fantasy, that is, one’s narcissism, and one’s inherent sense of self, is surrendered, given up and/or traversed (Lacan 2004, 273). This desubjectivization of the subject results not just in the loss of one’s subjectivity, but also the ethical concerns, imaginary formations, and symbolic identities, which, until then, were simply interpellations of the subject’s functioning within society.

When contemplating Lacan’s subjective destitution, one may immediately think of an act of suicide. Faced with a terminal illness, the option of taking one’s life may, for the subject at least, comprise an escape from an end that is inevitable. Indeed, in the final moments of the Peaky Blinders season finale, such an option is all that remains for the show’s protagonist, Thomas ‘Tommy’ Shelby (Cillian Murphy).

In the final season, we learn from Tommy’s doctor, Doctor Holford (Aneurin Barnard), that he has developed an inoperable tuberculoma, leaving him with 18-months to live. The diagnosis puts into action the events of the final season, with Tommy working to safeguard the security of his immediate family and their criminal activities, before saying goodbye and leaving alone. The episode’s final scenes take place with Tommy living in a gypsy caravan (Vardos) in the countryside. After a heavy night of drinking, Tommy awakens to ‘flip a coin’: a game of chance which he uses to decide whether he should commit the inevitable and take his own life before the tumour ends his. With the coin’s decision in hand, Tommy enters his caravan, which is filled with family trinkets and personal artifacts, and prepares to shoot himself. However, before pulling the trigger, he hallucinates, and speaks to a vision of his deceased daughter, Ruby. Ruby advises Tommy that there is work to be done and encourages him to light the fire. Picking up a newspaper for kindling, Tommy is met with the image of Holford, his doctor, attending the wedding of the fascist politician, Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin). While the show combined real historical figures and events with the fictional Shelby family’s rise from slum bookmakers to the corridors of British power, Mosley, a depiction of the real-life British fascist, has remained a notable adversary to Tommy. Upon seeing his doctor attending Mosley’s wedding, Tommy quickly realises that Mosley and Holford have conspired to make him believe that he has an inoperable tumour.

There is a certain fatalism which marks Tommy’s decision to commit suicide. Facing a slow and agonising death, his physical demise would stand in complete contrast to the anti-hero of brutal authority and violence which has characterised his journey from criminal gang leader to a Member of Parliament for the British Labour Party, and sometime conspirator for the future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (in fact, the journey suggests that Tommy’s politics sits easily alongside his ongoing criminal activities). To this end, Tommy’s suicide reflects a clear ‘acting out’: a “‘demonstrative’ act” that remains addressed to the Other (Žižek 2008b, 68); a final ‘act’ of rebuke performed on behalf of our fated protagonist towards an Other for whom his very guilt can only be assuaged by the punishment of suicide.

Yet, Tommy’s realisation by the fire reflects an alternative, ‘passage to the act’ (passage a l’acte): an act that not only suspends the Other, but, on behalf of the subject, surrenders the very kernel of their being. It is an “act of assuming existential indifference,” that is, of assuming “the very gesture of absolute negativity that gives birth to the subject” (Žižek 1998, 107). It is this “zero-point of losing everything,” which is played out in the show’s final scenes (Žižek 1998, 107).

After Tommy’s realisation that Holford and Mosley are acquaintances, we cut to a large stately home belonging to Holford. From Holford’s window, we realise Tommy’s caravan has settled on the accompanying land. Repulsed by the caravan (we can assume Holford is a fascist and, therefore, not amiable to a travelling gypsy caravan living in the vicinity), Holford orders his groundsman to burn it, unaware of who it belongs to. Later, when Holford approaches his car, he is suddenly met by Tommy, who, with gun drawn, grabs Holford and demands that he kneels on the floor. What follows is not unlike an analytical session.

Standing over Holford, Tommy asserts: “I’m guessing you people all decided, that the only person who could ever kill Tommy Shelby is Tommy Shelby himself… you made me believe that death was coming, let my nature do rest, ‘ey?” Trembling, Holford responds:

You may not have tuberculoma, Mr. Shelby, but you are sick. I know you. You’re sick with guilt. Sick of death at your own hand. Sick of who you were. You are no longer the kind of man who would kill another man in cold blood. Tommy, you have been on a journey from the backstreets to the corridors of power. You can’t go back. You’re a different man. A gun no longer belongs in your hand.

Unperturbed by the doctor’s reply, Tommy commands him to close his eyes, Holford’s execution inevitable. However, before pulling the trigger, a bell from an adjacent clock tower chimes. Tommy checks his pocket-watch and, eyes closed, recites: “11th hour. Armistice. Peace at last. Peace at last.” The gun goes off, with Tommy shooting the floor beside Holford.

We can conceive of the doctor as occupying the role of the big Other: a prescribed authority, with the assumed knowledge to condemn Tommy to a medical condition, but also, as Tommy now realizes, to lie. Indeed, what remains key to our relations with the big Other is that it exists only insofar as subjects believe it to exist. The knowledge and desires which we attribute to the Other remain valid against our own investment in them. It is this realization that underpins Lacanian analysis, for whom the analyst, occupying the place of the big Other, seeks a path from which the subject can enact their own choice. In the above scene, this choice is compounded by a confrontation with the Real: the clock’s 11th-hour chime. In fact, for the ‘new’ to emerge, the Real must be confronted. Drawing from Žižek’s work, Molly Anne Rothenberg states that “Whether he [Žižek] is speaking about the violence of the political Act or the violence of subjective destitution, he proposes the deliberate facilitation of this eruption of the Real” (2010, 183). Consequently, whereas “The new enters thought by way of the Real, by way of affect” (Rothenberg 2010, 183), it is in confronting the trauma of the Real that the very ‘sense’ of reality is upended. Here the “traumatic and nonsensical” Real can help instigate one’s realization that “Entering a state of subjective destitution, at the end of analysis, requires some kind of awareness … that there is no guarantee of meaning–that, in fact, the big Other does not exist” (Flisfeder 2012, 30). It is here that, in accordance with the Other’s inconsistency, the subject reaches a subjective destitution grounded in the non-existence of the Other and the equally non-existent subject.

Despite Holford’s attempts to reason with Tommy, Tommy replies, “I am back. Back from under the ground.” With the accompanying clock chime, Tommy’s decision to leave the doctor alive, suggests a surrendering of the ‘inner kernel’ which has structured and governed his post-war life; a sense of self marked and shaped by the horrors of the war and his failure to come to terms with the loss of his former wife, daughter, and younger brother. During the war itself, Tommy and his elder brother were part of a tunnelling company within the British Army.[2] With Tommy being ‘back from under the ground’, there is the suggestion of an overcoming of this past: a past which has, over the course of the final season, haunted him through vivid hallucinations depicting him underground, fighting hand-to-hand against a German soldier. Accordingly, Tommy’s subjective destitution underscores the forgoing of any such attachment to this past, denoting, as Derek Hook explains, “a state of ego-dissipation where one might truly hear and accept what is most terrible about myself and the symbolic-historical heritage that I am heir to” (2011, 500). There is no ‘forced choice’ here, but, instead, a re-choosing—a choosing to hear and accept the chime of a bell—that effectively restructures the coordinates of one’s symbolic field. These new symbolic coordinates reveal the paradoxes of the Lacanian subject: a de-subjectivised subject founded in the destitution of a ‘choice’ that undermines the very choices that are afforded.

This is confirmed when Tommy returns to his caravan. Tommy realises that the doctor’s groundsman has already set the caravan ablaze, with Tommy’s possessions and memories of the past consumed by the flames. Standing in front of the burning caravan, Tommy’s past is lost. In fact, with the discovery of the burnt-out wreck, one could assume that Tommy has perished with the flames. To this extent, the burning caravan denotes a traversing of the fantasy, a radical move which confirms Tommy’s subjective destitution. With his personal possessions and his familial memories and heritage set to burn, he is witness to “the violent act of setting off the ontic properties that lie at the heart of subjectivity” (Khader 2017, 140)… himself. This destitution does not suggest his literal disappearance (he’s clearly still alive), but his “reduction to a zero-point, the disintegration of [… his] entire symbolic universe,” entombed within the burning fire, and the subsequent possibility of his ‘rebirth’ (Žižek 2020b, 371). Ultimately, this ‘rebirth’ dislocates Tommy from the metonymy of his desire. It effectively ‘vanishes’ him from his subjectivity to a position of enunciation that occupies a “place between the two deaths”—indeed, a position of impossibility (Lacan 1992, 295).

The final shot of the episode, and series, gives credit to this interpretation. After a final close-up of Tommy, we cut to an inside shot of the burning caravan, with the caravan’s open door filling the centre of the shot. Astride his hoarse, Tommy is positioned within the centre of the open door. The shot bears a notable resemblance to the final scene from John Ford’s The Searchers (1956).[3] In the film, Ethan, played by John Wayne, is set with the task of saving his niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood/Lana Wood), who has been abducted by Comanche Indians. After rescuing Debbie, Ethan returns her to the family home. As Debbie and the family move offscreen, the shot of the open door fills the centre of the frame. Standing outside, Ethan lingers at the open door, before turning and walking away, the door shutting behind him. Formally, the scene is echoed in the final scene of Peaky Blinders. Lingering on his horse, Tommy takes one final look into the caravan, and then rides away. The camera, and us, the audience, remain inside the burning caravan, as the roof collapses and the screen goes black.

In the case of Ethan, we witness how “He stands as a necessary absence” within the film (McGowan 2013, 336): his separation from the family, and the ‘domestication’ of the ‘Wild West’, set apart from Ethan’s position as the violent frontiersman. In doing so, Ford leaves the audience on the side of the family home, with Ethan’s necessary exclusion upholding the fact that such domesticity can only ever be maintained through the very absenting of that which works to establish it.

In a notable comparison, McGowan refers to a scene from the film Drive (2011), where, after viciously murdering a man in an elevator, the spectator is positioned on the side of the murderer: an unnamed Hollywood stunt driver moonlighting as a criminal getaway driver. While committing the brutal attack, the Driver (Ryan Gosling) does it in front of the women he has fallen in love with, Irene (Carey Mulligan). Unaware of the violence he is capable of, Irene leaves the elevator and stares back in fear as the elevator door closes. Inside the closed elevator with the Driver, “the film places the spectator with the missing and excluded signifier, in direct contrast to the final shot from The Searchers” (McGowan 2013, 337). For McGowan, “This scene from Drive reveals the political project of psychoanalysis in an image form” (2013, 337). This project is underscored by the scene’s relation to the gaze. By using the scene from Drive to help emphasise the distortion of the gaze—a necessary absence within the filmic experience, which, on most occasions, is excluded for the spectator—”Drive pushes this logic even further by locating the spectator within the distortion itself” (McGowan 2016, 81). This helps to certify how the distortion of the gaze remains inescapable.

Certainly, whereas McGowan (2013) praises the political consequences of locating the spectator on behalf of the ‘missing signifier’—the necessary absence encapsulated in the nameless driver, an absence that underscores the subject’s inherent absence, universally shared—it is also clear that we cannot remain in this subjectless state… eventually, we must leave the elevator. As Adrian Johnston notes, “Lacan does not consider it possible or desirable to dwell permanently in such an analysis terminating destitute state” (cited in Žižek 2020a, 66). Instead:

He [Lacan] sees it as both appropriate and inevitable that egos, big Others, subjects supposed to know, and the like will reconstitute themselves for the analysand in the aftermath of his/her analysis. Hopefully, the versions of these reconstituted in the wake of and in response to analysis will be better, more liveable versions for the analysand. (Johnston cited in Žižek 2020a, 66)

Evidently, in both The Searchers and Peaky Blinders the opposite occurs, with the necessary absence of Ethan and Tommy set apart from the spectator, who, in the case of The Searchers, is left within the family home, and, in the case of Peaky Blinders, remains within the collapsing caravan. Yet, it is here that an important distinction can be drawn. In the final shot of Peaky Blinders, we are left inside the fiery caravan, a clear indicator that the audience are entombed within the remains of Tommy’s past, and, to this extent, it is the spectator who is positioned with the violent trauma that has marked the past six seasons. Within the framing of the scene, it is Tommy’s exclusion that cements his subjective destitution, his traversing the fantasy, and, ultimately, the realization that his very treasure—his own subjectivity—is worthless and easily left behind. Positioned within the burning caravan, the audience remain separated from Tommy’s point-of-view and thus removed from his subsequent reconstitution (who knows where Tommy is set to travel?). Looking out at Tommy’s achieved destitution, we are left inside the burning vestiges of his former self, soon to be destroyed.

Therefore, while acts of subjective destitution work to fundamentally reveal the inherent nonsense—the inherent lack—of the big Other/Symbolic order, ultimately, they can serve to secure the realization that this nonsense holds a social and ethical significance, encapsulated in the mundanity of a past, now left behind. Following Johnston, Tommy will encounter new, hopefully better, big Others; however, for the spectator, it is the impossibility of any final resolution or direction to Tommy’s future which compounds their position in relation to the scene.[4] Within the confines of the collapsing caravan, we are left in the position of what now lies outside the social and political order as well as to what is now excluded: a true position of universality, a form of “forcing us out of ourselves” (Ruda 2020) towards the subject’s “impenetrable abyss” (Žižek 2010, 120)… a subject at the end of analysis.

Notes

[1] The original appearance of this quotation has been included in the reference list. The translated quotation is drawn from Russell Grigg’s translation (see Lacan, Jacques. “Proposition of 9 October 1967 on the Psychoanalyst of the School.” London Society of the New Lacanian School, translated by Russell Grigg. https://londonsociety-nls.org.uk/index.php?file=The-School/The-Proposition-of-the-Ninth-of-October-1967-Jacques-Lacan.html).

[2] In World War One, the British Army’s Royal Engineer tunnelling companies were tasked with digging tunnels under enemy lines. Here, the series echoes Sebastian Faulks novel, Birdsong (1993), which contains an interleaving story of a miner who, while underground in the British tunnels, listens for German tunnellers.

[3] The scene has proven popular amongst psychoanalytic interpretations, with Robert Pippin (2009), Žižek (2010) and McGowan (2013; 2016) analysing the well-known scene. In my Race, Racism and Political Correctness in Comedy – A Psychoanalytic Exploration (Black, 2021), I draw upon the scene to help analyse examples of comedy from the British sitcom, The Office.

[4] The saga is set to continue with a forthcoming film, where, at the time of writing, Tommy’s—or, rather, Cillian Murphy’s—role within the film has not been confirmed. Perhaps, therefore, the true ending of the show is here, with the television finale. A rare achievement for a television series. Indeed, one is reminded of McGowan and Ryan Engley’s Why Theory? podcast, where they frequently discuss how the ‘correct’ ending to a show very rarely succeeds at its prescribed end (it’s finale), but at some point during one of its seasons.

References

Black, Jack. Race, Racism and Political Correctness in Comedy – A Psychoanalytic Exploration. London, UK: Routledge, 2021.

Flisfeder, Matthew. “Subject of Desire/Subject of Drive: The Emergence of Zizekian Media Studies.” Reviews in Cultural Theory, 2012. http://reviewsinculture.com/page/107/

Hook, Derek. “White Privilege, Psychoanalytic Ethics, and the Limitations of Political Silence.” South African Journal of Philosophy 30, no. 4: 494—501, 2011.

Khader, Jamil. “Concrete Universality and the End of Revolutionary Politics: A Zizekian Approach to Postcolonial Women’s Writings.” In Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literature but were Afraid to Ask Zizek, edited by Russell Sbriglia, 137—168. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.

Lacan, Jacques. “Proposition du 9 octobre 1967 sur le psychanalyste de l’Ecole.” Scilicet 1: 14-30, 1968.

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959–1960. Translated by Dennis Porter. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1992.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Translated by Alan Sheridan. London, UK: Karnac, 2004.

McGowan, Todd. Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

McGowan, Todd. Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Pippin, Robert B. “What is a Western? Politics and self-knowledge in John Ford’s The Searchers.” Critical Inquiry 35: 223—246, 2009.

Rothenberg, Molly Anne. The Excessive Subject: A New Theory of Social Change. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010.

Ruda, Frank. “From Catastrophic Messianism to Comic Fatalism – Part 1.” Provocations, September 24, 2020. https://www.provocationsbooks.com/2020/09/25/from-catastrophic-messianism-to-comic-fatalism-part-i/

Verhaeghe, Paul. “Lacan’s Answer to Alienation: Separation.” Crisis & Critique 6, no. 1: 365—388, 2019.

Žižek, Slavoj. Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel and the Critique of Ideology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Four Discourses, Four Subjects.” In Cogito and the Unconscious, edited by Slavoj Zizek, 74—113. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London, UK: Verso, 1999.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London, UK: Verso, 2008a.

Žižek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008.

Žižek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times. London, UK: Verso, 2010.

Žižek, Slavoj. Hegel in a Wired Brain. London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2020a.

Žižek, Slavoj. Sex and the Failed Absolute. London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2020b.

Nature’s Conspiracy: Picnic at Hanging Rock

By Cindy Zeiher

A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is possible that they are performing some function unknown to themselves.

— Marion (Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock).

What is the desire of my hysteric? It is what opens what I would not say is the universe, but a whole wide world (Lacan, SV, p. 466).

Encapsulating the often-unsettling beauty of the rural Australian landscape is the eerie location of Hanging Rock, the setting for Joan Lindsay’s fascinating and popular 1967 Australian novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock.[i] This story of an exclusive private girls’ school outing to Hanging Rock, where three of the girls and their maths teacher mysteriously disappear, inspired Australian Peter Weir to direct the 1975 film of the same name. To this day, the gothic mystery of Hanging Rock lingers, and people often assume the novel to be based on a real-life incident. As a teenager living in semi-rural Australia, I distinctly recall Lindsay’s novel as having frightening, superstitious contours; it was thrilling yet unnerving to speculate how nature could arbitrarily expunge the existence of the subject. After all, when people do go missing without explanation it is the very absence of reason rather than the disappearance itself which is the most perplexing and disturbing. The element of conspiracy associated with the story of Hanging Rock caused a stir in the Australian public and this was playfully encouraged by the author. As she writes in the preface, “whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year 1900, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.” However, its publication resulted in a mass research project into the ‘truth’ of what happened, and this served to disavow its fiction, perhaps because fiction can be such an irritating reminder of how we are willing to be duped. It was traumatic for the Australian public to deal with the novel’s inconclusive ending, and they were not going to accept it. Up until her death countless letters were sent to Lindsay begging for the truth of the girls’ fate at Hanging Rock to be revealed; they were demanding resolution even if this was merely a fictional sequel. She steadfastly refused to reveal anything, remaining faithful to her vow of silence and to the implicit irony that there was nothing in particular to be revealed. In this way the girls’ disappearing into nature conspires against our desire to know, yet at the same time hystericizes us to keep guessing: what is it about the supernatural mystery of Hanging Rock that continues to make it so enticingly macabre?

Set in 1900 colonialised Australia, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a story whose backdrop is a conspiracy played by nature, wherein desire for subjective wholeness converges with desire for completeness in nature. In an interview the author describes her process of writing Picnic at Hanging Rock in terms of a filmic experience in which she would dream aspects of the story and then wake to immediately “write like a demon” (1973-74). Just as time becomes increasingly irrelevant when the girls are exploring Hanging Rock, so also Lindsay’s process of writing (insofar as it evolved from dreams) was atemporal.  Moreover, being set in 1900 the story is itself out of time yet also timely in that today we are still open to the possibility of invisible and fated transmissions between people. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a mystery suspense novel whose fictive ‘truth’ evolves from the confusing yet purposeful conflation of class sensibilities with a developing post-colonial social milieu in which the settler does not feel wholly settled. When this bourgeoise milieu fails, as it does with the suicide of Sara, one of the girls, nature inevitably prevails. This move towards naturalism is the dupe we grapple with; the perceived beauty of Hanging Rock tempts us to think that harmony and balance can be restored if only we revere nature in some utopic subjective reconnaissance.

The story of Picnic at Hanging Rock commences on Valentine’s Day, when school mistress Miss McCraw takes her students on an outing to Hanging Rock. This is a beautiful volcanic outcrop in Victoria over a million years old and because flora, fauna and creeks surround it, was once a frequented fishing and hunting ground for Indigenous people. The day of the picnic is particularly hot, so the party settle in the shade below the rock to have lunch, with exquisite views of both the rock and of the lush and fertile landscape below. Afterwards, four of the girls go off together to explore the surrounds and they climb the uncharted territory of the rock. What happens next is a complete mystery, as the girls’ personalities become submerged by bouts of lethargy, alternating with episodes of inexplicable fear and panic. Their consciousness is overwhelmed and finally swallowed up by the power of the natural world and a hysterical mystery unfolds as three of the girls, Miranda, Marion and Irma, by then in a trance-like state, disappear into a rock crevice.

The fourth girl, Edith, rushes back to the main party in a state of hysterical shock and later remembers seeing Miss McCraw going up the rock without her skirt on. Edith’s hysteria is intriguing, as she literally acts out the scene not only of her distress but also her complicity in it. The girls had wandered off with each other knowing that perhaps they should not have done so. Such transgressions invite the law, and in the ensuing psychic mess police and investigators organise searches to find the missing girls. Irma is found at the rock unconscious and this sets in motion a chain of events: students are withdrawn from the school, teachers and staff resign unexpectedly, the schoolgirl Sara commits suicide, and Miss McCraw dies by jumping off Hanging Rock. By now the location of Hanging Rock is beset with an esoteric force which determines that it is not a case of who is the more hysterical but who is perfectly hysterical.[ii] This pursuit of being a perfectly embodied hysteric is the demand both the novel and the film place upon us: how far are we willing to go in the name of hysteria? Lacan refers to this as a specific knowledge when he says, “I have been guided by hysterics” (1977, p. 5).

Picnic at Hanging Rock invites the question, che vuoi?, what does the place itself want with these girls, some of whom literally disappear whilst others survive traumatised as a result of their visit. It is the unanswerable hysterical question which evokes that of Freud’s Dora, the crucial question of feminine jouissance, what does it mean to be a woman? Freud’s Dora similarly disappeared before the question could be fully articulated. Her Hanging Rock was none other than Freud, who she managed to resist by refusing to have a tryst with Herr K. Instead, Dora decided to wander off, getting a bit more lost but at least on her own terms. Just as Dora’s resistance perplexed Freud, so the girls’ escapade at Hanging Rock unsettles us. The unknowability of the paths which lie ahead of them, the false promises they must make and the savviness one must cultivate unnerve us as we watch them wander off into nature, the staged object of desire from which, for them, the incipient enigma of sex can be tantalised. Yet both for the girls and us the viewers, nature as the object of desire remains uncertain, precisely because it is enigmatically enticing.  

Early colonialised Australia was governed through class structures then prevailing in Victorian England: wealthier classes could afford to give their children a privileged education whilst the ex-convict class provided manual labour for constructing Australia into a desired replica of England, from which the first people of Terra Nullius were brutally displaced and exploited. Although the film references nostalgia for England, including class and gender structures, its distinctive Australian landscape provides an incongruous background, little befitting the fashioning of young, well-spoken women. Through this contrast and with Hanging Rock providing a psychically signifying, untraversable background, class and cultural tension inevitably emerge via particular cultural placeholders of privilege, classical femininity, chastity, and sensuality. We can think of these as characteristic to propping up what Lacan calls the big Other, a collective fiction which is also encountered as dismissive of the subject and wilfully ignorant that at times its authority can be called into question. In the context of colonialised Australia such signifiers serve the function of concealing evidence of violence, even justifying it as part of big Other’s desire. Such a contextualization is approached through the cinematic gaze where one can discover those hidden signifying conditions which construct political, cultural, and social symbolism.

Film provides a temporality in which viewers can be transported to different locations without leaving their own immediate environment. Picnic at Hanging Rock undertakes this task elegantly, relying on fantasy to leave the viewer adrift in 1900 colonial Australia, all the while appreciating its landscape from today’s perspective. The film suggests that in 1900, appreciation of Australian landscape was tempered by fear and apprehension because, perhaps then more than now, people understood nature as enigmatic and the inscrutable opposite to the preponderance of civilising culture. The film plays on this parallel and alternative temporality as a specific site of contradiction: viewers must use their imaginations to fill in the gaps as to what might have happened to the girls. To do this requires confronting one’s conditions of knowledge, what can be known and even what is not fully comprehensible might nevertheless provide some insight. Nature and culture are thrown into a dizzying contradiction: British sensibilities are resultant from castrating imperialism yet nature is also elevated as the powerful, inscrutable phallic object.

Together with the girls the viewer disappears into a space where timeless nature is the point of reference, the ready-made object primed for fantasy which can be supplemented and reinvented to suit.

McGowan (2011) describes how film can provide a world in which time ceases to be a central reference point. Picnic at Hanging Rock provides a wonderful and affecting example of such suspension. In this film, fantasy is employed to prop up the object of nature and provides a way for us to speculate about the mystery surrounding Hanging Rock. Despite it being a hot summer day, the party are all dressed in layers of restrictive clothing more befitting of an English climate and sense of propriety. The girls are well spoken and apparently compliant with the requests of their teacher. At the same time, the girls engage in a pantomime of soft-core lesbian erotism, exchanging Valentines cards and participating in corset tightening. However, Hanging Rock – the very place where the girls meet subjective destitution as their fate – proves to be what antagonises and critiques their reticence. In eroticising nature as that which allows the colonial feminine to emerge, the film stages an opaque feminine hysteria whilst its dream-like motif not only triggers the traumatic event but provides for its inescapability.

The location of Hanging Rock seductively poses a question about how one can be captured by authority. The majestic beauty of Hanging Rock offers the imagination a way of embracing an ethereal absolute, pushing desire into the realm of the Other, whose desire is in turn sought. Once again, we turn to the annoying and unanswerable question, che vuoi?! However, attending to desire requires a trade-off:  the subject must be willing to attend to unveiling the camouflage of this exotic Other in the guise of nature. In addition, the subject must accept the uneasiness of desire which inevitably results from resisting the masquerade of conforming to the demands of the bourgeois sensibilities upholding the social bond. What makes this film a perfect vehicle for delving into such confusion is its ambiguous ending, which makes it truly a suspense mystery refusing to be solved, yet without gratuitous violence. The girls’ disappearance leaves a traumatic void which can be filled only through speculation. Herein lies a way to interpret remarkable and unexplainable events, a way marked by both the certainty of desire and uncertainty as to what or who ignites it. Although scarred by what has happened, the townspeople left behind carry on, unable to comprehend the arbitrary trauma of what does not fit into their otherwise comfortable colonial Australian life.

Hanging Rock is depicted in the film as a site of contradiction; it is beautiful and seductive, yet also unsettling and alienating. Immersion in its natural surroundings promises freedom from gentrification and the oppressive milieu of class structures. Such a desire to escape through embracing nature reappears in today’s ‘environmental hysteric’, whose need to retreat from capitalism is marked by its dominating social rules and behaviours being abandoned in favour of basking in the natural world. Such is the seductive nature of the environmentalist’s fantasy in staging its hegemony. However, such staging selectively fails to include the injustices colonialism has inflicted upon indigenous people – or worse, injustices are so fully interpellated into the enjoyment of anguished guilt that they become unrecognisable. Interestingly, the only Aboriginal character in the film helps with the search wearing a soldier’s unform. Being historicised, the command of the film is to confront us with the problem that enjoying nature can obfuscate colonialising horrors. That is, in forging an individual subjectivity obedient to nature alone, past violence becomes side-lined by the seductiveness of nature. The will to represent oneself as one with nature reveals not only our subjective fragility, but also our willingness to plug up our lack within nature’s contingency. Our giddy uptake of nature as a big Other reveals how truly alienated and flawed we are. Hanging Rock seduces us like it does the girls. Although its beauty is transfixing, the film cautions us to be wary. These child-women – almost in scandalous rebellion – give themselves up to objects of pleasure: they enjoy food, lose themselves in the romanticism of books, remove their clothes, swim in the lagoon, caress each other. They form a subjective signifying chain of beautiful souls and we are tempted to share their fantasy of revelling in nature and with the seductive drive it offers. The entire scene brings to mind Freud’s 1918 theory of proto-fantasy in which seduction, castration and, finally, lack, all define sex and the play of sexualities throughout the lifespan.

Like the missing schoolgirls, we too are liable to naively assume that nature will expel those ideological markers that enslave our subjectivity. It seems nature is full of promise but instead it proves to bestow as little subjective wholeness as does reliance on existing ideological markers. Being a willing dupe to nature is a position we may be all too eager to take up. However, the mystery of Hanging Rock challenges this by suggesting that we cannot survive outside our existing social bond. Without this we inexplicably disappear into the abyss of the unknown. The film’s conclusion depicts local towns-peoples’ desperate but futile attempts to find the girls and the subsequent slow return to their former lives. However, nature’s seductive silence has the last word: in refusing to be fully known, to fully subsume into nature’s mystery, means to literally disappear.

The catastrophic contingency of nature played out at Hanging Rock puts the very question of subjectivity into crisis. Disregarding the potential dangers, the girls wander about like nomads (although it is obvious that they don’t know their way around either nature or Indigenous tradition), blindly trusting that the structures they come from (boarding school, bourgeois society and so on) will on their return be waiting for them. It seems that nature confronts the subject with a choice, either to take it up with giddy wonder or feel afraid. Either way, this comes at a cost to the fantasy of stable subjectivity.

How is subjectivity destabilised in this film? For those characters most affected by the power of Hanging Rock it seems that subjective readjustment is not possible so that in different ways their former subjectivities disappear, unable to survive the wounds of realising that nature is a flawed master driven by its own contradiction. The most dramatic disappearance is of course the physical disappearance of Miranda, Marion and Miss McCraw. The two survivors, Irma – too traumatised to speak – and Michael move away from the area. Carrying the burden of these inexplicable disappearances, the principal Mrs Appleyard commits suicide. So also does the student Sara when she learns that she must return to the orphanage because her guardians have not paid her boarding school fees. Now belonging neither to nature’s wonderland nor having the comfort of bourgeois life, she occupies no place and thus disappears, betrayed by both mythical masters. In these suicides the susceptibility of the Hysteric is coherently expressed. Sara’s suicide is the true trauma the viewing subject can finally grasp among the wonderment and horror of nature’s seductiveness.[iii]

In spite of our trying we can never be the perfect hysteric. However, the film allows us to be the best hysteric we can, given the relentless insistence of the question, who do we want to be?, or more precisely, what am I for this object called nature? Whatever our response, we have to pay a price in searching for that missing bit which is forever turning desire into this more urgent and chaotic question. Here we are forced to speak our cultural and class symptoms, present and past, also to embody the object of desire yet at the same time distance ourselves from such a humiliating objectification. The seductive child-woman of the film is an ironic hysterical object, watched closely yet desired from a distance. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a beautiful, theatrical suspense film which in its compulsion towards the supernatural asks the hystericizing question, who or what made the girls disappear? The answer is simple and always the same: the conspiracy of the mythical big Other.

References

Freud, Sigmund. (1918). From the History of an Infantile Neurosis.  SE 17.

Gherovici, Patricia. (2014). Where have the Hysterics Gone? Lacan’s Reinvention of Hysteria. English Studies in Canada, 40(1), pp. 47-70.

Lacan, Jacques. (1977). Propos surl’hysterie. Quarto, 2, pp. 5-10.

 — (1958-1959). Le séminaire: Livre V: Les formations de l’inconscient.  J.A. Miller, ed. Paris: Seuil.

Lindsay, Joan. (1967). Picnic at Hanging Rock. London: Penguin.

 — (1973-1974). Interview with Joan Lindsay. Accessed from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGDkFNSoFSQ

McGowan, Todd. (2011). Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema. University of Minnesota.

Weir, Peter. (Director). (1975). Picnic at Hanging Rock [Film] [With Rachael Roberts, Jackie Weaver, Dominic Guard, & Helen Morse]. Australia: Picnic Productions.

Notes


[i] Thank you to Clint Burnham and Russell Sbriglia for their wonderful commentary and provocations.

[ii] In Seminar XXIV Lacan refers to himself as the ‘perfect hysteric’ albeit with no symptoms! “All things considered, I am the perfect hysteric, that is, one without symptoms, aside from an occasional gender error…” (Translation by P. Gherovici, 2014, p. 67). Patricia Gherovici (ibid) playfully engages Lacan’s claim when she makes a plea for how ‘perfect’ embodied hysteria becomes a conscious moment upon the realisation of one’s division in language: “Lacan himself was not above implicating himself in person in hysteria, although he confessed that he was too ‘perfect’ to be a straightforward hysteric.”

[iii] I appreciate Todd McGowan’s provocation here – perhaps Sara did not commit suicide but was rather killed by Mrs Appleyard given that at the picnic she was clad in funeral attire presumably in anticipation of a death/murder.

Trapped by the Bad Infinite: Film Noir Against Contemporary Capitalism

By Ryan Engley

Perhaps it is not surprising that an Orson Welles film provides Classic Hollywood’s most enduring visual metaphor for life under contemporary capitalism. The surprising thing is that this metaphor comes not from Citizen Kane but the comparatively less heralded Lady from Shanghai. In it, Michael O’Hara (Welles) becomes infatuated with Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth). Following his heart, he joins Elsa on an idyllic yachting getaway and becomes entangled in a complicated murder plot with Elsa and her husband, Arthur (Everett Sloane). It becomes clear that O’Hara is set up by Elsa to be the fall guy for another man’s murder (Grigsby, played by Glenn Anders) and, eventually, for Elsa’s planned murder of her husband. Right before the film’s climax, O’Hara and Elsa face each other in the Hall of Mirrors:

The characters are confined, trapped as it were, by the close quarters of the Hall of Mirrors. Yet within this extreme kind of constraint is infinity. The characters are projected in infinite variation behind them and to the left and right. The image tells us, paradoxically, that anything can happen—there is not just a multitude of choices and potentialities but an infinitude of them. And yet, the constraint of space lets us know that there is only one possible outcome here despite the seeming limitless surfeit of potentialities. The film reaches its climax with a shootout between Elsa and Arthur, who finds his way into the Hall of Mirrors. O’Hara is caught between the bullets and shattered glass and is the only one to make it out alive.

The Lady from Shanghai is a film noir, a genre made concrete and consistent through its dialectical relationship with the Hollywood Production code, or Hays Code, which lasted from 1934 to 1968. The Hays Code, the result of a push by the Catholic League to install a sense of morality and civility on screen, mandated that Hollywood films observe a restrictive set of standards and practices. Among the famous dictates included such Commandments as “No licentious kissing” and “Characters who commit crimes must pay for them by the end of the film.” In the noir, this led to a pervasive sense of fatalism that is perhaps best exemplified by Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film Detour. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is hitchhiking across the U.S. to be reunited with his long-time girlfriend when the man he has been traveling with, Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), suddenly dies. Al immediately realizes that nobody would believe his story, not the police and possibly not even the viewer who may suspect him of tendentiously unreliable narration. So, what does Al do? Barely sixty seconds after becoming aware of Haskell’s death, Al steals Haskell’s clothes and identity.It’s a thought process that seems extreme and unrealistic but, given the constraints of the Code, is completely reasonable. In the latter half of the film, Al accidentally kills Vera (Ann Savage) but he does so as Charles Haskell, leading to the film’s Code bending final scene where Al as Haskell is arrested in a fantasy sequence. The crime of identity theft, effectively, allows Al to avoid diegetic punishment for his crime of murder, subverting the Code.

One of the typical stories told of film noir is that it is not so much a genre but rather a loosely connected clutch of crime films that share a gritty aesthetic. According to this view, film noir is brought together in the popular imagination only by the writing of famous French film scholars and filmmakers such as Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, and Francois Truffaut, who used the pages of Cahiers du cinema to extol the artistic virtues of American films overlooked by Americans. While the influence of French film scholarship on the way we think about film noir is undeniable—I mean, it’s a French phrase, obviously—there is a thematic consistency to noirs that arises not from the retroactive grouping of film scholars but from the internal negotiation of an external limit placed on them by the Code. Most importantly, it is this quality of the noir—its dialectical encounter with the Code—that makes its way into the film image itself, as we see with the Shanghai mirror scene, that continues to be referenced by recent film and television series. What in Shanghai is an existential critique and exceptional bit of camerawork and set design becomes the template for a visual metaphor that comments directly on the state of living under contemporary capitalism. We see this clearly in three more recent pieces of popular media (all coincidentally released in 2019): Us, HBO’s Watchmen (2019), and Spiderman: Far from Home.

In referencing The Lady from Shanghai’s Hall of Mirrors sequence, Us, Watchmen (2019), and Spiderman: Far from Home interject the constraint of the Code into films and television that know no such external limitation. The ghost of the Code emerges here as an internal limit. Informed by the Code era noir of The Lady from Shanghai, what these more contemporary media texts suggest theoretically is the distinction between what Hegel termed the “bad infinite” and the true infinite or “infinite of the concept.” The bad infinite is the unlimited sprawl of “and then” that knows no conflict with an internal limit, nor with contradiction. In other words, the bad infinite never encounters itself. The bad infinite is reason expanded infinitely without encountering the deadlock of subjectivity. We see this logic at work most prominently in contemporary capitalism, which seeks to expand and—through this expansion—provide no opportunities for the subject under capitalism to encounter themselves. Each of the following examples makes a clear move away from the bad infinite and toward the deadlock of contradiction brought about by an internal limit. This allows these scenes to stand not simply as hipster references toa non-mainstream Classic Hollywood film, but media texts that help us read back to The Lady from Shanghai—and the noir generally—and see anew its formal radicality.

To this end, Jordan Peele’s 2019 horror film Us adds an important gloss to the Shanghai’s iconic scene: the infinite is no escape at all. Set initially in Santa Cruz, California in 1986, the opening sequence of Us sees young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) make her way into “Vision Quest,” a beachside fun house. As she cautiously makes her way through the winding corridors of the fun house, the lights go out. Emergency lighting illuminates only the exit signs. We see the following shot from her perspective, low to the ground and tilted slightly up.

Adelaide runs toward the exit sign only to bump straight into a mirror. She staggers back and looks up again, only to realize that the exit sign was a reflection and that the way out offers both several possibilities for escape but, crucially, none at all.

HBO’s 2019 adaptation/sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen furthers the paradox of limitless potential within confined space that we see in Lady from Shanghai and Us.Created for television by Damon Lindelof, Watchmen (2019) takes the classic graphic novel’s text as its back story while weaving in a critique of racism. The series is notable for narrativizing, in effect, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s well-known Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations” in its first episode, which begins with the 1921 race massacre that destroyed “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The first episode instantiates one of Watchmen (2019)’s most critical questions: even if a country like the U.S. acknowledges and begins a process of reparations for racial violence like the Tulsa Race Massacre, how do we repair time? How do we undo and ameliorate historical trauma? What logic does it take to even begin to think an undertaking such as this? The answers the series has to these questions are articulated throughout its limited run, particularly in episode six, “This Extraordinary Being” and in episode eight, “A God Walks into Abar,” but for the purposes of this essay we will be looking at another recurrence of The Lady from Shanghai’s iconic mirror scene.[1]

Steph Green directs episode five, “Little Fear of Lightning,” which tells the backstory of Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), one of Watchmen 2019’s original characters. In the original Watchmen graphic novel, Ozymandias—the self-proclaimed Smartest Man in the World—engineers a hoax terrorist event perpetrated by aliens to save the world from the Cold War. Rather than fighting each other, the U.S. and Soviet Russia agreed to come together to defend the planet from an extraterrestrial threat. This is, more or less, where the graphic novel ends. Readers see the destruction wrought by a yonic alien creature bluetoothed into existence over Midtown, Manhattan.

The HBO series, rather than surveying the damage after the fact, puts us right in it on the ground floor.

Before he became Looking Glass, a masked vigilante working in the Tulsa, OK, police department, Wade Tillman was a young, naïve Christian, working to spread the word of god to sinners. Unable to convince anybody at a Carnival in Hoboken, New Jersey to follow the life Christ, young Looking Glass (Philip Labes) is seemingly rescued from being bullied by Roxy (Julia Vasi). He follows her into—you guessed it—a Hall of Mirrors.

Roxy correctly guesses that Wade is a virgin and promises to give him his first sexual experience. She slowly takes Wade’s clothes off, as “Careless Whisper” plays in the background, only to run off with them. She quickly yells “Fuck you, Bible boy,” leaving him naked—castrated—and alone in a hall of mirrors where, as you can see below, Wade has to look in horror at infinitely projected versions of his own naked body; a macabre version of Lacan’s “Mirror stage” where Wade recognizes himself as a desiring being.

As Wade excoriates himself for being “a filthy, dumb sinner,” Ozymandias kills millions of New Yorkers with a giant squid monster and psychically traumatizes hundreds of others, like young Wade Tillman, who runs naked out of the hall of mirrors to see dead bodies with no idea how any of it happened. The trauma of his recognition of himself as a desiring subject is redoubled.

Watchmen (2019), by so forcefully foregrounding desire and trauma in the Lady from Shanghai frame, shows us how these forces come together in the Welles original. Under the Code, there certainly could not be a sex scene as explicit as the one in Watchmen (2019) and yet it is desire that leads Michael O’Hara (Welles) down the path that ends in the hall of mirrors, just the same as Wade Tillman. O’Hara can only watch helplessly as Elsa and Arthur shoot enough mirror images of themselves and each other to eventually hit their intended targets. He walks away from this scene in a way that Wade, in Watchmen (2019) cannot.

Wade learns a lesson the hard way what O’Hara seems to understand when he says to Elsa, “One who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end. But haven’t you heard ever of something better to follow?” To which Elsa responds, after a lengthy pause, “No.” It’s tempting to read Elsa on the side of the ethical position of psychoanalysis here—not giving ground relative to one’s desire—but I think the presence of the infinite is most important here. What Wade and Elsa are lured by is exactly this infinitude of desire. O’Hara rightly sees that this is a trap and Wade learns this only after the fact of his utter humiliation and castration. Desire, here, needs to be the exceeding of a limit, not the embrace of the limitless.

Finishing our trifecta of 2019 visual media latently obsessed with Lady from Shanghai, is Marvel’s Spiderman: Far from Home. In the second of Sony/ Marvel’s most recent Spiderman trilogy, we see Peter Parker (Tom Holland) struggling with the possibility of becoming the most important Avenger after—NOTE there be major SPOILERS for a four year-old Marvel film past this DASH—death of Tony Stark in Infinity War. In Far from Home, Parker continues to shirk his duties as an adventure in an attempt to enjoy a summer field trip with his classmates, hoping to get closer to love-interest MJ (Zendaya). He says repeatedly in the film that he just wants to be a “normal kid,” an “ordinary” kid and have an utterly mundane life—at least for a minute. What Parker is looking for is the infinite. The life of a superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a very finite and determined one. Superheroes in these films jump from crisis to crisis working to uphold, usually, a political status quo that imperils their personal status quo. Far from Home shows Spiderman at his least responsible: giving up his great power to obtain a shot at the carefree life of a teenager. The film literalizes the thematic when Parker hands over to Quentin Beck (Jack Gyllenhaal) sunglasses that are linked to a satellite super computer with global missile defense capabilties. Crucially, Tony Stark left these glasses for Parker, choosing him as the person to carry on in his stead after his death. Beck fills the Stark vacuum for Parker for a time. Beck, who eventually goes by the name Mysterio, is a new superhero who has arrived, allegedly, from another dimension to help defeat elemental creatures in Parker’s world. In truth, Beck is a disgruntled former Stark Industries employee who uses illusions to trick Parker into thinking he is trustworthy all as a ploy to get these global missile defense glasses.

Once Parker becomes aware of Beck’s grift, he attempts to get the glasses back and alert Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of S.H.I.E.L.D of his error in trusting Beck. (As an aside, do we think it was difficult for Jake Gyllenhaal to play Quentin Beck as a self-obsessed gaslighter or do we think Far from Home screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers pretty much let him write his own lines? #JaketheSnake #TeamTaylor #SwiftJustice #AllTooWell) Beck eventually traps Spiderman in a very familiar looking illusion.

The jagged glass reflecting Spiderman back to Spiderman is, of course, reminiscent of a well-known meme where two Spidermen point fingers at each other, but it also continues to play on the relationship between infinity and confinement that Welles visualizes in Lady from Shanghai. For Parker, this scene recalls his oft-stated desire in Far from Home to be anybody else other than who he is. This refusal to accept his subjectivity and desire for an infinite of other possibilities is the central tension that Parker has to face in Far from Home.

What Parker sees in every other possible life path other than his own is freedom. Freedom of choice. Like an aisle full of shampoo and conditioner at Walmart, the infinity of choice seems to inhere a kind of freedom within it—the only potential to satisfy desire. What these film and television images show us, however, is that this assumption of the liberatory potential of the infinite is fatally incorrect. This kind of infinite does not hold within it the potential for radical break. Far from Home concretizes for us the Hegelian thread that runs throughout all of these examples: avoiding the limit is no way to encounter it.


[1] Watchmen (2019) will eventually use Dr. Manhattan, a pan dimensional being who experiences all of time at once, as its way of arguing for how to redeem time: we cannot “get over” or move past historical trauma, we have to tarry with it—exist with it at the same time as we do something as mundane as getting a drink at a bar.

No Book Tables, Badges, or Bios: LACK Interview

The following is an interview that took place over email in March 2021. LACKers Matthew Flisfeder and Russell Sbriglia asked the LACK Central Committee members, Hilary Neroni, Jennifer Friedlander, Henry Krips, and Todd McGowan, about their thoughts on the origins/formations of the LACK conference, its influences and approaches, and potential goals coming down the road for the LACK community.

Matthew Flisfeder:     Can you tell us a bit about the initial formation of the conference? What was the original idea? What motivated the four of you to come together to organize the conference, and what were you hoping to build from it?

Hilary Neroni:     We were sitting in a lounge area in a hotel. Some random city. Some random hotel. Some random conference. The details are not important. But it was the same experience as usual in that we all felt like the only people there doing the kind of work we do. It didn’t matter so much because we were thrilled to see each other. Jennifer and Henry are our close personal friends. In part, our friendship was formed through our theoretical bond, especially our engagement with psychoanalysis and other philosophical traditions. I’m pretty sure we were not the only ones to every time say things like, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a conference where everyone wanted to talk about what we want to talk about?” But one fateful night while our kids were running up and down the hallway and we were hiding in the lounge, one of us suggested that we actually create a conference. Frankly, that seemed too daunting, so, instead, we decided to begin by creating an organization within which we could stage small seminars. The idea of LACK was to create an organization that was about ideas and not about status or recognition. In fact, even doing this interview seems somewhat antithetical to the inherent philosophy of LACK, which is to not call attention to the organizers but to hold open a space where the ideas take center stage. We might have also wanted to figure out how we could see our friends every year, but it’s hard to eradicate all personal interest. I’ll let others jump in on this origin story.

Jennifer Friedlander:       Thanks, Hilary, for recounting that moment! I recall the every-lounge-room in the every-conference-hotel (but I recall, quite specifically, the conference) all very vividly. Indeed, the initial vision was to create this opportunity to engage deeply and on a small scale with psychoanalytic thinking (without concern for drawing big names or big audiences.) Although LACK has become a much larger-scale event than we originally envisioned, we have tried to stay faithful to our founding philosophy to reject the status-oriented nature of most academic conference. For instance, as Hilary pointed out in her opening remarks at LACK iii, we refuse (to the occasional dismay of participants) the “3Bs” of conferences: book rooms, badges, and bios. The idea is that, if you are interested in a presenter’s work, strike up a conversation with them, introduce yourself, etc. 

LACK has proven a strong suspicion that we had: that there are so many of us doing this kind of thinking, in a large range of disciplines, departments, institutions, which may not appear to be connected with Lacanian psychoanalysis. I have found it pretty moving to see people who have been working in this area somewhat privately, finally encountering other thinkers to share ideas with, and have a place to come together.

Henry Krips:      OK – here’s my origin story. First there was a-void—a-void any large conferences with dinners, AGMs (Annual General Meetings), planning sessions, and too many psychoanalysts dressed in black t-shirts. Instead, just organize a space where a few academics interested in Lacan chat with each other once a year. But the demi-urge would not be denied and death (Tod) reined his deadly forms upon us (The Todes-Lied). I attempted to resist the siren song of the conference with its inevitable fall into the intervals of eating donuts, drinking from stainless steel coffee urns, and the lotus-land of plenary sessions, introducing speakers, and chairing panels. But I was outvoted by my three brothers and sisters (including my partner). I now think they were right—if Lacan is to be taken seriously as an academic pursuit, a career path even, rather than as a French infection, then the infra structure of the (larger) conference is necessary. What I still disagree with my brothers and sisters about (again I was outvoted) was the spelling of the name: Alas, I preferred “Lac,” which I still think was better, but this may be the Australian in me, who always prefers abbreviations that are never seen as lac(k)ing. (P.S. I wanted a year of living dangerously when the conference t-shirt has LAC printed on it, but it remains a dream rather than fantasy.)

Todd McGowan:     Wow. Such a great job of setting the bar high. I know that there were many times that we discussed the possibility, but I also remember the actual time when the plot was hatched. I had lost my wallet and thus was in a complete panic. So the beginning of LACK is connected to a trauma for me. But when I found it (on the floor in the middle of the parking garage), Hilary, Jennifer, and Henry were together in Jennifer and Henry’s room waiting for me, already deep in conversation. Our boys were all playing together or, more likely, watching a movie together. Our collective sense was that we wanted a conference to go to that foregrounded psychoanalytic theory for its own sake and that would completely abjure any of the usual academic trappings. As Jennifer and Hilary say, we wanted to avoid the 3Bs of academic conferences—badges, book tables, and bios. I remember that there was a lot of (mis)quoting of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. We noted that previous attempts to found a psychoanalytic theory organization had started off with promise and then quickly died. The original APCS (Association for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society) formed by Slavoj [Žižek], Joan [Copjec], and others, along with Ken Reinhard’s attempt to form the American Lacanian Link (ALL). The key to enduring, we conjectured, would be not forming a coherent group in the first place but just a central committee that would keep the conference going and enforce the limits, without ever insisting on membership. But one of the founding ideas was that no one on the central committee could ever serve as a plenary speaker. We saw the central committee as the lowest rung in LACK. LACK would just go as long as it was viable, and then it would disappear. But it would be a group with no belonging, so it couldn’t be dissolved.

As Henry notes, there was considerable discussion about what the organization should be named. We tried for quite a while to come up with an acronym that involved Lacan. Something like ALT (Association of Lacanian Theorists) was considered and then quickly dismissed. After many failed attempts, we decided to abandon the idea of an acronym and just go with LACK, which seemed like it stood for something but actually stood for nothing, which we thought was perfect.

It is possible that this would have all come to nothing. Even though we had the idea and told it to friends, none of us had the funding at our universities—or, frankly, the organizing skill—to pull it off. When I was giving a talk at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Scott Krzych, who knew of the general idea, approached me with the possibility of having the LACK Conference there, with the university providing financial support for it. I asked everyone, and no one was against the idea.

MF:     Thanks, everyone! There’s a lot to pick up on here, but I’m really interested in what Hilary and Jennifer are saying about the low-key aspect of the organization and the conference. Isn’t it a rite of passage, or something like that, to betray the foundational goals of the group? I think, because you are all such prominent figures in psychoanalytic cultural and media theory, film theory… I’m curious about why you think the group has grown larger than what you initially anticipated? Do you secretly play the role of the Master? Or maybe do you occupy the position of the analyst? Does the conference aim to defy the discourse of the university? Sorry to put it in such stereotypical Lacanian jargon. But, more or less, I’m curious to know what you think has made LACK such a relatively popular and/or growing phenomenon for those of us doing work on theory when it seems so very niche.

JF:       Thank you, Matthew. Your questions deserve much more consideration, but for now, my very quick take on the unanticipated popularity of LACK: If anything, I might think of our roles as objets a (“the lowest rung,” as Todd’s put it, and perhaps the “obstacles” we insist upon—the banning of the 3Bs, the refusal to guarantee when/where/if the next LACK will be by the end of each conference, etc. function, too, in terms of this position?) For me wide-spread institutional anti-psychoanalytic sentiment has meant that so many of us do this kind of thinking/working in relative secret. In this sense, psychoanalysis itself appears to occupy a place of lack within the academy, but, as we know, nothing is more incessant than to circle the lack.

HK:     I think my discursive position here is, if anything, that of the hysteric, although as a hysteric, of course, I leave it to the other to decide where if anywhere I fit. In any case, my position on these issues is totally re-lacksed (or perhaps relaxative?).

I do, however, admire the way in which our gang of four was totally taken aback when one of the lackers put up a Facebook page for LACK. Is this how the meeting of Soviets were taken aback by Lenin’s announcement that, despite the Soviets’ prognostication that it was too early for the revolution, the revolution had happened overnight? Our only virtue is that, unlike the Soviets, we did not walk out in protest… perhaps out of amazement?

HN:       I appreciate both Jennifer’s and Henry’s analysis. To your question Matt, I have just the simple response: the reason someone comes to LACK the first time is because there are not many other conferences out there where you can present a paper that is psychoanalytic and meet other theorists interested in what you are interested in. We tend to see the same people at the other couple of conferences that exist out there. But maybe, or hopefully, the reason someone comes back to LACK is that we have created an environment in which people feel comfortable and supported. And by that, I mean that everyone is anxious to hear anyone’s paper and excited to talk to all the presenters about their ideas. It may sound corny, but we encourage people to reach out to others they don’t know, as Jennifer mentioned, and even invite them to lunch/dinner. Many people make dates with those coming to the conference to sit and talk about the ideas they are working on during lunch or in between panels because when else do we have the opportunity to really bounce our ideas off of people who can help us with our work?  

Our desire was to create a shared feeling of putting ideas first instead of the usual professionalization of conferences. Of course, we aren’t blind to the real difference between those that have jobs, those that don’t, part time vs. full time, etc. And we were hoping that by emphasizing ideas over status everyone would feel they had access to the conversation. I personally go to LACK to learn. I love seeing as many papers as I can possibly watch in one day, and I’ve never done that at another conference. Often, I get a sense that large groups of us are working on similar ideas (the role of the Real, the role of enjoyment, how fantasy intersects with politics) and it’s buoying to see this shared conversation, and to see it as a shared conversation.

I like the idea of the conference being ephemeral. I also always feel that, though we four put it together often in collaboration with a generous host (such as the amazing Scott Krzych, Colorado College, and the wonderful Hugh Manon, Clark University), the actual conference is CREATED by all the people that attend. We can’t make people support each other or listen to each other. It’s all the conference participants who actually make that happen. LACK doesn’t exist without each attendee actively creating it.

TM:     I agree with Jennifer. I don’t think that we are anything like analysts or masters. The whole point was to have a conference that operated without the typical academic structure because it would focus on psychoanalytic theory, which was outside the typical structure itself. My favorite part of it is something that I would avoid at any other conference: the discussions that arise spontaneously outside of the panels and in the evenings. This for me makes it worth it. And I like to think that this is what others also find valuable. My sense is that it’s very important to avoid any cult of personality, such as surrounded Lacan himself, so that thinking would be prized above else.

We were all taken by the idea that someone was judged by the argument they put forth rather than their publication history, fame, or pedigree. Even the plenaries would be just first among equals.

I would second another thing that Jennifer says. It seems to me extremely important that there was no guarantee about the next conference. Each one could be the last, just like each day for each of us.

JF:        A brief addendum: Josef [Jennifer and Henry’s son] just came in now while Henry was (again) lamenting us not calling it LAC. Josef sided with the Name of the Father, and reproached me: “but isn’t the whole thing about LACan, and wouldn’t it be fitting if the word ‘lack’ lacked a letter?”

HN:     Love it!

MF:       The missing “K” as the signifier of the LAC, maybe? K for Krips (speaking of the Nom/non du père)?

HK:       Nice point. I’m not sure whether it is better to be the missing letter which should be missing but isn’t, or that which by its presence creates a lack.

RS:       I’d like to ask if the four of you could speak a little bit about the primary influences behind, as well as the scope of, LACK. As evidenced by your reflections on how it came to be named “LACK,” it’s quite clear that the organization is dedicated to Lacanian psychoanalytic theory—and this is no doubt the first thing that most people who know of LACK would say about it and associate it with. To quote from the LACK website: “LACK was formed in 2015 to bring together theorists interested in engaging psychoanalytic theory and its intersection with philosophy, politics and contemporary culture.” Even the LACK logo features a nod to that object which Lacan claimed was his most important contribution to psychoanalytic theory (or, more precisely, his only “invention” with regard to the Freudian field): the objet petit a, the object-cause of desire. And yet, the website also describes LACK as “an organization devoted to the promotion and development of thought in the tradition of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and German Idealism.” 

How should we understand the role that the German Idealist tradition plays with respect to the vision and outlook of LACK? How significant or precise a role does—or should—it truly play? Would you consider it an integral component of LACK, or is it more of a supplementary or complementary component? When I think of the two traditions invoked here—Lacanian psychoanalysis and German Idealism—my mind (not surprisingly!) immediately goes to the Ljubljana School and the “Hegel avec Lacan” approach made famous by Slavoj Žižek, Mladen Dolar, and Alenka Zupančič (an approach in which Kant plays nearly as large a role as Hegel himself), but perhaps there is some additional or alternative rationale for including German Idealism under the group’s banner?

TM:     My sense of why we didn’t name Lacan directly in the organization name was that we  wanted Lacan to be a starting point for theorizing but not an end point. The references to Lacan would be implicit rather than explicit, which is the primary reason why we decided to not have an acronym as the name but just LACK. The primary thing that we wanted to avoid, as I remember it, was becoming bogged down in arcane discussions of what the master really meant. The direction of the theory would point outward rather than inward, so that it didn’t become navel gazing. I suppose that this is why we also included German Idealism in the organization description. All of us see a link between psychoanalysis (at least Freud and Lacan) and German Idealism. Of course, Slavoj was important for making that evident, but we didn’t see this as just an organization devoted to Slavoj. In fact, there was some reluctance to have him come as a speaker for fear that participants would come to that iteration of the conference looking to touch the robes of the savoir rather than coming to engage intellectually and psychically with their comrades. It would simply be impossible for him to be first among equals, which is what we strive for with the plenary speakers due to the way people approach him. But at the same time, he did embody the values of the group because he scorns bios, badges, and book signings.

HK:      And yet, of course, the signifier “lack” was chosen precisely for the reference to Lacan both by its sound and for its reference to Lacan’s core concept of lack. It is interesting to think why our coyness in mentioning Lacan more directly—perhaps a thumbing the nose at those who mention Lacan directly but with less willingness to follow through? A second note: I’m not sure that I had German Idealism in mind, although all of us, I think, wanted to take with us a commitment to using Freud in its Lacanian return to thinking the social, and thus rejecting what often seemed like a hesitancy among some groups of psychoanalytic practitioners in the U.S. to theorize with Lacan, while at the same time not simply doing Lacan studies.

TM:     I think Henry’s point here is crucial. The one thing that we are prized—above fealty to a  certain thinker or tradition—was bringing psychoanalysis to think the social order and the cultural and even the existential, while not doing social psychology. I take it that this is Lacan’s primary move relative to Freud.

I wonder if German Idealism wasn’t a response to papers that we received for the conference, since I’m not sure it was part of the original formulation of the organization.

JF:        Thanks, Todd and Henry, for putting it so well. Yes—to echo them, for me, too, the invocation of German Idealism was largely about signaling that we were interested in work based in the humanistic tradition, rather than psychologically-based approaches. And, indeed, the relationship of psychoanalysis to the cultural/political realm has been at the forefront of most LACK papers. 

RS:       Todd’s point about German Idealism not being part of the original formulation of the organization tracks with my memory of the first LACK conference (maybe the first two conferences, actually). Even more notable than this minor detail, I think, is his suggestion that this was in response to the nature of the papers that the organization received. Having attended all of the conferences so far, it’s clear that, whether an effect of the influence of the Ljubljana School or not, German Idealism is also of interest to many of LACK’s speakers and attendees. 

More interesting to me, though, is Jennifer’s suggestion that the inclusion of German Idealism in the organization’s “mission statement,” so to speak, serves to signal that LACK is committed to thinking psychoanalytic theory alongside the humanistic tradition (a suggestion which builds on Henry’s claim that LACK is committed to a psychoanalytic thinking or theorizing of the social order). I think one of the reasons why LACK has amassed such a loyal following so far is that though there are many of us out there interested in psychoanalytic theory, there is a significant feeling of alienation among us—especially within the various fields in which we work. On the one hand, as Henry’s comments suggest, there are many psychoanalytic practitioners for whom the use of psychoanalysis as a socio-cultural heuristic is anathema, so this tends to marginalize theoretical psychoanalysis in the clinical realm; on the other hand, there are many humanists—or, more precisely, humanities professors—for whom psychoanalytic theory is by and large passé (whether because the notion of “sexual difference,” to take just one Freudian concept as an example, has been supplanted by “gender,” or because many still erroneously view Lacan as a poststructuralist whose thinking is no longer relevant now that we’ve moved beyond the “linguistic turn” of the 70s and 80s), which tends to marginalize psychoanalytic theory within the academy.

Some of you (Hilary especially) have already noted the social component of the LACK conferences, but I wonder if you could all speak a bit more about this, because it seems to me that the social link fostered by the conference itself has been just as crucial to its continuance as the participants’ collective interest in thinking psychoanalysis and the social.  

I realize that this is somewhat of a leading question, so I’d also be interested in hearing any thoughts you might have about the truly interdisciplinary nature of the conference (how it gathers—and unites—scholars from a number of disciplines that fall within what Jennifer has termed the “humanistic tradition,” and beyond). Does it surprise any of you just how many LACKers there are out there from many different fields, or has the conference just confirmed what you already suspected?

TM:      Building on what Russ says, one of our reasons for starting LACK was to have a place where purely theoretical questions could have their day. This is one thing that the four of us wanted and dreamed of while at other conferences that, for whatever reason, didn’t really find the theoretical compelling on its own. But this means that we had to walk a fine line. We didn’t want simply to ponder how Lacan’s formulas of sexuation really work or explain the graph of desire, but we also didn’t want to spend the conference thinking about psychoanalytic practice or applied psychoanalysis. Our idea was, at least from my perspective, that even papers thinking about a cultural text would not be applying psychoanalysis to it. To do so would just be another form of thinking in terms of practice only. Instead, papers would use the cultural text as an occasion for advancing the theory in some way. I think all four of us strive for this in our different ways. Maybe Jennifer is the most successful at really doing it, but I hesitate to single one person out. I’m thinking of how both of her books embark on textual analyses and then find themselves in the heart of theoretical debates in the midst of the analyses, as if the one naturally flowed from the other. This would be, for me, an example of the privileging of theory over practice, even if the practice is not the psychoanalytic session but the act of interpretation. My feeling is that the best papers at LACK have done this—or have addressed theoretical questions straight on. In terms of that approach, two of my favorites were the kickoff talks by Molly Rothenberg and Sheldon George for the second and third iterations of the conference.

In terms of the response that we’ve received, every time I’ve been shocked by how many people who have wanted to come. In that sense, the conference has defied rather than confirmed my expectations. Since I’m surrounded by Foucauldians, I tend to assume that they are ubiquitous, and it’s nice to see that assumption undermined.

HK:     Ha!! A comment I can jump on. Contra Todd (and Joan [Copjec]) I think the danger is not Foucauldians per se, but rather bad misreaders of Foucault, just as bad misreaders of Lacan are dangers (perhaps even more so). Todd and I have had this out before, and no doubt will again. I really appreciate the Foucault of History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, for his Lacanian privileging of pleasure over desire, and his hints about a body-politic, which is redolent of Lacan’s more elaborate traversal of fantasy/identifying with symptom, and, of course, I like Foucault’s vitriolic attack on identity politics. This is not to say that Foucault is above criticism for a Lacanian. On the contrary, Foucault lacks any sort of theory of the Real and a lot that goes along with it (e.g., a theory of sexuation). But it is a shame to throw the Foucauldian baby out with the dirty bathwater left by his misreaders.

JF:       I know better (“or worse…”) than to get in the middle of the Todd vs. Henry Foucault debate, but a quick reply to the earlier part of Todd’s message: I appreciate so much that you have identified the effort in my work to, in a sense, apply a case to a theoretical problem/debate (rather than apply a theory to a case); I think that this is something we all do and something that I admire in all of your work. Robert Pfaller has been particularly eloquent in describing such a move as a fundamentally Freudian gesture.

TM:      I actually think this is an important point to address. I would say that the difference of  views on Foucault is really the only theoretical division among the central committee. It is, of course, an amicable division (and perhaps even a fecund one to some extent). But it’s meaningless in terms of our larger project. I do think that we all more or less see eye to eye on all other key theoretical questions, which was an important factor in making the beginning of the organization—and its continued life—possible. There is no factionalism among us because there is broad agreement. I think sometimes conflict and disagreement are held up as an intellectual ideal (by, say, Jacques Rancière), but the formation of LACK speaks to the productivity of agreement. It’s not as if we all follow a dogma but more that we all came to a point where we see certain key theoretical points as decisive.

HK:     D’accord… and yes, Todd and my disagreement on the big F has never gone beyond  loving banter (and Todd taking his glasses off in a seminar in order to answer “seriously” a question from me Re: Foucault). I also agree that we are eye to eye on the not-all other issues we’ve discussed, including German Idealism.

MF:     What if we were to throw the Frankfurt School into the mix? I’m looking for an all out  brawl here!

HK:     Benjamin gets a yes. But, having said that, let me add that I have a tendency to make  anything I find interesting into an anticipation of Lacan.

TM:     I agree with Henry on Benjamin, but I think in some sense the group was constituted in  an attempt to carve out a political psychoanalytic alternative to the Frankfurt School. I don’t think that there is any disagreement on this.

HN:     I agree that Lacan and German Idealism was a signal toward focusing out rather than a  conference looking solely at Lacanian structures and terminology, and that this was representative of what we saw arising amongst the papers. I think the description still suffices, but I even more see people turning back to Freud and Hegel. At the same time, there are people from many different disciplines at the conference, and we did expect this because we encountered it at other conferences. We certainly hoped it would be true at LACK. Additionally, we’ve had various concentrations that have arisen and taken root. Recently, a focus on psychoanalysis and race has led to several panels, books, and an edited collection. And this certainly was an area that needed more investigation in psychoanalytic cultural theory. 

All of these moments when LACK participants would encourage and push each other’s work happened during the “socializing,” and often people commented that they wanted more of this. These requests led to us trying to make sure rooms were close and lunch was longer. Who knew these were things you had to ponder?! Thankfully, many participants have stepped up and filled out our own lack in this area and helped to create space for this fecund socializing.

MF:     I just want to pick up on what Hilary was saying about topical focuses emerging, such as  examinations of psychoanalysis and race—or, there is of course a wide-ranging literature on psychoanalysis and post-/colonialism. I think this is interesting and we see these projects emerging as responses to some of the criticism we all probably hear about psychoanalysis as Eurocentric, or as sexist, for instance. Do you think, as a community, LACK is helping to promote alternative perspectives on Freud, Lacan, and psychoanalysis more generally? Perspectives, perhaps, that we can take back into conversations and debates we have with colleagues and friends in our home fields or disciplines who might have several misgivings about what it is that psychoanalysis does?

I’m asking this, also, as a way of treating or reading the different conference themes, such as freedom, politics, and separation (I’m leaving out LACK by the Lake because it just seems too serene for controversy here).

How have you organized or thought about the themes of the conference? Are they in any way inspired by the historical moment or context?

JF:       Yes—I like to think that, by showing what psychoanalysis offers to contemporary  social/political/ethical questions, “LACK is helping to promote alternative perspectives on Freud, Lacan, and psychoanalysis more generally.” But perhaps even more so, I think that a lot of the psychoanalytic work shared at LACK offers alternate perspectives on issues of race, sexuality, identity, etc. Lacanian/psychoanalytic understandings of things like the universal, enjoyment, sexuation, and indeed, lack, alter the usual terrain from dominant thinking about problems of racism, hate, otherness, etc. Often at conferences, in a 15-minute paper in which you seek to offer a different take, it is not possible to do more than lay the groundwork to prepare for such departures from dominant frameworks, whereas LACK seems to provide a space in which presenters can dispense with the set-up and jump right into the intervention.  

TM:     One of the controlling ideas of the conference was to provide an alternative way of  thinking about questions of oppression or injustice. We’ve always tried to encourage papers on sexism, racism, homophobia. As far as the conference themes go, however, each time we strove to find one that would allow everyone to submit something. We wanted them to be themes that weren’t really themes. So in that sense “LACK on the Lake” is just a continuation. At least that’s how I have always viewed the themes.

HN:     It certainly was our hope that the conference as we imagined it would allow for people to dive into areas and have conversations about oppression in society. What can psychoanalysis tell us about the way that people experience and engage in racism? How does psychoanalysis open up ways to think about capitalism, class, and the way we live within these systems? And so on… Conversations that tried to dive into these issues could hopefully take hold and continue sometimes throughout the year, Oo at least live on in our individual work. One thing that I have found is that the people who attend LACK are usually quite prolific, are passionate about their work, and are usually working on something new. So it’s no surprise that most who attend bring work that is reacting to current anxieties, problems, cultural shifts, antagonisms and so on.

And just to underline Todd’s point, we often toyed with not having a theme and instead just saying: come present what you are working on. But it seemed better to at least have some very general topic. Again, people are often working on similar ideas, which makes creating panels quite easy.  

MF:     Thanks, everyone. I think we just have one final question.

We wanted to ask about what you envision for the future of LACK, but I feel like you’ve all already answered this in the sense that the conference and the group has been imagined as much more open ended and far less formal than an average professional academic association. 

Regardless, we’re wondering if you still do think about planning or maintaining the group somehow in the future. Or, maybe a better, and more provocative question might be: any regrets?

TM:     I try never to think about the future of LACK. My sense is that it will be over when none  of us feels like doing it again. If someone else wants to take it over after we’ve done our time with it, I want to have no involvement with it at all. As far as I’m concerned (although I don’t know what others think), I don’t even want to be consulted in any way. But I don’t in any way feel possessive about the name. If someone likes the idea and wants to take it up, great for them.

I feel like the conference went better than I could have imagined. In that sense, I don’t have any regrets at all. I’d be curious if others do regret something, however.

HK:     First, I want to thank our brothers for asking the questions. In the end, despite an initial  playful distancing from the questions, they made me think about issues of endings, the future, the present, the past, and other middle-size issues, like institutions. My thoughts gathered around scenes from two films and a book (subsequently made into a not so good film).  

First, the film Cabaret: the horrifying scene where the beautiful blonde Nazi kid gets up to sing “The Future belongs to Me” and everyone in the beer garden joins in the song. Here I am with Todd—the future belongs to no one, and it is a political crime (perhaps the arch political crime) to try to take it for oneself. It is, I think, hubris to consider that LACK is in any danger of committing this crime, but…

Second, the book The Tobacconist, about Freud, a young upper Austrian friend, and 1930s Nazi Austria. It handles beautifully the question of antisemitism (which, for a change, is treated in a way that does full justice to its ambiguity—especially its deep roots in the political questions of otherness—rather than treating it as a simple black and white issue of identity politics and discrimination). Sitting, as I am now, in (still rather anti-semitic) Vienna, I was very moved by it. The point that I was struck by in relation to our question, however, is the question of endings/future, in particular the question of who “survives.” Without introducing a spoiler, let me just say that in the book the survivor is an insignificant speck on the margins. In the case of LACK, I guess the equivalent would be that the survivors of LACK, who take it into the future, would be a group of Jungian psychoanalysts who happen to attend the last meeting of LACK, are drawn to the name (for the wrong reasons), and, backed by Bill Gates, decide to form a new “LACK” association. 

Third, the incredible film The Father, which shows there are worse things than the future—enough said. 

Having said all this, let me add two things. First, what I said before: I was wrong to oppose the formation of a “Big” LACK. It has a good role to play, (occasionally) helping to get jobs for people, and providing a community setting of sorts for Lacanians (for parler a la cantonade). Second, on a personal note: this is the second time I have been outvoted on a name for association. I was involved in founding and naming an association, which is now some sort of division within the National Communication Association, called “The American Association for Rhetoric of Science.” I desperately wanted this name for its acronym, but I was outvoted at the first general meeting, where it was changed, by nervous acclaim from the floor, to “American Association for Rhetoric of Science and Technology.” I am the ex-nominated—which, I guess brings me back to both The Father and The Tobaconist… 

Thank you again Matthew and Russell…may we lack forever…

HN:     In the middle of this global pandemic and political upheaval, the future seems all the  more uncertain. I always felt the ephemeral nature of LACK was its secret glue. And yet, I do hope that one way or another there will be space for psychoanalytic thinking and exploration, which I think is needed more than ever. While we don’t have a plan for the future, we do have a plan for the immediate future and commitment to stage the next LACK conference, one way or another. 

Thanks Matt and Russ for wanting to discuss LACK and for helping to create the conference with your own passion and work.

TM:     I do have some final thoughts. In general, I’m delighted about what resulted from the  attempt to start something theoretical and psychoanalytic in an era resistant to both those things. But I wonder if we could have or should have gone further to establish some institutional structure so that people would have had some place clearer to turn for psychoanalytic theory. One serious problem is that most of the professors involved with LACK are at institutions that do not grant Ph.D.’s. This is true for three of us on the central committee, and Henry is now retired. We tried to come up with a list of places where people who wanted to do a Ph.D. on psychoanalytic theory could go to do work, but this didn’t really develop as we hoped. One of the most frustrating things for me is to have great students who want to go to a doctorate program and basically have nowhere to go. There are a few exceptions—namely, Anna Kornbluh at UIC [University of Illinois at Chicago] and Frances Restuccia at BC [Boston College]—but these are few and far between. Publishing is also a difficulty. There are such few venues where one can take a theoretical work that focuses on psychoanalysis that people end up publishing at Palgrave and Routledge. These places are fine, but they typically put out works in unaffordable editions, which is a major downside.

I guess this qualifies as a regret that I said I didn’t have when asked about them. Curious to hear if others feel likewise.

MF:     I’m also curious what others on the central committee think about this, too, but I think  this is a useful point, Todd. Many who attend LACK are also coming from outside the U.S., some from as far as Australia and New Zealand, some as close as Canada, like myself. Speaking only on the Canadian side, we also suffer from similar limitations. My own institution has a very small graduate program. We only have one Arts M.A. in Cultural Studies, and psychoanalysis or German Idealism is less than an afterthought. Mari Ruti and Rebecca Comay are drawing figures at the University of Toronto; and I’d say Clint Burnham, too, at Simon Fraser University, draws students who want to study psychoanalysis. Svetlana Matviyenko, also now at SFU in the Communication Studies department, bases much of her work on Lacan. There are others, of course, working in these areas, but fewer with Ph.D. programs. I’ll add, too, that I’m very dismayed by the publishing models of Palgrave and Routledge (and others), but have been very lucky to be on the receiving end of very generous support from members of the LACK central committee, for instance, in a number of different ways. So I’ve even wondered if anyone has any interest in making the group more concrete than what was initially proposed. I suppose this was one of the initial reasons why Russ and I wanted to engage you all in discussion about LACK. I’ll also just add that I think LACK is doing something very different from other conferences and groups based on Lacan in the English-speaking parts of the world, and I still get the sense that there’s a desire to make this work more visible.

JF:       Thank you, Matthew and Russell, for your thoughtful questions about LACK. They have  certainly encouraged me to think more about LACKian potentialities. The issue of visibility that you mention in response to Todd’s last remark strikes me as a particularly important one. In my view, as I have indicated, one of the key contributions of LACK was precisely creating a space in which to make visible psychoanalytic/theoretical work that was being done by people across a wide disciplinary and geographic spectrum, largely out of sight from other thinkers with similar concerns/interests. But your question prompts me to suspect that perhaps from years of operating without a robust professional infrastructure, things like connecting to graduate studies programs, thesis supervisors, publishing venues, etc., have happened in rather informal and idiosyncratic ways. I hope that, through LACK, junior scholars can make connections that will help with these navigations, but it would be better if we could make these pathways more established and visible. I wonder, though, if this will happen as more LACKians infiltrate schools with PhD programs. I suppose this brings us back to (questions of) the future…