The Porosity of the Signifier

31Aug07

/1/ – The Surreal and the Pornographic

At the risk of crassness, couldn’t we say that the link between Clowes, Lynch and the pornographic is that of the hole? Isn’t the very dynamic of pornography the interplay between penetration and its limit? Isn’t the pornographic image par excellence that of the completely penetrated woman who, some how, in a kind of defiance of physics and sheer materiality, manages to maintain some sort of consistency? While this raises interesting connections to Lacan’s discussion of jouissance feminine (which I’ll discuss below) it also lends weight to Žižek’s assertion of how men are desubjectified in the pornographic encounter. The male body is taken to be a completely flat entity, taken apart and cut up more into chunks than the female body. The argument here is that really the masculine force need only be a set of stupid signifiers whereas the woman must be felt as the Freudian Thing, the endlessly plastic entity that survives every alteration.

This survival is based not on the fact that the female body escapes the phallic (read symbolic) economy, but that it is so completely subject to it that it escapes its very logic. In Suzanne Barnard’s discussion in Reading Seminar XX there is a point where she discusses the Real in relation to language in which all jouissance is codified phallic – so how is it that there can be such a thing as jouissance feminine? Furthermore this is complicated by the fact that Lacan states that jouissance feminine is spoken. The collusion of the surreal and the erotic proves itself an excellent example of how the Real is the symbolic in the mode of the not-all. The not-all or pas-tout can be seen in the porosity of fiction.

This is particularly evident in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. As Žižek discusses in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the opening scene is particularly expressive of this aspect when after showing an average scene of idyllic white picket fence America, the old man watering the garden has a heart attack. The interesting touch is not that the camera focuses on the face of the man as it moves close to him, but instead it goes past his face and enters the pristine green grass to show the seething layer of dirt and instincts. While there is the one obvious message of the falseness of the small town America veneer, there is also a larger issue of the very porosity of reality or, more importantly, what we take to be reality, that of the signifier.

Another discussion of how jouissance feminine is symbolic also in the mode of its delivery – it is spoken (and this is where Barnard had an issue with how spoken jouissance can function in a phallic economy). In the Pervert’s Guide as well as in the The Puppet and the Dwarf, Žižek uses the example of Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona in which one of the character’s enacts one of the most erotic scenes in cinema simply by the way she recounts a scene of sex, a beach orgy.

He sums it up in the following way: “the Real is the Symbolic itself in the modality of the non-All” and also that “to step into the Real does not entail abandoning language, throwing oneself into the abyss of the chaotic Real, but, on the contrary, dropping the very allusion to some external point of reference which eludes the Symbolic” (The Puppet and the Dwarf, p. 69-70). It’s in this way that the symbolic, and in particular the feminine approach to the symbolic, is one that is porous. The idea of feminine jouissance is one that essentially ‘floats’ through the symbolic – not in an ideal way in which it simply bypasses it outside, but by passing through the cracks that can only be seen by submitting to it completely.

/2/ – Switching frames

Here I am tempted to continue a theme that has cropped up in several of my recent posts and relates, in particular to both film and graphic novels. But instead of discussing the idea of narrative gaps in terms of the gaps between scenes/frames, we can discuss the concept of the gap that is invited when there is a switch of sorts.

In David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive the concept of switching is pivotal the entire text and, in particular, the shifting places of reality and unreality. While there is one large switch in the film (involving the blue box and, incidentally, a scene of masturbation) but beyond this there are several odd moments that involve smaller and smaller levels of shifts. For instance when Naomi Watts’ naive young character goes to try out for a role – her acting in the scene (essentially her acting as she is trying to act) is far superior to her acting in the film (Muholland Drive) which is purposefully cheesy. Referring again to The Pervert’s Guide, Žižek discusses how Mulholland Drive is all about over proximity – everything is too much – too bright, too hot, too cold, the music in the theater is simply too emotional for any one to take. So how does the switching play into this?

If Lynch’s films, and in particular Mulholland, is about about over proximity then it seems that such proximity enhances the notions of gaps, or put more directly, when the frame becomes a thing in and of itself that to move from frame to frame, to try and experience things differently becomes the most unbearable gap. What makes the switch so painful is not much the feeling of the unknown other qua other – but the fact that there are different experience period. When Naomi Watts’ character writhes from the music (which is not coming from the singer but beyond the singer) it’s not so much the sound itself but the fact that the experience of the singer is so clearly and painfully expressible to her. In a sense, Mulholland Drive is painful exactly because it is not a comic book, because there is no comfortable whiteness between the frames but only rough cuts and that which seems like nonsense. It’s worth noting that the last word of the film is silencio (silence) uttered by the singer who previously collapsed during the song that wasn’t actually hers.

Daniel Clowes could easily be called the David Lynch of the comic book/graphic novel world – particularly when one looks at Eightball, David Boring and Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron in particular. If we wish to attempt a kind of porosity of the signifier in the comic book/graphic world than Clowes is the best candidate.

/3/ – Sex or story?

Velvet glove falls somewhere between the realm of the Twin Peaks and the exploitation films of Russ Meyer. Much of Clowes works plays with the boundary between pornography and fiction as well. The stupid flatness of the signifier (as I suggested in the first section regarding pornography) is all over Velvet Glove. After being beaten by two bored police officers, they carve a stupid face (Mr Jones) into his foot to mark him. That face starts appearing everywhere, and drives Clay crazy. He starts running into other characters who have dedicated their lives to trying to understand the figure of Mr Jones – there was a small tattoo on Hitler’s neck etc, the person who knows the ‘truth’ about the figure says it is only a joke. Ultimately Clay attempts to find some sort of meaning in something meaningless, in a snuff film that was based on the strange rantings of a little girl. In addition to the sort of meaningless chase for meaning, the text is obsessed with mutations and non-sexual relationships or overly casual encounters.

So why is it that so many surreal texts are inherently sexual or is it that sexuality itself is surreal, essentially nonsensical? To return to the aforementioned point about the symbolic and sex, and, again returning to The Pervert’s Guide, Žižek makes the obvious but at times forgotten point that ‘sexuality is never about bodies, it is about words.’ Following this point Žižek discusses the fundamental prohibition of pornography. Everything can be seen, but almost nothing can be told, no true narrative can come to pass in that there can be no emotion. (A film like John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus may try and challenge such a deadlock but since I have not seen it I cannot comment on its effectiveness.)

Using the example of Eyes Wide Shut, Žižek points out how the entire film (especially seen in the awkwardly cold orgy scenes) is about how male fantasy can never catch up to the feminine fantasy. And what is interesting of course is that Kidman’s character never actually commits any acts of betrayal, it is her imagined affair with the officer that her husband cannot stand. So here we have the standard difference of men and women’s different approaches to the erotic – that one is visual while the other is narratological. If there is something in common however, or something that upsets that simply division it seems that it would be the otherworldliness or desire – the points at which desire is a horrifying disgusting thing.

Another Lynch film that Žižek discusses in the Pervert’s Guide is that of Wild at Heart. At one point in the film one of the characters (Bobby Peru) is molesting a woman terribly and repeating over over again ‘say fuck me’ to her. After much coaxing and terrorizing on his part she finally says it. When she does he jumps away and smiles in a friendly fashion saying no thanks and that he’ll do it eventually but not now. The comment is absolutely devastating – it amounts to the worst form of mental rape. He essentially constructs a fantasy and then the moment she (forcibly) realizes it he rejects her.

/4/ – Corporeal concerns (the pornographic again)

Does the body just get in the way then, is it always as Žižek puts it a kind of masturbatory support for men and the porous entity which gets swept away in the story for women? To bring things back to the signifier, to complicate the issue a bit, the body, in psychoanalytic theory is a kind of plane of mediation. The body mostly comes into play when one discusses one of Freud’s partial objects such as the voice and the gaze. Ultimately the body is just the remainder, the ‘stupid piece of meat’ that suggests that there is a greater meaning to every surface, every image. The porosity of the signifier, of symbolic existence, suggests the possibility of true meaning, of an actual origin. As Lacan says – words don’t refer to reality, they dig a hole in it. Or, following Sylvain Lazarus, the use of the symbolic, and in particular the proper name ‘indexes the real’, the word functions as a tipping point from the known towards the unknown.

To return to the concept of lost origin, and its treatment in Velvet Glove, the very mystery of enjoyment (jouissance) is staged in an odd way in the pornographic. One can take a look at the cum shot as the symbolic gesture to bring our discussion to a point. Film theorist Linda Williams in her text Hard Core, discusses how the money shot has endured for over thirty years because it is a necessary tool to display the authenticity of the sexual act (that orgasm occurred) and, as she states, an image necessary because of the inability to visualize female orgasm. While the money shot can easily be seen to be the externalized expression of male pleasure, one can see (both theoretically and practically) that the female orgasm is a visual spectacle in and of itself for a majority of reasons.

Historically the money shot has shifted – originally being on the back, stomach or anus to being almost always a facial. More recently the cum shot has put more focus on the open mouth and most recently, the eyes. The wasted seed on the face is the very image of the lost origin – if we think about it terms of wasted DNA. The very impossibility/ ridiculousness of pure enjoyment is colored by the fact that any enjoyment comes at a logical cost – not a cost that is logical but something that costs logic itself. In Kantian terms – the split subject is one split between reflection and apprehension – a subject which is split down the center between logic (how our being is formed/directed by large semi-transcendental factors) and psychology (those internal factors which are sensible only to ourselves in moments of reflection).

To further this logic, taking into account Kant’s seemingly paradoxical decisions stemming from The Critique of Judgment, a certain amount of sexual pleasure arises only when one says ‘no’ to the evolutionary imperative to ‘further the species.’ To bring this to a close, in the most ridiculous fashion possible – it would be best to take into account Lacan’s fictional creation of the undivided libidinal energy – that of the lamella.

In the Eleventh seminar Lacan discusses the lamella as the ‘object of the libido’ and, interestingly for our purposes here, Lacan tells a story of the lamella possibly leaping on one’s face in the night. The lamella (literally meaning man omelette) is a kind of pure surface – the horrible remainder that remains after castration (the loss of the authority which anchors and allows for the symbolic). It embodies the very failure of sex – the impossibility of the sexual relation. To drag more Lacanian terms out of the drawer, the facial is the collision of intimacy and extimacy. The exitimate is not simply the opposite of intimate, it is that which is ‘in more you than you’, it is the objet petit a, the little piece of the real. The collision occurs because it is in effect, the end, or at least, halted moment of desire (orgasm) but at the same time the promise of the unseen enjoyment, of possible enjoyment – the object cause of desire which is, in and of itself, nonsensical. The open mouth suggests the endless nature of desire (as drive) but the basic genetic (literally the building blocks of life) residue is also present – the basic vulgar reality of our desire which always comes to the same.

/5/ – Quickly to the end…

Ultimately the porosity of the signifier demands that one take seriously the issues of Freudian metapsychology, the question of how much of the subject is determined by noumenal concerns, ‘genetic’ frameworks which direct our paths, and how much of that frame is bent by our experiences. This same question is echoed in the above mentioned conflict between desire and drive – desire with a particular object, an object that is always changing (based on our experiences) and that which never changes, the kinks and longings we cannot shake from our fleshy bodies (based on our mental ‘genetic code’)

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2 Responses to “The Porosity of the Signifier”

  1. 1 Joe

    Interesting.

    I like this idea of a ‘porous’ signifier. It reminds me (of course :) of certain parts of Lacan, but also Deleuze where he speaks of membranes, like between bodies and language.

    I think maybe we have to see libido, or sexual energy, as the primary flow investing the social field with energy. And since all follows from the geometry of the social, etc.

  2. I like this emphasis on Porosity. The visual relation of the visual (libidinal) gaze and porosity is tidily explored here.

    It seems Lynch imbues Inland Empire with an even more intense usage of this notion.
    Perhaps most explicitly in the ‘looking through’ the cigarette hole in silk.


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