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9/23 – Psycho (1960) dir. Hitchcock & the False Dichotomy of Form & Content

I have just spent the past week watching and re-watching Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Psycho (1960). Watching Psycho has been transformative for my understanding of art. I am becoming more and more of a formalist, day by day. This film gave me an epiphany on the form/content division being a false dichotomy. While the form/content binary is incredibly useful for interpreting a piece of art, it is misleading at the same time.

Psycho‘s brilliance is it being a masterclass in camera movement and positioning. The form of the film–the camera’s positioning, movement, etc.–is inextricably connected to the content, or what the film means, or its message. There are two masterful examples of this phenomenon of the cinematic form generating the film’s content. First, when Norman transports his mother’s corpse to the fruit cellar. The camera–in a long shot–pans up the staircase and perches at the top of the stairs looking at a downward angle. While traveling up to this perch, the camera catches sight of mother’s bedroom through a crack in the door, though we do not see the inside. It is precisely this upward movement and this looking downward that gives this scene meaning. The camera flies–like a bird–before perching in the ceiling. The camera is an intruder, and it has to hide from what it is documenting. There is almost a fear embedded in the camera’s movement that makes us afraid of the Norman/Mother dialogue in the other room. We are in a forbidden space, and the movement of the camera tells us that.

The next scene is when Lila, Marion’s sister, approaches the Bates house. Lila and Sam Loomis, Marion’s boyfriend, have traveled to the Bates Motel after Arbogast’s disappearance to try and solve this mystery. While Sam distracts Norman, Lila is sent up to the house. Her approach to the house is cinematic mastery. The camera switches back-and-forth between two POV shots. The first is Lila’s subjective POV. We see the house in her field of vision as she approaches the front door. But, the camera cuts from Lila’s subjective POV to the opposite perspective: looking at Lila in the face. Now, whose POV is this? It is the house’s subjective position! It is as if the house has eyes of its own. It is as if Mother is sitting in the window watching Lila’s ascent to her chamber. Their is a visual dialogue–a star down–between the house and Lila. This content–this meaning–would be impossible without the camera movement. Form creates content. Voila.

9/11 – Joan Copjec, Discipline, & Sexual Difference

I wish to make a few brief comments on an interview Joan Copjec gives in “The Inheritance of Potentiality. An Interview with Joan Copjec,” interviewed by Jennifer Murray.

In this interview, Joan Copjec discusses how she came to study Lacanian psychoanalysis in the 1970s through the study of film. I encourage you to read her personal history. I will not restate it because I am more interested in elaborating on a few of her ideas articulated in this interview.

DISCIPLINE: First, Copjec comments, “I have a lot of respect for the notion of disciplines; I think art, architecture, photography, film, literature, and so on each has its own particular history and a kind of language with its own set of problems and concerns.”

Yes, yes, yes. One of my contentions with the study of literature today is touched on here. During my time at university, I was often at a loss as to what was going on in literature classrooms because of a misunderstanding of the object of study. The object of study for many of my professors was not the literary object–the novel, poem, essay. Instead, the object of study was the culture in which that object was created. This is a very important distinction because of what is given priority. Under the banner of cultural studies and historicism–which has dominated literary study since the 1980s–the culture and historical context precedes the literary object. The literary object is secondary to, and merely a product of, its historical circumstance. This undercuts any timeless-ness to literature.

This view of literature–displacing the New Criticism of the preceding generation which regarded the literary object as above history and context–was an intervention into the discipline. A prior intervention into the discipline can be found in John Crowe Ransom’s article, “Criticism, Inc.” (VQR, 1930). Here, Crowe makes the case that English departments should should make clear the object of their study: that is, literature as an autonomous entity and not as a branch of ethics or history. Here is a divine passage:

The department of English is charged with the understanding and the communication of literature, an art, yet it has usually forgotten to inquire into the peculiar constitution and structure of its product. English might almost as well announce that it does not regard itself as entirely autonomous, but as a branch of the department of history, with the option of declaring itself occasionally a branch of the department of ethics. It is true that the historical and the ethical studies will cluster round objects which for some reason are called artistic objects. But the thing itself the professors do not have to contemplate; and only last spring the head of English studies in a graduate school fabulously equipped made the following impromptu disclaimer to a victim who felt aggrieved at having his own studies forced in the usual direction: “This is a place for exact scholarship, and you want to do criticism. Well, we don’t allow criticism here, because that is something which anybody can do.”

But one should never speak impromptu in one’s professional capacity. This speech may have betrayed a fluttery private apprehension which should not have been made public: that you can never be critical and be exact at the same time, that history is firmer ground than aesthetics, and that, to tell the truth, criticism is a painful job for the sort of mind that wants to be very sure about things. (in the Virginia Quarterly Review, 1930)

I find this to be a geniusly put statement and newly ripe for today’s profession to hear once again. English Departments have once again given up the study of the literary object for history and ethics. They have given up what the New Critics won for them: that is, the literary object as a thing in-and-of itself.

Sexual Difference:

Let me quote Joan Copjec as she discusses the difference between psychoanalysis and queer theory:

The reason for this is that I did not begin at the beginning by asking the fundamental question: what questions are gender theory and psychoanalysis trying to answer? It turns out that these questions are not the same for both and a lot follows from this. Gender theory asks: how can the subject escape the hetero-sexual normativity of the system into which she is originally inserted or interpellated? The question is one of identity; it is assumed that “the symbolic order,” or the social order, or culture is patriarchal and/or hetero-sexist and one enters it through the imperative to recognize oneself in one of the roles or identities it prescribes. The idea is that society or culture sets limits on the subject and the problem is how these limits can be overcome. The answer is found in the fact that the prescribed roles and identities cannot be imposed once and for all, but have to be repeatedly performed and thus instantiated by the subject herself. But since no role or identity can be repeated in the same way twice – that is, because exact repetition is an impossibility – difference, and thus subversion, sneaks in.


Let me get back, however, to the main thread of my argument. The question of psychoanalysis concerns not identity but pleasure: how is it that the human psyche is organized by a principle of pleasure? That subjects are sexed (or “sexuated,” as Lacan puts it) is a fact connected to this principle of pleasure that rules our psychic lives, for better or worse. Sexuality is not limited to a role and it does not define the subject’s identity; it describes the structure of subjectivity as such. The subject comes into being through a dynamic process of selection of impressions and relations based on the defining principle of pleasure; we take some things in and exclude others and thus construct our world on the basis of this principle. At first it seemed to Freud that it was the ego that was responsible for the selection, for repression. He later discovered, however, that the ego could not be running the show completely; for a surplus or a priori pleasure that attaches itself to the ego is itself the major lever of repression. This a priori pleasure is the reserve of ego’s powers but ego does not know it, does not recognize itself in it. It is this that Lacan names jouissance; he calls it an “inheritance” of the subject, but not one that can be used up, it is “impersonal” and does not belong to the subject. That is, psychoanalysis realizes through this notion of jouissance or surplus pleasure that the subject belongs to something that precedes it, that is, an ancestry or culture, that gives the subject its potential without that potential’s being a potential for anything specific, without its being a potential for x, y, or z. That which precedes the subject is therefore essential to it, a potential and not simply a limit.

Copjec is highlighting psychoanalysis and queer theory’s mutually exclusive frameworks. Queer theory attempts to escape the inscription of patriarchal heteronormativity on subjectivity through subversive tactics, such as drag. It operates from a tabula rasa understanding of subjectivity; we, as humans, are born as a blank slate and culture/society inscribes prescribed roles onto us. This is ultimately an issue of identity; how do I identify? and how can I subvert this symbolic identity that has been forced upon me?

Unlike Queer and gender theory, which is concerned with identity and culturally prescribed roles, psychoanalysis is concerned with sex. The study of sexuality, in psychoanalysis, is the study of desire. This is Copjec’s most important statement on this issue: “Sexuality is not limited to a role and it does not define the subject’s identity; it describes the structure of subjectivity as such.” Subjectivity itself is desire. The “defining principle” of human subjectivity, thus, is the field of pleasure/unpleasure. This is the center of psychoanalytic framework. On this principle of pleasure/unpleasure the human subject defines its relation to the world.