Žižek, Slavoj

Assigned: Žižek, Slavoj. From Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Chapter 5. “The Hitchcockian Blot” (2225-42). Also read the editors’ introduction (2221-24).

From Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (1991)

Chapter 5. “The Hitchcockian Blot”

The Phallic Anamorphosis: Oral, Anal, Phallic

1. On 2225-26 (“In Foreign Correspondent, there is…”), Slavoj Žižek focuses on a short scene from British/American director Alfred Hitchcock’s film Foreign Correspondent. In what way is this scene, in which one windmill in a field full of them turns against the wind, fundamental to the strange, intense psychological effects this director achieves? (2225) In the case of this particular scene, what effect is achieved and upon whom?

2. On 2226 (“The ‘oral’ stage is, so to speak…”), Žižek sets forth in Lacanian terms “three successive ways of presenting an event onscreen,” corresponding to the Freudian/Lacanian “oral,” “anal,” and “phallic” stages of childhood sexual development. On this page, he covers the first two of those ways or stages. What, then, would be the “oral” stage of presenting an event in film? How does the audience process the event filmed at this level? In what sense is the seeming naturalism of such presentations false—how, according to Žižek, is this kind of presentation subject to “a metonymical movement”? Secondly, what would be the “anal” stage of presenting an event in film, and why is montage the principal method associated with this manner of presentation?

3. On 2226-28 (“In what would the passage…”), Žižek follows up on his earlier discussion of the filmmaking equivalent of the “anal” stage of childhood sexual development; to illustrate this point, he described a scene comprised of a happy family going about its affairs indoors while robbers gather ominously just outside the home. How, in his view, would a “phallic” director like Alfred Hitchcock redo this scene? What effect would his transformation of it have on its psychological dimensions, and in particular on the way the relevant characters and the audience process the scene’s “surface” (2227) words and events? Finally, what further explanation of “phallic” film technique does Žižek offer—what is the “point of anamorphosis” or the “‘phallic’ element of a picture” (2228), and what does it do to the audience’s attempts to render a film meaningful?

The Blot as the Gaze of the Other

4. On 2228-30 (“The finale of Rear Window…”), Žižek interprets the concluding scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window with the aim of explaining why “the neighbor who killed his wife function[s] for the hero as the object of his desire” (2229 top). Why, in other words, is the film’s protagonist Jeff Jefferies (played by Jimmy Stewart) fascinated with the murderer as the object of his gaze? How does Žižek answer this question? When Jefferies looks anxiously out the rear window of his home to spy on his neighbors, what is it that he seeks? (2229-30) What point does Žižek also make about the film’s soundtrack—how does it convey the sense of a “maternal superego” (2230) that prevents Jefferies from consummating his love affair with Lisa Carol Fremont (played by Grace Kelly)?

The Tracking Shot

5. On 2230-31 (“The standard Hitchcockian formal procedure…”), how does Žižek analyze Alfred Hitchcock’s use of the “tracking shot” (see Norton editors’ footnote 3 on 2230) to achieve the effect variously called in this selection “the stain,” “the blot” or the thing about a scene that “sticks out” (2230) in phallic fashion? How does Hitchcock employ this formal technique, the “tracking shot,” in one of his most unnerving films, The Birds, to render the sight of a dead body all the more strange and unsettling? When he perversely tracks forward towards the object too quickly, what effect does that generate with respect to the viewer’s perception of the “object-blot”; namely, the corpse’s eyeless head? How does Žižek draw upon Lacan’s notion of the “object small a”*(2231) to explain what is thereby accomplished, both formally and in terms of the film scene’s psychological effect? (*In French, the phrase is l’objet petit a; see Norton footnote 3 on 2231.)

6. On 2232-33 (“We can read Miller’s schema…”), with reference back to Jacques-Alain Miller’s diagram for showing how the “object small a”*, frames “reality” by being removed or “extracted” (2231) from it, Žižek offers additional insight on the nuances of Hitchcock’s “tracking shot” technique. How does this director produce an “effect […] of radical discontinuity” (2232) by means of carefully calibrated tracking shots? How does Žižek further explain this effect within the Freudian/Lacanian framework of the “anal” and “phallic” stages (for these, see 2225-28), including the transition from the former to the latter? (*In French, the phrase is l’objet petit a; see Norton footnote 3 on 2231.)

7. On 2233 (“We can categorize Hitchcock’s…”), Žižek lists variants on the formal film technique known as the “tracking shot,” aside from the “hystericized” one he has already analyzed in his comments on a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds. What are the “reverse tracking shot” and the “immobile tracking shot,” and what explanation does Žižek offer for them? What makes the second variant so “paradoxical”?

The Maternal Superego

Why Do the Birds Attack?

8. On 2234-36 (“What we must bear in mind…”), Žižek concentrates on “the libidinal content of [… the] Hitchcockian stain,” and writes that “although its logic is phallic, it announces an agency that perturbs and hinders the rule of the Name-of-the-Father…” (2234). This agency, Žižek explains, is “the maternal superego” (2234). What three readings of The Birds does Robin Wood, as cited by Žižek, advance to explain the weird violence of common birds? (2234) How does Žižek explain the significance of “the motif of the maternal superego” (2235) in a triad of films including The Birds? How, too, do the three films in question (North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds) all include “a threat in the shape of birds” (2335) that menaces key characters? According to  Žižek, how is the maternal superego motif linked with the threatening birds, especially in The Birds? (2236)

From the Oedipal Journey to the “Pathological Narcissist”

9. On 2236-38 (“How should we locate this…”), how does Žižek divide the three “main stages of Hitchcock’s career,” (2236), and what central theme do all three stages relate to? On the basis of  Žižek’s analysis, how does The Thirty-Nine Steps exemplify the first stage, that of films that deal with “the same story of the initiation of an amorous couple” who are “tied […] by accident and then [… mature] through a series of ordeals (2236)? As for Hitchcock’s films of the 1940s in Hollywood, how, according to Žižek, do they exemplify the second stage of his career? (2238) In what key way does the third stage differ from the second stage? (2238)

10. On 2238-39 (“Where should we look for…”), Žižek broadens his frame of reference for what he calls “the three forms of (the impossibility of) sexual relationship” (2238) in Alfred Hitchcock’s films at all stages of his career. How does he describe “the three successive forms of the libidinal structure of the subject exhibited in capitalist society during the past century [i.e., the 1800s]” (2238)? How does the third stage of libidinal structure, “the pathological narcissist,” make a decisive break with the first two stages? (2239) How does the “‘maternal’ superego” figure in this third stage, thereby ensuring that even a contemporary “narcissistic” society will be just as repressive as earlier forms of society that accorded with the first two stages? (2239)

11. On 2239-40 (“We could also approach…”), how does Žižek enlist the American philosopher Saul Kripke’s concept of the “rigid designator” in linguistics and Jacques Lacan’s equivalent psychoanalytic concept of the “master signifier” (2239), which, as Žižek points out, “does not denote some positive property of the object but establishes, by means of its own act of renunciation, a new intersubjective relation between speaker and hearer” (2239)? In what sense is a pathological narcissist, according to Žižek, unable to make such an active renunciation? Finally, what synthesis does Žižek offer of the three stages of Hitchcock’s film career and the “three types of libidinal economy” (2240) that he has previously discussed in connection with the development of subjectivity in nineteenth-century Western capitalism?

A Mental Experiment: The Birds without Birds

12. On 2240-42 (“Although Hitchcock’s birds do give…”), why is it misguided, according to ŽiŽek, to construe the violent birds in The Birds as symbols of the maternal superego? (2240) If that reading were accurate, how, in his view, would director Alfred Hitchcock have represented them in the film? (2241) What does Hitchcock do instead, especially towards the film’s conclusion? Ultimately, in Žižek’s view, how should we construe the overwhelming presence of “the birds”—in what sense do they make us forget the family and romantic drama that many viewers believe to be the film’s central concern? (2242)

13. General question: In our selection from Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Slavoj Žižek examines the films of the great director Alfred Hitchcock for their combination of technical mastery and psychological depth. Hitchcock enjoyed a long, illustrious career in Britain and Hollywood, with his greatest films coming in the 1950s-1960s. Is there a director (or more than one) in our time whom you find to be as excellent as Hitchcock for those same qualities; namely, technical mastery and psychological depth? If so, which director or directors would you choose, and why? Give a few examples from the relevant body of film to justify your choice.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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