Consequences of Messing With Nature: Cronenberg, Lacan, Klein and eXistenZ

With the aim of changing the past, an impossible thing to do, the subject messes with nature, and his intrusion causes the very event which he was trying to prevent from happening. Just like Oedipus’s father who, in escape from a prophecy, falls victim to his choice of way to escape, and becomes the victim of his own choice. And his choice is, in the first place, to believe in the prophecy. It is as soon as he puts his belief into action that he prepares the grounds of his subjection to an external force. His own construct, that external force, governs his actions independently of his intentions. There still is a governor but this governor is an internally constituted external force.

What Lacan calls the unconscious is the dead zone in-between the subject and the signifier. Or the state of non-being in the space between the state of being governed by drives and the entry into the symbolic order. The unconscious understood as the dead zone in between the subject and language, is at the same time the gap between being and becoming. Entry into the symbolic is associated with a passage from the state of being, through non-being and into the symbolic order of becoming.

Melanie Klein takes the beginning of becoming to as early as the first months of life. In her analysis of the “Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict and of Super-ego Formation,” Klein looks for the causes of aggression and sadistic impulses in the normal development of the child.

The child also has phantasies in which his parents destroy each other by means of their genitals and excrements which are felt to be dangerous weapons. These phantasies have important effects and are very numerous, containing such ideas as that the penis is, incorporated in the mother, turns into a dangerous animal or into weapons loaded with explosive substances; or that her vagina, too, is transformed into a dangerous animal or some instrument of death, as, for instance, a poisoned mouse-trap. Since such phantasies are wish phantasies, the child has a sense of guilt about the injuries which, in his phantasy, his parents inflict on each other.[1]

Absence of the feeling of guilt causes the sadistic impulse to dominate the child. The external world is considered to be dangerous and the child attacks the mother whom he believes to contain the father’s penis. As he is attacking the mother the child is in fact attacking the father. Formation of the super-ego, or entry into the symbolic requires the acceptance of loss of innocence, purity, security, omniscience and recognition of one’s own guilt. The importance of what Klein is saying here lies in her realization that there is more evil and less evil, but there is no absolute good and evil. We are all, in a way, mad, but some are more so than the others. According to Klein, most subjects experience a certain neurosis during normal development, but in some children the neurotic experience is stronger, more intense, and lasts a longer time. In the Mantle twins for instance, we have seen that it lasted quite a long time, so long as to enable them turn their pathology into their object of study and make a profession out of themselves.

Creativity going wrong and producing weapons rather than surgical tools is a recurrent theme in Cronenberg films. What we see in Dead Ringers and Videodrome is the same process of degeneration, a worstward movement of the experiment undertaken, in different fields of knowledge. Just as Max’s sadistic fantasies turn against him, the Mantle twins’ surgical instruments turn into sharp edged weapons which they direct against themselves at the end. What is portrayed is the characters’ inability to pass from the state of being governed by the unconscious drives, to conscious desiring. The passage from death drive to the desiring production is never achieved in Cronenberg’s films. As we have seen in eXistenZ the subjects only become capable of desiring when they are in the virtual world of the game, attached to an organic bio-port with an umbilical cord. In escape from the realists Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) hides in her own game. At the end of the film we learn that even her escape from the realists was part of the game, a construct of her own psyche, her own creation. We also learn that eXistenZ is only a game within another game called transCendenZ and that the realists trying to annihilate the project turn out to be Allegra Geller and her security guard (Jude Law). As it was in Videodrome so too it is in eXistenZ; what the virtual world of another reality does is to sustain the subject with the environment in which he/she can act out his/her fantasies in a virtual realm beyond the flesh. Within the game Allegra and the security guard can make love, outside it they have a purpose; they have to free desire from the confines of virtuality and restore it to its true place, that place being the material world.

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When Jude Law refuses to undergo the operation of being penetrated by what looks like a big machine gun, so that the bio-port can be plugged into him, Allegra Geller says, “this is it, you see! This is the cage of your own making. Which keeps you trapped and pacing about in the smallest space possible. Break out of the cage of your own, break out now.” Allegra Geller sees the physical world as limiting and unsatisfying. To go beyond this limited existence she creates an illusory time-space in which the player is in the service of his/her unconscious drives which are themselves represented in material objects. When the bio-port is plugged into the subject the subject’s five senses are governed by the sensual effects the game creates on the subject. The illusion of safety and security is the result of the depersonalization of experience; it is the Other that plays the game through me. A fantasy world which keeps death at bay, an impersonal consciousness that thinks through me, and a body that never dies. What the game eXistenZ does, then, is to promise immortality in a spiritual realm beyond the flesh. And yet it does this through stimulating the centres of reception in the body which activate the five senses. When Jude Law licks Allegra Geller’s bio-port hole she immediately withdraws and asks, “what was that?” Surprised at his own act, Jude Law says, “That wasn’t me, it was my game character. I couldn’t have done that!” After a very brief silence they realize that since they are in the game they can’t be held responsible for their actions and start kissing passionately.

The umbilical cords in eXistenZ, which seem to connect the subject with a world beyond the physical, in which there is no guilt, no responsibility, and no death, turn out to be the chain of negativity chaining the subject to a detached, meaningless, inauthentic existence. It was Hegel who pointed out that freedom without society is meaningless and not freedom as such. For freedom to become freedom it should be situated in a historical context and hence gain its meaning in relation to time. What Heidegger borrows from Hegel is this idea of the necessity of the social for any meaningful activity to take place. Heidegger’s attitude is very different from the Romantic understanding of freedom as something that can only be experienced in isolation, where, detached from his social environment, the subject bonds in a more profound way with nature, and unite with all the forces of nature in a state of euphoria.

This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infans stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence, would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject.[2]

Lacan’s Mirror Stage describes the child’s first confrontation with its image of itself on the mirror. Lacan says that the child is not as unified as it sees itself on the mirror. But the child needs this illusion of unity to be able to see itself as a being in the world. This is when the sense of omnipotence begins in the child.

The primary process—which is simply what I have tried to define for you in my last few lectures in the form of the unconscious—must once again, be apprehended in its experience of rupture, between perception and consciousness, in that non-temporal locus, I said, which forces us to posit what Freud calls, in homage to Fechner, die Idee anderer Lokalitat, the idea of another locality, another space, another scene, the between perception and consciousness.[3]

If we keep in mind that the primary process is the death-drive then we can see that Lacan’s shift is away from Cartesian dualisms of subject and object, mind and body, nature and culture. In Lacan there is an opposition to a Heideggerian attitude towards the world and its relation to the self. A third world is introduced in addition to the imaginary and the real. And this third world is the symbolic. For Lacan, between the illusory sense of omnipotence and the symbolic loss of self with the acquisition of language, there is a dead zone, a space in-between, a gap between the symbolic and the imaginary. That space is the Lacanian Unconscious, the Real which refers to what Descartes called Cogito, Freud Ego, and Heidegger non-being.

What Descartes and to some extent Freud presuppose is that there is a cogito before anything else, that there is an ego that says “I.”  There can be no self in relation to an external world before language. There is nothing before the subject says “I.” For the ego to begin to exist and develop it has to acquire language and say “I” first. The real entry into the symbolic takes place when the subject is sufficiently equipped with language and capable of realizing that “I” is an illusion, that the self who is to say “I” is lost upon entry into the realm of language. This illusion, however, this imaginary self who says “I,” should be preserved at least to a minimal extent, otherwise the Real slips through and life becomes painful. It is a necessary illusion, the subject, if one wants to be able to do things. Fantasies are illusions we need to keep the Real of our desire at bay.

Is it not remarkable that, at the origin of the analytic experience, the real should have presented itself in the form of that which is unassimilable in it—in the form of the trauma, determining all that follows, and imposing on it an apparently accidental origin? We are now at the heart of what may enable us to understand the radical character of the conflictual notion introduced by the opposition of the pleasure principle and the reality principle—which is why we cannot conceive the reality principle as having, by virtue of its ascendancy, the last word. [4]

So the Real is in-between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. The conflict between the pleasure principle and the reality principle takes place when and if the subject falls victim to the drives and the pleasure principle by letting himself be governed by the unconscious drives.

For Lacan progress takes place when and if the subject passes from the state of being governed by unconscious drives to becoming capable of desiring and being desired. Since for Lacan desire is the desire of the Other, desire is essentially social and symbolic, which means that it is the drive that is prior to the symbolic, and the imaginary is the support of the reality principle, without which the Real would enter the scene and destroy the subject.  Lacan forgets that death-drive is the cause of conflict as well as being its effect. The death-drive preceeds and proceeds the conflict at the same time. But with the traumatic incident the subject’s relation to the Real changes. The direction of this change may lead to destruction as much as it may lead to creation. It is a matter of becoming capable of using the unconscious drives in the way of producing new forms of life.

Gas (Willem Dafoe): See? That didn’t hurt.

Pikul (Jude Law): I didn’t expect that to hurt.

I expect the next part to hurt.

Pikul: Yeah, that’s the part I expect to hurt.

Gas: I haven’t crippled anyone yet.

Pikul: How many have you done?

Gas: Three. Well, you’ll be my third.

Gas: Hey! Easy!

People usually pay me to do this, you know.

Pikul (to Allegra): As you can see, I’ve decided not

to have a bio-port installed.

Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh): This is what keeps you trapped

in a cage of your own making, which keeps you trapped

and pacing about. Break out of your cage, Pikul. Break out now.

Cut to:

The subtitles read:

[explodes]

[grunts]

Allegra: The swelling doesn’t last for long.

Pikul: What’s going on? I can’t… I can’t move my legs!

Reference Matter


[1] Melanie Klein, Psychoanalysis of Children, 132

[2] Jacques Lacan,,  Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1977), 2

[3] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Hogarth Press, 1977), 56

[4] Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 55

eXistenZ

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