“I’m afraid of objects,”
“do you know what I mean?”
. . .
In some circles, it is uncontroversial to posit that an object is something that provokes a certain fear or revulsion. I’m thinking of Lacanians, and with more trepidation, of the feminists who might claim that to be an object would be to lack, and we want to have it all: power, agency, completeness, soul. But the requisite phrase would be “I’m afraid of being an object,” or “I am against objectification.” For Lacanians, the object is always a partial object, or an objet a—the “lost cause of desire.” The requisite phrase for the Lacanian would be something more like “the partial object provokes fear and anxiety in the (castrated) subject.” I am aware of the vivid potential of this notion of the partial object as it exists in film through the rather recommendable Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, in which Žižek comments on the “nightmarish dimension of an autonomous partial object” in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive—and we witness it together with him—that voice of the singer which continues after she has fainted (23:57). Though it is a bit sad to see this all written out instead of listening to it, here is what Žižek says about the “partial object”:
The fascinating thing about partial objects, in the sense of organs without bodies, is that they embody what Freud called death drive. Here, we have to be very careful. Death drive is not a kind of Buddhist striving for annihilation—I want to find eternal peace, I want—No, death drive is almost the opposite. Death drive is the dimension of what, in the Stephen King-like-horror-fictions, is called the dimension of the undead, of living dead, of something which remains alive even after it is dead, and it’s in a way, immortal in its deadness itself—goes on exists, you cannot destroy—the more you cut it, the more it exists, it goes on. This dimension of a kind of diabolical undeadness is what partial objects are about.
[Cut to a scene from The Red Shoes]
We could go on exploring the technicalities of this “partial object” in the Lacanian context, but I want to return to this somewhat awkward disjuncture between the object as it’s understood in the dialogue above, and in the sort of sketch of a feminism of agency which I’ve lazily produced above.
Later in the Pervert’s Guide we find a more concentrated section on woman, with its movement between Solaris to Vertigo to Lost Highway—three films which I find disturbing with respect to their representations of women. It seems less apt to say that these women are “objectified” than to say that they represent “male fantasy”—but what’s the difference between these terms?
In sexuality it is never only me and my partner, or more partners, whatever you are doing. It’s always—there has to be always some phantasmatic element. There has to be some third imagined element which makes me.. which makes it possible for me, which enables me to engage in sexuality. If I may be a little bit impertinent and relate to an unfortunate experience probably known to most of us—how it happens while one is engaged in sexual activity—all of a sudden one feels stupid. One loses contact with it, as if, “My God, what am I doing here, doing these stupid, repetitive movements”—And so on, and so on. Nothing changes in reality, in this strange moment, where I, as it were, disconnect. It’s just that I lose the phantasmatic support.
[Cut to a scene from The Matrix—Neo reduced to a “totally passive object."]
Why does our libido need the virtual universe of fantasies? Why can’t we just enjoy it directly, a sexual partner and so on? That’s the fundamental question. Why do we need this virtual supplement? Our libido needs an illusion in order to sustain itself.
[Cut to Solaris, commentary on its “id machine”]
What, then, does he say?
“She is just his dream realized.”
“It’s relatively easy to get rid of a real person.”
“What we get is the lowest male mythology
This idea that woman doesn’t exist on her own.
That a woman is merely a man’s dream realized
or even, as radical anti-feminists claim, the man’s guilt realized.”
“Women exist because male desire got impure.
If man cleanses his desire, gets rid of dirty material, fantasies, woman ceases to exist.” (56:41)
There, in the accuracy of this formulation of “male fantasy,” is a pain or horror which far exceeds the fear attached to the “partial object”; at the same time it seems to me that the two are linked. Woman exists in excess of the simplicity of desire on account of or in relation to the partial object. If only woman could be reduced to breasts, mouth, eye, cunt—it seems then that the fearsome fantasy of the woman would not exist. So why be afraid of objects when there’s woman to fear?
“It’s relatively easy to get rid of a real person.” A body—or the flesh of a body—might die, but the partial object, or the fantasy of the woman, is undead and pereptual. The mechanisms of repetition compulsion perpetuate woman and the image of woman in the phantasmatic realm just as they perpetuate the autonomous partial object of the red shoes or the voice of a fainted singer.
We might go so far as to say that it is strangely “empowering” to occupy such a role, of undying effect, even if such effects seem constrained by the structure of fantasy. The films quoted in this section of the Pervert’s Guide to Cinema are varied and striking in their variation. Are these instantiations of a totemic fear or hatred of woman or are they revelations of the structure of male desire? Lynch’s Lost Highway, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and Tarkovsky’s Solaris have produced for me rather distinct affects, even if I am willing to call the three directors totemic fearers of women, misogynists, I suppose. But I don’t know that all three devolve into the “lowest male mythology.” Solaris—almost unwatchable on this front. Vertigo—absolutely terrifying in its representation of male desire. Lost Highway—absolutely thrilling because of what it does with male desire, and with its representation of what Joan Rivière called “Womanliness as Masquerade.” There are at least three Patricia Arquettes in this film—demure goth wife in platform stilettoes and dark nightgown, rarely venturing past the front steps of the house to retrieve the mail; blonde object of fantasy exiting a car or answering the telephone; total slut, murderess, “You’ll never have me”.
Her allure exists less because of what she does and more because of what she is—to the screen, to the men who desire her, to the viewer. I think she is caught in the gaze and in the act of gazing which reveals the primacy of “gaze as object”—again a Lacanian concept which is a bit hard to intuitively grasp without recourse to close readings of films and artworks. Here’s one neat formulation of the “gaze as object” that I found in Bracha Ettinger’s “The Matrixial Gaze”:
According to Lacan’s hypothesis, the gaze is a model of a purged objet a because it is not “polluted” by the demand of the subject, but rather reflects desire in its distilled form. For unconscious desire, bodily organs are not attractive as need satisfaction tools leading to the formulation of demands, but as erogenous zones from which phantasies blossom. Needs may indeed conceal desire: oral desire, for example, may be hidden from us because eating is an activity that arises primarily from somatic needs. But in the visual field, no particular need or demand seems to conceal the desire. Hence the royal standing of the scopic among the drives. In analyzing the vagaries of the scopic drive, Lacan’s inquiry is not oriented toward distinguishing the gaze from need satisfaction, but is fully engaged in distinguishing between seeing and the gaze, the eye and the gaze, vision and the gaze—insulating what the subject is from its representations, and what is shown to it from what it desires to see. The Other does not look at me from the place where I look at it, nor from the place where I would like it to look at me. And, “what I look at is never what I wish to see.” Thus the eye functions as an erogenous zone with the gaze as its objet a, at the level of lack. The meeting between the two is a missed encounter.
Who is she, and what is she looking at? It’s the purity of the “gaze as object” which makes her so brilliant, I think, as a character, as a spectacle, as a thing. More than “object,” she is a “thing.”