Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Videodrome (analysis)


"There were many strange things cut—some things not so strange and some things quite strange—just supporting my contention that censorship is always very personal and has very much to do with the sensibility of the person who is being censorious. There are no rules."

"My editor and I had done something that I tend to do which is we had cut the film so brutally that it was about 75 minutes long and completely incomprehensible. However incomprehensible you might think it is now, it was much more so then."

Listening to David Cronenberg's feature commentary on Videodrome makes its existence all the more miraculous. While multiple viewings and/or screening notes render the plot easily comprehensible, Cronenberg's apparent fear that people still don't understand ("however incomprehensible...") definitely has some basis in reality. Once you know what happens in the film, why it happens is no less clear. Max Renn discovers this tape (I think it's technically a Betamax) called Videodrome, watches it, and is infected with a virus that causes him to hallucinate and to become interested in violence, sex, violent sex, and everything in between. So what? Are we to take away from the film that Cronenberg thinks that television/film/etc. make the people that watch them sexualized and violent (Total Film's explanation)? And what's up with the stomach-vagina and penis-pistol?

The "you are what you watch" reading is problematic not only in that it ignores the most interesting parts of the movie. More importantly it seems to have arrived five minutes late. In Videodrome's second scene, Max complains about a softcore pornographic movie offered to be screened on his television channel: "It's soft. There's something too... soft about it. I'm looking for something that will break through. Something tough."

This lays the groundwork for my analysis of the movie and provides the coordinates of Max's universe. The Videodrome virus doesn't simply make people violent or perverted. Max shows signs of a tendency toward both of these things before being exposed to Videodrome. Instead, the virus destroys its victims' fundamental fantasy and forces them into the position of the subject of drive. This reading allows an enjoyably inverse experience of the film: Max doesn't start hallucinating when he becomes infected with the Videodrome virus, he stops. The message is that we are all constantly hallucinating (via our fundamental structuring fantasy), and Max instead sees the (Lacanian) Real.

To see how this works let's first take a look at the distinction between desire and drive. Here to explain this distinction is Slavoj Zizek:

Of course every object of desire is an illusory lure; of course the full jouissance of incest is not only prohibited, but is in itself impossible; however, it is here that one should fully assert Lacan's claim that les non-dupes errent. Even if the object of desire is an illusory lure, there is a real in this illusion: the object of desire in its positive nature is vain, but not the place it occupies, the place of the Real... There is a parallax shift at work here... in Lacanese, the shift from desire to drive... This gap that separates the aim from the goal “eternalizes” the drive, transforming the simple instinctual movement which finds peace and calm when it reaches its goal... into a process which gets caught in its own loop and insists on endlessly repeating itself. (my emphasis)*

As is somewhat typical with Zizek, there is a lot here and it's not terribly clear. On the side of desire there's the goal and pleasure, and on the side of drive there's the aim and enjoyment. About to personify desire & drive here so get ready. Desire ignores the way that obtaining objects makes them less important (think "grass is always greener" syndrome) because what you want is not the object itself (object of desire; goal) but "the place it occupies" (objet a or object-cause of desire; aim). Thus Desire only gets pleasure out of objects. Drive, on the other hand, recognizes this and "gets caught in its own loop": forgetting the goal of its libidinal energies, it constantly circles its object (I always think of this scene from The Truman Show). This is what Zizek means when he says Drive is "eternalized" and why Drives enjoys

Well, great. Now that we (sort of) understand desire and drive, what's the point? The first hint is that Videodrome (the transmission/tape within Videodrome proper) takes the form of the drive. As Max points out, it has no plot and just repeats itself with no clear goal.** This prefigures the way that the Videodrome virus affects its victims: Max is literally impregnated with drive. We then witness Max's drive mature as he goes from piercing Nicki's ears and sucking the blood out of the new hole to whipping a flesh television to shooting Barry Convex (the creator of the Videodrome virus) with his flesh gun to create this result (Max literally shoots him full of hot jouissance and, unable to take it, Convex's body ruptures and cancerous growths erupt from his face and torso).

Another way to explain this is that the Videodrome virus has forced Max through his fundamental fantasy. Here's Zizek again:

We can articulate two stages of the psychoanalytic process: interpretation of symptoms – going through the fantasy. When we are confronted with the patient's symptoms, we must first interpret them and penetrate through them to the fundamental fantasy as the kernel of enjoyment which is blocking the further movement of interpretation, then we must accomplish the crucial step of going through the fantasy... But here again another problem arose: how do we account for patients who have, beyond any doubt, done through their fantasy, who have obtained distance from the fantasy-framework of their reality?... Lacan tried to answer this challenge with the concept of sinthome... Symptom as sinthome is a certain signifying formation penetrated with enjoyment: it is a signifier as a bearer of jouis-sense, enjoyment-in-sense. (my emphasis)***

Before "going through the fantasy" subjects experience symptoms of the blockage to their enjoyment (most famously in the form of Freudian slips). The subject finds her enjoyment abhorrent to her idea of herself and represses the enjoyment which results in symptoms such as tics or compulsive behavior (check out this clip). But subjects who have "gone through the fantasy" still exhibit repetitive or compulsive behavior, albeit in a different way. Instead of being a signifier of the subject's failure to enjoy, the sinthome is a testament to the subject's success

Make sense so far? Here we can revisit the quote from Max that I began this essay with on the topic of softcore pornography. When he says, "I'm looking for something that will break through," what he wants to break through is the fundamental fantasy so he can reach from pleasure to enjoyment. The Videodrome virus allows him to do just that: traverse his fantasy to achieve pure jouissance. Soft porn equals pleasure, violent sex equals enjoyment (for Max – don't go out & try BDSM just because you think it'll bring you jouissance).

So what is Max's sinthome? He certainly repetitively engages in violent and/or sexual acts, but this isn't quite it. Sinthome, like symptom, has an involuntary nature to it. For this reason I want to return now to Max's stomach-vagina (yes you did want another picture). If we first take Zizek literally when he says that sinthome is a "signifying formation penetrated with enjoyment", and second take Max's flesh gun as an embodiment of his enjoyment, then Max's stomach-vagina (go on, click it) is literally penetrated with enjoyment in that he puts his gun into it (this one's a doozy). By performing this action Max overcomes the stumbling block to his enjoyment and traverses his fantasy to occupy the position of the subject of drive and thereby enjoy in the Real. 


*Zizek, Slavoj, Living in the End Times, Verso, New York, 2010 p. 72-3

**For those of you smart alecs who have already seen the movie and are objecting, "But the goal of the Videodrome virus is to get Max to kill himself!" the film doesn't even conceive this seemingly end-inducing action as a goal. Instead, as Nicki tells Max, "death is not the end... to become the new flesh you must kill the old flesh." The reason there is no more movie after Max shoots himself is that he has exited the Symbolic and instead exists as a pure subject of drive in the (unsymbolizable) Real.

***Zizek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, New York, 2008 p. 80-1

4 comments:

  1. Great article. Would be interesting to develop it further though, for example, the ethical/political implications of his refusal to compromise his desire (how, not only is he cast from the symbolic order into the real through his affinity to his desire, but also becomes a revolutionary fighter in doing so). Also, could there be something to be said about Alain Badiou's concept of the Truth Event, which occurs in wake of the breakdown of the symbolic order?

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    1. Hey Ethan, thanks so much for your comment!

      As for ethical implications, not giving ground with regard to desire is the ultimate ethical position for Lacan. Political implications are much more complicated I believe, especially given that Videodrome was meant to be an exploration of the idea that violent media creates violent humans. I haven't thought too much about it though, could be interesting.

      As for Badiou, I'm not a huge fan mainly due to the fact that he believes an Event can never emerge from pure negativity. While the breakdown of the Symbolic provides the space for the possibility of an Event, its actual occurence requires some positive action and I'm not sure Badiou would stand behind any of Max's actions. I think his ideas are definitely valuable and interesting, but I'm not an expert so i tend not to engage with his theory.

      You seem well versed in this sort of theory, do you have a blog or other website where you discuss these sorts of issues?

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  2. I watched this recently and I admit, I didn't get it. I didn't think the message was articulated clearly enough - I ended up believing that Videodrome made Max into a killer, that he was never a TV executive and instead was just a loner obsessed with porn and violent movies. Why else would he know to go to that old sea vessel at the end. So I didn't understand the depth, though that just might mean I need to watch it again. There was just some confusing elements, like why the elderly woman was in his bed at one point. Who exactly was she? I also didn't get Convex's deal, why he makes reading glasses. But I could definitely watch the film a second time. I thought the special effects were great. Thanks for the analysis.

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    1. Hey Dan, thanks for checking out one of my older articles! Videodrome is a cool movie and one I really like because the ambiguity allows for some interesting readings of the film. That said, I don't think it's an objectively good film. It went through hell in the production process, and it's really a wonder the film ever came out at all. Cronenberg himself states in the commentary that he's amazed the movie makes any sense because it's so scattered and sort of unfinished. If you didn't "get it" I don't think that's your fault as a viewer, I think it's just that this movie is far from perfect. I love the movie because I'm a silly Freudian/Lacanian, and the movie's weird imagery is just like a playground for me.

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