Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I Heart Huckabees (analysis)

I Heart Huckabees is one of my all-time favorite movies. It is also one of the many movies that is extremely funny and enjoyable until you start taking it too seriously. So, with that in mind, here's an essay I wrote that does exactly that.

Creation of a Political Subject in I Heart Huckabees 

The film I Heart Huckabees follows the parallel struggles of the protagonist Albert Markovski and his “other” Tommy Corn as they both try to find meaning in the repetition of their daily lives. They each have political projects in which they feel they cannot make progress: Albert wants to save “open spaces” from suburban sprawl and Tommy wants to stop the use of petroleum. They begin by taking their problems to the “existential detectives” Bernard and Vivian Jaffe, and when they find themselves dissatisfied they “go to the other side” and discuss their troubles with the “nihilist” philosopher Caterine Vauban. The two philosophies of these two groups allow us to witness two pairs of opposed ideas articulated by Slavoj Zizek, namely the split between the subject of desire to the subject of drive taken from Lacanian psychoanalysis and the difference between the universal and the particular taken from Hegelian philosophy. Through the progression of Albert and Tommy's characters I Heart Huckabees presents the transition from the subject of desire to the subject of drive and the rejection of one's particular subjectivity in favor of universal subjectivity as necessary processes to creating the ideal political subject.

Introduction to Universality and the Drive

The film opens with two important elements, one filmic and one diegetic, which won't really make sense for a first time viewer until the very end of the film. The first is that the movie starts with an extremely out of focus shot in which nothing is really discernible (the film also ends with this same out of focus shot over which the credits roll). This blurry nothingness actually introduces one of the core concepts of the movie without any explanation for it. In the director's commentary, David O. Russell mentions that the out of focus opening and closing were meant to visually represent the unified everything embodied in the existential detective Bernard Jaffe's theory of “the Blanket”. According to Bernard, “everything is connected and everything matters” and as Albert Markovski summarizes after being introduced to the Blanket, “everything is the same even if it's different”. This theory of the Blanket approximates G. W. F. Hegel's theory of universality, but there is one major problem with it which Albert will discover and which I will discuss below. For now it is enough to note that the movie opens with an attempted representation of Hegel's universality.

The second important opening element in the film is Albert's inner monologue which is dubbed into this opening scene:

Motherfucking cocksucker motherfucking shit fucker what am I doing? What am I doing? I don't know what I'm doing. I'm doing the best that I can. I know that's all I can ask of myself. Is that good enough? Is my work doing any good? Is anybody paying attention? Is it hopeless to try and change things? The African guy is a sign, right? Because if he isn't than nothing in this world makes any sense to me. I'm fucked. Maybe I should quit. Don't quit. Maybe I should just fucking quit. Don't fucking quit, just, I don't know what the fuck I'm supposed to do anymore. Fucker! Fuck! Shit!

Albert is here experiencing the constitutive split in his subjectivity (in Lacanese) or the negation of his particularity (in Hegelese) which I will later show is foreshadowing the main problem with Bernard's theory of the Blanket. For now two things are important. First, Albert is still relying on an idea of the big other to validate his actions when he asks himself “Is my work doing any good? Is anybody paying attention?” An essential element in the transition from the subject of desire to the subject of drive, as well as the transition from particular to universal subjectivity, involves understanding that the big other does not exist and that there is no one to validate our actions or our subjectivity.

Second and more importantly, Albert is introduced as what Lacan would call the subject of the lack or the subject of desire. Lacan argues that in order to enter the Symbolic, the space of language in which people spend the majority of their life, we must give up our direct access to enjoyment or jouissance. Because of this we spend the majority of our lives chasing after the object of our desire, or the objet petit a, which we can never obtain. We can gain a sort of secondary access to jouissance precisely by renouncing our access to it, but we spend most of our lives seeking mere pleasure. Lacan differentiates pleasure from enjoyment in that pleasure involves a fantasy screen whereas jouissance involves an encounter with the Real. Lacan calls this subject who only knows pleasure the subject of desire, and in this opening sequence Albert is immediately identified as such a subject in the way he is dissatisfied with his lack of progress towards attaining his objet petit a. For Albert, the objet a is embodied in “the African guy” (Stephen Nimieri) who Albert thinks is “a sign” or else “nothing in this world makes any sense to [him].” He has an appointment to “check out” the “African guy” with the existential detectives, which brings me to the next important moment in the film.

The Jaffes and Particularity vs. Universality

According to Albert, he goes to the existential detectives in order to solve a coincidence in which he ran into Stephen Nimieri three times. He believes the coincidence is “meaningful”, but when prompted cannot explain how and responds that he wants them to figure it out. As Vivian Jaffe, the detective half of the existential detectives, warns Albert, his coincidence is most likely meaningless. Albert misunderstands the impossibility of the coincidence's meaning in the same way the subject of desire necessarily misunderstands the object of desire: it is an impossible object which motivates desire but which cannot actually be obtained. What's important here is that this is where he meets Bernard Jaffe, the existential half of the existential detectives. Instead of being told anything about his coincidence with Mr. Nimieri, Bernard goes directly into his theory of the Blanket:

Bernard: Say this blanket represents all the matter and energy in the universe, okay? You, me, everything. Nothing had been left out. Alright? All the particles. Everything.

Albert: Everything is the same, even if it's different.
Bernard: Exactly, but our everyday mind forgets this. We think everything is separate – I'm over here you're over there – which is true, but it's not the whole truth because we're connected. 

As I mentioned, this is Bernard's attempt to explain to Albert Hegel's theory of universality. While we all experience ourselves as particular, i.e. we each have our own identities or personalities and we all look different and are in different places, we are actually all connected within the universal totality. Zizek explains this as the “contradiction which sets in motion the dialectical process”:

On a first approach, one could determine it as the contradiction of a Universal with itself, with its own particular content: every universal totality, posited as a “thesis”, necessarily contains within its particular elements “at least one” which negates the universal feature that defines it. Therein is its “symptomatic point”; the element which – within the field of universality – holds the place of the constitutive Outside, of what has to be “repressed” for the universality to constitute itself. (FTKNWTD, 160)

In the case of the Blanket theory, the “universal totality” is the complete set of every person in the universe. It constitutes itself as a whole by including everything, as Bernard repeats in this scene. On the other hand, the “element... which negates the universal feature that defines it” or its “symptomatic point” problematizes this totality in a way that Bernard and Albert can't yet understand.

Hegel is enough to give most academics (myself included) a serious headache so let's break this down into pieces. If "universal totality" refers to the Blanket, then the "particular elements" refers to all the people which constitute the Blanket. The "symptomatic point" which renders the universal totality imperfectly universal is the fact that the "Outside", the "repressed" must also be included within the universal. In this case, the Outside or the repressed is embodied in Mr. Nimieri (Albert has to repress that he is the doorman at his mother's apartment to avoid confronting a childhood trauma associated with it). His integration into the universal is a problem for Albert, so he wants the existential detectives to figure out why when in fact Mr. Nimieri's problematic status is inherent to the structure of the universal itself. Albert's split subjectivity is associated with his interest in Mr. Nimieri in the film's opening dialogue because Albert's negated particularity is directly related to the negated universality Mr. Nimieri's existence attests to. Overcoming this deadlock is one of the crucial steps toward politicization, but Bernard's method for accepting this negated universal is incomplete and backwards.

After explaining the Blanket to Albert, Bernard brings out a body bag and tells Albert to get in. Once inside, he instructs Albert to “give up [his] identity that he think[s] separates [him] from everything.” Here Bernard is attempting to show Albert the contingent, negated nature of his particularity. The problem with Bernard's theory in this scene, and simultaneously the reason it is so easy for Alfred to accept initially, is that he gets the process backwards: it is very easy to convince someone that everyone is connected, but it is much harder and more difficult to convince someone that their particular subjectivity is negated or split. Zizek makes this point when he argues,

in a way, we have to admit that the Whole is contained by the Part, that the fate of the Whole... hinges on what goes on in what was formerly one of its parts... This is why we have to accept the paradox that, in the relation between the universal antagonism... and the particular antagonism... the key struggle is the particular one: one can solve the universal problem... only by first resolving the particular deadlock... (LITET, 333-4)

In extreme layman's terms, we can't begin to solve the problem embodied in the fact that we can't all get along and work together without first understanding yourself. In order to resolve the problem of accepting universal subjectivity, one must first solve the deadlock inherent to particular subjectivity.

It is here in the film that we are introduced to Tommy Corn, who will eventually become Albert's “other” (which Corn later describes as “like a buddy system, I think”). Bernard is called to Tommy's aid because he is experiencing the problem I have just described. After describing his problem with petroleum Tommy says, “If this world is temporary and identity is an illusion then everything is meaningless and it doesn't matter if you use petroleum.” Here Tommy has committed precisely the same error as Albert but on the opposite side: whereas Albert has accepted the universality of humanity without the negated particular, Tommy has just accepted the contingent and negated nature of his particular subjectivity without an understanding of the universal. It is significant that Tommy has come to this acceptance through reading Caterine Vauban's book “If Not Now” because Caterine will become the second major figure on Albert and Tommy's path to politicization.

The last thing that happens to Albert and Tommy before they “go to the other side” and join Caterine in their quest for meaning is that Albert loses his job as the director of the Open Spaces coalition. As Bernard correctly recognizes, this is “the perfect opportunity to dismantle” his particular subjectivity. In the middle of what director David O. Russell describes as a “philosophical chase scene”, Bernard yells after Albert that every relation to every other person is possible, even to Brad Stand, Albert's nemesis and the man who just stole Albert's job. Here Russell cuts to what is probably the most traumatic image in the movie, a short scene in Albert's mind of Brad breastfeeding Albert. This is the closest Bernard has gotten to forcing Albert to give up his particular subjectivity in exchange for a universal subjectivity, but reality immediately returns as the film cuts to Albert's disgusted face and the chase scene continues.

Caterine Vauban and Desire vs. Drive

It is here that Albert and Tommy switch gears to investigate the philosophy of Caterine Vauban, and where I will simultaneously switch gears to the psychoanalytical philosophy of Jacques Lacan. While in the simplest light, Caterine is simply picking up where the Jaffes left off by forcing Albert and Tommy to give up their particular subjectivities, there is a Lacanian nuance to it which is crucial to their emergence as political subjects but which cannot stand on its own without the Jaffes philosophy. When Alberts asks if Caterine has a method, he gets two responses. Tommy says the process is similar to the body bag method of Bernard with a small difference: “Deconstruct your mind to the blackness... just accept it for what it is: nothing.” Caterine responds in a slightly different way by asking, “Think Albert, have you betrayed yourself?” These two ideas, of the nothingness of the self and of self-betrayal, embody the Lacanian death drive.

Caterine's understanding of the opposition of desire and drive allow her to do what the existential detectives could not: take Albert to the location of his object of desire to show him how he has “betrayed himself”. She takes him to that place where Mr. Nimieri works as a doorman, specifically, his mother's apartment building. Importantly, Albert told the detectives that Mr. Nimieri worked at his friend's girlfriend's apartment building, an unconscious self-betrayal which prevented the detectives from demystifying Albert's objet petit a. Despite the fact that Albert's objet a is unattainable, the place of its articulation is important. As Zizek explains,

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, which is why there is more truth in unconditional fidelity to one's desire than in a resigned insight into the vanity of one's striving. There is a parallax shift at work here: from illusion as mere illusion to the real in illusion, from the object which is a metonym/mask of the Void to the object which stands in for the void. This parallax shift is, in Lacanese, the shift from desire to drive. (LITET, 72)

Because Caterine understands this distinction between the place of desire and the object of desire and between desire and drive she is able to push Albert towards becoming the subject of drive by bringing him to the place of his desire, the place of the Lacanian Real. It is of course no accident that the Real resides in his mother's apartment building.

Inside the apartment, Caterine makes “some curious findings” in the journal Albert kept as a child. When he was little Albert's cat died, but rather than console him about “what for a small boy is a large tragedy” his mother made him spell words for a “perfect stranger”. Albert proceeded to climb out his window, “a prisoner in his own house”. As Caterine observes, “It's painful enough to feel sad, but on top of it, to feel embarrassed for feeling, that is the killer.” Caterine takes a picture with a Polaroid camera of Albert in tears which will become significant to the film's denouement. In this way Caterine forces Albert into an encounter with the Real. This is an important step forward, but for the moment Albert is not ready to accept the contingency and negation of both his desire and his particular subjectivity which are both necessary to embracing universal subjectivity and eventually to politicization.

Here the movie cross cuts to Brad Stand and his interactions with the existential detectives which provides a helpful contrast to Caterine's method. The detectives first of all bring up Brad's brother who Brad disrespects due to the fact that all he talks about is geckos. They then confront him with the fact that he likes to tell the same stories repeatedly, which he originally denies. After being forced to listen to tapes of himself telling “the mayo story” over and over, Brad finally gives in and sparks my favorite conversation in the whole movie:

Vivian: Why do you think that you tell the mayo story so much?
Brad: I don't know. Why?
Bernard: It's propaganda
Brad: For mayonnaise?
Bernard: For you... It holds the key to something you compulsively avoid so it will never be examined or felt, hence your behavior because repetitive like the story.
Vivian: Like the story.
Bernard: Like the story.
Vivian: Like the story.
Bernard: Like the story.
Vivian: Like the story.
Brad: Shut up. All right. I don't have to tell stories.
Vivian: What would happen if you didn't tell the stories? Are you being yourself?
Brad: How am I not myself?
Bernard: How am I not myself?
Vivian: How am I not myself?
Brad: How am I not myself? How am I not myself?
Bernard: How am I not myself?
Vivian: How am I not myself? 

The repeated line “how am I not myself?” perfectly embodies both the idea of the negated particular and the self-detrayal inherent to the position of desire. While this clearly has some theoretical importance, the detectives don't take it quite that far. What they do accomplish, however, is confronting Brad with the contingency or negation of his particular subjectivity. The fact that the detectives have done only this and not gone as far as Caterine is evidenced diegetically when later in the film Brad still tries to get into the benefit he has spent the majority of the movie planning (hence he is still attached to his desires, has failed to make the shift to the repetition of the drive) and after being kicked out Albert gives him Caterine's card. This scene in the film provides a direct comparison of the methods of Caterine and the Jaffes: while Caterine specializes in exposing the contingency of desire, the Jaffes specialize in exposing the contingency of particularity.

The next and final step on Albert's path toward politicization involves Caterine's suggestion that he set fire to Brad's jet skis in order to get revenge for Brad taking Albert's job. This leads to something Caterine doesn't expect, however. When Brad comes home and sees his house on fire, Caterine takes a picture of him with the same Polaroid camera and triumphantly tosses the photograph to Albert. As the photo develops, pieces of Albert's face are superimposed over Brad's face. The scene then cuts to Albert standing in a field spinning around in slow motion while confetti falls from the sky: Albert has figured it all out. As he explains to Caterine, “[The fire] bond[ed] me to Brad in the insanity of pain until I saw that I'm Brad and he's me”. He has discovered the truth behind the claims of the Jaffes about universality.

The fire also served as the catalyst for Tommy's similar realizations. As a firefighter, Tommy was called to put out the fire, but he gets there before the firetruck and finds Dawn, Brad's girlfriend, lying on the ground. They pass out from carbon monoxide poisoning, and after they've woken up Dawn explains to Brad her and Tommy's mutual realizations: “I had a fire and almost died and he came and he almost died because he cares about the same things and that shows that there is no nothing, even when you die.” While this obviously isn't the most sound logic ever, when supplemented with a deleted scene it makes a little more sense. Originally Russell had planned for Dawn and Tommy to plan to commit suicide together, but to either call it off at the last minute or to pass out from carbon monoxide poisoning before they could carry it out. This scene would have provided the confrontation for Dawn and Tommy with the obliteration of their particular subjectivities in the form of the death drive.

Albert and Tommy's Conclusions

The evidence that Albert and Tommy have accepted the negation of their particular subjectivities, accepted how the universal provides the framework for these negated particularities, and embraced the drive comes in some of the last dialogue of the film:

Tommy: You hurt my feelings [by sleeping with Caterine].
Albert: I'm sorry.
Tommy: But you had to do it didn't you...
Albert: She used me to teach us about the inevitability of human drama...
Tommy: Looks like you saw some truth.
Albert: Looks like you saw some truth.
Tommy: What did you see?
Albert: Well the interconnection thing is definitely for real.
Tommy: It is! I didn't think it was.
Albert: I can't believe it, it's so fantastic!
Tommy: But it's also nothing special.
Albert: Yeah because it grows from the manure of human trouble. You see, the detectives, they just wanted to gloss right over that. But in fact, no manure, no magic. 

“The inevitability of human drama” corresponds to the struggle with desire and drive from Lacan, “the interconnection thing” corresponds to Hegelian universality, and “the manure of human trouble” corresponds to the negation of particularity. And finally, these realizations lead to the final words of the film:

Tommy: What are you doing tomorrow?
Albert: I was thinking about chaining myself to a bulldozer. Do you want to come?
Tommy: What time?
Albert: One, one-thirty.
Tommy: Sounds good. Should I bring my own chains?
Albert: We always do. 

And then the film loses focus to become the same sort of blurry sort that started the film, the representation of the universal. This ending to the film of Albert and Tommy agreeing to what may or may not be a successful political act shows the way their acceptance of the drive and of universal subjectivity has allowed them to become political subjects.

Works Cited 

Russell, David O., I Heart Huckabees, Twentieth Century Fox, 2004

Zizek, Slavoj, For They Know Not What They Do, Verso, New York, 2008

Zizek, Slavoj, Living in the End Times, Verso, New York, 2010

How am I not myself?


  1. I would love to use the main ideas of Universality vs. Particularity in a critical analysis essay for my English class :)

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