‘Repeating, Like an Automaton’ – Slavoj Zizek
Although Lynch devotes a significant amount of the language in his films to highlighting the totalising power of the Symbolic and the way it perpetuates its authority by reproducing fantastical desires that inevitably fail before the Real, he devotes a far greater proportion of his filmic work to attempting a redress of the fundamental imbalance he sees in the Symbolic’s hegemony. The frequent reversion of many characters to linguistic cliché has been noted by critics as creating a depsychologising effect; his characters become internally flattened to the extent that they are nothing more than robotic devices for the hollow revival of historic movie tropes and genres. However, when read in combination with Mark Fisher’s definition of ‘the eerie’, Lynch’s technique can be understood as having the opposite result: the repetition and doubling present in much of Lynch’s dialogue creates a typically uncanny effect, and in doing so gestures towards the underlying Real. Zizek suggests that this uncanny language is used alongside ‘larger than life’ figures who embody the Real. According to Zizek’s theory, by contrasting the dialogue of such characters, which is often warped in post-production for an intensifying effect, with that of their more naïve and cliched counterparts, Lynch brings the Real to the foreground alongside the Symbolic. In doing so he reveals the cliched language of the everyday to be nothing more than a fragile defence against the ever-present Real. Though I hope to complicate Zizek’s argument, it provides an excellent model for how Lynch deploys certain modes of expression in an attempt to bring forth the Real and undermine the Symbolic’s total power.
Lynch’s frequent imitation of established cinematic genres has been read as symptomatic of ‘the failure of the future’ and a resultant ‘postmodern cultural scene’ which, as Frederic Jameson predicted, ‘would become dominated by pastiche and revivalism.’ However, I believe that in Lynch’s case the use of cliche is somewhat more complex. Fred Pfiel argues that a postmodern text, ‘as in Cindy Sherman’s first acclaimed photographs’, deploys cliché in order ‘both to hybridise and hollow out’ those clichés. Jeffery, the protagonist of 1986’s Blue Velvet, has a conversation with Detective Williams that can be seen to ‘hollow out’ the clichés in which they speak. After finding the mysterious severed ear at the start of the film, Jeffery visits Detective Williams in his home in the hope of finding out whether the police have discovered anything about it. ‘I know you must be curious to know more’, Williams teases, but insists that Jeffery cannot ask any more about the case; Jeffery boyishly replies that he’s just ‘real curious’, Williams ‘was just the same way myself when I was your age’, it’s what ‘got me into this business’, an exciting business, Jeffery assumes, ‘but it’s horrible too’, replies Williams. ‘That’s just the way it has to be’, Williams concludes, before putting out his cigarette, swinging his legs off the desk, standing up wearing a pistol holster and loosened tie, with a police badge gleaming on his belt, and escorting Jeffery out. Every sentence, ‘every phrase, is 100 per cent B-movie cliché’ Pfiel observes, and is delivered ‘with all the wooden earnestness the actors can muster.’
The ‘gleaming but off-kilter perfection of such recherche surfaces’ initially seems to comprise an attack on the Symbolic that has become so deeply embedded in individual thought due to its continuous processes of reproduction that social interaction has been reduced to banal, meaningless repetitions that could not keep subjects further from the underlying Reals of experience. In Blue Velvet’s closing scene Jeffery, Sandy, and Aunt Barbara all spot a robin perching on a tree branch in their garden. Despite all the perverse and traumatic events of the preceding days, the group have nothing more to say or conclude than ‘life’s so strange’; Pfiel suggest that their language is demonstrative of the fact they have become psychological ‘robots’. Their cliched phrase, alongside the ‘bird’s obvious artificiality, the music’s cliched goopiness, and the hypercomposed flatness and stiffness of the mise en scene’ creates a sense that the characters have become so internally flattened, retromanic, and ‘hypercomposed’ because of an overpowered Symbolic order that keeps them distant from the Real that they are effectively no longer human beings; they have become depsychologised.
A similar effect can be seen in Mulholland Drive: An old woman called Irene, who appears to have accompanied Betty on her journey to Los Angeles emerges arm in arm with Betty from the airport terminal. During their time together, they seemed to have developed a caring, friendly, almost parental bond with one another. Before parting, they speak to one another through strained smiles of glee in shameless Hollywood cliché, their words quite blatantly dubbed onto the moving image in post-production. Betty, in all her naivety, ‘was so excited and nervous’ that ‘it was great to have you [Irene] to talk to’. Irene replies that she’ll ‘be watching for you on the big screen!’, ‘wont that be the day!’ Betty replies. They hug tightly, and eventually part ways with Irene departing in a limousine. Upon entering the car, Irene’s initial smiles of ‘self-satisfaction’ quickly turn ‘into demonic laughter, sadistic glee’. As Richard Stein describes, in alignment with Pfiels comparison to ‘robots’, ‘these are not real people’, but rather something closer to ‘affect-laden images in the psyche’. In these moments, Pfiel suggests that a ‘far more fundamental distrust’ is engendered between Lynch’s audience and his characters. It is no longer merely a concern that the audience might not have ‘gotten to the bottom of [them] yet’, but rather a ‘full blown paranoia that there may be no bottom here at all.’ Their cliched, banal, and self-consciously artificial manners of expression suggest that language has utterly dehumanised Lynch’s characters through its self-preserving repetitions, and in doing so has distanced subjects from their Real experiences.
Rather than simply representing the ways in which language has cut subjects off from the Real, Lynch’s use of cliché also has the capacity to invoke the Real; the manners of expression used by Lynch’s characters create an uncanny effect that gestures towards the Real underlying the Symbolic. Mark Fisher, in his book The Weird and the Eerie, suggests that Freud’s concept of the ‘unheimlich’ has been ‘inadequately translated into English as the uncanny; the word which better captures Freud’s sense of the term is the “unhomely.”’ Though I will continue to refer to it as the uncanny throughout this essay, Fisher’s choice of phrase draws attention to how the uncanny draws on ‘a fascination for the outside’, for that ‘which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience’, in other words: the Real. Specifically, Fisher cites the ‘repetition and doubling – themselves an uncanny pair which double and repeat each other – [that] seem to be at the heart of every uncanny phenomena that Freud identifies.’ Furthermore, Fisher suggests that the ‘eerie’, that which signals the uncanny, can be found ‘more readily in landscapes partially emptied of the human’, and that the eerie concerns the ‘most fundamental metaphysical questions’ of ‘why is there nothing here when there should be something?’
If cliché can be understood as a kind of linguistic repetition, and can be understood to dehumanise Lynch’s characters, to create filmic landscapes ‘partially emptied of the human’, I would like to suggest a re-reading of his films wherein cliché is not designed to ‘hollow out’ his characters, but actually to create an uncanny effect that gestures towards an underlying Real. Other instances of doubling and repetition in his films can be seen to support this reading. Michael Moon notes how the second time that Frank mouths the words of Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ in the eponymous film, having mouthed them alongside Ben at the brothel only minutes beforehand, this time prepares Jeffery for a beating ‘by “kissing” lipstick onto his mouth and wiping it off with a piece of blue velvet’ as if Lynch is ‘daring to recognise the desire for each other that the two men’s newly discovered sadomasochistic bond induces them to feel.’ The men are doubled not only in their shared desire, but also in the repeated language of the song that has become the calling-card of the woman who represents the focal point of those desires; through the words of the song an uncanny effect is created. More important is the ‘more fearful knowledge’ this moment creates, and that Michael Moon highlights: that it is the words of a recorded studio song, a commercial ‘hit’, that has become the central device around which the doubled Frank and Jeffery’s desire turn. This creates the sense that ‘what most of us consider to be our deepest and strongest desires are not our own’, our fantasies are mere ‘copies’ of ‘circulating, endless reproduced and reproducible desires’. Frank and Jeffery’s desired are not only doubled in each other, but are the result of fantasies created and doubled countless times through the production of the record, that have never been and never will be their own.
Lynch’s most recent feature Inland Empire formally manifests this effect. Laura Dern’s character Nikki Grace is herself doubled in the film. Grace, an actress, partakes in an initial reading of the script for an upcoming movie On High in Blue Tomorrows and the early stages of shooting. However, the two presented realities – that of the shooting and production of On High in Blue Tomorrows and the filmic world of On High in Blue Tomorrows itself – quickly begin to blur and collapse. Language is at the heart of this collapse: When an affair between Grace and her co-star slowly initiates in the ‘real’ world, it is predicated on filmic clichés such as the ‘tucked away little Italian restaurant’ that Grace cheekily demands her suitor take her to. When Grace eventually becomes aware that the two realties are collapsing, saying to her co-star that ‘it sounds like dialogue in our script’, Lynch demonstrates that the desire she feels in the ‘real’ world for her co-star could just as easily be an uncanny repetition of the romance they portray on screen. This effect is typified when Grace takes a turn through a door into a studio set where she sees herself reading the script of On High in Blue Tomorrows alongside her co-star and director; she is physically doubled, and watches herself in the moment the desire between her and her co-star originates, both the ‘real’ desire they share for each other as actors, but also that which is written in the words of the script. In the same way that Frank and Jeffery’s doubled desire is reflected through the words of a hit record, Grace becomes acutely aware in this moment that her desires and fantasies could represent uncanny repetitions of the language in her script.
This uncanny effect implies that all subjects live by some kind of ‘script’, enacting desires that are not of their own creation; instead they have been created elsewhere, by someone else. The repeated mantras that predominate in Lynch’s films as well as his personal life – Transcendental Meditation, a practice Lynch advocates requires the repetition of a central mantra – have the same effect. ‘You put your disease in me!’ is repeated by Dorothy Valens throughout Blue Velvet, and suggests that this nameless disease, this ‘it’, ‘was there/here/everywhere all along, and we have “it” inside us too’. This relates back to Hedwig Schwall’s analysis of the newborn: if ‘naming him is castrating him’, in this moment ‘he is denied what he desires: wholeness. This awareness is driven underground into the unconscious, but it is reverberated in all forms of communication, in all speech acts.’ By demonstrating that his characters’ desires are not their own, Lynch acknowledges the universal separation that all subjects undergo through birth and assimilation into the Symbolic; that the Symbolic is designed to reproduce desire that perpetuates its own authority and stabilises the subject and their society. However, by simultaneously creating an uncanny effect through doubled and repetitious language Lynch is able to gesture back towards the Real that underlies the constructed Symbolic and thus begins to destabilise and undermine it.
Zizek summarises this in his description of a ‘New Age preacher’, and continues the ‘robotic’ terminology used by Pfiel: ‘the style of his words – the style of repeating, like an automaton’, rather than suggesting that there is ‘no bottom here at all’ as Pfiel posited, implies there lurks ‘beneath their kind and open stance […] some unspeakably monstrous dimension.’ Zizek goes on to describe how in Lynch’s films ‘the psychological unity of a person disintegrates’ into two realms; ‘one the one hand, a series of clichés, of uncannily ritualised behaviour’, the Symbolic, and ‘on the other hand, outbursts of the “raw”, brutal, desublimated Real’. By contrasting the cliched but uncanny language of his more naïve characters with the ‘larger than life, hyperactive figures embodying pure enjoyment and excessive evil’, types that Zizek calls ‘pere jouissance (the father of enjoyment)’, such as Lost Highway’s Mr Eddy, Lynch makes it abundantly clear that the ritualised cliché of his naïfs proves that ‘our fantasies’, expressed through language, ‘support our sense of reality, and that this is in turn a defence against the Real.’
This juxtaposition is emphasised during a scene in Wild at Heart where Bobby Peru enters Lulu Fortune’s motel room to sexually proposition her during Sailor’s absence. Lula, who predominantly speaks in Lynch’s more cliched language – the phrase ‘this whole world is wild at heart and weird on top’ from which the film takes its title is Lula’s line – is suddenly reduced to awkward, stuttering silence when confronted with Bobby, the pere jouissance. After attempting to cover her body from Peru’s view, Peru grabs her by the neck and demands her to say ‘fuck me’. All Lula can offer by way of refusal is the ineffective repetition of ‘get out’, which she struggles to voice over Peru’s grip. Peru, contrastingly, speaks in language that seeks to embody the Real; when Lulu tries to escape his grip, Peru screams ‘Stop it! I’ll chew your fucking heart out girl!’ The sheer brutality and force of his words, as well as the unfettered urges they represent, are starkly opposed to Lula’s Symbolic banality which is shaken and exposed as fantasmatic façade by Peru’s announcement of the Real. Furthermore, as with Irene in Mulholland Drive, the post-production effects work alongside the words help to create a sense of the Real: as well dramatically increasing the volume of Peru’s voice on the imperative ‘Stop it!’ which creates an almost bestial scream, a violent, slashing sound effect is laid over the top of his words. As a result, Lynch creates an effect wherein Peru’s language seems to represent the bursting forth of a hidden, underlying force – the brutality of the Real – appearing from beneath the Symbolic and rushing onto the same plane of representation.
Though Lynch is to some extent successful in undermining the power of the Symbolic by bringing forth the Real in this way, there is a conceptual flaw to Zizek’s argument. Zizek’s claim that by placing the ‘aseptic, quotidian social reality alongside its fantasmatic supplement, the dark universe of forbidden masochistic pleasures’, Lynch ‘transposes the vertical’ – the Real suppressed beneath the Symbolic – ‘into the horizontal’ and ‘puts the two dimensions […] on the same surface’ seems to ignore a central characteristic of the Real. The Real, as both Fisher and Zizek himself have separately described, is a negative and desubstantialised entity; it cannot be positively represented, brought forth, or made ‘horizontal’. Rather than attempting to positively represent the Real, I argue that moments in Lynch’s filmography must be identified wherein he opens up fissures in the fabric of perceivable reality through which the desubstantialised Real can be glimpsed and, as a result, the power of the Symbolic is most successfully disrupted. Lynch goes some way to achieving this by undermining the individuality of desires created by the Symbolic through the uncanny doublings and repetitions of his characters’ expressions. However, I believe this effect can be made significantly more powerful in a particular setting: when Lynch destabilises the Symbolic and Imaginary realms simultaneously he can most forcefully destabilise conscious reality and subsequently create the largest fissures through which the Real can be experienced. It is when Lynch deploys uncanny language in a destabilised Imaginary space, the performative space, that the Real can most readily be seen.
[Full bibliography at end of part 4]