lynch and language [4/4]

‘Insisting on fantasy to the end’ – Todd McGowan

Lynch’s characters’ use of uncanny linguistic expression and their frequent juxtaposition with ‘larger-than-life’ pere jouissance figures is limitedly successful in providing access to the underlying Real because it only destabilises one of the two Lacanian orders that constitute perceptible reality: The Symbolic. By evoking and negating the third Order of the Borromean Knot, the Imaginary, in the form of self-consciously performative, and what I will later call ‘curtained’, spaces, whilst also using uncanny linguistic expression, Lynch foregrounds the fragility of the Symbolic-Imaginary reality and destabilises both orders simultaneously. In doing so, Lynch is able to use language, a construct that he has shown to typically distance subjects from the Real, to create fissures through which the Real can be glimpsed.

Michel Foucault’s theory of heterotopias describes how performative spaces exist separately from the ‘quotidian social reality’ where many of Lynch’s films take place, and are unrestricted by the social structures that the Symbolic typically maintains. Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, and Mulholland Drive all provide examples of heterotopic spaces wherein Lynch can test the limits of linguistic, intellectual, and Symbolic discourse. In these spaces Lynch can instead give precedence to an alternative discourse, one that is emotional and primal, by creating moments that mimic the semiotic chora. However, I believe the effect created in such spaces can be further specified by examining a recurring motif that appears within them: their curtains. Curtains, like the repetitious and doubled language of character expression, have an uncanny effect on the performative spaces they surround and thus destabilise the Imaginary Order that they represent. Mulholland Drives Club Silencio scene acts as a case study of how Lynch, foregrounding and negating the Imaginary and Symbolic simultaneously, is able to open up a gap in the fabric of knowable reality through which the Real can be most directly accessed. This is evidenced in the way Betty, after glimpsing the Real during the events she witnesses at Club Silencio, disappears, and the oneiric reality that Diane Selwyn’s unconscious had constructed, the world that comprised the first half of Mulholland Drive, quickly begins to fall apart.

It is important to reassert how, what I have referred to as, the ‘negativity’ of the Real effects the following theory. I take issue with Zizek’s argument that Lynch is able to make the Symbolic and the Real ‘horizonal’ by ‘bringing them to the same surface’ because of a statement Zizek makes in his later book How to Read Lacan; Zizek asserts that the Real is a ‘de-substantialised entity’, not something that ‘resists being caught in the symbolic network’, but rather a ‘fissure in the symbolic network itself’, an ‘effect of these gaps and inconsistencies.’ As Lacan reiterates, ‘the Real is impossible’, because it will always remain ‘impossible in the Symbolic.’ Therefore, I believe Zizek’s suggestion that a Real could be brought onto the same surface as the Symbolic via the linguistic structures that constitute the Symbolic is fundamentally at odds with the idea of a Real that is ‘impossible’ to positively represent. If the Real is an ‘unrepresentable X, a traumatic void’ that can only be ‘glimpsed at in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality’, I posit that by foregrounding the Symbolic and Imaginary, rather the Symbolic and a supposed-Real, and then destabilising both orders through uncanny techniques, Lynch can more powerfully create the fractures that allow the Real to be momentarily seen.

Lynch’s performative spaces relate to the realm of the Imaginary because the Imaginary encapsulates the ‘domain of images’, those images ‘with which we identify and which capture our attention.’ The Imaginary corresponds to the mirror stage of childhood development, wherein a child ‘misrecognises in its mirror image a stable, coherent, whole self’; such an image is ‘a fantasy, one that the child sets up in order to compensate for its sense of lack’. As a result this fantasy image can be projected onto, ‘filled in by’, others that ‘we set up as a mirror for ourselves’, those that subjects may wish to emulate in their adult lives, such as parents, role models, or performers. Thus, by making performative spaces and the performative characters therein a recurrent motif in his features, Lynch creates moments where both the pervasive language of the Symbolic and the fantastical realm of the Imaginary, the two Orders of the Borromean Knot that constitute the ‘apparent field of reality’, can be displayed and pulled apart simultaneously.

Lynch described Twin Peaks’ Red Room, in typically vague terms, as a space where ‘anything can happen […] a free zone’. Richard Martin explores this further in The Architecture of David Lynch, saying that Lynch’s performative spaces are ‘free zones’ because they are isolated spaces and ‘isolated sequences within the larger frame of a film’, and as a result are spaces where ‘Lynch feels liberated to express concentrated bursts of emotion.’ Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopias provides one model of how Lynch’s performative spaces could be interpreted. For Foucault, heterotopias are spaces that are somehow ‘other’ to the societies they exist within, they are worlds within worlds that reflect the space outside of them; they function both as ‘a space of illusion that exposes every real space’, and as a world that is as ‘meticulous’ as the outside world is ‘messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.’ Martin correlates this idea with ‘the sense’ that in many of Lynch’s performative spaces there is ‘a fundamental encounter taking place, that something revelatory is occurring.’ Before verifying Martin’s claim, I wish to further examine Foucault’s later statement that heterotopias provide an opportunity to ‘suspect, neutralise, or invert the set of relations that they […] mirror.’

Lynch believes that the ‘outside’ world grants too much authority to the Symbolic, to language that cannot represent the underlying Real; consequently, his performative spaces function as heterotopias because they invert the usually stabilising and structuring effects of the Symbolic by using language to create an unstable space of continuous emotional flux. Martin notes how Sailor’s crooning performance of Elvis Presley’s ‘Love Me (Treat Me Like a Fool)’ at a club in Wild at Heart creates a fantasmatic scene that ‘moves from raw guitars to bubble-gum pop without a pause’. When Sailor takes the microphone from the band onstage and begins to perform ‘the crowd accepts the radical changes in mood and music’; ‘the single cinematic space fluctuates violently, allowing it to play host to seemingly incompatible emotions.’ This effect is typified by Eraserhead’s Radiator Lady, whose smiling face and ‘bubble-gum’ voice readily co-mingle, first, with her methodical crushing of the sperm-like creatures littering the stage with her high heel, and, second, with the violent decapitation of Henry whose head is replaced by that of his undifferentiated child; his extreme fear of fatherhood, earlier conveyed through the stunned ‘arhetorical’ silence that pervades the filmic world outside of the radiator is depicted in sharp contrast to both the extroverted flamboyance of the radiator lady and the ferocity with which Henry is mutilated and replaced inside it.

Blue Velvet returns to this technique most frequently. Besides Dorothy Vallens’ performances at the ‘Slow Club’, the most overtly performative scene occurs when Ben, a drug dealer and pimp, draws a large set of curtains behind him and transforms the previously domestic space of the brothel’s reception room into a stage before beginning a suave performance of Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’. The performance is not only emotionally at odds with the perverse and malevolent motives for their visit, but also elicits vastly different emotional responses from his spectators: some in the brothel are moved to dance, some to stunned silence, and Frank to a twitching, seemingly irrepressible outburst of sexual rage: ‘I’ll fuck anything that moves!’ he screams after cutting off the tape halfway through the track. However, Blue Velvet also manifests this effect in more subtle performative spaces. The mis-en-scène of Dorothy’s apartment has been noted by critics to self-consciously resemble a stage or set, and thus represents a subtler but no less evocative and fluctuating performative space. Not only does it invert the characteristics of the world outside it – Todd McGowan notes that ‘whereas both the Lumberton public world and the underworld are depicted as colourful and dull, Dorothy’s apartment is a world of empty spaces and dark voids’ – but it also allows for wildly fluctuating emotions. Jeffery is transformed from the gazer that voyeuristically peers at Dorothy through the door of the wardrobe in which he hides, to the gazed upon and the sexual submissive when Dorothy discovers him; she forces him to kneel and strip in front of her. Furthermore, the mood fluctuates again when the initial aggression of their encounter quickly turns passionately sexual. This effect is heightened further when Frank, another pere jouissance, enters the scene. Betsy Berry describes that ‘when Frank first enters the room, he quickly admonishes Dorothy’ for saying “Hello Frank”: “It’s Daddy, you shithead!” – Frank is initially the aggressor, the dominant. However, in a doubling repetition of the flux that Jeffery experienced, ‘when the sexual act begins, it is Dorothy who is “mommy”’; Frank’s initial aggression moves swiftly to total child-like submission, and oscillates between these poles several times throughout their encounter.

Jennifer Hudson summarises this effect psychoanalytic terms; she suggests that these spaces undermine the totalising power of language and the Symbolic by facilitating a return to a discourse that exists beyond language. Citing Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio scene, she notes how in these spaces ‘language fails to define and construct reality and being within a Symbolic order’; Lynch instead creates a space that ‘uses emotional responses’, the fluctuating changes in mood that Foucault and Martin highlight, ‘as a fluid and sensual language that expresses what words cannot.’ By demonstrating that language loses its power to ‘inscribe and fix meaning’ in these spaces, Lynch designates emotions and their ‘physical manifestations’ as a ‘new mode of making sense’; Betty’s near seizure and the pair’s gushing tears in response to Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish interpretation of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ support this theory. Hudson concludes that Lynch’s performative spaces mark a return to a ‘semiotic chora’. Julia Kristeva’s concept of the chora describes the earliest stage of psychosexual development wherein the ‘pre-lingual’ child is ‘dominated by a chaotic mix of perceptions, feelings, and needs’, it cannot distinguish itself from its own mother and is, most importantly, ‘closest to the pure materiality of existence, or what Lacan terms “the Real”’. By creating spaces reminiscent of earliest childhood, a time structured by raw urges rather than language, Lynch uses the performative Imaginary to undermine the power of the Symbolic, and subsequently take his viewers closer to the Real.

Though Hudson’s theory acknowledges the role of Imaginary in negating the power of the Symbolic, she fails to investigate how Lynch simultaneously undermines the stability of the Imaginary in an attempt to destabilise, ‘pull apart’, both Lacanian orders that constitute perceivable reality and subsequently access the Real. Once again, I turn to Fisher to complicate these ideas, and specifically to his analysis of the curtain motif that binds all of Lynch’s performative spaces together. ‘Curtains’, Fisher explains, ‘both conceal and reveal’, ‘they do not only mark a threshold; they constitute an egress to the outside’; Fisher highlights how Lynch’s curtains not only mark the divide between what is onstage and what exists in the ‘real’ off-stage world, as heterotopic theory describes, but also points to the presence of what might be ‘backstage’, behind the curtain. Martin, quoting Heidegger, continues this line of thought by noting that ‘a boundary’, such as a stage curtain, ‘is not that at which something stops but […] that from which something begins its presencing’; once a boundary appears ‘unplanned action becomes possible, new modes of being emerge.’ The lexical choices of these three critics, their focus on the ‘outside’ and the ‘new’, suggests that Lynch’s curtains alert his viewers to previously inaccessible or undiscovered realms beyond the edge of the self-consciously Imaginative space and the limits of normal comprehension. When described in such terms the space behind the curtains appears to have remarkably similar features to the Real; I posit that, in the same way Lynch used the uncanny doubling and repetition of language in expression to negate the Symbolic Order’s authority, Lynch uses the ‘threat of boundlessness’ that lies beyond his curtained spaces to similarly negate the illusions that reside in the Imaginary Order.

In light of this I hope to build on Hudson’s analysis of the Club Silencio scene. When the bandmaster cries that ‘there is no band’ and yet we hear a band, or when Rebekah Del Rio collapses onstage whilst “singing” ‘Crying’ but the song continues to play, Lynch is creating the uncanny effect described in the previous section. By demonstrating that the desires expressed within the music, as well as the recorded mediums that act as vehicles for such desires, have been repeatedly doubled unbeknownst to the listener, Lynch undermines the Symbolic’s authority to create and reproduce legitimate desire by gesturing towards the underlying, universal Real. What makes this effect especially potent in Club Silencio is that whilst Lynch is destabilising the Symbolic, he uses the threat of what lies beyond his curtained spaces to simultaneously demonstrate that spaces of performance, and thus the realm of the Imaginary in its entirety, are constantly undermined by the presence of a boundless, unknowable Real that lurks behind them.

Rather than making the Real and Symbolic ‘horizontal’ in these moments, Lynch foregrounds the horizontality of knowable Symbolic-Imaginary reality. Then, by simultaneously destabilising both these orders using uncanny techniques, alerts his characters to the presence of a third Order, the Real, that constantly exists behind them; by making his characters aware of the fragility of their perceived reality, destabilising the language they use and the performative spaces in which they use it, Lynch ‘dismantles and decomposes reality itself.’ Though Rachel Joseph’s article focuses solely on ‘Corpse and Text’ in Lynch’s films and, following Zizek’s example, centres primarily on the juxtaposition between the Symbolic and the Real, her terminology is well-suited to describing the effect that Lynch creates in destabilising Symbolic-Imaginary reality: In this decomposition, Lynch ‘literally takes reality apart’, ‘leaving the Real in its place.’ Lynch’s viewers are ‘confronted with a reality that has been pulled apart and displayed.’ In this ‘pulling apart’, Lynch opens the ‘gap’ or ‘fissure’ that Zizek and Fisher earlier described through which the Real can be momentarily, but powerfully, glimpsed. Lynch creates moments wherein his viewers and his characters are ‘confronted with a limit that she/he will experience, but cannot know’, because he undermines the two Lacanian orders that allow subjects to ‘know’ anything: the Imaginary, the reflective illusions through which subjects model themselves and, more importantly for this essay, the language of the Symbolic through which their individual and social identities are structured and stabilised. By taking conscious reality apart in this manner Lynch most pointedly undermines the authority of the linguistic systems upon which individual and social identities are structured by exposing them to the unbearable and unknowable force that they are inherently incapable of representing: the Real.

It follows this logic that the portion of Mulholland Drive that comes after the Club Silencio scene depicts the total decomposition of Diane’s fantasmatic illusions that she has crafted for herself as a defence against the traumatic collapse of her relationship with Camilla; as Todd McGowan explains, where ‘Lynch uses the first part of Mulholland Drive to explore the role that fantasy has in rendering our experiences coherent and meaningful’, the second part ‘depicts a world of desire without fantasy to supplement it.’ After Rebekah Del Rio’s performance, preceded by the declaration that ‘it is all recorded, it is all a tape, it is all an illusion’, Betty, who was nothing more than a fantasmatic entity created in the mind of Diane, disappears. Diane’s perceived reality was displayed, decomposed, and she was exposed to the Real that lurked behind it; the delicate balance that the respective structuring devices of the Imaginary and Symbolic Orders – performative illusion and language – collapsed.

Such a collapse is reflected by Lynch in the film’s formal shift after the Club Silencio sequence. McGowan explains that the first part of the film ‘conforms on the whole to the conventions of the typical Hollywood film’. Citing the classically lit composition of shots, the fluid nature of the dialogue, and the ‘sparkling’ décor, McGowan contrasts these with the ‘darker’ interiors of the second part, the ‘awkward’ conversations and sets that have become ‘drab, lacking the ubiquitous brightness’ of the first half. A similar shift is noticeable in the editing style too. In a moment shortly after the collapse of the dream, a sequence takes place where Diane is shown speaking, followed by a reverse shot of Camilla. However, after another shot of Diane, the reverse shot then shows Diane again, rather than Camilla. By disrupting the shot/reverse shot sequence that in the first half of the film would have been used to ‘sustain the spectator’s sense of spatial and temporal orientation’, now shows that the two parts of the film are ‘ontologically distinct’.

The little blue box inside Betty’s purse, that Rita opens shortly after Betty’s disappearance and in the scene directly following Club Silencio, also functions as a symbol for what results from Diane’s exposure to the Real. The box, once opened, is seen to contain nothing but darkness, an infinite, unknowable void; precisely the kind of ‘boundlessness’ that was threatened by the curtained space, and ‘the camera’s entry into the darkness of the box marks the point at which Mulholland Drive shifts worlds’. When the camera is subsumed by the void within the box, it engenders a total collapse of the fantasy; by following this shot of descent with alternating shots of Diane lying on her bed, with one showing her asleep and the other showing her dead, it becomes clear that ‘there is no Betty’ at all, ‘there is no hope’ as ‘there was no band’, and as a result, Stein notes that from this moment until its end, ‘the film fractures: time, space, character, plot’ all dissolve. Knowable reality, built upon language and illusion, is revealed to be utterly ‘fluid’, and Lynch’s viewer is left ‘straining to fit the splinters back together into a whole.’

However, despite the depicted collapse of Diane’s fantasy that was predicated upon illusory images of the Imaginary and, primarily, the structuring language of the Symbolic that ‘remakes [fantasy] into a fully developed narrative’, Mulholland Drive’s final scene, wherein a blue-haired woman sits in the Club Silencio balcony and mouths the word ‘silencio’, should not be read as a call to quiet. Though Lynch does attempt to depict the totalising power of the Symbolic in his films, and to undermine it by gesturing towards the underlying Real with uncanny techniques, it is only by ‘insisting on fantasy to the end’ that Lynch can truly expose the ‘traumatic silence of the Real’. Only by first acknowledging the power of language to form narratives which define individual identity and social space, narratives which are by their nature fantastical constructs designed to keep subjects away from the Real, is Lynch then able to construct cinematic moments wherein he can foreground the fantastical nature of a Symbolic-Imaginary reality. In these moments, conscious reality is destabilised to such an extent that reality decomposes and is pulled apart. The noise of language, of the Symbolic, is momentarily silenced, and its boundlessness consumes the subject; only by following the logic of fantastical Symbolic-Imaginary reality to its very endpoint, can Lynch ‘achieve the impossible.’


Lynch, David, dir., ‘The Alphabet’, created 1968, released on The Short Films of David Lynch, (USA: Scanbox, 2002), [DVD]

  • Eraserhead, (USA: Libra Films International, 1977), [on DVD: Universal, 2001]
  • The Elephant Man, (UK: EMI Films, 1980), [on DVD: eOne Film, 2001]
  • Blue Velvet, (USA: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 1986), [on DVD: Prism Leisure, 2004]
  • Wild at Heart, (USA: The Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1990), [on DVD: Universal, 2005]
  • Lost Highway, (USA: October Films, 1997), [on DVD: 4front, 2002]
  • Mulholland Drive, (USA: Universal, 2001), [on DVD: VvI, 2002]
  • Inland Empire, (USA: 518 Media, 2006), [on DVD: Optimum Home Entertainment, 2007]


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