rival dealer and desiring machines

In the first chapter of Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari (D&G) claim that it was a ‘mistake to have ever said the id’, because the unconscious is a productive force ‘at work everywhere’. The world is comprised of ‘machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines […] all the time, flows and interruptions. This essay uses the concept of the desiring-machine to explore how Burial’s 2013 EP Rival Dealer (RD) – and, in particular, his use of vocal samples – is constructed like the mind of the ‘schizo’, from desiring-machines making rhizomatic and productive connections to machines outside of itself. I then suggest how Burial’s invocation of a Body without Organs (BwO) and his ‘schizophonic hauntology’ resist the underlying capitalistic forces that form the schizophrenic mind.

D&G state that ‘there is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together […] the self and the non-self, outside and inside, no longer have any meaning whatsoever.’ Throughout RD a desire to connect to ‘celestial machines, the stars or rainbows in the sky, alpine machines’ is foregrounded through the choice of vocal samples. In ‘Come Down to Us’, they cry out for connection to the natural world: ‘the stars, down to us, in the dark, in my mind / […] stars, dark, down, in my mind, in my mind’. Similarly, the samples in ‘Hiders’ proclaim that ‘You are the sun, it rises / […] out of the dawn / I will always protect you / […] You are the sun, it rises / Home. / You don’t have to be alone.’ These words suggest the creation of a ‘chlorophyll- or photosynthesis-machine’, a further undermining of the ‘man-nature dichotomy’ via an identification with the ultimate ‘energy-source machine’: the sun.

Rival Dealer further reflects the collapsing of these archaic boundaries through elements of its composition. As Mark Fisher highlights, when listening to the EP ‘what you momentarily thought was muffled bass turns out only to be the rumbling of tube trains’, and this phenomenon can be extended to the sounds of sirens, alarms, the hissing of static, the crackle of vinyl, and even the shaking of a spray-paint can; all point outwards to the draw of the urban landscape. Fisher suggests that this lure of the city in Rival Dealer, as in Darkside Jungle, is not just ‘an invocation of the powers of cosmopolitan conviviality’, but the lure of ‘the dark’, ‘the liberation of the suppressed libido in the dystopian impulse’, a movement of desire outwards into the architecture of the schizo’s surroundings.

D&G explain that ‘this entire level of distinctions’ is founded upon ‘the existence of capital’, ‘the division of labour’, and the ‘false consciousness […] necessarily acquired’. The schizo’s mind ‘seeks out the very limits of capitalism’ and in doing so becomes ‘its exterminating angel’. There is a temporal desire for connection with a historic-cultural machine in Burial’s work that has an anti-capitalistic effect: Burial’s sound is characterized by many critics as an elegy for the so-called ‘hardcore-continuum’. What Steve Goodman, also known as Kode9, describes as the ‘downcast euphoria’ pervading Burial’s work is shown, once again, in the cut-up and pitchshifted vocal samples that are ‘looped fragments of longing’. The cultural slowdown that has arisen under capitalist realism demands work like RD, Fisher suggests, because it creates a sound of ‘mourning rather than melancholia’, the lost object and lost time are still desired, and through literal echoes Burial ‘refuses to abandon the hope that they will return’.

However, D&G do not identify this kind of longing as a comprehensive solution to the forces of capital; they identify the BwO as a site of resistance. The BwO is birthed ‘when [it] can no longer tolerate these machines’, and is a ‘fluid and slippery’ entity that resists distinctions, boundaries, the connections and interruptions of the machinic mind; it is pure flow. RD uses its vocal loops and samples to invoke a BwO by creating a voice that ‘has nothing to do with the body itself’ and is a ‘body without an image’. Burial claims to ‘like pitching down female vocals so they sound male, and pitching up male vocals so they sound like a girl singing’. Through this process, he ‘removes the voices from biography and narrative’, and they are transformed into ‘fluttering, flickering abstractions […] liberated from the heavy weight of personal history’. In ‘Come Down to Us’, the pivotal moment of realisation – ‘the moment when you see who you are’ – is also the noisiest, most thickly layered moment of the track; the moment of epiphany is when the mind gives way to all machinic connections and becomes pure flow, a surface through which the sounds of nature, of the city, of technologies and of the voice simultaneously move.

RD demonstrates that desire is not only multivalent but productive, just as D&G theorise. The mind of the schizo under late capitalism is a machine that longs to connect outwards; it longs to connect to nature and the city, it longs to connect to a different time and, in doing so, resist the forces of capital that define the contemporary moment. Most importantly however, at moments it longs to disappear altogether, to break down the machines that comprise it, and in doing so reorganise itself and the world.  


Burial, Rival DealerEP, (Hyperdub, 2013)


Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1983)

Fisher, Mark Capitalist Realism, (London: Zero Books, 2009)

  • Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures, (London: Zero Books, 2014)

Reynolds, Simon, ‘On the Hardcore Continuum: Introduction’, <www.thewire.co.uk>, last accessed 6 November 2019

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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Berry, Betsy, ‘In My Dreams: Generic Conventions and The Subversive Imagination in Blue Velvet’, Literature / Film Quarterly, 16.2, (1988), 82-89

Felluga, Dino, ‘Modules on Lacan: On the Structure of the Psyche’, Introductory Guide to Critical Theory, last accessed 14 March 2019, <purdue.edu>

Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism, (London: Zero Books, 2009)

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Foucault, Michel, ‘Of Other Spaces’, trans. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics, 16.1, (1986), 22-27

Hudson, Jennifer A., ‘“No Hay Banda, and yet We Hear a Band”: David Lynch’s Reversal of Coherence in Mulholland Drive’, Journal of Film and Video, 56.1, (2004), 17-24

Joseph, Rachel, ‘“Eat My Fear”: Corpse and Text in the Films and Art of David Lynch’, Word & Image, 31.4, (2015), 490-500

Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 1: Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. John Forrester, (New York: Norton, 1991)

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Pfeil, Fred, ‘Home Fires Burning’, Shades of Noir, ed. Joan Copjec, (London: Verso, 1993), 227-256

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Toles, George, ‘Auditioning Betty in Mulholland Drive’, Film Quarterly, 58.1, (2004), 2-13

Wieczorek, Marek, ‘The Ridiculous, Sublime Art of Slavoj Zizek’, introduction to The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, (Washington, University of Washington Press, 2000), 2-7

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lynch and language [3/4]

‘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]

lynch and language [2/4]

‘An anthem of conformity’ – Grace Lee

Much of the language in Lynch’s filmography is dedicated to identifying the paradox he sees at the heart of the Symbolic Order: although language is fundamentally incapable of representing the Reals that underlie conscious experience, it is granted an absolute power to shape individual thought and to determine whether individuals should be included or excluded from social institutions and spaces; despite this fundamental inadequacy it is universally perceived as the utmost definitive authority.

From the start of Lynch’s cinematic career his distrust of language has been central to his work. 1968’s The Alphabet, one of his earliest short films, depicts the violent effects of an ‘intellectual discourse for rationalisation and structure’ through language that, in Lynch’s own words, ‘kind of restricts thinking’. Lynch has often been quoted as saying that the reason he loves cinema is because of its ability to ‘hold abstractions’; language seems to pose an essential threat to such abstractions. The Alphabet depicts a child whose sleep is tormented by a relentless recitation of the alphabet that invades their previously peaceful dreams. Grace Lee describes how the letters appear violently, ‘secreted onto the screen through ruptured openings’, they ‘creep and spread like an infection before entering the head of the human figure, causing it to bleed an disintegrate.’ However, she also highlights that it is not the letters themselves Lynch believes invoke the suffering; it is their ‘ceremonial delivery’, the ‘threatening chants like an anthem of conformity.’ This is not only reflected in the voices of the eager children who ceaselessly chant the ‘familiar linear form’ of the alphabet over the violent visual sequence, but also in the booming adult voice that sings various scales and arpeggios; both parties are far more enthused by the structuring elements of the words they sing, the organising form that the language has had imposed upon it, than with the words themselves or any meaning therein. The presence of these linguistic structures reflect Lynch’s concern with the ways in which language is dogmatically taught and codified, the way such structures, much like an infection, spread from one indoctrinated mind to the next. When the audio and visual elements are read simultaneously it is clear that these formal structures underpin the ultimately anxiety of the film: that the process of learning language is inherently violent, that there is a danger in ‘binding expression with words.’

Words themselves are not the source of Lynch’s fear; as I hope to later demonstrate, Lynch’s films prove that language may have the potential to unveil the underlying Real. Rather, it is the way in which the Symbolic, through its rigid and linear linguistic structures, locks individuals into social pacts which may keep society stable but deny subjects’ access to the Real in order to maintain such stability. The idea for Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead, came to Lynch when he happened across a sentence in the Bible, though he has refused to disclose which sentence it was. Many have cited the fear of fatherhood exhibited by the film’s protagonist Henry as evidence that James 1:15 – ‘Then when lust has conceived, it brings forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death’ – or Psalm 137:9 – ‘Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks’ – could have inspired Lynch. However, I believe it could have been another phrase: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1: 1). Hedwig Schwall alludes to the significance of this phrase in his article ‘Lacan, or An Introduction to the Realms of Unknowing’ when he says that ‘in the beginning was the word, but together with the possibility of communicating information there arises the possibility of misunderstanding.’ Eraserhead is a study of the fact that ‘we exist in one way: only through language, both in its audible and visual manifestations’; by introducing an entity that cannot be assimilated into the Symbolic through language, and thus cannot enter into the contracts upon which the social space is built, Lynch exposes how essential the authority of the Symbolic to define individuals within social institutions has become.

Schwall describes the Lacanian process of differentiation by stating that ‘man’s story begins with language, a cry and a name’, and when ‘the newborn is immediately addressed and categorised in words as a boy or a girl’ they are castrated through denial of one possibly of existence’; most importantly, ‘these two moments of naming and castrating constitute the subject’, and the subject is thus differentiated. A concern with the linguistic act of naming can be seen throughout Eraserhead. The first line of dialogue that occurs is when Henry’s neighbour and later lover leans out of the apartment to ask ‘Are you Henry?’ – he is differentiated, and therefore assimilated into the Symbolic, instantly. Similarly, the first piece of text that the camera exposes is his name, ‘Henry Spencer’, stuck onto his mailbox. By stark contrast, the baby in Eraserhead refuses to be differentiated. When Mary, the reluctant mother, tells Henry that ‘[the hospital] still aren’t sure if it’s a baby’ at all, her choice of words is telling: the family are unable to differentiate the baby because they cannot define ‘it’ as male, female, or anything else, through language. What makes the baby so terrifying to its parents throughout Eraserhead is that it continues to cry, it constantly alerts them to its presence, its ‘being there’, but that it cannot be differentiated into the Symbolic through gendering or naming and thus represents a possible breakage in the Symbolic, which in turn constitutes a possible fissure through which the Real might be glimpsed; the Real is a negative entity, thus it is because the baby cannot be defined as anything, rather than positively defined as anything hideous or terrifying, that causes such distress. It is this prolonged threat of the Real, brought about by language’s inability to differentiate the baby, that causes the films climatic act of infanticide wherein Henry plugs the gap though which the Real could come forth, and in doing so reasserts the stabilising power of the Symbolic.

If the Real predominates in experience, as it does whilst the Eraserhead baby is alive, it ‘puts the subject in an awkward position’ because ‘it is too close to the reality of things that it cannot give them a meaning’; the exposure to the Real ‘petrifies him with fear (as in a nightmare where one cannot utter a sound.’ Schwall’s words describe perfectly the behaviour of both Mary and Henry during their overexposure to the Real whilst caring for their baby. As well as the pervasive silence that inhabits their martial home – neither adult ever utters more than a few words to the other apart from the occasional outbursts of suppressed, confused rage – it is also an apt description of a sequence at the beginning of the film which anticipates the child’s birth: absorbed in absolute silence, other than the ominous sound of wind that blows in the background, Henry’s head floats horizontally across the frame, he opens his mouth as if to scream but no sound escapes, all that emerges is a sperm-like figure that looks strikingly similar to his child born soon after. This sequence anticipates how, through a stoppage in the Symbolic’s power to differentiate Henry is temporarily overexposed to the Real and, as a result, becomes ‘arhetorical’.

Naming as differentiation is not the only way in which Lynch identifies language as essential to processes of individual definition and social stability. Louis Althusser’s concept of ‘interpellation’, taken from his essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, provides a model for examining Lynch’s presentation of the text and textual authority. Interpellation, much like differentiation, describes how language has the power to make people ‘exist’, to assimilate them into the social ‘pact’ of the Symbolic. Althusser distinguishes between ‘RSAs’, ‘Repressive State Apparatus’, and ‘ISAs’, ‘Ideological State Apparatus’; ‘the Repressive State Apparatus functions by “violence”, whereas the Ideological State Apparatus function “by ideology”’. Ideology, through ISAs, is able to ‘hail or interpellate concrete individuals as concrete subjects’, ideology is able to ‘“recruit” subjects among the individuals’ and ‘“transforms” the individuals into subjects; several of Lynch’s films depict ISAs and the act of ideological interpellation.

Lynch’s second feature The Elephant Man is similar to Eraserhead in that it presents a character who resists easy linguistic definition and assimilation into the Symbolic. As a result, they also represent a possible fissure for the Real. However, unlike the baby in Eraserhead who is eventually destroyed for destabilising the Symbolic, John Merrick is able to socially interpellate himself, and thus become assimilated into the Symbolic, through his interactions with various texts. Althusser describes ‘the religious ISA’, the ‘system of different churches’ and the ideological implications of its rituals and rules; Merrick’s interaction with the Christian Religious ISA via its central text is what transforms him from an outsider and an animal into a concrete social subject. After initially failing to impress the Hospital Administrator, Carr Gomm, with his awkward and mechanical repetition of biblical lines taught to him by Dr Frederick Treves, Car Gomm concludes that Merrick ‘doesn’t belong here’ – he remains an outsider. However, when Merrick is overheard reciting the complete 23rd Psalm, sections that Treves had not practiced with him beforehand, Carr Gomm not only allows him to stay at the hospital, but he is shortly moved from the quarantine room at the top of the hospital into a more comfortable set of rooms in the main wards of the hospital; his interpellation via the language of the Religious text is physically marked by his movement from an alienating space to an inclusive space.

By interacting with the cultural ISA which Althusser defines as ‘literature, the arts, sports, etc.’, Merrick is able to further affirm himself as a ‘concrete subject’ that ‘exists’ through language.  Upon being visited by Mrs Kendall, one of London’s foremost actresses, who gifts him a copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, Merrick and Kendall recite a passage of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. When they finish Kendall says to him: ‘Oh Mr Merrick, you’re not an elephant-man at all, you’re Romeo’. In this instance the text serves not only to transform Merrick from pariah into social subject, but furthers the interpellative effect by elevating him to the realm of so-called high art; Merrick becomes a subject not merely worth retaining for scientific study, but a subject worth dignifying. Merrick’s status as interpellated social subject is finalised through his indirect textual interaction with the ‘Political ISA’. When the Governing Committee of the hospital convene to vote on whether Merrick should be permanently admitted to the hospital, the meeting is interrupted by a visit from ‘her royal highness Alexandrea’. The princess reads a letter from Queen Victoria wherein Merrick, whom had been described immediately before the meeting by adversarial committee members as a ‘creature’ and an ‘abomination of nature’, is interpellated for a final time and transformed into ‘one of England’s most unfortunate sons’.

The recurrence of this theme in 2001’s Mullholland Drive shows that this is not a concern confined to Lynch’s early career. Through another instance of textual recitation Lynch goes further than to just depicts language’s power to interpellate; the famous audition scene depicts the way in which language ultimately functions as a means of avoiding the Real by creating and continuously reproducing desire. During the audition a budding actress played by Naomi Watts is transformed for a naïf into a serious sexual subject. Her character is, at this point in the film, called ‘Betty’, and, as George Toles describes, both the character and her ‘flimsy comic-book moniker’ are ‘so entrenched in naivete and the hokey paraphernalia of small-townness that her whole confected being is a hymn to unreality.’ Initially, Lynch discourages his viewers from viewing Betty as anything more than an embodiment of ‘stale movie conventions’. However, when Betty begins reading the script a kind of ‘alchemy’ takes place, wherein she suddenly transforms into a character whose ‘hold on life and on her turbulent inner forces seems more fraught with consequence than our own.’ Through textual interaction she is transformed from filmic convention into a human being; like John Merrick before her, she is transformed from something alien and unreal into something ‘concrete’, something that ‘exists’, through language.

What makes Betty’s transformation more complex than Merrick’s is the foregrounding of desire in the scene. Once a subject enters into language, its desires become inextricably bound up in the Symbolic. However, the fact that a subject’s fantasies will ‘always fail before the Real’ means that desire in the Symbolic could simultaneously be understood as ‘our way to avoid coming into full contact with the Real’; the Symbolic is less interested in ‘obtaining the object of desire but, rather, in reproducing itself.’ Therefore, the pivotal moment of the scene occurs when Betty ‘registers another quality of awareness’ by realising that the lead man’s hand hovers near her buttocks and she ‘evolves, in a matter of seconds, into a more advanced organism’ by taking his hand and firmly placing it on her body: ‘by means of a solitary squeeze of the hand’ Betty advances herself ‘to the farthest reaches of sexual knowing’, she becomes a subject that can desire and be desired. In this moment, Lynch demonstrates more than the fact that language and text have the power to differentiate and interpellate subjects; by having Betty enact a desire that is communicated and sustained through the language of the Symbolic via a performative script that belongs to the realm of the Imaginary, Lynch shows that language also has the ability to constantly reassert its own authority and distance subjects from the Real by acting as a mechanism for the performance and reproduction of desire.

In these four works Lynch identifies the power that language and its dogmatic systems of implementation have to create and control subjects. At the level of the individual, the focus on differentiation in Eraserhead exemplifies how the individual subject can only enter into the Symbolic if it can be described by and assimilated into language; when it cannot, it will inevitably be destroyed as it poses an inherent threat to the stability of the Symbolic-Imaginary reality. The Elephant Man, when read in conjunction with Althusser’s theory of interpellation, demonstrates how this same principle can be applied on a broader societal level when language becomes an instrument of ideology: Merrick, through contact with textual ISAs is able to assimilate himself into the Symbolic and thus transform himself from a monster, a possible fissure for the Real like the baby in Eraserhead, into a concrete subject of British society. Mullholland Drive demonstrates how the same phenomenon is complicated by an overt invocation of desire; language provides a means for the Symbolic to perpetually reproduce fantasies and their motivating desires, and in doing so distances human expression from its underlying Reals. For Lynch, language is ultimately a paradoxical force. It has total authority as the vehicle of human expression and is therefore the bedrock of stable societies; yet, it is not only incapable of expressing the Real, but continually works to distance subjects from the Real. However, though the scenes analysed here represent Lynch’s identification of this problem, these same scenes also provide the origins a possible solution. Lynch’s films suggest that if language, the Symbolic, is the foremost route away from the Real, then it must also represent a possible route back to it. As Zizek explains: Language ‘is the only instrument we have which can keep us in touch with the “uncanny”’, what Freud called ‘“das Unheimliche”’. Lacan believed that ‘the uncanny occurs when a situation or object directs us to that horrible void or lack’; it produces an anxiety that gestures back to the Real.   Thus, though language may primarily act as a force that keeps subjects from expressing and confronting a Real, if deployed uncannily it may be able to gesture back towards it. Furthermore, the repeated notion of performance at the heart of both differentiation and interpellation, exhibited most clearly in The Elephant Man and Mulholland Drive, hints towards what will become the key to Lynch’s ultimate destabilising of the Symbolic: self-consciously uncanny language deployed in self-consciously performative spaces.

[Full bibliography at the end of part 4]

lynch and language [1/4]

‘The thing that language never is, never can be, but to which language is always moving.’ – Steve McCaffery, ‘Intraview’

Since the very beginning of his filmmaking career, David Lynch has exhibited a fundamental distrust of, and reluctance to engage with, language. As Dennis Lim detailed at length in his 2015 book David Lynch: The Man from Another Place and its companion article in The New Yorker, Lynch has always resisted the demands of press and critic alike to put the meanings, motivations, and processes of his films into words. During the lengthy production of his first feature Eraserhead, student reporter Tom Christie ‘citing the vague tag line that describes Eraserhead as a “dream of dark and troubling things”’, asked Lynch whether he would ‘“like to expound on that a little?” “No”, the filmmaker replied immediately, shaking his head and smiling.’ This is a habit that has continued throughout his career; even his largest productions were marketed using ‘the most minimal one liners’; Mullholland Drive’s poster labels it ‘a love story in the city of dreams’, and Inland Empire is supposedly nothing more than the story of ‘a woman in trouble’. According to Lim, Lynch has suffered a fraught relationship with language for far longer than he’s been a filmmaker; Lim cites Lynch’s ‘“pre-verbal” years, a phase that lasted well into his early twenties, when he had a hard time stringing even more than a few words together.’ Though never giving away where this personal wariness of the word originates, Lynch did describe to Lim how he believe it inhibits the filmmaking process: ‘“As soon as you put things in words, no one ever sees the film the same way”’, ‘“and that’s what I hate, you know. Talking – its real dangerous”’. Lim concludes that, ultimately, ‘Words for [Lynch] are not just reductive; they are anathema to his view of art as fundamentally enigmatic.’

Therefore, although this essay will attempt to interpret many of the enigmatic linguistic elements of Lynch’s films, it will not do so by pursuing a biographically focused line of critical thought. Despite the proliferation of works in recent years that have focused either on Lynch’s life or the many interviews he has given throughout his career – the recent biography Room to Dream, the new edition of Lynch on Lynch, and the release of David Lynch: The Art Life being the most prominent examples – I believe analysing Lynch’s films in relation to his biography would involve forcing the films to fit within the bounds of a received and written narrative; a process that seems fundamentally at odds with Lynch’s own distrust of words and favour of the enigmatic work of art. I will instead approach his films through an alternative methodical framework and, like many critics before me, undertake a more theoretical analysis of Lynch’s use and presentation of language in his feature films. Although I agree with Lim’s broader statement regarding the fundamentally enigmatic qualities of Lynch’s work, when he characterises Lynch’s use of language as being used ‘less for meaning than for sound’, as a means of ‘moving away from their imprisoning nature’ by ‘savouring their thingness’, I begin to take issue with his argument. Though Lynch undoubtedly finds words to be a ‘imprisoning’ force, I believe that there is ‘meaning’ to be found in Lynch’s use of language; a meaning that seems to correlate with the scepticism and reluctance that Lynch himself has consistently displayed.

Though the amount of public interest in Lynch and his processes has increased exponentially in recent years, academic and critical analysis of language in Lynch’s work remains a relatively small field. Critical works on the filmmaker seem to exhibit one of two characteristics when read from a linguistic point of view. First, book-length analyses of Lynch’s wider filmography such as Todd McGowan’s The Impossible David Lynch, Anthony Todd’s Authorship and the Films of David Lynch: Aesthetic Receptions in Contemporary Hollywood, or Richard Martin’s The Architecture of David Lynch all touch upon the topic of language – or indeed provide ideas and frameworks that will prove endlessly useful for this essay’s closer analysis of language in Lynch – but discuss language only in a secondary manner to other, more formally orientated, elements of his filmmaking. Second, and in stark contrast, shorter published articles are in some sense too narrow in their emphasis. They either focus closely on language in one of Lynch’s films, but fail to situate their findings in the broader context of Lynch’s filmography or, as in the case of Rachel Joseph’s ‘“Eat My Fear”: Corpse and Text in the Films and Art of David Lynch’, provide excellent close analyses of Lynch’s language in multiple works but, as her title suggests, do so only in relation to smaller, very specific motifs or themes in his films. This essay will attempt to provide a middle way between these two methods. Though I will bring an array of formal elements and specific motifs into my analysis, language and its presentation will be the primary area of investigation, and, reversing the above dynamic, will only discuss other formal features in so far as they inform my reading of the language Lynch deploys in his feature films. Furthermore, though I will be far from able to provide an entirely comprehensive theory of Lynch’s language in the allotted word-limit, I hope to expose linguistic trends apparent across Lynch’s whole career and to situate them within a relevant academic framework.

This would seem an appropriate point at which to explain, first, why I have chosen to focus on Lynch’s feature films when much of his work that is relevant to the linguistic issues I will be exploring appears in televisual, fine art, and musical form. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, why not all of his feature length works will be discussed. First, the Twin Peaks universe has a complicated relationship with language due to its televisual form; Twin Peaks is a co-created phenomenon, not only are writing and directorial duties taken up by a number of other filmmakers across the three series and spin off film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, but the release of tie-in novels that were written in the wake of the series mean that language works in a very different way in Twin Peaks to the feature films, a way that is not necessarily Lynch’s own. Dune is also absent for comparable reasons: Dune is infamous for the lack of control Lynch was given over the film’s final cut, which resulted not just with Lynch taking significant salary cuts in his later films to ensure that he would always retain the power of final cut, but also in the release of a film that Lynch does not recognise as his own. The relative minimalism of 1999’s The Straight Story is the main reason for its exclusion; within the given word-limit I have had to prioritise the analysis of films that provide the richest material for exploration of this topic and allow for the most salient connections to be made across Lynch’s filmography. Beyond this, no favouritism is shown to any specific work or period – Lynch’s feature filmography is treated as a cohesive and stable entity.

The remainder of this introduction will be dedicated to the theory of Lynch’s use and presentation of language that I hope to advocate, and the relevant methodologies for doing so. Following the precedent set by critics such as Todd McGowan and Slavoj Zizek, this essay examines Lynch’s films from a psychoanalytical point of view. In particular, my theory takes Jacques Lacan’s topological model of the psyche in the form of the Borromean Knot. Lacan’s knot consists of three closely related ‘orders’ – the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real. All three of these orders are interlinked, and hold each other, as well as every subject, in a delicate psychological balance; if any one part were to be removed or severed, the knot would fall apart, and all three orders would be set free in disconnection. The first section of this essay will focus on the Symbolic order, because the Symbolic is ‘about language and narrative’, it is all that comprises the ‘social world of linguistic communication.’ As Lacan describes, the Symbolic, through language, is ‘the pact which links […] subjects together in one action’, ‘human action’ is ‘founded on the existence of the world of the symbol.’ The exclusively linguistic nature of this order is what will make it so central to Lynch’s feature films, both in the way he presents the power of the Symbolic order, but also how he attempts to negate, disrupt, and repurpose it.

The second order of importance will be the Real, and the majority of this essay will focus on the interaction between the Symbolic and the Real. ‘The Real is the impossible’ according to Lacan, the Real is all that the Symbolic and Imaginary orders – those which constitute conscious and perceivable reality cannot represent. Mark Fisher summarises it most succinctly and usefully: ‘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.’ What Fisher highlights so pithily here, and what will become central to the argument of this essay, is the ‘desubstantialised’ nature of the Real, what I will be referring to as its ‘negativity’. Zizek explains at length in How to Read Lacan that the Real is not ‘an external thing that resists being caught in the symbolic network’, but is the ‘fissure in the Symbolic network itself.’ The Real cannot exist ‘positively’, cannot be positively represented, because it is only recognisable as ‘an effect of these gaps and inconsistencies’ in the Symbolic-Imaginary reality.

The third order, the Imaginary, is ‘the domain of images.’ It 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 or loss.’ Though the Imaginary will not become of central importance until the last section of this essay, its interlinking with both the Symbolic and Real orders is essential to understanding Lynch’s linguistic methods. The Imaginary, like the Symbolic, is capable of being ‘positively’ represented, and provides the other half of conscious reality along with the Symbolic order. An awareness of the Imaginary’s constant and essential presence in the Borromean Knot is essential to understanding how the three orders constantly, if unstably, co-exist with and rely upon one another, and subsequently how Lynch, in his distrust of language, manipulates the delicate balance that subjects struggle to maintain.

Lynch has a fundamental distrust and suspicion of the Symbolic order and language, as can be seen in his comments gathered by Lim. I argue that Lynch identifies a paradox present in the Symbolic order. Namely, that language, the Symbolic, is given an almost totalising power to define the self, and the self within the social field, even though it is, by nature, incapable of representing an essential and universal part of the human experience and psyche – all that exists within the Real. Even though the Real is the ‘traumatic underside of our existence and sense of reality’, it fundamentally ‘cannot be assimilated to the Symbolic order of language and communication.’ Lynch questions the power of the Symbolic, and indeed why people are so eager for things to be put into words, his films included, when words themselves are fundamentally incapable of representing this elemental aspect of human psychology, ‘the state of nature from which we have forever been severed by our entrance into language.’ The language of Lynch’s feature films attempts to redress this imbalance by making his viewers more aware of the Symbolic’s overpowered nature, and subsequently destabilising Symbolic-Imaginary reality, to expose the Real that lurks beneath.

The first part of this essay will explore how Lynch’s feature films expose the totalising power of the Symbolic to define individuals and their social status despite the central flaw described above. The Lacanian concept of ‘differentiation’ aids an analysis of how Lynch’s films, 1968’s The Alphabet in particular, depict the dogmatic institutionalisation of the power of language, how language is forced upon a child as a means of structuring its mind, and in doing so cuts them off from the Real. Eraserhead explores what happens to a newborn child that cannot be assimilated into the Symbolic as a means of exposing the absolute authority that the Symbolic is granted in defining the individual and the social institutions in which they must live, such as the family. Louis Althusser’s theory of ‘interpellation’ provides a means of examining this phenomenon on a wider societal scale; The Elephant Man depicts the way in which the Symbolic and, specifically, the linguistic text function as tools of ideology, determining whether an individual is part of, or should be set apart from, the social space. Though this motif takes root in his earliest features, it is an ongoing preoccupation in Lynch’s filmic work. Mulholland Drive depicts the psychological implications of interpellation through the Symbolic, that the Symbolic functions as ‘our way to avoid coming into full contact with the Real’; rather than revealing the essential truth of experience, language functions as a means of obscuring it.

Lynch recognises that if the Symbolic, if language, is the sole means by which subjects are cut off from the Real, it may also be the only available route back to it. Thus, the second part of the essay will focus on how Lynch attempts to make his viewers aware of the Real underlying conscious reality through the language he deploys in his films. Through the cliched, banal, seemingly meaningless expressions of his characters, a motif particularly prevalent in Blue Velvet, Lynch does more than simply further expose the shortcomings of language and his own resultant dislike towards it. Freud identifies repetition and doubling as the mark of the uncanny, the ‘unheimlich’; through the repetitions and doublings of his characters’ expressions Lynch is able to produce an uncanny effect that gestures back to the Real. Lynch’s most recent feature, Inland Empire, formally manifests this effect. In the way his characters seem to repeat each other, repeat common cliché, and see their own feelings doubled in the musical and filmic objects with which they interact, Lynch demonstrates that the desires underlying their means of expression are not their own, and are symptomatic of the universal castration that subjects undergo when they enter the Symbolic Order, whose primary aim is to reproduce desire and stabilise perceivable reality. Slavoj Zizek explores this theme at length in his extended analysis of Lost Highway, and details a theory of how Lynch brings the Real and the Symbolic onto the same representative plane in order to expose their interlinked nature and how the Symbolic conceals the Real in social reality and conscious life; a close analysis of one scene in Wild at Heart shows his theory in action. Though Zizek’s model of the way in which these two orders appearing ‘horizontally’ will become key for the final section of this essay, the negativity of the Real, its unrepresentability, lead me to take issue with his logic.

I will argue that, by invoking the Imaginary order through performative settings and self-consciously performative action, Lynch can create fissures in the Symbolic-Imaginary network of reality and provide a far more powerful glimpse of the traumatic Real. If the Real can only be accessed through gaps in conscious reality, it is when Lynch simultaneously depicts the instability of both the Symbolic and Imaginary realms that the Real can be most powerfully seen. Mark Wieczorek, in his introduction to Zizek’s The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, describes how ‘Lynch’s technique characteristically consists of juxtaposing two incompatible, mutually exclusive realms’, the Symbolic and the Real. However, since the Real is fundamentally unrepresentable, I argue that it is when the two realms he juxtaposes and simultaneously destabilises are the Symbolic and Imaginary, rather than Symbolic and Real, that a more powerful effect is achieved. Lynch achieves a ‘dismantling […] of reality itself’, and by doing so ‘takes apart reality, leaving the Real in its place’; though Joseph is here describing the juxtaposition between corpse and text, I believe she provides the perfect model for my theory of Lynch’s curtained spaces. By making unstable the two realms of conscious reality, Lynch’s viewers are left to be ‘confronted with a reality that has been pulled apart and displayed.’ In these moments, ‘the Symbolic calls out to the Real and the Real to the Symbolic’ for support and structure, but Lynch has revealed language’s limits, ‘what words fail to signify.’ In these spaces, Lynch reveals the inadequacies of language by creating gaps in conscious reality through which the unbearable, traumatic Real can momentarily be seen. Lynch, like Lacan, uses his medium to recognise that language, the Symbolic, is a structuring entity designed to stabilise conscious reality, but that it has its limit; there will always be something that exists beyond its definitive power, and beyond perceivable reality altogether – the unbearable Real.

[Full bibliography at end of part 4]

ruins of the future

‘Don’t forget the real business of war is buying and selling’ – Thomas Pynchon

The end of the Cold War and subsequent spread of transnational capitalism – globalisation – massively disrupted the longstanding and relatively stable ideological balance that had entrenched itself across the globe during the 20th century; the Western Bloc was capitalist, the Eastern Bloc was communist, and that these two economic ideologies held each other in a delicate balance through the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. The end of this balance ushered in a period of ‘unstable conditions’ during the 1990s, wherein the emergence of globalised late capitalism forced US citizens to, as Fisher and Jameson describe, ‘subordinate [them]selves to a reality that is infinitely plastic’, where ‘space and psyches alike can be processed and remade at will’. US citizens were required to forget an entire set of global ideological relations upon which the US national identity had become founded so that late capitalism could prosper in the newly available territories of ex-Soviet states. As DeLillo described in his 2001 essay ‘In the Ruins of the Future’: the 1990s saw ‘the dramatic climb of the Dow and the speed of the internet [that] summoned us all to live permanently in the future’, because ‘there is no memory there, and this is where markets are uncontrolled and investment potential has no limit’ – to live ‘in the future’ entails a deliberate and permanent disremembering of the past, and all the ideological frameworks that this ‘fictionalised consensus’ entailed.

This essay will rework the traditional trauma-reading of Don DeLillo’s Underworld that describes a ‘synecdochic’ connection between Nick Shay’s personal trauma and the United States’ own inability to confront the trauma that the beginning of the Cold War, the birth of the threat of nuclear apocalypse, inflicted upon the nation. I will, in part, attempt to reverse the narratological methodology deployed by trauma-critics in regards to the “national” (as opposed to Nick’s “personal”) trauma, and suggest that the end of the Cold War, rather than the beginning, was the moment of national traumatisation, as it led to the proliferation of globalised capitalism, which massively disrupted the fragile but deeply entrenched ideological balance between East and West described above. I will then undertake a close analysis of DeLillo’s presentation of globalised capitalism in the novel in an attempt to provide evidence for this reformed reading, before exploring the novel’s ending, and whether it marks a complete submission to future-oriented cyber-capital, or provides a nostalgic opportunity to restructure a world that had been made structureless by the ending of the Cold War.

Paula Salván’s reading of the novel centres upon the concept of ‘traumatic reverberation’ wherein the text ‘renders the psychological mechanism that makes a traumatic event ever present through compulsive repetition, though simultaneously inaccessible in a direct way’, and that this ‘inaccessibility’ constitutes, according to Peter Boxall, ‘the gravitational absences around which the novel turns’. By this reading, Underworld is structured around Nick’s difficulties to resolve his past traumas – his accidental murder of a young man – and depicts only episodic echoes of this trauma. As the trauma occurs long before the events of the novel and because, though Nick gets closer to the actual event as the novel continues, one can never ‘directly’ access a traumatic memory, it is never described in full and exists outside of the novel.However, it is the claim that ‘this reversed structure also points towards a historical event’ that occurs before the start of the novel and is echoed through the ‘Shot Heard Round the World’ / Marvin plot, with which I take issue. Salván believes that the ‘synecdochic’ connection between Nick’s plot and the nation suggests that it is Hiroshima, ‘the original detonation of a nuclear bomb’ and the successful invention of the weapons upon which Mutually Assured Destruction would later be founded, ‘that is left out of the narration’, and the source of the US’ trauma. Alternatively, I suggest that on the ‘national’ level this ‘reversed’ structure does not necessarily apply. As Salván rightly acknowledges, although key events of the Cold War period ‘constitute the historical skeleton of the narrative’ they are, ‘from a narrative point of view, never fully grasped or realised’, they are not ‘explicitly told’. Therefore, rather than the novel being structured around a national trauma that happens at the Cold War’s origin and in perfect parallel to Nick’s personal trauma, is it not equally possible that the moment of trauma could be any one of the omitted Cold War events which the novel’s timeline encapsulates but does not explicitly describe? Could the moment of national trauma occur at the very end of the Cold War, as opposed to the very beginning?

Although, as Joseph Dewey describes, Soviet detonation in 1951 confirmed an American fear that ‘the techno-scientific expertise that had assembled the bomb could never be kept solely in American hands’, this moment could be read as the beginning of a period of great ideological stability, rather than a disruptive, traumatising moment. The 1951 detonation created the conditions upon which Mutually Assured Destruction and the underlying global ideological balance could form and entrench itself. As Ayn Rand details in her 1965 essay ‘What is Capitalism?’, and Jerry Vasarva summarises in ‘The Saturated Self’, a perfect capitalist government ‘may not instrumentalise individual citizens by requiring them, and their economic products, to be used as means to achieving the ends of others. All individuals are ends in themselves’. The resulting function of a capitalist government is ‘a single function: it should exist solely to protect its citizenry from physical force’. Thus, the beginning of the Cold War, rather than being traumatic, actually allowed the US government and its citizenry to adopt the supposedly quintessential dynamic that a capitalist state should strive for and, additionally, could do so whilst making constant comparison to the oppressions enacted by its counterparts in the Eastern Bloc. Therefore, if the US underwent a national trauma, it would be at the end of the Cold War, not its beginning, as the collapse of the USSR meant that this ideological balance upon which US national identity had come to be formed had been disrupted. Moreover, even if capitalism had triumphed, its form and function as an ideology was set to drastically change when disseminated on a global scale, and this would have similarly drastic psychological repercussions on the citizens that had to assimilate themselves to such changes.

Though Salván wisely states that it is not her ‘intention to diagnose a fictional character’ with any kind of illness, she goes on to describe many of Nick’s attributes as being typical of a PTSD sufferer, citing, among other things: ‘nightmares and discontinuous sleep, fits of rage, flashback memories, emotional numbing, dissociation from his own identity, guilt, communication problems, and repetition compulsion’. Though I too am wary to attempt a diagnosis, it is worth highlighting the fact that almost all of these symptoms can be affixed to another kind of mental disorder which may be relevant to a post-war emergence of late capitalism rather than a pre-war trauma: bipolar disorder. If, as Deleuze and Guattari claimed in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, ‘schizophrenia is the condition that marks the outer edges of capitalism’ then Fisher believes that bi-polar is the illness ‘proper to the “interior” of late-capitalism’, referencing the ‘hyped up mania’ of economical bubbles and economic depressions as the ‘depressive come-down’. As well as dealing with the latent mental effects of his historical personal traumas, Nick may also be exhibiting symptoms of life under globalised late capitalism. Fisher highlights that the post-Fordist strain of capitalist ideology is in many ways even more unstable than its predecessor, and thus arguably a source of greater anxiety and trauma than the Fordist system that predominated throughout the 20th century and the Cold War itself. Damjana Mraović-O’Hare continues this line of thought, saying that 1990s Americans are not just economically bipolar, but also temporally ‘schizophrenic, torn between the past and the future and the attempt to find the right historical end’. The ways in which Underworld’s characters interact with and respond to life in the aftermath of the Cold War, while inhabiting a globalised capitalist society, how they seem torn between the militarily threatened but ideologically structured world of the war, and the uncertain, unstructured possibilities of late and cyber capital, will be the focus of the remainder of this essay.  

In the opening lines of ‘Das Kapital’, DeLillo claims that ‘capital burns off the nuance in a culture’. ‘Foreign investment, global markets, corporate acquisition [and] transnational media’, cause ‘consumer desire’ to convergence, and subsequently ‘people want the same range of choices’. DeLillo’s choice to directly link the loss of nuance ‘within’ a culture to the ‘global’ and ‘transnational’ characteristics of late capitalism suggests that it is the lessening of difference between cultures, people wanting ‘the same range of choices’, that causes the loss of nuance ‘within’ a culture. Thus, it is the increasing similarity of ideologies espoused by both ex-Western Bloc and ex-Eastern Bloc nations in the aftermath of the Cold War, the rise of globalisation, that can be said to be destroying cultural nuance within the respective territories. It is only by disremembering the previous ideological narratives, the old ‘fictionalised consensus’ that divided East and West, that globalised capitalism can successfully function. When Nick asks Viktor, his new business associate, whether ‘anyone remembers why we were doing all this?’, Viktor cites the ‘contest’ that was the Cold War, where ‘you won, we lost’ (U, p. 793), a period of time that Nick seems to have forgotten or, perhaps more accurately, is trying to forget; Nick cannot ‘reconcile the historical role of the United States with his entrepreneur position in the post-Soviet society’ because, as Varsava notes, ‘in memory lie moral obligations built up over and in time, in both public and private spheres, that are difficult to ignore’.  It is only by disremembering the previous state of ideological affairs that Nick can survive in the new ideological terrain, that he can function as a successful agent of globalised capitalism.

The new business arrangement itself is predicated on the disremembering of the Cold War past; it involves the Kazakhstanis ‘selling nuclear explosions for ready cash’, and if Nick and his team ‘supply the most dangerous waste [they] can find’, they ‘will get a broker’s fee’ (U, p. 786). First, the deal takes place in an ex-Soviet state; Nick is ‘crossing to the USSR in both the final apocalypse of the world “as he knows it” and the end of the historical divide’ – those who were once sworn enemies must now be re-remembered as potential business partners, and their once off-limits territory an opportunity for economic expansion. Furthermore, the way in which the men are required to forget their historical conflict over nuclear explosions as the source of potential apocalypse, and now have to repurpose the same technology for financial gain demonstrates another manifestation of globalisation under late-capitalism: ‘the raw impulse to profit, irrespective of collective cost’. Vasarva suggests that ‘globalised commerce permits people to do in their own countries that which could not possibly go undetected and unpunished in their own’. The Kazakhstan business deal demonstrates perfectly how Underworld presents the globalised capitalism as a force that exploits the ideologically unstable conditions that the end of the Cold War engendered and re-writes international ideological standards to suit its own ends. Thus, such deals could happily go unpunished provided they meet the one requirement that late capital demands: they turn a profit.

Furthermore, Nick’s description of the Kazakhstan trip suggests that he is aware of himself as being caught between a deeply entrenched ideological framework of the past which the new economic system of the day demands he leaves behind, and the psychological difficulty this entails. DeLillo emphasises Nick’s sense of ‘displacement and redefinition’ in reference to the ‘brokerage houses, software firms, import companies and foreign banks’ that mark the Kazakhstan cityscape, as well as a ‘professional Lenin lookalike’ he comes across (U, p. 786). What bothers Nick the most, it seems, is that ‘the East is trying to resemble the West’, that he is caught in a transitional, unstable period of history where the previous ideological frameworks upon which identities were built – nations, their economic and governmental structures, and the differences therein – are being collapsed by the new agenda of globalised capitalism, wherein old ideological differences, must be ‘burnt off’ for the sake of greater profit.

Ex-Soviet states are not the only new territories of late capitalism that DeLillo explores in Underworld. Towards the novel’s close, he turns his attention to the newly emerging realm of cyberspace, and how the ideological instability of late capitalism in the post-Cold War era will be affected by its oncoming predominance. In his ‘Ruins of the Future’ essay, DeLillo states that ‘Technology is [America’s] fate, our truth […] the miracle is what we ourselves produce, the systems and networks that change the way we live and think’. In his later novel Cosmopolis, DeLillo’s protagonist Packer, a billionaire asset manager, embraces what John Updike calls an ‘electronic mysticism’ wherein Packer’s use and worship of new technologies ‘confer upon him a sense of personal prestige, even moral redemption’. Packer, a character who is emblematic of a globalised capitalist mindset taken to its extreme logical endpoint, ‘seeks to transcend the present through the pursuit of futurity’, and technology is his ‘means to hegemony’, its possession ‘the purest expression of it’. Many critics agree that if Underworld offers ‘a possibility of revelation or closure, it is associated with technological advancement: the World Wide Web’. Since the birth of cyber-capitalism, the kind which Packer so readily espouses, relies on what Anthony Giddens calls ‘disembedding’ – the ‘lifting out of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across infinite spans of space-time’ – a full submission of the self into cyber-capital’s new ideological narratives may seem appealing to the characters of Underworld, as, instead of being required to forget the past, it would, by the very nature of cyber-capital, be taken from them. The final passages of Underworld seem to happily align with Giddens’ claims, with DeLillo writing that ‘there is no space or time out here [in cyberspace], or in here, or wherever she is, there are only connections’ (U, p. 825).

However, as previously seen, Underworld’s characters are not necessarily ready to commit unreservedly to any notion of a future, including a cyber-capitalistic one, schizophrenically torn as they are between a threatened but stable past and an uncertain future. Thus, I suggest that the closing passages of Underworld, wherein Sister Edgar transcends into cyberspace upon her death, is not a straightforward assimilation into the ideological narrative of future-oriented cyber-capital. Her ascension provides an opportunity for Sister Edgar to exploit cyberspace’s capacity for infinite connection and to reverse the societal chronology in order to return to a time before the uncertainties of globalised late-capitalism, to the ideologically structured East-West divide that the Cold War created. In the moments before her death, DeLillo writes that ‘Edgar used to care but not today and maybe never again. She feels weak and lost. The great Terror gone […] all terror is local now’ (U, p. 816). Mraović-O’Hare suggests that Sister Edgar exhibits a nostalgia to the Cold War era ‘precisely because the apocalypse provided a seeming feeling of order’. O’Hare does not follow this logic far enough; What Sister Edgar longs for is not the threat of apocalypse itself, but the structured balance of opposing ideological systems, founded upon belief in opposing economic systems, that made Mutually Assured Destruction and the sustained threat of apocalypse possible.

O’Hare claims that Underworld’s final passage ‘points not to peace and coexistence in the postmodern heaven of cyberspace, but to nostalgia for a more structured world’, yet gives no direct textual evidence for such a statement; I will now attempt to refine this statement and provide such evidence. By closing Underworld with the single word sentence ‘Peace’, DeLillo makes an oblique reference to the closing lines of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (U, p. 827). In doing so, he makes a ‘connection’ between Sister Edgar’s ascension into cyberspace – an exclusively postmodern, and post-Cold War phenomenon – and a poem that is widely regarded to represent one of the peaks of literary Modernism. This allusion, and the repeated notion that ‘everything is connected in the end’, seems to suggest a longing for a return to ‘grand’ or ‘meta’ narratives that critics such as Brian McHale and Francois Lyotard have associated with the Modernist tradition, and which later came to be distrusted by many self-consciously postmodern authors (U, p. 826). According to these critics, writers of the Modern period attempted to transmute a rapidly changing and chaotic world at the turn of the last century into intelligible, progressive narratives to provide some ‘transcendent and universal truth’, through their art.

Capitalism, or more specifically liberal capitalist democracy, was one such narrative created at the birth of the Modern age, and it kept the United States ideologically stable and secure throughout most of the 20th century, including the Cold War. Sister Edgar seems to long for a return to that particular metanarrative, to a time when the ‘Great terror’ was an external pressure that kept her society and her own existence as a US citizen united and stable. The end of the Cold War marked the implosion of that careful ideological balance, and its aftermath saw a period of traumatic instability and change as capitalism triumphed over communism and quickly globalised. However, whereas Sister Edgar’s point of view is entirely nostalgic, I believe DeLillo’s opinion is somewhat more complex. By placing the Eliot allusion in a postmodern context, DeLillo is not prescribing a return to any specific historical metanarrative, but instead believes that a return to the artistic emphasis on creating metanarratives may be necessary if humanity is to survive the ideologically ‘unstable conditions’ from which globalised capitalism was born, and the inevitable transition into the unknown realms of cybercapital and cyberculture.


DeLillo, Don, Underworld, (New York: Picador, 1998).


Boxall, Peter, Don DeLillo: The Possibility of Fiction, (London: Routledge, 2006).

DeLillo, Don, ‘In the Ruins of the Future: Reflections on the Terror and Loss in the Shadow of September’, last accessed 1 February 2019, <theguardian.com>.

Dewey, Joseph, In a Dark Time: The Apocalyptic Temper in the American Novel of the Nuclear Age, (Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1990).

Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, (London: Zero Books, 2009).

Giddens, Anthony, Consequences of Modernity, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).

Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1984).

Mraović-O’Hare, Damjana, ‘The Beauitful, Horrifying Past: Nostalgia and Apocalypse in Don DeLillo’s “Underworld”’, Criticism, Vol. 53, No. 2, (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2011), pp. 213-239.

Salván, Paula Martín, ‘“Of childhoods and other ferocious times”: Traumatic Reverberation in Don DeLillo’s “Underworld”’, American Studies, Vol. 59, No. 3, (Heidelberg: Heidelberg University Press, 2014), pp. 335-355.

Updike, John, ‘One Way Street: A New Novel by Don DeLillo’, last accessed 2 February 2019, <newyorker.com>.

Varsava, Jerry A., ‘The “Saturated Self”: Don DeLillo on the Problem of Rogue Capitalism’, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 46, No. 1, (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), pp. 78-107.

Wegner, Phillip E., Life Between Two Deaths, 1989-2201: US Culture in the Long Nineties, (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2009).


‘We sing amid our uncertainty.’ – W. B. Yeats

Although many of Yeats’ poems, particularly those surrounding political and revolutionary topics, seem to be so ambivalent in their tone that they never wholly affirm any one view or idea, I believe this to be true only of their tone. Even in his poetic writing that seems ambivalent on the tonal level, Yeats simultaneously uses the form of his poems to affirm his stance on their subject matter; this is particularly true of those poems published in his middle and later career as he moves towards a somewhat more Modernist style. In ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, despite the initial sense that the speaker is a detached figure without any meaningful motivating passion, the formal engineering, balance, and precision, is Yeats’ means of affirming a deeply felt political view of his own. Similarly, in ‘Leda and the Swan’, though the subject matter seems ambiguous at moments, the mutated sonnet form allows Yeats to affirm the chaos he believes resulted from the event, a view underpinned by his mystic belief systems and the ways in which they understand world history. Finally, in ‘Easter 1916’, a poem where Yeats is utterly divided on the subject matter, unsure whether or not the rebels’ cause is worthy and whether one should dedicate their life entirely to the cause, through the form of the poem he affirms his belief in the craft and power of poetry to attempt to order the confusion, and to commemorate those lost.

In ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ Yeats uses a measured, balanced, and self-contained form to affirm his complete conviction in a political belief, despite the seeming ambivalence of the speaker. The pilot in the poem – based on Robert Gregory, son of Yeats’ close friend and collaborator Lady Gregory, who died whilst flying an English plane over Italy in the First World War – seems deeply ambivalent about his mission, saying ‘those that I fight I do not hate / those that I guard I do not love’ (IA 3-4), and the setting of the poem, high in the air, above the material world, adds to a sense of detachment that Yeats attributes to the pilot’s being an Irish man fighting for an English cause. However, Yeats’ use of form shows how the poet, much unlike the speaker, has a firm and unwavering stance on the politics of such an event. Namely, Yeats believes that an Irish man – something he signposts to readers in the title – dying for the cause of another country is deeply wrong, particularly when the oppressive forces in question are that of the English, whom Yeats so resented for their political and cultural domination of his homeland. Subsequently, Gregory’s choice to voluntarily join such a fight makes him a tragic figure. As Jahan Ramazani articulates, it is tragic because ‘the dead man finds no redemption in the continued life of the nation he fought for’, it is not his country and, Yeats believes, he should feel no loyalty towards it; ‘the Fenian Yeats could hardly look to the continued life of the British Empire as a source for the dead airman’s redemption’.

Thus, though the pilot is ambivalent, Yeats is not. His finely engineered form of this poem affirms the wholeness of his viewpoint. The poem opens with the phrase ‘I know’ (IA 1) and finishes with an endstop line, the combination of which give the poem a feeling of assuredness and completeness, opening with a declaration of self-assurance and certainty, and finishing definitively, leaving no room for doubt or further interpretation. The poem becomes a closed system, a capsule sealed at both ends containing Yeats’ belief. Furthermore, there is a formal balance to the poem which emphasises Yeats’ affirmation of feeling through his close control and careful consideration when crafting the poem. The metre is regular and even throughout, every line containing the same number of syllables and stresses, as is the rhyme scheme. The chiasmus in the penultimate lines ‘the years to come seemed waste of breath / a waste of breath the years behind’ (IA 14-15) adds further to this sense of balance, helping to create a poem that does not read as if it were written in ambivalence, nor in a fleeting moment of great passion, rather, it is the result of a long considered and carefully constructed point of view, that Yeats hopes to affirm through his style. Therefore, though Yeats’ pilot may seem ‘a figure sculpted and freestanding’, ‘balancing […] at a still point’, through form Yeats overrides his ambivalence to affirm his own tragic interpretation of the events described.

Similarly, in Leda and the Swan, though there are apparent ambiguities in the subject matter of the poem, Yeats uses form – this time that of a fractured and transmuted sonnet – to affirm his beliefs once more. The contrast between phrases like the initial ‘sudden blow’ (L 1) or sinister ‘dark webs’ (L 3), and the ‘vague fingers’ (L 5) and sensual ‘thighs caressed’ (L 2), as well as in the lack of closure that the final question provides, have lead some critics to suggest that this is an intensely ambiguous poem, but I would argue otherwise. Yeats uses form, this time a self-consciously chaotic, broken, and hybridised one, to affirm his belief in his own gyre-based theories of history, first published in 1925’s A Vision, that details how worldwide destruction and change can be brought about from momentary, singular events.

Firstly, Yeats’ decision to use a sonnet at all is evidence of his belief in such chaos; the compact fourteen-line nature of the sonnet, combined with ‘the short time sequence of acts’ detailed in the poem, creates a sense of ‘the sweep of historical consequences extending far beyond the framework of the sonnet’ – Yeats wants his reader to experience, through form, just how vast and powerfully beyond individual control history can feel. Moreover, the sudden change of rhyme scheme in the final six lines is due to the hybridised collision of sonnet types Yeats uses to craft this poem; the first half being Shakespearean and the second Petrarchan, adding further to the sense of formal violence and chaos that Yeats believes has echoed through history due to Zeus’ rape and the resulting birth of Helen, who grows up to become the focal point of the Trojan War. Much the same can be said for Yeats’ decision to break the sonnet form into four stanzas – he is reflecting the splintering of civilisation through form here too. The manner in which Yeats crafts the poem’s ‘turn’ adds to this effect: not only does it come half a line earlier of what would be expected on a standard sonnet, but at the point of turning the final two stanzas seem to be abruptly torn apart mid-line, and the caesura following ominously after the word ‘dead’ demonstrates further Yeats’ desire to reflect the way one era of history has come to a certain end, and another is violently begun. The close of the poem – a source of great ambiguity for some readers – is another formal means of Yeats affirming this inevitable chaos. Not only does he end with a question, rather than a definitive and stabilising statement, but the reader is denied auditory closure too: the final word ‘drop’ (L 14) does not rhyme with the final word of the eleventh line ‘up’ (L 11), as would be expected in a more traditional Petrarchan sonnet. This is his final formal means of affirming his belief that the inevitable course of history will come to violent beginnings and endings, and roll on unstoppably, beyond conscious human control, and leaves his readers wondering ‘where, how, and whether Leda’, and indeed the whole human race, ‘will find power’.

Finally, ‘Easter 1916’ is considered by many critics as one of Yeats’ most ambivalent poems but, torn as he undoubtedly was on whether or not the lives given by many of the rebels to the Easter Uprising were lives well spent and well lost, there is still a formal affirmation. Yeats believes that regardless of whether or not the rebels’ lives were lives well spent, they are lives that should be written in verse, both to scrutinise the issues surrounding their deaths and, perhaps more importantly, to commemorate them. As Denis Donoghue points out: ‘“Easter 1916” is an elegy, song of loss: as such, it is supposed to issue in a cry of sorrow for the dead. And so it does. But there is more in the poem that that cry, and some reluctance to utter it’. Indeed, the ‘stone’ (E 58) metaphor that describes the damage of having a ‘heart with one purpose alone’ (E 41), the ‘shrill’ (E 20) cries of the revolutionaries and the famous juxtaposition of ‘terrible beauty’ (E 16) all suggest uncertainty as to whether or not the revolutionaries have made the right decisions in dedicating themselves so totally to their cause, leaving all other aspects of life behind in the pursuit of national heroism. John Wilson-Foster believes that ‘Yeats responded to the Easter Rising as a public poet but felt the need for a personal response as well’, and I believe that Yeats, by resolving to ‘write it out in a verse’ (E 74) and embody the ‘public’ role that Wilson-Foster speaks of, ‘takes part’ through ‘his own poetic effort’.

This decision is reflected through form. The majority of the poem is written in iambic tetrameter, and this regularity of metre is mirrored in the ABAB rhyme scheme, dividing the poem into a series of quatrains. Though Donoghue rightly states that ‘some of the rhymes barely deserve the name’, this imperfection simply reflects the imperfection, or incompleteness, of Yeats’ personal and political stance on the uprising. The presence of a regular metre or rhyme at all is evidence of, and testament to, Yeats’ affirmation that writing the verse is the best response he could take. Similarly, in writing two stanzas of sixteen lines and two of twenty-four, Yeats reminds his reader of the date the Uprising began – 24th April 1916. The doubled appearance of each number suggesting even further that Yeats is affirming, through form, the importance of commemorating such a day. Moreover, though the famous refrain ‘a terrible beauty is born’ (E 16), has at its core the juxtaposition and conflict of interest that Yeats is struggling with, by repeating the phrase, returning to it four times throughout the piece, the poet draws attention to his choice to craft such a refrain, thus reminding the reader not just of the ethical difficulties surrounding the uprising, but of the fact that Yeats is writing about it despite such difficulties. Even though Yeats finds the issue an impossible one to tackle decisively, and despite his evidently feeling somewhat paralyzed by his uncertainty – hence the unchanging nature of the line – he insists upon commemorating the rebels, and on having their ‘terrible beauty’ at the beginning, the end, and the heart of the poem.  Through form, he affirms the deep significance of the day.

Therefore, though we doubtlessly ‘sing amid our uncertainty’, through form Yeats’ poetry demonstrates that uncertainty does not have to be total, that there can still be an affirmation of another sort beyond the level of a poem’s tone or subject matter. This affirmation may be a deeply held personal belief such as the politics underlying ‘An Irish Airman’ or the gyre-theories that underpin the violence in ‘Leda’ but, when he feels as politically paralyzed as ‘Easter 1916’ suggests, the form can also become a means of affirming his duty as a poet to commemorate the events that took place and the heroic lives lost, despite any ethical doubts. Though the affirmations may not be sung in Yeats’ words, they are always implicitly present in form.


Yeats, William Butler, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’, W.B. Yeats: The Major Works, ed. Edward Larrissy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 64.

  • ‘Easter 1916’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 9th ed, Vol. F, (New York: Norton, 2012), p. 2093-95.
  • ‘Leda and the Swan’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 9th ed, Vol. F, (New York: Norton, 2012), p. 2102.


Baumgarten, Murray, ‘Lyric as Performance: Lorca and Yeats’, Comparative Literature, Vol. 29, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1977), pp. 328-350.

Donoghue, Denis, ‘Easter 1916’, Field Day Review, Vol. 11, (Dublin: Field Day Publications, 2015), pp. 1-17.

Neigh, Janet, ‘Reading from the Drop: Poetics of Identification and Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan”’, Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 29, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), pp. 145-160.

Ó’Hare, Colmán, ‘“Even What I Alter Must Seem Traditional”: W.B. Yeats and “Easter 1916”’, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 24, (Montreal: Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 1998), pp. 93-104.

Ramazani, Jahan, Transnational Poetics, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009).

Sato, Yoko, ‘Irish and “Irish” in Yeats’, The Harp, Vol. 15, (Tokyo: IASIL-Japan, 2000), pp. 26-34.

Spitzer, Leo, ‘On Yeats’ Poem “Leda and the Swan”’, Modern Philology, Vol. 51, (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1954), p. 273.

Wilson-Foster, John, ‘Yeats and the Easter Rising’, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 11, (Montreal: Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 1985), pp. 21-34.


‘There was until recently in Paris, on Rue Pavée in the Quatrième, a decrepit looking language school which displayed in its window, in English (on a dusty cloth banner, in fifties–style white on red lettering) this injunction: “don’t let the English language beat you—master it before it masters you”‘ – Denise Riley

Although Michel Foucault recognises the power that literature, as part of a wider discourse, can have over societies, he gives little indication as to the kinds of resistance that literary studies can make to such power. His description of the ‘author-function’ demonstrates how powerful institutions insist upon the importance of authors, not texts themselves, as a means of narrowing the responses that critics and readers make to texts, resulting in a discourse of ‘repetition’ that only echoes authors’ biographies and their implications, rather than forming original and creative responses, which could destabilise the discourse. Postcolonial theory explains the vast and damaging extent to which literature can be used as part of this Foucauldian power dynamic if left unchecked. Chinua Achebe and Edward Said believe literature can proliferate the ideals of the colonising power, altering how the colonised perceive themselves – typically by redefining them as ‘other’ – placing the colonised in negative-association to the coloniser who takes on a sovereignty equal to Foucault’s author-figure. Moreover, Homi Bhabha suggests colonising discourse can be so powerful that colonised populations begin ‘mimicking’ their colonisers, paralleling the ‘repetition’ and ‘sameness’ of response that Foucault suggests author-centric discourse creates. However, queer theory, responding to oppressive heteronormativity, offers a means of literary resistance to controlling discourses. By queering the literary canon, Foucault’s author-function can be self-consciously interrupted. Introducing contemporary queer ideas into a text that were likely never intended by their authors resists biography-centric interpretation and creates a space for genuinely original responses to works, that do not simply ‘repeat’ the author’s initial intentions or contexts, and thus destabilise the discourse.

Foucault supposes that in ‘every society the production of discourse is at once controlled […] and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures’, which exist for the purpose of averting ‘chance events’ and maintaining its ‘awesome materiality’ – to uphold a status quo that suits institutions of power, such as the religious, educational, and medical establishments. Literature and its criticism forms one part of this controlled discourse, and Foucault suggests that the forces of power have, since the 17th century, placed emphasis on the author, what he calls the ‘author function’, as a means of limiting the breadth and variation of responses criticism can make to texts, by emphasising the sovereignty of the author and their biography. The author is no longer simply ‘the individual who […] wrote the text in question’ but is made into ‘a unifying principle in a particular group of writings’, they ‘lie at the origins of their significance, the seat of their coherence’. This leads to readers looking for authors to ‘display the hidden sense pervading their work’, to ‘reveal their personal lives’ so that the reader might understand ‘what gave birth to their writings’; all meaning within a text, whatever truth it may contain, is linked to, and entirely dependent upon, its author.

However, according to Foucault this is not the truth at all, but rather the ‘result from a complex operation whose purpose it is to construct the rational entity we call an author’, an operation run by those controlling the discourse. This ‘author principle’ is created because it ‘limits this same chance element’ that poses such risk to a stable discourse – this element that, I argue, is genuinely original interpretation of a text – by creating an ‘identity whose form is that is individuality and I’. In other words, by giving the author-figure absolute sovereignty over the meaning of their texts or by suggesting that all texts by the same author will in some way be internally linked due to their secondary position to the author’s biography, powerful institutions are able to cultivate a discourse that is obliged to check all of its responses to literature against the author and their life, thereby limiting the kinds of responses that readers feel are valid to make, and thus reducing the chance of a subversive interpretation that could destabilise the discourse and the institutions that created it.

When literature becomes ‘acceptable only if it carries an author’s name’, and that its ‘meaning and value […] depends on this information’, not only is the variation of critical responses limited, but responses come to repeat each other, therefore compounding the stability of the discourse, and making resistance through originality even more unlikely. Foucault points out that ‘a single work of literature can give rise […] to several distinct types of discourse’, and uses the example of the Odyssey, saying that it is ‘repeated in the same epoch’ by ‘Berand’s translation’, ‘Joyce’s Ulysses’, and ‘infinite textual explanations’. Despite this, however, whatever ‘techniques employed’ in these resulting discourses, their role is only to say ‘finally what has silently been articulated deep down’. The illusion of commentary is that ‘it gives us the opportunity to say something other than the text itself’, but due to the author-function, it actually operates on the ‘condition that it is the text itself which is uttered and, in some ways, finalised’. Institutions of power have made the identification of an author so central to texts, that responses are always looking to a affirm a meaning already present inside the text, rather than using texts as inspiring sources to develop new meanings; ‘the novelty is no longer in what is said, but in its reappearance’. Thus, commentary comes to ‘limit the hazards of discourse’, comes to unknowingly stabilise it and support powerful institutions, by crafting responses to works of literature that ‘take the form of repetition and sameness’, as they are all looking to affirm the same fabricated truth – the sovereignty of the author-figure.

Foucault offers little suggestion as to the kind of resistance that literary studies could or make to such paralysing discourses, and postcolonial theory demonstrates the vast scale on which these power dynamics can have devastating effect if unresisted, and the part that literature can play in this. Namely, that entire populations of colonised peoples come to regard their colonisers in the same way readers are conditioned to regard author-figures. Chinua Achebe suggests that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one such text that contributes to this effect, saying that it affirms ‘the need in Western Psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe’, as a place ‘at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest’. Though many have argued that Conrad actually condemns Western ideals in his novel, attempting to show Western and African values as fundamentally alike, Achebe argues that ‘Conrad saw the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its tooth’.  

In being so unaware, Conrad contributes to the transformation of colonised peoples into an ‘other’, a process that Edward Said describes in Orientalism. Said describes how, through ‘a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient [or colonies more generally] into western learning’ – in discourse, in literature – the coloniser presents the colonised as being essentially different to the coloniser, as an ‘other’: ‘variously designated backward, degenerate, uncivilised, and retarded […] they were seen through, analysed, not as citizens, or even people, but as problems to be solved and confined’. By turning ‘the appetite for more geographical space into a theory about the special relationships between geography on the one hand and civilised or uncivilised people on the other’, the coloniser is able to transform the colonised into a branch of knowledge and subsequently master them through categorisation via discourse.

This creates a strikingly similar power dynamic to Foucault’s theorised ‘author-function’: the coloniser comes to have total sovereignty in the discourse, he is the seat of truth and meaning, the ‘unifying principle’. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that responses made by the colonised to the colonisers can be strikingly similar to the way readers and critics come to respond to authors. Homi Bhabha theorises that in the same way Foucauldian responses to authors are based on ‘sameness’, colonised people come to ‘mimic’ their colonisers; due to representations in discourse, they believe their colonisers are centres of truth and righteousness, themselves lesser, and that therefore they should behave like their oppressors. Bhabha states that ‘the desire for a reformed, recognisable other’, a colonised person that wishes to become recognisable as the type of goodness that discourse alerts them to – the coloniser – ‘often produces a text rich in the traditions of trompe lo’oeil, irony, mimicry, and repetition’. In response to an all-powerful figure presented in the discourse by powerful institutions – the coloniser, as with the author – colonised peoples look to verify and then repeat a truth and meaning that they believe lies within, and only within, the aforementioned all-powerful figure. This comes not just at the expense of original literary interpretation, but at the possible loss of colonised peoples’ self-image, identities, and cultures. If left unchecked, literature, as part of a wider discourse, can be used to immensely powerful political ends.

Queer theory, however, responding to oppressive heteronormative societal values and literature, offers a literary means of resistance that can destabilise pervasive and self-perpetuating discourses.  Through the transformation of sex as act into sexuality as discourse – through ‘sex having to be put into words’, as Foucault terms it in his History of Sexuality – powerful institutions are able to create normative sexual frameworks which come to be recognised, as did the author and the coloniser, as the standard against which all other things must be measured or defined as deviating. Accordingly, literature has historically played a part in creating and maintaining such norms, with many critics pointing to the Medieval Romance tradition as one example of literature seemingly advocating heteronormative values and, in doing so, stabilising heterocentric discourses.

Despite this, literary queer theory has found a means of resisting these values, and therefore, of destabilising the discourse, through queering the literary canon. ‘To queer the canon’, posit Christoph Lorey and John Plews, is an opportunity to ‘exceed the material limits of the canon’s own historical position’. It is this ‘exceeding’, not just of the canon, but of discourse’s ‘awesome materiality’ that Foucault described, that makes queering so powerful. By crafting a queer counter canon, as texts like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America do, by writing queer commentary on canonically respected authors such as Dickens, or, especially, by creating new adaptions of canonical works with overt queer themes added into them, such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho which adapts several of Shakespeare’s history plays into queer cinema, queer theory can destabilise discourses. Instead of attempting to verify what an author meant, instead of repeating other critical interpretations, queering self-consciously applies intensely contemporary themes to works of literature that likely never intended to encompass such issues. In doing so, queer theory bypasses the author-function by forming new creative and critical spaces outside of author and biography centred readings that powerful institutions deem valid, and, through its originality, is able to destabilise an inward-looking discourse that feeds on ‘repetition’ and ‘sameness’. As Berlant and Warner state, it is this refusal of queer theory to ‘be assimilated into a single discourse’, and its insistence on ‘creating new contexts’, that makes it capable of ‘transforming both the object and practice of criticism’ to such an extent.

As Foucault described, and of which postcolonial theory demonstrated the extreme possibilities, discourses attempt to stabilise and perpetuate themselves by assigning importance to certain figures or groups – authors and colonisers respectively – so that others, rather than question these figures or attempt to make original material of their own, become obliged to lionise and echo them ad nauseam. Queer theory, however, through a continued resistance to categorisation, coupled with a commitment to newness, and the self-conscious insertion of contemporary queer issues into historic and canonised works of literature, is able to create a material space outside of that which the discourse anticipates or allows, and in doing so begins to destabilise it.  The principles of queer theory are the literary ‘chance elements’ that can resist power.

Achebe, Chinua, ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”’, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Gen. ed. Vincent B. Leitch, 2nd ed., (New York: Norton, 2010), pp. 1612-1623.

Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Warner, ‘What does Queer Theory Teach Us about X?’, PMLA, No. 110, (New Haven, CT: Modern Languages Assosication, 1995, pp. 343-349.

Bhabha, Homi, ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’, October, Vol. 28, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984), pp. 125-133.

Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge: and The Discourse on Language, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith, (New York: Pantheon, 1971).

  • ‘What is an Author?’, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Gen. ed. Vincent B. Leitch, 2nd ed., (New York: Norton, 2010), pp. 1475-1490.

Kruger, Christine L., ‘The Queer Herosim of a Man of Law in “A Tale of Two Cities”’, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, No. 8.2, (Milwaukee WI: Marquette University Press, 2012), last accessed 8 March 2018, <www.ncgsjournal.com>.

Said, Edward, Orientalism, (London: Penguin Classics, 2003).

postwar fantasies


‘We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality’ – Irish Murdoch,

Although J. G. Ballard’s novel The Atrocity Exhibition and Irvine Welsh’s collection of short stories The Acid House both suggest their authors would agree with Iris Murdoch’s suggestion that ‘we live in a fantasy world’, and that attempting to find a reality beneath the fantasy is one of life’s ‘great tasks’, both men deny that such a task could ever be completed. Ballard describes a modern world in which the barrier between inner, psychological, worlds and outer, material, worlds has eroded to such an extent that internal fantasies and external realties become merged into one fantasmatic entity; a phenomenon Jean Baudrillard describes as being brought about by the proliferation of images by the mass media, and the subsequent emergence of a ‘hyperreality’ in his essay Simulacra and Simulation. Ballard continues Murdoch’s line of thought by suggesting, both through the form and subject matter of The Atrocity Exhibition, that finding connections between these masses of images, discovering the underlying logics of the late-capitalist simulation is a ‘great task’ of the individual, and a task that his protagonist Talbot undertakes obsessively. However, both Ballard and Welsh would concede that such a feat is impossible. The power of the simulation is so total that, as the story ‘Snuff’ describes, the individual will either become consumed by what Peter Watkins calls the ‘Monoform’, or, if an individual attempts to exist outside of the world of simulacra, as ‘The Granton Star Cause’ demonstrates, they will be destroyed by the reality they must confront.

In his preface to The Atrocity Exhibition, William Boroughs suggests that ‘the line between inner and outer landscapes is breaking down’, and that this phenomenon is causing ‘seismic upheavals within the human mind’ – this is precisely what the novel depicts. First, Ballard’s novel describes, what he called in a 1968 interview, the ‘interzone between both spheres’ – that of ‘inner space’ and ‘the outer world of reality’ – which has emerged, one that is neither ‘solely realistic for fantastic’. When Talbot begins to ‘make certain transits’ – Ballard’s word choice already implying the movement, the “transition”, between two spaces – he describes the ‘geometry’ emerging between ‘the beckoning vents of mouth and vulva’, ‘the musculature of the young woman’, and ‘the angles in the walls of the apartment’. The inner psychological realm of Talbot’s mind, the part with which a man can be ‘beckoned’, is juxtaposed with and connected to, through his imagined ‘geometry’, with the material space of the apartment. Moreover, these two mingling realms appear as items ‘3’ and ‘4’ on a list in which item ‘2’ is the ‘media’ (AE, p. 27). The way in which ‘media’ precedes the coming together of these two realms suggests that, as Baudrillard explains, the mass media’s emerging ability to flood popular culture with images, with ‘simulacra’, is what causes the emergence of this fantastic ‘interzone’, and its replacement of an independent, material reality with a ‘hyperreality’. Baudrillard explains ‘the whole system becomes weightless’, there is ‘no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum’, the images ‘bear no relation to any reality whatsoever’ (S&S, p. 71). Furthermore, Baudrillard explicitly – and Ballard implicitly – attributes the power of mass media to distribute such powerful and various images to its underlying capitalistic structures and motivations. As Mark Fisher suggests in Capitalist Realism: ‘Capitalism is what is left when beliefs [in a material reality] have collapsed, […] all that’s left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and relics (p. 4). By describing the emergence of this ‘interzone’, brought about by the proliferation of mass media’s simulacra, Ballard exposes one of the many psychological effects of late-capitalism – fantasy becomes reality, and reality becomes fantasy.

Therefore, doggedly ‘trudging through’ the ‘relics’ becomes one of life’s ‘great tasks’; attempting to construct an individual reality out of mass media images becomes a central focus of modern existence, and this is the main preoccupation of Ballard’s protagonist Talbot. Ballard described in interviews that the mid-1960s was on the ‘cusp’ ‘of a transformation from the old print-dominated world of newspapers and magazines to the electronic world of television’, and that The Atrocity Exhibition was an attempt to ‘fragment’ this new ‘contemporary reality, so that [he] could reassemble its elements paragraph by paragraph and show its springs’. Talbot attempts such a reassembly in his connection of science with pornography: ‘For Travers science is the ultimate pornography’, Ballard writes in ‘The Assassination Weapon’, because he believes the ‘main aim’ of both ‘is to isolate objects or events from their specific contexts in time and space’ (AE, p. 49). Talbot ‘sees science and pornography moving on a kind of collision course’. Talbot is attempting to locate the connecting logics that underlie the simulacra he perceives around him. Such a connection is likely what leads Talbot to find the worlds of sexuality and science melding together – much as the inner and out worlds have previously done – in the automobile. Talbot believes that car ‘crashes play very different roles to the ones we assign them’, ‘the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event – a liberation of sexual energy’ (AE, p. 26). The postmodern preoccupation with locating subjective logics amongst the apparent chaos of the contemporary world is also reflected in the book’s form which is itself fragmented and diffuse, with Ballard suggesting in his 2001 author’s note that readers should ‘turn the pages until a paragraph catches [their] eye’, then ‘scan nearby paragraphs for anything that resonates’, and ‘the underlying narrative will reveal itself’ – the reader must undertake this task of connecting logics and building narratives at the formal level along with Talbot (AE, p. xi).

However, though Ballard suggests that such an undertaking may be a central ‘task’ of the postmodern individual, he also seems to suggest that failure to find a coherent narrative, to form a new reality, may be inevitable; though contemporary reality can be fragmented and its ‘springs’ exposed, it cannot meaningfully ‘reassembled’. In ‘Zodiac’ Ballard describes how Talbot’s ‘identity faded, its last fragments glimmered across the darkening landscape, lost integers in a hundred computer codes, sand-grains on a thousand beaches, fillings in a million mouths’ (AE, p. 38). For Talbot’s own identity, as well as the world in which he exists, to fragment like this, into so many tiny pieces, seems to imply that reassembling all these pieces back into one coherent identity, truth, reality, would be an impossibility. Moreover, in having Talbot’s name change multiple times throughout the book – appearing repeatedly as Talbert, Traven, Travis – Ballard seems to emphasise this point; by constructing a protagonist who, despite his best efforts, cannot solidify himself into a single entity by attempting to construct a truth or logic from the simulacra in the world around him, Ballard suggests that this ‘great task’ of modern life is an incompletable one. As Andrej Gasiorek explains in the ‘Deviant Logics’ chapter of his book JG Ballard: though Talbot’s ‘disintegrating mind connects up seemingly random obsessions’ in an attempt to ‘uncover the deeper social logics that might unite them’, the problem arises when ‘we are then forced to ask whether “the codes of insoluble dreams” with which the book opens may not be soluble after all’ – reality is not a puzzle that can be blown apart and its pieces simply put back together – irreparable damage has been done, reality has disappeared. (JGB, p. 61). Peter Watkins’ theory of ‘The Monoform’ furthers Baudrillard’s work on the simulacrum and can too be applied to Ballard. ‘The Highly structured audio-visual language’ employed by the mass media and Hollywood alike, relying as it does on ‘speed, fragmentation and hierarchical structures, the deceptive illusion of reality’ has, he suggests, the power to ‘lock mass audiences in their seats’, where they can be barraged by the media’s constructed, singular, and uncontested version of reality, making it impossible for Talbot, or any others, to construct an alternative. Fisher describes how the genius of Kafka was to ‘explore the negative atheology proper to capital’, namely that ‘the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it’ (CR, p. 4). Not only is late capitalism built on fantasy, on simulacra, but the prevailing representative form of ‘reality’ is so totalising that it becomes paralysing – the individual cannot complete the ‘great task’ of constructing an alternative.

It is in Irvine Welsh’s collection The Acid House that the totalising power of the Baudrillard’s simulacra and Watkins’s Monoform become even clearer. Characters in this collection are either engulfed by the monoform, the pervasive simulacra, or destroyed when they attempt to circumvent them. In ‘Snuff’, the protagonist Ian Smith is described as ‘inhabiting a zone’ similar to the ‘interzone’ that Ballard outlines, one which ‘embraced conscious thought, dreams, and the passive viewing of the television screen, but where the boundaries of these states could not be easily discerned’ (AH, p. 71). Like Talbot, Smith’s fantasies and realities have begun to blur due to prolonged exposure to mass media images and structures – reality dissolves into fantasy. However, rather than attempting to construct an alternative, as seen in Ballard, Smith comes to be consumed by the monoformic images with which he has surrounded himself; after watching every film in his ‘Halliwell’s Film Guide’, Smith, seemingly unknowingly, films himself committing suicide. Despite the fact ‘he thinks human life is important; always sacred’ he is unable to stop himself from hanging, and the camera with its ‘cold, mechanical eye’ films the entire event before ‘the tape turns out without saying THE END, but that’s what it is’ (AH, pp. 75-6). Smith is consumed by the Monoform. His own existence is transferred from the apparently material realm into that of the simulacra, he becomes a moving image, he is assimilated to the Monoform’s version of reality. Aaron Kelly claims that Snuff ‘attests to what JG Ballard terms “the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect”’, and this is precisely what it represents: emotion, feeling, that which makes human life ‘sacred’, is usurped by, and given over to, the mass media simulation (IW, p.93).

If the realm of the fantastic, the simulacra, has a totalising enough control over human existence to consume it entirely, as ‘Snuff’ exemplifies, then the only way to defeat it, or at least find an alternative, would be to somehow exist outside of it. Adam Curtis, speaking about cotemporary broadcasting, explains how contemporary life, due to the absence of a collective material reality, is made up of ‘the empire of the self’, people are ‘trapped within themselves’, and indeed within the network of images, and the only way to change this would be to ‘take people beyond the limits of their own self’ (CR, p. 74). This is what Welsh’s story ‘The Granton Star Cause’ demonstrates – its protagonist, ‘Boab’, undergoes a Kafkaesque metamorphosis. By turning into a fly Boab is given the chance to experience the world from a non-human perspective – one that lies outside the realm of the monoform; he is granted the chance to experience a truly alternative kind of perception and reality. However, what he sees, namely the sadomasochistic sexual exploits of his parents, prove further that the simulacra have consumed reality. Although Boab’s father feels ‘full, complete, and alive’ after enduring the sadism of his mother, suggesting an apparent success in finding the ‘deeper logics’ that Talbot could not, and thus forming a complete identity in a world of fragments, Welsh undermines this by placing ‘Dolly Parton’ at the heart of the parents’ sexual fantasy – precisely the kind of celebrity figure that the mass media transforms into simulacra. (AH, p. 134-5).

Moreover, it is Boab’s metamorphosis, his chance and attempt to experience an alternative means of perceiving reality, that destroys him. Upon spotting the fly, Boab’s mother swats it with a newspaper, inadvertently killing her own son. Two things about the description of Boab’s death seem poignant. Firstly, that the injuries are described as ‘similar to the type someone could sustain in a bad car crash’ – this allusion, whether deliberate or not, to Ballard and Talbot’s symbol of contemporary life and Talbot’s attempt to stitch together its fragments, create a somewhat ironic comment on Boab’s attempted, but thwarted, effort to construct his own, new reality, just as Talbot does (AH, p. 136). Even more importantly, however, is that his cause of death is described as ‘massive internal injuries’ (AH, p. 136). Though explicitly Welsh is describing his new ‘external skeletal structure cracking open’, I believe the phrase also forms a pun; the ‘internal injuries’ Welsh describes also apply to the psychological damage that living in a simulation, living under one monolithic representation of an unsubstantiated truth, can do to the human mind. Welsh’s stories demonstrate that though humankind will spend its life living in a simulation – in a world where reality and fantasy have become one – and will attempt endlessly to piece together its fragments, trying to construct an individual truth, it is ultimately an effort made in vain. The simulation, the ruling-fantasy, will either consume you if you live too long inside it, or destroy you if you attempt to break out.


Ballard, J. G., The Atrocity Exhibition, (London: Flamingo Modern Classics, 2001).

Welsh, Irvine, The Acid House, (London: Johnathan Cape Ltd., 1994).


Ballard, J. G., ‘Munich Round-Up: Interview with J. G. Ballard’, trans. Dan O’Hara, last accessed 7 December 2018, <ballardian.com>.

  • ‘Author’s Note’, The Atrocity Exhibition, (London: Flamingo Modern Classics, 2001), p. xi.

Baudrillard, Jean, ‘Simulacra and Simulation’, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166-184.

Burroughs, William, Preface to The Atrocity Exhibition, (London: Flamingo Modern Classics, 2001), pp. vii-viii.

Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, (London: Zero Books, 2009).

Gasiorek, Andrzej, J. G. Ballard, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).

Kelly, Aaron, Irvine Welsh, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).

Louit, Robert, ‘Interview with J. G. Ballard’, last accessed 7 December 2018, <jgballard.ca>.

Watkins, Peter, ‘The Media Crisis: A Perspective by Peter Watkins’, last accessed 7 December 2018, <tate.org.uk>.

Weiss, Johnathan, and J. G. Ballard, Commentary to The Atrocity Exhibition, dir. Johnathan Weiss, (UK, 2006), DVD Reel 23.