Music: Just1c3: ∫ (2007)
I have just finished draft of a difficult section from my “Father Trouble” essay on Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (my and Dana’s essay is on hold for a while as both of us “clean our desks” so to speak). I’ve been fortunate to have received a moderate “revise and resubmit” on the essay (and even more fortunate to have had one reviewer who dug it), but . . . the revision is proving very hard, given the charge of the editor. I want to share the charge because, I think, it points up a dynamic in my home field of rhetorical studies that is frustrating, but one that is also extremely important to make scholars-in-training aware of. I call it the “Burden of Envoy.”
The Burden of Envoy (of BEVY if you like) refers to the difficulty folks face when they desire to incorporate any part of the theoretical humanities into rhetorical studies. I am not one of the folks who bewail we are twenty-years behind, say, English (although I do decry the uncanny fear of the unconscious). That sort of charge is unfair, and especially given the constraints of the burden of envoy I am about to detail. Nevertheless, the mental labor that one is required to dedicate to explicating theoretical commonplaces in the humanities seems disproportionate compared to other disciplines.
Of what sort of labor do I speak, you ask? It is the labor of adapting to a reading audience that will expect to expend minimum critical labor themselves. The burden of envoy bespeaks a labor required by a scholarly ideology that is dismissive of difficult theory as “theory for theory’s sake.”
When I confront Lacan, I am immediately smacked in the face with my own ignorance; that leads me to seek out secondary sources and so on that will help me decode the Lacan. The recalcitrance of difficult prose goads me toward making it melt . . . (or at least fantasies of understanding). Apparently this not the effect of difficult theory on audiences of my work in my field. As an editor has said of my “Father Trouble” essay:
. . . I sense that the vast majority of [this journal’s] readers will be frustrated with the Lacan/Agamben discussion [in our essay]. Clearly you are committed to it, but why? I am not being facetious; I want you to in plain language explain your commitment to the reader so that one understands how these thinkers can be productive for [the field]. As you do so, clarify the relations among the “Fathers” and Paternal Sovereignty. Write as if you are talking to folks who do not share your investment in Lacan and who do not have the background in his thought. Consider this an opportunity to really make a major contribution to [our field].
In short, the burden of envoy is the posture one must assume to use difficult theory that is more accepted in the wider scholarly community. When using Lacan, for example, I cannot assume some rough familiarity with the Symbolic, Imaginary, and the Real—nor can I even assume a basic understanding of the category of the unconscious! Rather, I must always justify my recourse to Lacan or Freud (or Agamben, and so on) as an envoy in the name of utility—in the language of novelty and revolutionary change. I cannot simply perform a close reading of a film using Lacan and Agamben; that makes no grand gesture. Rather, every time I write using an unaccepted “theorist,” I must gesture toward a disciplinary revolution and a radical shift in thinking. Apparently you only get to do the critical work of modesty if you claim canonized theorists . . . like Kenneth Burke.
So far my early career has been built on doing the Electric Envoy Boogaloo. But I’m starting to tire of it—to get worn out, you know? It makes one want to jump ship and start publishing stuff in more interdisciplinary journals (which, of course, is not good for one’s tenure case). Ergo, I yield major props (and crops?) to those of you in my field who continue to publish inside of it. My heroes (and role models) in this respect are folks like Barb Biesecker, Carole Blair, Dana Cloud, Ron Greene, folks who push and push and push and thereby take on the burden of envoy. I remember a seminar that Ron taught at the U of MN many years ago (gee-was it FIVE years ago?) and we had this great discussion about how one had to “translate” theory into the field. He was so right about this.
So, I was charged to translate more of Lacan into communication studies, and re-wrote an entire section of the essay to explain my “commitment” to Lacan. I know I should have introduced a thumbnail of the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real-but I just couldn’t do it. I do that in every essay that riffs on Lacan, I just cannot bear to repeat that riff again. Instead, I tried to explain the symbolic, imaginary, and real father with out recourse to the “the b-knot.” I’m not sure I succeeded; at this point, I’m pretty beat and just want to watch 60 Minutes, read the newspaper, and vege-out.
Here’s the section, so eat your daddy-o out:
What is a Father?
We would be mistaken if we thought that the Freudian Oedipus myth puts an end to theology on the matter [of desire]. For the myth does not confine itself to working the puppet of sexual rivalry. It would be better to read in it what Freud requires us to contemplate using his coordinates; for they boil down to the question with which he himself began: “What is a Father?”
–Jacques Lacan (2004, p. 298)
The rivalry between Robbie and Ray over the care of ten-year-old Rachel implicates the familial conflict is Oedipal, but, insofar as Ray is divorced, not necessarily in terms that Freud would find familiar. Perhaps the most famous of Freud’s teachings, the Oedipal myth helped to explain the sexual dynamics of the Victorian family from the son’s point of view: the son was jealous of his father and resentful of the fact that the father prohibits him from loving his mother in a romantic way.i For Freud, father/son rivalry was an overdetermined conflict that resolved itself when the son learned to identify with and to emulate the father, seeking a substitute for his mother via courtship or dating. In this respect, Robbie and Ray’s struggle over Rachel in a state of emergency is something of an Oedipal echo. But is this struggle sexual, or does it represent something more fundamental? What can this filmic struggle over the care of a child tell us about the film’s paternal politics?
In his refiguring of the Oedipal myth, Jacques Lacan tempered the psychosexual aspect by underscoring the function of the father figure as “the original representative of the Law’s authority.”ii This figuring of the father directly links the failure of the State in War of the Worlds to Ray’s attempts to control and protect his children: at the level of signification, the homologous plots are actually different iterations of the same cultural operation of paternal authority. What spectators are watching on the screen-and the reason why some spectators respond with strong emotion-is a restaging of the emergence of subjectivity as such, which I will later argue is the affective precondition for sovereignty. With the help of Lacan, in this section I will focus on the Ray as a representative of the paternal function, preparing the way for a focus on sovereignty as the ultimate representative in the next.
What’s For Breakfast? or, Dead Daddios
In posing the rhetorical question, “what is a father?” Lacan’s immediate answer is-as is typical-cryptic: “‘It is the dead Father,’ Freud replies, but no one hears him” (2004, p. 298). What Lacan means to index here are three things. First, Lacan is suggesting that the dominant form of psychoanalysis in Europe and the United States at that time were ignoring Freud’s later works, such as Totem and Taboo and Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, which refigured his earlier explication of Oedipus complex.iii Second, Lacan is suggesting that the most important understanding of the father is one in which the father is “dead,” which is a reference to the story of the primal horde in Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Third, by asking the question and designating one kind of father as most important, Lacan implies that there are many other kinds of fathers; the father figure is a composite of many things that need to be disarticulated from one another to be better understood: the symbolic father, the imaginary father, and the real father.
Early in his work Lacan was concerned with the “contemporary social decline of the paternal imago (clearly visible in the images of absent fathers and humiliated fathers” and endeavored to understand the figure as a psychical structure to help explain this decline (Evans, 1997, p. 61). According to Dylan Evans, Lacan argued that real, biological fathers had to manage two frequently conflicting expectations.iv One the one hand, the father entails a protective function and is called upon from time to time to transgress social rules and laws to keep others from harm. On the other hand, however, the father figure entails a prohibitive and legislative function and is responsible for teaching social rules and making laws (see Evans, 1997, p. 61). Anyone that is designated a “father,” then, is typically asked to navigate these (sometimes) competing functions.
Later in his work Lacan would combine the protective and legislative function of the father in terms of what he called “the symbolic father.” Unlike the imaginary father, which refers to the idealization or image of a father that we harbor early in life, the symbolic father has more to do with signification as such and less to do with a real person. For Lacan, what is most important about the cultural figure of the father is neither the cultural myths about good or bad fathers, nor his sexual identity (male or female), but rather that, to the child, there is no higher authority than the father; he is the one who responds “because I say so!” in answer to the “why?” question. He is the one who appears to have the power to punish transgressions, as well as suspend the rules and norms in times of emergency or need. Consequently, this is why the father is the original representative of the Law as such; it was he who first uttered the word “no!” or, as Moses is said to have reported, “thou shalt not!”
This symbolic father is equivalent to the dead father precisely because he (or more appropriately, “it”) is not a living being, but rather an operation or function of Western society. When Lacan
interprets the Freudian account of the Oedipal conflict by claiming that it is essentially a symbolic matter, an act of substitution, a metaphorical operation . . . it is precisely in order to stress this relation to death, to distinguish between the father as an actual person . . . and the symbolic operation . . . by which the symbolic order of difference and mediation is established. (Shepherdson, 2000, p. 135)
The father as an actual person-that individual who is said to be the biological father of a child-is the “real father,” and should be sharply distinguished from the symbolic father, which, as a function or operation, is “dead.” To better understand what Lacan means by the symbolic and imaginary fathers, it is useful to recount the story of the primal horde in Freud’s understudied monograph, Totem and Taboo.
In Totem and Taboo Freud advances a story, extrapolated from Darwin, that he claims is homologous to the Oedipus myth and analogous to the development of each individual’s psyche. Basically, the story goes like this: in the beginning there was a pack or horde of brothers ruled by a chief who kept all the women to himself. Resentful of the leader’s unbridled sexual enjoyment, the brothers overthrow the primal father and murder him. “As soon as they kill him,” reports Laurence Rickels, “they do what comes naturally: they devour him . . . and as they kill and devour the detested father, they double over with indigestion and ambivalence overload, and thus they find they must also mourn him, that they are already mourning him” (1999, p. 41). At first the ambivalence leads to chaos-the war of all against all that Hobbes envisioned. Eventually, however, the brothers are (1) dominated by guilt and resurfaced love for the murdered father; (2) refashion the father as a “friendly ghost” or ideal father; and then (3) they vow to follow his laws themselves and agree there will be no more inbreeding (Rickels, 1991, p. 41).
Unless one separates the imaginary father as an image or ideal and the symbolic father as a function, it is easy to get the two confused. In fact, it is this confusion that Lacan suggests is typical of psychosis. Understanding the story of primal horde as a useful myth, the imaginary father is first represented by tyrannical father who imposes the incest taboo, and later as the friendly ghost, the ideal father. In this respect the imaginary father is “an imago, the composite of all the imaginary constructs that the subject builds up in fantasy around the figure of the father” (Evans, 1996, p. 92). Now, for each of us in “real life,” the imaginary father is an image of either the ideal papa or the horrible daddy (or sometimes both), an abstraction that Lacan suggests is the infantile prototype of gods and demons. Psychotics, or those individuals who are incapable of making distinctions between the world of images and the meaningful reality that most people share, typically confuse the symbolic father with the imaginary father. This is why the horde kills the primal father in a psychotic rage, and they are only able to recover from the resulting chaos, bellum omnium contra omnes, by accepting the law on their own. The primal father thus functions over the course of the story as the harbinger of the first taboo, the law of exogamy for the sake of sanity, the first resounding “no” that brings stability in death (Freud 1989b, pp. 500-503).
In life the primal father was powerful and was the law, however, in death he became even more powerful, for living is no longer a pre-condition for demands. For Lacan, this ghostly father that rules from beyond the grave is really no person at all, but the function of signification as such. What the myth of the primal horde and the dead father teaches us is that even if imaginary and real fathers represent the law, they cannot be or fully embody the law: the primal father was killed at the moment his corpse became the metaphor for the law of exogamy. In more common parlance, Lacan’s understanding of the symbolic father as a legislative function articulates the “rule of law,” that no one is above or beyond the law, including those who claim to represent it.
Like the stories of Oedipus and the primal horde, War of the Worlds demonstrates the interplay between the imaginary and symbolic father, announcing at the onset that it is another tale of the dead father by underscoring paternal failure at almost every turn (insofar as it is a film, and therefore a cultural fantasy, the “real father” is out of play here). In the widest narrative context, the failure of the State represents the patricide that leads to a state of emergency and a regression toward the state of nature (psychosis); the film thus collapses (or confuses) the imaginary and symbolic in the figure of Ray, who becomes the paternal imago for the spectator. The film thus represents the way in which the fallen father (State) is regurgitated by-or the way in which the paternal metaphor is integrated into-the broken but nevertheless functional family.
The film opens by establishing Ray as the typical “bad father” of filmic fantasy who has failed to emerge from his own adolescence: he is a half-hour late to receive his children in the beginning of the film; he drives a “hot rod” and is re-building a car engine on the kitchen table; he has no food in the house for his children to eat; when the destructive lightning begins to strike, he makes his daughter join him outside to watch it. In addition to his inability to protect and provide, Ray’s status as a representative of the Law’s authority is also repeatedly questioned: while throwing a baseball with Robbie in the backyard, he orders his son to finish his homework: “Your mom says you got a report due Monday. You’re gonna work on it when we’re done here.” Robbie says that it’s almost finished, to which Ray responds insultingly, “bullshit!” “Just do the report,” continues Ray, “we don’t send you to school so you can flunk out.” Robbie then evokes the ideal father of the film, his step-father Tim: “You don’t pay for it, Tim does.” In this scene Ray is shown to be a powerless enforcer because of a lack of both economic stability and maturity; after Ray angrily throws the baseball into a basement window, his impotence is further underscored when the ten-year-old Rachel counsels him on his parenting: “That’s not how you’re going to get to him. If you want him to listen to you have to . . . .” Ray interrupts, “What are you, your mother? or mine?” The figure of the mother is invoked here in terms of her prohibitive function: Ray sarcastically acknowledges his lack of authority by referring to the true parental power.v In other words, in the opening diagetic space of the film, the mother represents the symbolic father. The plot is thus announced as a process of substitution: how will Ray escape his status as the bad father to replace the mother as the representative of the law?
In the plot of the film, the substitution of the mother is achieved by literally removing her from the screen: she and her new husband are off to Boston, leaving the children with the bad father. The gradual ascent of Ray from his status as bad father to his ability to protect and command as a good father, however, is relatively swift and complete by first hour of the film. Not coincidentally, this transformation is signaled in a scene in which the previously ambivalent state of nature takes a horridly Hobbesian turn: after the conflict with Robbie over Rachel in the rural setting, they drive for some miles until they gradually discover hundreds of people marching toward the Hudson river. Suddenly, the family is ambushed at dusk by what seems like hundreds of feverish men who desperately want their vehicle (viz., a primal horde of sorts). Angry and determined to escape, Ray floors the gas and speeds through the crowd; a rock is thrown into the windshield and though the hole of broken glass Ray sees that he is about to plow into a woman holding a baby (the symbolism here is jejune, of course). He quickly turns the van away from the mother and child, only to crash into a telephone pole outside of a small neighborhood diner. In a scene that recalls the Los Angeles riots of 1992, a mob covers the vehicle and rocks it from side to side; a number of men break the van’s windows as women stand on the periphery calling for an end to the violence. One visibly panicked man tears through the broken windshield glass with his bare and bloody hands, signifying barbaric and primitive impulses (disturbingly, this man is African American).vi Ray is torn from the vehicle and beaten, and Robbie soon follows, leaving Rachel trapped as strangers pour into it. Abruptly, Ray pulls a gun from is pant waist and shoots into the air. The crowd is immediately silenced. “Get off the car! Move!” he screams, as the subdued mob accede to his authority as a father with the potential to kill. His authority is quickly challenged when another armed man approaches Ray unawares and takes the van at gunpoint. Nevertheless, in this violent scene Ray establishes himself as the father who, however flawed, has the power to protect by means of transgression-because of his proximity to death. From this Hobbesian moment onward, Ray’s children never doubt his status as their father-not simply as their real father, but in terms of his ability to represent the law in an otherwise lawless environment. Ray finally comes to occupy the position of the symbolic father, protecting his children from psychosis.
Shortly after the family escapes this mob scene, however, Ray’s function as the representative of the authority of the Law is challenged again by Robbie, and then, re-established with his daughter. This second challenge from Robbie is not about rivalry for the mother (Freud’s first dead father story), but rather concerns Robbie’s own desire to represent the Law by becoming a soldier with the power to kill (Freud’s second dead father story). Running away from another site of alien attack (a ferry dock on the Hudson river), the family suddenly find themselves in the midst of yet another battle in a country field. Dazzled by the bright lights and sound of explosions, irrationally-psychotically-Robbie runs away from Ray and Rachel with the obvious intent of joining the military. The camera cuts to the top of a hill, where soldiers admit, with some frustration, that their weapons are have “no effect” on the alien ships. Leaving Rachel near a small tree, Ray runs toward the top of the hill and catches up with Robbie. They wrestle and Ray eventually wins by sitting on top of his son, signifying his resolute authority in this conflict. Like the military’s weapons, Ray’s words have no effect on Robbie: “I want you to listen to me,” screams Ray. Robbie responds “I want to see this, I need to see this,” as Ray repeats over him, “no, you don’t! You don’t!” The spectator is then shown an apparently well-meaning couple trying to take Rachel, now yards away, and usher her to safety. As Rachel screams for Ray, he is forced to make a choice: either let his son go to his certain death, or rescue Rachel from the well-meaning couple. He must decide which life is expendable, and which is worth preserving; he must represent the Law at the very same time he cannot completely occupy that function.
The son and father stand and face each other solemnly as Ray decides to violate his charge as a protector and let his son go. Manic and overcome with a sense of mission, Robbie runs resolutely over the hill toward the battle scene (a psychosis indeed), while Ray retrieves his daughter from the couple, repeating, “I’m her father, I’m her father.” That Ray’s next words are “I’m her father” is significant because he is no longer Robbie’s father, thus hinting that, while he may be her “real father” in the space of the film, no one can be the symbolic father-unless, of course, he or she is dead.
The Signifying Substitution, or, Film for/as Culture
This understanding of the symbolic father “as dead,” or rather as the paternal metaphor and the legislative function, has important implications for the Oedipus complex, implications that come before the sexual differentiation that is often said to be Freud’s central concern (see Shepherdson, 2000, pp. 115-151). Symbolically, the prohibitive function represented by a real father intervenes in the mother/infant dyad so that the child is introduced to the social world outside of that primary bond; in this respect, the father represents the “introduction of a third term,” a fundamental cut into social reality that puts an end to what is a kind of harmonic, individual state of nature in which the child cannot distinguish itself from its mother (Lacan, 2004, pp. 65-67; Lacan, 1993, pp. 92-97). Understood symbolically, the father’s prohibition of the infant’s romantic love for the mother actually represents the demand that the child become a social subject and civic being (Lacan, 2004, pp. 297-300; also see Evans, 1997, pp. 61-64; and Fink, 1995, pp. 55-58). In this way, the figure of the father embodies the charge to protect via prohibition, and thus the original conflicting expectations for the father-to protect and to deny-become two iterations of the same legislative operation. By denying the child complete identification with the mother, the father figure “triangulates” the relationship, giving the child another point of reference and thereby introducing her to the social world, the world outside of the myopic mother-infant dyad.vii Without the intervention of the “no!” and the new point of reference for the child, Lacan argues, “the constitution of the subject is in jeopardy” (Shepherdson, 2000, p. 127). Lacan suggests that the resulting subject can become psychotic, unable to distinguish between illusion and the symbolic world the rest of us share (Lacan, 1993, pp. 190-195). Metaphorically the story of the primal horde details this story: the brothers encounter the primal father as a limit or prohibition, they identify with the father by killing and eating him, and later in guilt internalize “the law.” They realize-only in retrospect-that the father’s law was protecting them all the time. Regardless of which dead father story one prefers (Oedipus or the primal horde), self-conscious subjectivity is a succumbing to the symbolic world of meaning for our own sanity, the world of limitation and the world of “no!”viii
The concept of the symbolic father helps us to rethink the Oedipal dimensions of War of the Worlds in a way that goes beyond Ray struggling to assume the position of the symbolic father. War of the Worlds can be read as a negotiation of the anxieties of subjectivity itself at multiple levels of the narrative. For example, the scene in which Ray and Robbie wrestle over whether the son will be allowed to flee to his ultimate doom can be read as the struggle of the psychotic subject to integrate the paternal metaphor, to succumb to the symbolic and overcome imaginary delusions (in this case, of grandeur). At no point in the scene is the spectator asked to empathize with Robbie’s desire; we long, rather, for Robbie to accede to his father’s command in the name of paternity alone. In other words, the father-imago of Ray is fashioned to help audiences negotiate social anxiety about the paternal function and to accept the Law, even if its representative–or rather, especially because its representative–is a flawed human being, a former dead-beat.
Finally, understanding that the father is not simply a real person but someone who represents the Law as such implicates War of the Worlds in a larger cultural crisis of lawlessness that the bad, absent, or incompetent father betokens. Of course, Spielberg has acknowledged that problematic and haunted fathers are central to his most widely watched films; they reflect his once strained relationship with his own father after his parents divorced.ix Spielberg’s filmic fathers also register, however, a presumably alarming cultural trend decried by scholars who study the family:
More and more single women are deliberately having children . . . and more and more lesbian couples are raising children, seemingly eschewing or downplaying the importance of the father. Combined with the de facto increase in the divorce rater and the consequent increase in the number of children being raised solely by their mothers, and with the growing antiauthoritarian attitude toward children among men . . . the paternal function seems to be in danger of extinction in certain social milieus. (Fink, 1997, p. 110).
Most recently fatherhood has been implicated in the so-called crisis of masculinity and the presumed decline of positive male role models for boys, which has been said to cause everything from truancy to gang violence (see Edwards, 2006; Silverstein & Auerbach, 2001). Robbie’s refusal of his father’s authority and his blind march toward his own death reflects this cultural fantasy: without a positive father figure, young men go nuts. However unfounded we find these cultural fantasies to be, what is instructive about them, and what a psychoanalytic approach helps us to see better, is that they are actually not about this or that specific and real father, but about the law-giving and law-sustaining function of the symbolic order or representation itself, “the paternal function.” Lacan’s theory of the father thus helps to explain how War of the Worlds works at a psycho-affective level toward a cultural politics external to the film, the politics of signification as such.
i See Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, trans. James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton, 1961), 107-194; and Sigmund Freud, “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex,” trans. James Strachey, The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989), 661-665.
ii Lacan, Écrits, 299.
iii The context of this statement is a discussion of the Oedipus complex, which Freud suggests is also reflected in the story of the primal horde in Totem and Taboo. Below I detail more about this relation, however, here Lacan is charging other schools of psychoanalysis for ignoring how Freud re-figures the Oedipal in later work to suggest that there is an important role for the “father” prior to sexual differentiation (see Shepherdson, 2000, pp. 115-151).
iv More technically, the “real father” is the individual who is said to the be father, not necessarily the biological father, which implies that even the real father is a symbolic subject.
v In other words, the “mother” evoked here is representative of the symbolic father. I underscore, again, that the symbolic father is a function, not a person. Here, the mother of Ray’s children occupies the father function because Ray is a “bad father.”
vi Given the way in which this scene recalls the L.A. riots about the brutal police beating of Rodney King, it is a commentary on the underlying racism of the film, which is overwhelming in its “whiteness.” Space prevents a discussion of this aspect of the film, however, whiteness is a consistent theme in Spielberg’s work.
vii Again, this theoretical point is more technical than space allows. The function of the “paternal metaphor” here is to provide a new object choice for the child, and thereby an escape for the narcissism of primary identification (see Shepherdson, 2000, pp. 121-140).
viii For Lacan, then, the symbolic father is really nothing more than a metaphor for the institution of what he calls the symbolic order, the world of language and representation. This order is often contrasted with the “imaginary” and the “real,” however, space prevents a thorough account of Lacan’s three registers. Furthermore, I should note that at times Lacan refers to the symbolic father as the “Name-of-the-Father” in order to emphasize that it is a function, and not a person. Extending an example first made by Fink (1997, p. 80), the present discussion of Lacan’s theory of the father is a good example of the theory: throughout this section I have invoked the name of Lacan as a signifier of authority, not the flesh-and-blood human being of Lacan (who is, in fact, a real dead daddy); his name turns on some and turns off others, but it is the appeal to the name itself that rhetorically communicates authority.
ix The Oedipal themes central to his films are numerous: “Indiana Jones, for example, was estranged from his Holy Grail-chasing father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Cruise’s futuristic investigator in Minority Report is haunted by his failure to protect a dead son. The robot boy in A.I. Artificial Intelligence was searching for a connection with his creator “father.” And a fussy grown-up Peter Pan in Hook neglected his children until they were snatched away to Never Land, where he rediscovers his better nature” (Breznican, 2005, p. 1A; also see Stephens, 1997).