In chapter 15 of Seminar XI, Lacan introduces the mysterious notion of the “lamella”: the libido as an organ without body, the incorporeal and for that very reason indestructible life substance that persists beyond the circuit of generation and corruption.1 It is no accident that commentaries on this passage are rare (for all practical purposes non-existent); the Lacan with whom we are confronted in this passage does not have a lot in common with the usual figure of Lacan which reigns in the domain of cultural studies. The Lacan of the lamella is “Another Lacan,” as Jacques-Alain Miller put it, a Lacan of drive not desire, of the real not the symbolic.
How are we to approach this notion of lamella? Let us risk a detour. If, today, the term “post-modernism” is of any theoretical use, then lamella is a post-modern notion par excellence—-the shift from the Lacan of the symbolic to the Lacan of the real is the shift from modernism to post-modernism. For that reason, one should not be surprised that lamella is the central preoccupation of the person whose work epitomizes post-modernism in cinema, David Lynch. And, in order to expose as clearly as possible Lynch’s Post-modernism, let us risk an additional detour via those who were, in all probability, the first post-modernists avant la letter: the Pre-Raphaelites.
In art history, the Pre-Raphaelites function as the paradoxical border case of avant-garde overlapping with kitsch. They were first perceived as bearers of an anti-traditionalist revolution in painting, breaking with the entire tradition from the Renaissance onwards, only to be devalued shortly thereafter—with the rise of Impressionism in France—as the very epitome of damp Victorian pseudo-romantic kitsch. This low rating lasted till the 1960s, i.e., until the emergence of post-modernism. How was it, then, that they became “readable” only retroactively, from the post-modernist paradigm?
In this respect, the crucial painter is William Holman Hunt, usually dismissed as the first Pre-Raphaelite to sell out to the establishment, becoming a well-paid producer of sweetish religious paintings (The Triumph of the Innocents, etc.). However, a closer look unmistakably confronts us with an uncanny, deeply disturbing dimension of his work; his paintings produce a kind of uneasiness or indeterminate feeling that, in spite of their idyllic and elevated “official” content, there is something amiss.
Let us take the Hireling Shepherd, apparently a simple pastoral idyll depicting a shepherd engaged in seducing a country-girl, and for that reason neglecting to care for a flock of sheep (an obvious allegory of the Church neglecting its lambs). The longer we observe the painting, the more we become aware of a great number of details that bear witness to Hunt’s intense relationship to enjoyment, to life-substance, i.e., to his disgust at sexuality. The shepherd is muscular, dull, crude, and rudely voluptuous; the cunning gaze of the girl indicates a sly, vulgarly manipulative exploitation of one’s own sexual attraction; the all too vivacious reds and greens mark the entire painting with a repulsive tone, as if we were dealing with turgid, overripe, putrid nature. It is similar to Isabella and the Pot of Basil where numbers details belie the “official” Tragic-religious content (the snake-like had, the skulls on the brim of the vase, etc.). The sexuality radiated by the painting is damp, “unwholesome,” and permeated with the decay of death, and it plunges us into the universe of David Lynch, the filmmaker.
Lynch’s entire “ontology” is based upon the discordance or contrast between reality, observed from a safe distance, and the absolute proximity of the real. His elementary procedure consists in moving forward from an establishing shot of reality to a disturbing proximity which renders visible the disgusting substance of enjoyment, the crawling and twinkling of indestructible life—in short, the lamella. Suffice it to recall the opening sequence of Blue Velvet. After the shots that epitomize the idyllic small American town and the father’s stroke while he waters the lawn (when he collapses, the jet of water uncannily recalls surreal, heavy urination), the camera approaches the grass surface and depicts the bursting life, the crawling of insects and beetles, their rattling and devouring of grass. At the very beginning of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, we encounter the opposite technique which produces the same effect. First we see abstract white protoplasmic shapes floating in a blue background, a kind of elementary form of life in its primordial twinkling; then the camera slowly moves away and we become aware that what we were seeing was an extreme close-up of a TV screen.2 Therein lies the fundamental feature of post-modern hyperrealism: the very over-proximity to reality brings about the “loss of reality.” Uncanny details stick out and perturb the pacifying effect of the overall picture.3
The second feature, closely linked to the first, is contained in the very designation “Pre-Raphaelitism”: the reaffirmation of rendering things as they “really are,” not yet distorted by the rules of academic painting first established by Raphael. However, the Pre-Raphaelites’ own practice belies this naive ideology of returning to the “natural” way of painting. The first thing that strikes the eye in their paintings is the feature which necessarily appears to us, accustomed to modern perspective-realism, as a sign of clumsiness. The Pre-Raphaelite paintings are somehow flat, lacking the “depth” of space organized along the perspective lines which meet in an infinite point; it is as if the very “reality” they depict were not a “true” reality but rather structured as a relief. Another aspect of this same feature is the “dollish,” mechanically composite, artificial quality of the depicted individuals: they somehow lack the abyssal depth of personality we usually associate with the notion of “subject.” The designation “Pre-Raphaelitism” is thus to be taken literally, as an indication of the shift from Renaissance perspectivism to the “closed” medieval universe.
In Lynch’s films, the “flatness” of the depicted reality responsible for the cancellation of infinite perspective openness finds its precise correlate or counterpart at the level of sound. Let us return to the opening sequence of Blue Velvet: its crucial feature is the uncanny noise that emerges when we approach the real. This noise is difficult to locate in reality. In order to determine its status, one is tempted to evoke contemporary cosmology which speaks of noises at the borders of the universe; these noises are not simply internal to the universe—-they are remainders or last echoes of the Big Bang that created the universe itself. The ontological status of this noise is more interesting than it may appear, since it subverts the fundamental notion of the “open,” infinite universe that defines the space of Newtonian physics. That is to say, the modern notion of the “open” universe is based on the hypothesis that every positive entity (noise, matter) occupies some (empty) space; it hinges on the difference between space as void and positive entities which occupy it, “fill it out.” Space is here phenomenologically conceived as something that exists prior to the entities which “fill it out.” If we destroy or remove the matter that occupies a given space, this space as void remains. The primordial noise, the last remainder of the Big Bang, is on the contrary constitutive of space itself: it is not a noise “in” space, but a noise that keeps space open as such. If, therefore, we were to erase this noise, we would not get the “empty space” which was filled out by it. Space itself, the receptacle for every “inner-worldly” entity, would vanish. This noise is, in a sense, the “sound of silence.” Along the same lines, the fundamental noise in Lynch’s films is not simply caused by objects that are part of reality; rather, it forms the ontological horizon or frame of reality itself, i.e., the texture that holds reality together. Were this noise to be eradicated, reality itself would collapse, from the “open” infinite universe of Cartesian-Newtonian physics, we are thus back to the pre-modern “closed” universe, encircled, bounded, by a fundamental “noise.”
We encounter this same noise in the nightmare sequence of The Elephant Man. It transgresses the borderline that separates interior from exterior, i.e., the extreme externality of a machine uncannily coincides with the utmost intimacy of the bodily interior, with the rhythm of heart palpitations. This noise also appears after the camera enters the hole in the elephant-man’s hood, which stands for the gaze. The reversal of reality into the real corresponds to the reversal of the look (the subject looking at reality) into gaze, i.e., it occurs when we enter the “black hole,” the crack in the texture of reality.
[Extract. Appeared in The Symptom March 2012 issue. Minor editing.]
- See pp. 197-198. For a reading of this passage, see chapter 5 of Slavoj Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, Durham, Duke University Press, 1993.
- The same procedure was applied by Tim Burton in the outstanding credits-sequence of Batman: the camera errs along nondescript, winding, unsmooth metal funnels; after it gradually backs off and acquires a “normal” distance from its object, it becomes clear what this object actually is: the tiny Batman badge.
- The counter to this Lynchian attitude is perhaps the philosophy of Leibniz: Leibniz was fascinated by microscopes because they confirmed to him that what appears from the “normal,” everyday point of view to be a lifeless object, is actually full of life. One has but to take a closer look at it, i.e., to observe the object from absolute proximity: under the lens of a microscope, one can perceive the wild crawling of innumerable tiny living things. Cf. chapter 2 of Miran Bozovic, Der grosse Andere: Gotteskonzepte in der Philosophie der Neuzeil, Vienna and Berlin, Turia und Kant, 1993.