The Fright of Real Tears (Introduction)

The Fright of Real Tears: Krzystof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory
The Fright of Real Tears: Krzystof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory
The Fright of Real Tears: Krzystof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory
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The Strange Case of the Missing Lacanians

If this book had been published twenty-five years ago, in the heyday of ‘structuralist Marxism’, its subtitle, undoubtedly, would have been ‘On Class Struggle in Cinema’.

Let me begin by stating the obvious, with what in France they call une vérité de la Police’. to put it in good old Maoist terms, the principal contradiction of today’s cinema studies is the one between the deconstructionist/feminist/post-Marxist/psychoanalytic/sociocritical/cultural studies etc. approach, ironically nicknamed ‘Theory’ (which, of course, is far from a unified field – the above chain is more a series of Wittgensteinian ‘family resemblances’) by its opponents, and the so-called ‘Post-Theory’, the cognitivist and/or historicist reaction to it. Here, however, we immediately encounter a paradox. Although Post-Theorists acknowledge the inner differences in the field of Theory (say, between the early Screen focus on interpellation, Gaze, suture, and the later more historicist-culturalist feminist orientation), they nonetheless emphasise a common Lacanian element as central. They even acknowledge that the only unity of their own project is negative, that of excluding (Lacanian) psychoanalysis – David Bordwell and Noel Carroll made it clear, in their introduction to the Post-Theory volume, that ‘[t]he unifying principle in this book is that all the research included exemplifies the possibility of scholarship that is not reliant upon the psychoanalytic framework that dominates film academia.’1 So who are these Lacanians? Post-Theorists like to emphasise that writers of Theory refer to mythical entities like the (capitalised) Gaze, entities to which no empirical, observable facts (like actual cinema viewers and their behaviour) correspond – one of the essays in the Post-Theory volume actually has the Sherlock Holmesian title ‘Psychoanalytic Film Theory and the Problem of the Missing Spectator’.2 In the same vein, I would like to claim that, in the global field designated by Post-Theorists as that of Theory, we are dealing with a no less mysterious ‘case of the missing Lacanians’: except for Joan Copjec, myself and some of my Slovene colleagues, I know of no cinema theorist who effectively accepts Lacan as his or her ultimate background. The authors usually referred to as Lacanians (from Laura Mulvey to Kaja Silverman) as a rule ‘engage with’ Lacan: they appropriate some Lacanian concepts as the best description of the universe of patriarchal domination, while emphasising that Lacan remained a phallogocentrist who uncritically accepted this universe as the only imaginable framework of our socio-symbolic existence. So, as a Lacanian, I seem to be caught in an unexpected double-bind: I am, as it were, being deprived of what I never possessed, made responsible for something others generated as Lacanian film theory. My response to this is, of course: what if one should finally give Lacan himself a chance? So, to continue in a Maoist vein, I am tempted to determine the opposition between the ambiguous reference to Lacan that has predominated in cinema studies and those who fully endorse Lacan as the second, non-antagonistic contradiction of cinema studies, to be resolved through discussion and self-criticism.

My second lapalissade is that these struggles point towards a global and much more far-reaching crisis in cultural studies. What looms in the background is a whole set of dilemmas, from the purely epistemological to politico-ideological ones: do cultural studies provide an adequate instrument to counteract global capitalism, or are they simply the ultimate expression of its cultural logic? Will cognitive scientists and other representatives of the so-called “Third Culture’ succeed in replacing cultural critics as the new model of ‘public intellectuals? That is to say, the antagonism between Theory and Post-Theory is a particular case of the global battle for intellectual hegemony and visibility between the exponents of post-modern/deconstructionist cultural studies and, on the other hand, cognitivists and popularisers of hard sciences, a battle which caught the attention of a wide public first through the so-called de Man affair (where the opponents endeavoured to prove the proto-Fascist irrationalist tendencies of deconstruction) and then through the Sokal-Social Text affair.3

Such ‘affairs’ or ‘scandals’ should be taken much more seriously than is usually the case – they are part of a long tradition, consubstantial with philosophy itself. Did Socrates not cause a scandal which involved all – male, adult, free – citizens? Was this not the reason why he was condemned to death? Among later scandals one should mention at least the Atheismusstreit in Weimar in 1802, when Fichte, the German Idealist, had to resign his post because of his ethical teaching, which equated God with the ideal moral order of freedom and autonomy towards which humanity should strive (Goethe, the eternal conformist, interceded, imploring Fichte to compromise, and then raised his hands in despair at Fichte’s stubborn attitude). So when some philosopher causes a scandal in the city, in his community, one should be wary of quickly dismissing it as a cheap affair of publicity that has nothing whatsoever to do with the inner truth of philosophising per se – as if the proper attitude of a philosopher were to sit alone in the pose of Rodin’s thinker (who, if one were to complete the statue in a post-modern way, should undoubtedly be revealed to sit on a toilet). A much more serious thing is at stake: to put it in Hegelian terms, a properly philosophical scandal erupts when some philosophy effectively disturbs the very substance of the communal being, what Lacan referred to as the ‘big Other’, the shared implicit set of beliefs and norms that regulate our interaction.

The deception of ‘scandals’ is not so much that they are superficial public events, but that they displace the true dimension of the conflict. Let us take the two great ‘scientific’ scandals of the last two centuries: Darwin and Freud. The ‘scandal’ of Darwin’s discovery is not the notion that humanity emerged from the animal kingdom through the natural process of evolution; rather, it resides in the more uncanny notion that evolution is not a gradual progressive movement, but a radically contingent emergence of new species with no objective measure which would allow us to prioritise them. In a similar vein, what is really ‘scandalous’ about the Freudian revolution is not the assertion of the central role of sexuality in human life, but, on the contrary, the assertion of the structurally excessive and/or failed character of human sexuality as opposed to animal mating.

And this holds more than ever for the most recent ‘philosophical’ scandal, the so-called Sloterdijk affair, which exploded in Germany in 1999, when a majority in the liberal media accused Peter Sloterdijk, the author who first became known twenty years ago with his [amazon asin=0816615861&text=Critique of Cynical Reason], of promoting the renewed Nazi agenda of genetic breeding to ere- ate a superior race. Whatever one thinks of Sloterdijk, what he actually did was expose the inability of the predominant left-liberal ethical stance (best embodied in Habermas’s ethics of communicative action) to cope with the new challenges posed by the digitalisation of our daily lives and by the prospect of biogenetic interventions into the ‘substance’ of the human individual. Ultimately, all this traditional stance can offer are variations on the motif of limits not to be violated (in total accord with the Catholic Church’s reaction): how far are we allowed to go? Where should we stop? In short, this stance is reactive and protective: it accepts the inherited notion of ‘humanity’, and then goes on to tackle the question: what limits should we impose on new technologies so that the essence of ‘humanity’ will not be threatened? The real question to be addressed is exactly the opposite one: how do the new technologies compel us to redefine this very standard inherited notion of ‘humanity’? Is a person whose genome is exposed to technological manipulation still fully ‘human’, and if yes, in what does his/her freedom reside? The true site of the scandal is thus again displaced: the need to rethink the very notion of what is human.

And, at a different level, the same goes for the so-called Sokal-Social Text affair. What was actually at stake in it? When Alan Sokal’s essay for Social Text was revealed to be a parody, my first thought was: would it not be even simpler for a Lacanian to write an inverted parody, i.e. to imitate convincingly the standard scientistic commonsense critical rejection of post-modern deconstructionism? Then, after reading the book Alan Sokal co-wrote with Jean Brichmont, [amazon asin=2738105033&text=Impostures intellectuelles],4 in which the two authors propose a detailed ‘serious’ denunciation of the way selected ‘postmodern’ authors (from Lacan to Baudrillard) refer to ‘hard’ sciences, especially mathematics and physics, it suddenly struck me that this book, although meant to be taken seriously by its authors, already is this parody (does its characterisation of opponents not as a rule amount to a caricaturalised version of what post-modern Theory is?). And the same goes for the large majority of the Post-Theory attacks on Theory: does what they describe as Theory, or what they attribute to Theory, not read as a comically simplified caricature of Lacan, Althusser et al.? Can one really take seriously Noel Carroll’s description of Gaze theorists? Nonetheless, there is, for precisely this reason, a positive function of Post-Theory for Theorists: Theory often does degenerate into jargon. Thus what we get in Post-Theory by way of a description of a Theory is not simply a misunderstanding or misreading. It confronts us with a certain deconstructionist ‘post-modern’ ideology that accompanies Theory proper as its indelible shadow. In doing this, Post-Theory compels us to define in precise terms where we stand, and to draw – in an unabashedly Platonic way – a line of separation between Theory proper and its jargonistic imitation.

On 26 January 1999, Cardinal Medina Estevez presented to the public on behalf of the Vatican the new version of the Catholic Church’s manual on exorcism, De Exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam (in Latin, but soon to be translated in modern languages). The interest of this volume resides in its reference to Freud: it emphasises the need to distinguish between authentic possession by the Devil (when its victim fluently and inexplicably speaks unknown languages, violates physical laws, etc.) and phenomena that are merely expressions of the human mind taking a pathological turn – and in order to distinguish between the two, psychoanalysis can be of help. So when someone claims to be possessed by the Devil, one should first send him to an analyst to exclude the possibility that we are dealing with a mere subjective delusion. A similar constraining of the scope of psychoanalysis is often at work in so-called ‘applied psychoanalysis’ – psychoanalysis can explain a lot, like the psychic background of a work of art, but not its essence … This attitude is the falsest of them all, worse than any cognitivist outright rejection of psychoanalysis, which at least has the merit of pushing us to confront our own platitudes.

Some months before writing this, at an art round table, I was asked to comment on a painting I had seen there for the first time. I did not have any idea about it, so I engaged in a total bluff, which went something like this: the frame of the painting in front of us is not its true frame; there is another, invisible, frame, implied by the structure of the painting, which frames our perception of the painting, and these two frames do not overlap – there is an invisible gap separating the two. The pivotal content of the painting is not rendered in its visible part, but is located in this dislocation of the two frames, in the gap that separates them. Are we, today, in our post-modern madness, still able to discern the traces of this gap? Perhaps more than the reading of a painting hinges on it; perhaps the decisive dimension of humanity will be lost when we lose the capacity to discern this gap … To my surprise, this brief intervention was a huge success, and many following participants referred to the dimension in-between-the-two-frames, elevating it into a term. This very success made me sad, really sad. What I encountered here was not only the efficiency of a bluff, but a much more radical apathy at the very heart of today’s cultural studies.

A little over 200 years ago, at the zenith of early modernity, Immanuel Kant grounded the greatest revolution in the history of philosophy in a shocking experience of the so-called antinomies of pure reason: with regard to the most fundamental questions of our existence, our reasoning unavoidably gets caught in a series of antinomies – the two opposed, mutually exclusive conclusions (there is God and there is no God; there is a free will and there is no free will) can both be demonstrated. For Kant, as is well known, the way out of this epistemological shock was through practical reason: when I am engaged in an ethical act, I resolve the antinomy in practice and display my free will.

Today, however, our experience confronts us with a different set of antinomies. But, these antinomies have lost their ability to shock us: the two opposed poles are simply left to coexist. Already in the 20s, the epistemological crisis generated by quantum mechanics was not really resolved: the predominant attitude of today’s quantum physicists is: ‘Who cares about ontological questions concerning the reality of observed phenomena, the main thing is that the quantum formulae function!’ And the same goes for the Freudian unconscious and other epistemological shocks: they are simply accepted and neutralised, and business goes on as usual. The personification of the contemporary subject is perhaps the Indian computer programmer who, during the day, excels in his expertise, while in the evening, upon returning home, lights a candle to the local Hindu divinity and respects the sacredness of the cow. What we encounter here is a certain radical split: we have the objectivised language of experts and scientists that can no longer be translated into the common language accessible to everyone, but is present in it in the mode of fetishised formulae that no one really understands, but which shape our artistic and popular imaginary (Black Hole, Big Bang, Superstrings, Quantum Oscillation). The gap between scientific insight and common sense is unbridgeable, and it is this very gap which elevates scientists into the popular cult-figures of the ‘subjects supposed to know’ (the Stephen Hawking phenomenon). The strict obverse of this scientific objectivity is the way in which, in cultural matters, we are confronted with the multitude of lifestyles which cannot be translated into each other: all we can do is secure the conditions for their tolerant coexistence in a multicultural society.

The present book approaches these deadlocks at three levels. Through critical dialogue with cognitivist/historicist Post-Theory as well as with standard deconstructionist cinema theory, the first part endeavours to demonstrate that the reading of Lacan operative in the 70s and 80s was a reductive one – there is ‘another Lacan’ reference to whom can contribute to the revitalisation of the cinema theory (and of critical thought in general) today. This general approach is followed by an interpretation of the film-maker the very mention of whom triggers an immense aesthetico-ideological controversy: Krzysztof Kieslowski. Against the standard ‘post-modernist’ as well as the now fashionable ‘post-secular’ obscurantist readings, I endeavour to demonstrate how his work, the site of antagonistic ideological tensions, of the ‘class struggle in art’, can be redeemed by a Lacanian approach. The second part analyses the fundamental motifs that run through Kieslowski’s entire opus, while the third part proposes a detailed reading of his three main achievements: the [amazon asin=B00009Y3OK&text=Decalogue] series (1988); [amazon asin=B00ECTQNTM&text=The Double Life of Véronique] (1991); the [amazon asin=B000083C5F&text=Colours] (1993-4) trilogy.

Kieslowski definitely belongs to Mitteleuropa; if one is to look for the identity of this spectral entity, dismissed by many either as a purely geographic notion or as the product of reactionary nostalgia, one of the keys to it is a series of strange cultural phenomena from the turn-of-the-century novels of Karl May to the Irish folk-rock band The Kelly Family Karl May’s adventure novels (the most popular ones take place in an imagined American West, with the narrator Old Shatterhand – May himself in disguise – and the Apache chief Winnetou as their main heroes) were immensely popular throughout the entire twentieth century; in the mid-90s, the popularity of The Kelly Family’s kitschy, family-values idealised ‘Irish’ songs surpassed that of all of the main Anglo-American bands, with a key proviso: in both cases, the success was geographically limited to the precise confines of ‘Central Europe’: Germany, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia. If nothing else, this shared image of the Other (of the imagined American West or Ireland) demonstrates that there is something to the notion of ‘Central Europe’ as a common cultural-ideological space. Does this mean, however, that, in order to understand Kieslowski properly, we should locate him in the unique historical context of the disintegration of Middle European real socialism – in short, that only somebody well attuned to the life-world of Poland in the 80s (ultimately: only a Pole) can ‘really understand’ Kieslowski?

The first thing that strikes the eye of a viewer aware of the historical circumstances in which Decalogue – the series of ten one-hour TV films, arguably Kieslowski’s masterpiece – was shot, is the total absence of any reference to politics: although the series was shot in the most turbulent period of post-World War II Polish history (the state of emergency imposed by General Jaruzelski’s coup d’état in order to curb Solidarity), one cannot but admire Kieslowski’s heroic ascetism, his resistance to scoring easy points by spicing up the story with dissident thrills. Of course, it is not only legitimate, but also necessary, to inquire into the concrete social conditions within which Kieslowski accomplished the turn from socio-political concerns to more global ethico-religious ones: the fundamental lesson of dialectics is that universality as such emerges, is articulated ‘for itself, only within a set of particular conditions. (All great historical assertions of universal values, from Ancient Roman Stoicism to modern human rights, are firmly embedded in a concrete social constellation.) However, one should avoid here the historicist trap: this unique circumstance does not account for the ‘truth’ and universal scope of the analysed phenomenon. It is precisely against such hasty historicisers that one should refer to Marx’s famous observation apropos of Homer: it is easy to explain how Homer’s poetry emerged from early Greek society; what is much more difficult to explain is its universal appeal, i.e. why it continues to exert its charm even today. And, mutatis mutandis, the same goes for Kieslowski: it is easy to identify his ‘roots’ in the unique moment of Polish socialism in decay; it is much more difficult to explain the universal appeal of his work, the way his films touch the nerves of people who have no idea whatsoever about the specific circumstances of Poland in the 80s.

Kieslowski is often (mis)perceived as a director whose work is falsified the moment one translates its content into the terms of a (social, religious, psychoanalytic) interpretation – one should simply immerse oneself in it and enjoy it intuitively, not talk about it, not apply to it the terms which irreparably reify its true content … Such a resistance to Theory is often shared by the artists who feel hurt or misunderstood by the theoretical explanations of their work, and who insist on the distinction between doing something and describing it, talking about it: the critic’s or theorist’s discourse about the anxiety or pleasure discernible in a work of art just talks about them, it does not directly render them, and in this sense it is deeply irrelevant to the work itself. However, in all fairness, one should bear in mind that the same distinction holds also for Theory itself: in philosophy, it is one thing to talk about, to report on, say, the history of the notion of subject (accompanied by all the proper bibliographical footnotes), even to supplement it with comparative critical remarks; it is quite another thing to work in theory, to elaborate the notion of ‘subject’ itself.5 The aim of this book is to do the same apropos of Kieslowski: not to talk about his work, but to refer to his work in order to accomplish the work of Theory. In its very ruthless ‘use’ of its artistic pretext, such a procedure is much more faithful to the interpreted work than any superficial respect for the work’s unfathomable autonomy.

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  1. David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, ‘Introduction’, in Bordwell and Carroll (eds), Post-Theory (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), p. xvi.
  2. Stephen Prince, ‘Psychoanalytic Film Theory and the Problem of the Missing Spectator’, in Post-Theory, pp. 71-86.
  3. Alan Sokal page with links to original text and correspondence thereafter. -Ed.
  4. Alan Sokal and Jean Brichmont, Impostures intellectuelles (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1997).
  5. There is, of course, a homologous temptation at work in the counterpart of Theory, in poetry: if Theory can ‘regress’ into talk ‘about’ its topic (instead of practising it), poetry can ‘regress’ into a kind of mental laziness, when, instead of enduring the effort to formulate a thought, we concede defeat by escaping into poetic pseudo-depth, into a bundle of metaphoric descriptions of what is otherwise a commonplace. A parallel to Freud’s ‘dream-work’ might be of some help here: in the same way as the true desire of the dream does not reside in the latent dream-thought, but is articulated in the very work of translating/displacing the dream-thought into the manifest dreamtext, a poem’s true ‘message’ is not some meaning ‘expressed’ in the metaphoric poetic language, but resides in the very ‘poetic’ displacement of this meaning.