Warhol and Lynch and The Cinematic Body

by on Jan.29, 2011

This week, I picked up a copy of Steven Shaviro’s The Cinematic Body, a book Johannes has discussed frequently both here and on Exoskeleton. I like Shaviro’s arguments against a Lacanian/high modernist approach to film–though the book (published in 1993) predates Zizek’s many Lacanian readings of Hitchcock and Lynch, readings that go far beyond the high modernist tradition of holding pleasure and fascination in contempt. (One of the reasons for Zizek’s popularity, I think, is the fact that he has such an unapologetic love for film and Pop culture in general: he doesn’t just examine films as vehicles of ideology–his own fascination with them is always part of his analysis, even when he doesn’t say so explicitly).

Shaviro is an excellent close reader of films, and his problems with studies of film that highlight psychoanalysis and/or ideology relates back to Derrida’s distrust of alienation effects (which I discussed in my previous post): both writers are skeptical of any privileging of abstract Symbolic thought over bodies and images (Shaviro) and language and metaphor (Derrida). The desire for a-historical Symbolic categories is a humanist desire. Much like the dialectic, it is a means of control and, as Foucault would argue, a mode of normalization.

To me, Shaviro is at his Deleuzian best when he focuses on the way desire is productive, instead of a lack. Horror films and pornography, he argues, create actual effects upon the body–hence why they are often held in such low regard in so much of academia. He also has an excellent section on Warhol. He argues that the attempt to define Warhol through a psychoanalytical reading or a Marxist reading washes away the most radical aspect of Warhol–that is, how his surfaces really are surfaces.

Or as Shaviro says, the mystery of Warhol’s work is that there is no mystery, no hidden meaning, and no lack. The rage for depth, for an allegorical rendering, reveals, I would argue, an anxiety about surfaces, about the possible lack of conceptual meaning, or just “meaning” in general. But an art that remains aggressively on the level of surface can also be seen as an art that changes and shapes the reality around it. Shaviro writes: “Strictly speaking, then, Warhol’s films do not represent the real. Rather, passively and casually, these films actually enter into the real: they trace it, embrace it, amplify it, multiply it, and thereby empty it out…It is only ‘lack’ that has been removed, only the unfathomable depths of signification, representation, and interiority that have been ‘lost’ (p.204).

In many ways, Shaviro’s take of Warhol reminds me of what the writer Tom McCarthy and the philosopher Simon Critchley and others have been discussing in their half-real/half-fictionalized Necronautical group. Bodies and matter have a way of perpetually escaping our totalizing/conceptual designs. In McCarthy’s Remainder, the protagonist has a very Warholian approach to reality: he is obsessed with loops and replication, and not because he is trying to gain access to the latent truth in a given event (for Warhol and McCarthy there is no such latent truth), but rather to, in a sense, play with the event–a process that makes it both more immediate and more ghostly. Or rather, the spectral is made flesh, and the flesh is made spectral.

Though Shaviro doesn’t talk about Lynch in his book, I think Lynch’s aesthetic is actually very close to many of these issues. Lynch is directly related to Jack Smith and Warhol in his deliberate undermining of such oppositions as the real versus fake, the authentic versus the inauthentic. My favorite film of his, Mulholland Drive, is filled with scenes that again and again emphasize their “cinematic” nature (the rehearsal scene with the character of Betty Elms, for example) and yet which also have an emotional power of their own. They can’t be dismissed by an ironic wink–such an ironic wink would miss the entire point, taking us back to the very oppositions mentioned above.

I would go so far as to say that meta-writing and meta-filmmaking that stays only on the level of irony is actually realism by other means.

The fake and the emotionally powerful are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Lynch’s dissolution of what might be called the reality principle is so profound that when the mysterious singer midway through the film is shown to not really be singing, the moment is not disappointing (there is no nostalgia for her “real” voice) but rather emotionally charged (her song takes on an ethereal beauty due to the way it continues to play in the sound system).

The ending works in a similar fashion. On one level, the dream-like image we have of a younger and more innocent Betty Elms reminds us that the story we have just watched is fairly generic (a not-very-experienced young person arrives in Hollywood and becomes corrupt and eventually destroyed), and yet the beauty of the shimmering image along with the gorgeous music (by Angelo Badalamenti) gives the generic (what might be called “the fake”) a great deal of force. It’s not that Lynch is able to make such films despite his reliance on genre elements; rather, for Lynch, the makeup of reality itself is always already beyond the pointless debate between what is real and what is not, or what the latent meaning in a given narrative might be…The by-now boring array of distancing ironic effects (the effects Zizek critiques as actually being a means to ensure the basic assumptions of late capitalism are never challenged) are done away with not in favor of a new sincerity, but in favor of what Borges called the hallucinatory nature of reality.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Swedish Warhol - Montevidayo

    […] riots in a row that are the same race riot picture, no color to differentiate them. One can say, like James writes in his post about Steve Shaviro below, that the catalog accentuates the way his “surfaces really are surfaces.” What […]

  2. Johannes

    I like this post (and the book, obviously) but one thing that I would say is the Shaviro’s “surface” is not the orthodox experimental surface that is medium purity (like films that don’t show images, that just are); Shaviro is fascinated by images, that thing that is most often treated as counterfeit, of ideological and manipulative.


  3. James Pate

    Good point…I think this relates to one of my favorite Warhol quotes. I’m paraphrasing, but he says something along the lines of how one day he realized that if you look at anything long enough, the meaning goes away…

    Warhol isn’t trying to get to a medium purity, as you point out, but to that point where bodies, or Campbell soup cans, etc., have been stripped of their depth, and therefore, as Shaviro argues, their lack.

    Like Artaud, he wants to break down the footlights between art and experience, though in a very different manner…