Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Body, Wholly Body?

I looked at Judith Butler's "The Lesbian Phallus" this morning. It's an essay dear to my heart, not least because I first encountered her argument under trying circumstances. It was during the eight-week short class that she taught in the UC Berkeley English Department during the spring of 1992. Florence was in the class. I should have been, since my advisor suggested it to me. But my work schedule -- I was still doing the printing for Black Lightning notes and was one of only two readers for Bill Nestrick's massive English 173 Film and Literature class -- and a failure to recognize the importance of the opportunity led me down a different path.

I already knew Butler's work was a very big deal, since Gender Trouble had been one of the two best selling scholarly texts when I worked at University Press Books the previous summer (Perry Anderson' s book Imagined Communities was the other).

She gave three big lectures in the Maude Fife Room that spring. I missed the first, but made a point of planning to see the second, "The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary," since it was such a major event.

Some of the more advanced graduate students I'd gotten to know through Annalee, while I was still an undergrad, were planning on going to see the lecture too. Because I'd been a regular at the Politics Collective -- the large, informal English Department discussion group that inspired the creation of Bad Subjects -- that spring, I got invited out with a bunch of them -- Danny, Seth, Greg etc. -- to get a drink upstairs at Larry Blake's before the lecture.

I'd always felt like an outsider with the members of this hip crowd. As an undergrad, I'd often felt like I was "invisible" to them, since they never seemed to acknowledge my presence when I was hanging out with Annalee or at Joe's place. Things were better by this point, but I was still elated to be with them in the absence of both Joe and Annalee. My excitement and, no doubt, nervousness led me to drink more and and drink harder than I normally would have that night. I recall having several straight shots of vodka, among other things.

Anyway, when it was finally time to head back to Wheeler Hall, I was pretty plastered. But I gamely made the trek, only to discover that the Maude Fife Room was completely and totally full. I could barely squeeze in the back door. Once I did, I realized that our Graduate Chair Steve Knapp was standing right next to me and I had only inches in which to maneuver. I couldn't leave, since everyone would see and hear me go, him most of all. I was self-conscious being so clearly under the influence next to him. But he was friendly enough and I forsook my anxiety for the dreamy experience of listening to theory the way that one listens to jazz at a smoky club.

I'm not sure how much I got from the talk, but it at least made the essay a little easier to read later on, if only because I was glad not to be drunk.

Anyway, revisiting the essay this morning, I realized that, while the stuff at the beginning about teeth and pain is great, Butler's extended paraphrasing of early Lacan is more directly applicable to In the Cut. As you read this, note that "morphology" is also a key term in linguistics, which appears to be Meg Ryan's character's hobby:
For Lacan, the body, or rather, morphology is an imaginary formation, but we learn in the second seminar that this percipi or visual production, the body, can be sustained in its phantasmatic integrity only through submitting to language and to a marking by sexual difference: "the percipi of man (sic) can only be sustained within a zone of nomination (C'est par la nomination que l'homme fait subsister les objets dans une certaine consistance)" (Lacan, II, 177/202). Bodies only become whole, i.e. totalities, by the idealizing and totalizing specular image which is sustained through time by the sexually marked name. To have a name is to be positioned within the Symbolic, the idealized domain of kinship, a set of relationships structured through sanction and taboo which is governed by the law of the father and the prohibition against incest. For Lacan, names, which emblematize and institute this paternal law, sustain the integrity of the body. What constitutes the integral body is not a natural boundary or organic telos, but the law of kinship that works through the name. In this sense, the paternal law produces versions of bodily integrity; the name, which installs gender and kinship, works as a politically invested and investing performative. To be named is thus to be inculcated into that law and to be formed, bodily, in accordance with that law.
I'm not good with the names of characters, especially in films. The actors names keep getting in the way. So I wrote "Meg Ryan's character" and "Mark Rufalo's character" yesterday and, in the former case, above. But, clearly, as I reread this passage, that tendency to fall back on the "real" names attached to filmed bodies is a specialized version of the mechanism that Butler outlines in her discussion of Lacan.

Both Kim and I are usually very sensitive to the naming question. We know Carol Clover's argument from Men, Women, and Chainsaws about the "final girl" of slasher films who inevitably seems to have a name that can be interpreted as gender-neutral. And we gave our own daughter a name with final-girl potential with Halloween and its ilk in mind.

I was being careless. But the publicity surrounding the movie -- "good girl" Meg Ryan gets naked for extended steamy sex scenes -- certainly pushed me in the direction of thinking and writing "Meg Ryan's character," with all that the genitive implies, instead of recalling the character's actual name, "Frannie," which I just looked up.

Interestingly, the name of leading male character, played by Rufalo, was easier for me to recall: "Giovanni Malloy." We see it on his NYPD business card in that first encounter between him and Frannie that I mentioned in my previous entry. But the name also works so well at stereotyping a certain version of masculinity -- Catholic, blue-collar, passionate -- that I recalled it much easier than the protagonist's "Frannie"

"Frannie," does have final-girl potential in its longer form "Francis," though the diminutive blunts it. It's hard to imagine the former New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings quarterback being referred to as "Frannie Tarkenton."

BTW, the reviews for In the Cut are incredibly polarized. Both male and female reviewers frequently seem repulsed and/or disdainful. Stephanie Zacharek's one from Salon was particularly cutting.

I wonder if the film's subtitle/tag line got under these dismissive critics' skin: "Everything you know about desire is dead wrong."

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