Academic journal article Discourse (Detroit, MI)

Elephants in the Eye of Gus Van Sant: World Modeling in Elephant

Academic journal article Discourse (Detroit, MI)

Elephants in the Eye of Gus Van Sant: World Modeling in Elephant

Article excerpt


One of the premises of sabotage critique is that discourses, in all their semiotic variation, present world models-ways of perceiving the world-analogous to those we inhabit.1 This does not mean that first there is the world and then there are world models that relate to the world in a before-after or cause-effect fashion. Empirical or phenomenal reality, with all its pain, suffering, and pleasure, is itself always already a world model that has become naturalized, fossilized as history and taken as the objective world. The empirical experience of all subjects is inseparable from the semiotic mediations that have consciously and unconsciously configured them as such.

Clichés and maxims, dictates from parents and teachers, and suggestions from film, television, and social companions as well as many other expressions of linguistic discourse-the totality of which Jacques Lacan called the symbolic order and Louis Althusser termed "ideological state apparatuses"2-have as their principal effect the construction of world models that organize, guide, and give sense to the subject's naturalized world. World models performatively incite the subject to carry out certain actions and to reproduce certain discourses. One of the fundamental objectives of a dominant or hegemonic world model is to be perceived as the natural world in the experience of subjects. A reciprocal reinforcement is sought between the discursive world model and the world model that guides the field of action in a subject's empirical experience of phenomenal reality. Consequendy, sabotage critique is concerned not only with analyzing the world models at work in the discourses that layer onto, confirm, or negate the world of their receptors but also with the analysis of world models that have become naturalized.

Film is a particularly powerful performative and syllogistic instrument for the incitadve operation of world models.3 We might recall Teresa de Lauretis's emphasis on film's role as a technology of genre or, in other words, as an instrument that collaborates in the performative action of configuring the gender of spectators,4 but of course the performative effect of film extends to other questions beyond genre and the configuration of categories of identity. Gus Van Sant's film Elephant (2003), which follows a group of students during the hours leading up to a massacre at their high school, provides a useful context for analyzing the relation between discursive world models and naturalized world models. Elephant is an effective film, not for its collaboration with world modeling but because it can be considered a strong agent in the sabotage of that modeling.

World models are repeated, cited, and iteratively reproduced, both in whole or in part, but they are also modified, transformed, and disfigured. This repetition and modification is also at work in signifying modes themselves, which are inseparable from world modeling. Thus, for example, Elephant's long traveling shots, which follow characters without interruption, are also found in many of Gus Van Sant's other works, including Gerry (2002), Last Days (2005), and Paranoid Park (2007). These shots are of course used by other film directors as well, such as in Alan Clarke's Elephant (1998). Something similar occurs with titles, as indicated by the identical titles of the latter film and Van Sant's film. These are just two rather obvious examples of what literary theory came to refer to as intertextuality and that in the case of film adopts the form of the remake. Recall Van Sant's remake Psycho (1998).


The opening images in Elephant quickly reveal that something is going very wrong. A minute or two into the film, we find ourselves in a world whose circumstances are distorted. The viewer does not yet deduce all this from the unfolding of the story itself but rather from the iconoplastic dimension proper to the image:5 a car is veering down a street, weaving from side to side. …

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