Academic journal article Discourse (Detroit, MI)

"The Things You Don't Choose": Ethics, Singularity, and Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Academic journal article Discourse (Detroit, MI)

"The Things You Don't Choose": Ethics, Singularity, and Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Article excerpt

What remains (to be done) for a subject in the aftermath of an ethical act? This essay argues for a psychoanalytic conception of ethics that refuses to distinguish the act from its aftermath-that is, an ethics understood as a process of perseverance, of ongoing acts ofjudgment that refer to the past, are made in the present, and are wagered without concern forjustification in the future. According to some influential elaborations of ethical theory in film studies, an ethical subject acts beyond, and very likely against, hegemonic norms of social or cultural meaning. Such accounts of ethical theory typically valorize cinematic examples of subjective destitution, associating the ethical with acts of suicide, either literal or figurative. I emphasize instead the creative aspects of ethical repetition that emerge from a subject's attempt to instantiate new modes of meaning making to replace the symbolic networks that have otherwise been dismantled or destroyed.

In Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan proposes that an ethical subject may transcend the signifying limits of her or his historical context by identifying with the singular, and hence inexplicable, aimlessness of the subject's own particular drive. Sigmund Freud first posited the concept of drive to explain that which operates in the subject "beyond the pleasure principle," a repetition compulsion whose unremitting force prevents any satisfactory correlation between desire and desire's object. In contrast to instinct, which in an animal forges a symbiotic link between behavior and environment, drive is an unconscious demand for pleasure in excess of or even at odds with any concern for survival. As Marc de Kesel puts it, drive "relates to its object in a polymorphous-perverse way and it perverts the natural logic we have always used to think about human life and its condition."1 Given drive's disinterest in the enduring livelihood of the subject it propels, it is perhaps unsurprising that exemplars of ethical drive tend to be characters who are not long for this world. Indeed, when Lacan conceives his ethics of psychoanalysis as a subject's purposeful identification with drive, the outcomes of such an identification seem difficult to imagine in forms other than the tragic or the terrifying. For Lacan, Antigone is an exemplary ethical (and hence tragic) character: by refusing Creon's injunction against burying her brother, Antigone constructs for herself a contingent law as compelling as if it was a universal maxim; indeed, this law is forceful enough that Antigone follows it to its mortal conclusion. She offers to spectators of Sophocles's play a tragic figure whose radical abnegation of authority and embrace of death illustrate an act that transcends transgression, an expression of autonomy whose "unbearable splendor" derives from a decision that is at once entirely creative and, as if by necessity, wholly selfdestructive. Without any external signifying support to legitimate or render communicable her action, Antigone's radical act of freedom is also a terminal decision, producing a "death that crosses over into the sphere of life, a life that moves into the realm of death."2

Apart from the tragic heroism displayed by Antigone, the undead quality of the drive, as it has been rendered by psychoanalytic theory, has suggested other less heroic figures to illustrate the concept. For Slavoj Žižek, the inhuman antagonists often found in the genres of science fiction and horror-cyborgs, zombies, Alfred Hitchcock's birds-demonstrate the deadly aimlessness of drive such that these figures attack their victims not with any sense of purpose but rather "with an awkward persistence, colored by a kind of infinite sadness."3 These inexplicable aggressors cannot function as tragic figures in the mode of Antigone, of course, because they lack any self-awareness against which the drive's deadly inclinations could demonstrate a tragic tension. Instead, they illustrate drive in its purest form, undeterred by the wavering modulations of desire, indifferent to the lure of sublimation that would substitute for an impossible object a readily accessible one instead. …

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