Thursday, 24 February 2011

Songs from The Tarantinian Ethics: Madonna's pain and the ear of the Other

Pain, the other’s pain, underlines the simultaneously human and inhuman relation between White and Orange: it culminates in a tragically human and inescapably ethical sacrifice of life for the other. Through pain one reaches the limit, the Thing, that articulates ethics and desire:

In brief, Kant is of the same opinion as Sade. For in order to reach das Ding absolutely, to open the flood gates of desire, what does Sade show us on the horizon? In essence, pain. The other’s pain as well as the pain of the subject himself, for on occasions they are simply one and the same thing. To the degree that it involves forcing an access to the Thing, the outer extremity of pleasure is unbearable to us. (Lacan, 1992: 80)

It is pain that guarantees the human relationship. For White, pain proves the authenticity of Orange: ‘that kid in there is dying from a fuckin’ bullet that I saw him take. So don’t be calling him a rat’ (Tarantino, 1994a: 28). Pain draws the subject to the point of death and thereby draws out the truth, just as it does when White’s sacrifice places him in an identical position to Orange.

The ethical question of the other’s pain is raised at the beginning of the film by Mr Brown in his infamous ‘Madonna speech’. His interpretation highlights the function of metaphor by suggesting, emphatically, that ‘the whole song is a metaphor for big dicks’. In so doing, his reading of ‘Like a Virgin’ squarely refutes the version offered by Mr Blonde who proposes, romantically, that ‘it’s about a girl who is very vulnerable and she’s been fucked over a few times. Then she meets some guy who’s really sensitive…’(3). Dismissing this, Brown underscores the crucial experience of pain:

Now she’s gettin’ this serious dick action, she’s feelin’ something she ain’t felt since forever. Pain ... It hurts like the first time. The pain is reminding a fuck machine what it was like to be a virgin. Hence, ‘Like a Virgin’. (4-5)

The pain differentiates machine from human, innocent from habitue, recalling something that has been lost. At its crudest, the reading of ‘Like a Virgin’ affirms phallic law in its most brutal, literal rendering of a subjection. But the loss of an innocent, virginal state as a result of this encounter metaphorically signifies, for the position of the interpreter, a different traumatic, castrating encounter with phallic law. What is raised in the interpretation is the spectre of lack, of subjection to law. For the woman, the experience of pain broaches the Thing at the extremity of pleasure, a pleasure enjoyed, not by the interpreter, Mr Brown, but by another, the Other:

The real father, Freud tells us, is a castrating father. In what way? Through his presence as real father who effectively occupies that person with whom the child is in a state of rivalry, namely, the mother. Whether or not that is the case in experience, in theory there is no doubt about it: the real father is elevated to the rank of Great Fucker – though not, believe me, in the face of the Eternal, which isn’t even around to count the number of times. Yet doesn’t this real and mythical father fade at the moment of the decline of the oedipus complex into the one whom the child may easily have already discovered at the relatively advanced age of five years old, namely, the imaginary father, the father who has fucked the kid up. (Lacan, 1992: 307-8)

‘Like a Virgin’ is about the ‘Great Fucker’: ‘it’s about some cooze who’s a regular fuck machine. I mean all the time, morning, day, night, afternoon, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick’ (Tarantino, 1994a: 4). As ‘fuck machine’ the woman testifies to the jouissance demanded by the Other, the great fucker and castrating father. The myth of the phallus as embodiment of the Other’s jouissance is thus promoted in this reading of ‘Like a Virgin’. It is a reading endorsed by the director who, as actor, performs the speech: ‘I have no doubt in my mind she [Madonna] is going to come to me and say: “Quentin, you’re a hundred per cent right, that’s exactly what the song’s about. And I was laughing my ass off when all these fourteen-year-old girls were singing it.”’ The certainty, however, even as it anticipates authorisation, was deluded: Madonna inscribed a copy of her album Erotica ‘To Quentin – it’s about love, not dick’ (Bernard, 1995: 193). The interpretation, countermanded by an inscription of authority, discovers itself to be fantastical. [NOTE]

But what the interpretation discloses, significantly, is the realm of fantasy determined by the Thing: ‘Freud placed in the forefront of ethical enquiry the simple relationship between man and woman. Strangely enough, things haven’t been able to move beyond that point’ (Lacan, 1992: 87). For Lacan, the relation between the sexes is a nonrelation, a relation only to the objet a which is, precisely, not one, but ‘something of the One’ (1982: 139). Indeed, the nonrelation between Madonna’s and Tarantino’s versions of the song charts an insurmountable difference between male and female fantasy: the myth of the phallus embodied or literalised, is opposed to the myth of romantic union, the phallus idealised. It is a point that, strangely, cannot be surmounted since it figures the gap between the sexes as Thing. Sexual difference is the point on which symbolic castration turns, the point of lack, the very gap, the site of loss and separation marked by the objet a. The differentiating effects of the castrating father thus enjoin the male subject to, and bar him from, the jouissance of the Other.

Since Dogs is framed by the elevation of the great fucker at the beginning of the film and the Other’s explosive assertion of power at its end, in the shape of the LAPD, the position of Joe appears tenuous. Throughout the film, he assumes the role of paternal metaphor: the one who lays down the law, who knows the robbers ‘as men’, who knows their real names, and who is invoked as the one that will take care of things. But his plan is ruined by one Thing: his blindness to Orange. His authority is questioned, his rules broken, his law collapses, the supposed father killed. What Orange introduces and the film dramatises is this collapse, its implosion. The fragmentation, the repetitions and regressions circulate around the central absence that Joe’s law cannot fill. For Lacan, it is ‘the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father in the place of the Other’ and ‘the failure of the paternal metaphor’ that defines psychosis:

We will take Verwerfung, then, to be foreclosure of the signifier. To the point at which the Name-of-the-Father is called – we shall see how – may correspond to the Other, then, a mere hole, which, by the inadequacy of the metaphoric effect will provoke a corresponding hole at the place of the phallic signification. (Lacan, 1977a: 201)

It is precisely around such a hole that Reservoir Dogs turns.

Scene here

But there is one figure for whom there are no holes: Mr Blonde. ‘I guarantee we’ve got a rat in the house’, says Pink. ‘What would ever make you think that?’ replies Blonde. Supremely indifferent to their predicament and unconcerned about his part in it, he replies to the accusations about his trigger-happy response to the alarm sounding with a statement of fact: ‘I told ‘em not to touch the alarm. They touched it. I blew ‘em full of holes. If they hadn’t done what I told ‘em not, they’d still be alive today’ (Tarantino, 1994a: 59). Callously indifferent, ‘a fucking psycho’, he has one thing in his favour, as Pink observes: ‘Right now, Mr Blonde is the only one I completely trust. He’s too fuckin’ homicidal to be workin’ with the cops’ (44). Pink’s vote of confidence is subsequently underscored by the flashback entitled ‘Mr Blonde’. With an almost filial relation to Joe and a fraternal relation to Eddie, the loyalty of Blonde is beyond question: ‘... you don’t lie to a man who’s just done four years in the slammer for ya’, Joe comments to Eddie (50). Unimpeachable in the eyes of the Other, Joe and Pink, Blonde is distinguished as psychotic: he has foreclosed any relation to the Other, ‘his shooting spree in the store’ defining him as a subject of pure expenditure. Without reference to a reality or any law, his actions situate him beyond reason, subject only to his own sovereign pleasure. ‘First off, I don’t have a boss,’ he informs the captured cop. He then goes on:

Now I’m not gonna bullshit you. I don’t really care about what you know or don’t know. I’m gonna torture you for a while regardless. Not to get information, but because torturing a cop amuses me. There’s nothing you can say, I’ve heard it all before. There’s nothing you can do. Except pray for a quick death, which you ain’t gonna get. (1994a: 61)

Without point, use or purpose beyond the value of amusement, the torture scene presents psychosis as that which is detached from any reference to law, usefulness or meaning. Hence the importance of the organ he severs from the body of the captured cop. The ear is what connects the subject to the voice of the Other: in Reservoir Dogs it is presented as an ethical, human organ, the one that, in the absence of visual orientation, connects others to the screaming voice of Orange’s pain. Moreover, the ear is what connects subjects in the film to the Other, the world outside the drama which intrudes from the airwaves in the form of K-Billy’s voice. Blonde switches on the radio, before opening his razor: ‘Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you’ (63), he mouths, assuming the place, the words of the Other. These words signify, for the psychotic, the redundancy of the Other: there is no law, no paternal metaphor, only jokers and clowns. Blonde, moreover, is deaf to the cop’s pleading. Without compassion, he has no relation to the other or the Other and, by severing the other’s ear situates the cop in an identical position, cut off from all law or protection. ‘Mr Blonde just stares into the cop’s / our face, singing along with the seventies hit. Then he reaches out and cuts off the cop’s / our ear’ (63). The script includes the audience in this scene of utter subjection to irrational, tyrannical and ruthless violence. However, in the film, the camera pans away, separating the cop from ‘us’ as ‘we’ effectively turn away from the amputation in an act that may produce relief in not seeing, having no mirror to see an unbearable infliction of pain.

But the moment is heard. It is an ethical moment, opening morality to its own desire. ‘Was that as good for you as it was for me?’ Blonde asks the cop off screen, but it is to ‘us’ that the disembodied voice is really addressed, as we-the-camera stare into the vacant space at the back of the warehouse. Well was it? Yes, clearly, but in a different way. For the audience the (missed) spectacle of the ear amputation is a moral moment that calls up and frustrates moral desire, activating a prurience in withdrawal and disappointment; it is ethical in the way it opens a gap in the moral gaze, leaving an imaginary residue and a sound when it is the real thing that is wanted, the point of abhorrence that is also the place of absolute moral enjoyment and execration.

Tarantino explains just how deliberate, and deliberately moral, was his seduction and thwarting of the audience during this scene. It appears to have been designed precisely to produce this sort of disturbance between desire, morality and the law. As he says in the interview featured on the video of Reservoir Dogs.

In the infamous ‘torture’ scene the use of the song ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ – which is a kind of bouncy, kinda cool song – not only does it not lighten up the scene, it makes the scene even harder to watch. You’re sitting there and you’re watching it, then all of a sudden this tune comes on and you’re tapping your toes, it’s real catchy and everything, Michael Madsen starts doing his little dance, and then ... BOOM! The hard stuff starts. You’re sitting there watching this [hard] stuff, but it’s already too late, you’re already a co-conspirator. You enjoyed the song, you enjoyed his dance, now you’ve got to take the hard stuff. And that’s what makes it so disturbing.

The ‘hard stuff’ introduces the kernel, the hard core, of subjective existence, that which remains least avowable to subject, the objet a. The scene is so traumatic because its use of the song calls up an unconscious self-reproach in the audience that invites an aggressive response, a response, furthermore, that takes its support in a disappointed prurience. Perhaps that is why this scene has become so notorious, has been so singled out with so much moral outrage and so many calls for censorship: and yet it is all directed towards an act that is missing, that has already been censored.

Aesthetic violence, then, becomes ethical if it opens a gap within representation which questions the complicity of desire and law. Aesthetic violence and the violence of aesthetics manifests both a hole in the real and a corresponding rupture in the fabric of the symbolic, the locus of law. In the encounter with the hole all (paternal) metaphors appear inadequate as, in the figure of Blonde, all reason fails and all meaning falters in the face of an absolute negativity that goes beyond, even as it constitutes, the possibility of ethics. The negativity that comes to the fore in Reservoir Dogs pertains to desire that is moral in so far as it appears useless and ineffective: ‘the desire of the Other is apprehended by the subject in that which does not work, in the lacks of the discourse of the Other ...’ (Lacan, 1977b: 214). Desire surpasses the position of the one supposed to be master, Joe, as his own self-reproach acknowledges. For Pink, the desire for the money prevents him walking away from the job. Desire exceeds the Other, it seems, as it raises the problem of the Good alongside that of goods; desire serves no purpose, accedes to no law other than that of desire, attenuating another economy beyond that of meaning and regulated exchange.

This other economy is one of pure expenditure, the explosive expenditure on which the movie climaxes. In Blonde’s irrational, amoral, purposeless violence, it mimics the consumption of commodified culture; it is ‘a shooting spree in the store’, the absolute expenditure, without return, of the consumer’s shopping spree. Excessive expenditure leaves the subject of desire wanting only to the extent that it wants for nothing or, in Felix Guattari’s words, wants only the absolute Other, the ‘diamond of unnameable desire’ (1984: 8), the point of its own extravagant consumption and non-return. The exorbitance of the subject’s desire charts a trajectory that is heterogeneous: toward a sacred point and enmired in utter profanity, a locus of shit and the sacred. Indeed, if Reservoir Dogs has any reference it is, perhaps, to the condition of sovereignty and abjection, to what, in a restricted economy of use and exchange, is held in reserve, the surplus, the profit and the value that serves no useful function, unemployable and unworkable, the dogs, the remains, leftovers of another world of desire, the thieving rabble, the detritus and utter waste of expenditure.

[NOTE]The authority of Mr Brown’s reading is countermanded in the text by Joe in his guise as real father. Mr Brown’s reading is continually being interrupted by Joe as he flicks through an old address book that seems to consist entirely of a list of women’s names, his old flames perhaps. ‘Toby’ … ‘Toby Chew’ … and so on. Just at the point where Mr Brown offers up his conclusion in triumph, Joe declares the reading ‘Wong’. Mr Brown immediately reacts ‘Fuck you, I’m right!’ (Tarantino, 1994a: 5). This demonstrates that the real father of the unconscious knows, even though it doesn’t know it knows. (Hager Weslati)

from Fred Botting & Scott Wilson, The Tarantinian Ethics, London: Sage, 2001