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3 The Point de Capiton

3 The Point de Capiton

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Out of the Past

stop. Prior to this, the meaning of the sentence is indeterminate: with its

punctuation, the sentence’s meaning is sealed in a movement from end to

beginning. The final point confers meaning retroactively on the elements

that preceded it. Before punctuation there is only the possibility of meaning; the first word in a sentence is dependent upon the arrival of the “last

word” (in the sense of “to have the last word on the matter”). Meaning

is thus not a linear progression, an unfolding from start to finish. The

sentence does not immanently transmit its meaning; its construction is

inscribed in (the possibility of ) meaning. The sentence can be understood only once meaning has been superimposed on it after the fact,

endorsed by the intervention of a punctuating mark. Meaning is initially

lacking; it is produced as an effect après-coup. I suggest that it could thus

be considered an historical product; it is the introduction of a context ex

post facto framing what preceded it and constituting it as a whole.

To formalise this notion of retroaction, Lacan introduces the concept

of the “point de capiton” (a type of upholsterer’s stitch holding together

the fabric and stuffing of a piece of furniture), which will be central to my

understanding of noir in this chapter.42 It is a theorisation of the relation

between signifier and signified: what I would describe as Lacan’s nuanced

understanding of Freud’s Nachträglichkeit translated through the structural linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson.

Taking the example of speech, Saussure conceived of signifieds and signifiers as two parallel sequences, with the conceptual “plane of vague, amorphous thought” (signified) above the “featureless plane of sound”, or the

acoustic-image (signifier).43 Language was thus a linear temporal progression with no clearly marked divisions, the signifier flowing along with the

progress of the signified. Demarcation depended upon the attribution

of meaning to each segment, which separates one linguistic unit from

another. For Saussure, this delimitation required that the divisions established in the sound sequence match the divisions in the sequence of concepts, and vice versa; the signifier and signified were therefore established

in the one-to-one, bi-univocal relation of the linguistic sign. This was

Saussure’s famous image of the sheet of paper: to cut the thought is to cut

the sound. Signifier and signified are inseparable, interdependent components. The sign was structured by this “cut” in the two parallel planes,

and the overall meaning of a sentence would equal the sum of meanings

2  Film Noir as Point de Capiton 


of each of its signs: meaning = (s1 and S1) + (s2 and S2) + (s3 and S3).

Furthermore, the sign—while delimited—cannot be isolated from the

language system as a whole, because an individual signifier can in fact

have several signifieds: homonymy means that “suit”, “suit” and “suit” are

all written and pronounced the same but signify a legal proceeding, a set

of clothes, and “to be in accord”, respectively. And several signifiers can

have one signified: to match and to fit both correspond to the concept of

“suiting”. Saussure concluded that the meaning of a sign—and thus its

delimitation—was determined by its value, its differential relation to all

other signs. Like the pieces on a chess board, signs derived their specific

linguistic value from their positions relative to all other signs: match, fit

and suit have shades of meaning depending upon their differences not

only from each other but from all other linguistic units.44 The sign, I

would say, could be considered a function of its context.

Lacan takes up this formulation with his characteristic revisionism.

Following Claude Lévi-Strauss, Lacan tacitly inverts the Saussurean sign

to suggest that the signifier logically precedes the signified.45 He notes

that while signifiers can insist through history, their signifieds change over

time: these shifts in meaning “prove that no one-to-one correspondence

between the two systems can be established”.46 Signifiers can thus be considered autonomous in their relation to signifieds; there is no mutuality

between them, they are no longer bi-univocal. Lacan retains Saussure’s

notion of language as a system of differential elements, except—in accordance with his assertion of the primacy of the signifier over the signified—it is the signifier not the sign that constitutes these units. He takes

the example of two doors, one with “Gentlemen” above it, the other

“Ladies”, and notes that the abstract concept of “urinary segregation”

does not reside in either one of the doors alone but is precipitated by

their juxtaposition.47 Lacan’s reversal of Saussure therefore suggests that

the signified is caused by the signifier or, more accurately, that the conceptual plane of language is a product of the interrelation between signifiers. The signifier does not represent the signified: their relationship, as

Lacan notes, “always appears fluid, always ready to come undone”. The

unity of Saussure’s sign is therefore broken down by Lacan. Lacan finds

Saussure’s diagram of the signified and signifier as two planes progressing

in parallel questionable; instead of “one flux that is meaning and another


Out of the Past

that is discourse”, he conceives of language as a linear chain of signifiers

retroactively giving rise to signifieds.48

He states that clinical experience has shown that language cannot be

considered a sequence of successive, delimited elementary units and that

these units as a result do not generate meaning progressively; there is

instead an “incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier”, an indeterminacy, an uncertainty of meaning.49 It is here Lacan finds it necessary

to introduce the notion of the point de capiton; it is the caesura, the full

stop that turns the chain of discourse into a sentence. As a function of

language, the point de capiton has both synchronic and diachronic dimensions: the synchronic aspect is its punctuation of discourse, the terminal

point that brings the sentence into existence, and the resultant retroactive production of meaning is its diachronic, albeit retrogressive, aspect.

He rejects what he calls Saussure’s “correspondence between these two

flows that would segment them” in favour of the retroactive effect of the

punctuation mark, which temporarily halts the slippage of the signified

by tying down its meaning like an upholsterer’s button.50 This process,

through which the signifier meets, or produces, the signified Lacan calls

“signification”.51 At this point, the signifier and the signified can be considered as being momentarily “sewn” together, the indeterminacy of the

signifying chain suddenly narrowed by the punctuating point de capiton.

It does not, however, consist at any particular point of the chain, rather

it insists along the chain as a result of the point de capiton’s action; Lacan

shows that meaning cannot be isolated in a single element. Just as the

meaning of the Wolf Man’s trauma is constituted in the movement of

return to the primal scene, meaning is not crystallised in the point de

capiton itself but is produced as a function of its synchronic intervention

in the diachronic chain of signifiers. And just as the Wolf Man’s return

to the traumatic scene constituted it qua trauma after the fact, “meaning

is not revealed, excavated from the hidden depth of the past”, as Žižek

observes, but constructed ex post facto.52

In place of Saussure’s image of the parallel planes of thought and sound,

Lacan diagrams the relation between signifiers and signified in what he

calls the “Elementary Cell” of the Graph of Desire.53 The diachronous

chain of signifiers is conceived of as a progressive vector intersected by

the thread of the meaning-making process: the retrogressive vector of

2  Film Noir as Point de Capiton 


the point de capiton that produces the signified. Lacan evokes this effect

of meaning, stating, “only in this latter vector does one see the fish it

hooks”.54 The double intersection of the vector →

S.S′ in Lacan’s diagram

reflects the nature of retroaction and shows that the effect of the point

de capiton qua punctuating mark should be considered the action of the

signifying chain. The point de capiton, I could say, is a relation between signifiers as well as between signifier and signified. It should be remembered

that signifiers exist as differential units in the system of language and are

therefore never isolatable. The two intersections of the chain of signifiers

Lacan designates s(A) and (A): the former is the signification of the Other

(Autre), the instance that meaning is produced as an effect of the point de

capiton; the latter is the big Other (Autre), the structure of the Symbolic

order as a synchronous whole, the locus of the Law in which the articulation of the signifying chain is inscribed, the structural relation of the

differential elements in the system of language.55 Each signifier in a chain

necessarily refers to all other signifiers and so anticipates the arrival of its

final signifier, the point de capiton; the chain of signifiers, Lacan suggests,

“always anticipates meaning by deploying its dimension in some sense

before it”.56 He takes the example of phrases such as “The fact remains…”

that insist upon their completion by certain other signifiers. This “anticipation”, I should note, is expressed by Lacan in “Logical Time”; it is, by

extension, the assertion of “anticipated certainty” that the point de capiton

will complete it and retroactively determine what has preceded it.57 The

signifying chain functions because it presupposes its completion at a later

point. Freud’s bi-directional Nachträglichkeit is thus translated into the

Graph of Desire and these dual vectors of anticipation and retroaction.

Furthermore, I suggest that this diagram of the structure of signification could be understood in terms of Lacan’s appropriation of Jakobson’s

categories of metonymy and metaphor, the two axes of language.58

Metonymy corresponds to the horizontal axis of language, the linear

progression of the diachronic chain of signifiers (the vector →

S.S′ in the

Graph). Lacan expresses metonymy with the following equation:

f ( S…S′ ) S ≅ S ( − ) s.


Out of the Past

It is, Lacan states, “the signifier-to-signifier connection” whose function

is the slippage of the signified beneath it.59 This equation suggests that

metonymy is congruent with the maintenance of the bar—conceived

of as the resistance to signification—between the signifier and signified:

meaning is not produced, it is perpetually deferred along the chain. As

Lacan notes, “it is in the relation of a signifier to another signifier that a

certain relation signifier over signified will be generated”.60 Metonymy is

therefore the precondition of metaphor: the coordination of signifiers in

this way allows the intervention of the point de capiton and its metaphoric


Metaphor corresponds to the point at which the synchronic intervention of the point de capiton intersects with the chain of signifiers, s(A). It

is, as Lacan says, the punctuating point “in which signification ends as a

finished product”.61 Temporal rather than spatial, Lacan insists, it is the

moment in which the meaning of the chain is retroactively determined. It

is, however, elaborated in terms of the “spatialising device” which Lacan

uses to theorise this vertical axis of language.62 Metaphor is the process by

which meaning enters the world. Following Jakobson, Lacan’s structure

of metaphor is dependent upon a process of substitution: one signifier

substituted for another. This substituted signifier, however, is not erased;

it is contained within the metaphor as an unspoken element. It is in

this sense “repressed”: latent in the metaphor but always evoked by its

structure because repression, it should be remembered, always entails the

return of the repressed.63 Lacan symbolises metaphoric structure thus:

 S′ 

f   S ≅ S ( + ) s.


The left side of the equation refers to the signifying function of this substitution; the right-hand portion suggests that this function is congruent

with the movement of the signifier across the bar, which produces the

signified. Conceived in these spatial terms, the point de capiton qua metaphor is this point at which the signifier crosses the bar separating it from

the signified. Lacan states that it is “the passage of the signifier into the

signified”—the latter, I should emphasise, being merely a function of the

2  Film Noir as Point de Capiton 


former—and this passage is thus the production of the signified.64 This

is the movement of signification and the moment of the production of


Further to the notion of repression in metaphor, Lacan nuances his

conception of the point de capiton by adding that the signifying chain sustains “as if attached to the punctuation of each of its units … all attested

contexts that are, so to speak, ‘vertically’ linked up to that point”. Lacan

suggests that the possible contexts of each signifier are aligned “above”

them as if on the staves of a musical score.65 The weight of these possibilities renders the chain indeterminate; it can be understood in many

different ways, until the intervention of the point de capiton closes it off

with a punctuating mark. This does not, however, reduce the sentence to

a single, indisputable meaning, because each of the contexts is retained

in the signifying chain as its repressed. Poetry, as Lacan notes, plays with

these connotative possibilities in opposition to meaning. To establish

a meaning—any meaning—the point de capiton must intervene and

thereby allow discourse to function.

2.4 T

 he Noir Category and the Point de


With the idea that a retroactive movement is required to grasp meaning,

as suggested by Lacan’s theory of the point de capiton, I can now approach

the formation of noir and Vernet’s suggestion that “the Americans made

it, and then the French invented it”.66 The French term “film noir” was

(practically) unknown in the US during the 1940s and 1950s.67 It would

be tempting, I suggest, to compare the movies and surrounding discourse

of the classic period to Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet; he was, as

Borde and Chaumeton note, “involved in events whose meaning he is

absolutely unaware of ”.68 Indeed, it is only at the end of the film that

Velma reveals their significance and the meaning of his actions is retroactively conferred. I should add, however, that there was some recognition

of certain tendencies within Hollywood productions of the 1940s. This

recognition did not always accord with the category of noir: Naremore


Out of the Past

notes that American critics compared The Maltese Falcon to Hitchcock’s

British thrillers of the 1930s and that Wilder suggested with Double

Indemnity that he intended to “out-Hitchcock Hitchcock”.69 On its

release, Gilda was presented as a “romantic melodrama”, and films like

it the industry designated as “Detective-Mystery Melodramas”, “Social

Problem Crime Films” and “Psychological Dramas”.70 Mark Jancovich

even demonstrates a critical tendency to describe certain noir films in the

1940s—and not just those commonly thought of as “Gothic”—in terms

of horror. He notes the categorisation of films such as Double Indemnity

and The Woman in the Window in The New York Times or New York PM

by the affective responses they elicited: the former “plainly designed to

freeze the marrow in the audience’s bones”, and the latter “will give you

the screaming meemies”. Such films were thus explicitly situated in relation to the Universal horrors, such as The Phantom of the Opera (1943) or

The Scarlet Claw (1944), rather than as indications of a newly emerging

tendency that could later be identified as noir. Further to complicate this,

Jancovich elsewhere notes of Orson Welles that—despite what he argues

was a career-long association with horror and the Gothic—Welles’s two

most “obvious” noirs, The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Touch of Evil

(1958), were not associated with this tendency in the same way as noirs

such as The Spiral Staircase (1946) or Whirlpool (1949) but were considered “mythic” (Rita Hayworth as “enchantress” rather than spider-­

woman) or a style-over-substance “bag of tricks” (Touch of Evil).71

Hollywood, I would argue, seemed to lack an organising principle for

the array of films now understood as noir. The American critical tradition produced myriad descriptors for the films then emerging. In a

single article, Lloyd Shearer described films noirs such as The Big Sleep

and The Blue Dahlia (1946) as “homicidal films”, “lusty, hard-boiled,

gut-and-gore crime stories”, “movie murder”, and “hard-boiled crime

pictures”.72 The New Yorker described Double Indemnity as “murder melodrama”, the LA Times described it as an “intellectual exercise in crime”;

Newsweek designated Murder, My Sweet a “brass-knuckled thriller”; and

the Hollywood Reporter commented upon Paramount’s “hard-boiled,

kick-em-in the teeth murder cycle”.73 Durgnat notes “the English spoke

only of the ‘tough, cynical Hammett-Chandler thriller’”.74 Moreover,

Kracauer coined a new term—“Hollywood’s terror films”—in an article

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3 The Point de Capiton

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