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1 Tuché, Automaton and Narrative Trauma

1 Tuché, Automaton and Narrative Trauma

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First Interlude: A Contingent Irruption


structures of disruption and repetition presented in each case. I will argue

that such theory—which is in fact mediated through the reading of a

dream story—can provide a powerful investigative and explanatory tool

for both Vernet’s complex piece of structuralist film analysis and—in particular—the narrative logic of Double Indemnity.2

Some brief notes on Lacan’s theory of causality and trauma will be

necessary throughout this section in order to demonstrate my reading

of narrative and to address Vernet on noir: in Seminar XI, Lacan borrows Aristotle’s concepts of tuché and automaton, redefining them respectively as an “encounter with the real” and “the network of signifiers”.3

Automaton is the machinery of the Symbolic order. It is the linear ordering that proceeds according to the laws of metonymy and metaphor.

Automaton is the way in which the Symbolic is structured by a chain of

associative connections. Lacan relates automaton to the French automatisme which, he observes, is how the “compulsion to repeat”, the Zwang

of the Wiederholungszwang, is translated into French. There is something

compulsive about automaton; it is the pure mechanical insistence of the

unfolding of the chain of signifiers in the unconscious, the functioning of

the primary process that Lacan describes as “the insistence of the signs by

which we see ourselves governed by the pleasure principle”.4 He articulates this notion of automatic self-reiteration in Seminar II in terms of a

game of coin flipping that provided a series of “pluses” and “minuses” (or

heads and tails). Lacan notes that “once the symbolic chain is constituted,

as soon as you introduce a certain significant unity, in the form of unities

of succession, what comes out can no longer be just anything”.5 Through

the simple act of grouping the results into sets of three—e.g., “plus, plus,

minus” or “minus, plus, minus”—a number of laws emerge determining the possibility of certain predictable sequences; these groupings can

appear only in certain combinations, making other outcomes impossible.6

Establishing a series of formal relations between the elements transforms

the results of a coin toss into a symbolic organisation giving rise to a

spontaneous and precise determination of what can appear in the chain

that is in no way suggested by, or contained in, the original act of symbolic grouping. Thus, the Symbolic produces by itself its own structures

and organisations: this is the automaton that moves by itself, and the law

of this network is, then, the realm of the possible.


Out of the Past

This already begins to appear very close to Vernet’s analysis. When he

describes the “first movement” of the film noir as “a narrative machine

whose every part is well-oiled and in gear”, it is impossible not to hear

the mechanised clamour of Lacan’s automaton. The opening scenes of the

set-up establish a system of Symbolic law as a series of exchanges between

characters. In Double Indemnity, this system is simple: Neff is dispatched

by his company to sell insurance policies. When he meets Phyllis, the setup is in terms of automobile coverage, the potential saving her husband

could make, and an agreement to return the next evening. The set-up that

Vernet describes can be understood as the guarantee of the big Other: like

the “lawful” development of the signifying chain, “[t]he impossible is not

considered therein”. Equally, the “signs” that make up Vernet’s first movement can be thought of as functioning under a form of narrative pleasure

principle. The set-up is characterised by a sense of calm, order and propriety; it functions as a coherent signifying chain imbued with meaning. For

Neff, this would entail another sale and the continuation of the order of

things. The set-up establishes only a pleasurable tension that orients the

film towards the solution of the intrigue: the final pleasure. Interestingly,

Vernet further describes this unfolding of the narrative set-up in terms

of the determinedness of the inexorable approach of Neff on crutches in

the title sequence from Double Indemnity; this is, then, I would add, the

compulsive insistence of the automatism of the signifying chain, the rectilinear advancement of a narrative characterised by stability and certainty.7

However—as both Vernet and Lacan recognise—this automatically

functioning chain of signifiers will always come up against an impossibility: tuché, the Real “which … lies behind the automaton”. Just as

the ordering of Lacan’s coin toss game leads, spontaneously and in a way

that could not be predicted from the outset, to the emergence of certain

impossible combinations of “plus” and “minus”, tuché is something that

happens as if by chance; it is the unpredictable intervention of pure contingency. It is the precipitation of an undetermined, unanticipated event

that interrupts the smooth functioning of automaton. Tuché disrupts

this automatic, regulated stringing together of signifiers. It is a hitch or

obstacle that causes the signifying chain to falter: the shock of the intrusion of the Real. A painful and terrifying intervention that wholly perturbs the Symbolic order, it occupies the place of impossibility and failure


First Interlude: A Contingent Irruption


and therefore appears as a tear in the blanket of reality. Lacan describes

this tuché as an encounter with the Real that always eludes us because it

appears as something inassimilable; it cannot be integrated into the chain

of signifiers. He elaborates: “the encounter in so far as it may be missed,

in so far as it is essentially the missed encounter [presents itself in the form

of ] trauma”.8 Tuché as event is thus a traumatic encounter that cannot be

symbolised. If automaton functions according to the pleasure principle,

then tuché is the trauma of an encounter with a Real beyond the pleasure


Therefore, I would suggest that the formulation of tuché situates Lacan’s

theory in relation to Freud’s studies of traumatic and war neuroses. In the

figurative biological terms of “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, Freud’s

notion of trauma extended the concept of the wound from the physical

to the psychical; it was conceptualised as a breach in the protective layer

sheltering the psyche from excessive external stimuli. Freud designated

as “traumatic” any such excitation that was powerful enough to break

through this otherwise efficacious barrier. Furthermore, Freud emphasised the utterly contingent nature of trauma; it is the impact of an event

for which the psychic apparatus was entirely unprepared, an experience

Freud called “fright [Schreck]”.9 Freud described trauma, in economic

terms, as “an experience which … presents the mind with an increase

of stimulus too powerful to be dealt with or worked off in the normal

way, and this must result in permanent disturbances of the manner in

which the energy operates”.10 The traumatic breach causes the mental

apparatus to be flooded with excitation. The psyche is overwhelmed by

this stimulus; its mechanism is disrupted. Freud suggested that, faced

with the problem of mastering this energy, the “normal” functioning of

the psyche—i.e., the pleasure principle—is suspended. It instead becomes

fixed upon the task of “binding”, making continual attempts to circumscribe this excess so that the dominance of the pleasure principle can be

reinstated. The Schreck—or, if I can transpose it into Lacan’s category,

tuché—is therefore at the core of Freud’s compulsion to repeat. What is

particularly interesting here, I suggest, is Adam Phillips’s suggestion that

this “binding” can be understood as a form of narration: it is the psyche’s

attempt to find a form for the traumatic experience, to tell a story about it

and thus make it survivable.11


Out of the Past

In these terms, I can make a connection between Lacan’s tuché and

automaton and trauma and the repetitive insistence of the psyche. And

the way in which tuché “appears” in the repetition of automaton will, I

suggest, shed light on Vernet’s analysis in terms of a theory of “narrative

trauma”. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud had already been led, by

the consideration of unpleasurable “anxiety” or “punishment” dreams,

to qualify his notion that the dream was the fulfilment of a wish, so it

became “a (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish”.12

However, Freud’s work with trauma compelled him to question this

founding principle; the dreams of traumatic neuroses led him “to admit

for the first time an exception to the proposition that dreams are the

fulfilment of wishes”. Instead, Freud suggested, they arise “in obedience

to the compulsion to repeat”: the necessity to bind excess stimulation

and thus reinstate the pleasure principle.13 Lacan comments that “Freud

shows that we can conceive here of what occurs in the dreams of traumatic neurosis only at the level of the most primitive functioning—that

in which it is a question of obtaining the binding of energy”.14 Such

dreams function to restage a traumatic experience as a means of binding

it; repetition is an attempt to integrate this tuché into the automaton of

psychic organisation.

In these terms, Lacan offers a re-reading of one of the most striking

examples from The Interpretation of Dreams, where Freud recounted the

dream of a father whose son had just died; in it, his son who “was standing beside his bed, caught him by the arm and whispered to him reproachfully: ‘Father, don’t you see I’m burning?’”.15 At this point, he awoke to find

a fallen candle had set fire to his son’s body lying in the other room. Freud

suggested that the dream fulfilled both the father’s wish to see his son

again and his need to sleep. Indeed, to prolong his sleep was to prolong

the life of his son in the vision and so the glare of the fire in the other

room became the fire with which the child burnt in the dream. Lacan’s

question then is, “What is it that wakes the sleeper?” It is not because the

intrusion of the glare became too strong; the dream had transformed this

into the element by which it sustained itself. Instead, Lacan suggests that

what wakes him is a missed encounter with the Real, with the psychic

trauma of the son’s death. There was then more of the Real in the dream

image of his son than in the perceptual reality of the fire in the next room.


First Interlude: A Contingent Irruption


He awoke to reality to escape the traumatic Real attached to the accusation in the child’s words, which touched upon the father’s guilt regarding

his son’s death. The automaton of the father’s psyche could not assimilate

the trauma and so had to present the tuché of the death of his son indirectly; his son burned, Lacan insists, with a “fire [that] bears on … the

real”. The glare of the fire became the blinding light of the Real. The son’s

reproach, however, can illuminate only the very absence of this Real itself;

it “designates a beyond that makes itself heard in the dream”.16 The dream

is thus an attempt to narrate the trauma, to bind it and make it liveable. It

re-presents the son’s death as a manifestation of the compulsion to repeat

that characterises Lacanian automatism.

Trauma, therefore, is already a question of narration for Freud and

Lacan, and having begun to explore these concepts of trauma and symbolisation, I can now suggest that Vernet’s analysis of film noir narrative should be understood to function in terms comparable to tuché and

automaton. Just as the signifying chain must come up against an impossibility, so too must the set-up meet the black hole. For Vernet, this black

hole is an intervention of unexpected violence, whose sudden force turns

the narrative space inside out. There occurs, as a result of this contingent

event, a “generalized inversion of signs” and so, in Double Indemnity, an

insurance agent turns out to be a murderer. The normal functioning of

the narrative is disturbed: the intervention of the black hole constitutes

then a form of narrative trauma. It is an intrusion that overwhelms and

disrupts the first movement. The set-up is placed into doubt by this second movement; the fiction it proposed is suddenly “flawed, corroded,

blown apart”. The well-oiled narrative machine is stopped dead in its

tracks; the “agreeable, straight-forward and seamless story has now fallen

into pieces”. I would argue that, when Vernet states that the black hole

manifests the force of its relation with the set-up by revealing the gaps

and absences contained within it, he can be understood as describing the

impact of the traumatic Real upon the Symbolic.17 Narrative automaton

is suddenly opened up by the unexpected interruption of narrative tuché

and its Symbolic order now appears inconsistent. The irruption of the

black hole reveals an anomaly, a failure; the pleasures promised by the

set-up are now impossible. The ordinary existence of an insurance man in

Double Indemnity is transformed, from drudgery to excitement, boredom


Out of the Past

to passion, civility to crime. Neff has been knocking on doors for years;

it is only when he reaches the Dietrichson household that Phyllis offers a

contingent disruption of this established order and, through their affair,

a disruption of the established social order itself.

Indeed, what Vernet seems to overlook is the vital role played by sex in

the narrative of Double Indemnity. As I noted above, all Vernet’s examples

of this disruptive black hole focus on instances of violence and death:

what also needs to be considered, I want to suggest, is the traumatic

dimension of sex in film noir. This is not to be understood as sexual

trauma per se but the disturbances caused by sexuality itself. My focus

here is on the destabilising encounter with sex as such, as I explored—for

example—in the previous chapter in Freud’s case of the Wolf Man. Here,

it is a confrontation with the very fact of sex itself that proves traumatic,

and in Freudian psychoanalysis it is the sheer, abyssal mystery of sexuality that proves so disturbing. What Double Indemnity insists upon is

the realisation that narrative tuché is not limited to the violent act itself

but also incorporates those instances where sex does violence to the established order of narrative. It is Phyllis’s sudden appearance at the top of the

stairs—wearing only a towel and a prominent gold anklet—that constitutes

the first destabilising force to trouble the film’s narrative, which then

descends into lust and slaughter. Indeed, Neff himself seems to recognise

the driving forces of sex and death in Double Indemnity when—to recall a

line I introduced in the previous chapter—he tells Phyllis late in the film,

“We were talking about automobile insurance. You were thinking about

murder. I was thinking about that anklet”. Such narrative trauma can

therefore be motivated by both Eros and death, which are—of course—

the fundamental categories of any psychoanalysis and of film noir.

The relation between tuché as trauma and automaton leads us to Lacan’s

understanding of the Real as cause. Automaton is the compulsive attempt

to integrate the traumatic event in the unconscious; Lacan describes this

process as the “subjectifying homeostasis that orientates the whole functioning defined by the pleasure principle”.18 It is the network of signifiers

woven around the point of impact of the traumatic event. The Symbolic

is thus a system shaped by the intrusion of the Real, which appears as an

accidental order functioning as a cause that cannot be found directly but

is always disguised. What is found in the dream is a stand-in; automaton


First Interlude: A Contingent Irruption


can represent the trauma only in a veiled form. Never present, it is, as

Žižek suggests in an Althusserian invocation, “the absent cause of the

Symbolic”.19 This cause can never effect its power directly; it must always

operate through disturbances within the Symbolic and is detectable only

as these disturbances. This is why an encounter with the Real, such as the

burning child, is always a missed encounter. Moreover, the absent cause is

associated with an idea of failure; it can be detected where the signifying

chain is disrupted. It is, for example, the point at which the analysand’s

discourse falters, where free association stalls or stops. It reaches a certain

limit: the Real. The chain halts when it touches upon a traumatic association. Lacan suggests “there is cause only in something that doesn’t work”;

this point of failure then becomes the point of departure for a new chain

of associations and automaton continues.20

Similarly, Vernet frames the intervention of this black hole in terms

of a missed encounter; the traumatic action often takes the form of a

murder, which “eliminates the first witness and thus the first indices of

the truth”.21 A vital element is missing: the film is suddenly engulfed by

a black hole and any connection to an originary cause is lost. In Double

Indemnity, the first Mrs. Dietrichson’s murder has erased the only witness to Phyllis’s true nature. And more generally, trauma is absent in the

film: Phyllis’s displacement of the mother is the narrative’s original sin,

a crucial aspect of the story that is never allowed to appear in the plot;

and Mr. Dietrichson’s murder happens just outside of the frame. The

event itself takes place but the film is still unable to accommodate its

direct presentation; it is held instead in the extra-diegetic space next to

Phyllis. Moreover, it is the sex which Neff and Phyllis seemingly have but

we are never shown and for which murder becomes a surrogate: rather

than being permitted to consummate their relationship on screen, they

penetrate each other’s bodies only with bullets.22

The traumatic, absent cause must, to recall Chap. 2, be retroactively

established instead by the continuation of the narrative automaton.

The black hole thus functions as the absent, Real cause that shapes the

Symbolic. The plot might unexpectedly pass from familial squabble to

slaughterhouse, romance to cataclysm but the film nonetheless continues. If the impact of the black hole marks out the absences contained

within the set-up, the films present these gaps in the form of questions


Out of the Past

to be answered by the unfolding of the story: Who is the killer? What is

the connection? What is going to happen? Vernet implicitly suggests this

relation between automaton and tuché as cause when he notes that “in

uncovering a gap, we have already begun to fill it in, and in destroying

one line of logic, we have already begun to construct another”. As in the

formation of the burning child dream, the narrative automaton weaves its

symbolic matrix around the gaps caused by tuché; the narrative is structured by the central void of the black hole. It must work to circumscribe

the chaos induced by this traumatic tear so as to re-establish the narrative

pleasure principle. The black hole threatens the narrative with incomprehensibility; its intervention means that, as Vernet notes, “the film would

lapse into prattle without meaning or value”.23 It is therefore the task of

narrative automaton to overcome this threat.

Indeed, this would account for the metaleptic relation I noted in the

previous chapter between set-up and black hole in Double Indemnity,

which could be said to depend upon just such an “absent cause”: it is the

indirectly suggested shock of Mr. Dietrichson’s murder that disrupts the

narrative structure and requires retroactive reconstruction by Neff’s confession. Recall that Vernet asserts, in a particularly Lacanian way, that the

set-up and black hole exist in a necessary, structural relationship rather

than a chronological one so that, as is the case in Double Indemnity, the

set-up can be presented after the black-hole in the progression of the

plot, even though the former logically precedes the latter. This can be

compared to the very nature of trauma for psychoanalysis: it can be determined only as trauma after the fact, through its symbolic articulation—as

with the Wolf Man case—and so the effect, in this sense, necessarily precedes its cause. Neff’s narration unfolds, therefore, according to a narrative

pleasure principle, whose function is—in Lacanian terms—“to lead the

subject from signifier to signifier, by generating as many signifiers as are

required to maintain at as low a level as possible the tension that regulates

the whole functioning of the psychic apparatus”.24 By telling his story,

Neff—and by extension the film itself—attempts to come to terms with

his terrible crimes and uncontrollable passions, to bind the trauma and

make it intelligible through a recuperative narrative automaton.25

Vernet asserts a structural incompatibility between his two fields—setup and black hole—which suggests a more general relation between the


First Interlude: A Contingent Irruption


Symbolic and the Real. He describes the connection between the two

movements in terms of asyndeton—the rhetorical omission of conjunctions between clauses—suggesting that there is a gap between the setup and the black hole. This is experienced as “a rupture in the chain of

significations where the spectator feels as if he has somehow skipped a

necessary logical step”. There is some signifier missing that would bridge

the two movements. Once again, the encounter with the Real is a missed

encounter. The Real is this very absence, the impossibility of a signifier

that could represent traumatic tuché. This is “where the spectator feels the

absence of a necessary structural relation”; however, I would suggest that

the necessary Lacanian reversal here is to understand that this very gap

is the structural relation between the Symbolic and the Real (and that

this relation should, moreover, be understood not simply as “structural”

but as topological).26 It is with this idea established that I can now begin

Chap. 4.


1. Vernet, “FT”, 63. Vernet’s examples are drawn from across all the films he

analyses; here, I illustrate my discussion of his ideas with my own details

from Double Indemnity.

2. There is, of course, a particular subset of noir films dealing specifically with

trauma: e.g., the war veteran noir, such as Crossfire (1947) or Dead Reckoning

(1947). However, the distinction between this type of “trauma noir” and

the deployment of Lacanian trauma theory I am pursuing here could be

compared to Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole, between the

structure of language as such and a particular instance of linguistic usage.

Such “trauma noir” would be a kind of “parole”, a particular instance of

trauma articulated in terms of specific historical moment. My theory of narrative tuché, on the other hand, would relate to “langue”, to the structure of

trauma as such, which I am developing as a way of understanding certain

narratological features.

3. Lacan, S11, 52. See Aristotle’s Physics, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford:

Oxford UP, 1999), 46–48.

4. Lacan, S11, 53–54.

5. Lacan, S2, 193.























Out of the Past

See Fink, LS, 16–19.

Vernet, “FT”, 61–62.

Lacan, S11, 54–55.

Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, SE XVIII, 12.

Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, SE XVI, 275.

Adam Phillips, Seminar on “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, University of

York, 14 February 2013.

Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Part 1, SE IV, 160.

Freud, SE XVIII, 32.

Lacan, S11, 51.

Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Part 2, SE V, 509.

Lacan, S11, 58, 59. See my discussion of a “beyond” and non-Euclidean

space in the following chapters.

Vernet, “FT”, 64, 66.

Ibid., 55.

Žižek, Metastases, 30, emphasis added.

Lacan, S11, 22.

Vernet, “FT”, 63.

Of course, this has a very important connection to censorship. Such sex and

violence were proscribed by the Production Code: it constitutes a “trauma”

for the moral-religious framework established by Will Hays et al.

Vernet, “FT”, 66, 65.

Lacan, S7, 119.

This might seem like a version of Tzvetan Todorov’s equilibrium/disequilibrium narratological model (with tuché functioning as the disturbance of

quietude); however, in no sense is a new equilibrium established by the end

of the film. There is neither conversion nor evasion: what we are left with is

profound trauma and a disquiet with which we can only struggle to come

to terms (cf. The Poetics of Prose [Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1977]). The narrative, like Neff himself, is wounded: narrative tuché has radically destabilised the world, and narrative automaton turns endlessly attempting to

circumscribe and thus contain this wound.

Vernet, “FT”, 65.


Film Noir Doesn’t Exist: Impossibility,

Definition and the Point of Failure

A question arises: What was lacking in the account of film noir that I gave

in the previous chapter? The answer, I suggest, is that which distinguishes

Lacanian psychoanalysis from structuralism proper: the Real. This chapter will in this sense proceed from the structure of s(A) to the lack in

S(A): from the signification of the Other to the signifier of the lack in the

Other. In my formalisation of the noir discourse, I have already associ→

ated the vector S .S with a dimension of the Real: the signifier S1, I suggested, could be conceived of as the letter, Lacan’s early conception of the

Real as brute materiality. However, I will argue that the tacitly Lacanian

dimension of Vernet’s work suggests a number of ways of approaching

the Real in relation to any such formalisation, as it is theorised by Lacan

in his later work. As trauma, as impossibility or failure, and—with the

introduction of a crucial distinction—as pre- and post-symbolic, Lacan’s

theory of the Real provides an invaluable tool in my pursuit of an ontology of film noir.



© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016

B. Tyrer, Out of the Past, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-30942-2_4


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