'A CAGE WENT IN SEARCH OF A BIRD'
The process of overdetermination has often been compared to the formation of symptoms, and rightly so. Formally speaking, it is a process that 'determines with more conditions than necessary' (OED), or speaking with Hegel, it is a species that is its own class - as seen in the signifier 'man' which both denotes the generic term and the gender-specific one. In psychoanalysis, overdetermination 'gives expression to more than one need or desire' (OED), it is the condensation of the conscious and the unconscious wish resulting in the encryption of the symptom. And needless to say, the symptom qua overdetermination is highly relevant to all literary practices and paradigms of interpretation because it fascinates and compels the spectator/subject: Strong enough both to necessitate and bypass repression, the symptom articulates both a desire and its prohibition.
In view of this, one may ask whether psychotic delusion and its underlying mechanism of foreclosure can also be understood as performing a signifying operation, and if so, which one? Since overdetermination is comparable to the signifying mechanism operative in neurotic symptom formation, one is tempted to expect a way of encryption in the formation also of psychotic delusion. My claim, however, is that at the heart of 'madness' lies the very failure of signification, the failure to symbolise a traumatic instance of interpellation or, in semiotic terms, a radical 'non-determination'. This semiotic assumption would be in line with Derrida's general formula that 'speech ... is able to open the space for discourse only by imprisoning madness'.1 My assumption also gains support from Lacan's fundamental discovery that 'psychosis consists of a hole, a lack, at the level of the signifier'2 (1981, 201) which in turn leads him to reassess the status of delusions so that they are no longer seen as 'false perceptions of reality' - but as precisely that which fills a void left by the foreclosed phallic signifier.3
If non-determination is comparable to the semiotic mechanism at work in psychosis and if 'filling a void in the absence of the phallic signifier' results in delusional formation, then we can address a series of related questions. As foreclosure was shown to be a constitutive mechanism in the shaping of the rational and moral subject, one should wonder why the psychotic delusions conflict with society and its cultural practices.4 It is not foreclosure but the return of the foreclosed that presents society with something unbearably intimate, the return of something neither repressed nor excluded but included in the most intimate kernel of subjectivity. The assumption that foreclosure and the return of the foreclosed are the two sides of the same coin stakes out the difference between two discourses on paranoia: while a (humanistic) medical discourse seeks to cure or exorcise delusional systems, a psychoanalytic approach conceives the return of the foreclosed as the reverse side of installing the subject. The notion of foreclosure as the 'originary' bar that installs the subject has been appropriated by exponents of deconstruction, notably Judith Butler:
If the subject is produced in speech through a set of foreclosures, then this founding and formative limitation sets the scene for the agency of the subject. Agency becomes possible on the condition of such a foreclosure. This is not the agency of the sovereign subject, one who only and always exercises power instrumentally on another. As the agency of a post-sovereign subject, its discursive operation is delimited in advance but also open to further and unexpected delimitation. Because the action of foreclosure does not take place once and for all, it must be repeated to reconsolidate its power and efficacy. A structure only remains a structure through being reinstated as one.5It is against this background of an originary and iterative barring of the subject that I want to look at emerging delusional fantasies. The privileged site for illuminating what has been irretrievably included (in the subject as a citizen) is fictional reality - for reasons yet to be shown. Let us look at Hitchcock's film adaptation (1963) of du Maurier's The Birds (1952), in which the mystery clouding the story is the question of why the birds gather and attack. It is very tempting to interpret the birds as the symbol for the deadlock in the developing relationship between the protagonists, Mitch and Melanie. Mitch's mother, who seems to disapprove of any sexual relationship for her son, would present the obstacle to their match in an otherwise perfect setting, a secluded lakeside town in northern California. Yet, reading the birds as a 'symbol' which stands for the possessive mother's disapproval falls short for the following reason: the massive attack of the birds cannot be said to function as a symbol or a Leitmotif condensation of the story-line at appropriate moments. To be sure, the birds appearance in the credit sequence, perceived as an animated wallpaper of aggressive shapes, and the lovebirds in the pet-shop function as symbols; the first may be said to foreshadow the coming events and the second symbolises the fact that something is going on between the protagonists. We should even concede that the first bird that attacks Melanie on the boat can be understood symbolically as the mother's warning against getting involved with her son, something she soon expresses thereafter when introduced to Melanie in the restaurant. From this point on, however, the birds' appearance exceeds a condensation of the story line and clearly blocks its unfolding the moment when the birds attack the town and spread to the whole country. The conflictual relationship between the characters is completely overshadowed by the horrifying intrusion of the birds to the extent that its signification is hindered and fails to be resolved in symbols. Thus, while the beginning of The Birds symbolizes a conflict, there is soon a decisive transition: their widening attack no longer 'signifies' the conflictual relationship but embodies and materializes the very failure of its symbolisation. It materializes something that cannot be determined, something radically absent. What, then, is the void that is being filled by the aggressive birds?
Having identified the irrational attack of the birds as a return the foreclosed qua failure of symbolisation, we are pressed to ask what has been foreclosed. To delineate the contours of this void, however, we cannot locate the original conflict in a character trait - the mother who is supposedly 'possessive' - even though such 'psychologizing' of fictional characters was common practice in American family drama in the 1950s.6 Instead, we must look for a conflict that leads to the developing relationship between Mitch and Melanie and at the same time prevents it. Is there a conflict in The Birds whose tension can be eased neither by symbolisation nor by a narrating an intrigue? Is there anything barred from the diegetic reality that would return to block its unfolding? Is not the court case - in which Melanie was supposedly tried and which is referred to in the film only through double talk - the very scandal that enabled the meeting between the two, i.e. its foreclosed condition of possibility? All we know is that Melanie must have been tried for causing outrage in public and that this scandal must have caught the eye of the public - including the one of Mitch Brenner in the pet-shop. After going along with Melanie's pretence to being the pet-shop girl, Mitch calls her bluff at the end of the sales talk:
Putting the escaped bird back into its cage.In the double-talk of these 'flirtatious' threats - 'Back in your gilded cage Mrs Melanie Daniels', 'The judge should have put you behind bars', 'See you in court!' - an accusatory agency manifests itself and at the same time captures the interest of the accused, Melanie, who then hastens to find out Mitch's address. The incriminating agency points to some sort of crime that has not been adequately dealt with by the court of law. 'The judge should have put you behind bars' does not merely indicate that the verdict was too lenient but also indicates a failed foreclosure, a failure to re-instate the originary barring - 'Back in your gilded cage, Mrs Melanie Daniels'. Precisely since the minor damage is named (a smashed plate glass window) its pettiness merely increases the suspicion of an unspeakable, non-prosecutable crime. It is as if 'the little prank' serves to occlude the 'unfathomable' crime whose contours are delineated precisely by the accusatory force of the speech act and which is thereby determined as a secret. What is absent from the diegetic reality and at the same time construed as the point of departure is some sort of female enjoyment, an unheard of and ineffable violation of the paternal law (the court of justice), which is only discernible in the shape of a foreclosed scandal. In other words, the birds do not 'stand for' an articulable conflict but give body to an unspeakable scandal that has to be barred from re-entering American family structures in the form of a symbol.
It is only in the face of the destructive power of the birds, which threaten to wipe out all of civilization, that Mitch's mother resorts to accepting Melanie as her daughter in-law, an act which successfully re-instates the originary foreclosure; in other words, she manages to bar Melanie's 'secret excesses' from reappearing by containing them in the structure of marriage. What Zizek in his psychoanalytic reading of The Birds calls the 'key detail' supports also our reading of the film:
At the very end of the film, Mitch's mother 'accepts' Melanie as her son's wife, gives her consent, and abandons her superego role (as indicated by the fleeting smile she and Melanie exchange in the car) - and that is why, at that moment, they are all able to leave the property that is being threatened by the birds: the birds are no longer needed, their role is finished. (1991, 106)The secret logic of the The Birds would then be that the incomprehensible attack of the birds is the visible failure of barring Melanie, i.e. the failed attempt to put her 'back into her gilded cage', as Mitch puts it. What I have advanced before as a working assumption - the distinction between primary and secondary paranoia - can now be put in a more precise relation:7 the antagonising delusion of the paranoid system (secondary paranoia) is but the reverse side of subjectivation, the 'mad' founding act of the subject (primary paranoia). At this point we should stress that the 'delusional fantasy' of the attacking birds assumes both a non-semiotic and a pre-semiotic status. Since they embody the failure of symbolisation and the victory of a more archaic order, we are left to assume that they resist a representational language and at the same time return a more original, mimetic language of 'things'. The latter is effected by the film's camerawork: suffice to recall the 'impossible' shots from the sky outside the restaurant when the birds attack Bodega Bay. The aerial shots record the panicking residents from above as if the camera was part of the birds' 'conspiracy'. Imitating the movements of the birds, the camera sways and records fluttering wings brushing past it and coming from behind. By assuming this impossible perspective the camera sacrifices representation for a sensual imitation of the bird's movement, for an archaic language based on correspondences. What Hitchcock's film conveys by means of camerawork is also a central part of Daphne du Maurier's story. Here is an extract from the beginning of The Birds:8
In spring the birds flew inland, purposeful, intent; they knew where they were bound, the rhythm and ritual of their life brooked no delay. In autumn those that had not migrated overseas but remained to pass the winter were caught up in the same driving urge, but because migration was denied them followed a pattern of their own. Great flocks of them came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion; now wheeling, circling in the sky, now settling to feed on the rich new-turned soil, but even when they fed it was as though they did so without hunger, without desire. Restlessness drove them to the skies again. (7)Unlike Hitchcock's mimetic camerawork, however, du Maurier's detached description of the birds fails to render the pre-symbolic 'syntax' and 'rhetoric' of birds. Her objectifying narrative perspective produces the vocabulary and didactic syntax reminiscent of an ornithologist, while Hitchcock presents us with 'a cage in search of a bird' (Kafka).
1. Derrida, Jacques (1967). 'Cogito and the History of Madness'. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge 1978, 61.
2. Lacan, Jacques (1981). The Psychoses: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III 1955-1956. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993.
3. In "On the possible treatment of psychosis" Lacan formulates this relation: 'It is the lack of the Name-of-the Father in that place which, by the hole that it opens up in the signified, sets off the cascade of reshapings of the signifier from which the increasing disaster of the imaginary proceeds, to the point at which the level is reached at which signifier and signified are stabilized in the delusional metaphor' (217). In: Lacan, Jacques (1966). ƒcrits: A Selection. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. London: Routledge, 1977.
4. See my Lizentitatsarbeit (2000) from which this paper is taken. Partly published in: RISS 51, Vienna: Turia&Kant 2001.
5. Butler, Judith (1997). Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York and London: Routledge, p. 139.
6. In his experimental reading of The Birds without the birds Zizek compares the outcome to a typical American family drama of 1950 in which the stress is on the 'psychology' of the characters: 'We would then have a typically American drama about a family in which the son goes from one woman to another because he is unable to free himself from the pressure exerted by a possessive mother, a drama similar to dozens of others that have appeared on American stages and screens, particularly in the 1950s: the tragedy of a son playing with the chaos of his sexual life for what was in those days referred to as the mother's inability to 'live her own life', to 'expend her vital energy', and the mother's emotional breakdown when some woman finally manages to take away her son, all seasoned with a touch of 'psychoanalytic' salt ¬ˆ la Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams and acted, if possible, in a psychologistic, Actor's Studio style - the common ground of the American theater at mid-century (105).' In: Zizek, Slavoj (1991). Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
7. See my Lizentitatsarbeit (2000) from which this paper is taken. Partly published in: RISS 51, Vienna: Turia & Kant 2001.
8. Du Maurier, Daphne (1952). The Birds and Other Stories. London: Arrow Books, 1992.