SEP 15-20


Thurs, Sept 15

VIEW: Buffy, ‘Restless’


  1. BulletPrimer on Buffy, ‘Restless’

  2. BulletSigmund Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, 144-71

  3. Bullet“psychosexual development”

  4. Bullet“the unconscious”

  5. Bullet“repression”

  6. Bullet“neurosis”

Tues, Sept 20


  1. Bullet Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny,’ 120, 136-53

  2. Bullet“the uncanny”


In this second block of classes, we will build on our discussion of Brooks by continuing our exploration of psychoanalytical concepts, specifically those of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva. Througout, Buffy will be our guide since Joss Whedon, the show's creator, self-consciously incorporates both Freudian and Lacanian elements into his Buffyverse.We will also take this opportunity to discuss the influence of Lacan on both feminism and contemporary film theory.



"The Restless Id"

This week, we discussed  the Buffy episode, "Restless," what may well be the most impressive representation of Freudian dream logic ever shown on television. The encoding of Freudian elements is textbook in its perfection, right down to the association of Oedipal desire with the micturating (i.e. urinating) penis (in the Xander Harris sequence). The episode thus allowed us to continue our discussion of Freudian terms, building on the discussions we've already had in relation to Peter Brooks and the psychodynamics of narrative form (pleasure principle vs. death drive; metonymy vs. metaphor; chronos vs. kairos; desire vs. repetition compulsion). We also began exploring certain Lacanian terms that we will examine in more detail next week and the following week (the phallus, the Gaze, the Name-of-the-Father, the Father-of-Enjoyment, the real). Buffy, in general, is a great show to analyze since its creator, Joss Whedon, is clearly trying to explore various theoretical concepts in his show.  As he puts it in an interview, “Buffy is made by a bunch of writers who think very, very hard about what they are doing in terms of psychology and methodology.  We take the show very seriously.  We are perhaps the most pompous geeks of them all.  When somebody says there is philosophy behind Buffy that is the truth.  When they say there is symbolism and meaning in what we’re doing, that’s true too.”


We began with a clip from the episode, "Normal Again," since that show opens up the possibility that the entire Buffy universe could well be the psychotic fantasy of a mimetically "real" young woman in an L.A. insane asylum. The show thus underlines the importance of psychodynamic issues to the entire Buffy series. (I pointed out that the first time we are introduced to Buffy, in the first episode of the series, we meet her from inside her dream.) "Normal Again" makes it unclear whether what we are seeing when we watch Buffy is an objective treatment of events (we are to believe that what we see is actually supposed to be happening in this diegesis) or one extended subjective treatment (the real diegesis is the L.A. insane asylum and the Buffyverse is just a psychotic, subjective fantasy). According to Joss Whedon, the episode was the “ultimate postmodern look at the concept of a writer writing a show,” as it questioned fantastical or inconsistent elements of the show “the way any normal person would.” Whedon added that the episode is intentionally left open to interpretation; the actual cause of the delusions, either the poison or Buffy’s return to ‘reality,’ is not made explicitly clear.  “If the viewer wants,” Whedon states, “the entire series takes place in the mind of a lunatic locked up somewhere in Los Angeles... and that crazy person is me.”


The opening dream sequence of "Restless" (focalized through Willow), illustrated for us the ways that language dissociates us from our own desires, a precept that is of particular importance to Lacanian psychoanalysis. In the opening scene, we find Willow painting a Greek poem by Sappho on the naked back of her lover, Tara. (For the poem, see the "Restless" Primer.) According to Lacan, our entrance into language and into the intersubjective network of laws and conventions that language makes possible forever severs us from the materiality of the Real. Forever after, we can only see the world (and our own bodily drives) through the fantasy version of the Real that we call reality. The image also perfectly exemplifies a point made by Peter Brooks in our readings from last month, in a passage where he is, in fact, discussing Lacanian psychoanalysis: "The paradox of the 'dead desire' is of course that it continues very much to live, but in displaced and unrecognized form, as desire that cannot speak its right name—could speak its name only by way of the substitutive condensation of metaphor... yet for this very reason continues as a force in the present, driving the discourse of the subject forward in the word-to-word connections of metonymy, extending the desiring subject forward on those 'rails' that figure the necessary dynamic of desire, a motor insisting—as narrative ever does—toward the unnamed meaning" (58). Since our sexuality must always work through language, it cannot speak its right name; indeed, it has no name since it is, by definition, prelingual, primordial and therefore outside our ability to "read" it. Willow's inability to name her kitty is another metaphor for this situation: she is not able to put a name on the figure that, in the sequence, comes to represent the animalistic and the primordial, as Vivian Gu explained. At the same time, the kitty, undeveloped as it is, could be said to represent regression to childhood, as Vivian explained. By the way, the sexualizing of Tara's back could be said to exemplify one other point made by Freud: "The most prominent of the parts of the body from which this libido arises are known by the name of 'erotogenic zones', though in fact the whole body is an erotogenic zone of this kind" (Outline 151). One could also consider the fact that Greek (as an ancient language), not to mention the Latin of Tara’s spells, suggests regression to an earlier time in the development of the human species (to a time when we believed in uncanny elements like magic).


As is made clear in the sequence, the poem is also represented as Willow's homework assignment, which illustrates how our desire is also coordinated by the laws and strictures of society after we pass the Oedipal stage of psychosexual development. (See Freud Module 1.) We could, for example, read this sequence as an exemplification of sublimation: Willow is releasing the cathexis of her desire in a pursuit that is acceptable to the Name-of-the-Father. (Something similar happened with the girl in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” who, after her “sexual trauma,” dedicated her life to saving the planet.)  One can also read the Greek as functioning by the logic of repression.  As we’ll see next week, the sequence also exemplifies a Lacanian understanding of the superego, which, he states, gives as its command not ‘Obey’ or ‘Repress’ but ‘Enjoy!’  The repressed nonetheless manifests itself in the sequence: the hunting kitten and the slayer outside the window could both be read as the return of the repressed, specifically, in this case, not only primordial desire but the death drive, the latter of which is clearly represented by the first slayer.


One can also read elements of the sequence in metaphorical and psychoanalytical ways: the paintbrush as phallic symbol (important, given the obviously sexual nature of the scene and given the fact that Willow here is doing her homework, an injunction from superego authority figures); red as sexual desire (particularly the curtain in the scene; curtains also return later in the dream sequence). The two interpretations come together in Willow's backstage sequence, where the first slayer's phallic knife penetrates the red curtains (which thus clearly come to represent the folds of the female pudenda, as Sara Kramer argued, something Joss Whedon in fact corroborates in the commentary found on the DVD of the episode). As Kara McIver put it in a previous version of this class, the curtain here could also be said to represent the screen that stands between our own constructed/performative reality and the repressed Real/death drive that constantly tries to break through or “return.” One could also point out the ways that Lacan’s symbolic order is invoked in the episode: Ryley, who states he’s been made surgeon general and who is in both Willow’s and Buffy’s dream tied to his phallic gun, explains to Buffy that he and Adam are busy filing and ‘giving things names.’  We thus see how the symbolic order is tied to the Phallus, the Name-of-the-Father, and language, as many of you explained.  This is also the reason we enter the dreams by way of the FBI warning at the very start of the episode, though that warning also functions as a mise-en-abyme self-reflexive commentary on the very experience of watching a tv episode.


We also discussed the significance of the play subtext in the Willow dream sequence. As Andrew Miller suggested in a previous version of the class, the show appears thus to be making a comment on the performativity of identity, the fact that very little in human behavior is inherent; it is all determined or coordinated by language and by the social conventions/ ideologies that are tied to language. The relationship of this performativity to the Name-of-the-Father is made clear by the fact that all of Willow's authority figures are in the audience and are ready to punish her, as Giles informs her. Because of the inherently sexist nature of Freud's (and culture's) gender roles, authority is associated specifically with male figures. As a result, Giles (the father figure of the series) only hears "Cowboy guy" rather than a woman when he asks for the correct name for an object ("props").

The power associated with the male Gaze is also exemplified in the sequence, as many of you pointed out, particularly the scene in which we see a close-up of Cowboy guy's face and eye, with a weeping woman in the background. (The gaze of the camera is here associated with the hyper-male figure: Cowboy guy.) Buffy puts herself in between and contests the sexism of patriarchal society ("men...with your sales!"), as she does throughout the series. (She is, after all, a woman who claims the power of the phallus/stake on a regular basis.) The scene is all the more perfect because of the dead male body on the bottom right of the screen, for, as Lacan argues, the Gaze is ultimately constructed over a constitutive lack aligned with the Real. Indeed, the episode keeps figuring out ways of questioning, undoing, or castrating male fantasies of control (e.g., over women). The conquistador/comfortador dyad is a good example of that sort of overturning or questioning, as Mary Komlofske explained in a previous version of this class.


We then turned to the Xander Harris dream sequence, which I suggested is a nice representation of Freud's concept of displacement, one of the two main mechanisms by which the dream work (i.e. repression) manipulates our dream thoughts in order to create the manifest dream that we remember upon waking. As we learn at the end of the sequence, Xander is really working out a childhood trauma tied to his father; however, he displaces this childhood trauma through alternative father figures (as Buffy states, "are you sure we're the ones you're looking for?"): first Giles (who, in the sequence, adopts Spike as his "good son"; Xander states, "yah, I was into that for a while"); then Kurtz via both Xander's former high-school principle, Schneider, and also Apocalypse Now—an evil father figure who demonstrates the debilitating effects of an overly powerful superego, as well as the death drive. Xander's continual return (in the dream sequence) to the scene of his childhood trauma (the basement of his home) perfectly illustrates Freud's understanding of repetition compulsion, as Gabby Teter explained; repetition compulsion, as we know from Peter Brooks and the Freud Module 5, is intimately tied up with the death drive, a fact that is literalized by the fact that Xander dies at the end of the sequence, his heart ripped out by his own father (who then turns into the First Slayer, the principle of the death drive in the episode). We are also thus given a metaphor for castration, as Sara Teter pointed out.

The Oedipal argument is, of course, aided by the fact that Xander also exhibits classic desire for the mother through his sexual encounter with "Buffy's mom," as Andy Smith pointed out. The scene not only ties this stage clearly to the phallic phase of development (Xander goes to pee, though can't perform because of the gaze of the father, with the father's gaze here displaced onto doctors and the military, as you explained), but we also have a lovely example of parapraxis, or what we have come to call Freudian slip (“I’d like you”). The same exploration of patriarchy is explored later in Buffy's dream sequence, with Adam and Riley aligned with the gun as phallus and the authority of government. Interestingly here, Joyce Summers’ sexual advance is made without her lips moving, which underscores how Xander is here trying to put words in her mouth (through wish fulfillment or projection). 


I added to the repetition-compulsion argument by pointing out the various ways that Xander's desire for forward movement ("I've got to catch up"; "always moving forward, like a shark") is continually turned into regression to the site of his trauma. Regression is also underlined by other images, for example Buffy in a sandbox earlier in the sequence. Wendell Solomon in a previous semester's class suggested that the shark reference is a different kind of regression: to an earlier point in our own evolution. The swing is another good metaphor for the inability to move forward, since one keeps swinging over the same spot. The van's rear-screen projection is yet one more good example.


The fact that Xander ends up at his home also perfectly exemplifies Freud's understanding of the uncanny, which is itself tied up with the death drive and repetition compulsion. The unheimlich is also closely connected to the heimlich (heim is home in German, heimlich is secret), for, as Freud writes, "this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression" (142). Even the fact that we see Xander doubled in this dream sequence ties in nicely with Freud's essay on the uncanny, I pointed out. As Freud writes, "We must content ourselves with selecting those themes of uncanniness which are most prominent, and with seeing whether they too an [sic] fairly be traced back to infantile sources. These themes are all concerned with the phenomenon of the 'double,' which appears in every shape and in every degree of development" ("Uncanny" 135). The uncanny is also closely tied to repetition; as Freud writes, "it is only this factor of involuntary repetition which surrounds what would otherwise be innocent enough with an uncanny atmosphere, and forces upon us the idea of something fateful and inescapable when otherwise we should have spoken only of 'chance'" ("Uncanny" 138).


Whereas the Xander Harris sequence is a good example of displacement, the Rupert Giles sequence exemplifies condensation: an innocuous element in the dream (a watch) is made to take on an impacted multiplicity of meaning in the sequence: a literal watch and its association with linear temporality or chronology (as Andy Smith explained; the Watcher and, thus, the principle of the law and the superego (as Caitlin Stamper pointed out); the opposition between chronological time and regressive time (further worked out in the sequence through other references like "the chronicles" and "don't get linear on me now"); and hypnosis as the means of regression. Giles is thus working out his anxiety at being in the position of the father. Indeed, the reason Giles is called Rupert and Rupes in the sequence (something that is very rare in the Buffyverse) is precisely because Giles is, in the sequence, anxious about his patronym, quite literally the "Name of the father," which gets passed down to you from the father at birth.

The final image of Giles crawling back stage, following a wire that then loops around, of all things, a watch provides us with a final metaphor for the twists and turns of narrative, as well as this narrative's tendency to loop around a single metaphor, the watch. Once again, we are thus provided with a nice visual metaphor for the opposition metonymy/metaphor. Vivian Gu pointed out that the crawling on all fours suggests regression or movement backwards, further supported by the word play: Giles is crawling "back stage." This final image thus brings together for us Brooks' theories about metaphor/metonymy and Freud's theories about condensation/displacement, two oppositions that are exactly analogous.


The final Buffy dream sequence is one of the loveliest evocations ever on television of man's struggle with the death drive, punctuated at the line, "the slayer stands alone," with the final return of the man with the cheese slices. As Seth Good correctly pointed out in a previous semester, that mystery (beyond its travestying of the audience's desire for meaning—complete with Freud look-alike, as Christine Lei pointed out to us) is a reference to a children's rhyme (and thus a last evocation of regression): "The farmer in the dell, the farmer in the dell,/ Hi-ho, the derry-o, the farmer in the dell/... The cheese stands alone, the cheese stands alone,/ Hi-ho, the derry-o, the cheese stands alone."


Synopsis for Sept 15-20

ENGL 373H: The Theory of SF&F

INSTRUCTOR         : Prof. Felluga

OFFICE                    : HEAV 430

OFFICE HOURS      : T,Th 1:30-2:30 (or email me)

E-MAIL:                   :