SEP 22-27


Thurs, Sept 22

VIEW: Buffy, ‘Hush’


  1. BulletSlavoj Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, 9-11

  2. Bullet“the Real”

  3. Bullet“homosocial desire”

  4. Bullet“epistemology of the closet”

  5. Bullet“between the two deaths”

  6. BulletPrimer on Buffy, ‘Hush’

  7. BulletLacan Module on Psychosexual Development

  8. BulletLacan Module on the Structure of the Psyche

  9. BulletLacan Module on Desire

Tues, Sept 27


  1. Bullet Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry, 6-8, 12-25, 39-43


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 Hush of the Real"

This week, we examined  the Buffy episode, "Hush," an episode that, as I argued, exemplifies certain Lacanian elements that we read about in Slavoj Žižek and the Jacques Lacan modules in the Guide to Theory: specifically, the relation of language to desire; the opposition between desire and sexuality; an exemplification of how the superego's command, according to Lacan, is "Enjoy!"; and the dual nature of the superego, which tends to be split between benevolent patriarchy (the rules we need to live together, or the Name-of-the-Father) and a perverse superego (what Lacan terms the Father-of-Enjoyment or père-version).


I backed into the "Hush" episode by first clarifying certain concepts in Lacan and Žižek. I reiterated how Lacan can be seen as the postmodern break with Freud, a fact that I mention at the beginning of the first Lacan module. Indeed, Lacan has been a major influence on a number of theorists of postmodern culture, many of whom we will be reading later in the semester: Julia Kristeva, Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Judith Butler, Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, and Louis Althusser. Of particular importance for postmodernists is the distinction Lacan makes between reality and the Real. "Reality" is the world that we think we experience around us, a world that, according to Lacan, is in fact continually being reorganized and rewritten by our perceptions and mental processes. The Real, by contrast, is that materiality of existence from which we were severed because of our entrance into language. "Reality" is analogous to what the Wachowski brothers in their film call "the matrix": "It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth." When Morpheus welcomes Neo to the "desert of the real," he is making reference to the Lacanian concept of the Real (filtered through the postmodern theories of Jean Baudrillard, which the Wachowski brothers gave to his main actors to read in preparation for the film).


To exemplify how it is that the superego, for Lacan, gives the command "Enjoy!" we watched the scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life in which we see students performing their transgressions precisely for the benefit of their teacher. (The students are blissfully studious until someone spots the teacher.) The class that follows, in which the teacher performs sexual intercourse in order to teach the class about sexual enjoyment, is, conversely, greeted by the students' boredom. As Žižek explains in For They Know Not What They Do, "enjoyment itself, which we
experience as 'transgression,' is in its innermost status something imposed, ordered—when we enjoy, we never do it 'spontaneously,' we always follow a certain injunction" (9). As he goes on, "The psychoanalytic name for this obscene injunction, for this obscene call, 'Enjoy!', is superego" (9-10). The opening of "Hush" offers up another example of the same, as Sara Kramer explained: in the opening dream sequence, Buffy and Riley (both her love object and her psychology T.A.) are asked to kiss passionately in front of their psych class, thus exemplifying, as their teacher, Prof. Walsch, explains, the difference between language and "the thoughts and experiences we don't have a word for." In Lacanian terms, Vivian Gu explained, we are thus presented with an illustration of how desire is closely caught up in language and law, whereas sexuality (what Lacan usually refers to as jouissance) is outside of language, pre-lingual, primal. The episode provides us with a nice allegory for this situation, since each of the main characters achieves sexual awakening only after s/he has lost his/her connection to language. Before the loss of language in the episode, what dominates are fantasies of one's ideal love objects (what Willow calls "vicarious smoochies") but without actual consummation. (This is not to say that masturbatory fantasies do not continue after the characters lose the ability to speak: e.g., Xander's need for a fantasy [I'm a hero saving the damsel in distress] in order to feel desire for Anja [who is closer to pure animal copulation than most humans because of her long stint as a vengeance demon.]) Of course, the opening dream sequence ultimately questions to what extent even sexual coupling can escape the superego's injunction of "Enjoy!" The superego is so powerful, according to Lacan, that it reaches into our most private thoughts, thus controlling even our supposed transgressions. As Alex Reynaud argued, the fact that the gentlemen steal 'hearts' is perfect in thinking about the relation between reality and the Real: the hearts of Hallmark or Valentine's Day are precisely the stuff of fantasy; the gentlemen, by contrast, force us to confront the sheer materiality and corporeality of the Real by extracting actual hearts. Of course, as Ross Piedmonte pointed out, the dream sequence also represents regression to childhood (hence, the child version of Buffy and the connection to fairy tales).


illustrated how each of the sections of the Žižek reading ties in with a specific example in pop culture, most of them from the scenes we've already watched in class.  I started by clarifying how desire, for Lacan, is all about one's narcissistic projection of desire onto one's love object (what Lacan terms the "object-cause of desire" or the "objet petit a"). An example that perfectly illustrates this state of things, is a sequence I showed from the Buffy episode "Him." In that show, a leather jacket with a big 'S' on it has the power to attract women. As the show illustrates, the person wearing the jacket is not in and of himself particularly interesting (as a visit to the former owner, a now overweight and listless pizza-delivery man, illustrates). Once the new wearer of the jacket arrives at the Buffy household and all four women (Buffy, Dawn, Willow and Anya) fall under the jacket's spell, we find in the next sequence that the women are not at all interested in the boy's actual physical reality. Indeed, as Willow states, "this isn't about his physical presence, it's about his heart." As Anya exclaims to the lesbian Willow, "his physical presence has a penis!" Willow responds by stating that she "can work around that" and argues that her love is the most worthy of the four because "I'm willing to look past the whole orientation thing." The following sequence, with each woman trying to prove her love through various outrageous scenarios, illustrates that desire is here articulated as a competition among the women and has little to do with the actual object of desire. This is a situation that is usually reversed in traditional Hollywood fare, with two men more commonly competing for the affections of a woman, who is thus made the passive object of desire (and the passive object of the male gaze), as Eve Sedgwick argues. In such Hollywood narratives, the interest of the story lies not in any physical aspect of the object of desire (who resembles a blank screen, more than anything) but in the interaction between the men.


We then turned to Žižek's example for the disjunction between fantasy and the Real, i.e. the feeling we get when sitting in a car that the inside is much larger than it appears from the outside, as well as the sense of a disconnect with outside reality: "when we are safely inside the car, behind the closed windows, the external objects are, so to speak, transposed into another mode. They appear to be fundamentally 'unreal,' as if their reality has been suspended, put in parenthesis—in short, they appear as a kind of cinematic reality projected onto the screen of the windowpane" (Looking Awry 15). The Xander Harris dream sequence in "Restless" provides us with a perfect exemplification of this understanding of fantasy: the disjunction from the outside is underlined through the obvious use of rear-screen projection and the inside of the vehicle is clearly associated with Xander's fantasies of desire (in this case, a scopophillic one); once he moves towards the fantasy object, the inside of the van appears infinitely large, which illustrates how fantasy space does not correspond to the Real.


Recalling the scene from "Normal Again," in which the possibility is raised that the entire Buffy universe is in fact the psychotic fantasy of a girl in a semi-comotose schizophrenic state in an L.A. mental institution, I suggested that Buffy exemplifies an important aspect of Lacanian psychoanalysis, as explained by Žižek: "As soon as we take into account that it is precisely and only in dreams that we encounter the real of our desire, the whole accent radically shifts: our common everyday reality, the reality of the social universe in which we assume our usual roles of kind-hearted, decent people, turns out to be an illusion that rests on a certain 'repression,' on overlooking the real of our desire. This social reality is then nothing but a fragile, symbolic cobweb that can at any moment be torn aside by an intrusion of the real. At any moment, the most common everyday conversation, the most ordinary event can take a dangerous turn, damage can be caused that cannot be undone" (Looking Awry 17). The Buffyverse explores, first of all, the radical nature of the traumas of growing up (our first sexual experience, accepting responsibility, getting a first job, starting university, etc.), all of which are then projected outward into manifestations of our traumatic emotions (monsters, etc.)—the ways that "the most ordinary event can take a dangerous turn." Even on the diegetic level, though, we are shown that the barrier between the dream world of psychosis and the supposedly "real" world of normalcy is as thin as a cobweb.


Consider Žižek's point on page 21 about polymorphous perversity: "the drives are by definition 'partial,' they are always tied to specific parts of the body's surface—the so-called 'erogenous zones'—which, contrary to the superficial view, are not biologically determined but result instead from the signifying parceling of the body. Certain parts of the body's surface are erotically privileged not because of their anatomical position but because of the way the body is caught up in the symbolic demand... The final proof of this fact consists in a phenomenon often encountered in hysterical symptoms where a part of the body that usually has no erogenous value starts to function as an erogenous zone (neck, nose, etc.)." As I pointed out, we have a perfect example of what Žižek is explaining in the Willow dream sequence, where Tara's back is eroticized (Willow is writing a lesbian poem by Sappho on Tara's back). Given the fact that the superego's command is 'Enjoy!' it's absolutely perfect that in the logic of her dream Willow believes she is, in fact, writing out her homework assignment.


Finally, the Lacanian concept of "between the two deaths," which is the province of the death drive, is explored quite literally in the Buffyverse through the vampire, which is literally between a material and symbolic death. The vampire manifests pure demand (for blood) divorced from the symbolic order. The fact that the vampire cannot see itself in a mirror could even be said to exemplify that they exist in a space that precedes the mirror stage (and the entrance into symbolization).


We also spent a good amount of time discussing "Hush" itself, specifically the first two presentations of the "Gentlemen." As Caitlin Stamper, Andy Smith, and others argued, the Gentlemen illustrate the Lacanian belief that the superego is, in fact, split between the Name-of-the-Father and what Lacan terms the Father-of-Enjoyment. As Žižek explains in our reading, "the most powerful anti-Oedipus is Oedipus itself: the Oedipal father—father reigning as his Name, as the agent of symbolic law—is necessarily redoubled in itself, it can exert its authority only by relying on the superego figure of the Father-of-Enjoyment. It is precisely this dependence of the Oedipal father—the agency of symbolic law guaranteeing order and reconciliation—on the perverse figure of the Father-of-Enjoyment that explains why Lacan prefers to write perversion as père-version, i.e., the version of the father. Far from acting only as symbolic agent, restraining pre-oedipal, 'polymorphous perversity,' subjugating it to the genital law, the 'version of,' or turn toward, the father is the most radical perversion of all" (Looking Awry 24-25). This double-status of the superego is exemplified in Freud by the fact that, in his drawing of the psyche, he has the superego dip directly into the id (see the Freud module on the unconscious). The Gentlemen exemplify that dip into the id in their dual status:

  1. 1)on the one hand, they represent the Name-of-the-Father; they are aligned with the law/authority through their formal dress, their extreme politesse, and their doctor's bag in the scene where they rip out a student's heart. The Gentlemen also float, suggesting their separation from the material world. In addition, the gentlemen are associated with Giles (the father figure) in a sequence that precedes their first appearance in full form: the sequence follows the same metaphorical alignment (watch, Watcher) that we've already scene in the Xander Harris dream sequence in "Restless," Caitlin Stamper explained; i.e., Giles' glasses followed by the drawn image of the Gentlemen followed by a clock tower followed by the Gentlemen themselves. This also helps to explain why Riley (Buffy's TA as well as love interest) turns into a gentleman at the end of her dream.

  1. 2)On the other hand, we have what appear to be mental patients in untied straightjackets, suggesting the release of the id, as many of you argued; they are also tied to physicality since, unlike the Gentlemen, they walk, though in a rather primitive way (like monkeys or primitive men).

Of course, each of the superego/Name-of-the-Father figures in the episode are doubled in a similar way (Riley is both affable TA and crossbow-wielding government operative; Maggie Walsh is both a demanding psychology professor and head of a secret government agency; Giles is both a bumbling librarian and a Watcher; Buffy is both a female student and a stake-wielding Slayer).


finished our discussion of 'Hush' by analyzing Giles' transparency lecture. As you pointed out, we can read the auditorium sequence as a deconstruction of the elements of film: discursive, extra-diegetic sound is represented in the tape recording of Saint-Saëns' "Danse Macabre," which Giles plays (in an otherwise completely gratuitous way), Ross Piedmonte explained; Giles' projector is analogous to a film projector or television screen projection with the projected image underlining the framing of the film shot; the representation of an audience taking in a projected presentation offers us an encoding of our own audience response (complete with Anya's popcorn eating), so yet another example of mise-en-abyme, you explained; I pointed out that Giles has responses to all the questions even though he had prepared the transparencies earlier (thus pointing to the scripted nature of the scene); the fact that we are watching a transparency is also a commentary on how film tries to give us the illusion of direct representation (hiding the technology that must stand between audience and represented scene); as I pointed out, Giles's two-frame sequence of the bloody death of a student at the hands of the Gentlemen exemplifies the fact that the cinematic illusion relies on a series of still images (thus recalling La jetée)—it’s all the better that WHAT is represented is a symbolic act of castration (the ripping out of the heart), just what feminist psychoanalysts argue occurs in that blank space between the frames of films, as Caitlin Stamper argued.  We can even read the juxtaposition of text and image in Giles' lecture as an encoding of the history of film, evoking as the sequence does a silent film (both in form and, of course, content, since no one can speak in the episode)—thanks to Mycroft Gilliland in a previous version of the class for that reading. Finally, I suggested that the lecture exemplifies the Barthesian distinction between the proairetic and hermeneutic codes since it begins with a question ("Who are
the gentlemen?") and follows with a proairetic action sequence, underlined with the single transparency, "Then!" In addition, the various breakdowns of communication (especially having to do with sex) continues the show's exploration of the relationship between language and desire, as more than one of you pointed out. Indeed, the miscommunications (masturbation or staking; boobies or heart extraction) exemplifies Freud's and Brooks' understanding of the close relation between Eros and Thanatos. Even the flipping of the first slide (verso to recto) could be read as the double nature of the gentlemen (symbolic order/ language vs. perverse obverse).


I also illustrated that one can find examples of each of the three formal prohibitions that Žižek examines in our reading from Looking Awry (contrary to Žižek's claim that his examples represent hapaxes or one of a kinds):

1) The prohibition of the objective shot, which Žižek aligns with paranoia. Of course, we have already seen such an example in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," where we are never given the objective "truth" but only a sequence of POV and subjective shots. We'll be seeing a yet better example later in the semester when we turn to David Fincher's Fight Club. And both of our examples are, indeed, very much about paranoia.

2) The prohibition against montage (or editing), which Žižek aligns with the breakdown of the separation between reality and the Real. We will have a perfect example in Buffy, "The Body," in which a five-minute long sequence without montage follows Buffy's discovery of her mom's corpse (an experience that is presented precisely as the eruption of the Real into Buffy's symbolic reality).

3) The prohibition against voice, which Žižek associates with "psychotic autism, the isolation from the discursive network of intersubjectivity" (42). Of course, "Hush" is a lovely example, one that explores precisely the breakdown of the symbolic order after the loss of language.

The other prohibition in "The Body," which we'll discuss, is a prohibition against discursive music, which is completely absent in the episode.


Synopsis for Sept 22-27

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:                   :