SEP 29-OCT 4


Thurs, Sept 29

VIEW: Buffy, ‘The Body’


  1. BulletJulia Kristeva, Powers of Horror

  2. Bullet“Gaze”

  3. Bullet“Abject"

  4. BulletPrimer on Buffy, “The Body”


  1. Bullet Freud Module on Trauma and Transference

Tues, Oct 4


  1. Bullet Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry 88-97, 104-06


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 Body’s Gaze"

This week, we discussed the Buffy episode, "The Body." Whereas "Hush" deals with the breakdown of the symbolic order due to the loss of speech, this episode explores a similar breakdown caused by the intrusion of the Real, specifically Buffy's confrontation with the corpse of her mother. The episode allowed us to expand our understanding of Lacanian psychoanalysis by helping us to understand Kristeva's notion of the abject and Lacan's understanding of the Gaze.


We have already seen a good example of Kristeva's notion of the abject: the sci-fi nerd's reaction to the dead alien body in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." The character is perfectly able to confront the concept of death (as long as it is associated with an alien); however, when he is told that the body on the slab is a human corpse, he runs from the room in order to vomit. This scene exemplifies one of Kristeva's points:

A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. (Powers 3)

In the Buffy episode, "the Body," Ross Piedmonte explained, we see Buffy struggling between the symbolic understanding of death (her mother's encephalograph, for example) and her traumatic confrontation with the material fact of death, to which she in fact responds precisely by vomiting.

As Alex Reynaud pointed out, Buffy's reaction, "mom... mom... mummy?" could be said to exemplify her regression to a point in her childhood when she used to call her mom "mummy." Indeed, as Kristeva argues, it is at the moment that one first tries to separate one's own identity from one's mother that the abject first asserts itself in our psychosexual development, so this regression makes perfect sense.


After Buffy's discovery of the corpse, however, we in fact begin the episode with a Christmas dinner, which immediately follows the opening credits. As Gabby Teter argued, what we are seeing here is the projection of both Buffy's and everyone's (including our) desires in place of the traumatic intrusion of the Real. We do not want the traumatic fact of Joyce Summer's death to be true; this false opening thus speaks to our own desires; however, even here we are given clues about the traumatic kernel behind the scene: the long discussion of "barfing" ties in to the abject, as you pointed out. Also, following your reading of Kristeva, we can argue that religious ceremonies are themselves tied to the abject: "The various means of purifying the abject—the various catharses—make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion" (Kristeva 17). The subsequent shock cut from this idyllic scene to the corpse of Buffy's mom serves to underscore the traumatic nature of this event, as Ross Piedmonte argued.


After the shock cut, we are given a long five-minute sequence without a single edit, an example—for that five minutes—of a prohibition against montage, which, as explained in the 'Hush' class synopsis, Žižek aligns with the breakdown of the separation between reality and the Real. The real-time sequence also exemplifies on the level of form the content that is being represented: the jittery hand-held camera, for example, mimics the jittery nature of the subject being represented: they are both literally and metaphorically "shaken." Indeed, the whole sequence functions as a subjectification of the camera: the fact of Joyce's death means that the camera can no longer give us an objective sequence; it's as if we get hooked on the pain being felt by Buffy, unable to turn away, as many of you explained. (We are even given subjective hearing effects in the sequence.) Real-time also gives the sense that time is suddenly expanding, as if we are falling into the real of time. I pointed out that the corpse on occasion enters the frame of the real-time sequence only to be followed by the camera turning away and back to Buffy, thus representing both Buffy's and the viewer's fascination/repulsion with this traumatic object. The second prohibition here is against discursive music (none appears throughout the entire episode), which further adds to the audience's own trauma in witnessing this death. As Ross Piedmonte explained, discursive music and editing provide the audience with narrative markers for interpretation (you often know from the soundtrack when a film is making closural maneuvers, for example). Without such markers, we are left at a loss regarding how we should be reading the sequence, what emotions we should be applying to it. What we are given instead are a series of moments when the ambient sound picked up by the microphone are overly emphasized, as if we are here given an aural equivalent for the intrusion of the Real, as Sara Kramer pointed out (an effect that Žižek refers to as rendu). As Žižek explains, “Rendu is opposed to the (imaginary) simulacrum and the (symbolic) code as a third way of rendering reality in cinema: neither by means of imaginary imitation nor by means of symbolically codified representation but by means of its immediate ‘rendering’” (40). The other lack of guidance comes from the lack of montage, as you explained: edits suggest metaphorical and logical relations between the two scenes that are thus juxtaposed. Without the guidance of such interpretive cuts, we are left without the meaning effects we rely on to make sense of a film sequence.


We also examined the extreme close-up on a phone which follows the first cut in this sequence. What we are given here is an exemplification of the breakdown of the symbolic order. The camera gets stuck on this close-up in order to mimic Buffy's own moment of uncertainty here, as if
she is not able to make sense of the sequence of numbers and letters on the phone, the minimal markers of her relation to language. The close-up (which happens to cut out the mouthpiece and speaker by which we speak to and hear others) happens to break down our own "frames of reference," much as the audience is confused by the extreme close-up of the underside of a cherry-picker at the beginning of "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." Buffy's own symbolic order is threatening to collapse. It is also significant that the telephone is a symbol for intersubjective communication (intersubjectivity, along with language, is one of the important elements of the symbolic order) and that Buffy is trying to call, of all people, the figure that stands for the Name-of-the-Father in her life, Giles, as Amanda Geheb, Brooke Miller and Logan Sheils explained in a previous version of this class. The same tension is at work in the opposition "mother" and "the body" in the sequence. In coming to acknowledge her mother as just a body (she calls her mom "the body" at one point and is horrified with herself), Buffy must confront the collapse of all the symbolic meanings she associates with that impacted psychosexual marker, "mother." By contrast, when Buffy fixes her mother's skirt, she is still within the symbolic order of conventions, laws, and even desire, as Alex Reynaud explained.


We then turned to Žižek's examination of Hitchcock's film techniques in Looking Awry. As Žižek argues, Hitchcock is an example of what he terms "phallic filmmaking." Rather than have a dangerous scene juxtaposed with an idyllic interior scene through montage, which is common in many horror films, Hitchcock creates a narrative in which the threat is already within the idyllic scene: "the menacing horror should not be placed outside, next to the idyllic interior, but well within it, more precisely: under it, as its 'repressed' underside" (Žižek 89). So it is with the Buffy universe, where at any moment the traumatic or the monstrous can erupt (Sunnydale is, after all, situated over a hell mouth). That ever-threatening eruption is generally understood in the show as allegorically caught up in the traumas of growing up (one's first date, one's first sexual encounter, a first job, the death of a parent, etc.). As Žižek writes of Hitchcock,

the "true" action is repressed, internalized, subjectivized, i.e., presented in the form of the subject's desires, hallucinations, suspicions, obsessions, feelings of guilt. What we actually see becomes nothing but a deceptive surface beneath which swarms an undergrowth of perverse and obscene implications, the domain of what is prohibited. The more we find ourselves in total ambiguity, not knowing where "reality" ends and "hallucination" (i.e., desire) begins, the more menacing this domain appears. (90)

Given that the episode, "Normal, Again," even questions whether the entire Buffyverse might not in fact be the psychotic delusion of a real, catatonic girl in an L.A. asylum, that uncertainty between reality and hallucination is given an even further twist. The formal feature of this approach to the uncanny object is the Hitchcockian tracking shot: "with two abrupt cuts, each bringing us closer to the subject, he quickly shows us the corpse's head." As Žižek goes on, "The subversive effect of these quickly advancing shots is created by the way in which they frustrate us even as they indulge our desire to view the terrifying object more closely: we approach it too quickly, skipping over the 'time for understanding,' the pause needed to 'digest,' to integrate the brute perception of the object" (93). We are given a perfect example of this double tracking shot in "The Body" and precisely in relation to the "terrifying object," Joyce's corpse.


The next sequence further explores the intrusion of the Real, this time precisely in the terms suggested by Kristeva. Buffy not only vomits in the sequence but we are also given an extreme close-up of a paper towel slowly absorbing the vomit. The scene thus illustrates through the very thing that represents the abjected Real (vomit as our reaction to death and materiality) the gradual taking-over of the frame by that blot (further supported by another example of the intrusion of ambient sound or rendu). Thanks to Vivian Gu and Sara Kramer for leading us in this discussion. We are thus given an aural and visual representation of the Real threatening the obliteration of the symbolic order (the ordering frame of the cinematic screen). Also, as with the phone close-up, the threatened breakdown is appropriately interrupted by the voice of the Name-of-the-Father, here Giles, who suddenly appears.


Finally, the scene exemplifies Lacan's understanding of the Gaze, which as you learned in the Lacan module on the Gaze, is much more complex than merely that of assuming the power of the look. Lacan is interested rather in those moments when the objet petit a (the thing that helps us to coordinate our desires, the thing in which we invest our desires) suddenly reveals a threatening death's head looking back at us. Lacan's favorite example is Holbein's "Ambassadors" (see the module on the Gaze); in "The Body," we are given instead the Gaze of Joyce's corpse, which opens each of the segments in this episode and closes out the episode, each time functioning as a memento mori, a reminder of our own materiality and the eventual breakdown of the symbolic order. Indeed, the episode purposively refuses to provide narrative meaning or closure with regard to this traumatic event, hence Xander's lament: "things don't happen; I mean, they don't just happen. Somebody... I mean somebody's got..." In this case, there is no "big bad," to use Buffyspeak, on which to blame the event, no satisfying narrative closure allowing us to make sense of the Real's intrusion.


The relation of objet petit a and the Real is exemplified in the Dawn sequence that we looked at on Thursday, as is Kristeva's argument that art serves to purify the abject. In the first sequence, we are given the female body of an idealized object of desire. As the teacher points out, what's important is not the object itself but "the negative space around the object," "the spaces around, the space in between." The object thus serves merely to give focus for the framing of that object, which sets up an aesthetic space of desire (recall our discussion in the last synopsis of how a car window's frame serves to delineate a space of desire that exceeds any real space inside the car). According to Lacan and as Ross Piedmonte explained, that object of desire is in and of itself nothing but a hole, a lack around which we coordinate our desire (see Žižek 94-95 in your reading). If we come too close, we realize that the objet petit a is nothing but a hole from which intrudes the nothingness of the Real; that hole is covered over by the objet petit a, the object-cause of our desire. The next sequence provides us with another framed scene, except that this time at the center is precisely that: the intrusion of the Real as we watch Dawn react to the news that her mother is dead. (Indeed, Rich Hoffman suggested in a previous version of this class that is why we cannot hear or can barely hear the words spoken: we are being presented with the threatened breakdown of the symbolic order). The body of the art object is, of course, also implicitly juxtaposed to the body of the corpse in the opening of the next sequence, as I pointed out. In the one framed aesthetic body, we have a coordination of desire; in the framing of the body of the corpse (complete with returning Gaze), we are given the Real BEHIND the objet petit a

In all of this, our own gaze is highlighted, as is our own perverse fascination with the abject and the pain of others.


I finished by making sure that we understood Freud's concept of the "uncanny," tying back to your reading of Freud's "Uncanny" essay earlier in the semester. As Freud writes, the "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). Freud associates the uncanny with both superseded and repressed beliefs: the beliefs of our primitive forefathers that we have superseded and those traumas, fixations, and fears we believed in as children but have since repressed. Examples include the belief in monsters and gods, in inanimate objects coming alive, in the return of the dead, and in the belief that other people or things can compel our will (for example, through the "evil eye"). The fact is, however, that we can be presented such uncanny elements without being affected by them whereas at other times they affect us with a momentary renewal of our superseded fears. I offered two examples: 1) a sequence from the Buffy episode "Life Serial," in which we are presented with a mummy's severed hand that comes alive again (one of Freud's own examples for the uncanny on pp. 144-45); and 2) the last sequence in "The Body." The first sequence conforms to the usual generic parameters of the Buffyverse: it has uncanny elements but they are not frightening since the scene is presented humorously. Even the discursive music in the scene serves to add a tone of playfulness to the sequence. Such supernatural events are perfectly normal in the Buffyverse and, so, they do not have any kind of uncanny effect on the audience. As Doug Smith put it so beautifully in a previous version of this class, rather than have the familiar becoming unfamiliar, what we are given in Buffy is the unfamiliar made familiar because of its very commonness. The sequence in "Life Serial" is also given narrative resolution, much like the similar loop structure we explored in Star Trek: TNG's "Cause and Effect" episode, an episode that is, in fact, directly referred to in this sequence. "The Body," by contrast, could be called the anti-"Cause and Effect," since it refuses to seal over trauma by imposing meaning or some sort of satisfying closure.

The sequence in "The Body" in which a vampire suddenly rises at the end of the episode while Dawn is drawn to the body of her dead mother does, I argued, maintain an uncanny effect. The reason is because this episode has until this scene been offered in a hyper-realistic way, so much so that, by this point, one almost forgets the genre one is in. The intrusion of the uncanny element thus comes as a shock. In this way, the vampire in this sequence suddenly accrues the full uncanny power of the figure "between the two deaths." The final shot of Dawn reaching towards her mother's corpse exemplifies in that one shot the combined repulsion and fascination that the the Real's intrusion has for us; we are caught between two reactions: on the one hand, repetition compulsion; on the other, abjection.  As Elise Duncan explained in a previous version of this class, the vampire and the corpse of Buffy’s mom are here aligned, as both are in the space that Lacan terms “between the two deaths”: the vampire has been buried symbolically but is still alive in the body; Buffy’s mom has died in the body but has not yet been buried symbolically.


Synopsis for Sept 29-Oct 4

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:                   :