“Fill all my holes, please”: Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Sexual Difference, and Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac
When approaching Lacan’s theory of subjectivity, it is important to keep in mind that, up until recently, in the English-speaking world, French poststructuralist thought along with postmodern theory have historically been reserved for literary criticism and cultural studies instead of philosophy, although Lacan’s psychoanalytic project was fortified by theories ranging from German idealism to phenomenology and existentialism. In Logics of Disintegration, Peter Dews places Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in this broader context and explains the way in which we should locate Lacan as his work moves through structuralism and post-structuralism instead of reducing his theories so that they fall under one school of thought or the other. In her introduction to Reading Lacan, Jane Gallop echoes the precariousness of this position and emphasizes the lack of place for psychoanalysis in Anglo-American academic circles. Although psychoanalysis is often associated with clinical psychology, Lacan sought to divorce psychoanalysis from psychology. As Gallop explains, Lacan “locates the downfall of American psychoanalysis, it’s betrayal of Freud, in its willing assimilation into a general psychology,” where psychology is defined as “the construction of the ideological illusion Man, nowadays armed with all the defensive apparati of hard data, as any illusion, the ego foremost, must be defensively armed.”1 Distinguished from the traditionally cognitive and clinical models of psychiatry, Lacanian psychoanalysis renders the difference between theory and practice irrelevant and, as a result, has found a place neither in psychology nor philosophy but instead, is dispersed throughout the humanities, especially in literature, film, and gender studies. To begin an exploration into the many facets of Lacanian theory, I first set out his basic account of identity formation as well as a critical response to his theory via the work of Jean Laplanche. After laying down the relationship between self and Other that defines the Lacanian subject, I explore the sociological and philosophical roots that account for the interdisciplinary breadth of his work. Lacan’s comprehensive theory of subjectivity hinges upon his radical account of sexual difference, which is perhaps the most contentious dimension of his body of work. However, by first establishing a basic frame of reference for the extensive historical background from which the theory arises, I seek to address the misunderstandings that underlie common (often feminist) objections. Following this elucidation of what Lacan will call the “real” of sexual difference, I turn to the world of cinema, namely, Lars von Trier’s controversial “magnum opus” Nymphomaniac in order to mobilize and shed light on Lacanian theory. A film that sardonically and self-referentially tells the story of storytelling itself, Nymphomaniac stages an encounter between Joe, the woman who fills the title role, and Seligman, the male asexual to whom she tells her tale. Their dialogue plays out with a structural complexity that I argue can best be approached (and enjoyed) with the conceptual tools offered by a distinctively Lacanian understanding of the relationship between language and desire.
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