Žižek, Deleuze, and the Feminine Cinematic Sublime

Maria Walsh

[1] Roberto Rossellini's Stromboli (1950) is a film about a woman, Karin (Ingrid Bergman), who finds herself in a refugee camp in Italy at the end of WW2. After failed attempts to obtain an Argentinean visa, she agrees to marry a fisherman from a village on the island Stromboli. However, she hates life in the village, the brutality and small-mindedness of the people, and her husband's uncouth nature. She decides to escape. To reach the boats that leave from the other side of the island, she has to go by way of the volcano, whose eruptions and poisonous gas emissions make her passage impossible. Defeated, she lies down to sleep, giving herself up to her fate. She survives however, the film ending with a shot of the quieted volcano's ridge, soft mist-like gases billowing across the screen, while Karin's voiceover repeats "My God! Oh merciful God!"

[2] The American studio was not happy with the ambiguity of that ending. The American version, put together by RKO against Rossellini's will, ends with Karin waking up to a bright new morning and descending gaily to the village as a male voiceover tells us: "Out of her terror and her suffering, Karin had found a great need for God. And she knew now that only in her return to the village could she hope for peace" (Žižek, 1992: 42).

[3] I begin with an account of two endings, one ambiguous, the other not, to introduce the question of what it might mean for the subject/spectator to remain attentive to openness. Clearly, the latter ending belongs to traditions of narrative resolution. We have a great desire for narrative resolution. As Frank Kermode, in his appropriately titled The Sense of an Ending, states "tracts of time unpunctuated by meaning derived from the end are not to be borne" (162). Gilberto Perez's notion of narrative as "an additive thing that can go on and on without closure" would be anathema to most (72). Rossellini's initial ending could be said to fall into this category. In this essay, I shall explore the cinematic articulation of narrative continuity in a time frame that endures without closure and what this might mean for the spectator. I shall claim that this is a "feminine" mode of subjectivity, ultimately relating this open continuity to Joan Copjec's reformulation of the sublime. This does not mean that this mode of subjectivity is exclusive to women, although in the films I refer to, a female character figures this subjectivity for the spectator. To begin with, I shall counter two approaches to Stromboli's initial ending, one of which, Slavoj Žižek's, introduces stasis into ambiguity, while the other, Gilles Deleuze's mode of becoming, in maintaining the continuous transformation of this ambiguity, will lead into my elaboration of the feminine cinematic sublime. If this all sounds very abstract, let me step back to the moment in Stromboli before the respective ends, the moment of Karin's confrontation with the force of the volcano.

[4] It is a lengthy sequence, characteristic of Rossellini's interest in real time, comprising of durational shots empty of all but volcanic rock and gas, sometimes intercut with shots of Karin, but from a camera point of view that situates her as part of the panorama. The all-pervasiveness of a viewpoint in which Karin is submerged is suggestive of a Deleuzian approach to the scene, as Karin seems to figure an affective perception where action is suspended in favour of atmosphere. This is not the only time in the film where Karin is subject to an overwhelming affective perception. There is also an earlier scene when Karin is sickened by the visceral violence of the fishermen as they spear a huge quantity of tuna fish. This scene also goes on for a long time. Karin gets more and more agitated, as she cannot gain a perspective to distance herself from the brutality of this act. It is too raw. In Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Deleuze mentions both these scenes:

[A] foreign woman whose revelation of the island will be all the more profound because she cannot react in a way that softens or compensates for the violence of what she sees, the intensity and the enormity of the tunny-fishing ("It was awful..."), the panic-inducing power of the eruption ("I am finished, I am afraid, what mystery, what beauty, my God...") (2).

However, before going on to adapt a Deleuzian approach to a female character's dissolution becoming a vehicle for an affective perception, I want to put forward Slavoj Žižek's pervasive Lacanian reading of Karin's encounter with the volcano in order to expose the stakes involved in different readings.

[5] In Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out, Žižek reads Karin's encounter with the overwhelming force of the volcano as a traumatic event which renders her subjective identity null and void. He uses this instance in the film to illustrate the Lacanian concept of subjective destitution, a moment in psychoanalysis when the subject's narcissistic delusions are laid bare and they encounter the void at the heart of the subject, the fact that the subject is nothing but an empty formal structure. For Žižek, Karin's identifications are dissolved by her encounter with a force, the volcano, which exceeds symbolic and narrative meaning. Her gaze is frozen at the abyss of becoming.

[6] Žižek's analysis stems from an early book in his prolific oeuvre, which coincidentally was published the same year as the English translation of Deleuze's Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. In Enjoy Your Symptom!, Žižek footnotes Deleuze occasionally, mostly in an illustrative manner, except for one instance which in retrospect articulates the crucial distinction between Lacan and Deleuze that Žižek attempts to subsume in his recent Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences. In the earlier footnote, Žižek contrasts Deleuze's interpretation of Spinoza with Louis Althusser's interpretation, which can be aligned with Lacan. He says:

[F]or Althusser, Spinoza was the first to elaborate the opposition between ideological imaginary and strict conceptual knowledge, whereas for Deleuze, Spinoza's philosophy articulates a polymorphous machinery of desire, its modalities and intensities, which excludes the possibility of an abstract-universal theoretical stance (192-3).

By contrast, in Organs Without Bodies, Žižek attempts to show that Deleuze's philosophy operates according to a logic of an abstract-universal rather than multiplicity. In this, he attempts to assimilate Deleuze to a "Hegelio-Lacanian theory of subjectivity" (Sinnerbrink, 65). The ramifications of this move for post-Deleuzian film/image analysis, if one goes along with it, would be to nullify the affective re-engagement with the image that Deleuze's cinema books offer to counter the distanciation and negativity implicit in film theories inspired by poststructuralist analysis. On the one hand, one could just ignore Žižek's recent reading of Deleuze and continue to explore the potential in Deleuze's cinema books. However, the kinds of film images I am interested in – where a female protagonist's subjectivity dissolves into an all-pervasive blankness or emptiness – cannot be characterized as simply corporeally affective, but neither can they be aligned to a Deleuzian notion of impersonal affect. What I am searching for in this essay is a way between Žižek and Deleuze that might enable me to make a case for the spectatorial effects of these kinds of images as both corporeal and impersonal, and ultimately related to a feminine cinematic sublime.

[7] While Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out is from 1992, Žižek's view of the subject as an abstract-universal, an abstract negativity rather than an identity, does not change in his more recent work. Deleuze also wants to dismantle identity and there is a certain formalism in his philosophy which renders the subject an empty, impersonal structure, but it operates differently. In philosophical terms, the difference between Žižek and Deleuze might be encapsulated by Robert Sinnerbrink's formulation of their respective positions on difference itself, i.e. between conceptual difference, whereby difference is inscribed within identity, and a conceptual difference, where difference operates on its own terms rather than within a system of representation (71). The former reduces difference to being constituted in relation to identity, while the latter allows for the emergence of the new or radically different in itself that exceeds systems of identity. These abstractions have implications for subjectivity and agency. Difference that is not conceived in relation to identity might offer the potential to resist hegemonic structures such as patriarchy and/or global capitalism in other than an oppositional manner. Within the logic of representation, at least in Žižek's Hegelio-Lacanianism, it seems that conceptual difference can only resist the system if it draws it to a halt by finding the aporia at its heart. The latter position can be mapped onto Karin's subjectivity as defined by Žižek. Losing her symbolic co-ordinates, she stares into the abyss of being, a hiatus that suspends her agency between one symbolic identification and another.

What lies ahead of Karin is undoubtedly what, in a vulgarly pathetic way, we call "a new life": sooner or later, she will return to the village, make peace with her husband or return to the mainland and assume new symbolic mandates, a new place in the community, in one way or another, she will begin again to be active (Žižek, 1992: 44).

Although Žižek admits that the film ends before the "new founding word," he does not see this ending as offering a different possibility. To do so would be too like an epiphany, which would return us to the arena of imaginary delusions.

[8] Desiring narrative closure, critics asked Rossellini about the ending of the Italian version of this film, whether Karin is leaving or returning to the village. He allegedly replied:

I don't know. That would be the beginning of another film ... There is a turning point in every human experience in life – which isn't the end of the experience or of the man, but a turning point. My finales are turning points. Then it begins again – but as for what it is that begins, I don't know (Rossellini in Žižek, 1992: 43).

Žižek's formalism would keep us suspended at the point of Rossellini's "but as for what it is that begins, I don't know." What is foreclosed on here is the potential of the moment, whereby the seemingly empty moving image is still open to variation. For Žižek, the subject's relation to the image has to be severed so that they can achieve the perspective of reflection. For me, Rossellini's posing of Karin's outcry over a shot empty of everything but the volcanic smoke generates a space of openness that allows new relations to come into being. This openness is figured by the strands of volcanic mist that float over the now calmed crater and the birds that randomly punctuate this otherwise empty scene. One could say that Karin has entered into new relations of movement, of life, or in Deleuzian terms, of becoming. This is less whimsical than it sounds.

[9] Using a different theoretical approach and in relation to another Rossellini film Journey to Italy (1953), Laura Mulvey suggests that in the shots of volcanic mist, "the image moves away from its fictional frame of reference. Film turns into something beyond its usual subservience to iconic representation, dissolving into wispy grey tones ... The volcanic activity and the smoke from the ionisation process have a flow and a movement which animates an inanimate material, the earth itself" (Mulvey, 2000: 106). While for Mulvey, "the 'coming to life' of the earth brings death to man" (106), in Giuliana Bruno's psychogeographical reading of the same film, Katherine's encounters with dead matter reanimate her subjectivity. She soon becomes derailed from the well-known script of the picturesque voyage as bodily memories surface and begin to interact with the sites she is seeing. "Topophilically driven by the porous geology of the site, Katherine has embarked on a 'volcanic' interior journey. [...] Digging the earth, she has descended into her body. Unconscious desires have erupted with this archaeological excavation. Geography has produced sensational changes" (Bruno, 397-98). What I want to suggest here is that, not only the protagonists on-screen encounter with atmospheric forces, but also, for the viewer, off-screen encounters with such images can destabilize identity in a life-affirming manner. Obviously, Stromboli ends, but rather than viewing the final scene in terms of immobile suspension, a terminus that ultimately results in a return to a "new performative, the 'new founding word'" (Žižek, 1992: 44), the quiescent, empty, image can be perceived as activating dynamic subjective connectivities that have a different logic.

[10] One way of articulating how this different logic might operate would be to look at Žižek's and Deleuze's respective positions vis-à-vis language, which in part repeat earlier debates in film history and theory in the 1970s and early 1980s, as to whether film could be analysed according to linguistic models. These debates, exemplified by the opposition between Christian Metz and Pier Paolo Pasolini, can be summarized crudely as being between a view that considers film syntax as a system of codes that operate akin to the differential relations between words (here transposed as shots) and a view that "cinema is a language which expresses reality with reality" (Pasolini in Heath: 1973: 109). In Cinema 1, Deleuze resurrects Pasolini in relation to Peircean theories of semiosis to proffer the "signaletic" value of the image as opposed to the structuralist view of film language derived from Ferdinand de Saussure whereby the image is "a function of determinants [...] already linguistic" (Deleuze, 1989: 30). This "signaletic" material of the image

includes all kinds of modulation features, sensory (visual and sound), kinetic, intensive, affective, rhythmic, tonal, and even verbal (oral and written) [...] even with its verbal elements, this is neither a language system nor a language. It is a plastic mass, an a-signifying and a-syntaxic material, a material not formed linguistically even though it is not amorphous and is formed semiotically, aesthetically, and pragmatically (Deleuze in Rodowick, 1997: 42).

By contrast, Metz compounded the Saussurean linguistic bias in his turn to psychoanalysis, which reduced the image to a reflection (imaginary) of an absence (real), a fantastical hallucination that the viewer must be awakened from (Metz, 1975: 14). Žižek is an unwitting contemporary proponent of the suspect nature of the image in psychoanalytic semiological film theory, while Deleuze, in his emphasis on cinema as a pre-verbal signifying material, is more empathetic to Pasolini's position, which attends to the image. Different models of narration ensue from these approaches.

[11] Deleuze emphasizes image narration where narration follows images, whereas, Žižek's Lacanian adherence to the Saussurian account of language as a system of differential relationships where words refer to other words rather than the referent, leads him to view narrative as an ideological structure that mystifies or occludes the real. This condemnation of narrative means that Žižek is always looking for moments in a film where ideology is undone and the negativity at the heart of the subject, that indeed characterizes the subject, is exposed. In the process, the relation to the image (as an illusion rather than part of a continuous negotiation of the real) is suspended. For Žižek, there is no choice between absolute suspension and immersion in a symbolic field riddled with deception. Žižek's position does not allow for an investment in the image as proffering a line of continuity between symbolic suspension and futurity. The character/agent, and by turn, the spectator, is absolutely incapacitated in the moment of subjective destitution. For Žižek, this formal suspension has political significance as resistance in its refusal to reflect ideological forms. However, the problem here is how, when ideological identifications have been severed, does one establish new relations, how does a moment theoretically outside time, re-enter temporal relations on terms other than repetition? [1]

[12] Deleuze also mentions Stromboli, ascribing a terrible beauty to Karin's encounter with the volcano in much the same terms as Žižek. However, Deleuze's emphasis on cinema as a pre-verbal signifying material means that this terrible beauty does not simply overwhelm/incapacitate the subject, revealing as it does in Žižek the ground of negativity, but has signifying potential. While this signifying potential extends beyond the subject, it is also connective in that it impinges on the sensorium. For Deleuze, moments that impinge on the subject's sensorium, rendering their usual channels incapacitated, reveal the being of time as it moves through and beyond the body, a kind of hallucinatory force whereby identity is opened to its virtual potential and how it could be otherwise or new. Deleuze does not go on to explore this vis-à-vis Stromboli, but, for me, his approach offers a way of considering the final shot as presaging the continuity of Karin's subjectivity beyond the dictates of identity. Her voiceover, the wide-angled shot of the crater, the swirling mist and flight paths of birds all combine to generate a disjunctively plenitudinous experience for the viewer – experience as nothing other than a movement through time which passes. 

[13] In one sense, this is no more productive for film spectatorship than Žižek's negativity, as, for Deleuze the form of time is empty, inhuman, and beyond our comprehension. However, in terms of film engagement, there is a productive difference between the two. Deleuze's Peirceian inflected semiosis, whereby a more dynamic, combinative relation exists between linguistic signs and imagistic ones, allows us to remain in the field of the image rather than requiring us to alienate ourselves from it. We can productively move between the realm of the actual and the virtual, between identification and potential. The relation between them is not divorced as in Žižek, but they are dynamically linked and revolve one upon the other. This dynamic is always open to the unpredictable rather than being a hiatus that changes nothing. While this may seem a slight difference, the conjoining of suspension and negativity in an extreme act of formalism obviates against agency, while the approach to suspension that considers it as a space of potential lends agency to experiences that are otherwise fraught with negativity. Rather than it simply being a choice between absolute resistance to the dominant forms of ideology or absolute adherence, there are positionalities which might operate according to less predictable forms of resistance. [2] The stakes involved in whether one advocates absolute alienation from the image (Žižek) or an imbrication that in part echoes but also unpredictably escapes dominant ideological forces (Deleuze) can be related to larger political discussions about possibilities of resistance in global capitalism that are beyond the scope of my essay. Rather, I want to frame the question of how change is possible if the only form of resistance is suspension/negation, as in Žižek, or, in Deleuze's more formal moments, where time takes on an eternal unchanging form, in relation to the feminine.

[14] Žižek posits "subjective destitution," or what he calls "traversing the fantasy," as a feminine act, which overcomes the refuge men take in relentless activity in order to avoid confronting the radical negativity which founds the symbolic network of fictions. He states:

In this perspective, the difference masculine/feminine no longer coincides with that of active/passive, spiritual/sensual, culture/nature; rather, masculine activity is an escape for the abyssal dimension of the feminine act. The "break with nature" is on the side of the woman, and man's compulsive activity is ultimately nothing but a desperate attempt to repair the traumatic incision of this rupture (Žižek, 1990: 37).

While in a system of binary representation, the feminine is categorized as structurally other; this, in my view, is no intrinsic reason to posit the feminine as a passive suspension of activity. Doing so naturalizes muteness and devolves agency as well as reiterating the hierarchical binary of sexual difference. Deleuze too is somewhat guilty of this. Speaking of Chantal Akerman's films, he says: "The states of the body secrete the slow ceremony which joins together the corresponding attitudes, and develop a female gest which overcomes the history of men and the crisis of the world" (Deleuze, 1989: 196). While Deleuze's philosophy is aimed at conceiving of a concept of difference that is singular and not oppositional, he occasionally falls prey to attributing gendered qualities to the passive overwhelming of the body by the force of time that he discusses in relation to images from Italian neo-realist cinema. The feminine ends up in the usual place of being other to the masculine economy of goal oriented action. One solution to this problem if one wants to persist in using Deleuze in conjunction with a feminist-informed approach is to go along with the neutralization of the feminine implicit in his theories. But this creates other problems, as can be seen in Claire Colebrook's positive adoption of Deleuze.

[15] In On Deleuze, Colebrook transforms the dubious Deleuzian term "becoming-woman" into the more generic "becoming-life" to counter the seeming anti-feminist, and certainly romantic, ethos of Deleuze's terminology here. "Becoming-life" allows Colebrook to continue to work with the potential which Deleuzian processes of desubjectivization offer. However, a feminist-informed position cannot get off that lightly. In "Is Sexual Difference a problem?" Colebrook, while respectful of Irigaray's criticisms of Deleuze that he occludes sexual difference, nonetheless wants to steer clear of Irigaray's positing a metaphysics of sexual difference, as this would reinstate the kind of originary difference that Deleuze wants to get away from. [3] On the other hand, Colebrook doesn't simply want to adopt the gender free difference of Deleuze either. She states: "If difference is to be more than just a single flow or system of relations then one might need to begin with at least one other sexed subject, one other body whose desire is not that of subject grasping the being of an object" (2003). Rather than read "the at least one other sexed subject" as female, this comment should be seen in the light of Colebrook's insistence that the body is not a category but that there are "various distributions" of the body, i.e. bodies as singular events (2000: 125). Colebrook emphasizes the notion of differently distributed bodily energies, e.g. the anorexic body, the obese body, the pregnant body, the erotic body, the injured body, but even these labels are too categorical and are themselves full of internal variation. It is the case however that thinking of the body in terms of differently distributed variations is of more interest to subjects whose identity is not won at the expense of their difference to objects, but formed in a continuous process of relation. These subjects might be women.

[16] Strangely enough, there is another position or another reading of the encounter with the force of the real within the Lacanian framework, which can be productively aligned with Colebrook's assertion of "variations of difference." "Subjective destitution" for Žižek is feminine only because it demands a complete overthrowing of the dominant mode of subjectivation, which entails relating to an object as a limit imposed on the subject. This is a Hegelian subject position where the subject is dependent for recognition on an "other" that it excludes as an outside difference. For Lacanian theorist Joan Copjec, this is an ethics of the limit and is on the male side of Lacan's diagrams of sexuation. In Read My Desire, Copjec says that it is time to devote some thought to developing "an ethics of inclusion or of the unlimited" (236). This would be the position of the female side in Lacan's diagrams, which is characterized by a lack of limit. One of the Freudian/Lacanian tenets of feminine subjectivity is that in lacking an (external) limit it is incapable of ethical behavior towards the other. This (in)capacity is idealized in some readings of Lacan such as Žižek's. Not being bound by the law of prohibition, the woman is deemed capable of performing a pure ethics beyond the moral law. Taking Antigone's act of reburying her brother against the dictates of the community as a model, the ethics of the feminine act is held up as being one that remains true to one's subjective desire regardless of the consequences of the law. Antigone's death is considered to be a sublime freedom from the moral law that subjects desire to continual negation. Lacanians are keen to distinguish Antigone's persistence from a fascistic pure will to destruction as "such a characterization overlooks the affirmation and the satisfaction from which her act derives its unstoppable force" (Copjec, 2002: 41). For me, there is a certain idealization of the jouissance of desire going on here, which I find problematic. However Copjec herself, perhaps unintentionally, allows for a slight twist to this sublime drama.

[17] Rather than the lack of a limit meaning that the feminine position throws itself open to the wind, she suggests how the lack of an absolute limit generates the possibility of a series of limits that are continually being exchanged and renegotiated. Copjec asserts the possibility of the universe of women, as opposed to its impossibility, putting forward the notion of lack or absence as something circulating amongst women as a pure source of satisfaction, rather than the melancholy dissatisfaction it engenders in the male universe of possibility. This pure source of satisfaction is life-affirming. In proffering an ethics of the unlimited, Copjec's avowed Lacanian position begins to sound extraordinarily close to Deleuze. Especially to his notion of the subject as a process of serialization, what Constantin V. Boundas refers to as "originary disjunctive synthesis" (Boundas, 1998: 101). "Originary disjunctive synthesis" describes the emergence of the subject as an entity that derives from at least two diverging series, as difference always precedes and exceeds the subject. "Persons and subjects are the extensions of intensities, the dilations of contractions, and the domestications of differences" (Boundas, 113). However, these intensities, contractions, and differences never stop generating further series' that both decentre the subject and allow for the construction of new subjectivities from the partial identities that comprise the subject. What I am describing here is the process of becoming in relation to the Deleuzian axis of the virtual and the actual. Unlike as in Žižek's psychoanalysis, where the disjunction between the subject and the object is either being filled in by fantasy or uncovered as an inert void at the heart of the subject, in Deleuze's account of the subject, connective syntheses are always at work linking divergent series without destroying the differences between them. A nice motif that Deleuze uses in Difference and Repetition to illustrate this is the relation between lightening and black sky (28). At an extrinsic level they are both distinct, yet intrinsically the black sky does not distinguish itself from lightening, but "continues to espouse that which divorces it" (Deleuze, 28). (It is important to note that the sky here is not a container or a foundational ground, but a ground that has risen "to the surface" (Deleuze, 28).) To facilitate this dynamic, Deleuze acknowledges an early debt to Lacan borrowing a notion of an agent he named "object = x" necessary for "originary disjunctive synthesis" to operate as a delinking/linking motion. This "object = x" sounds very similar to Lacan's "objet a" in the sense that it is an empty place within a system. However, this place of emptiness is not a static point within a structure, but a dynamic shifter within a system of serialization:

The object = x leaps from one series to another, "always absent from its place" and never totally landing or transferring itself to any one series; for, if it did, the result would be premature closure and an abrupt end of the narration (Boundas, 1994: 101). [4]

The point of interest here in developing an engagement with a film image where the overwhelming of the female subject/character, e.g. Karin in Stromboli, seems to suspend narrative is that in Deleuze's formulation of difference "an abrupt end of narration" would not occur. There would still be narration, albeit fragmented. For me, the final scene in Stromboli images the indeterminacy, yet continuity of intersubjective relations of another kind, with the partial objects of movement, affect, and atmosphere, rather than a static void or a temporary hiatus. In Deleuze's trajectory, these indeterminacies inform the subject. His concept of the "object = x" links this fragmented subject and the chaos of the becoming-world (Boundas, 1994:102). And not only that, but there may also be a certain pleasure involved in this mode of subjectivity. Certainly, "I" felt something akin to pleasure in viewing Stromboli's final scene from the position of Karin's dissolute gaze. Žižek refers to the moment of becoming in Lacan's mirror-stage as being like a photograph, static, posed, poised between an absent referent and substantial identity (Žižek, 1992: 66). Hence his formulation of "subjective destitution" where the subject is poised at the static abyss of becoming, whereas, in Deleuze, the becoming world follows the logic of metamorphosis, albeit with a disjunctive impetus. However, there is still the question of the feminine.

[18] In Copjec's reading of Lacan's diagrams of sexuation, the lack of a lack, ascribed to the feminine position, rather than being relegated outside of the differential series of language, takes up a position within it, becoming manifest as an uncanny realm able to mobilize absence for an immediate yet contingent pleasure. The lack of a lack, like Deleuze's "object = x," is able to leap from one series of partial objects to another, linking them, yet preserving their distinctness. For Copjec:

To be a woman is to be not-all, to be parasitized by an object that continuously unglues her from her own body, not by defining her as something other than her body, but by making her jouissance a disruption of self-identity (103).

The Woman is capable of encountering herself as "repeated self-difference" (Copjec, 107) rather than in relation to difference per se. This mobility is difference-in-itself rather than in relation to a disavowed or impossible-to-substantiate other, which is where the Woman is placed in traditional metaphysics. In this universe, rather than the absolute cut/limit of (male) subtraction, there is an additive opening out onto a continuous field of disjunctive pleasure. Using this approach, the images of Karin's encounter with the brute force of the volcano might be said to offer an occasion for a decentering relationality with the image series' of mist and ash, rock and gas. Each serial movement reaches beyond the subject, but also carries the subject in its train. That the subject is not equal or equivalent to this experience does not render the subject an empty core at the heart of identity but rather a momentary contraction of the partial objects that move through and beyond it. This is the feminine cinematic sublime, a series of moments that are distinct yet indeterminate and that are experienced as a series of "repeated self-differences" that emerge from the virtual and are contracted in the actual to produce a sense of continuity in the face of absence. Rather than the abyss, Karin encounters the non-coincidence of herself with the self she thought she was and this opens up her subjectivity to the pleasures of immanence. As I watch transfixed by the indeterminate elements in the scene that appear within the dissolute horizon of her gaze, I too am transported, not to an elsewhere, but to a place where these pleasures are mine. In a sense, it defeats the purpose to say too much about this sensibility, this mode of subjectivity, so, in what follows, I merely want to point to it. I want to end with another cinematic ending – Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar (2002), where the heroine lives the sublime sensibility that Karin encounters. In this, she figures even more pleasure.

[19] Morvern Callar is a story of a heroine's escape from a life of drudgery in a rural village. The film's heroine, Morvern (Samantha Morton), works in a supermarket, the drabness of her life aided by substance abuse. The film opens with her discovering her boyfriend's body after his committing suicide. She appropriates her boyfriend's novel as her own after finding his instructions to send the novel to a publisher along with the ambiguous "I wrote it for you" on his computer. Morvern uses the three thousand pounds her boyfriend left her to pay for a holiday to Spain for herself and her friend Lana. Divergences between the women occur on the holiday, signified by the film's images of Morvern's increasing hallucinatory state which stems from the bonds she is entering into with the atmospheres of Spain, the light, the air, and sounds of insect life.

[20] The film has previously associated Morvern with the "natural world." After dismembering her boyfriend's body, an act outside the law, she takes the body parts to the highlands and buries them, after which she dances like a maenad in long-shot, while the camera focuses in on insect life. The minimal dialogue and action, Morton's satellite dish-like face, and the use of hallucinatory colour add to the pervasiveness of Morvern as a figure of a desire that escapes subjectivation.

[21] "Her" novel is accepted and she decides to return to Spain, finally voicing her disenchantment with life in the village to a puzzled Lana. We see her leaving along the train track, then the film abruptly cuts to a scene of Morvern dancing in a nightclub, the jolt to one's sense of continuity accentuated by the fact that this scene recalls an earlier one in the film during the holiday with Lana. 

[22] For about two minutes, Morvern dances hypnotically while coloured and strobe lighting re-articulate her bodily form. The main distinction between this nightclub scene and the earlier one is that Morvern is now wearing a Walkman and listening to the music her boyfriend recorded for her before he killed himself. We listen to the song Dedicated to the One I Love along with Morvern. In terms of her identity, she could be said to be suffering from trauma – being overwhelmed by the death of her boyfriend, she chooses to remain in liminal space between night and day, inside and outside. She could be viewed as being suspended between two deaths, her boyfriend's and her previous symbolic identifications. She now inhabits a nether zone, a zone of disappearance. Suddenly, the darkness of the club overtakes the coloured lighting and Morvern, situated at the bottom of the left-hand side of the screen, her face lit up in soft red, turns and disappears as if fallen from the image. The soundtrack continues to punctuate the all-encompassing blackness, a distinction linked yet separated from its inky hue.

[23] On a narrative level, Morvern's identity is literally displaced by her appropriation of her boyfriend's novel, as well as her carrying his acoustic body throughout most of the film. But cinematically, her identity is displaced by rhythms of light, color, and editing. On the level of engagement with the film's images, their "signaletic" value, Morvern becomes a figure of motor-sensory escape from the confines of identity. The absences that her new existence pivots on are permeated with circularity and repetition. Taking a Žižekian approach, she could be seen as the epitome of the Deleuzo-Guattari subject, a pure force of impersonal affects that are continuously generated by global capitalism, manifested here as immersion in chemical raves. However, in terms of the other theories I have assembled here (Deleuze and Copjec), Morvern's body via its redefinition by strobe light and vectors of colour becomes a vehicle for the possibility of a continuous field of disjunctive pleasure that articulates the feminine as an unlimited series of extensive intensities.

[24] This is a subtle inverse of the sublime as a limit beyond which one cannot go. Here the feminine sublime is figured as a potential that invents new bodily variations of itself, repeated self-differences, in the midst of absence. Indeed, absence, as a mobile shifter that links differences without destroying them, is the context for these sensational pleasures. As spectator, "I" am transported by this multiplitious body of colour and light to a place where a series of technological mutations become my body and I experience the subjective non-coincidence that characterizes the feminine cinematic sublime.


[1] This is a question that D. N. Rodowick raises vis-à-vis the extreme variants of 1970s film theory and practice, e.g. the work of Peter Gidal. See his book Political Modernism: Criticism and Ideology in Contemporary Film Theory (Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1994).

[2] Incidently, Žižek considers Deleuzo-Guattarian politics as an accommodation to the flows and intensities of capitalist becoming, which is why he desires to rescue Deleuze as a quasi-Lacanian to render any reflection of dominant forms of capitalism null and void.

[3] Irigaray's beef with metaphysics is that it covers over sexual difference, the latter as ground of difference. Rather than the universal-negative, Irigaray's difference would be posited on sexual difference as the ground of all differences, thereby regulating difference to a system of representation, albeit a different one.

[4] In proffering Boundas' figuration of Deleuze's "object = x" and narration, I am guilty of overlooking the phallic dimension of Deleuze's formulation of the "object = x" and his proximity to Lacan, which is apparent in his book The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (London: The Athlone Press, 1990), pp. 227-229. Feminist scholars have critiqued Deleuze for his phallocentrism – see chapter 2 of Dorothea Olkowski's Gilles Deleuze and the Ruin of Representation (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1999), especially p. 39. However, Boundas' configuration lends itself to my argument here.


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