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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, September 2, 2010


"...what if it is precisely this "happy" denouement of [THE TRUMAN SHOW] [...], with the hero breaking out and, as we are led to believe, soon to join his true love (so that we have again the formula of the production of the couple!), that is ideology at its purest? What if ideology resides in the very belief that, outside the closure of the finite universe, there is some "true reality" to be entered?"-- Slavoj Zizek as quoted by Charles Reece here.

"Ideology is not evil. It's something essential to human life. The thing is that it has to be subordinate to the very simple and primary things that the imagination is about: life, love, freedom, dignity"-- Northrop Frye, CONVERSATIONS WITH NORTHROP FRYE, p. 213.

It would be interesting to essay a cross-comparison of Zizek the militant intellectual atheist and Frye the unmilitant yet unapologetic intellectual Christian, but at this point I haven't even read the cited Zizek article, "THE MATRIX, or Two Sides of Perversion," except to get a sense as to how his reference to TRUMAN SHOW fit in with his overall program of analyzing his titular subject, THE MATRIX movie. That little bit was all I could take once I beheld the dread spectre of Lacanianism hanging over said artice, whereupon I recoiled from the threat of utter and complete boredom.

Still, there's enough Zizek cited in Charles Reece's sum-up article on the LOST finale to make a limited comparison between this excerpt and one of Northrop Frye's crucial ideas: the opposition between "the myth of concern" and "the myth of freedom," which also has certain applications to the TV show LOST.

Here's a cogent summation of Frye's theory of the two myths from Jonathan Hart's extensive and well-researched online essay,
"Northrop Frye and the End(s) of Ideology:"

In The Critical Path Frye says that whereas the myth of freedom is liberal, detached, and individual, and emphasizes tolerance, correspondence, and objectivity, the myth of concern is conservative and communal and stresses belief, coherence, and authority. Together these two myths produce the social context of literature. Primary concerns are made up of four areas: food and drink, sex, property, and liberty of movement. Secondary concerns grow out of the social contract, such as patriotism, religion, and class attitudes, and, in Frye's later phrasing, "develop from the ideological aspect of myth, and consequently tend to be directly expressed" (Words 42).

These two myths-- of fulfilling integration within a community, or of fulfilling escape from that community (with or without a concomitant desire to reshape it)-- respond to the stereotypical political ideals of "conservatism" and "liberalism" respectively. Yet Frye does not content himself (as does Roland Barthes) in a facile opposition, but rather endeavors to show how both mythic patterns grow out of the desire for the aforesaid "primary concerns," articulating "secondary concerns" as a means of attaining some or all of the primary ones. In the above quote from an interview Frye defines these concerns in a more abstract manner but it should be evident that the abstractions of "life, love" et al are fundamentally grounded in experience.

In contrast to this viewpoint, Zizek's quote posits a view in which both myths in TRUMAN SHOW are wrong. Title character Truman's manufactured community is one stressing coherence and authority, against which Truman quite rightly rebels, and thus it is what Frye would call the "demonic" vision of the myth of concern. However, though the movie probably does not intend any demonization of the escape-- which can hardly embody any other Fryean concept but "the myth of freedom"-- Zizek theorizes that this myth is wrong too, because it suggests that Truman has found a "true reality," so that Truman's "myth of escape" is no less an ideological manipulation than his "myth of concern."

Even putting aside such tiresome Marxist formulations as "the production of the couple," I'm not a great fan of analyses in which the extra-diegetical spins so completely free of the diegetical substance of the work analyzed. But as I haven't read all of Zizek, I'll refrain from further comment on his interpretation of the two myths.

But since I have read all of the Reece essay, and since I believe that I do understand how Reece is using Zizek to critique the TV show LOST, that essay I can look more fully at in Fryean terms.

Like both TRUMAN SHOW and MATRIX, LOST does depend on a conflict of the two myths.

The "myth of concern" is clearly represented by the ersatz community that the castaways form, initially for reasons of pure survival, though it will prove to be a community that to an extent transcends the original reasons for its formation. By the characters' having "lived together," their souls do not "die alone" even if their bodies still do. In Jacob's last speech to the surviving castaways, it's strongly implied that if none of the castaways had been hurled onto the Island, their "flaws" would have kept them from experiencing a true community, even if they had grown old within the sphere of ordinary civilization.

And yet, the very thing that makes the community possible is the thing that the castaways seek to escape, which action incarnates Frye's "myth of freedom." Reece correctly points out that many of the "laws" of both Jacob and his Island seem chimerical and that, extra-diegetically, their objective correlate can represent the chimerical desires of the serial's writers. Yet, precisely because the Island is chimerical, it cannot be a place where a community can thrive, save in extreme temporary circumstances. The castaways, though they don't know it, have built their community on something akin to the burning-grounds where Shiva meditates, or the wild deserts in which young Amerindian men essayed their vision-quests. On the Island the castaways will experience insights into the nature of reality, but the only use they can make of those insights is to find a way back to the reality where they became flawed in the first place. Whatever insights they take from the Island are not meant to be understood intellectually, as one might understand the Christian apocalyptic thought behind C.S. Lewis' NARNIA books. The Island throws the castaways with Heideggerian force into a reality that forces them to re-learn their own primary needs for "love, life, freedom and dignity."

After detailing many of the chimerae of the Island that present him from taking it as face value as incarnating "some great Truth" for the castaways, Reece goes on to say:

What I dislike about the onto-theological reading of the ST -- despite granting that it's a valid interpretation -- is that when taken by itself it reduces Lost's entire shambolic story arc to the ideological yearning that Žižek points to in The Truman Show's conclusion. The mere promise of a transcendent Truth (behind the curtain, outside of the OT) is supposed to free the characters of choices made and acts committed. Similarly, the audience is supposed to forget all the dangling plot threads, finding closure in the characters having finally discovered their purpose, whatever that might be.

I don't think that the white light at the end of "The End" promises a "transcendent Truth," except maybe in the Kantian sense of "transcendence." True, established narrative tropes will prejudice most viewers to assume that the Losties are going to Heaven or that they'll re-enter the cycle of reincarnation. But there are no literal gods or angels in LOST; only mortal beings freakishly transformed by forces that may or may not be magical, and ghosts who apparently can construct their own afterlife waystations before moving on to what could as easily be peaceful oblivion as Heaven.

At the end of Reece's essay, following one of Zizek's MATRIX conceits about two equally-undesireable "realities," Reece asks for a "third pill would enable [Neo, and by extension Jack Shepherd] to see reality's dependency on its ideological/fictional/fantasmatic support." I think, rather, that LOST shows that man's spirit is essentially *independent* of all these things. Taking each in turn:

1) Their immersion into primary concerns of survival, community and ultimate liberty transcend all of their ideological conceptions, whether rooted in culture, religion, or empirical thinking.

2) Extra-diegetically they cannot help but *be* fictional characters, but diegetically the only "fictions" in their lives are the ideological personas they make for themselves. Whether they individually succeed in "rewriting" themselves is open to debate, but it seems to me that "The End" implies that even "the sucker" John Locke has succeeded in rewriting the fiction of himself a lot better than "the skeptic" Man in Black does.

3) As for "fantasmatic," I won't touch that one right now since it's a specialized term that Reece has apparently drawn from some unstated source, but if he cares to clarify it, I'll lay odds that I can show how the castaways transcend that too (though only in the most Kantian manner).


Charles Reece said...

The first paragraph of this page gives a good enough example of 'fantasmatic support.' That slashed conjoining of terms wasn't meant to have them separated in analysis, but to consider them together as a "whatever you want to call it": ideology or fiction or fantasy. I'm not particularly wedded to psychoanalysis -- in fact, it's wrong if taken literally -- but someone like Zizek uses it to structure his discourse, and what he finds is often true. I wasn't calling for a third pill for Lost, but arguing that it functions (albeit messily due to poor story structure) like Zizek's third pill:

Is Lost's OT the enabling fiction, or is it the ST? As much as I hated the distraction that was the ST, to its credit, the finale seems to answer, "both."

That is, Jack finds truth about himself regardless of whether he's supplanted one fantasy for another (a dying illusion to complement the arbitrary rules he's bought into) or (as what I call the onto-theological interpretation has it) he discovers the really real, the literal purpose behind it all.

I'm watching the final season on blu-ray right now, so I might return to this all when I've finished.

Gene Phillips said...

I did understand that the slash-terms were meant to be a "whatever you want to call it," at least within a certain range of possible meanings. I get "fiction" least of all. As for "fantasmatic support," I'd say that my response to what the author in the link says pretty much parallels my remarks re: ideology:

'If the existential question is, "Why am I a man?" then the fantasmatic answer may be "To find a woman."' For my money the proposition is flawed. I find it unlikely that anyone would come up with an existential question and then try to solve it with a 'fantasmatic' projection. It is the very failure of the subject's absorption in the "joissance" of a primary concern (such as sexual desire) that makes the subject seek a secondary remedy in existential formulations of identity.

Obviously my "third pill" would have little to do with a conflict of realities as "enabling fictions," and more with the privileging of experential reality insofar as audiences are never really given a baseline reality totally comprehensible in terms of either faith or science. (I believe you've disagreed with me on this matter.) Even the Unmother's claim that the light at the Island's heart resonates with human spirits, et al, is not demonstrated as fact and may actually be her own fairy tale.