1. There is, of course, one genre where Hollywood focuses on maternity, and that is the family melodrama. But there is a vast distance between the typical family melodrama and the Cameron film. Melodramas tend to conclude with the image of maternal wholeness, with scenes in which the mother figure shows that she is fully devoted to her role as mother and to the happiness of her children. Even Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937), which reveals Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) as a sexual being throughout the film (much to the embarrassment of her daughter), concludes with Stella excluding herself from her daughter’s wedding specifically to ensure this happiness. In the final reckoning, maternity trumps sexual being and eliminates it. [return to page 1 of essay]

2. When it comes to the paternal dimension of ideology, the critical gesture consists in revealing the stupidity of the master signifier. Rather than providing a meaningful basis for all social activity, the master signifier provides a foundation of contingency or non-sense. Though there is significance within a social order, no society has a meaningful foundation. Significance begins with a meaningless first signifier because meaning always requires a second signifier.

3. One of the parent figures of the linguistic turn is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who contends that philosophical questions and problems arise not from the nature of being itself but from specific language games and, most often, the failure to understand what language game we are playing. Another such figure is Ferdinand de Saussure, who emphasizes that language is a structure that creates significance through the interrelations of signifiers rather than through correspondence to actual things. By authoring a way of thinking about the primacy of language, these two thinkers damage the ability of paternal authority to function in its traditional manner.

4. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009), which defeated Avatar in both the Best Picture and Best Director categories at the Academy Awards, is one of many contemporary films that calls the position of the father into question and makes clear the father’s failure as an authority. But the film leaves the maternal dimension of ideology perfectly intact, which is what differentiates if from Avatar. Or to put it another way, the Iraq of The Hurt Locker, unlike the Pandora of Avatar, remains asexual.

5. In a fascinating passage from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty implicitly—and unknowingly—links the decline of paternal authority (and the linguistic turn in philosophy) to the holism of the maternal dimension of ideology. He sees a connection between the absence of any foundational anchoring of meaning and the wholeness of the social field. According to Rorty,

“justification is not a matter of a special relation between ideas (or words) and objects, but of conversation, of social practice. Conversational justification, so to speak, is naturally holistic, whereas the notion of justification embedded in the epistemological tradition is reductive and atomistic.”

Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 170.

6. Jacques Lacan’s insistence on the woman’s non-existence is his version of ideology critique. In Seminar XX, he notes,

“There’s no such thing as Woman, Woman with a capital W indicating the universal. There’s no such thing as Woman because, in her essence—I’ve already risked using that term, so why should I think twice about using it again?—she is not-whole.”

Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: Encore 1972-1973, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 1998), 72-73.

7. Hegelian speculative identity includes within it both sameness and absolute opposition. To understand it correctly, one must read it simultaneously as identity and difference. If one fails to appreciate the difference and moves too quickly to affirm the identity, the speculative nature of the proposition is missed altogether, and the speculative proposition becomes an ordinary proposition. In her remarkable Hegel Contra Sociology, Gillian Rose explains,

“To read a proposition ‘speculatively’ means that the identity which is affirmed between the subject and predicate is seen equally to affirm a lack of identity between subject and predicate. This reading implies an identity different from the merely formal one of the ordinary proposition. This different kind of identity cannot be pre-judged, that is, it cannot be justified in a transcendental sense, and it cannot be stated in a proposition of the kind to be eschewed.”

Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1981), 48-49.

8. Wesley Morris, “There Were Many Special Moments That Many May Have Missed,” Boston Globe (27 December 2009):

9. To see the break that Avatar constitutes, it suffices to contrast it with the recent Journey to the Center of the Earth (Eric Brevig, 2008). Unlike Avatar, this film continues to rely on creating the illusion of objects careening toward the spectator in order to justify the 3D technology.

10. When a friend contacted me after I had seen the film a second time, she offered to call the next day in case I wanted “to remain on Pandora.”

11. When Jake prepares to enter the avatar for the first time, Grace emphasizes to him the importance of complete passivity. She says, “Just relax and let your mind go blank. It shouldn’t be hard for you.”

12. Though the concept of the gaze dominated cinema studies for many years, this concept has nothing to do with the gaze as Lacan understands it. Lacan’s gaze is an object encountered in the visual field, not the look as a mastering subject. For an account of the object gaze in the cinema, see Todd McGowan, The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007). [return to page 2 of essay]

13. Jacques, Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978), 88.

14. Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 92.

15. Jean-Louis Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus,” trans. Alan Williams, Film Quarterly 28, no. 2 (1974-1975): 42.

16. Béla Balázs, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art, trans. Edith Bone (New York: Dover, 1970), 147. In the first of his books on the cinema, Gilles Deleuze develops the idea that the close-up removes objects from space in order to present them in isolation. He notes,

“the close-up retains the same power to tear the image away from spatio-temporal coordinates in order to call forth the pure affect as expressed. Even the place, which is still present in the background, loses its co-ordinates and becomes ‘any place whatever.’”

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (London: Athlone Press, 1992), 96-97.

17. The close-up marks the object as what Alain Badiou calls an excess of inclusion over belonging. Badiou formulates this conception of structural excess through recourse to set theory. See Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (New York: Continuum, 2005), 85.

18. Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 140.

19. Slavoj Zizek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 207-208.

20. Stuart Klawans, “Imaginariums,” The Nation (January 25, 2010): 35.

21. Klawans, “Imaginariums,” 35.

22. Sigmund Freud, “On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love (Contributions to the Psychology of Love II),” trans. Alan Tyson, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 11, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), 186.

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