Symptomatic reading in Althusser, Cahiers du cinéma, and Zizek

by Warren Buckland

The following notes take Cahiers du cinéma’s reading of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) as an exemplary instance of symptomatic reading in the humanities (1986; first published in 1970). A symptomatic reading analyzes a text according to what it does not – indeed cannot – say. I begin by moving backwards to Louis Althusser, the French Marxist philosopher renowned for his re-reading of Marx’s work, including a symptomatic reading of his monumental book Capital (Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital [1970]). I then move forward to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in particular his radical reformulation of symptomatic reading – via complex psychoanalytic concepts of fantasy and the unknowable Real, as formulated by Jacques Lacan (Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology [1989]). I conclude with a few comments recontextualizing the Cahiers reading of Young Mr. Lincoln via Zizek’s reformulation of symptomatic reading. One consequence of this reformulation is to reverse the meaning of the Cahiers reading of Young Mr. Lincoln. These notes simply aim to establish points of contact, overlap, and conflict among Althusser, Cahiers du cinéma, and Zizek, rather than explore each in depth.

Althusser and Marx

In the opening of Reading Capital, Louis Althusser identified two reading strategies in Karl Marx’s work. Firstly, the young Marx (up to the 1844 Manuscripts) adopted a standard idea of reading “which makes a written discourse the immediate transparency of the true and the real discourse of a voice” (1970, 17). Here, meaning is to be located in the literal, manifest text; it can simply be read off from an immediately visible, pre-given surface. This standard reading practice summarizes already known meanings, positing the text as a finished object that the reader passively absorbs. In Marx’s Capital, Althusser discerned a second reading strategy. When Marx analyzed the works of political economy by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, he did not simply read meaning from the surface of their written texts. Instead, he adopted a reading strategy that also focused on their blind spots – not what the economists left out, but more significantly what of necessity cannot (without sounding contradictory) be stated in their texts.

By focusing on what cannot be stated in the texts of Smith and Ricardo, Marx reconstructed the underlying logic – the constitutive presuppositions – that makes their texts possible. More generally, Marx reconstructed the boundaries that determine what can and cannot be thought within classical economics. The boundary is the framework (the “problematic,” in Althusser’s terms) that establishes the internal limits to a way of thinking. For Marx and Althusser, the unthinkable – what cannot be thought within a particular framework or problematic – is just as significant as what can be thought.

Crucially for Althusser, the unthinkable is not simply what is outside the text; it is the invisible inside the text:

"The invisible is defined by the visible as its invisible, its forbidden vision: the invisible is not therefore simply what is outside the visible …, the outer darkness of exclusion – but the inner darkness of exclusion, inside the visible itself because defined by its structure. … In other words, all its limits are internal, it carrie[s] its outside inside it." (1970, 27-28)

This second type of reading is not, therefore, a reading limited to what is manifest in a finished text, nor is it about what was simply left out. Instead, the object of this second type of reading is what necessarily must be excluded or repressed from the surface text in order to constitute it as coherent and non-contradictory. But the repressed cannot be abolished; it leaves symptoms (gaps or lapses) in the text. In a well-known passage in Reading Capital, Althusser called this second type of reading symptomatic:

"Such is Marx’s second reading: a reading which might well be called ‘symptomatic’ (symptomale), insofar as it divulges the undivulged event in the text it reads, and in the same movement relates it to a different text, present as a necessary absence in the first. … what distinguishes this new reading from the old one is the fact that in the new one the second text is articulated with the lapses in the first text." (1970, 29)

The first type of reading reads self-evident pre-existing meanings off from the surface, whereas symptomatic readings actively produce meanings based on symptoms in the text – traces of what the text cannot say. Such symptomatic meanings are not pre-existent, waiting to be unearthed, but are intangible and far from self-evident. They require an interpretive practice to analyze the form and boundary of ideology, which determine what it can and cannot say. For this second reading strategy, the text is not a finished object. After identifying the practice of symptomatic reading in Marx, Althusser then subjected Capital to a symptomatic reading, revealing the underlying logic that determines what can and cannot be thought within its framework, in order to develop Marx’s thinking (Althusser and Balibar, 1970).

Cahiers du cinéma on Young Mr. Lincoln

The political upheavals of the late 1960s, particularly in France (culminating in a national strike against De Gaulle’s government and mass demonstrations on the streets of Paris in May ‘68), politicized many critics and intellectuals, including those working at Cahiers du cinéma (see Harvey 1978). In 1970, the newly politicized editors of Cahiers employed Althusser’s philosophy in order tosubject John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) to a symptomatic reading. Like all texts, Young Mr. Lincoln was made within an ideological framework or problematic that delimits what is and what is not possible to say within its fictional world. On the surface, the film appears to represent dominant ideology – more specifically, it aims to establish a myth around Lincoln as a perfect Republican president – but symptoms disrupt this ideological message. The opening section of the Cahiers essay explicitly presents their reading in Althusserian terms:

“What will be attempted here through a rescansion of these films in a process of active reading, is to make them say what they have to say within what they leave unsaid, to reveal their constituent lacks; these are neither faults in the work … nor a deception on the part of the author …; they are structuring absences, always displaced—an overdetermination which is the only possible basis from which these discourses could be realized, the unsaid included in the said and necessary to its constitution. In short, to use Althusser’s expression—‘the internal shadows of exclusion.’” (in Rosen 1986, 447)

Texts are overdetermined, that is, have multiple causes, some explicit, others intangible (the structuring absences) that conflict with the explicit causes, producing ruptures or symptoms in the text. These are the "objects" of their symptomatic reading (although calling them "objects: has a tendency to reify them). The editors emphasize that they are not reading Young Mr. Lincoln in terms of its social history, for that history is not present as a pre-existing fixed context.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Nor do they read the surface text looking for some pre-existing hidden subtext. The Cahiers editors followed Althusser in emphasizing that reading symptoms involves analyzing the film’s form and boundary (which constitute it as a coherent text and determine what it can and cannot say) in order to actively reconstruct its intangible political/historical/sexual meanings, the meanings the film attempts to repress.

Yet, the editors did not completely reject the first reading strategy. In sections 2 to 5, covering the history of Hollywood in 1938-1939, the United States in 1938-1939, Fox and Zanuck (the Republican studio and Republican producer that made Young Mr. Lincoln), and the relation between John Ford and Lincoln, they develop a standard attempt to identify the film’s manifest historical, social and political determinants. The symptomatic reading strategy, focusing on intangible subtexts, outlined in sections 1, 6 and 7, is put into practice across sections 8 to 25. (Section 25, “Violence and Law,” written by Jean-Pierre Oudart, represents the essay’s most dense and elliptical symptomatic reading of the film.) The editors work their way through the film (which occasionally sounds like a traditional thematic-auteur analysis) to eventually privilege two structuring absences – eroticism and politics. Politics and Lincoln’s desire, they argue, are repressed from the film’s surface, replaced by morality and the Law. Lincoln represents the Law of the Symbolic order and its moral code. He is depicted as a powerful figure of Law and the Symbolic, that is, a representative of society’s prescribed social rules via his castrating (or threatening) stare; he has the phallus (the symbol of power), as the editors put it.[2]

However, the film also presents Lincoln as castrated, that is, as weak. He is the phallus, according to the editors of Cahiers.[3] Lincoln can only represent the Law by renouncing what cannot be stated in the surface of the film, his Oedipal desire. He retreats to a position outside the Symbolic order, in a pre-Oedipal (desexualized) stage, which makes his Symbolic power paranoid. This is symptomatically manifest in the film via his potential for “excessive violence” (475): because he does not readily embody the law, he has to threaten violence to uphold it. His pre-Oedipal stage is manifest via his dependence on women, who make possible his representation of the Law (of the father), but also render that representation tenuous. Early in the film, the Clay family, including Mrs. Clay and her two young sons, arrive at Lincoln’s hardware store. She pays for supplies by giving him a copy of Blackstone’s Commentaries, which arouses his interest in becoming a lawyer.

His first love, Ann Rutledge, also encourages him to pursue law, a wish Lincoln upholds after she dies at an early age. After Ann’s death, the film depicts Lincoln as an asexual being who ignores sexual advances towards him (most notably, by Mary Todd).

In addition, Oudart finds tension between the film’s narrative that sets up Lincoln as the representative of the Law, and director John Ford’s fictional universe, where the mother traditionally takes up that position. But Lincoln becomes the representative of the Law when, as a young lawyer, he meets Mrs. Clay and her two sons again. One of the two sons is accused of murdering a character called Scrub White, but both admit the crime to protect each other, while their mother remains silent. The mother’s silence regarding which of her two sons committed a murder means she is unable to represent the law. Lincoln represents and restores the law by revealing, via an almanac presented to him by Sarah Clay (wife of one of the brothers), that neither son committed the murder, and that an eyewitness (J. Palmer Cass) lied in order to conceal that he was the real murderer.

Lincoln therefore distances himself from his Oedipal desire in favor of knowledge – first of the Law, and secondly as a ‘detective’ or ‘magician’ revealing the truth in the murder trial. This knowledge confers on him his mythical status. However, the Law (and the almanac) is passed on to him by women. According to the editors of Cahiers, this feminine foundation to Lincoln’s position plus his repression of desire, undermines his mythical status, generating symptoms in the film.

Zizek and the unsymbolizable Real

Althusser’s symptomatic reading, and that of the editors of Cahiers, remains within the realm of the Symbolic – the realm of language, the Law, the unconscious, and desire regulated by the Oedipus complex. For Althusser, the latent meaning is a “second text” (1970, 29) the analyst constructs via symptoms in the first, manifest text. The second text of Young Mr. Lincoln consists of repressed Oedipal desire and politics.

In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek argued that the standard psychoanalytic critique of ideology, which he associated with Althusser, no longer works:

“We can no longer subject the ideological text to ‘symptomatic reading,’ confronting it with its blank spots, with what it must repress to organize itself, to preserve its consistency” (1989, 30).

A critique of ideology is no longer simply a matter of gaining knowledge of what a surface text represses. Zizek argued that we need to take into consideration the role of fantasy in ideology, for fantasy structures social reality:

“The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself” (1989, 33).

Zizek agrees with Althusser that a text (or, more generally, the Symbolic universe) is structured by what it cannot accommodate and therefore necessarily represses. Moreover, both agree that the repressed is internal to the text (the text carries its outside inside itself). They agree that the repressed threatens to undermine the text, and leaves traces or symptoms on its surface. But they disagree on what is repressed. Moreover, Zizek’s answer to what is repressed necessitates that he examine the role of fantasy in ideology, whereas Althusser’s answer does not necessitate such a move. Furthermore, Zizek’s answer to what is repressed brings into question Althusser’s concept of symptomatic reading.

What Althusser called the “inner darkness of exclusion” is what Zizek calls the traumatic kernel, “which resists symbolization, totalization, symbolic integration” (1989, 6). Unlike Althusser, Zizek follows the later work of Lacan (from his seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60 onwards) in conceiving symptoms as symptoms of the Real rather than the Symbolic. In other words, the symptom is no longer the result of a metaphorical substitution between different layers of the Symbolic (a surface text and a latent text). Instead, for Lacan and Zizek the symptom is rooted in the unsubstitutable and unsymbolizable Real, a void which cannot be represented or interpreted. Zizek acknowledges this position sounds counter-intuitive, but emphasizes the radical shift in Lacan’s thinking on what a symptom is:

“At the beginning, in the early fifties, the symptom was conceived as a symbolic, signifying formation, a kind of cypher, a coded message addressed to the big Other which later was supposed to confer on it its true meaning. The symptom arises where the word failed, where the circuit of the symbolic communication was broken: it is a kind of ‘prolongation of the communication by other means’; the failed, the repressed word articulates itself in a coded, cyphered form. The implication of this is that the symptom not only can be interpreted but is, so to speak, already formed with an eye to its interpretation: it is addressed to the big Other presumed to contain its meaning. … the aim of psychoanalysis is to reestablish the broken network of communication by allowing the patient to verbalize the meaning of his symptom: through this verbalization, the symptom is automatically dissolved.” (1989, 73)

This Symbolic notion of symptom is premised on full meaning, on wholeness and unity. The Symbolic symptom is an exception that disturbs or resists this full meaning, but dissolves once it is interpreted (interpretation explains away the symptom: psychoanalysis as the talking cure). But, Lacan argues in his later work that, despite interpretation, the symptom does not dissolve. The consequences of this shift in Lacan’s conception of the symptom is the failure of meaning, interpretation and, more generally, of the Symbolic (which cannot guarantee meaning). Moreover, subjectivity is constituted on the symptom, rather than on the symptom’s dissolution (the symptom is the subject’s only substance). This new concept of the symptom, which Lacan calls the “sinthome,” is therefore universal, rather than the exception. Finally, fantasy is conferred a starring role in constituting social reality (fantasy is necessary to mask the abyss of the Real).[4] It is the symptom that guarantees meaning, subjectivity, and social reality, not the Symbolic. Zizek summarizes Lacan’s theory of the symptom as the subject’s substance:

“This, then, is a symptom: a particular, ‘pathological,’ signifying formation, a binding of enjoyment, an inert stain resisting communication and interpretation, a stain which cannot be included in the circuit of discourse, of social bond network, but is at the same time a positive condition of it.” (1989, 75)

The symptom that resists communication and interpretation is a definition of the symptom as Real. The Real is the defining limit of the Symbolic order. It must be repressed for the Symbolic to function.

In Young Mr. Lincoln, Lincoln is initially presented as an ordinary person; but the compromise of his Oedipal desire (denial of his capacity to desire via the regulation of the Symbolic) creates symptoms that transform his status into a mythical figure. We see this, for instance, when he simply ignores Mary Todd while both are standing on a balcony; he stares at the river (associated with the dead Ann Rutledge), while she walks into the background and sits down, disappearing from the low angle shot depicting Lincoln as tall, immobile, and erect.

To some extent, Young Mr. Lincoln exemplifies Lacan’s formulation of the woman as symptom – not the symbolic objectification of woman as a negative sign in a phallic system, but woman as symptom of the Real. Lincoln’s suppressed desire for the dead Ann Rutledge constitutes her as a symptom of the Real, which in turn constitutes the internal limits or boundary of his subjectivity. She is the inner darkness of exclusion that defines who he is. Zizek’s comment on Lacan’s formulation is instructive:

“In this sense, ‘woman as a symptom of man’ means that man himself exists only through woman qua his symptom: all his ontological consistency hangs on, is suspended from his symptom, is ‘externalized’ in his symptom. In other words, man literally ex-ists: his entire being lies ‘out there’ in woman.” (1992, 155)

Instead of being defined in terms of the masculine Law of the Symbolic, male identity is defined in terms of the feminine Real. This complex argument requires careful and detailed exposition, which cannot be carried out here. (A comprehensive exposition can be found in Jacqueline Rose [1982].)

Lincoln’s taking over the role in the typical Ford scenario usually reserved for the Mother (Mrs. Clay, the mother who gave him the Law book but who is compromised by her silence to say which one of her sons committed the murder) makes the narrative possible. Ann as symptom of the Real and Lincoln’s maternal narrative function help to create the myth of Lincoln rather than (as the editors of Cahiers emphasize) undermine the myth: the film “needs” these symptoms. It also needs a pre-Oedipal paranoid over-confident Lincoln to see the case through to the end. When the judge visits Lincoln in his office, after the first day of the trial, he recommends to Lincoln that he seek assistance with his defense of the two brothers. Lincoln simply sits next to an open window with his feet up, back to the judge, playing the Jew’s harp or leafing through an almanac, making it clear he requires no assistance.

But this almanac, which Sarah Clay gave him, proves that eyewitness J. Palmer Cass was lying when he said he saw the older brother (Sarah Clay’s husband) kill Scrub White. Lincoln’s indifference towards the judge (made possible via the support of women) simply makes his denouement in the courtroom the following day more dramatic: the film moves conventionally, from a low point (Lincoln, an over-confident, seemingly conceited young lawyer, refusing the judge’s advice) to a high point, his dramatic victory the next day.

In summary, the symptoms Cahiers expose in Young Mr. Lincoln via a symptomatic reading do not so much disrupt the ideology of the film’s surface as they constitute the surface text, prescribe the boundaries, make the surface possible. The symptoms sustain the ideology (the myth of Lincoln), rather than undermine it. It is not as if the film imperfectly realizes the transparency/reality effect; instead, the “imperfections” (the symptoms that disrupt the surface) are necessary to the text’s existence. Tim Dean notes that, by

“shifting symptoms from the category of the exception to that of the rule, Zizek to some extent depathologizes the symptom, converting it into a subjective norm” (2002, 22).

In addition, if the symptom points to an unanalyzable Real, then the whole hermeneutic activity of symptomatic reading – identifying, diagnosing, and explaining the meaning of pathological textual or Symbolic symptoms in terms of the Oedipus complex, desire, the Law of the father etc. – is sidelined. The aim of unmasking ideology to create political change, central to the film theory of Cahiers, Screen, etc. of the 1970s (and still practiced today in a debased form), is no longer a sufficient political strategy. 

To be continued.

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