The Feminine “Nature” of Masculine Desire in the Age of Cinematic Techno-Transcendence
By Hamming, Jeanne
Abstract: The author examines key films from the millennium’s end: 12 Monkeys (1995), Dark City (1998), Fight Club (1999), and The Matrix (1999). Although these films cover the gamut in terms of genre from science fiction and cyberpunk to urban drama, they all converge on anxieties of identity that result from technological hypermediations of self and reality. These cinematic lamentations for a secure and stable masculinity lost in the wake of a postindustrial capitalist society mark a reversal in the fantasy constructions of nature. Played out in these films is the shift from a masculinity that transcends the natural-maternal realm into the cultural-social realm to a masculinity constructed via (the illusion of) unmediated access to the natural-maternal world. This shift points to an increasing anxiety over the disappearance of, and a desire to (re)connect with, the natural world. Keywords: feminism, masculinity, nature, ontological awakening, popular film, psychoanalysis
“The barricaded gunman is a lyrical fixture of our time. He is what remains of the wilderness and he feels a pulse in his brain that beats for desolation. Bring it all down. Down with complex systems, centralization, the whole scheming technocracy of welfare and banking.”
At the closing of the millennium, Hollywood seemed utterly preoccupied with ontological crises sparked by the hypermediacy of everyday life. Ironically, reality itself had come under the scrutinizing lamp of cinematic interrogators who relied on savvy, specialeffected, computer-graphed representations of an ontological dilemma symptomatic of living in an age of intensified media saturation. A host of late-twentieth-century films, including Terry Gilliam’s sciencefiction masterpiece 12 Monkeys (1995), Dark City (1998), Fight Club (1999), and The Matrix (1999), stage in various ways escapist fantasies of ontological awakenings unto “real” realities. Films about artificial intelligence-controlled digital matrices; extraterrestrial spatial “tuning”; schizoid, masochistic vigilantes; and apocalyptic virologists: have all the workings of moneymaking box-office smashes, all ripe with disdain for a technocratic, postindustrial supercivilization. With the explosion of digital media technologies and a postindustrial commodification of everything, including identity itself, the anxiety of an unstable masculinity seems to have reached a critical stage. Surprisingly, nature has become man’s biggest ally in this rage against the cultural machine. By invoking antistate vigilantism and fantasies of future-primitivism, these films posit a return to a “primitive” nature as the only remedy for the current hypermediated, supercivilized realities. Ironically, these antimodern narratives are posited through the medium of highbudget films, most of which rely heavily on computer-generated imagery and state-of-the-art special effects to deliver their critiques of the hypermediacy of everyday reality.
The films discussed in this article dramatize an instance of ontological awakening, a moment when the hero experiences an epiphany about his status as a cultural subject that has been interpellated ideologically. According to Daniel Tripp, these epiphanic moments signal a crisis of masculinity where the male protagonists come to realize the degree to which their masculine identities are “increasingly commodified in America’s transition toward a postindustrial economy” (181). Protagonists in these films, Tripp argues, attempt to cut through the artificiality of postindustrial masculinity to “awaken” to more stable, more traditional male gender roles that are figured both in terms of an ontological transcendence of the mediacy and simulatedness of life in the late-twentieth century, and as a return to a less mediated and therefore more authentic self (182). Underlying these fantasies of ontological awakening unto “real” reality is a homologous fantasy of escape to the “primitive”-a paradoxically futuristic, yet prelapsarian, space, devoid of compromised or fractured subjectivities. It is a space where, much like the western frontier of America’s cultural imagination, man can supposedly experience life free from the cultural restraints of media or capitalist manipulations. Significantly, it is a space where the hero always gets the girl. These films advance narratives of return to an authenticated or essentialized male ego to be (re)discovered through a renewed intimacy with nature and woman.
The narrative structure of these films follows a parallel trajectory that can be charted in both psychoanalytic (that is, Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Zizek and Jean Joseph Goux) and ecocritical terms (that is, Bruno Latour and William Cronon) where woman and nature occupy homologous positions as fantasy objects invested with the ability to bring subjective wholeness to the male protagonist. Furthermore, this trajectory is marked by a reversal in the hierarchical dichotomy of nature and culture. Masculinity is (re)defined by a return to nature that reinforces rigid categories of gender and sexuality. As these films purport to depart from the dehumanizing restraints of modern culture, they also rely persistently on fantasies of “techno-transcendence,” the contradictory notion that control of technology can be usurped to escape the confines of a technological reality and to achieve an immediate relation to the natural world, thereby resurrecting a more stable, pre- (or post-?) technological masculine identity. As Brad Bucknell points out, The Matrix (and the other films discussed here) hinge on a quest to recover purified forms-clearly articulated boundaries between the natural and the technological-which Bucknell sees as nostalgia for unity to be achieved through reliance on technology. Bucknell, as well as P. Chad Barnett, see this as a popular presentation of postmodern aesthetics. However, these films’ simultaneous use and disavowal of the technological (“techno- transcendence”) services another kind of nostalgia: nostalgia for a purified, “natural,” masculine subjectivity. What these films seek through their reliance on digital effects, ironically, is the illusion of reconciliation between man and nature, articulated most frequently as a renewed sense of immediacy with a more “real” untainted reality that has been hidden from view by technology.
Instances of such techno-transcendence abound in these films and can be linked quite clearly to the fantasy of a renewed masculinity. In Fight Club, a paranoid schizophrenic fantasizes about returning Americans to a more primitive way of life. He mobilizes an underground society of mostly white and urban young men, whose activities under “Project Mayhem” range from violent fistfights and civil disobedience to corporate sabotage with heavy explosives that will counter a mounting urban malaise and reestablish masculine authenticity in the midst of rampant consumerism. Throughout the film, the protagonist’s romantic interest in street urchin Marla Singer parallels his desire to find his true masculine self through a rejection of mainstream American culture.
Similarly, in the cyberpunk film The Matrix, Neo, a computer hacker, discovers that he has been living in a computer-simulated virtual reality called “the matrix.” Through his awakening, Neo gains a more “immediate” relation to reality to find his inner manliness (in the form of kung fu) and true love (in the form of a woman, Trinity). Dark City also offers a similar plot. John Murdoch awakens from a long sleep to find that his memories are controlled by aliens who “tune” reality to their will. His recurrent recollections of a childhood spent near the beach, along with his love for Emma (who is later reconstructed by the aliens as Anna), provide John with the ontological anchors that allow him to regain control and defeat the aliens. Through a will to power, he learns to “tune” reality according to his own desires, much as Neo learns to manipulate reality within the Matrix.
In the science-fiction film 12 Monkeys, based on Chris Marker’s experimental Cold War film La Jetee (1962), James Cole’s journey to the past seeks the origin of a deadly virus that has forced humanity to live under the earth’s surface. In the film, two mental images structure James’s entire sense of reality and bind him to a past for which he is deeply nostalgic: psychiatrist Kathryn Railly and a travel brochure of the Florida Keys. As James travels through history, his subjective integrity, it would seem, depends on his perpetual desire for nature and woman.
Such recent invocations of a secure and stable masculinity lost in the wake of postindustrial capitalism sanction essentialized or corporeal forms of masculinity predicated on the refusal of metropolitan or “technocratic” forms of masculinity. Lorna Jowett argues that films such as The Matrix (as well as Gattaca and Dark City) rely on uses of technology as a means to reinstate the protagonists’ masculinity. According to Jowett, these films enact a kind of double-mastery, whereby the heroes come to control the technology that is used to control nature (53). In this way, she argues, “cyborgization” is used as a strategy of remasculinization and as a means to transcend the feminizing realm of the natural (61). Remasculization, she goes on to suggest, “is facilitated by the gendering of technology” (61). However, Jowett’s equation (“science and technology are gendered male, while nature is female”) fails to take into account the uses of the natural or corporeal dimension (53). Although these films are certainly about technology, they are also (like the science fiction and cyberpunk genres that first featured these films’ conventions and themes) unquestioningly about the organic body-the “meat.” As Michelle Chilcoat points out, cyberpunk cinema is largely preoccupied with the lure of disembodied experience. This “potential for the dislocation of the body,” she argues, has resulted in a “sexual panic” (157). Chilcoat links this theme of disembodiment in cyberpunk cinema with recent scientific forays into sex studies involving the brain, which seek to reduce gender and sexuality to the brain’s biology, thus reinstating nature as the last bastion of gender determinism. In her examination of postindustrial crises of masculinity, Kaja Silverman suggests that the male body, as the conduit of gendered desire, becomes the locus of attempts by the (masculine) subject “to compensate for symbolic castration” (4-5). The “historical trauma” caused by World War II, Silverman suggests, has undermined the seamless ideology of traditional or classic “fictions” of masculinity. Silverman’s discussion of masculinity is helpful in this case because she theorizes the relationship between the material body (the penis) and the symbolic order (the phallus):
Our dominant fiction calls upon the male subject to see himself, and the female subject to recognize and desire him, only through the mediation of images of an unimpaired masculinity. It urges both the male and the female subject, that is, to deny all knowledge of male castration by believing in the commensurability of penis and phallus. (42)
Threatened by a breakdown in the imaginary link between the male body and masculine authority so crucial to the “dominant fiction,” the traumatized male subject attempts to stabilize the ego. He does so by rejecting the dominant “social” body of masculinity and, instead, embraces the “natural” body through masochism as a more authentic indicator of male sufficiency. Following Silverman’s theorization of male masochism, Paul Smith observes that masochistic moments reinforce the protagonist’s masculinity by first threatening the integrity of the male body and then reasserting its potency through images of its recovery and renewal. Although Silverman and Smith focus primarily on the male body as the primary site of gender ideologies, the male body is also a site where a particular form of antimodern primitivism is enacted. Masculinity and ecology are aligned in these films through the image of an idealized or purified male body that appears as a rejection of modern, industrial, and even technological configurations of self and reality. At the same time that these films articulate male bodies in crisis, the “body” of nature is also articulated as threatened by technology and modernization. In fact, these films rely on images of ecological calamity, apocalypse, and urban decay. Ecological crisis, in other words, provides an important backdrop to the masculine crises on which the films focus.
Modernity, according to Latour, is composed of two contradictory ontological beliefs. First is the belief that nature and culture are opposites. Latour calls this belief “purification,” the perpetual cultural activity of recapitulating fictional boundaries between nature and culture. At the same time, the world is woven together by a network of relations between nature and culture that leads to the proliferation of hybrids-quasi-subjects and quasi-objects born out of the ongoing breakdown between nature and culture. This proliferation of hybrids undermines the purity of the nature- culture split. The inherent contradiction between purity and hybridity is key to the modern constitution and is marked by a perpetual crisis of ideology-the loss and constant recapitulation of purified forms. The films under discussion attempt to purify the male subject, reflecting the “quasi-masculinity” of modern subjectivity and its ties to a postindustrial consumer culture; instead, they embrace the masculine subject of nature. In Fight Club, this rejection occurs when the protagonist plants explosives in his downtown apartment and becomes a squatter in an abandoned house that nature is repossessing. In The Matrix, Neo rejects the technocratic world of the Matrix as artificial (and therefore ideologically suspect) and takes up residence in “real reality” (and inside his real, albeit atrophied body) on the spaceship Nebuchadnezzar. Similarly, in Dark City, John rejects the alien’s reality that has been thrust on him and seeks the “truth” that resides in his heart. In 12 Monkeys, James attempts to escape responsibility by running off to the Florida Keys. These attempts at purification through an escape to nature must be read, in part, as reactions against recent antiessentialist articulations of gender and sexuality as socially constructed, contingent categories. Each film offers its viewers an alternative strategy to the cultural production of stable categories of gender, recapitulated in terms of naturalized narratives of masculinity. Thus, although the traditional conceptual oppositions-culture/ nature, mind/body- remain recognizable in these films, masculinity consistently surfaces on the side of nature rather than culture as a welcomed retreat from the hypermechanizations and cultural mediations that simultaneously perpetuate and threaten masculine subjectivity.
Ironically, these narratives of unmediated masculine essence are mediated by a socially constructed natural space and a recognizably reinvested heterosexualism. It is as if these films recognize the constructedness of masculinity and heterosexuality as cultural fabrications, only to respond by retreating to the natural world, imagined as a more stable ground on which to establish one’s gender and sexual identity. For example, in 12 Monkeys, James’s double fixation on Kathryn and the Florida Keys provides him with the mental stability to travel through time and save humanity. In Dark City, John’s desire to find Shell Beach becomes interchangeable with his desire for Emma/ Anna. In The Matrix, Neo’s status as a messianic figure, “the One,” depends on Trinity’s predestined love for him, a love that allows Neo to transcend the limits of death (he is resurrected by a kiss) and to “see through” the Matrix to access the underlying “nature” of “reality.” As Chilcoat points out, nature reinforces Neo’s status as heterosexual male by linking his “liberation from the machine” with the “business of ‘normal’ heterosexual relationships” which can only take place in the naturalized space of the organic body (165). (It should perhaps be noted that, in the three Matrix films, Neo and Trinity never make love inside the Matrix.)
Although nature becomes the ground on which the protagonists resurrect their masculinity, nature itself is seen as also under threat, leading to a continuation rather than alleviation of crisis- hence the environmental subtext in these films. In a Latourian analysis, the argument could be made that nature is aligned with a more authentic masculinity insofar as it is purified in these films as an unmediated space. However, such a purification breaks down because these films are Hollywood products, and their representation of nature does not occupy a pure, untainted space. Rather, nature is revealed as a quasi-object (in the Latourian sense), a fantasy object (in the Lacanian sense).
In Fight Club, Tyler Durden, the nameless protagonist’s alter ego, describes his future-primitive ideal:
In the world I see you’re stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You will wear leather clothes that last you the rest of your life. You will climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. You will see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of the ruins of a superhighway.
In this postapocalyptic vision of America, a primitive society reliant on hunting, limited agriculture, and renewable resources exists among the ruins of a toppled capitalist superstructure. The passing reference to kudzu is significant: kudzu, an Asian vine that was imported to the United States to reduce soil erosion, has turned into a bioevolutionary nightmare in the southeastern United States, destroying homes, parking lots, roadways, and natural habitats such as the Louisiana bayou. Its invocation aligns a persistent nature with a vengeful, anticapitalism at the same time that it warns against the dangers of trying to bend nature to humankind’s will as compensation for overdevelopment. This image of “wrist-thick” vines choking the walls of the Sears Tower, then, signals a reemergence of a repressed nature and with it, a reemergence of the American frontier as interchangeable with Tyler’s fantasy of a future primitive society. Of course, the future he imagines is defined by a past that is itself mediated by frontier novels and Western films, not to mention nostalgic visions of Native Americans. In this way, Tyler’s vision of the future overvalues a mythologized American past as a distinctly masculine and ecologically benign tradition.
Such a future would not be brought about, in Tyler’s vision, by a natural disaster but rather by the deliberate sabotage of financial institutions (namely, major credit card companies) through terrorist acts of “controlled demolition.” In other words, Tyler’s desire for a kind of primitivist emancipation can only be accomplished by the creation of a “natural” grid laid over the cultural space of the modern American city. This natural grid can only occur, according to the film, through economic collapse, which Tyler naively imagines as “one step closer to global equilibrium.” The scene Tyler describes enacts the breakdown in the conceptual boundary between culture and nature, urban and rural. In Fight Club, Tyler’s primitivist fantasy is strikingly unironic, posited as a preferable alternative to the mind-numbing effects of urban and suburban cultural life. The primitivist thrust of this scene expresses a masculinist yearning for an authentic natural space. At the same time, the source of this vision, as we discover late in the film, is a raving lunatic. The vision? A schizophrenic delusion. What lends this particular scene such power is precisely this tension between a recognizable cultural fantasy and its seeming incongruity with civilized society. Fight Club relies on images of madness to advance arguments about the alienating and dehumanizing effects of consumer society by positing the main character’s psychosis as an inevitable reaction to the artificiality of his white-collar, urban lifestyle. Rejecting the “protestant work ethic” that underscores William Whyte’s “organization man” of the 1950s, Tyler proclaims that “‘you are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank.’” If they are not their jobs, then what are the militant skinhead members of Project Mayhem? They are, according to Tyler, “‘God’s unwanted children, with no special place and no special attention, and so be it.’” Significantly, this revelation of God’s abandonment takes place in a moment of ritualistic mutilation during which Tyler kisses and then pours flaked lye on the back of the protagonist’s hand, forcing him to face his own mortality. To repress the pain of his burning hand, the protagonist uses guided meditation techniques he learned in cancer support groups-at first, he sees the mental image of a green maple leaf glistening with dew, then a spring forest sprinkled by rain. These gentle nature scenes transform into a massive conflagration of trees. The purpose of this exercise, apparently, is to teach the protagonist to “deal with it”-that is, his tendency to escape reality through consumerism, to be what he buys and to buy into the daily bombardment of media images that structure his identity. Yet underlying this masochistic ritual is another message: that men, to be men, must strip away the cultural mechanisms that mediate their “true” identities. Privileging the body over the mind, masochism becomes the means by which men are able to seek out their true selves that reside not in culture, but in nature. Thus, when the protagonist’s imaginary wilderness intersects with the “bonfire on the back of [his] hand,” he achieves enlightenment. That is, he is enlightened to his own natural (read: essential) masculinity. Hence, in the violent male world of underground fight clubs, men who beat each other senseless night after night quickly become “carved out of wood.” They become, to borrow Susan Jeffords’s phrase, “hard bodies.” But even more so, they become wooden; implying both a phallic tumescence and organicism.
This narrative of an authentic masculinity discovered in the shift from mind to body via masochism, and thus from culture to nature, are at work in each of these films. More important, this shift is always undermined by the inevitably mediated spaces within which these men seek refuge and renewal. In Fight Club, the supposed “authenticity” of Tyler’s masculinity is undermined in two obvious ways. First, the actor who plays Tyler is Hollywood megastar Brad Pitt. Second, Pitt’s sculpted physique, a toned-down version of the hypermasculine hard body of the eighties (Stallone, Schwarzeneggar, and so on), could result only from high-intensity training at a fitness center, a regimented diet, and high-cost nutritional supplements. In other words, despite the protagonist’s protestations against mass mediated images of maleness-including his mockery of a male model with sculpted abs posing for a fashion ad-Tyler/Pitt himself stands precisely as one of these hyperreal media images.
This kind of contradiction in the shift from mind-culture to body- nature is at work in The Matrix as well. Neo’s ability to defeat the Matrix comes to fruition at the moment that he sees through mediated “reality” to access the underlying code, an epiphany that only comes when he confronts his own mortality. It is the moment, in other words, when his body, which exists outside the matrix, outperforms his own mind, which exists inside the Matrix, suggesting that Neo’s “true self” resides in its corporeality. However, the film’s uncritical conclusion, which resituates Neo back inside the very Matrix that he escaped, undermines this liberation of the male body from the trappings of the mind. Thus, the ideology of a masculine authority is reinscribed, despite the film’s preoccupation with the epiphanic fantasy of “waking up” into a “real reality” unbounded by ideological interpellation.
The same reinscription takes place at the end of Dark City. John chastises the last of the extraterrestrials, who are on the brink of destroying themselves by privileging their minds over their bodies, for trying to extract the source of human subjectivity: “If you wanted to know what it was about us that made us human, well, you’re not going to find it in here [pointing to his forehead]. You went looking in the wrong place.” Yet if the essence of self is not found in the mind-in memory, where is it found? At Shell Beach, of course- in nature, where a beautiful woman also can be found. Fixated on the implanted memory of a childhood spent by the ocean, John searches unsuccessfully for the Shell Beach of his imagination. The catch, of course, is that Shell Beach does not exist other than as a construction of his imagination. By the end of the film, John has defeated the alien kidnappers who have experimented on countless human beings in a floating urban-island with no daylight and no “nature.” He then constructs, out of his supposedly liberated mind, Shell Beach. His reconstruction of Shell Beach, in other words, returns Murdoch to precisely the same mentally constructed prison he inhabited prior to his “liberation,” but this time, his prison is self-imposed. In his Lacanian reading of Dark City, Todd McGowan argues that John’s original epiphany operates as an example of successful resistance to ideological control. As a coming to awareness of ideology, McGowan argues, epiphany allows John to “traverse the fantasy” of Shell Beach, the objet petit a, and to experience reality “as it really is.” Nonetheless, as McGowan points out, John’s epiphany is short-lived, and he returns to the fantasmatic image of Shell Beach. Despite the film’s seemingly happy ending, the actual result is the reinstatement of ideological control. McGowan writes, “This fantasy seems to offer an opening point beyond ideological control-hope for a different future-but ideology actually relies on this image of an opening to keep subjects satisfied with their existence within ideology” (161). Moreover, the significance of the content of John’s double fantasy is that of a pristine natural space and an attractive woman. By returning to the site of this imaginary nature, which John misrecognizes as the seat of his true self, his alienation from nature is sutured over by the emergence of a socially constituted second nature in the form of Shell Beach. Not surprisingly, this is also where John finds Emma/Anna waiting for him. In this way, John’s nature fantasy is inextricably bound to the fantasy of woman, both of which are revealed as ideological constructions that perpetuate the fantasy of a wholly integrated masculine subjectivity.
In the films, the male character retreats to the natural world in search of an ontological awakening unto an unmediated reality as the site of essential masculinity. In this shift from the realm of culture to the realm of nature as the source of masculine authenticity, woman is persistently identified with nature at the same time that she is excluded from it. Woman functions as an object of desire and is therefore denied access to the very subjectivity granted to her male counterpart through his awakening to nature. Rather, she operates interchangeably with nature in these films as the object of masculine desire. In 12 Monkeys, James wants “to see the sky, and the ocean [. . .] to breathe the air [. . .] to be with her.” Later, this desire is framed more clearly: “I want to become a whole person again.” James’s desire for subjective wholeness ultimately takes him to the airport en route to living out his fantasy with Kathryn in the Florida Keys, a pastoral setting he has learned about through constant bombardment by radio and television ads, billboards, and travel brochures. The correlation here-between woman and nature and between the fantasies of subjective wholeness in woman and nature-points to a crucial structural homology that is played out in all these films between the image of woman and the image of nature. James’s fixation on Kathryn, a fixation that starts when he is a small boy unknowingly witnessing his own murder, marks her as a fetish-object that allows James to disavow the trauma of his own mortality. In the same way, the Florida Keys-which James mistakenly idealizes as a pristine, pastoral space- allows James to disavow his knowledge of a pending global pandemic. In this respect, ecological crisis in the film runs parallel to James’s crisis of masculinity. Yet the film does little to mitigate the environmental crisis or to raise concern over environmental degradation in general. Rather, as Stacy Alaimo points out, 12 Monkeys resorts to a cliched narrative of freedom as zoo animals that have been “liberated” roam majestically amidst the urban decay of Philadelphia (237). In this respect, animals, as obvious iconography of nature, operate in the film as mass-produced images and human constructions (Alaimo 236). The constant imagery of the Florida Keys functions in a similar way to reveal James’s desire for a pristine nature where he can achieve both heterosexual fulfillment and subjective wholeness. In the ontogenetic journey of the masculine subject staged in these films, man’s relationship to woman and to nature run parallel courses. In Lacanian terms, nature in its idealized form is equated symbolically with the phallus. Woman, too, symbolizes the phallus but is denied access to it. Thus, in Lacan’s formulation, woman and nature occupy the same conceptual category of “being” but not “having” the phallus, whereas men cover over the fact that they lack phallic sufficiency by desiring woman/nature. Jean Joseph Goux points to a crucial distinction between images of the maternal and the feminine, a distinction is reminiscent of the split between first nature and second nature. The maternal is situated in the place of a prelapsarian past prior to lack. Therefore, access to the maternal, as that which satiates lack, is both desired and prohibited because, to achieve such satiation, history would need to be exited-that is, regression would occur into a state of nature. This regression, however, is prohibited by the very symbolic structures that constitute the desiring subject as a subject of history. This prohibition against the maternal, moreover, necessitates the displacement of incestuous desire onto the figure of a woman who is not the mother, the feminine. Yet the feminine, Goux writes, “must be sought in the domain of the unrepresentable, in the empty cave that first held the tomb of the invisible father” (147). The feminine is the object of desire that inevitably fails to satisfy desire. Although the maternal represents that which is lacking, the feminine embodies lack itself. But that is not all. According to Goux:
[E]ven if the difference between mother and woman can be marked in the symbolic domain by the prohibition, this difference is never radical in the imaginary dimension. More precisely, it might be said that the (symbolic) prohibition establishes the difference between the mother and a woman, but this difference being never fully observable in the imaginary, what does appear is the enigmatic and celestial image of the woman, the ideal junction where the mother’s forbidden uniqueness ends up coalescing with the feminine in its infinite particularity. (Goux 148; emphasis in original)
Thus the image of the woman, as the convergence of the maternal and the feminine, is always situated in the future as the utopian dream, the “vanishing point of desire, as the horizon that is both expected and impossible” (148). In this respect, the woman is the object of desire as well as its cause. The same can be said of nature, which is both an inscrutable material reality or origin (the maternal) and a socially constructed fantasy space that exists as an event-horizon and is therefore unattainable.
As the object-cause of masculine desire, woman functions symbolically as a symptom of man. According to Zizek, Lacan’s conception of woman manifests itself as “literally our only substance, the only positive support for our being, the only point that gives consistency to the subject” (Sublime 75). Woman-as- symptom, then, is the necessary object through which the masculine subject supports his identity by way of desire. It is also the reason that she does not exist, according to Lacan (other than as a symptom of man).
Kathryn of 12 Monkeys does not exist, as she informs James in the movie theater lobby. Recollecting an impossible memory of a future version of James that she has not yet encountered, Kathryn says, “I remember you like this.” What this crack in the temporal logic of the film reveals is that Kathryn cannot exist in and of herself, but only as a symptom of James’s constantly repeating experience of his own alienation. Emma/Anna of Dark City also does not exist, because her entire memory of herself as Emma is replaced by Anna’s memories- yet neither she nor her “true love,” John, seem bothered in the least. For him, she retains her status as an object of desire, even as she is literally transformed into another person. Marla of Fight Club also does not exist. Not only does she physically occupy the “empty cave” of unrepresentability to which Goux refers but also does not fit the formula set up in the film for what constitutes a subject. Tyler says “You are not your job. You are not what you buy.” Yet this is exactly what structures the protagonist’s identity, even if it structures it as a negation: “you are not your job.” Marla, however, does not work, nor does she buy. She steals. So although the protagonist will supposedly find liberation through his escape from consumerism, Marla will remain just as she is-the empty marker of the protagonist’s desire for a unified masculine subjectivity. In fact, he says at the beginning of the narrative, “Somehow, I realize, all of this-the gun, the bombs, the revolution- is really about Marla Singer.”
It is not difficult to see the symptomatic status of woman at work in these films. Moreover, it is as symptoms that their symbolic homology to nature becomes apparent. According to Zizek, nature, like woman “does not exist”:
All attempts to regain a new balance between man and nature, to eliminate from human activity its excessive character and to include it in the regular circuit of life, are nothing but a series of subsequent endeavors to suture an original and irredeemable gap. (Looking 37)
Women in these films act as placeholders but not possessors of the natural world. Both objects of masculine desire, nature and woman function as central to the fantasy of masculine subjective integration. At the same time, both nature and woman also function as the cause of masculine desire signaled by a perpetual deferral of subjective integration by way of the nature-culture split. This is the fundamental paradox of “nature,” as Cronon points out: “[W]ilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall” (80-81). This paradox should sound familiar as the Lacanian paradox of desire for the unpossessable objet petit a, which designates the role of woman as well as the role of nature. This overlap in the symbolic function of woman and nature is precisely what we see at work in these films. When the protagonist of Fight Club goes to his cave to find his “power animal,” he finds Marla. James in 12 Monkeys does not simply want to live on the surface free from the deadly virus; he wants to live in the Florida Keys “with her.” When John of Dark City finally reaches the socially constructed Shell Beach of his imagination, Emma/Anna is waiting for him on the pier, although she has no recollection of John or Shell Beach. In The Matrix, although Neo has died inside the Matrix-in his mind-he resurrects himself through sheer willpower. He can do this only because he is “the one” Trinity loves.
The key point here is that whereas the woman stands in for “nature” in these films, she is incapable of possessing it. In the same way, because nature often figures as an idealized fantasy, it serves to recapitulate an essentialist masculinity sought after in the ideologically constituted space of a second nature. Like woman, in other words, nature is transformed into the staging ground for the masculine psychodrama that is played out in these films. Yet this psychodrama is, at its core, impossible and therefore tragic. The more the protagonists try to achieve an unmediated relationship with nature, the more that relationship is mediated by the fantasy projections of an unrealistic, unattainable natural world that is perpetually retreating from view. In the end, the men in these films find refuge not in the maternal space of first nature (that is itself an imaginary construct), but in an always mediated, always inadequate space of second nature that covers over and perpetuates the cycle of desire for first nature. Hence, Neo escapes the Matrix only to find himself in another Matrix (of “real reality”) predicated on the same hegemonic categories of race, gender, and sexuality of the previous Matrix. In the same way, John of Dark City wills into existence the fictional Shell Beach of his implanted past to assuage his anxious awareness that his entire reality is a fantasy induced by a grand alien experiment. In 12 Monkeys, James is doomed to witness his own murder over and over again without ever achieving the objects of his fantasy: Kathryn and the Florida Keys.
Masculinity in these narratives is performed at the interstice between culture and nature. These films enact an impossible scene of becoming essentially masculine by seeking out the source of essentialism in the space of woman-nature that is invariably revealed as a symbolic projection of masculine subjectivity. The quest for subjective wholeness is doomed to fail because masculinity is posited as an event horizon that is endlessly deferred and interminably positioned in the inbetween of the nature-culture divide. As it is defined by these films, masculinity is a perpetual maintenance of that divide as the liminal site of subjectivity. In the process of this maintenance of masculinity, woman and nature are displaced into the imaginary realm of second nature.
The consequence of relegating womannature to the realm of second nature is the exclusion of both from the realms of nature and culture. Woman and nature are reified by these narratives as “unnatural” because both have been filtered through the ideological gaze of the masculine subject that negates the possibility of a maternal-material world existing “in itself.” Woman and nature are excluded from the cultural realm because their status as cultural constructions is ideologically purified to repress the subjective rift (mediation) that exists between the masculine subject and the maternal/material world. So although these films claim to uncover a more real, less mediated relation to nature for their male protagonists, they actually rely on a fantasy of nature and woman that is always already mediated by the subject’s desire. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) takes care of Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix. Photo courtesy of Photofest.
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Jeanne Hamming is an assistant professor at Centenary College of Louisiana where she teaches courses in English and New Media. Her areas of interest include gender and ecology in American Literature and Film, Science Fiction, and new media.
Copyright Heldref Publications Winter 2008
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