Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Movie Interpretation: Thelma and Louise


I have several interpretations to offer for Thelma and Louise but will only focus on two in any detail. The first is the superego/paranoia reading. This reading requires two theoretical apparati . The first is Freud’s construction of the stage of primary narcissism in its ontogenetic form. It is constructed through looking at the behaviour of people suffering from psychosis as well as people who are bed-ridden and physically ill and how both seem to not care about finding success or love.  Freud writes that “libido and ego-interest share the same fate and are once more indistinguishable from each other” and have been withdrawn from objects in the outside world (On Narcissism 82-3). While Freud claims that the child initially makes itself its own ideal Jacobson, Klein, and others dispute this and see megalomania as a defensive process (Freeman, Some Aspects of Pathological Narcissism, p. 553; Hendrick, Early Development of the Ego, p. 57; Klein, Envy and Gratitude, p. 76) and arising later in development (Jacobson, ‘The Self and the Object World’, p.102). Instead, Jacobson believes the primary narcissistic stage can be:

the genetic origin of the opposing, active-aggressive and passive-submissive attitudes to different phases in the child's earliest experiences of oral gratification. The desires either to make the mother part of himself or to become part of her appear, indeed, to be derived from fantasies of either devouring the love object or being devoured by it (Jacobson, Self and Object World, p.101).

While the sick person withdraws his ego interest from the world temporarily, so his energy can focussed on getting better, the psychotic has ‘foreclosed’ his ego ideals and remains at the primary narcissistic stage of being able to satisfy the phantasy of possessing the mother or being a part of her without action. Many writers criticize Freud for his idea of primary narcissism from a misunderstanding. The ego, in Freud’s view, has been developing since birth and the child has been interacting with sense perceptions of the mother and there have been interactions between the two. By the time of the stage of primary narcissism the ego has gone through significant developments already. It has left the realm of 2-d vision and autistic sensations of objects and brightness for the realm of 3-d mnemic traces and recognition of things in its environment. However, the child doesn’t have an ego ideal to force it or drive it to ego-competitive or object-loving interactions with others.  “The development of the ego [ideal] consists in a departure from primary narcissism and gives rise to a vigorous attempt to recover that state” Freud writes, “[t]his departure is brought about by means of the displacement of  libido on to an ego ideal imposed from without; and satisfaction is brought about from fulfilling this ideal” (On Narcissism, p.100).

Roughly there are 5 stages that Freud mentions 1. The ocular, auto-erotic, or autistic 2. The oral, primary narcissism 3. The anal 4. The phallic 5. Latency.  The ego, qua whole self-representation, begins at the oral and in the following stages the child can no longer simply fantasize that it will control or possess. or merge or resonate with the mother in the future without living up to its ideals. Roughly, at the anal stage the child encounters the father imago of absolute perfection (God) and identifies with him to form an ego ideal in which he strives to possess the sole phallus that exists for all people by being the strongest or the smartest. At the phallic stage the child encounters the father imago as worldly perfection (cultural hero) and identifies with him to form an ego ideal in which he strives to posses the phallus that exists in the reputation of his community by being the first in his field (occupation) or in having social power. In latency the child encounters the father as group perfection and identifies with him to form an ego ideal in which he strives for his group to be the most powerful in relation to other groups.

The encounter with the father imago leads not just to the ego ideal but also to a conflict with him that creates signal anxiety at the ocular, anal, phallic, etc. stages and an important issue of whether or not the child fully internalizes the father or not[1]. The relation to the partially internalized father who forms the basis for the Oedipus and every other triangular complex at the anal, oral, etc. stages gives rise to the defences of paranoia and melancholia. The child represses an attack on an object it is making a father imago transference upon and the consequences for having destroyed the father imago means that the impulse is either projected (paranoia) or the badness of the attacked object is introjected (melancholia) so the father imago can be kept alive in some way[2].  At the phallic stage paranoia concerns the ‘interest ego’ and someone who wants to ruin one’s reputation or success or humiliate one. At the anal stage paranoia concerns the ‘body ego’ and someone who wants to kill or destroy one. At the oral stage paranoia concerns the ‘skin ego’ and the boundary of inside and outside being overcome by a bad outside. Lastly, at the ocular stage, in which separation from the mother is only based upon her as a part object (i.e breast) paranoia is total annihilation and often not just of oneself but a huge disaster or catastrophe that takes the world along with it.

Melanie Klein gives the phantasy equivalents to these things a specific shape, so that even though we don’t have the explicit discussion of these ontogenetic levels of functioning we can tell by the phantasy images that they are taking place. It must be remembered that Klein isn’t talking about the child imagining such complex images as if from a host of possible choices. Criticism of her work often portrays the child as having cogitation that is too complex for such early development but it misses the point. Rather the images of the father imago or persecutors would come from its own organ or bodily sensations: feelings hunger and an empty belly; feeling its early uncoordinated musculature only manifesting in little knots here and there in its body, (etc.). My interpretation of Thelma and Louise is that in terms of images we have a steady decline from the phallic level down to the auto-erotic or ocular stage in which Thelma and Louise lose all ego ideals and father images and even the final separation of part self and part-object representation. I believe the logical conclusion in this order or sequence is that the  final regression from the early ocular-auto-erotic stage to a point before part self-representation exists, is likely not rejoining with the mother in a return to the womb, but to post-natal stage that doesn’t possess a part-self-representation[3].      

Each stage of regression must involve 1. Initial signal anxiety in relation to the partially internalized father imago. 2. An attack on the partially internalized father (phallus) imago 3. Paranoia or persecutory anxiety.

The first signal anxiety in the movie is when Harlan tries to rape Thelma outside of the bar. Helen Deutsch writes: "It is interesting to note that, when the father is blamed for the little girl's lack of a penis, castration by him has already acquired the libidinal significance attaching to this idea in the form of the rape-phantasy (Deutsch, The Significance of Masochism in the Mental Life of Women, p. 50). Although Deutsch calls this a phantasy she later mentions the anxiety associated with it (ibid., 54).
Louise killing Harlan after he tried to rape Thelma would be the first attack on the father imago and results in the paranoid vengeance figure of Hal the detective trying to bring them to justice. At first Hal just wants to bring them in for questioning and seems well disposed and sympathetic but viewing the persecutor this way is not incompatible with the potential harm he represents[4]. We can conjecture that they might be charged and have their names associated with a crime (i.e. their good name or reputation brought down) even though Hal’s sympathy implies they won’t do serious time. However, after they commit robbery and put a patrolman into the trunk of his car he changes his position and the persecutory aspect rises to the fore:

      HAL   Then I'm sorry.  We're gonna have to charge you with murder.  Now, do you  want to come out of this alive?.... LOUISE    You know, certain words and phrases  just keep floating through my mind,  things like incarceration, cavity  search, life imprisonment, death by  electrocution, that sort of thing.  So, come out alive?  I don't know.  Let us think about that.

This situation would be a blending of phallic and anal positions because the patrolman they 'locked in the trunk' represents anal signal anxiety. In terms of social ontology the phallic father imago is a cultural hero or someone who is famous and the first in his field or occupation while the anal father is god-like or a ruler over a whole people. This difference can be seen in Star Wars, for example, in which Darth Vader is in high command of the army but the emperor is the ruler of the empire. Although, here we are dealing with images/phantasy alone and don't have the presented social ontology, there is a similarity between the patrolman and the emperor in that they both have their eyes hidden[5]. The emperor has his cowl or hood covering his eyes and the patrolman has his sunglasses. This is part of the anal Oedipus complex in that it’s not possible to look at the primal father’s face or in his eyes like mythology holds that one can’t look upon God[6].

Although Thelma and Louise put the patrolman in the trunk of his car, they don’t kill him or do something that could lead to his death (they even shoot air holes in the trunk for him). This means that the next murder of the father imago occurs when Thelma and Louise blow up the tanker trunk. Compared to their car the enormous cylindrical tanker truck represents the “unique and gigantic” properties of the anal phallus or father. Now, instead of Hal the detective as the image of the figure after them, the girls are next chased by police cars. The anal phallus by image is uncastrateable. When one castrates it another comes to take its place. In the car chase we watch as one police car crashes, only to show another police car closing the distance, to crash again, and then another… [7].

The next instance of signal anxiety is clearly when Thelma and Louise escape the regenerating police cars but then see 3 patrol cars approaching on the other lane of the highway. I can’t say much about what makes these 3 cars represent oral signal anxiety but I can say that the number 3 in analytic literature is associated with penis (1 penis and 2 testicles). Additionally, compared to the giant explosion of the anal phallus the next act of violence seems much reduced. The only noticeable thing is that during the chase “Louise and Thelma blow through a stand of buildings left from when the train went through here” (script).  Although this blow through the stand of buildings didn’t kill anyone, going through the fence in an area in which there were people (there was laundry hung out to dry) could have killed someone. However, I take Winnicot’s transitional object of the oral stage to be an instance of the father imago (i.e. the infant in instinctual renunciation turns from the mother to the not-mother object). Thus, it is a deeper interpretation here to take the violence to be against things (property) than against humans.  Anyway, after this destruction of property or things occurs the police cars are no longer following in single file but appear as a swarm: “They are now being pursued by at least fifteen cars…police cars are swarming across the desert” (script).  Compared to the multiple and regenerating anal phallus, the oral persecutory is represented as a swarm of penises inside the mother which can be externalized defensively[8].

Lastly, in escape from the oral swarm of police persecutors the girls almost go off the cliff into the grand canyon. A single helicopter appeared just before this happens and I take this to be ocular signal anxiety in relation to the single penis found in the mother’s breast (part-object)[9]. This leads to the attack on the father imago which is even more subtle than the oral one. A massive amount of police cars and FBI agents surround Thelma and Louise and an officer announces:  

      POLICE (O.S.)  (over loudspeaker) This is the Arizona Highway Patrol. You are under arrest.  You are considered armed and dangerous.  Any failure to obey any command will be considered an act of aggression against us (script, emphasis mine).
Thelma likens the gathered police and agents to an “army” and there is an extreme sense of overkill about the scene reminiscent of cartoons in which a character has guns, bombs, missiles, etc. (all the weapons of the army) directed against another. This ‘overkill’ obviously has a function of turning the violence into something so unreal that parents won’t object to their children enjoying something so absurd, but, at the same time it firmly captures the annihilation paranoia at work in this stage[10]. The parents are so much bigger than the infant and it has next to no coordination of its musculature and this disparity might give a sense of how the persecution might feel even though the child doesn’t have the cognitive capacity of grasping any of this. Rather, the subjective sense of the infant’s plight comes from the its part self-representation being tenuously separated from the breast as part-object. Because it has the smallest amount of ego differentiation it lacks defense except for the most primitive and brutal scotomatization or projection of the cognitive apparatus itself which leads, as Bion points out, into bizarre objects (i.e. the phonograph that listens to the child) (Bion, Differentiation of the Psychotic from the Non-Psychotic Personalities).

After their non-compliance that becomes an act of aggression, the annihilation paranoia or persecution is felt by Thelma and Louise but, as with the other stages, they foreclose the father imago and choose to regress. They choose psychic death in union with the mother in which even the part-self representation doesn’t exist. It is possible to take this ocular foreclosure to mean a return to the birth stage but I have the sense that there is ego development prior to the part object (just as there is in the womb) that doesn’t yield even part-object representations ‘for consciousness’ although the ego must follow the same procedure of being built from internalization. This is important because melancholic reactions that occur at the ocular or oral level will have depressive reactions that show up as lack of energy and disposition to illness, but I believe cancer can be conceived of as a pre-self-representation biological melancholic reaction to the father imago[11].

[1] The process which normally serves as the final solution of these successive anxiety situations is comprehensible to us through the phenomena by which we recognize identification. Those identifications resulting from each successive type of aggression contribute functions to the ego which, on the one hand, are essential to the permanent mastery of the corresponding anxiety, and, on the other hand, to the full development of the functions which constitute the ego.
The failure to complete any of these identifications results in a defect in ego-organization which is manifest in adult life by one or another type of defect in the management of instinctual impulses in a mature way without an excess of inhibition (Hendrick, Ego Development and Certain Character Problems, p. 338).
[2] Joyce McDougall also brings out this partial internalization state. Working with homosexual women she writes that the phallic father is internalized but not fully: “the daughter appears to have abandoned him as an object of libidinal wishes at the height of the classical Oedipal period (McDougall, Homosexuality in Women, p.191). This partially internalized father is “zealously guarded” Joyce writes, because he “is a bulwark against psychotic dissolution” (ibid. p. 191). Klein mentions the genetic connection between paranoia and melancholia in A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States (p. 148).
[3]  Freud’s concept of oceanic oneness with the earth is experienced before the ego puts up inside and outside barriers (i.e. the skin ego of oral-primary narcissism, Civilization, p.66-8). It clearly needs to exist after birth so that the oneness with the earth can have content. I understand this oneness as the proto-ocular stage and the part-self representation occurs at partial identification with the father imago. However, it is likely that development in the ego occurs post-natally before this point is reached although it is not ‘for-consciousness’. 
[4] “The central thrust of her paper is to make the contrast before and after this change in the relation with objects - in effect, from what she calls paranoia to a relationship of sad concern for the object. That emphasis stands out in the material that ‘Rt’ gave her - such as his ‘amazing’ suspicion whilst admiring his analyst” (Hinshelwood, R.D, Melanie Klein and Repression: An Examination of Some Unpublished Notes of 1934, p. 19).
[5] Imagistically Darth Vader is clearly a phallic deutero combined parent figure. The helmet resembles a woman’s profile (long hair) and his cassock resembles a woman’s dress as most priestly garb does.
[6] The hypnotist asserts that he is in possession of a mysterious power that robs the subject of his own will; or, which is the same thing, the subject believes it of him. This mysterious power (which is even now often described popularly as ‘animal magnetism’) must be the same power that is looked upon by primitive people as the source of taboo, the same that emanates from kings and chieftains and makes it dangerous to approach them (mana). The hypnotist, then, is supposed to be in possession of this power; and how does he manifest it? By telling the subject to look him in the eyes; his most typical method of hypnotizing is by his look. But it is precisely the sight of the chieftain that is dangerous and unbearable for primitive people, just as later that of the Godhead is for mortals. Even Moses had to act as an intermediary between his people and Jehovah, since the people could not support the sight of God; and when he returned from the presence of God his face shone—some of the mana had been transferred on to him, just as happens with the intermediary among primitive people. (Group psych, p. 125)

[7]  Klein talks of anal paranoia as being multiple:
He…felt as though they were his enemies and were hemming him in and weighing him down by clinging so closely to his body. They represented his internalized objects and excrements which were persecuting him from within. In virtue of the displacement of his fears of internal dangers into the external world, his enemies inside him had been transformed into enemies outside him. (Psychoanalysis of Children, p. 353). Chasseguet-Smirgel talks of the uncastrateable anal phallus in Perversion, Idealization and Sublimation (p. 356).

[8] When I described the fight which in phantasy John had inside the mother's body with his father's penises (crabs)—actually with a swarm of them—I pointed out that the meat-house, which had apparently not been broken into and which John was trying to prevent them from getting into, represented not only the inside of his mother's body but his own inside (A Contribution to the Theory of Intellectual Inhibtion, p. 212).
[9] Besides the swarm of penises and multiple excrements Klein speaks of an earlier single penis inside the mother’s body “her destructive impulses against her mother's body and her father's penis imagined to be inside it (Psychoanalysis of Children, p. 91). Later she refines this to say the single penis is found in relation to the breast: “Phantasies of the penis inside the mother, or inside her breast, turn the father into a hostile intruder. This phantasy is particularly strong when the infant has not had the full enjoyment and happiness that the early relation to the mother can afford him and has not taken in the first good object with some security” (Envy and Gratitude, p.197, emphasis mine). Additionally, the autistic signal anxiety has been related as ‘falling anxiety’ (Reich) and a black hole (Grotstein) that is well symbolized by falling into the Grand Canyon. This falling is felt to be endless and shows the encounter with the father as the ego function of space (2-d to 3-d vision) and mythically is shown in Uranus embracing Gaia (ocular), just as the skin ego, representing the self-representation over time, is shown in Cronos (oral). Zeus is clearly the emergence of the object as perfection (anal) and Heracles enters as the cultural hero (phallic).    
[10] We are, I think, justified in assuming that some of the functions which we know from the later ego are there in the beginning. Prominent amongst these functions is that of dealing with anxiety. I hold that anxiety arises from the operation of the Death Instinct within the organism, is felt as fear of annihilation (death) and takes the form of fear of persecution. (Some Schizoid Mechanisms, p. 100, emphasis mine).
[11] Klein maintains that there are phantasies related to these pre-self-representation identifications and internalizations: Other important sources of primary anxiety are the trauma of birth (separation anxiety) and frustration of bodily needs; and these experiences too are from the beginning felt to be caused by bad objects. Even if these objects are felt to be external, they become through introjection internal persecutors and thus reinforce the fear of the destructive impulse within (Some Schizoid Mechanisms, p. 100). The self and object representations in pre-ocular instances still find their basis in bodily sensations and even though they aren’t ‘for consciousness’ it’s clear that consciousness, and the following self-consciousness, are preceded by cogitation or mind. For example, we don’t have to think about or be aware of our hear-beat, breathing, and many other simple bodily processes although we can be and that is because of an awareness more primitive than consciousness that can be tapped into.   

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