Where the two lacks meet…

October 25, 2008

“Crucial for the fetish object is that it emerges at the intersection of the two lacks: the subject’s own lack as well as that of the big Other” (Zizek, SOI, 103).

This is from the last chapter of my MA thesis, and may or may not be of interest to people, re: the Phallus…; There are a couple of theoretical mistakes…but you get the idea.

The Primal Scene and the Structure of Television

It was in his description of the “wolf man” that Freud posited that a traumatic event in childhood could be the cause of neuroses that occur later in life. This he called the “primal scene”, and it was from the patient’s inability to deal with the trauma of the primal scene that all neuroses would spring: “… all consequences radiate out from it, just as all the threads of the analysis have led up to it” (243). This scene usually referred to the observance by the child of its parents in the act of coitus. But it was not that it was necessarily an event that could be remembered; it was one that was constructed retroactively by the analyst and analysand as a labour of analysis. As the foundation of the unconscious being of the neurotic, the “threads” of analysis were bound as a knot in this centre. It stood as an element outside the linear conscious experience of the analysand about which all the condensations and displacements of hysterical symptoms took place. The Primal scene was the a-historical element about which all later symptoms would gather.
We might use extra-diagetic to describe the character of the primal scene, and in the context of television and the prisoner this is most apt. Each episode of the prisoner opens with the same title sequence, itself a short narrative, but one that is separated from that which follows it. It sets the scene of the Prisoner’s (played by McGoohan) fantasy, his hysterical refusal to accept the Law of the father, his attempt to steal pleasure from the unknown Other that places impossible demands upon him. In this opening sequence the Prisoner tenders his resignation to the spy agency by which he is employed, only to soon after be drugged and transplanted in a secluded internment camp – the Village – where he is given a number in place of whatever name he may have had. The opening sequence ends with the dialogue above – with the second in command of the village passing on the demands of his superior. The “trauma” in this scene – Number Six’s removal from his home and life – is precipitated by the demand of an invisible Other and the Prisoner’s refusal to give response. And with this refusal each episode begins.


This scene resembles that of Freud’s in several ways. Firstly, it stands outside current events, outside of the diagesis of the text. And it is always from this point that the “analysis” of Number Six returns – it reappears within the text after Number 2’s attempts to extract information has failed. In A,B, and C, for instance, Number 6 outwits the dream experiments of one of the Village’s prisoner-scientists, and upon the screen where his dreams have been viewed we see a section of the opening sequence repeated over an over – it appears from the prisoner’s head as the moment past which the scientist-analyst can not get. The title sequence is repeated again and again, both before the program and in its content. In each episode, number 6 undergoes an interrogation that ends with number 2 failing to extract any information (“You won’t get it!”). As Lacan described in the “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter'”, the primal scene repeats itself until it is resolved. In the case of Poe’s story, the Queen’s letter must be returned to her hand unopened. Similarly, the Prisoner can not avoid the repetition of the primal scene until he has either escaped its influence – also caused by a letter, in this case his hand-written resignation – or unmask the Other who demands that he reveal its contents. As with the Queen’s letter whose contents are never revealed, neither we nor Number One – the invisible Other of The Prisoner who rules the village – discover the reason for the Prisoner’s resignation. The interrogation of the primal scene continues even in the final episodes, only there the roles of the players become inverted.
This is not particular to The Prisoner, however. We can see this in almost every program on television. The opening sequence presents the theme and the characters in the program as they will always appear. The sitcom opens with small character sketches of personages that will not develop as the series progresses – the father is always bumbling, the mother dotting, the children smiling. The crime drama presents the ever stalwart detectives and judiciaries; The reality television program shows us the most exciting elements of the programming; The news show presents us with our unfaltering news anchors; “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast”, “Fair and Balanced News.” The television intro presents the founding elements of the program that will not be challenged; It presents the pith of the programs’ ontology.

The Dual Lack and the Individual: Television and Consumer Society

The Prisoner also mimics the functioning of television and consumer society in its driving force – the existence of a dual lack; the invisible Number One demands the secret of Number Six’s resignation, and Number Six demands knowledge of Number One’s identity. The mediator between these two lacks is Number Two, the representative head of the Village – neither Number One nor the Prisoner can approach the other directly. In this way Number two stands as a fetish through which each party acts: “Crucial for the fetish object is that it emerges at the intersection of the two lacks: the subject’s own lack as well as that of the big Other” (Zizek, 1997, 103). Within the context of the program, Number two functions as does the commodity in capitalism – instead of a relation between people we have a relationship between things. And just as the commodity fetish is never a singular object, Number Two is a constant exchange of different individuals. Each time the show begins we are presented with a new Number Two, played by a new actor. Number Two, just as the commodity fetish, is the form of the relation between actors. It is a form that enables different objects to occupy its position without that form being challenged. Hence, proving that a particular commodity is not worth the exchange demanded for it does not challenge the mode of exchange. Similarly, by exposing Number Two’s weaknesses each episode resulting in their expulsion from the village, the Prisoner does not challenge the structure of the Village’s social arrangement of domination. Indeed, he accomplishes the reverse.
This becomes more and more evident as the series progresses, as Number six becomes more and more aggressive in his destruction of each particular Number Two. Within the context of the village each person present is a prisoner, including Number Two. What Number 6 accomplishes by turning each Number Two’s plot against themselves is the ‘breaking’ that each seeks to inflict upon him. And it is in this way that we are able to call Number Six’s actions those of the pervert: Instead of accepting the Law of social and symbolic order and having jouissance regulated through adherence to it, the pervert identifies with the law and re-enacts the scene of castration. The pervert becomes the tool of the Other’s pleasure and enjoys by acknowledging the obscenity of castration, of the establishment of Law (Zizek, 1997, 35, 116). And so Number Six, as does the audience, enjoys a smug victory after each Number Two is defeated, each time the proxy is removed from its position of power. Traversing the fantasy, challenging Law and power, is not so easy as damning the objects that we perceive as our oppressors.
Approaching the object that gives shape to fantasy and revealing it as empty, as meaningless, as traumatic, is not easy. This issue is taken up in the final chapters of the program’s saga. In the second to last episode entitled Once Upon a Time Number Two and the Prisoner engage in their final encounter, a psychological duel to the death. The pair are locked in the “embryo room” – a chamber that resembles an oversized nursery – and Number Six is drugged to facilitate his regression and force a revelation of the conditions behind his resignation. Number Two takes on the role of psychoanalyst, playing out the roles of all the authority figures that Number Six has encountered throughout his development. This transference, unfortunately for Number Two, is not strong enough to precipitate Number Six’s breakdown; instead Number Two comes to identify with the prisoner and their roles are reversed. In the end, it is Number Two who is broken and dies at Number Six’s command. Upon this victory Number Six assumes authority over Number Two’s subordinates, and demands to meet Number One. The episode ends.
The following and final chapter of the Prisoner’s saga (Fall Out) consists of a trial wherein Number Six is lauded for his strength of will and individuality and is allowed to confront the hereto unidentified Number One. It is a trial none the less, and it is individuality that is to be tried and sentenced. The court presents three types of rebel: That of “uncoordinated youth, rebelling against nothing it can define”; “established member[s] of the establishment” that bite the hand that feeds them; and finally a “revolutionary of different calibre”, one who never falters in their aims, one “who is magnificently equipped to lead us.” The first two dissenters are rebuked as harmful to society and are sent to be detained until Number Six – as authorized by the tribunal and his victory over Number Two – decides how they are to be sentenced. As his reward, Number Six is given the choice to lead the Village or to leave and go wherever he please. He chooses the latter, and begins a victory speech after a prompting from the head a the tribunal. The only word we hear the Prisoner speak is “I”, the rest is drowned out as the tribunal raises a raucous chorus of “I! I! I!” The Prisoner forgoes his speech, and is presented to meet Number One. He is led below ground to enter the belly of a rocket – labeled “1” – that has been present throughout the scene of the trial. He passes his fellow rebels in glass cages, and then encounters a figure in a white smock and hood that covers their face. The figure – also labeled Number One – hands the Prisoner a clear globe. Upon looking into it, Number Six sees the image presented at the end of each episode: his own face growing to fill the frame, transposed atop an aerial shot of the village. Upon filling the screen, his image is barred – a cage closes in front of it. This shot repeats several times, and then we are shown the Prisoner dropping the globe and it smashing on the ground. We again hear “I! I! I!”, this time in the Prisoner’s voice as Number one raises his head to reveal a black and white mask. The Prisoner removes it, first to reveal an ape’s face, and then his own. Each McGoohan is shown cackling in turn in extreme close up, and Number One escapes through a hatch in the ceiling as the Prisoner attacks. The Prisoner then releases his fellow rebels from their glass cages, begins the rocket’s launch sequence, and flees the village to find himself in London. He returns to his house, hops in his car, and begins to drive. And so ends the series as it began – with a shot of McGoohan ripping down a highway in his custom made two-seater.
This episode shows us two things – firstly the role of the individual, and secondly the result of the attempt to approach the object of trauma. The dissenters in the Prisoner’s trial nicely match our description of the individual. The first is Frank’s hippie, modern-dandy, agent of counter-culture. The second are the Madison Avenue ad-men who identified with the counter-culture’s motives and challenged the conservative business structures that had grown up in corporate American between the nineteen-twenties and fifties. McGoohan’s character stands as the ideal, as the genus under which all categories accrue, the supreme liberal individual that can not be broken. Indeed, his delivered “sentence” upon the two was to take them from the village and loose them upon England’s capital city. And this is the role of the individual in late capitalism – Punk hero Greg Ginn becomes business entrepreneur, and our thirty-seven year old (and still) unconventional television series retails for $259.98 on DVD. Rebellion is synonymous with capitalism’s revolution and growth.

Traversing the Fantasy and the Subversion of Ideology

In regards to traversing the fantasy of the symbolic order, the ending of the series provides us with something of a conundrum; at first it appears as though the Prisoner has successfully challenged his lack, discovered the emptiness of the real, the secret of Number One’s identity, precipitated the collapse of the village and its systems. The end of the final episode is strikingly Lacanian – Number Six approaches the object in question, and is handed himself – the split or barred subject ($) that he sees within it. This object is smashed on the floor and the fantasy of the structure of the village dissolves. The object – the clear globe – is similar to that in the right hand of Dali’s Christ, and more strikingly like that in Orson Welles Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane’s globe, however, was filled by the lost object of his youth – Rosebud, his childhood toy. Zizek (2001) notes that it is only by releasing this object that Kane is able to “mature”, to end his melancholy and impotent rage (51). This is only achieved through his Death, through a Grande Mort. David Bowie hands a similar globe to the protagonist of The Labyrinth, within which exists a fantasy from which she must release herself in order to fully mature and save her baby brother. This sequence also ends with the smashing of the globe. The difference with the prisoner, however, is that Number Six’s globe is empty – it contains nothing but his decentrement. But the situation is not so different, for the object need not have a content in order to be challenged. It need only be approached and ejected, as we can see in Freud’s description of one of the particularities of his Wolf Man case.
The Wolf Man was, according to David Fisher (1991), one of Lacan’s most favoured Freudian case studies. In it we can surmise one of the origins of Lacan’s description of the objet petit a as the veiled emptiness of the Real: “His [the Wolf Man’s] principle subject of complaint was that for him the world was hidden in a veil, or that he was cut off from the world by a veil. The veil was torn only at one moment – when, after an enema, the contents of the bowel left the intestinal canal; and he then felt well and normal again” (Freud, 264). Zizek reads Lacan as holding shit as the objet par excellence, asserting that it represents the trauma of the empty Real to a T. The Wolf Man only felt part of the world after releasing the empty leftover that was his being. He could only be whole by exiting the symbolic order of his neuroses. So too, Number Six is only able to return to London after facing the split at the centre of his ontology.
The conundrum of the final episode, its contradiction, is that the Grand Mort of the village is accompanied by a petit mort and the suggestion of the beginning of drive, of repetition. This is evident in two places: The launching of the rocket labeled “1”, and the final shot of the episode that resembles one from the opening sequence. To properly understand the role of the rocket we must remember that Number One is that which the Prisoner lacks, that Number One is a void. Zizek explains that this void can present itself as a positivization that announces its presence – as the phallus: “The so-called pre-phallic objects (breasts, excrement) are lost objects, while the phallus is not simply lost but is an object which gives body to a certain fundamental loss in its very presence. In the phallus, loss as such attains a positive existence” (Zizek, 1997, 157). In Fall Out Number One is embodied in the not-so-subtle rocket, upon which is mounted an eye which signals Number One’s role not only as lack but as the superego that watches what we do, that acts as harbinger of Law. And what happens to this rocket? It is launched, in proper Freudian fashion, into space in a grand explosion in an even less subtle image of a petit-mort. And so the series implies its own repetition with the final shot of the Prisoner conducting his car as he does in each opening sequence. That is, so begins drive, the compulsion-to-repeat. The failure to transverse the symbolic system of the Village is further indicated in the final credit sequence. Where the other actor’s images are superimposed with their names, McGoohan’s reads simply “prisoner”; his identity still remains tied to that given him in the symbolic order of the Village. “You are Number Six!”

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