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Theorising the Gothic for the Twenty-First-Century

Theorising the Gothic for the Twenty-First-Century
© Photograph by Catharina Elisabeth

A new theory of the Gothic for the twenty-first century is as follows: Gothic is the name for the speaking subject’s experience of approaching the Thing. This Thing (with an upper-case T) is as it has been described in Lacanian theory (fashioned from the writings of Kant, Hegel, Freud, and Heidegger): a phantasmatic construction of an unnameable void at the centre of the real, which as such both resists and provokes symbolisation.

This Thing, then, is not of the order of signifiers within the symbolic order, hence its actual unnameability except as the Thing.

As Serge André, himself a Lacanian analyst, says, “because language includes words such as ‘unutterable’ and ‘unnameable’, a place is hollowed out where something unutterable or something unnameable can really exist” (1994, 92).

The Thing is rather “that which in the real suffers from the signifier”, to quote the formula which Jacques Lacan employs in his seventh seminar, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1992, 115; see also 118, 125, 134). It is in the process of its becoming-word — it is suffering from the signifier — that this actually unnameable Thing is resolved into a series of effects in the symbolic order.

A thing (with a lower-case t) is, by contrast, a phenomenon of the order of signs as any object that might be named by language: in Freud’s German, for example, die Sache is a nameable thing, while das Ding is its unnameable counterpart. The significance of this distinction is what is elaborated on in Lacanian psychoanalysis.

The thrust of this labour has it that the symbol (and, by extension, the symbolic order of language, culture, art) is understood as being defined against the impossible reality of the Thing. Further, to define the symbol by something other than itself means that what is other is by definition already part of what it is simultaneously exterior to.

Lacan speaks in this connection of the “intimate exteriority or ‘extimacy’” which constitutes the Thing; Jacques-Alain Miller explains this “extimacy” (extimité) as “a term used by Lacan to designate in a problematic manner the real in the symbolic” (Lacan 1992, 139; Miller 1997, 75).

It may be that the most disturbing, as well as intriguing, aspect to this extimate Thing is that it is located at once inside and outside language, culture, art. By the same token, it may be at once inside and outside one’s home, one’s family, one’s self.

Already, perhaps, we can glimpse the interest of this notion of the Thing (das Ding) to a new theory of Gothic as a way of formalising our grasp of such things as space, property and subjectivity — typically, threats to subjective identity as located within interior spaces arising from disputes over property inheritance — as the familiar topoi of numberless Gothic fictions.

As with all “new theories”, this new theory of the Gothic is not entirely new of course. We must acknowledge the work in this direction of Catherine Belsey. Belsey too probes the extimacy of the Lacanian Thing that renders to us the absent centre of the real; that is, something which is unsymbolisable but which, ironically, must be symbolised if we are to come to terms with its radical strangeness.

This radically strange Thing is thus the reason why we have culture: as Belsey says in her ‘Culture and the Real’, “culture offers a detour that keeps the Thing itself at bay, defers with its own signifying presence the impossible jouissance of the encounter with pure absence, and gives pleasure in the process” (2005, 71). This remark is to explain what in Lacan is described as the “magic circle” that separates us as speaking subjects from the a symbolic Thing (Lacan 1992, 134). In her work, Belsey takes us on an extended tour of culture’s magic circle, expounding the complex nature of pleasure itself as it arises from a wide range of cultural forms that mediate the real to us.

For all the extensiveness of Belsey’s tour, however, there is no engagement with the Gothic, as inspired by Lacanian psychoanalysis. For that, with an emphasis on Thing theory in particular, we can turn to the recent research of Dale Townshend, published in his book The Orders of Gothic.

Townshend identifies what he calls “Gothic’s incestuous Thing” (2007). In so doing he notes how so many Gothic fictions, starting with Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ as founding text in a whole tradition of Gothic fiction, dramatise the prohibition against incest as the basis of family and social life as lived across a central nature/culture divide, in the process positioning the mother of the incest prohibition as radically Other.

This absent mother is thus the figure who occupies the place of the Thing vis-à-vis the symbolic order: she is par excellence Gothic’s incestuous Thing. In Otranto what is at issue is the potential incest of Prince Manfred with the Princess Isabella, who, as is mentioned repeatedly, lives as a daughter within Manfred’s family prior to her marriage to Manfred’s son Conrad.

Manfred is desperate to produce an heir, especially after the death of Conrad, on the day that should have marked his wedding to Isabella: “by me”, as Friar Jerome remarks to Manfred after hearing the latter’s plans to take Isabella as his wife, “thou art warned not to pursue the incestuous design on thy contracted daughter” (Walpole 1968, 84).

It is Victoria, the wife of Alfonso, the last rightful Prince of Otranto, who is the structural absent mother in all this. She is the grandmother of Theodore, the true heir of Otranto, a figure whose lineage has been obscured through Victoria remaining in Sicily after Alfonso joins the Crusades in the Holy Land, being poisoned there by his chamberlain Ricardo.

It all works out in such a way in Walpole’s novella that the subject of incest is at once an explicit subject of the plot and an excluded subject of the narrative. It is thus an “extimate phantasmatic Thing”, as Townshend says, apropos of the representation of sexuality in Walpole; of this very subject, Townshend notes, “For all modernity’s repugnance towards it, it assumes a position of hideous centrality” (2007, 189).

Townshend makes a valuable contribution to a new theory of the Gothic from his understanding of extimacy, as figured with reference to the Thing, located within the field of sexuality. But there is no need to confine ourselves to this level alone in Gothic analysis as undertaken from this perspective.

In his most extensive, Lacanian engagement with the Gothic, the essay “Grimaces of the Real”, Slavoj Žižek describes how “the void of the inaccessible Thing is filled out with phantasmagorias through which the transphenomenal Thing enters the stage of phenomenal presence” (1991a, 66). (This void that generates phantasmagorias is itself a variant of Hegel’s “Night of the World” in the Jena Lectures 1805-6).

Žižek’s emphasis here on transphenomenality is important for it captures the way that the unsymbolisable Thing always comes to be symbolised in the world of cultural objects. Addressing the problem of sublimation in his Ethics, Lacan introduces us to what for him is the primordial cultural object, the potter’s vase. This vase is made by the potter out of nothing, “starting with a hole”, as Lacan says (1992, 121).

It is an emblem in Lacan of the process of creation ex nihilo that encompasses the production of artworks in general, such that works of art are seen as forms of creation ex nihilo that start with a hole in signification and thus encircle (in culture’s magic circle) the emptiness at the heart of the real that materialises as the Thing.

In short, the potter’s vase is the object of objects in Lacan; as such, it has the value of representing the transphenomenal Thing. In terms of its representative function, the vase — notably maternal in shape — is thus the object of a process of sublimation which, as Lacan says in another of his formulas, “raises an object […] to the dignity of the Thing” (112).

As we shall see, it is primarily within the object world of Gothic fiction that sublimation itself becomes one of two main processes triggered during the speaking subject’s experience of approaching the inaccessible Thing.

Žižek explains the status of sublimity as “ultimately that of a ‘grimace of reality’”, here evoking a key phrase from Lacan’s Television whereby a grimace signifies an expression of pleasure and disgust at the same time. Žižek’s point is that such a grimace constitutes one among many possible analogues of how the real expresses itself at the level of phenomenality (Žižek 1991a, 68; Lacan 1990, 6 & 42).

Žižek argues: “The boundary that separates beauty from disgust is […] far more unstable than it may seem, since it is always contingent on a specific cultural space” (1991a, 68). It is precisely from this specific cultural space, organised by cultural objects, that the doublings of beauty and disgust become articulated together in the Gothic’s enactment of a symbolic approach to the Thing; that is, in the encounter with the proverbial things that go bump in the night. Or to put this in a more strictly psychoanalytic way, it is the key processes of sublimation and abjection that are activated within the psychic economy of the subject in encounters with the unknown as staged in Gothic fictions.

It is through sublimation in Lacan that we move towards “the beyond-of-the signified”, whilst what is termed “the outside-of-meaning” is approached by us through abjection, as described by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror (Lacan 1992, 54; Kristeva 1982, 22). Either way, it is to the place of das Ding that we are led by these paths. Kristeva suggests that, “The abject is edged with the sublime” (11), and thus she produces a nice formula with which to capture the tension which animates numerous Gothic tales. From this viewpoint, the world of Gothic is one of pulsating jouissance — that is, an alternating rhythm of sublimation and abjection — arising from narrative encounters with the “beyond” or the “outside” of signified meaning. Or, to use the language of Walpole’s Preface to the first edition of ‘The Castle of Otranto’, “the mind is kept up in a constant vicissitude of interesting passions” (1968, 40).

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