Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Last Temp-tata-tions

This brings us to what, for Lacan, is the ultimate ethical trap: to confer on the fantasmatic gesture of deprivation some sacrificial value, something that can only be justified with a reference to a deeper meaning. This seems to be the trap into which The Life of David Gale fell, a film which has the dubious distinction of being the first big Hollywood production to include an explicit Lacanian reference. Kevin Spacey plays a philosophy professor and opponent of the death penalty who, very early on, is seen delivering a course on Lacan’s “graph of desire.” Later, he sleeps with one of his students, loses his job, is shunned by the community, and then gets blamed for the murder of a close female friend, ending up on death row, where a reporter (Kate Winslet) comes to interview him. Initially certain that he his guilty, she begins to have doubts when he tells her: “Think about it―I was one of the biggest opponents of the death penalty, and now I’m on death row.” Pursuing her research, Winslet discovers a tape which reveals that he didn’t commit the murder―but too late, since he has already been executed. She makes the tape public, however, and the inadequacies of the death penalty are duly revealed. In the last moments of the film, Winslet receives another version of the tape in which the whole truth becomes clear: the allegedly murdered woman in fact killed herself (she was dying anyway of cancer), and Spacey was present as she did so. In other words, Spacey was engaged in an elaborate anti-death-penalty activist plot: he sacrificed himself for the greater good of exposing the horror and injustice of death penalty. What makes the film interesting is that, retroactively, we see how this act is grounded in Spacey’s reading of Lacan at the film’s beginning: from the (correct) insight into the fantasmatic support of desire, it draws the conclusion that all human desires are vain, and proposes helping others, right up to sacrificing one’s life for them, as the only proper ethical course. Here, measured by the proper Lacanian standards, the film fails: it endorses an ethic of radical self-sacrifice for the good of others; this is why the hero makes sure Winslet receives the final tape―because ultimately he needs the symbolic recognition of his act. No matter how radical the hero’s self-sacrifice, the big Other is still there.
- Slavoj Zizek, "The Two Sides of Fantasy"

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