Drive-In Part IV: Road Construction Ahead

“Don’t you think he fits my shoes very well, your ladyship?”

  • Character Lord Bullingdon (of about 18 years old) referring to his 8-year-old half-brother in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon
  • Gap, split, void – these are concepts that permeate everything I’ve read so far by and about Lacan and Zizek. I’ll use this movie about loss to process what I’ve learned so far of what seems the ultimate symbol for these concepts in these thinkers’ works – the Master Signifier.

    Set in the eighteenth century, the movie begins with the protagonist Redmond Barry’s father, a genteel Irishman “bred to the profession of the law,” being killed in a duel (and with the unsympathetic narrator telling us only that the dispute was over some horses), leaving his son dispossessed. The story moves quickly ahead to Redmond’s first love, a restless young woman named Nora. We first see him with Nora in a scene where she hides a ribbon in her bodice and tells him she will “think very little of him” if he doesn’t find it. Redmond’s love is soon threatened by a rival, the affluent Captain Quin, who makes much of his own status as an Englishman. Matthew Sharpe of the University of Melbourne uses his own identity as an Australian to explain the Master Signifier. The term is used for

    those signifiers that the subject most deeply identifies with, and which accordingly have a key role in the way s/he gives meaning to the world… Lacan’s idea about these signifiers is that their primary importance is less any positive content that they add to the subject’s field of symbolic sense. It is rather the efficacy they have in reorienting the subject with respect to all of the other signifiers which structure his/her sense of herself and the world. It is precisely this primarily structural or formal function that underlies the crucial Lacanian claim that master signifiers are actually “empty signifiers” or “signifiers without a signified.”…

    What Lacan’s account of “master signifiers” thus emphasizes is the gap between two things. The first is our initial certainty about the nature of such an apparently obvious thing as “Australian-ness.” (We may even get vexed when asked by someone). The second thing is the difficulty that we have of putting this certainty into words, or naming something that would correspond to the “essence” of “Australian-ness,” beneath all the different appearances.

    The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy[1]

    I’ll use Nora’s ribbon to help remember another concept vital to the master signifier – “quilting” (a bit of a stretch, but we are talking about gaps…) The master signifier provides the necessary illusion of stability to its ideological frame through being a “point de capiton”:

    [A]ny given ideological field is “quilted” by what, following Lacan, he terms a point de capiton (literally an “upholstery button” though it has also been translated as “anchoring point”). In the same way that an upholstery button pins down stuffing inside a quilt and stops it from moving about, [Zizek argues] that a point de capiton is a signifier which stops meaning from sliding about inside the ideological quilt. A point de capiton unifies an ideological field and provides it with an identity. Freedom, i.e, is in itself an open-ended word, the meaning of which can slide about depending on the context of its use [for instance, whether it is defined by the right or the left wing]

    Slavoj Zizek – “Key Ideas” [2] (See a recent example in one use of the word “Free” here[3].)

    After being tricked into thinking he had killed Quin in a duel, Barry is thrown into a series of adventures that lead him to gain a fortune. Mark Crispin Miller in “Barry Lyndon Reconsidered” points out that, contrary to the opinions of most characters in the film (including the narrator’s), these adventures are not simply those of a man in search of a fortune, but in search of fatherly guidance and of a sense of belonging. I’ll post the article here[4]. (Don’t let the spelling and grammatical errors put you off from Miller’s brilliantly insightful analysis.) Redmond encounters numerous surrogate “fathers,” all of whom in some way fail him. Then he meets Lady Lyndon, who is married to an infirm old man who accuses him of trying to step into his shoes. After her husband dies, Lady Lyndon does marry Redmond, allowing him to become a father himself.

    [I]deological struggle is an attempt to ‘hegemonize’ the social field: to be that one element that not only is part of the social field but also quilts or gives sense to all the others – or, in Hegelian terms, to be that ‘species which is its own universal kind.’

    Rex Butler, “Slavoj Zizek: What is a Master-Signifier” [5]

    Prompted by his mother to make his and his son’s positions more secure, Redmond, now Barry Lyndon, seeks a title from England’s Master Signifier of his time – i.e., from the King.

    In his earlier works, Zizek posits the king as “guaranteeing the ‘non-closure of the social’ insofar as he is the ‘place-holder of the void’ … and the ‘name’ as what by standing in for the New is able to preserve it … And, in a way, Zizek will never cease this complicated gesture of thinking the void through what takes its place.” [6].

    Barry spends enormous sums of money on items to impress the aristocrats with whom he wants to belong, such as the painting “Adoration of the Magi” by Lodovico Cardi. In this scene, as Miller writes, he and his companions gaze up at the costly object as if it was “their Star of Bethlehem.” Art provides an example of another concept important to the master-signifier – pure difference. Zizek defines pure difference as,

    not actual, it does not concern different actual properties of a thing or among things, its status is purely virtual, it is a difference which takes place at its purest precisely when nothing changes in actuality, when, in actuality, the SAME thing repeats itself…

    [Quoting T. S. Eliot:] No … artist … has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.

    Deleuze’s Platonism: Ideas as Real [7]

    In a similar way, the Master Signifier, as Butler notes, “is not some underlying unity but only the difference between elements, only what its various mentions have in common: the signifier itself as pure difference.” [8]

    After consulting with a former Government Minister, Barry administers bribes, as the narrator tells us, “so near the royal person of His Majesty that you would be astonished were I to mention what great noblemen condescended to receive his loans” — a good quote with which to remember the underside of this concept:

    The Master Signifier is the name of its own difference from itself… [therefore a little paranoia] is normal: The constitution of a coherent symbolic reality requires a certain reading of plots, of hidden meanings behind the apparent surface of things. And, of course…this suggests…the possibility of another plot behind this plot, and so on…

    The law is never to be grasped as such but only as crime, as what all various crimes have in common. Law is never to be seen as such but only as its exception; and yet this is what the law is. Law is the name for its own exception, its difference from itself…[9]

    Barry’s introduction to his King, who says he was very fond of the late Sir Charles Lyndon, doesn’t go well, however. In fact, when told that Barry has raised a company of troops to fight the American rebels, King George remarks, “Good, Mr. Lyndon. Raise another company and go with them, too.” Mixing the artistic and kingly metaphors, we can ponder a question of Butler’s:

    if political struggle is defined as the contest to put forward that master-signifier which quilts the rest of the ideological field, then what is it that keeps open that frame within which these substitutions take place? What … allows the space for their mutual contestation? As Zizek writes later in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, we need to ‘distinguish more explicitly between contingency/substitutability within a certain historical horizon and the more fundamental exclusion/foreclosure that grounds this very horizon.’ [10].

    Soon afterwards, Barry’s antagonism with Lady Lyndon’s son by her previous husband breaks out in a roomful of the aristocrats whom Barry is trying to impress. In the scene that starts with the quote at the beginning of this entry, Lord Bullingdon calls Barry an “insolent Irish upstart” and “ruffian” and professes disgust for “the lowness of his birth” and “general brutality of his manners.” Enraged, Barry attacks Bullingdon from behind and beats him ferociously, destroying the reputation he had worked so hard to build. (Zizek might use this scene to illustrate that “running beneath the various conflicts in society, there is a fundamental antagonism, which is their truth and of which they are the expression. It is class struggle…” [11] )

    Then Barry’s own son, for whom he had “a thousand fond anticipations as to his future success and figure in the world,” dies. His wife’s ensuing attempted suicide forces her elder son’s intervention. Demanding satisfaction, Bullingdon maims Barry in a duel and ousts him from England for the rest of his life, and the narrator tells us that “fate had determined that he should leave none of his race behind him.” In an oblique way, this calls to mind Butler’s phrase, “Class – as universal – is nothing but its own failure…” [12]. And those who aspire to it will never receive satisfaction.

    1. Matthew Sharpe. “Master Signifiers, and the Decentred Nature of Belief.” in: The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. November 7, 2002/June 27, 2005.
    2. “CHRONOLOGY • Slavoj Zizek – Key Ideas.” in: 1997/2006
    3. Dean Baker. “Political Corruption and the ‘Free Trade’ Racket.” in: Common Dreams. April 30, 2013.
    – Update re the TPP here. Mark Weisbrot. “‘Free Trade’ Agreements Won’t Create Jobs But a More Competitive Dollar Would.” in: Center for Economic and Policy Research. May 9-13, 2013.
    4. Mark Crispin Miller. “Barry Lyndon Reconsidered.” in: Visual Memory, The Kubrick Site. 1976.
    5-6. Rex Butler. “Slavoj Zizek: What is a Master-Signifier.” in: 2004
    7. Slavoj Žižek. “Deleuze’s Platonism: Ideas as Real.” in: 1997/2007.
    8-12. Butler. “Slavoj Zizek…


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