The Lacanian Real and horror films: The commodification of the Real? Some notes on the “torture porn” genre

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Abstract

In a previous article, Die Lacaniaanse Reële en grufilms: Jennifer Kent se The Babadook (2014) [“The Lacanian Real and horror films: Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook”](Van den Berg 2018, the Lacanian Real was defined and described with reference to twelve elements or theoretical motifs that were subsequently presented as potential critical perspectives on the horror film as a genre. The Australian film The Babadook by Jennifer Kent was then used to demonstrate the critical potential of such a theoretical perspective. The concluding issue of the essay related to the seeming commodification of the Real within horror films, i.e. asking the question whether the codified, generic use of the Real in order to prompt reactions from viewers can still be regarded as exemplary of Lacan’s definition of the concept. Does the commodification of the Real not betray und undermine the proper Lacanian utilisation of the term? The article following intends to grapple with this question, starting from the theoretical background that was discussed in the previous contribution. Again the Lacanian Real is used as a starting point, but this time the focus is not on the twelve theoretical motifs previously used to describe the Real, but rather on the Žižekian reworking of this Lacanian register. As The Babadook was used in the previous article to explore the theoretical relevance of the Real for horror films as such, the genre of torture porn, specifically the very successful Saw film franchise, serves here to explore the commodification of the Real in the horror film genre.

The theoretical focus of the argument relates first and foremost to the Žižekian appropriation and reworking of the Lacanian Real, which according to his conceptualisation becomes (1) the real Real, (2) the imaginary Real and (3) the symbolic Real. The claim made in the article is that the twelve theoretical motifs discussed previously can be related to the three perspectives on the Real that Žižek espouses. The most important of these include the following:

1) The real Real refers either directly to the abject and/or indirectly to the gaps in (and therefore limits of) the symbolic register.

2) The imaginary Real can be related to confrontation with something that is experienced as being unheimlich.

3) The symbolic Real can be seen as the subject’s insight in the anonymous codes and structures of his/her experienced reality.

All three of these are closely interrelated and sometimes difficult to distinguish from one another, but all three can also be utilised very productively when evidence of the Real is interrogated. Of these three inflections of the Real it is specifically the abject as indicative of the real Real that is of paramount importance for the torture porn genre.

The second theoretical impetus for this article lies in the choice of torture porn (as a subgenre of the horror film tradition) to explore the generic codification and consequent commodification of the real Real in its manifestation as the abject. First and foremost the choice to use this despised subgenre is motivated: its financial successes are proof that filmmakers found horror ingredients that sell very well, but it is precisely the often harsh criticism levelled at these films that emphasises its abject representation as being in very poor taste. These discrepancies in the critical, popular and academic (theoretical) reception of torture porn are subsequently discussed. Critically vilified but very popular in terms of the box office, it is the different and somewhat contradictory definitions of the genre that makes generic specificity difficult: they are either interpreted from an a-historical, structural perspective or read allegorically, specifically with regard to the American post-9/11 experience. Perspectives on the subgenre that have been used include the following: the graphic destruction of bodies; the abject nature of the visual representation; the absence of narrative in favour of graphic, visual spectacle; the allegorising of the 9/11 trauma; surveillance and control as reaffirmation of normativity; the antagonist as symbolic of the Other; the erasure of moral boundaries and positions; and the film narratives as allegorical tales of transformation. These perspectives are consequently explored with reference to Žižek’s triadic inflections of the Lacanian Real.

As one of the most important flagships of the torture porn genre, and despite its very low critical appreciation, the Saw film franchise still managed to garner huge amounts of income at the box office, showing the divergence between critical and popular opinion. For this reason these films are used to explore the Real and its eventual commodification as the series progressed. It is precisely with reference to the visual spectacularity of the genre that the respective films can be viewed as examples of affective cinema. According to the opinion presented in this article it is the real Real as the abject that represents the one singular element that carries and defines the torture porn genre. Beyond the discussion of the elements of the imaginary and symbolic Real in the Saw films, it is therefore the real Real in the form of the abject that takes centre stage.

Hal Foster’s work on the deliberate and conscious use of the real Real (in its manifestation as the abject) in the context of modern art can easily be utilised to describe torture porn as nothing more than a generic codification of the Real that is subsequently commodified in the building of the prevalent movie genre and franchise. The conclusion is that this very successful film franchise is emblematic of this use of the Real, which in the end suggests a cynical sell-out of the Lacanian Real in order to facilitate financial exploitation. This in effect means that this kind of film should not be regarded as unacceptable trash that transgresses all boundaries of good taste, but rather as emblematic proof of how the conservative (capitalist) normativity of current society moves its boundaries in order to extend its (financial) realm of cultural influence: the bad taste is not that these films have managed to seep into the theatres of mainstream cinema, it is precisely the opposite – mainstream cinema has bulldozed into what previously was held as being unacceptable and/or transgressive, simply to make more money. It inevitably becomes clear that the “Real” commodified by these films is not the Real as defined by Lacan.

Keywords: abject; commodification; horror films; Imaginary; Lacan, Jacques; psychoanalysis; Real; Saw film franchise; Symbolic; torture porn

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die Lacaniaanse Reële en grufilms: Die kommodifisering van die Reële? Enkele opmerkings oor die “martelporno”-genre

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