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  • Reality, the Real, and the Margaret-Thatcher-Signifier in Two British Films of the 1980s
  • Michael Walsh

A disorienting but also liberating conclusion can be drawn from the debate on Thatcherism, and insofar as no actuality is easily separable from the debate, from Thatcherism itself. 1 This conclusion is that historical, political, social, and cultural meanings are signifiers; unfixed, they are available to mobilizations whose outcomes are just as likely to prove distressing as encouraging. In saying this, I do not intend to vitiate ten years of sometimes bitter political experience by capturing it within some bloodless circuit of signification. What I do want to suggest is that the engagements of the 1980s in Britain made unhappily tangible some of the most pious verities of 1970s theory. Under Thatcher, developments both structural (the legacies of empire, the decline of Britain, the crisis of laborism) and topical (the voting allegiance of the skilled working class, the depiction of inner-city unrest) became as much questions of representation as anything in the traditional textual domain. In other words, what made Thatcherism such an impossible-Real object for the British culture of opposition was that it succeeded in revoking the gradualist guarantee of social progress, exposing this as premised on conditions obtaining in Britain between the 1940s and the 1970s, and replacing it with a more sectoral, more symbolic politics of support.

This is to introduce both a discussion of two British films of the 1980s (Richard Eyre and Ian McEwan’s The Ploughman’s Lunch and Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) and an argument appropriate to them, that the surviving realism of British cinema is now strongly marked by questions of representation and signification. As Peter Wollen has suggested, the work of filmmakers like Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway represents the long-delayed, long-desired breakthrough of modernism in British cinema. I want to argue that this breakthrough enables the examination of the whole [End Page 169] range of British films from a new perspective, and as a first indication of this I will refer to Slavoj Zizek’s account of Lacan’s distinction between reality and the Real (1991, 12–66), as well as to my own previous essays on Lacan’s Seminar on the psychoses (Walsh 1990) and the question of reality and the Real in cinema (Walsh 1994).

In the understanding of Lacan introduced into English-speaking film studies during the 1970s, the most common points of reference were the essay on the mirror-stage, the analysis of the look, and the idea that the apparently Imaginary experience of cinema is actually structured by the Symbolic. The first wave of Lacanian film criticism typically described the text’s construction of a subject-position for the spectator, the Imaginary coherence of which was punctured by an exigency of the signifier or the Symbolic. However, in what Zizek calls the “later Lacan” (though the ideas in question can be traced back at least as far as the Seminar on the psychoses of 1955/56), the importance of the dialectic between the Symbolic and the Imaginary gives way to an emphasis on the interface between the Symbolic and the Real. At that interface, the Real is defined as what absolutely resists or defies symbolization; it is whatever cannot be integrated into the universe of signification, whatever is genuinely traumatic. According to Lacan, the Real is “this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence” (1978, 196; 1988, 164). By turns the unconscious, birth, death, the body, and the pain of the symptom, the Real is whatever cannot be symbolized, whatever is unspeakable. Thus the notorious dictum that “the Real is the impossible,” and the idea that “objective” or “external” reality is a determined but doomed effort to symbolize the Real.

The Seminar on the psychoses, with its example of a woman coming home from the butcher who imagines that her neighbor calls her a sow, proposes that what defines psychosis is the encounter with the signifier in the Real; the psychotic is a person who fails to locate the signifier in the Symbolic, thus getting into deep...

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