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American Imago 57.1 (2000) 95-119

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Identity Signifiers in Contemporary Russian Films:
A Lacanian Analysis

Janet Swaffar

The claiming of an essential identity is a common psychological mechanism human beings use to characterize themselves. For Russians in the last decade of this century, searches for the meaning of the self are endemic. Much of Russia is engaged in re-writing the narrative of community and re-constructing history in an effort to fill the identity void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its monolithic Ideological State Apparatus. 1

Contemporary Russian films are both symptomatic of and a productive force in this process of identity reconstruction. In the last ten years, Russian film production has frequently focused on problems that originated with the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Film producers, liberated from the ideological constraints of the Communist Party, have embraced the search for alternative ideologies as a primary narrative. The protagonists of new films are often in the position of confronting old values that are no longer realizable and so distort those values in their search for viable social and personal standards. In order to explore the limits on traditional signifiers, they look for alternatives and find them in chimerical discourses such as pre-Revolutionary Russia (e.g. Stanislav Govoruchin's controversial documentary, The Russia That We Have Lost).

Three films made in the early 1990s characterize this quest for alternative identities: Pavel Loungin's Luna Park (1991), Vladimir Khotinenko's Muslim (1994), and Nikita Mikhalkov's Urga (1991). Each movie addresses issues of post-Communist Russia in different locales--in Moscow, in a Russian village, and in China. Each film works through problems of identity, concentrating on one particular conflict in discourses that threaten the identity of the protagonists. Thus Luna Park stresses the conflicts arising from racial and gender [End Page 95] stereotyping; Muslim focuses on the difficulty of achieving religious tolerance in a traditional rural community; Urga depicts the intrusion of Western commercialism on a remote, idyllic Eden. The reception of these works, as well as interviews with the directors, suggests that each of these films attempts to find an essential Russian identity, to reassess traditional signifiers of what it means to be Russian in the era of post-Communism. 2

Our interpretation of these films is based on psychological theories developed in the work of Jacques Lacan. Lacan rejects the understanding of identity as essential and transcendent. Rather, he views it as constructed through the play of signifiers within a socially produced symbolic order. In his work, Lacan distinguishes between the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real--three sites which are important for understanding an individual as well as his or her universe. The imaginary is established in early childhood, when the infant experiences the reflection of his own body as a unified and unproblematic whole in the mirror. This mirror stage constitutes a basis for that subject's sense of "I" as a center of the universe where the surroundings--the Others--are made whole in the optic of one's own imaginary order. If individuals share premises from the symbolic order of their era in their own imaginaries, the Other and the "I" can have successful interaction.

Such acts of relating through a social set of signifiers promote an individual's entrance into language and into identity. Yet Lacan views the realization of one's own identity in language as constructed in absence and lack because no signifier is ever adequate to its signified. Words remain the surrogates of desire. The human subject experiences this sense of his or her own lack as measured against the symbolic order. That subject uses language or other sign systems (e.g. behavioral norms) to create a relationship between his or her imaginary and the symbolic order of the exterior world. At moments of successful communication, when perceived desires appear to be fulfilled, the subject believes that his or her identity is complete and autonomous.

This transient illusion of success is inevitably permeated with the reality of individuals' unfulfilled desires. In order to cover this...


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