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American Imago 57.3 (2000) 281-297

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Lacan's Life, the Universe, and Vincenzo Natali's Cube

Shelia Kunkle

Ontology, for Lacanians, is not an easy thing to explain. Terms of being, time, and space are not used as physical coordinates the same way that physicists and cosmologists use them. Rather, in Lacan a certain logic of temporality and spatial orientations depicts a reality that may at times become unhinged from its familiar moorings. In Lacan's universe, one's sense of reality has a constitutive connection to language, for we become subjects locatable in space and time only through our existence in language, as subjects of the unconscious. A subject of language, for example, may find herself "de-ontologized" if she loses her integrating fantasy, if she somehow drops out of the play of the signifying chain or becomes stuck in a repetitive loop therein. As such, she may come to dwell in an "in-between" state where jouissance takes hold. A person may be "de-ontologized" both at the moment of bliss during the sexual act, and at the loss of a sense of self in psychosis, for these states are "impossible" to name with a signifier in Lacan's thought. The world of the human is structured in logical time and spatial orientations vis-à-vis other humans, and through language, the network of signifiers, which constitutes Lacan's Symbolic register. Any Symbolic order, life we know it, erupts out of the many possible worlds of the Real. 1

In Lacan's last years, before the effects of serious illnesses began to show, he took his theory of psychoanalysis onto a different playing field; that is, he went from a linguistic-enhanced neo-Freudian view, to the creation of mathemes in the 1950s and the introduction of topological shapes in the 1960s, to an obsession, in the 1970s, with the properties of paradoxical knots. 2 The torus, the moeibus strip, the Borromean knot were all used to try and convey, with different [End Page 281] tools, just what kind of universe is there for humans who must fix and re-fix their coordinates if they have any hopes of remaining subjects of meaning and desire. 3

Director Vincenzo Natali's 1997 horror-suspense film Cube offers a striking visual metaphor of how to conceive of this universe as constructed through Lacanian lenses. It demonstrates the metonymous signifying chain and the effects of the 'pure' signifier; how the Symbolic is knotted to the Imaginary and the Real; and ultimately, how the symptom (and sinthome) emerges in connection with jouissance. Predominantly, however, this film demonstrates the realm of the unconscious that opens up an "uncanny domain," as Slavoj Zizek relates, one that "has no place in the ontological-phenomenological distinction between psychic and somatic" (1994, 43). Like the characters of Cube, Lacan, at the end of his life, may have entered such a realm "outside time," where a mystical and enigmatic jouissance was approached.

As if to announce the power of the signifier's cut that signals the presence of a lack (and thus the Lacanian subject), the film begins with a man's body being instantly sliced into square pieces by a slashing grid of cheese wire inside a metallic square room. From there the camera shifts to an identical room where several seemingly random people awaken to find themselves in another dimly lit, 14' x 14' metallic cube, with six square doors in the center of each wall. The people soon discover there are many interlocking cubes, and they quickly learn that some of the rooms are booby-trapped to cause sudden death. One among them, Rennes, is killed when he enters an opening to an adjacent cube and acid is instantly injected into his eyes, causing grotesque disfigurement and painful death. The film's plot centers on the five remaining characters who must configure an escape and find ways to a safe passage from inside the cubes, back onto the surface outside. This group consists of: Quentin, a cop on the outside, who appoints himself...


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