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Camera Obscura 19.1 (2004) 112-149

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Envisioning the (W)hole World "Behind Things":

Denying Otherness in American Beauty

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Figure 1
American Beauty's insistence that what the Colonel and film viewers see barely conceals our identifications, repressions, and aggressions.
[End Page 112]

Sam Mendes's American Beauty (US, 1999) explicitly affirms the importance of upholding the prohibition against incest. In his DVD commentary on the film, Mendes himself sees his work as the tale of a man, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who becomes "a father again" by foregoing the chance to capitalize on his fantasy—to sleep with his teenage daughter's friend, Angela (Mena Suvari).1 The film understands this endorsement of the injunction against incest broadly and in terms we might characterize as Lacanian. Indeed, Lester's gesture summons Lacan's well-known account of the subject in/of language. The restoration of Lester as a father—his choice to sustain the paternal function—comes with his own acceptance of Symbolic law or castration, with his acceptance of the exigencies of being (dis)placed in language. That is to say, Lester's refusal to sleep with Angela coincides with a recognition that the intimations of Otherness that compel and position the film's celebrated videographer, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), matter for him as well. Ricky looks not to the superficial image [End Page 113] of beauty that has driven Lester and that appears to yield a transparent access to self and other, but rather to remnants (even waste) that point to an unseen world, a whole "life behind things." Through his gesture of restraint, Lester comes to see and accept that, however tenuously, such remnants, like the Lacanian Symbolic, also place him in a world, even as they impress on him a sense of a radical Otherness that displaces him from himself.

According to Judith Feher Gurewich, American Beauty affirms the roles of Symbolic castration and underscores the need to acknowledge a radical Otherness that perturbs the contours of the subject. And it is all the more important to heed, since such an acknowledgment ultimately serves to maintain a "fantasmatic" realm, a realm beyond human grasp that works to sustain desire. Gurewich goes so far as to see in American Beauty a welcome attempt to locate a new space that will embrace the positive effects of castration, despite the significant resistance this effort currently faces within the social sphere. For her, the film can, in fact, help illuminate what such resistance fails to appreciate, namely, "that the Symbolic is what protects us, what sustains desire and fantasy, as opposed to preventing us from doing what we want."2

Yet if we move beyond an exclusive focus on how American Beauty figures both father/daughter and heterosexual relations, it remains quite difficult to conclude that the film so strongly affirms the importance of Symbolic mediation. Indeed, when we consider American Beauty's explicit and implicit view of incest in the father/son relation (an interest of the film that critics ignore), as well as the implications of such a view for imaginings of homosexual desire, we can discern that while American Beauty endorses the importance of maintaining the mediating effects of Otherness in the father/daughter plot and for heterosexual relations, the film refuses to uphold the value of Symbolic castration for homoerotic and homosexual relations. Specifically, with respect to the father/son relation, the film attempts to reclaim a direct, unmediated access to a fixed paternal origin, an aim that pointedly refuses the triangulation of desire. This refusal of a mediation by Otherness at the origin seeks to underwrite the idealizing, though no less troubling, view that gay men ultimately can exceed Symbolic law or the exigencies of being in language. [End Page 114]

American Beauty's denial of Otherness in homoerotic and homosexual relations becomes salient as well when psychoanalytic theories—now more than ever concerned with a respect for Otherness and the other—consider the...


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