The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
The Oblivious Transfer: Analyzing Blue Velvet

4. Cracking Up

Imagine a film that begins like this: There is a man who cannot get a grip on things. He opens the door to his analyst's office and steps onto a shiny highly polished floor. He slips, slides, and slithers in all directions, desperately trying to regain his footing. All he wants to do is reach the couch, lie back and tell his story. But his body rebels – conspiring with a hostile and unstable environment it propels him into a chaotic trajectory. This precredit sequence lasts about five minutes, during which time the chaos escalates dramatically so that by the time he reaches the couch we can hardly tell whether it is he or the furniture that careens, crashes, disintegrates. By the end of the film this walking catastrophe, propelled by an overwhelming death drive, is finally cured. But only in a manner of speaking: his symptoms do not disappear, they are simply transferred from one body to another, from him to his analyst. In the end it is the analyst who appears as an embodiment of suicidal parapraxis. The film is Cracking Up (sometimes retitled Smorgasbord) and the performer/director is Jerry Lewis. Clearly it is a comedy, relying on slapstick for much of its momentum, but it is also a serious film about identification and transference and as such elaborates an analogy between the film viewing situation and the analytic "cure." When I say "it is also a serious film" I do not mean "in addition" for it is in the very process of slapstick that a gleefully sadistic fantasy of transference is enacted. To understand this notion of slapstick we need look no further than the opening images. In the spectacle of the patient who slips, slides, and crashes we are witness to a spectacular literalization of the (Lacanian) sliding signifier. However, we are not there merely to witness – we are also implicated, lured into identification and interpretation. Retrospectively we can see that this sliding signifier serves to initiate a chain of hermeneutic delusion, from which we cannot escape unscathed. One way of interpreting the film is to say that it is precisely about the perilous nature of interpretation; it warns us against the hermeneutic impulse of "he who is presumed to know," the impulse to fix – that is, to mend and to cure – the sliding signifier."

5. Lip, Slip, Slap: The Slippery Slide Of Sadism

Blue Velvet is a similarly slippery text. Its praxis, however, is somewhat different: rather than literalizing a sliding signifier or deploying slapstick it smears the surface with a slippery substance – lipstick. It is not the substitution – of lips for slaps – that is significant, but the metonymy: kissing and hitting, seduction and sadism. The example of Cracking Up foregrounds through its obviousness a textual maneuver that I believe is also operative, though less obvious, in Blue Velvet – the enactment of a sadistic infantile fantasy in which revenge is effected against the one presumed to know (the analyst or film viewer/reader presumptuous enough to offer an interpretation) through the transference of symptoms from one body to another. Where Blue Velvet differs from Cracking Up, however, is that it specifically poses interpretation itself as perverse.

There are two scenes that I will take as metonymic of the kind of exchange that the text initiates with the interpreting subject. These are the lipstick scene between Frank the psychotic and Jeffrey the would-be detective, and the S and M gagging scene featuring Dorothy and Frank. The characters, however, should not be seen as standing in place of text and analyst; there is no one-to-one relationship between fictional film characters and characters who figure in dramas of the unconscious, or those players involved in the drama of transference. This is not to say that there are no correspondences or identifications, but rather I wish to signal a concern with the dynamic of exchange and a relative disinterest in identifying whose who. In the lipstick scenario she (the ingenue analyst) is seduced, lured into the complicity of exchange and interpretation. But the kiss, emblematic of this exchange, materializes as an act of violence, not only a slap on the smacker but also an act of contamination. To offer an interpretation of Blue Velvet, to open your lips (to speak, to be kissed) is to invite abuse, to risk getting egg on your face, or more precisely, lipstick smeared all over in an act of desecration. The film enacts a sadistic fantasy of transference by wishing its symptoms of perversion on the analyst or viewer.

Before turning to talk of gagging, a brief aside: the red lips are clearly homologous with the red shoes that Dorothy wears (even when she wears nothing else) and in turn these shoes or slippers echo a pivotal motif from two other films: The Red Shoes and The Wizard of Oz. In both these films the red shoes are transferred magically from one body to another; but once they have been put on they can never be taken off (or at least they can only be taken off by an act of severance, cutting, mutilation). [2]

There is just one more question I need to briefly address before turning to the S and M gagging scene. That question is: what is the meaning of "Blue Velvet?" I need to pose this question because the scene itself offers an answer, thereby precluding interpretation. It is therefore not simply in its thematics or depiction that the scene is metonymic of the kind of exchange that the text initiates with the interpreting subject, but in its performativity or textual practice. However, in order to work it requires complicity – paradoxically, an act of interpretation. So here we go. Firstly, "Blue Velvet" is purely immaterial – a song, a series of sounds. Secondly, it is nothing but a piece of material. These conceptions are not actually incompatible. The important point is that "blue velvet," though material in its effects, is not an object per se. It is a textural potential that may he manifested in a variety of part-objects. It is a materialization of blue fantasies. One of its manifestations is the film itself, given as a gift to the viewer/analyst, but also as a gagging device, to gag interpretation. The potpourri primal scene featuring Frank and Dorothy and voyeuristically witnessed by Jeffrey is characterized by an excessive acting-out of sadomasochistic tropes. Despite the fact that a certain degree of distance or separation is instituted – between fictional protagonists, and between viewer and screen – a connection or identification is also maintained. The piece of blue velvet that runs between Frank and Dorothy, that they grip between their teeth, binds them together in a bondage ritual. It is effectively a double bind and a running gag; it invites interpretation (to be identified as umbilical cord, fetish object, and so on) and gags criticism (or interpretation). The sadistic force of this gagging device is more forcefully driven home when we see the strip of blue velvet gagging the corpse of Don, the dead father. The Name of the Father – The Don – is certainly significant in Blue Velvet, but defined predominantly as Absent (or dead). It is in the body of the mother, battered black and blue, that the fantasy of revenge materializes; or to put this slightly differently, the one presumed to know materializes as a perversion of the maternal function (similar perhaps to Madonna's performance of "Material Girl").

The gist of my argument must now be emerging: that perversion in Blue Velvet is to be located not simply on the leve! of depiction, but on the level of textual perversity. Perversion here has to do with the simultaneous eliciting of, and desire to gag, interpretation. The notion of interpretation entails a conception of the analyst, who is here invoked as a textual presence, as the mother "presumed ro know." Symptoms of perversion are, in a sadistic scenario of wish-fulfillment transferred onto her body. Although my argument derives from a mode of wild analysis, it is also constrained by certain conditions of possibility. These include conditions for the possible intelligibility of Blue Velvet, I shall now go on to situate the film within a context of the postmodern, a context that I think provides the conditions for a certain kind of transference. This kind of transference will be characterized as The Oblivious Transfer.

6. Postmodernity and The Oblivious Transfer

"And like a pair of polished shoes, it had just the right world-weariness and erotic sheen." William Gass wrote this about a book with a blue cover [3] but it strikes me as a succinct evocarion of Blue Velvet, The "world weariness" connotes what is sometimes referred to as a postmodern shrug, and the "erotic sheen" indicates the self-conscious artiness that sets the film apart from porn, or real blue movies. In an era when the grand narratives (that is., the "master narratives" such as marxism and psychoanalysis) have supposedly lost their credibility, we can recognize the postmodern sensibility in a sense of irony about its own discourse, a playfulness about representation, a tendency towards self-referentiality, allusion and quotation, the deployment of rhetorical tropes such as pastiche and aphorism – all of which work, internally, to undermine the notion that the text has anything to say, any position, any claim to meaning.

Situating Blue Velvet thus enables an understanding of a problem about representation and reading (or interpretation) that is not particular to this film, but more generally a condition of the postmodern. The problem has to do with the presentation of an epistemologically self-conscious discourse, and a mode of address that invokes a knowing audience. [4] The tendency towards detailed description and listing, the predilection for quotation and allusion does indeed invoke a knowing audience but it is a particular kind of knowledge that is at issue. What is repeated (obsessively, it could be argued) in the activities of naming or listing, quoting, pastiche, and so on, is the knowledge that there is no difference – between the thing and the name, the source and the quotation itself, the real and its parody, the copy and the original. In brief: there is no original. And hence no scope for hermeneutic endeavor. The problem, which exists as a potential trap, is that while this kind of postmodern text disavows difference it nevertheless invites a form of hermeneutic identification – identification of the original, the source.

Blue Velvet addresses a viewer who is knowing on at least two counts: first about films, the history of cinema, a viewer who comes prepared with "screen memories"; and second about psychoanalysis. The postmodern inflection encourages a particular kind of viewer identification – the invocation of a "knowing" viewer incites the ob- sessive identification of tropes and allusions (psychoanalytic and filmic). But this is very different from the kind of identification called for in more orthodox narrative films, where emotional identification either with a fictional character or with a situation is necessary for the mobilization and working-through of unconscious fantasies. In Blue Velvet the self-distance and self-irony of the text discourages the viewer from identifying too closely with the subject. The film, or these kind of films, operate an economy of detachment. The severed ear that inaugurates the hermeneutic chain in Blue Velvet epitomizes this. But there is also a logic of separation or detachment operative in the kind of engagement elicited by the film. In the postmodern kind of identification there is a will to mastery posited precisely on detachment, on a paradoxical separation (paradoxical because there is also the assumption that there is no separation – between original and copy, and so on). If the reader of Blue Velvet is invoked as an analyst, then that invocation assumes a logic of detachment (the analyst is not involved in the discourse). However, this detachment is somewhat precarious, and far from absolute.

Analysis can only be produced our of some kind of identification and transference. So, even in these postmodern texts transference takes place, but a mode of transference characterized, at least initially, by a logic of detachment. The kind of postmodern procedures of exchange by which signifiers circulate and new knowledge is produced might be characterized by the notion of the "Oblivious Transfer. "The Oblivious Transfer is a procedure derived from number theory; in a high-tech world of electronic mail and telephone-linked computers where communication is possible despite distance it is a way of guaranteeing the security of secret messages, the correct transfer of funds, protocols for sending certified mail, and signing contracts at a distance. It falls within the domain of public-key cryptography, and is dealt with as part of the key-exchange problem.

    The transfer is somewhat like a simple game played with a locked has requiring two different keys. A sender transfers the locked box to a recipient, who finds one key trial partially unlocks the box. The sender has both keys and, without seeing what the recipient has done, must now pass on one of the two keys. Depending on which key is sent, the recipient will either succeed or fail in opening the box. Although the sender's choice controls the outcome, the sender never knows which choice to make to guarantee a certain result. [5]
The "keys" of course are mathematically generated and the "game" hinges on the difficulty of factoring large numbers, "Any mathematical operation that enables such a scheme to work must act like a trap that's much easier to fall into than to escape." [6] Although each party knows the "rules" and has access to keys there is no luck, as such, but rather an abstraction, a void, a nothingness. Not unlike the pure void that functions, in Lacanian theory, as the object-cause of desire; the zero borrowed from number theory that serves co both inaugurate transference and terminate analysis.

The Oblivious Transfer evokes another image of exchange, a conceit that materializes in the film as something closer to scriptural jest perhaps than to Lacanian theology. The immaculate conception involves an exchange that emphasizes distance, detachment, the bypassing of erotogenic zones (or, one might argue, the eroticizing of some other zone of exchange). The Annunciation is sometimes figured as a haft of light or stream of words issuing from the Angel and entering the Virgin's ear. [7] Thus she becomes pregnant with meaning, the word is made flesh. The analyst, receiving (hearing) the words of the analysand, is presumed to know (that is, presumed pregnant). But she returns these words to the subject, makes the words into flesh. The transference and detachment or separation essential to the cure is materialized in Blue Velvet as the severed ear, the word made flesh. If the polarities between analyst and analysand become uncertain we might see that there is a form of reversal happening here – the ear, as an organ of incorporation can also be repudiated, expelled like feces from the body and returned to sender. Thus the severed and rotting flesh found by or given to the would-be analyst/detective, the heir apparent.

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  1. J. Laplanche and J-B Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London; The Hogarth Press, 1973) 481.
  2. "I should have remembered," exclaims the Witch, "those slippers will never come off as long as you're alive." Declaring her intention to continue the assault she goes on: "But that's not what's worrying me; it's how to do it." James Lindroth draws attention to this in his detailed psychoanalytic reading of the relation between Blue Velvet and The Wizard of Oz in "Down the Yellow Brick Road: Two Dorothy's and the Journey of Initiation in Dream and Nightmare" in Literature/Film Quarterly vol. 18, no. 3 (1990): 160-166. In the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale from which the film of The Red Shoes is derived the girl is eventually driven to beg the executioner to cut off her feet. He says, "Surely thou knowest not who I am. I cut off the heads of wicked men, and my axe is very sharp and keen." To which the girl replies, "Cut not off my head! For then I could not live to repent of my sin; but cut off my feet with the red shoes." The fall of his axe is echoed in the sounds we hear on the radio at the beginning of Blue Velvet. The axed trees falling serve to mark the passing of time in Lumberton just as the patient marks time in analysis.
  3. 3. William Gass, On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (Boston: David R. Godine, 1976) 4.
  4. Whether viewers truly know or not is immaterial. The important point here is the invocation of an audience in-the-know, an in-audience.
  5. Ivars Peterson, The Mathematical Tourist: Snapshots of Modern Mathematics (New York: W. H. Freeman and Co, 1988) 17.
  6. Peterson 39.
  7. The shaft of light and stream of words are combined in Simone Martini's Annunciation, 1333, in the Uffizi. Thanks to Anne Freadman for locating this image.

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© Mike Hartmann