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Blame on Nothingness - Vertigo

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Nia Nguyen

A Blame on Nothing and Nothingness
Abject: A Rereading of Vertigo

“In a male libidinal economy… the only good woman is a dead woman.” Slavoj Zizek, A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema

Robin Wood began his landmark studies, Hitchcock’s Films (1965), with the rhetorical question, “Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?” Yet it was also Wood himself who revised the question in 1983. He asks, “Can Hitchcock be saved for feminism?” While there is no denying the brilliance of Hitchcock’s subjective camera and his skillful manipulation of identification processes, one cannot help but loathe the pungent misogyny prevalent in his works. Vertigo (1958) is arguably no exception. Laura Mulvey, a vocal and influential feminist film critic, contends that Vertigo elucidates an active sadistic voyeurism of the male gaze that subjects the woman, as object-of-desire, to realize his impossible fantasy, time and again at the cost of brutish violence against her body and psychological wellness.[1] Also exploiting Freud’s theory, Tania Modleski deciphers female suffering in Vertigo as a punishment for her inherently close relationship with the mother with which the men envy.[2] In drawing on the phallocentric models of Freud and Lacan, these criticisms bear a blind spot in that they assume certain essentialist sexual development characteristics to formulate the backbone of their analysis, such as Mulvey’s reading of object-of-desire or Modleski’s draw on bisexuality. In order to fairly assess if the nature of violence in Vertigo is misogynistic, I seek a language that is not inherently phallocentric. And while Lacan offers a comparatively more structuralist framework, I find his psychological development theory inadequate to address fully the transition between development stages and the mechanism for regression, for which I perceive as very complex in Vertigo. Therefore, I propose a rereading of Vertigo through the scope of structuralist Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection to account for this lack of gender neutrality and development fluidity. In so doing, I seek to provide a closer examination into the psychological well-being of Scottie and the motives behind his actions, thus assessing the claims of violent assaults to women in Vertigo. According to Kristeva in Powers of Horror, the “abject” is neither an object nor subject. It draws our attention toward the place where meaning collapses, thus “disturb(ing) identity, system, order…the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”[3]. For Kristeva, our experience as subjects in the Symbolic is pervaded by difference, gap and lack – that which lies between the inner coherent self and our vested mirror images. It is a lack of this lack, or boundary failure, that causes abjection. By effacing the boundaries between myself and that which is not “I”, the abject disrupts the integrity of our understanding of the self, revealing the incompleteness and emptiness constituting us. It reminds us that we are, after all, fractured beings, having once experienced abjection as infants, still vulnerable to that abysmal, suffocating maternal space.[4] Thus, abjection is “a violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power (of the maternal) as securing as it is stifling.”[5] To enter the Symbolic, a nascent being must invest in a mirror image to which it identifies to and mimics (mimetic conflict), and with access to language, it then matures into a subject. Hence, Kristeva’s notion of abjection is acutely helpful in understanding figures that are in a state of transition or in constant threat of it. Clinging for his life to the gutter of a roof, the protagonist Scottie Ferguson is portrayed from the very outset as an on-the-edge, very fractured and insecure character. Scottie experiences profound dissatisfaction with both his professional and personal life. As a detective, his failure to prevent the death of a fellow policeman fragments Scottie’s professional confidence. Later diagnosed with vertigo, Scottie must resign from the high position of the law, and for a man who wholly devotes his life to career, such withdrawal strongly shakes his sense of identity, which is already quite enigmatic. Regardless of the mask he puts on, as Scottie, Mr. Ferguson, or John, he constantly feels threatened by the lack of control of not only his locomotion but also his personal life. Furthermore, there is a way in which Scottie also feels constrained physically by the corset, “It’s this darned corset. It binds.”[6] Scottie’s very first line exhibits frustration, not so much with the physical limitation as with the way in which this traditionally female garment undermines his masculinity, creating an unnerving confusion of gender. To reassert his masculinity and competency before Midge, the feminine, Scottie challenges his acrophobia by gradually ascending a low footstool, only to fall into her arms like a little child. Hence, within the first ten minutes of Vertigo, it becomes apparent how Scottie’s uneasiness with his incompetency predisposes him towards Gavin Elster’s thrilling plan of “saving” his alleged haunted wife, Madeline, in return for a restoration of control. While Madeline seems to be associated with suicidal obsession, she eludes definition. She is the utmost abject. Despite the early introduction of Madeline as the living wife of Gavin Elster, the fabrication of her appearance and demeanors is so perfect that it convinces Scottie at times that she is being possessed by someone from the past – Carlotta Valdez, her alleged haunting great-grandmother. Shifting between “Madeline” and “Carlotta”, she blurs the distinction between life and death. Moreover, while she shows a fascination with death, Madeline simultaneously expresses utter fear of it, “And I don't want to die, but there's someone inside me, there's a somebody else, and she says I must die.”[7] It leaves the spectators, especially Scottie, with a daunting confusion of attitude towards death. Like the corpse, Madeline “is death infecting life. Abject… Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.”[8] While chasing Madeline around San Francisco, Scottie, so caught up in the uncanniness with which Madeline mirrors him, fails to realize the threatening closing gap between them. Split between herself and Carlotta, Madeline also possesses a very ambiguous identity, a dilemma that Scottie identifies with. After his resignation, Scottie’s occupation now becomes “a wanderer”, which allows the chase after Madeline, a lost wanderer, to come very naturally. Furthermore, unable to break with the motherly Midge, Scottie sees the female version of his dilemma in Madeline, in which she cannot seem to cut off the thread with the mother figure in Carlotta.[9] We witness the most striking visual mirroring when Madeline leads Scottie through a back alley, then a dark back room of a building. Hiding behind the door, Scottie watches Madeline through the small crack opening. This door, however, has a mirror attached to its back, and the camera captures a wonderful shot in which the screen is split between Scottie’s gaze into the distance and the close-up face of Madeline.[10] The mirror image appears so seamlessly that it is as if Madeline becomes Scottie’s reflection. As the chase progresses, the camera, which represents the male gaze, zooms in further and further on Madeline, especially at the art gallery (in the Palace of Legion of Honor), implying Scottie’s increasing identification with Madeline. Scottie’s obsession with Madeline escalates so rapidly that closing the gap between Madeline and him any further can put his identity at stake. When Madeline jumps into San Francisco bay, Scottie also jumps into the water to save her. It seems as if after their submersion in this universal disintegrating body of fluidity, Scottie’s fascination with his mirroring image in Madeline transforms into a desire to merge with her. As he says to her, in half seriousness, “You know, the Chinese say that once you’ve saved a person’s life, you’re responsible for it forever.”[11] It seems paradoxical that when Scottie keeps repeating, “No one possesses you”, he becomes all the more possessed. Here it is clear to Scottie himself that he is losing sanity. In probing Madeline for an answer —“Why did you jump? What was it inside that told you to jump?” — Scottie is actually trying to figure for it out for himself. Reasoning collapses and Scottie now has become “a willing victim”. Scottie’s failure to save Madeline annihilates any remaining sense of competency, leaving way for abjection. Having once helplessly witnessed another’s death, this second trauma forces him to confront his weakness which gets greatly accentuated in court, “It is a pity that… he did not make a greater effort the second time… He could not face the tragic result of his own weakness, and ran away.”[12] For Scottie, if not already engulfed by abjection, this harsh verdict truly consummates his sense of incompleteness. Scottie’s hallucination of the ghost of Carlotta in the arms of Gavin Elster implies the disappearance of the line between the real and fantasy. Though we cannot pinpoint when Scottie confronts abjection, be it at the mission tower or in court, his dream shortly after Madeline’s presumed death signals his withdrawal from the Symbolic. The dream features Scottie walking forward toward Carlotta’s open grave into which the camera descends. What follows is Scottie’s silhouette falling towards the mission roof the same way Madeline died.[13] In this very moment, Scottie is Madeline is Carlotta. As one regresses back into abjection, it becomes apparent that the maternal space is terrifying, for “it threatens as abyss, dividing wall, or suffocating vise.”[14] The instinct of the nascent subject then is to ascend back to the Symbolic as fast as it can by reliving the mimetic conflict – by mimicking the maternal marks and repressing differences. It is not until it can access language that it becomes a subject capable of differentiating with “the other”, or the mother. In merging his identity with Madeline, Scottie also assumes her obsession with the dead Carlotta. Like a ghost, he wanders the street of San Francisco in an act of a nascent being going through mimetic crisis. As he returns to places where Madeline used to be, he collects all the signs, from the bouquet, the restaurant, etc. in hopes of rebuilding a linguistic system of signifiers with which to recognize “objects” as “other”. The manipulation of Judy’s body and psychological well-being has been central to the controversy of violence against women in Vertigo. Stripped, molded, and made over, Judy’s body and mind are abused repeatedly by Scottie. Mulvey describes Scottie’s sadistic behavior as an attempt of a male spectator, terrified by the spectacle of female castration, to fetishistically recreate the ideal, phallic woman. Modleski likewise condemns his molding of Judy as a way to restore the lost (loved) object.[15] However, these criticisms seem to assume a sense of agency on Scottie’s part. I’d argue that at no point of time in his relationship with Madeline/Judy is Scottie actively in control. Contrary to feminist criticism, which reproduces a subject/object binary by explaining Scottie’s seemingly mad behavior in terms of shaping an object of desire in order to maintain the illusion of an ongoing relationship with her, [16] I would argue that the subject/object positions are much less distinct. Scottie is caught in the desperate effort of a fragile yet-to-be-subject, caught in abjection with constant threat of further regression, to re-enter the Symbolic. In Scottie’s makeover of Judy, he is actually still a yet-to-be subject seeking to re-establish his mirror by recreating Madeline’s persona in Judy. Therefore, what appears as a sadistic manipulation of the female is in fact a desperate defensive mechanism of a fractured being in peril of receding further from the Symbolic. In fact, Judy, supposedly the victim of the violence, may actually possess a greater sense of agency than Mulvey or Modleski give her credit for. When she runs into Scottie on the street as Judy Barton, Judy could easily cut him off, yet she chooses to lead him on. Judy, again and again blinded by her “love”, willingly cedes her own agency. Hence, I would argue that charging a non-subject being of “subjecting” another “object” to its non-existent “will” is ideologically unsound. Any attempt to attributing blame is futile in this stage of abjection. The notion of blame, however, exists after the discovery of the necklace for it marks Scottie’s ostensibly true re-entrance into the Symbolic. Just when Scottie is rejoicing at successfully convincing Judy to transform into Madeline, his presumed correct mirror, he realizes at the sight of the necklace, the utmost important sign, that he has not escaped abjection at all. It is at this point that the prospect of becoming a complete subject reappears to Scottie: once he has solved the mystery, once he is in the position of knowing…. There is something uncanny about why the necklace is such a vital key to Scottie’s resurgence. Rather than indicating the eruption of “the Real” like Modleski argues, the necklace, which is associated with Carlotta, represents for Scottie the sign of Mother. A symbol of the maternal marks completes the symbolic language and allows beings to differentiate itself as an “I” against “mother”, an “other”. It is the necklace, an accessory that locates at the most fragile body part, which truly brings back Scottie his vitality. Contrary to popular feminist condemnation of Judy’s inevitable death to satisfy the male fetish, I believe that her demise indeed does Scottie no good but to threaten his fragile subjectivity. Judy’s death is preceded by the climactic ascent of Scottie and her up the mission tower. Modleski deciphers their confrontation as violent. The ugly truth that he has been duped undermines his sense of masculinity and consequently catalyzes his sadism to its peak. He drags Judy up the tower to guilt and punish her to death in the hopes that it will prevent her from coming back to challenge his identity. However, contrary to Modleski’s interpretation, I believe the nature of Scottie’s emotional confrontation with Judy is constructive rather than destructive. For Scottie, a subject fresh minted out of abjection, setting clear boundaries is vital to securing his identity. By locating himself as a victim of Gavin Elster’s plot, and Judy as the accomplice, Scottie successfully establishes a firm gap between them to prevent future boundary failures. As a result, he reserves for himself an identity – the victim. Furthermore, for Scottie, a former detective, his core of confidence lies in his ability to solve a crime. Thus, confirming his accurate dissection of Gavin’s plot greatly boosts his sense of competency and security. Thus, in Scottie’s defense, his move in dragging Judy up the tower to confirm reality is for the sake of knowing more than anything else. He seeks no punishment on Judy. In fact, I would argue that Judy’s death is an unfortunate event for Scottie as it represents a loss of the mirror. To lose an otherness is to lose boundary, to lose gap, and to risk falling back into abjection. The battle to secure his own subjectivity never seems to end for Scottie. This rereading Vertigo with Kristeva’s structural analysis is my attempt to fend a favorite auteur from feminist obloquy. However, in the end I find myself getting caught in between, as though in a state of abjection myself. On the one hand, I am traumatized by the violence committed against Judy, for in the manipulation and obliteration of her body I feel my own. On the other hand, I feel the urge to vindicate Scottie, a fractured being, without any permanently clear sense of “I” versus “other”, struggling throughout Vertigo to secure his survival and identity, unfortunately at the expense of others. Scottie’s struggle reveals important implications about the structure of Vertigo and the nature of subjectivity: he is always on the edge. Vertigo begins with Scottie, a very insecure being losing his footstep and hanging precarious off the edge, only to end with Scottie at the top of the mission tower, again standing on the edge, threatened as he looks down at the sight of his disappearing mirror, of the other that defines him. Like a spiral, the narrative of Vertigo falls back onto itself, in which there seems to be no end or beginning but just subjectivity in constant threat of abjection that grows bigger/deep with every swirl. Going back to the most haunting question of Hitchcock criticism - “Can Hitchcock be saved for feminism?”- it appears that when applied to Vertigo, our femininist critics who fixate on analyzing the nature of violence against the female seem to have missed the most critical point – the notion of blame cannot find a foothold in Vertigo, where subjectivity is in constant transformation. Hitchcock’s refusal to include an alternate ending in which Elster is brought back to trial (as demanded by the U.S Production Code Administration office) creates a narrative structure that makes the task of attributing blame impossible. Following this logic, is it not that the charge of misogyny can be suspended for Vertigo, and Hitchcock, for this brief moment, can be saved for feminism?

Work Cited

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: A Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Modleski, Tania. The Women Who Knew Too Much. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, 3 (1975): 15-16, reprinted in Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1991.
Reiniki, Martha J. Sacrificed Lives: Kristeva on Women and Violence. Indiana University Press, 1997.
Vertigo. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. James Steward and Kim Novak. Paramount Studios, 1958. DVD.
White, Susan. “Allegory and Referentiality: Vertigo and Feminist Criticism,” MLN , Vol. 106, No. 5, Comparative Literature. Dec1991.

[1] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, 3 (1975): 15-16, reprinted in Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1991) 445-446.
[2] Susan White, “Allegory and Referentiality: Vertigo and Feminist Criticism,” MLN , Vol. 106, No. 5, Comparative Literature (Dec., 1991) 913.
[3] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: A Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) 4.
[4] Martha J. Reiniki, Sacrificed Lives: Kristeva on Women and Violence (Indiana University Press, 1997) 27.
[5] Kristeva, 13
[6] Vertigo, Already Hitchcock.
[7] Vertigo, Hitchcock.
[8] Kristeva, 4.
[9] White, 917.
[10] Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much (New York: Routledge, 1989) 92.

[11] Vertigo, Hitchcock.
[12] Vertigo.
[13] Modleski, 95.
[14] Reiniki, 27.
[15] White, 912.
[16] White, 918.

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