Sookie and Symptom, Vampire and Void: Irruption of the Real in True Blood

If you have 21 minutes of your time that you don’t mind you’ll never get back, check out the presentation I delivered at The Real and the Intermedial conference last month at Sapientia University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. It’s an “interimplication” of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and HBO’s seven-season-long series, True Blood.

Abstract: Sookie Stackhouse, the protagonist of HBO’s True Blood and Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries book series from which it was adapted, is presented as a telepath who has grown up knowing what people “really” think. From the first episode, however, moments suggest we view the narrative and its characters symptomatically – after all, she literally hears voices in her head. In so doing, True Blood becomes an illustration of Lacanian concepts of subjectivity and the Real. We first meet Sookie as a hyper-sexually-repressed 24-year-old virgin, molested by her uncle and left in the care of her grandmother, with whom she still lives after losing both parents as a child. The extimate judgmental and sexualized voices in her head can be read as a mechanism constructed to cope with traumatic loss and abuse, and to justify her repression. The introduction of vampire Bill Compton signals the irruption of the Real into Sookie’s Imaginary and Symbolic orders. His unreadable mind presents a void upon which to project her fantasies. The immediate attraction she feels for Bill, manifestation of both Eros and Thanatos and a man “between two deaths,” is pure jouissance. Sookie’s real desire, though, is to have a real desire.

Scooby-Dooing Lacan

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! If you think about it, and I do, the whole concept of the series is driven by desire.

The formula is the same. The Mystery, Inc. gang happen upon a paranormal experience that is interrupting the usual goings on of some sort of establishment. Through a series of mostly illogical events, the dastardly ghoul very nearly gets away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those “meddlin'” kids.

Note that we’re talking about a corporation here, Mystery, Inc. Who gave these minors a business license, anyway? And just what is their business? Putting businesses back in business after a paranormal hoax interrupts operations. It must be a lucrative business, as none of them seem to have day jobs, and they are generally well-kept in Scooby Snacks.

Anyway, the gang wraps up this mystery within a single episode, and all, the audience included, experience some brief pleasure at the unmasking of the menace at the end. But, then there is another mystery to be solved in the next episode. For some brief pleasure at the revelation of the hoax. But, then there is another mystery to be solved…

No more mysteries? No more Scooby-Doo. But, there’s ALWAYS another mystery. Another object of desire. Desire, for Lacan, is a continuous grasping to fill that lack you’ll forever seek to fill. Desire is always for that thing just out of reach–  the thing you can never unmask.

It’s addiction, desire. Always after the next better thing. There is no best, no superlative thing, only an endless series of objet petit a, b, c… with each objet more or less objeter than the last. Nonetheless, we are always striving to find the always already unavailable objetest. That is what Freud referred to as the Triebe, the Drive, or to use Lacan’s preferred translation, the “drift.”

The plot, too, is a kind of chain of desire, say Shoshana Felman and Peter Brooks, at least in terms of literature. But I suspect the same may be said for other forms of popular culture, Scooby-Doo, for instance. We drift from scene to scene through the plot, desiring both to reach it’s inevitable conclusion and to enjoy the delays and setbacks of that conclusion. Plots operate on the reader’s desire, and no plots play upon that desire like mysteries. Just ask Hitchcock. Or Daphne.

I am driven, in some way, to binge watch an entire season of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! in one sitting. These are episodes I’ve seen dozens of times in re-runs as a kid. Still, I desired to watch the whole season, and I did it. Now I want to do the same with the next season. My scopophilia knows no bounds when it comes to that meddlin’ mutt, those hippie teens, and all their gettings-up-to.

It matters not a bit that I already know the terrible Black Knight is really Mr. Wickers. I still live for that unmasking at the end. There is something so satisfying when the mask of the supernatural is stripped away to reveal someone so very mundane. That’s catharsis, the established order is returned and business at the Hotel or Candy Manufacturing Plant goes back to normal.

The Black Knight, and other Doo villains of his ilk, though, signify irruptions of the Real in the Symbolic order and interruptions of the working of ideology. The stripping away of their masks actually places them firmly in the Symbolic order, as their actual roles in the story world are revealed. It was the dog trainer, after all! What are we left with? The image of a sad, grown man, wearing a rubber suit, being carted off to jail.

This image we can assimilate into our established Symbolic order. We can explain away the menace.  So these villains, themselves aren’t the Real. The Real can’t be comfortably accommodated by what we know. That’s when we feel the sensation Freud called unheimliche, the uncanny. There’s nothing uncanny about Scooby-Doo. All becomes assimilable by the end of an episode.

Everything is explainable in language. Until another episode starts.

So, how do these villains signify the irruption of the Real?

What if, when Fred rips the villain’s mask off, there’s nothing there. Literally nothing. What’s there is mundane enough to be insignificant. To not signify. To signify nothing.

If you rip the Velma mask off, strip the ego who thinks herself  to be “Velma,” there’s a void at the center. That’s not just because she’s a snarky know-it-all.

Now this isn’t as nihilistic as it all sounds. The void to be found there is the unconscious.

The unconscious is the thing we can’t think about ourselves. It’s the thing from whence the thought to think about oneself has sprung. The unconscious thinks you into being. It shapes your patterns of behavior, of speech, of being. It’s the origin of Shaggy’s insatiable drive toward overdosing on Scooby-Snacks. It drives Buck Masters to kidnap the competition. It drives Bluestone the Great to search for the Vasquez treasure. It drives C.L. Magnus to dress as Redbeard and raid his own cargo ships to save his dying business. And it drives Fred to drive the Mystery Machine.

It writes the mysteries you don’t even know you’re acting in. It hides things from you. It’s this unthinkable, yet thinking, thing.

As Freud put it, “The ego is not master in its own house.” We’re not what we think we are. We’re what thinks what we are.

And that thing that thinks us desires more Scooby-Doo.

Apparently, there’s a current incarnation of the show called  Be Cool, Scooby-Doo! airing on Cartoon Network, though I haven’t seen it yet. The mysteries just do not stop. That’s desire, folks.

Hermia’s Desire

The audience at September’s meeting of the Association for Psychoanalytic Thought took part in a true clash of fundamental ideological positions on empathy: philosophical and psychoanalytical.

Heidi Maibom, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati and editor of the recent book Morality and Empathy, delivered a paper examining Hermia’s relationship with her father, Egeus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in terms of empathy regarding her desire to marry Lysander against her father’s wishes.

A professor of Shakespeare from NKU offered another source of desire in the play, “They are all at one point or another on drugs thanks to Puck’s potions.”

John Hall, former director of the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute and respondent to Maibom’s paper added, “and the drugs can just be seen as allowing them free expression of their unconscious desires.”

“You see, you don’t think the unconscious, the unconscious thinks you,” explained a critical cultural theorist from UC, trying to force the speaker’s logic against the limits of the Cartesan cogito, to the “Thing-that-thinks.”

“I don’t know what that means,” was Maibom’s honest reply.

We’re reminded that Freud’s great contribution to Western thought was not the invention of Psychoanalysis, but the discovery of the unconscious. The discovery is one of Copernican proportions, a radical de-centering of the human subject from the place of the ego to the place of the unconscious. As Lacan writes in “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire”: “This is what the subject is missing in thinking he is exhaustively accounted for by his cogito– he is missing what is unthinkable about him” (E 304).  Philosophy rarely takes us into this territory, that which is unthinkable about us, which is the realm of psychoanalysis.

In Lacanian terms, Hermia’s desire is not for Lysander, but for a lost object, a lack that is always already unattainable. Lysander is a substitutionary object, the objet petit a, an object Hermia hopes will fill that lack. The sexual relationship, according to Lacan, is impossible because the partner is always a substitutionary object of desire. We are forever looking for the satisfaction of our desire in something that can never fill the Real lack in ourselves. Therefore, if Hermia’s conscious wish to be with Lysander is fulfilled, it cannot assure her happiness. Lysander is just an objet petit a in what may become a lengthy chain of objet petit a, b, c… Desire is always for a void that moves away from us as we chase it. As soon as we think we have it in our grasp, what we desire changes coordinates.

Maibom’s paper prompted some interesting responses by the clinicians in the audience, who took the conversation in the direction of the role of empathy in the transference and the limits of empathy in one’s relationship with a patient or client. It’s this sort of clinical evidence that is missing from most interimplication of psychoanalytic theory and cultural production. This meeting of the Association for Psychoanalytic Thought brought together theory, praxis, and culture in a way that created fruitful dialogue between clinicians, academics, and critical cultural theorists. Dialogue of this sort informs the work of those of us doing cultural critique through a psychoanalytic lens and helps to ground the work in the findings of clinical practice.