The end of the roadJean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Weekend opens with a closure, or at least with a roadblock.
An intertitle – and we should insist on it as an intertitle although it appears to be part of the introductory information about the film – states, “INTERDIT AUX MOINS DE 18 ANS.” But presumably those watching have already been granted access: either they are over 18, or they have snuck in, bribed an attendant, or stolen a print. As such, the inclusion of such an interdiction has no functional purpose other than to announce the simultaneous frustration of desire and the supersession of that point of stoppage. It is a device for the structuring of enjoyment, a particular path of the organization of jouissance that Weekend articulates and undoes.
What I present is part of a larger project, a thinking of the ideological legacies of industrial labor, the ascendance and collapse of Fordist production/consumption models, and the political fall-out known as “post-industrial” society. Put in other terms, this is a narrative about the dual emergence of a material condition, the reality of abstract labor, and an ideological condition, labor as a real abstraction, that both enables and plagues emancipatory politics. We lack the space here to really engage with the broader scope of my work so instead I hope to give an idea of how a text such as Weekend serves to lay bare the fantasmic constructions of class identity which veil the drive toward accumulation under Fordism. Furthermore, we consider as well how Godard’s film manifests a point of resistance in its recognition of fantasy and its formation of a sinthomatic traversal of that fantasy under the sign of the political.
To go back to the interdiction that opens the film: perhaps this is best taken as a clue offered to instruct us how to watch. The question, then, is what instructions do this warning – and simultaneous come-on, promising the illicit beyond its frame – give and what sorts of viewing expectations follow. Most directly, the instructions are to prepare oneself for pornography, for the type of watching that self-excludes from mass acceptance, that is necessarily private and obscene even when watched in a theater full of other viewers. And here, right at the beginning, we get a glimpse of what I argue is the core of the film’s engagement, its complication of the notion and function of fantasy, and its redeployment of the instructions necessitated by fantasmic organizations of desire.
At this point, the fantasmic structure of the film is recognizable as a pornographic fantasy. But we need to work through, as Weekend itself does concretely, the valences of what could be called fantasy and whether or not it remains at the immediately familiar level of sexual wish-fulfillment. The next moments of the film contradict the initial frame offered and make it evident that if what we are going to watch is indeed a porn, it will certainly be one of the strangest porns available.
Or at least, a grandiose, potentially sci-fi inflected erotic film. What follows, however, is a rather plain shot of bourgeois life.
Roland gets up to answer the phone, exchanging words with Corinne – the sort of conversation that immediately makes evident both their intimacy and their coldness. Corinne indicates for the other man to follow her to the other side of the balcony. The camera turns, further establishing, through the glimpse of the apartment and the gardening on the balcony that we are in the presence of the moneyed class.
At this point, the initial expectation regarding the pornographic potential of the film still holds. After all, Corinne furtively glanced back at what we assume to be her husband before gesturing for the second man to follow. Generically, this is no surprise: a cheating wife, a cuckolded husband, lush settings – we seem to be in for a film about sex and high society; if not a pure pornographic film, than at least an exploitation film in the guise of an art house production. (A type of film certainly familiar to French audiences of the late 60’s, although the attachment of Godard’s name to the project may have provided enough of a clue that this was unlikely to be the case.) As the other man sits and hands Corinne her drink, he mentions that it would be nice if Roland and her father (who we later learn has been poisoned by Roland and Corinne for the past five years) were to have an accident on their way from the clinic.
Here we can see the introduction of a different set of generic conventions, the lovers plotting the murder of the husband. Our hypothetical porn film has become stranger yet, or at the very least, committed to plot intrigue far beyond the conventionally flimsy support structures for the sex scenes. Better, instead, to read this turn as the inflection toward two other constellations of instructions and norms, namely, those of film noir and the black comedy of manners. In a scene several minutes later, Roland himself plots the death of Corinne with an unknown lover over the phone. Combined with their persistent, and ultimately successful attempts to secure Corinne’s parents’ fortune through murder as well as the obvious mutual contempt of the couple for each other, the film continues to track this dual path for its entirety. A key point to raise here, to which we will return, is that Weekend does not adopt and then shed the mantles of various genres but incorporates them fully before flattening the entire production under the weight of political interpretation. This is to say that while the generic conventions hijacked by Weekend come to be stripped of their organizing force, they never cease to appear on the screen before us.
Though we cannot pull apart every echo of film history and genre Weekend operates on, we should nevertheless identify add a fourth vein to those identified before, the pornographic, the noir, and the comedy of manners. This fourth, and most explicitly foregrounded in the structure of the film’s narrative, is the road movie, in which the duration and distance of a prescribed journey – and its attendant roadblocks – inscribe the trajectory of the film. (This genre has deep historical roots: we could argue that the Odyssey itself has all the hallmarks of the road movie.) Weekend functions as a road movie in two distinct fashions. First, the automobile is the true protagonist of the film, the vehicle that transitions from lust object to tangled mess to target for Molotov cocktails. Allegorically at least (and we will return to the function of allegory in Weekend), the arc of the film is the demise of automobile culture, the downturn of Fordist life crystallized in the concrete destruction of its most salient icon, the mass produced car. But while this allegorical path is indeed present in the film, it remains an empty and facile critique as long as we refuse the singular details of Weekend’s particular fantasies.
The second function of Weekend’s citation of the road film – and, in a sense, of the picaresque tradition – is as a structural device that occasions the episodic nature of the narrative and the passage through distinct landscapes. However, as with Godard’s other “genre” films of the 60’s (Breathless, Alphaville, My Life to Live, and Contempt), generic conventions are first and foremost dysfunctional, codes that serve to highlight what the films never quite become. As a road film, Weekend turns on the failure of the intended journey: the automobile, as libidinal object and motive force, is violently outmoded, and the trip cannot be seen as a success as envisioned, due to the scrapping of the trip’s purpose (money and its capacity to purchase commodities is irrelevant in the primitivist system in which Corinne lives at the film’s conclusion). Yet does this not reveal a key element of the road film par excellence, and its literary predecessors, in which the very form and content of the journey reveals the inadequacy of the ambitions and goals that motivate it from the start? Furthermore, we can argue, Weekend performs the same work on all the genres it inhabits, recognizing that the traversal of the fantasy undergirding the intended path – and the consequent derailing of its instructions– is really the necessary outcome.
Fantasy, in our investigation, should be taken in the late Lacanian sense, not as a wish-fulfillment scenario but as a fundamental mechanism that organizes desire so as to veil and foreclose confrontation with the blind repetition of drive. To distinguish briefly, drive is the ceaseless push toward unmediated jouissance that is incommensurable with prohibition, the condition of entrance into the symbolic realm, the realm of Law. Desire is inseparable from the Law which refuses drive; what results is the “inverted ladder of the Law of desire,” the seeking pleasure in the very prohibition of pleasure itself. What, then is fantasy? It is, to borrow Žižek’s phrasing, the “narrative of this primordial loss, since it stages the process of this renunciation, the emergence of the Law.” In other words, fantasy works to make sense out of this constitutive loss; it organizes the deprivation of jouissance into a set of scenes that transform the fundamental misrecognition – the location of jouissance in the big Other – into the subject’s validation of desire and its doubled form of prohibition/access.
To take a concrete example: consider the interdiction at the start of Weekend. Is this not the very instructive mechanism of fantasy, the organization of desire’s operation (the construction of pleasure in the foreclosure of direct access to jouissance and in passage through the stricture of Law)? And this is, properly speaking, a fantasy in that it veils this basic operation in a framework that grounds and validates this mechanism. In this particular case, the fantasy is pornographic, not so much in the sense that it promises erotic titillation but rather in the generic fantasy of pornography, in the erotics of prohibition themselves.
If the generic fantasy of pornography conditions Weekend from its beginning, what other fantasmic structures aim to make meaning out of the singular events, to form scenes out of happenings? We can articulate three central modes – or registers – of fantasy here: generic, subjective, and socioeconomic (or class). The first two, the generic and the subjective, are more immediately familiar from our investigation so far. Weekend employs and recognizes generic conventions as fantasmic conventions, codes that not only instruct how to organize the pleasure in watching but also the systems of enjoyment according to which the film moves. In short, the fantasmic function of genre is to offer the rules of the game – the Law, as it were – and to establish the boundaries within which the play of minimal difference and deviation can create desire through tarrying with the refusal-invitation of such codes. (We should further insist on the fantasmic work of genres by remembering that there are no fixed rules to a genre, only a set of heterogeneous instances, each of which alters the set by becoming the plus one that remakes the conditions of inclusion. As such, the persistence of certain generic formations speaks to the force of their particular fantasies, and it is worth asking what the consequences of such persistence may be.) To return to Weekend in particular, we identified four distinct sets of generic formations, each of which serves to instruct how to desire and also how to deal with the exceptions to their rules.
When we speak of exceptions to the rules of fantasy, we speak of symptoms, that which both necessitates and threatens fantasy. For symptoms, as that which doesn’t work and as that which is structured according to the Real, are the persistence into the symbolic of certain formulations of the subject’s jouissance given up in confrontation with the Law. In a sense, fantasy – not the fundamental fantasy itself but secondary fantasies – exists to create paths of enjoyment that swerve around direct contact with the traces of the Real embodied in the subject’s symptoms. Instead, the work of fantasy is ideological, to naturalize symptoms, to misrecognize them as part of a broader objective structure in the world. (The most obvious example of this would be the paranoiac’s conspiracy of a world out to get her or him.) Rather than accepting the symptom as the fundamental unit of enjoyment available after the foreclosure of unmediated jouissance, the subject employs fantasy as a way to create a narrative in which such symptoms merely describe the world and, in doing so, provide the illusion of depth in place of the unbearable flatness and senseless repetition of drive. The question, then, that we must ask is, what are the symptoms that the fantasies in Weekend serve to avoid, and what do these strategies of avoidance tell us about the ideological landscape Weekend describes?
We spoke of the three valences of fantasy in Weekend, and we should jump back to the subjective before considering the other two, as it is the subjective that maps most directly onto this initial discussion of fantasy. Furthermore, we can say that the treatment of subjective fantasies in Weekend is the least interesting aspect of its general tarrying with the notion and necessity of fantasy, at least insofar as the subjective is excluded from the knot of the political that allows the traversal of the minor fantasies. (Which, as we will see, does not remain the case for the entirety of the film.) On the subjective level, that is to say, on the level of the personal fantasies of the subjects portrayed in the film, we encounter a familiar parodic mode of mocking the petty, consumerist fantasies of the haut-bourgeois (they spend their days fretting over how to attain more money to purchase more commodities that will go out of fashion immediately after their purchase, etc).
To be sure, Weekend extends this parody to a level of savagery – and I use the word intentionally – rarely seen, most notably in Corinne’s anguished cries for her lost Hermés purse while mangled bodies spill out of a burning car.
This is coupled with the treatment of rich, bored eroticism recognizable from other films of the time, notably Buñuel and Chabrol, here hitting its peak in Roland’s imitation of a psychoanalytic scene (sitting behind, quietly smoking, mimicking the talking cure with which the rich are so familiar) while Corinne disinterestedly relays the story of her three-way with another couple.
But the force of Weekend does not lie in its treatment of this ultimately toothless parody: as Gramsci pointed out, what is so dangerous about the profligate habits of the rich aren’t the habits themselves, confined to a parasitic level of society, but rather the trickle-down of this “total social hypocrisy” to the working classes via the emergence of mass consumption in the Fordist regime of accumulation. And here as well, the real space of contention is not in the follies of the rich but in the constitutions of socioeconomic, or class, fantasy that forestall confrontation with the blind drive of capitalism and its resultant symptoms.
The interrogation of class fantasies begins in two early scenes from Weekend, and it is by considering how each functions – and what happens between the two – that we start to see how radical politics emerges as the symptom capable of dismantling the fantasmic edifices emerging from the cultural and economic conditions of Fordism. The first scene in this pairing occurs in the parking lot of Roland and Corinne’ apartment building.
A previous scene of a fight between two drivers (above), prompted by a minor collision, has already instructed us to witness the parking lot as a scene of conflict particularly inflected by class status. In this scene, the first of many in the film in which the identity of subjects is grounded first and foremost in their status as drivers, the collision is between cars with vastly different economic demarcations, the tiny, affordable city car (on the left) and the flashy red bagnole (on the right). The scene we are interested in continues, and amplifies, the marking of the space as such, beginning with its intertitle.
One function of this intertitle is to mark this scene allegorically, using its literal designation of the events as a scene of Parisian life to simultaneously indicate that this is a representative scene, the kind of thing that happens all the time. In short, as a scene from which one can distill a generalized interpretation about codes of social interaction in France in the late 60’s. As Roland and Corinne back their convertible out, harassed by a boy dressed as a Native American chief, they bump into the car owned by the boy’s parents. On one level, this quickly becomes the type of interaction central to Weekend, the ridiculous turn to brutality resulting from the overvaluation of commodities. It also serves to ground our conception of Roland and Corinne as those who don’t work, as those outside of the world of labor: the angry neighbor accuses them of acting like this only because Corinne’s father “owns the block.” But it is the arrival of the angered woman’s husband that interests us here and justifies our designation of this scene as allegorical, or, more accurately, as functioning under the guise of the allegorical.
In this shot, we see the allegorical family, the portrait of bourgeois domesticity that doesn’t work, in two senses. The portrait doesn’t work in that it seems impossible, a parodic version of what they should look like that nevertheless nails it: the husband dressed like an outmoded aristocrat, shotgun under arm and spaniel in tow, the mother spiking tennis balls at the departing villains, and the boy playacting as a savage. This is also a portrait of bourgeois domesticity that doesn’t work in the sense that their clothing indicates that these are not laborers – -they all have time to play dress up. Of course, this does take place on a Saturday, and one could argue that we shouldn’t make this assumption. But the fact remains that the scene presents itself as an allegory; we get it that this isn’t really about a minor car accident but rather about the nasty consequences of excessive commodity fetishism.
If Weekend proved unable to advance beyond this level of critique (in other words, if it continued as an allegorical film), it would simply be another weak potshot fired off by a facile Left. But the following scenes, including the second scene to foreground class-inflected conflict, make a sharp turn and result in the tremendous political force of the film. After Roland and Corinne leave the parking lot relatively unscathed, they shortly encounter a traffic jam, if that term can even describe the spectacle that we get in a 7 minute long tracking shot.
What remains so striking about this scene is its radical incommensurability. This is to say that none of the fantasmic constructions we have been offered so far prove capable of reconciling the function or meaning of it. The crash is the symptom that makes evident the inadequacy of the fantasies which struggle to make sense of it. To be sure, we can offer various readings of this scene, the most seductive of which may be as an allegory of the end of Fordist culture, represented by the automobile. And given the instructions of how to enjoy this film available to the viewer at this point, it seems the most valid. Yet the extremity of the scene, its unincorporability, is the very shock that causes the allegorical approach to fail. As Brian Henderson pointed out, the tracking shots of Weekend – the majority of which are long shots in terms of distance – serve to flatten the film in terms of form and content. In consequence, the “non-bourgeois camera style” employed does work to undermine illusions of depth that give shape to both bourgeois morality and bourgeois cinema. But we can speak of a different type of flatness here, that which does not just dismantle the false sincerity of bourgeois morality and codes of behavior but rather the very function of fantasy itself, the basic mechanism of veiling the immanence of drive behind those paths of desire that circle around prohibition. And in this particular instance, the car crash tableau, we get a flattening that does not negate or cast away the fantasmic approaches but reduces them to the same surface, that of drive itself, crystallized, frozen in the halted line of traffic.
The following scene is the site where the film begins to move again, after the traversal of fantasy from desire to the repetition of drive, car after car in what feels like an eternal return of the same.
Here the dead body of the rich boy keeps us in the sway of the crash, itself a repetition, yet another consequence without explanation. But it is in comparison with the “Scenes from Parisian Life” sequence that we can truly recognize its distance from the previous fantasmic instructions and see, in its place, the emerging rigor of the political instructions. Consider the structure of the two sequences. The “Scene from Parisian Life” sequence begins with the intertitle that signals its allegorical status, its capacity to stand in for another meaning, its interchangeability. This second sequence indeed contains an intertitle that would seem to signal an allegorical interpretation.
But the scene itself, especially in its relation to the car crash tableau scene, insists upon another reading in two distinct senses.
First, the designation of the sequence as class struggle (la lutte des classes) gives very different viewing instructions from the designation of the first sequence as a scene from Parisian life. The latter, the scene from Parisian life, comes under the pretense of being just another scene, a series of ridiculous events that demand interpretation. In short, the intertitle does not offer instructions but indicates the need for such an explanatory mechanism; at that point in the film, we have only received fantasmic maps to navigate the interaction, and even the socioeconomic, or class, fantasy remains, properly speaking, a fantasy that avoids confronting the mute heart of drive, retreating instead into the false master knowledge of irony and satire. (We know better, we can mock these silly bourgeois.) Something different is at work in the “Class struggle” scene, for the intertitle itself offers the instructions previously missing. We cannot read allegorically that which is already beyond the point of veiled meaning, and the dialogue in this scene makes it clear that those involved are aware of their positions, not as symbols for their respective class positions but as desiring subjects whose modes of desiring are constricted by the class fantasy in which they participate. Not allegorically, but in the very real intersections of material life and the fantasmic support systems of that life.
The second way in which this scene moves away from the fantasies that, up to this point, order the film – and those who move within it – is in the direct incompatibility of available fantasies with the violence of the symptoms they seek to avoid. There is a poverty of recuperation here. We only see the intertitle after we have seen the after-effect of drive, the symptom that exceeds its fantasmic structure. This is to say: the designation of the bloody events in this scene under the sign of the political is at once the attempt to find an organization of meaning capable of dealing with the accelerating blood bath that Weekend becomes and an indication of just how far we need to go in stripping away fantasies, especially those of the radical Left. As long as the understanding of the class struggle hinges on the signs of Fordist fantasy (subject-status determined by one’s purchasing power, as being the owner of a convertible versus a tractor), no progress can be made.
One reaches only the false reconciliation – the image of the two classes standing together is a “fauxtographe”. Fittingly, this false unity of the classes succeeds only in turning to another fantasy, a structure of desire that they can agree on, calling Roland and Corinne “dirty Jews,” and, in doing so, finding a way to share a common organization of desire and avoiding looking at the bloody mess before them, the symptom that disrupts fantasy.
In the twenty-third seminar, Lacan introduced the idea of the sinthome, which we can understand in our context as the constellation of symptoms particular to a subject. In short, the pattern of access to jouissance unique to each subject. As such, the sinthome is the antithesis of fantasy; it is organization of enjoyment that has traversed fantasy, that stands before drive and its ugly repetition and refuses the detours of desire. What we can say here is that in Weekend, Godard offers a sinthome proper to the Fordist regime of accumulation, a way of making sense of the symptoms produced as the remainder – and necessary underside – of capitalism’s drive. This sinthome is the instructive force of radical politics. Refusing to treat the singularity of symptoms as accessible through the false depth of allegory, the sinthomatic force of the political flattens fantasy to see the mute facts of drive, the nodes of the Real sticking out, and then, begins the long, arduous task of speaking again. In Weekend, this task is achieved, if only briefly, in the sequence where the two garbage men deliver diatribes against American hegemony, the weakness of the liberal state in its complicity with monopoly capital, and the need for revolutionary violence. What is so striking in this scene is that as they talk, Godard cuts to moments from the film so far, a catalogue of the bloody excess, perversion, rape, murder, arson, and, above all, car crashes. The result of this is that the men’s words become instructions beyond fantasies, injunctions to think these seemingly random acts of brutality not as allegories of capital’s perversion but as real symptoms of it, as the necessary consequences of the veiling of the drive to accumulation beneath the false solidarities of mass forms of desiring, of collective fantasy encoded in the very relations of production and consumption.
However, there is a danger here that needs addressing, as a way of concluding. What if these instructions intended to subvert fantasy become taken as the new Law to which drive must be submitted, as the symbolic order of a different Big Other? What fantasies emerge from this méconnaissance? This is the exact situation that we face at the end of Weekend.
Roland and Corinne are taken hostage by a band of Maoist hippie guerillas who have clearly heard the instructions of radical Marxist politics. But, like the subject who constructs a ladder of desire off the prohibition-access dialectic of the Law, the forms of desire necessarily get it wrong, mistake the instructions. We recall Mao’s injunction that you need to break a few eggs in order to make an omelet. The revolutionaries know this well. They’ve also heard about killing capitalist pigs and have taken this to heart as well. They are constantly cracking eggs and killing pigs.
But they have mistaken the instructions: they crack eggs to garnish the hostages they capture and cannibalize, and they slaughter pigs. In short, they get it too right, take it all too literally and what results is a perverse facsimile of revolutionary fervor.
How do we move beyond this impasse? Perhaps one answer lies in a turn away from revolutionary terrorism to revolutionary horrorism. Godard himself hints at this: in his Histoire du cinéma, he writes of Weekend in the context of Dreyer’s Vampyr and claims that Weekend is a film about monsters. What is the consequence of this shift, to thinking of horror over terror? Terror is about the threat to life, of the knife behind you. Horror, conversely, is about the threat to understanding, of living to see the after-effects, of suddenly realizing that you were the one behind the knife all along. In this way, horror confronts us with the symptoms and demands that we find new sets of instructions. As such, where the revolutionaries get it wrong is in ignoring the collapsing world around them, the landscape of death, fire, and violence that Weekend traverses. Revolutionary horror is the task, then, of not disrupting the order of things, of appearing as a shock from outside, but of reorganizing the symptoms already present, of showing the bare brutality of drive there from the start. Is this an impossible task? Not at all. The eggs are already broken. We just need to figure out how to organize them.
Very astute analysis. I just caught a plagiarizer using your blog, without even changing the words.
Thanks. Classy move on his or her part.
Hi! I just watched Weekend and I love your post. The depth of your understanding of humanity is wonderful and your words are simple yet powerful. Are you the author of those books in the side bar?
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