Monday, 8 December 2014

Dexter and Jouissance

 The premise of Dexter is an improbable one. The eponymous main character works for the Miami police department, but is also a 'serial killer', rutualistically murdering criminals who have escaped the justice system. What's more remarkable is that as a viewer we identify with Dexter. We are not so much sickened and horrified by his activities, as we doubtless would be in reality; rather is he the object of our investment and compassion. There are at least a couple of reasons for this, and these tell us something about how fictional worlds operate.

In a fictional world, I argue, we clearly don't respond to a phenomenon as we would in the real world.  We are more likely to see it in terms of the metaphorical or general category that it sketches or stands for. Thus, in the real world we would always be horrified by someone who, while leading an ostensible 'normal' life, was also a habitual killer, who derived enjoyment from his activities. In Dexter, this horror has been suspended.  Dexter's murderous noctural activity has become in effect just 'his thing', his particular form of idiosyncratic enjoyment which he cannot relinquish, like book collecting, or motorbikes. Killing is Dexter's jouissance.

By Jouissance is meant a specific form of enjoyment. Not enjoyment as we might speak of enjoying a glass of wine, for example, where we can point to positive qualities which account for our enjoyment - fruityness, dryness and so on. Jouissance is something more compulsive, stupid and unaccountable. The idea is that in fact all of us have these idiotic knots of enjoyment, perverse and idiosyncratic, that we are not finally able to share with others. As such these knots bar our full inclusion within the human community. In extreme cases, they can eclipse the rest of our life, as Zizek puts it:
 Someone can be happily married, with a good job and many friends, fully satisfied with his life, and yet absolutely hooked on some specific formation ("sinthome") of jouissance, ready to put everything at risk rather than renounce that (drugs, tobacco, drink..) [..] It is only in this "sinthome" that the subject encounters the density of his being - when he is deprived of it, his universe is empty.
Jouissance in this sense is always anti-social, and there is always a tension between it and the laws of the symbolic community, the norms and rules of social enjoyment. In so far as these last consitute the 'human community' as we experience it, none of us are entirely human.

This, finally, is the story of Dexter: one individual's slow and gradual 'becoming human'. And his ritualised killings are, first and foremost, that which separates him from the human community. When we first encounter him, he can feel almost nothing. He mimics the rules of human interaction. But at crucial intervals, emotion breaks through - he is able to acheive sexual intimacy, love of family, and so it goes on. The overarching story is that of the crises and shifts through which Dexter moves towards 'humanity'. But this gradual induction into the human community is the journey of the human subject itself - initially detached from the human community, proceeding by imitation and awkward adaptation, feeling that there is something that cannot be communicated to others, attached to its peculiar enjoyments.

Ingeniously, Dexter turns the extremely pathological  - the serial killer - into a figure for the human as such.We are all pathological subjects trying to become human, perversely clinging on to our jouissance. AS such, we are on DEexter's side.

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