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Archive for May 4th, 2009

in treatment: genre and psychoanalysis

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Gaby Wood a little while ago in the Observer on In Treatment:

The American series has been such a success that all the major TV buyers around the world have taken it up, with one prominent exception: Britain. (It will be screened at the Edinburgh Festival, though, this summer.) France, Portugal, eastern Europe, Sweden… Levi begins to reel off the countries that have bought it, and interrupts himself, mystified. “What do you think? What’s different about England? Maybe the British are too discreet for this.”

“Too repressed,” I suggest.

“Well,” he sighs, “that’s another way to put it.”

Ha! That’s something, isn’t it. When basically every country in the world shows the thing, except this one, the diagnosis slips from “just not interested” to “please, seriously, I don’t want to, I can’t, see that.” Anyway, enough for now on that line…

We loved the first season, chez Ads, and are currently twenty half-hour episodes into the season currently showing back home. (Thank god, really really, for bittorrent…) It’s a softly terrific show, humanely soft, and nicely written throughout. Unlike The Sopranos, which certain American therapists got hoodwinked into thinking was saying something positive about their line of work, In Treatment is, I think, an advertisement for the practice and value of therapy. *

But there’s something interesting about what it has to negotiate in order to be this. Almost all workplace narratives shown on television, whether of a dramatic or comedic turn, depend upon sexualization of said workplace in order to function as entertainment. And further, the particular form that this sexualization takes when inserted into the workplace might be called the erotics of hierarchy. Doctors sleep with nurses, patients, and other doctors. Ad men sleep with their secretaries. Partners at law firms sleep with junior attornies. It’s a tic of the genre, but admittedly the interplay of power and desire does make for interesting drama. (This is probably why no one’s ever made a good TV show about academia – showing teachers sleeping with students would probably be titilating but a bit too disturbing, even for HBO…. I am a bit surprised Showtime hasn’t taken up the concept yet… **)

But the funny thing about it, in the case of In Treatment, is the fact that unlike the law firm or the hospital, sex and its prohibition are actually the defining characteristics of the workplace in question. Hospitals aren’t built to keep doctors from fucking nurses, but as Adam Phillips has said (quoted here, which I found via this),”psychoanalysis is about what two people can say to each other if they agree not to have sex.” It’s an astoundingly smart description, though it tempts one to wonder if the formula is reversible: when people talk after agreeing not to have sex – happens all the time I imagine – is it automatically psychoanalysis? Hmmm…. Perhaps you need to sign a contract, or maybe it’s a question of the couch, the carafe of water positioned just out of reach, the tissues on the table.

On the other hand, as we all know, the prohibition of contact propagates – as prohibitions will do, psychoanalytically speaking – the very desire that they aim at countering. Thus transference and counter-transference and all the rest. So sex, according to the conventional wisdom of the business, is all over the place but also nowhere, held off on the sidelines – everywhere present but nowhere manifest, as long as things proceed as they should.

So we end up with a situation, when we’re thinking about In Treatment, where something interesting happens vis a vis genre and theme/scene. In its terminal reliance upon the sexual tension between analyst and analysand, a reliance that comes at once of the genre (sexualized workplace fiction) and the predispositions and market awareness of the means of distribution (think: mandatory Bada Bing scene in every episode of the Sopranos), the show ends up speaking some sort of secret but not-so-secret truth about the scenario that it’s taken up.

Every once in awhile, the interference of form is in fact the key to a sort of distorted realism – and revelatory distortion is always what was meant by the word realism right from the start. And furthermore (and sorry to be so telegraphic, but I’m getting tired) this relationship probably tells us even more about the genre of psychoanalysis itself, the sort of story it tells and it tells itself its telling, than it does about HBO programming and the anglo-telenovela.

* Can somebody explain to me what happened to Big Love? It’s our filler when we run out of In Treatments to watch, and while it was never a great show like the others, it was at least watchable. Now, jesus, not so much. A shame, really….

** Actually, you know, it’s not like I haven’t thought about writing up the made-for-cable campus dramocomedy. In fact, I talked to some colleagues about this, who have media connections, and perhaps another drink and we all would have started writing the pilot. Still, their connections are British, so the damn thing’d end up on the BBC, and thus likely in period costume and with all too many significant pauses and general overacting… Ah me.

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May 4, 2009 at 10:52 pm

Posted in psychoanalysis, teevee

lorem ipsumism: ballard and ads

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Rick McGrath is very good today at Ballardian on JGB and advertising. I especially like the bits about the lorem ipsumy dummy text. Here’s Ballard as quoted by McGrath:

The pages from the ‘Project For A New Novel’ were made at a time when I was working on a chemical society journal in London, and the lettering was taken from the US magazine Chemical and Engineering News — I liked the stylish typography. I also like the scientific content, and used stories from Chem. Eng. News to provide the text of my novel. Curiously enough, far from being meaningless, the science news stories somehow become fictionalized by the headings around them.

Dummy text – full-dummy or semi-dummy – is such a tantalizing concept and resource. Bouvard and Pécuchet’s copybook, automatic writing, collage, madmen cutting up letters to send to the coppers, flarf, the porn novels that come out of the machines that Julia works in 1984, even in a sense FID when taken to some sort of logical extreme all partake of the vertiginous promise of the lorem ipsum. It’s something like Barthes’s reality effect, that barometer (“Flaubert’s barometer, Michelet’s little door finally say nothing but this: we are the real; it is the category of ‘the real’ [and not its contingent contents] which is then signified”) sublated to the level of text itself, while at the same time resisting this sublation as it never feels banally real in the manner of the fictional detail.

As Rick McGrath says elsewhere in his piece:

Designed to be viewed from moving cars (Ballardian in itself), billboards offer the advertiser the benefits of a very large message, but the disadvantage of greatly reduced viewing time. Three to five seconds is the average length of time an individual has to scan a billboard, and this feat has to be accomplished in moving traffic. In order to compensate, successful billboard ads rely on strong, simple visuals and to-the-point messages. No one is going to drive around the block for a second view. It immediately becomes apparent that ‘Project For A New Novel’ breaks these rules by its sheer volume of words and complex, unbalanced layout — as well as the fact it seems to make no sense, offers no brand, no benefits, and no indication of how to respond. But that may be the point, as ‘Project’ is a quasi-surreal piece vaguely reminiscent of the ‘cut-up’ technique used by W.S. Burroughs. This same technical problem was identified by Ballard’s friend and Ambit editor, Dr. Martin Bax, ‘Most of the text you can’t read because when you see things on billboards you don’t read the small print, so the text is deliberately blurred — you can only read the headlines and some remarks.’

But of course that’s cheating, making it too small to be read at speed. It’s cheating because it makes the text into a mere image. The true lorem ipsumist aim is to actually get someone to read the stuff, to convince ourselves to read it, not out of sadism or masochism, but because one has a sense that something’s there if you could just figure out the right way to read it. And we’re not talking divination here. We’re talking in fact the exact opposite of divination.

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May 4, 2009 at 9:36 pm