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Journal of Organizational Change Management (2002) - Hitchcock's Vertigo and the tragic sublime




This is a paper about the cinematic as spectacle and the construction of the sublime. It is concerned with gendered constructions of desire and construes the object of desire in this case as a sublime object. At the same time, the paper is about decadence and falling, falling away. Therefore, this piece of writing attempts to deal with some thoughts on the relationship between decadence and mortification. So this paper is also about distance and about movement, about kinema (Greek movement) and the distance that is described by falling from the constructed sublime and its associated melancholy. These ideas are explored via an examination of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most powerful films, Vertigo (1958), and a notion of the tragic sublime. Taken together, the concept of the sublime and the narrative of the film provide insights into the melancholy of commodified representations in the obsessive-compulsive pursuit of organisational idealisation.


Hitchcock's Vertigo and the tragic sublime

Defensive structures and high grounds

The argument that follows is an attempt to examine the threat of disintegration, collapse and decadence on three levels. First, the level of things: of artefacts, edifices and ruins. Second, on the level of the sublime: of desire and melancholy. Third, on the level of phallogocentric discourse and its implications for the construction of the other. Hitchcock's cerebral film noir, Vertigo, uses each of these levels of meaning in order to draw the spectator qua audience into a lethal conspiracy (here used as a spurious etymological association with spiral (medieval Latin spiralis, coil cf. Latin spirare, to breathe) to echo the leitmotiv of downward spiralling which dominates the film). Consequently, the paper, like the film, is concerned with women and with madness, with vertigo, and with the fear of falling into the world. It is also about the move from ear to eye in the process of specularisation and, likewise of the audience from auditors to spectators. Clearly, these ideas have a line of descent that can be traced back to Plato and this will be discussed in due course. First, however, in order to pursue these ideas, it is necessary to give some passing attention to the defences that preserve such constructions. Broadly, the first strand of the argument concerns the high place, the acropolis, the fortress, the stronghold, the erected fortifications that defend the site from invasion. Second, the argument is concerned with the psychological structures which defend the ego from threat from the lack in the other and from the threat of the commonplace. The final strand of the argument concerns the defences that protect phallogocentric theorisation from failure and subversion by the disorderly feminine. This latter is a defensive structure which regulates by category and defends its position by either relegating women to its borders or making "them homologues of men when it educates them" (Lyotard, 1989, p. 114).

The central concerns, however, are with falling and failing, with mortification and decadence. These themes are explored in the paper via a concern with cinematic representation and with the standpoint of the speculator. Following Lacoue-Labarthe (1989, p. 209), it is argued that the process of specularisation is founded on a model of the tragic in which the spectator can only speculate. That is to say, Lacoue-Labarthe (1989, p. 117) argues that in the face of the tragic one can only "attempt to circumscribe it theoretically, to put it on stage and theatricalize it in order to try to catch it in the trap of (in)sight [(sa)voir])". This observation applies both to the subject matter of the paper, as theorisation, and to the intentions of the film Vertigo, as theatricalisation, and operates in the "trap of (in)sight" where theorisation reveals that the "only remedy against representation, infinitely precarious, dangers, and unstable (is) representation itself" (Lacoue-Labarthe, 1989, p. 117). The pharmacology (pharmakon) of this operates via the formula where remedy itself is mortification. The argument is inerently unstable, induces dizziness, fails and falls. This, in itself, is tragic to the extent that the argument, like the film, is subject to its own vertigo, ironic subversion and decline. It seeks to show the melancholy of the tragic sublime and, in doing so, as theorisation, exposes itself to melancholia.

Edifices fall

At the time of writing it is less than four weeks since the atrocities in New York and Washington. It is too soon and would be insensitive to draw on the dreadful and spectacular imagery of the collapse of the two great towers of the World Trade Centre and the apparent stronghold of the Pentagon. However, these powerful and unbelievable images are now inscribed in the collective psyche and have a bearing on this argument (and my hand instinctively goes to my mouth as I write - these things are so unspeakable). The spectator is caught in the "trap of (in)sight". Suffice it at this time to say, that it is germane to the argument to signal the relationship between the cinematic images of the collapse of the t...

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Notes & References

  • Benjamin, W. (1977), The Origin of German Tragic Drama, NLB, London.
  • Burger, P. (1984), Theory of the Avant-Garde, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.
  • Derrida, J. (1978), Writing and Difference, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  • Freud, S. (1985), On Metapsychology, The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
  • Gibbon, E. (1960), Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, abridged Low, D.M., Book Club Associates, London.
  • Irigaray, L. (1985), Speculum of the Other Woman, trans G. Gill, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
  • Lacoue-Labarthe (1989), Typography, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
  • Lyotard, J.F. (1989), 'One of the things at stake in women's struggles", in Benjamin, A. (Ed.), The Lyotard Reader, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 111-21.
  • Modleski, T. (1988), The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory, Routledge, London.
  • Plato (1941), The Republic, translated by Cornford, FM, The Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  • Zizek, S. (1991), Looking Awry, An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, An October Book, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Further Reading

  • De Man, P. (1983), Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, Methuen, London.
  • Derrida, J (1979), Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  • Eagleton, T. (1990), The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Eco, U. (1990), Foucault's Pendulum, Pan Books Ltd, London.
  • Hart, K. (1989), The Trespass of the Sign, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Hassig, D. (1995), Medieval Bestiaries, Text, Image, Ideology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Kristeva, J. (1982), Powers of Horror, trans Leon Roudiez, Columbia University Press, New York, NY.
  • Moi, T. (Ed.) (1989), The Kristeva Reader, Blackwell, Oxford.