Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ingrid Fernandez: Visions of the Other: The Return of the Abject in Roman Polanski's The Tenant

Visions of the Other: The Return of the Abject in Roman Polanski's The Tenant
by Ingrid Fernandez
Bright Lights Film Journal

Perhaps one of the highest achievements — and casualties — of Western philosophy lies in its complete denial of the body as a conduit for knowledge and self-discovery. The body has been excluded from discourse, always positioned as a threat to the higher instincts of the intellect. It is an unwanted part of the self: the polluted, the irrational, the animalistic that mars the path to enlightenment. It has thus been sentenced to represent the space of the abject, that which is always pushing the socially constructed subject to the edge of the abyss and hence threatens the law. However, a higher truth can be sought in the order of Nature. If we embrace the corporeal, we no longer negate death, decay, sickness — the filth burgeoning inside the self and forever constituting its powerful force. I accept my frailty, the instability of my identity, and I mourn for what I have lost when I achieved the status of subject. For that part of myself always creeps back into my existence as a shadow, a hidden desire I can never satisfy, that of life and death merging into pure being. I mourn the Other. I carry it within me but can never access it in life, for it might destroy me, I have been told; or perhaps it might complete me once it undoes all I have learned to be. Julia Kristeva describes fully experiencing the body as causing a rupture within signification, unacceptable because it eradicates the socially constructed boundaries regulating identity. She states:

A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, does not signify death. In the presence of signified de'ath — a flat encephalograph, for instance — I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live . . . My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border . . . It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. (Kristeva)

It is precisely in this foreign land, in this dark continent shunned by rational thought, that we might best find ourselves. The real truth of life is most acutely revealed at a corporeal level, where primal vulnerabilities such as the fear of illness and decay, the violated body, and the body in pain constitute the essence of being human, of being a part of a larger world where "the Other" is a reflection of the self. Moreover, our very physical existence and relation to others stem from a common bond of blood that predates the social apparatus. After all, social identity is easily stripped, uncovering a universal truth — the fact we are all mortal and subject to the violation of our physical space. At its most basic, the bond between humans is forged by the organic — sinews, muscle, bones, and the burden of the body. The instability of physical existence lies in its constant metamorphosis, its ability to simultaneously enrich and destroy intellectual activity, and the presence of elusive desire and the remnants of a fear that remain locked in the moment prior to our existence as social subjects. These concepts are best illustrated in cinema because of the power of the image to enter the viscera, elide intellectual resistance, and elicit an authentic and unmediated, sometimes even involuntary, reaction. The cinematic image penetrates the space of the abject and brings it to life. It is the return of the repressed and allows us to once again inhabit "uncomfortable spaces" we thought were closed off to our senses. Starting from these premises, I propose to revisit the concept of knowledge gained through the saturation of the body by outside stimuli, in this case film images, and how this experience results in a form of transcendence, a deeper understanding of our relation to ourselves and "the Other."

Roman Polanski's 1976 film The Tenant can be seen as a meditation on the fate of the abject body and how it is marked, regulated, and finally obliterated by the social apparatus. However, it also emphasizes how the repressed eludes the symbolic law and allows us to encounter its terrifying shadow, the periphery of existence that always manages to break through. Additionally, Polanski brings in the concept of bare life as stipulated by critics like Giorgio Agamben and Judith Butler, inquiring into the way a social subject is constituted and given a voice or utterly silenced and excluded from the circle of the human. The film's main focus remains on the body as undesirable, non-ideal, open to external aggression and pollution. In typical Polanski fashion, the audience is trapped in an "uncomfortable visual space" where the concept of a stable individual identity is never a matter of choice, but instead constituted by our surroundings and forces well beyond our grasp. The Tenant's crowning achievement is its use of the subjective camera, to the extent the audience is literally involved in the action through the vision of its main character, Trelkovsky. We see what he sees, fear what he fears, and eventually become him. Through this process, we experience the frailty of subjecthood and the ability of the cinematic image to rouse in us a dialogue with the innermost recesses of ourselves, the abject within us that, when we acknowledge it, sets us on the path to enlightenment and self-discovery.

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