Lacan's objet petit a
A simple psychoanalytical view
A cardboard psychoanalysis view of Jaws
Slovene cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, a major interpreter of Lacan for critical theory, examines Jaws from this perspective in one of his most famous demonstrations of philosophy as performance.
The shark in Jaws (1975) is not just international communism or environmental catastrophe, but both and anything we happen to find disturbing enough to require a saviour. Lacan calls this symbol the objet petit a — whatever it is we substitute for the real threat to our capacity to control over our lives, which he terms the Real.
Žižek does not examine the symbolic roles of the sheriff (Roy Scheider), the outsider captain (Robert Shaw) or the sympathetic young intellectual (Richard Dreyfuss). In any case, it does not require much brainwork to understand the manipulative dramatization of stereotypes by Steven Spielberg.
Material for some amateur psychoanalysis
And here are some notes for your own YouTube psychoanalyis. Skip this section if you can't stand another quickie analysis of Jaws. But there is a reason, as you'll appreciate later:
- In Jaws the sheriff is the first one of the three to show concern for human lives (Mr. Law & Order rather than a corrupt bully as in Touch of Evil). He lives in the significantly named town of Amity (friendship and Amityville Horror come to mind).
- The film starts with a teenage bonfire party. How could it NOT end badly? A blonde girl tempts a boy into the water for skinny dipping and ends up savaged by the shark.
- The sheriff is new in the post (no community dependence). The marine scientist (Dreyfuss) is also an outsider, but he is interested in animals not people.
- Before the shark turns up, the only 'usual' crime in Amity is 'kids karate-chopping picket fences' (those kids again, pulling down American values with foreign martial arts imports! — spoiler alert).
- The mayor (Murray Hamilton) (community authority) opposes the sheriff's plan to close the beaches so that commerce will keep flowing in the town (capitalism vs humanity and in league with deadly Nature). We learn the sheriff is afraid of water (untouched by the temptations of pleasure).
- With a second death, the town becomes more anxious. The rogue sea captain demands more money than anyone is willing to pay for the shark's capture (the outsider demands the community sacrifice to achieve its goals and is confirmed in his belief that they don't want to). The wrong shark is killed and displayed.
- The sea captain despises the marine scientist but changes his mind when the intellectual shows he knows how to tie a ship's knot. You can treat this as a reverse of Lacan's view that analysand's treat analysts as 'the subject supposed to know' all about them. Of course, it is also Spielberg's twist on the steretypical Hollywood 'expertise' versus 'theorists' conflict, solved via technology (practical expertise).
- The shark appears and shows itself more powerful than the three had imagined, almost invincible in its strength and 'viciousness' (it has to seem to be targeting the only humans left in the world).
- The sheriff gets up close to the shark (Jack and the Beanstalk) and explodes a scuba tank (technology again) with a rifle shot (guns rule!), blowing the fish apart.
We can also compare it, as David MacGregor Johnston, has brilliantly done, to standard Universal horror movie for all its similarities:
Instead of the monster’s terrorizing a small European town, the shark terrorizes the bucolic Amity Island. Instead of an angry mob with torches and pitchforks chasing the monster through the countryside, islanders and other fortune seekers take to their boats to hunt the shark with shotguns and dynamite. Instead of being trapped on the moors with no possibility of escape, our heroes are trapped at sea with no land in sight. Jaws even relies on the expert scientist to help the early believer kill the monster, this time with a gun and oxygen tank instead of a wooden stake or a silver bullet. Spielberg himself admits that Jaws is just a variation on his own feature-length directorial debut, the 1971 made-for-television movie Duel, in which the leviathan stalking our hero is a seemingly supernatural semitrailer truck" (Johnston 2010:235).
Thomas Richard Fahy, ed. 2010. The philosophy of horror. The philosophy of popular culture. Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN: 9780813125732.
David MacGregor Johnston. 2010. Kitsch and Camp and Things That Go Bump in the Night; or, Sontag and Adorno at the (Horror) Movies. In Fahy 2010.