A Neat Visualisation of Zizek-style Lacanian Psychoanalytic Theory
So, Number Six isn’t just awarded a position of greatness, he’s asked to follow through and actually speak. So far he’s been oddly silent throughout most of the episode, responding mainly with wary and non-committal questions, delivered in McGoohan’s inimitable sardonic and clipped style. Now, as some intentionally cheesy music plays for his triumphant victory, he rises from his throne, slowly takes the miraculous prizes of his newfound freedom (some travellers cheques and identity documents) to enthusiastic applause from a crowd of masked and robed observers, and stands at the podium, bringing the music to a halt with the clack of a gavel.
He pauses, prepares to speak, begins: “I—”
The robed figures erupt into a shout: “I, I, I!”
He clacks the gavel to bring silence and tries again: “I fe—”
The crowd erupts again: “I, I, I! I, I, I!”
The third time he presses on, then a fourth, increasingly frantic as his is speech drowned out once again by the unleashed bellowing of the crowd: “I, I, I! I, I, I!”.
“We thank you”, says the judge-like figure presiding over the victorious affair as Number Six concludes his completely inaudible speech. And, the ceremony concluded, Number Six is led to ‘Number One’, the man behind it all.
It’s an oddly compelling scene, a triumph shouted-over and a victory that seems to turn inexplicably, almost passively, into a defeat. The moment of triumph seems ridiculous, the trophies of freedom and individuality mundane.
The speech itself, rapturously shouted over by the masked figures, seems to present a seminal (and therefore simple) philisophical problem: Number Six has been granted ‘individuality’—and yet, given a chance at self-proclamation, can’t even manage to get beyond ‘I’, the most simple signifier of the self.
Obviously disruptive in any standard literal or narrative sense, the scene undercuts its own expected trajectory and pushes us into more thoughtful territory—the kind of thing that’s always troublesome in a cultural world that seems to be dominated by dramatic realism and literal representation of the world (and where even the most basic hint of a ‘style’ divides audience responses). Here, freedom and identity is offered up, quite bluntly, as a core problem that goes beyond the immediate context of our culture and environment.
In other words, McGoohan moves beyond the cherished (and oft-overstated) realm of social commentary and proves himself more concerned with that artistic realm where meaning is defined more by resonance than by immediately identifiable relevance. Bypassing the usual sense of ‘meaning’, McGoohan attempts to define the meaningless, the core state of the self, and lets us worry for ourselves about how this vision fits into the reality of our social context.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise—McGoohan always tied his moral concerns to his on-screen image (an underlying religious puritanism, for example that, oddly, makes Danger Man so much more compelling than its bland flavour-of-the-day James Bond-style counterparts), and Henrik Ibsen’s exciting and provocative 1865 play Brand (in which McGoohan starred for BBC television in 1959—a subject for a future Retro Remote) serves as a philosophical foundation for much of McGoohan’s work.
As a result, it bypasses the immediate but simple intellectual gratification of ‘commentary’, gathering meanings rather than delivering one. For example, it’s a neat visualisation of Zizek-style Lacanian psychoanalytic theory where ‘the unconscious is outside’: identity is defined not by some inner special core of ‘self’, but only by the self’s belief in their place within the network of others around them (those shouting figures, all echoing back Number Six’s ‘I’ in a kind of feedback loop).
Similarly, I sometimes use it as a demonstration of the working of hegemony, where the individual may believe themselves free from ideological influences, but cannot deliver the most basic thought without finding themselves caught up in some kind of externally defined ideological position (i.e., claiming to be free from ideological position is, itself, an ideological position). Interestingly, the viewer can just catch glimpses of little name-plates identifying the masked figures with one social institution or another. More simply, perhaps it displays the need to identify with pre-existing social structures and labels to determine who we are: identity reduced to a mere construct of the choices around us.
Maybe, maybe not—but enough of that malarkey. However we look at it, clearly on some level it works, as the evocative images of The Prisoner continue to provoke lively discussion and analysis, even though most of the superficial ideas commonly associated with the show (control of the state, electronic monitoring and surveillance society, government and corporate reduction of dissent) have become standard mainstream topics.
The remake may not disappoint—hopefully it won’t—but a quick glimpse at the trailer suggests a bunch of poor pretties waiting to be liberated, love in an oppressive environment, and a generic villain, played with the once-great Ian McKellen’s now routinely-dull friendly-but-actually-nasty demeanour. With backstory promised (no doubt to keep the literal-minded happy), are we just going to end up with yet another ‘social commentary’ serving up the usual cheap rebellion fantasy against totalitarian societies, surveillance technology, and oppressive cultures. Will we just end up with another The Formula (1980) or Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997) that thinks it’s a revelation to point out that the government and companies don’t care about people? (Duh.)
McGoohan’s The Prisoner leaves us with something that doesn’t simply reduce itself to a statement. We’re left with something that holds more meaning than it seems to be capable of. Where standard commentary doles out an idea or two, this kind of art attracts and provokes them.
Perhaps this is the lofty perspective from which we should judge the 2009 version of The Prisoner: not ‘does it have a point?’, but does it have several?