Lacan will gradually link the real with the concept of impossibility. The real is ‘the impossible’, because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order, and impossible to attain in any way.2 And because it’s impossible, the real has a traumatic quality.3
This is more or less what is happening in the film Arrival4, when alien megalithic menhirs appear over 12 areas of the planet plunging its speechless inhabitants in crippling awkwardness. They are here but we don’t know what they want. The plot of the movie is simple but nevertheless condenses the essence of the Lacanian perspective. Shortly after the arrival of the twelve monoliths, a linguistics professor is approached by a military man presenting her with a recording of the alien language, and asking her to decode it so as to figure out why they’ve come to our planet. At the same time, nations across the world try to coordinate their individual findings with a global coalition, in order to understand the aliens’ purpose.
Photographed in shady colors and sustained by a pertinent musical lyricism, the movie conveys an existential suspense throughout; and thus manages to bring the professor on stage as the connecting link in this science-fiction signification. The professor is a woman; she became a mother only to experience the adversity of witnessing her daughter’s death. Along this fragility, Arrival presents a human being having experienced loss and bereavement who, as a lingual generator, finds a connection again. She is expecting a revelation! Hence, starting in traumatic deprivation, the movie delineates an encounter from the view of a Real, which we could assume is equivalent to the object of anxiety that cannot in any way be mediated by words.
And as unmediated objects, the alien spacecrafts require the contribution of a linguist who will attempt a symbolic fissure in their parlance. The people in Arrival worry: Why they don’t respond? What do they want? Questions that refer to an encounter that Lacan will define as the domain beyond the Imaginary5. People are faced with a presentation that condenses what he will call the object of anxiety par excellence. Thus, the movie weaves an Aristotelian tyche, which lies beyond any (symbolic) automaton6.
In the cinematic universe of the movie people do not become delusional; they do not suffer depersonalization; and they do not lose their connection to reality. We are not dealing with the advent of psychoses, of that which was left outside the symbolic order and appears in the Real7. Besides, this is not the intention of the director. There is nonetheless an existential lift regarding the certainty of the arrival, which nonetheless has a quality of a certain event for everybody; of an inaccessible event that evokes a psychic ambivalence. The wish, on the one hand, to introduce a symbolic function since their own Other does not suffice to constitute the alien beings as subjects; and -on the other hand- the agony in front of the Unheimlich of the presentation and wish to retaliate through violence.
This direct encounter with the radical alterity of the Thing, introduces the spectrum of death on stage along with the anxiety. The blackish menhirs from the unknowable x position, like the Kantian thing-in-itself, unfold their simulacrum as an absolute condition, living their signifying inertia in the horizon of a universal ontological event.
Arrival may not be Space Odyssey8 with its monumental scenes sound-tracked by Strauss’s Blue Danube intensifying the lingering ontological anguish. However, those mysterious black monoliths appearing in Odyssey have a close signifying kinship with the objects in Arrival; a kinship with every cinematic product conveying the concept of strange and prosecutory, of the unknown becoming threatening, of the uncanny that disturbs the symbolic harmony in an attempt to rewrite the age-old and anxiety-provoking question about existence.
In the realm of science fiction, aliens have visited earth many times. They sometimes come to us for help, sometimes to annihilate us and sometimes just to live alongside us. In this particular imaginary dialectic however, they hold up a mirror in the reflection of which man has to reinvent his orthopedic. To this effect, in the self-referential question that humans raise ‘why are they here?’ we could safely assume that they are erecting the imaginary representation of the phallic signifier as a response; the Phallus as the One of Existence, the trauma as the very encounter with Jouissance.9
1 Lacan, J. (1991). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II, The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, (1954-1955). Norton & Company, Inc., New York USA, p. 97.
2 Lacan J., (1998). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI, The four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964-1965). Norton & Company, Inc, New York USA, p. 167.
3 Evans D., (1996). An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Routledge, East Sussex. p. 162-163
4 Arrival, 2016, Denis Villeneuve.
5 Lacan J., (1998). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964-1965). Norton & Company, Inc., New York USA, p. 54.
6 Ibid, p. 52-55
7 Lacan J., (1981). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III, The Psychoses (1955-1956). Norton & Company, Inc., New York USA, p. 81
8 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, Stanley Kubrick
9 J. A. Miller, L’orientation lacanienne, année 2010- 11, cours du 4 Mai 2011.