Slavoj Žižek’s The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway by Rachel Kushner

Part of the Editor's Choice series.

BOMB 75 Spring 2001
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When I first saw David Lynch’s Lost Highway upon its theater release in 1998, I found myself seduced by what have become classic Lynchean touches: the opening sequence of bifurcated highway strip, its noirish titles, its lushly choreographed scenes and hearty use of the sexual and the grotesque—in sum, its unimpeachable stylishness. But because of its elliptical plot and a nagging sense that Lynch had constructed a complete but wholly abstruse teleology, combined with the fact that for several days after seeing the film I compulsively spooked myself by imagining the disturbingly unwholesome Mystery Man (played by Robert Blake), with his cake flour complexion and dark, glistening eyes, lurking behind various doors in my apartment, I put an end to the torture and dismissed Lost Highway from further contemplation.

But after reading Slavoj Žižek’s most recent Lacanian foray into popular culture, The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, my interest in the film has been invigorated. Žižek makes sense of the narrative’s Möbius-like temporal loop, in which the central character Fred (Bill Pullman), obsessed with his possibly-unfaithful wife (Patricia Arquette), a tacit brunette from an aseptic suburban landscape, murders her and then fantasizes that he is another person (Balthazar Getty), who is seduced by a smoldering and disingenuous blonde, also played by Patricia Arquette. In his explorations of Lynch and other popular culture references that elaborate upon the Lacanian Real, Žižek uses New Age interpretations that dismiss meaning and focus on the aesthetic and experiential qualities of the film to counterpoint his own. Although he never really makes clear who these “New Age obscurantists” are, I assume Žižek is referring to theorists who continue to invoke Jungian ideas.

Žižek’s basic premise regarding the notion of ‘ridiculous sublime’ is that Lynch is able to construct ludicrous moments whose brilliance and effectiveness lie in the fact that they are to be taken completely seriously. And part of the joy of reading Žižek’s study is a similar feeling, that he is ready to take Lynch wholly seriously—not just because of the fact that Lost Highway readily invites Lacanian interpretations, but because it’s terrific fun. Lynch’s filmic intersection of the pyrophoric German band Rammstein with California’s Death Valley was an artistic decision this writer responded to with a simple “Hell yeah!” But now Žižek has confirmed that “the musical accompaniment in the film is crucial,” and that Rammstein “renders the universe of the utmost jouissance sustained by obscene superego injunction.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the semiotics of a simple “Hell yeah,” but venturing into Žižek’s theoretical framework provides a satisfying complement. And for those who didn’t care for the film (or for Rammstein, for that matter) Žižek’s study is a marvelous and reader-friendly schematic of difficult Lacanian theories, rendered with lucid care and an intellectually generous, exuberant tone.

The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway was published in the fall of 2000 by the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities.

Marcus Steinweg by Yasmil Raymond
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The German philosopher holds forth on love, diagrams, and his particular style of oration. His book Inconsistencies will appear in English this fall from MIT Press.

Frédrique Bergholtz and Iberia Pérez’s (Mis)Reading Masquerades by Christopher Stackhouse
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A collection of essays examining the cultural, social and political manifestations of both literal and metaphorical masquerade.

Geoffrey O’Brien by Luc Sante
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Geoffrey O’Brien and Luc Sante unearth the subtext that was Times Square in the ’60s, “the round-the-clock festival of junk culture and lyrical sleaze.”

Originally published in

BOMB 75, Spring 2001

Featuring interviews with Wendy Wasserstein, Wong Kar-Wai, Amos Gitai, Eduardo Galeano, Tobias Schneebaum, Micheal Goldberg, Samuel Mockbee, Andrea Zittel. 

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