Frank Ruda: We Are All Hot Girls in a Mental Asylum
We Are All Hot Girls in a Mental Asylum
(S. 59 – 76)

Democracy and its Discontents

Frank Ruda

We Are All Hot Girls in a Mental Asylum
The »Hollywood Left« and Contemporary Democracy

PDF, 18 Seiten

The article deals with Zack Snyder’s movie Sucker Punch and argues that it can and should be read as a cinematographic way of addressing crucial issues of the current political situation. That this situation is—at least in the “West”— framed by the name democracy necessitates, first, that the article present a diagnosis of the constitution of this framework. Second, it derives from this latter point the argument that what counts and functions as “democracy” today entails fundamental problems with regard to how we conceive of subjectivization proper.

“Let there be … images, 
which do not satisfy but irritate.”

(P. Claudel)

1. Axioms 

Leaving aside didactic exercises of explication and the journalistic recitation of stories, this text sets its sights directly on an idea in order to “form a body with a movie […].”1 That is, with Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. It seeks to partake in and contribute to the body of an idea, of a movie-idea. In so doing, it starts from two axioms. The first has been formulated by Gilles Deleuze: “with certain cinema-ideas one […] can form concepts.”2 The second, by Alain Badiou: “The subject of a movie is not its story, its plot, but that on which this movie takes a position and the cinematographic form with which it does so.”3 This article will address the subject (and subjectivizing gesture) of a movie, which can be depicted by comprehending the stance it takes on “something”4 and the specific means it employs to do so; it will thereby be able to address what I will refer to as an Idea,5 the formation of which creates the real subject of the movie and its imaginary (in the double sense of image and imagined) means of articulation. This will ultimately lead to the formulation of a conceptual, i.e., symbolic, synthesis of this imaginary-real concatenation. The symbolic, argumentative movement of the text will therefore begin with the subject of the movie at issue, proceed to the means of its constitution, present its idea, and ultimately articulate it on a conceptual level.6

2. Sucker Punch with Hegel 

The title Sucker Punch suggests that this is a movie about a combat or struggle. And indeed about a specific type of combat; one that takes recourse in what seems surprising, illegitimate, and maybe even illegal. Indeed, the very title already resonates with what Hegel articulated as the functioning of the “speculative sentence,” which is the very mode of presenting the movement of an idea, i.e., of a concept and its actuality. As he states: “the general nature of the judgment or proposition, which involves the distinction of subject and predicate, is destroyed by the speculative sentence, and the proposition of identity which the former becomes contains the sucker punch against that subject-predicate relationship.”7 A sucker punch destroys the subject-predicate relationship, since in it the subject seems to represent the stable ground on which determination of that very ground (remaining formally external to it) comes to pass. This means that the stakes of (a) Sucker Punch are that the idea that any “picture-thinking” (HPS, 37) [vorstellendes Denken] that imagines a stable subject-ground and ascribes predicates to it will receive an unexpected blow by being confronted with something it is unable to imagine happening, namely a withdrawal of its very ground. Only such a blow makes “thinking … lose the firm objective basis it had in the subject, when in the predicate it is thrown back on to the subject, and when, in the predicate, it does not return into itself, but on to the subject of the content.” (HPS, 39)

A sucker punch depicts a movement that is unable to be pictured or imagined [vorgestellt], since it destroys and subtracts from the picture, or imagination, the firm ground before which and in front [vor-] of which something could be posited and placed [gestellt]. For Hegel, true thought begins in and with such a movement, as this is how thought moves in general.8 In it “the passive Subject is … shaken, and only this movement itself is the object” (HPS, 37) – the object of thought is the movement from which thinking itself emerges and this is what makes it emerge over and over again. And it depicts something previously unimaginable, since it comes with the insight that “only by forgetting my particular personality, am I truly in thought and only then am I in reality, only then do I live as a rational being.”9 If a movie can perform such a ground-breaking move and generate such a movement, what it does is to force thought. There is no hold, no neutral, stable perspective of judgment. In watching the movie, one is subjectivized, forced to think by having one’s supposed firm ground pulled out from under oneself. Sucker punch – and sucker punch movies in general – are what can be called engaged cinema. Does this come as a surprise? Hollywood does have some engaged cinema! It has what once was called a “Hollywood left.”10 However, it should be clear that not all cinematic pieces that deal with combat or struggle can be said to be a part of engaged cinema. What makes cinema engaged has to do with the very means of the movie in question, with the way it works, and the way it – quite literally – moves. 

Another of Hegel’s words depicting a sucker punch can be related to what it means to see the film in question: “In interaction [here: between the viewer and the movie]… there ought to be two conflicting substances [viewer and movie]. But their substantiality is nothing but this totality of their determination, of the sucker punch in itself [des Gegenstoßes in sich], which is … the concept.”11 If the movie Sucker Punch (in) itself presents such a sucker punch, then following Hegel we can infer that we are on the level of the concept, or, more precisely, on the level of what he calls an idea, since “when it is present in its real existence and placed in unity therewith … the Concept is the Idea.”12 This is why one simply cannot be neutral, since Sucker Punch sucker-punches its viewer as much as the idea itself sucker-punches by generating an actuality of conceptual thought. The sucker punch of Sucker Punch – a meta-sucker-punch that destroys even any stable conception of what a sucker punch is – can thus be said to imply a suspension of any firm ground for viewers, of their established imaginary points of reference, of all the slumber of contemporary picture-thinking we dwell in. “The energy of thought” thus emerges, which “wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself” (HPS, 19). Yet, for cinema in general and for Sucker Punch in particular, Sartre’s statement with regard to all acts of imagination still seems valid: “an image, being a negation of the world from a particular point of view, can only appear on the ground of the world and in connection with that ground.”13 All ground is lost in the sucker punch movement; however, one is thereby not simply within abstraction. Rather, the particular ground and world, which is shaken, is of the highest relevance. But what does this mean for the cinema in general and for Sucker Punch in particular? In general it implies that true cinematic art is contemporary, constitutively so, to a world, and in particular that one can locate Sucker Punch by giving an account of the concrete world it causes to tremble. The allegedly stable subject (or subjective ground) of the movie is thus the contemporary world which it seeks to explode in order to make a movement possible, one through which thought emerges.

3. The General Situation of Cinema-Not-Without-Ideas 

Alain Badiou has remarked that cinema is “an absolutely impure art” (ABCE, 364).14 The main reason for this is that a movie must necessarily employ the “contemporary imaginary” (Ibid., 369). This historically specific material is precisely that which lays the groundwork on which all movies move and operate. This impurity makes every movie “contemporary and hence addressed to all”15 – it becomes “the metaphor of contemporary thought” (ABCM, 35) – since it works on this contemporary material to create, in an always specific manner, some “fragments of purity” (ABCC, 363). From time to time one might see an idea passing within these fragments. Cinéma, pas sans idées.16 It is important to note that, by being contemporary to its own time, cinema is essentially composed of all the “ideological indicators of the epoch” (Ibid., 226), that is to say, it works directly with and upon contemporary ideology in all its manifestations: opinions, even the most inconsistent ones, including all kinds of meaningless images, clichés and practices of everyday life. It “treats what is most abject” (ABCE, 372) but is perhaps able to create more than just an abject-collage. It seeks to create an idea from something that is itself not ideal; it inscribes something (of the) Real within an illusion.17 Cinema’s material hence belongs to the “non-art of its time” (ABCC, 226) and cinema struggles with its non-artistic material to artistically create an idea that “operates a crossing of ordinary opinions and the labor of thought” (ABCE, 385). Cinema can never abolish its own impurity since it essentially relies on the contemporary (and illusory) images (and imaginary), but there might appear in and through the use of this very material something that is “more” than just imaginary. This comes down to stating that cinema is in a state of constant struggle. It is essentially a battle, a combat:18 “[W]hen we see a movie, we watch a combat: the fight against the impurity of the material. We do not only see the result […], we see the battle […]” (ABCE, 371). Here the title Sucker Punch gains further significance. It indicates a specific move within a combative situation. If all movies present a battle (and many battles are obviously lost), and Sucker Punch is itself a peculiar take on how to fight, how to struggle, then we can say it is a movie about making a truly artistic movie.

4. Brecht in Hollywood

Movies are made of images. Yet, if one can make anything at all using an image and a camera, the struggle in which a movie is engaged is one of images, within which it is also conducted – it is an imaginary struggle. A movie struggles with the material’s “sensible infinity” and with the issue of how to dominate it. Yet, “to dominate this infinity has become impossible. This impossibility is the real of cinema, […] a battle with infinity […]”(Ibid., 365). Sucker Punch presents a peculiar take on this battle that is situated at the heart of cinema and is at the same time necessary (needs to be fought) and impossible (cannot be won). Sucker Punch, a movie about making movies, does not only present a strategy of how to fight this impossible fight, but does so by fighting a specifically and singularly impossible fight with the contemporary imaginary of the contemporary world. These dimensions determine Sucker Punch not only formally but are also present in its content, since one witnesses a subjective situation from which it is (or seems) impossible (for someone) to escape, that is, a situation generated by corruption, bribery, and greed. 

One of the best ways to depict the formal operators of Sucker Punch’s position-taking is to refer to the widespread criticisms of the movie, which attack it for its “interminable sequences of overscale mayhem,” which “are kinetic and elaborate but almost entirely lacking in tension.”19 But what if these long sequences are a part of the very means of the movie? What if their excessive nature is one of the crucial operations for performing the very sucker punch and inducing the “physical malaise”20 that some critics felt is an obvious indication of it? No doubt these sequences can seem annoying, but the very affect they produce is part of the way the movie operates. Critics of the seemingly endless combat scenes and their exaggerated mise-en-scène are wrong for precisely the right reasons. Why not argue that such annoyance is produced exactly when “the art of cinema […] subtly shows that it is nothing but cinema, that its images testify to the real only insofar as they are manifested as images.”21 The annoying intensity of these sequences is part of the “message” of the movie, part of what comes to pass in it, of what comes to pass in it as idea.22 It is precisely in this way that it employs and presents the contemporary imaginary as what it is: i.e., as imaginary. Sucker Punch’s bombastic, overblown action sequences demonstrate that the “proper genius of cinema consists in being more bombastic than the avant-gardes.”23 Its style implies, in its very material constitution (special effects, etc.), a peculiar technique of inversion: it uses the infinity of its material to generate something even more infinite (trans-finite), in excess of, but immanent to, the infinite material. This absolute inversion is what a sucker punch is.24

Mladen Dolar once characterized “Brecht’s gesture” in the following terms: “He doesn’t take the line of a critical distance or of rational argument against [the ideology of political sacrifice], but proceeds, so to speak, in a way that is more ideological than the ideology. The bottom line is rather that ideology demands too little sacrifice.”25 If this is Brecht’s basic gesture, Sucker Punch can be said to be a Brechtian movie.26 It is more consciously bombastic than the contemporary imaginary itself, more ideological than ideology. Reviewers of the movie criticized it as a representation of male-chauvinist fantasies, stuck in the age of puberty, and interested only in computer action games and porn.27 But, carrying the claim further, we can say that Sucker Punch is consciously “more pornographic than pornography … one could call this ‘super-pornography’, a pornography of the second degree.” (ABCE, 368) 

This take on the contemporary imaginary is what performs a sucker punch on the viewer. For, as Sartre claimed “when the imaginary is not posited as a fact [as unreflected imaginary], the surpassing and the nihilation of the existent are stuck in the existent, the surpassing and the freedom are there but they are not revealed; the person is squashed in the world, transfixed by the real, and is closest to the thing.”28 Sucker Punch sucker punches because with its very own maneuver it hyper-imaginarizes, i.e., de-realizes the imaginary (fantasies) that sustains the order of the contemporary world, which squashes the person by its rigid limitations of what is possible and what not. Sucker Punch thereby brings about a dimension of freedom and of thought, not limited by these very possibilities, since they emerge when something unforeseeable, and therefore impossible, takes place. It does so by being more imaginary than the imaginary itself, super-imaginary, and hence also, with regard to its sensible material, supersensible, i.e., it is able to make an idea of freedom come to pass on the screen and this coming to pass is the very condition for learning “how to become a subject.”29 If cinema in general is like a “school for everyone” (ABCM, 16), what one learns in the unorthodox school of Sucker Punch is not only something about the contemporary world (it is a “real analysis of the images of the present”30) but also how to loosen its restrictive embrace. What is this world about which it teaches us?

5. Democracy and its Discontents 

Fredric Jameson has diagnosed the contemporary situation as one of subjective perplexity and disorientation. After the failures of all the Marxist attempts to install a framework which could provide for a collective subjective orientation, and after the perpetual intensification of late capitalism’s dynamics, the contemporary epoch is marked by the feeling that “the truth of … experience no longer coincides with the place in which it takes place.”31 This is to say, that individuals become disoriented because they lack an effective cognitive map of the complete situation they are in. This lack of orientation originates in the absence of a standpoint that would provide not only an abstract, but also a concretizable, perspective on the totality of the situation in which an individual finds himself. Badiou has further complicated the problem of disorientation, by linking it to the modalities of subjectivization offered by contemporary societies. In his analysis he refers to Jean Genet’s characterization of the present as a “non-present present,” which, for Badiou, highlights the fact that today everyone seems to be aware and sure that whatever (individual or collective) action is undertaken, nothing will change the world fundamentally. The course of any action is already predetermined by the coordinates of a past, and is hence inscribable in a foreseeable future. As the future thus becomes nothing but a repetition of the past, the present as such disappears (one is living in a present without present). Indeed, everyone is already living in one’s own future (which is simultaneously one’s own past). However, every lack, including the lack of a present, has to find an embodiment. If something is lacking, there is always a signifier that embodies this very lack. This is the precise function of what Lacan called the phallus,32 since “the phallus is the image of that which has no image, bare power” (ABP, 30). Today, “the phallus of our present” (ABP, 17) is “democracy.” “Democracy” is the signifier that embodies the lack of the present and thereby incorporates the very cause, and allegedly stable ground, of subjective disorientation. Why? Because today it is not only the name for a political regime that seems to turn politics into mere administration, but also names the absence of any real political organization and movement. Nonetheless it is able to sell itself as an imaginary stable ground and this implies a specific kind of (fetishist) disavowal that turns disorientation into a new kind of orientation (an effect of corruption). Democracy thus gets turned into a signifier of disorientation. 

Democratic fetishism involves not believing that one actually lives in a democracy – as is abundantly clear everywhere, one whistleblower is sufficient – while nonetheless acting as if one does believe it. The fetishist disavowal (“I know very well that this is not a democracy, but nevertheless I act as if I do not know that I know”) generates a universalized structural corruption (making it impossible for democracy to live up to its proclaimed standards). This structural corruption provides the basis for real corruption.33 This infection of democracy with corruption everywhere leads Badiou to the claim that: “Today the enemy is no longer empire or capital. It is democracy.”34 This is because structural corruption (i.e., democracy as signifier of disorientation) corrupts the very functioning of the law (of structure) and the modes of subjectivization provided by it. Simply put: democracy is a structure that no longer provides for subjective positions; rather, it corrupts the youth (in a very un-Socratic manner), perverts them, and turns subjects into objects. Bruno Latour’s terrifying slogan has therefore already become the corrupted principle of the present (inverting it into a non-subjective present): one is one of the things in a parliament of things.

6. Forever Young 

This leads to the decline of traditional modes of subjectivization. Agamben has articulated this by stating: “Contemporary societies […] present themselves as inert bodies going through massive processes of desubjectification without acknowledging any real subjectification.”35 Previously, the subjectivization of a young male for example functioned basically following the Freudian “conceptual myth,”36 based on a dialectic of father and son: A primordial father of an Ur-horde with a monopoly on pleasure, owning all the women, generates the envy of his sons, who ultimately kill him to get their libidinal share. The real (dead) father returns as symbolic law, as the ensuing guilt that brings the sons together, prohibiting (further acts of murder) and protecting them. This dialectical relation ultimately enables the sons to be elevated into the father’s position. Subjective disorientation originates when both sides of this construction are weakened. Today, the fathers envy the enjoyment of the young sons and the latter enjoy without ever being confronted with any guilt whatsoever. What previously distinguished the son from the father (and thus enabled subjectivization) was the position within the symbolic order: the son had to succeed the father and become the imaginary master of law. Crucial for this initiation into the symbolic mandate was, amongst other things, military service – the son became a man by becoming, as soldier, an equal to his father. Today by changing the very conception of law the very principle of existence of the son has also been transformed.37 Today, the dominant law is the law of the market – “of a world which is not a world”38 – that by its very definition organizes an endless continuation and expansion of an already established set of positions (say: rich-poor) that never changes fundamentally, thereby any symbolic subjectivizing inversion becomes unthinkable. The law of the market is one of survival, and according to it nothing is really prohibited, thus rendering subjectivization impossible. The old myth is replaced with a new one, one “of an eternal adolescence” producing an “infantilization of the adult” (ABSA, 77), leaving the sons objectively de-initiated, that is to say subjectively disoriented. The son remains forever young, an eternal child.39

7. The Girls Have Grown Old

Something similar happens to feminine subjectivization.40 Previously a girl became a woman through the mediation of a man, represented by the “logic of marriage.”41 The woman stood – as the traditional “Work, Family, Fatherland”42 slogan indicates – in-between43 two male figures: the worker and the soldier. On the one side, her task was to ensure reproduction: She had “to welcome her husband [the worker] at her table and in her bed” and, on the other, to mourn patriotically the soldier, her son or husband who died on the battlefield. Today, the suspension of the previous (patriarchal) mode of female subjectivization likewise creates a peculiar subjective disorientation, producing and perpetuating a lack of subjectivization. Yet, female de-initiation functions unlike the male one. The girl does not remain an eternal child; instead, childhood itself disappears from her life. Femininity becomes overall premature – something like the girl-woman is always prematurely constituted. In contemporary democracy, then, the sons are forever immature (never subjectivized), while the daughters are always already mature (always-already subjectivized and thereby not subjectivized). This is why all subjective present, all present of a subject disappears. If the traditional model relied on the conception that a man has to take the place of his father, and a woman of her mother, contemporary capitalist democracy suspends these imperatives by undermining the structuring principles of the previous symbolic universe (i.e., father and mother). It thereby inclines everyone to become one’s own ego ideal, the best version of oneself, and the best is the best in and only through the competition with others. The ideal that one is and follows is the ideal that rises like a phoenix out of the ashes of market competition. 

For the woman – the grown-up of today’s democracy – this implies that the very potential of the traditional model of subjectivization (also enabling previous women’s struggles) equally perishes; a potential that lay precisely in the peculiar female in-between. This in-between did not only indicate a position of dependency on the male position, but also a process of overcoming it; something which “disjoins the One” (idea of a women and of a man) of the former order. Woman was “not a place but an act”; an act that presented “a pass, more precisely, a passage, an in-between two.”44 This implied that woman was a process that came to pass and presented a movement akin to the idea depicted in Hegel. Thus, it seemed valid to claim: l’homme, pas-sans femme. With the withering away of this model, the always-already mature daughter replaces the previous symbolic father; the never mature sons present a weak version of individualist desires without law, and whilst the fathers envy them, the girl-woman becomes the paradigm of a rigid and mature, i.e., competitive individualism.45 Ultimately, women become the new reserve-army of triumphant capitalism, which thereby thrives on the structural corruption of contemporary democracy.

8. Contemporary Porn and Polish Therapy

Sucker Punch’s characters have no proper names. This is in keeping with its complete absence of all symbolic positions that are name-giving, i.e., mother and father (the mother dies at the beginning of the movie; there is no father but only an abusive and corrupted stepfather figure). The characters all lack the proper type of subjectivization implied in assuming a name. The movie begins with a female off-voice, as the camera closes in on an Iron Curtain covering a theater stage. When the curtain opens, a girl, afterwards referred to as Babydoll, witnesses the death of her mother and is then hunted by her vicious stepfather, who kills her sister and blames her for the crime. One is not only dealing with a movie that is completely aware of its theatrical dimension, but which consciously presents all of its characters as stage characters. They all have nicknames (Babydoll, Amber, Sweet Pea, Rocket, etc., the mental asylum’s orderly is called “Blue”), with one exception: the therapist, Dr. Vera Gorski – a proponent of “Polish therapy” who encourages her patients to re-enact their experienced traumas on a stage in the mental asylum to gain control over them (might one not add: in order to repeat and work through them?). It is thus as if she is dealing with the very literal, symbolic embodiments of the lack of subjectivization and all the violent abuse coming along with it. Therapy here deals with the nickname that one is. The first scene continues by showing how the alleged stepfather bribes a medical orderly to institutionalize Babydoll into a mental asylum where she faces an imminent lobotomy46 – the procedure was introduced in 1935 to treat psychosis (and psychotics treat words as things, or: nicknames as people). Imprisoned in the mental asylum, Babydoll, at the very moment of the lobotomy imaginarily transposes the institutional setting into that of a brothel in which all the patients become prostitutes.47 In this imaginary scenario48 Gorski becomes a dance instructor teaching the girls how to be seductive. However, her double function makes her deal with both the absence of symbolic position (father/mother)49 and the imaginary substitution (nicknames). Sucker Punch thus condenses – like in a dream – dance and therapy: dance becomes a metaphor of what therapy aims at. This is why the already-mentioned combat scenes take place when another imaginary transposition transpires, namely each time Babydoll dances. Within this further imaginary layer we witness an imaginary struggle, a struggle within the imaginary and hence it is as if we are seeing a struggle (against resistances) within therapy. The dance, which mediates between the imaginary brothel and the super-imaginary combat, is not shown once in the entire movie. It thereby presents the very movement of struggle, since it is that which makes the passing over from one to the other possible as that which cannot be imagined. In other terms: what makes possible the very transition from the absence of symbolic subjectivization (mental asylum), which is a threat to thought, to an imaginary coping (the brothel) with it, is something which is neither symbolic nor imaginary, but which indicates that something real happens there, something impossible to imagine. The movie thus makes us witness what is happening in the immanence of a therapy, within a dance; it confronts us with emerging thought. The movie itself is not only a struggle, but works like the very struggle about how to struggle. Hence: as with therapy, it performs the very therapy it also depicts.50 This is its unexpected blow, its sucker punch. It presents Babydoll’s struggle, hence her therapy, by putting all of the viewers in her various positions. However, her imaginary move from the mental (asylum) into the domain of the commercialization of bodies (brothel) implies that the mental asylum always already includes the commercialization of bodies, is sustained by it, seemingly as a way of coping with, but actually as a way of reinforcing the threat of, thought’s abolition. The movie makes clear that, with Babydoll and the imprisoned women, everyone – this is how one is drawn into the sucker punch movement – in contemporary democracy is turned into a potential competitive girl-woman in a mental asylum (in an imaginary whore-house). This very structure of the contemporary imaginary is evinced as what it is, namely as imaginary, and this is to say as embodying the lack of subjective orientation at its ground. 

Badiou refers to Genet not only for his claim that the present is a non-present, but also because he indicates a (foreclosed) choice lying within its ground: Either one lives in a brothel or outside of it. For, the brothel is “the place, where the average price of desire is evaluated and fixed. It is the market of images” (ABP, 19). The present is thus either a non-present-brothel or a non-brothel-present. This is why there is something pornographic51 in the contemporary present. This prostitutional element can be defined by equating the value of a body with that of a commodity, linking biology and economy in a bio-economy. If democracy is the contemporary phallic name, this implies that democracy today is a bio-economical porn industry, turning everyone into a (potential) prostitute. Contemporary democracy is a mental asylum and a whorehouse. 

Sucker Punch depicts how that which embodies the absence of subjective orientation (contemporary democracy) brings about the abolishment of thought (hence the reason it is a mental asylum, as it ­represents the lack of thought tout court) and it shows that this works by turning the mental asylum into an imaginary brothel, commercially feeding on not only bodies (and languages) but the imaginary itself. Sucker Punch thus depicts the subjective situation of anyone in contemporary democracy and shows that everyone needs therapy. So what we see are not hot girls, for whom the transposition of a real mental asylum into an imaginary brothel might make reality less horrific; rather we see why the imaginary brothel is the actual mental asylum and, even more frighteningly, why we are these same hot girls. What we see is ourselves in and through the eyes of the contemporary imaginary, i.e., as imaginary whores in a real brothel. We see that we are all hot girls in a mental asylum. Sucker Punch is a movie about contemporary democracy and, by depicting its basis, it unveils this phallic signifier in its functioning.

9. Here is the Rose, dance here

For Friedrich Nietzsche, who always claimed he was essentially Polish, and even considered himself a Polish therapist (as philosophy is like medicine), dance is an important metaphor. It has been said to be a metaphor of thought.52 This has to do with the fact that dance is an originary gesture, which manifests the “conviction that thought is an intensification” (ABHI, 58). Within it there is a force of restraint that is based on the insight that “movement finds its essence in what has not taken place …” (Ibid., 60). As it is this force of refraining from an impulse that materializes a power of disobedience, the “essence of dance is virtual, rather than actual” (Ibid., 61); its virtual moves, the resisted, restrained movements are the ones that count more than the actualized ones.

Sucker Punch does not show us how we have to dance (i.e., think). Yet, each time Babydoll dances – the first time she is forced to do so by Dr. Gorski – we witness another imaginary transposition of the brothel-scenario into a hyper-fantasy world, where the sequences of battle and fight take place. Badiou claims that “dance could mimic … something like a native (or unfixed) thought” (Ibid., 61). That is to say, since it “depicts nothing,” it is “an emblem of visitation” (Ibid., 64). An emblem of the infinite potential of thought – “the event [as] given ‘before’ the name” (Ibid., 67). Or else: the beginning of a movement of thought before it becomes actual thought, i.e., the very act of subjectivization. Babydoll’s dance thus depicts the very advent of thought. It depicts the sucker punch movement of Sucker punch, a redoubled imaginary transposition in which the emerging thought is in a constant state of struggle. What we can derive from this is that Sucker Punch can teach us how thought – a thought before the actual manifestation of thought – begins in and leads out of a situation in which it seems impossible to think; the advent of thought from an absence of thought. The list of items Babydoll has to collect thus presents an actual account of what is needed for thought to emerge – it forms something like a generic set of preconditions that needs to be constructed so that a subject of thought can see the light of day. 

10. Filming Hegel 

Sergey Eisenstein once sought to film Marx’s Capital. Yet, this project was never realized. However, no one has ever had a similar idea with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Is it because this book depicts what subjectivization means, working through all the fundamental modes of our very existence, traversing them, letting them go, that this seems unimaginable? Might one not be tempted to read what Sucker Punch does as a filming of the Phenomenology? In the end it provides the viewer with a list of items, all to be acquired on the harsh road to liberation, on which one learns how to become a subject. It is a list of all the necessary means for emancipation. These means include: 1) A map – cognitive mapping is needed to gain orientation – to anticipate the (potential end of the) path and locate enemies on it; 2) Fire, which is needed to create diversion if necessary and the first means to determine the situation oneself: fire is obviously infectious; 3) A knife, for the virtual violence that may become necessary to continue one’s path to liberation; 4) A key to open one’s prison is also required to understand one’s own complicity with the situation;53 and 5) that which is first addressed as “a mystery,” as “a deep sacrifice and a perfect victory,” as a sacrificial gesture. Babydoll has to sacrifice herself so that one of her fellow inmates (Sweet Pea) can escape. The former claims: “This was never my story, it is yours” – as if the ultimate sacrifice lies in renouncing the idea that the path to liberation could ever simply be one’s own story and one’s sacrifices should ever be said to matter to oneself. The final renunciation is thus the renunciation of the fetishism of the sacrificial gesture itself. It only matters to others, which is why Sweet Pea can “live for all of us.” The fifth item on the list is therefore not an object to be found either in the mental asylum or in the imaginary world of the brothel. It is rather what gives consistency to both the worlds (and thus to the whole movie). The fantasy that sustains (links) them has to be traversed first (first four items), in order to reach the possibility of proper subjective destitution as that which makes becoming a subject possible. It is not by accident that this sacrifice takes place outside the imaginary brothel (while Babydoll is still in the lobotomy chair in the mental asylum); it is like an imaginary suicide, a sucker punch of and in the imaginary in line with the idea that “only by forgetting my particular personality, I am truly in thought …, only then do I live as a rational being,”54 as a subject. This is like the working through of what Freud, with regard to the analytic situation, called the resistance of the unconscious, which might be said to be embodied in the fact that one tends to conceive the unconscious as an agency separate from the Ego (being situated on another level). By sacrificing the idea of an ego separated from the unconscious (and vice versa), one is able to let things be and, further, to come to pass. With this act Sucker Punch affirms le Cinéma, pas-sans idées and thus affirms that there can be ideas. “Is there a left discourse on sacrifice?”55 It seems as if there is, and it is at the same time a discourse on ideas and, surprisingly, it takes place in Hollywood. The idea that comes to pass in Sucker Punch is that subjectivization and thought is possible but that it needs to be struggled for – it is not a given. Sucker Punch thus contributes to a “Marxist art for the epoch of the [contemporary] crisis of Marxism.”56 It does insofar as it is a Hegelian movie for the contemporary world, precisely insomuch as it shows that “to know one’s limit is to know how to sacrifice oneself.”57


1 Alain Badiou, “La capture cinématographique des sexes,” in: Cinéma, (Paris: Nova, 2010), p. 239.

2 Quoted from Alain Badiou, “Le cinéma comme expérimentation philosophique,” in: Cinéma, p. 356. Cited as ABCE.

3 Alain Badiou, “Le cinéma m’a beaucoup donné,” in: Cinéma, p. 27. Cited as ABCM.

4 The most elementary form of positioning is to be for or against ‘something’, to be opposed or affirmative (or to be affirmative while remaining opposed). I endorse the idea that one still should distinguish between reactive and progressive works of art, as anachronistic as this may sound. I will also contend that “a progressive work must take up a position within the actuality of the history of forms” and thereby offer an “effective mobilization of the contemporary, individual and collective, sensibility.” Alain Badiou, “L’art et sa critique: les critères du progressisme,” in: Cinéma, p. 84. 

5 Cf. Alain Badiou, Second Manifesto For Philosophy, (Cambridge/Malden: Polity Press, 2011), pp. 105–116.

6 One might want to reproach me for over-interpreting, or maybe even doing violence, to the movie I am dealing with. However, I disagree with the widespread opinion that the guideline to any interpretation of an artwork should be not to violate it. Any true work of art – from poetic ones to cinematic artworks – does violence to the material it employs when giving it artistic form. Attempting to pacify this element of immanent violence is not taking it seriously and trying to get rid of “the ‘torturing’ of language that forces it [a poem] to deliver truth. And does not the same go for cinema? Does cinema not also force its visual material to tell the truth through torture?” (Slavoj Žižek, Hegel versus Heidegger, at: Therefore, I uphold the thesis that it is only through something like a more or less violent “interpretation-cut” (Alain Badiou, Peut-on penser la politque?, (Paris: Seuil, 1985, p. 14)) and the pursuit of its consequences that something like the transition from an idea of a movie to a conceptual synthesis can take place. Hence, I am starting from axioms and not judgments of pleasure (say, “I like this film”), indeterminate judgments (about good actors, grandiose scenes) or diacritical ones (including a stylistic analysis of a director). For a critique of these three forms of judgment, cf. Alain Badiou, “Peut-on parler d’un film?,” in: Cinéma, pp. 155–157. 

7 G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, (Oxford/New York/Toronto/Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 38. I altered the translation of “Gegenstoß” as “counter-thrust.” This passage shall also make intelligible why the present article does not start from any judgment, as delineated in the introductory section. I owe the idea for this translation to amicable exchanges with Slavoj Žižek.

8 This is why it can be said that: “This opening blow leaves the victim open to various other attacks, often leading to what would be called ‘bitch moves’ because of the defenseless nature of the victim.” Cf. The entry “sucker punch” in the Urban Dictionary at

9 G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über Logik und Metaphysik. Heidelberg 1817, (Hamburg: Meiner, 1991), p. 87.

10 Cf. Slavoj Žižek’s characterization of 300, another movie by Zack Snyder, in these terms in his: The True Hollywood Left, at

11 Hegel, Vorlesungen, p. 136. 

12 G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 106.

13 Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of Imagination, (London/New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 185. 

14 One might say that “progressive” cinema generates more than just pleasure and/or disgust for about 90 minutes; it generates something aristocratic, namely an idea, in a proletarian element. See, Alain Badiou, Du cinéma comme emblème démocratique, in: Cinéma, pp. 323–374. 

15 Alain Badiou, “Considérations sur l’état actuel du cinéma, et sur les moyens de penser cet état sans avoir à conclure que le cinéma est mort ou mourant,” in: Cinéma, p. 226. 

16 Lacan claimed that although anxiety (contrary to fear) has no object, it is never without an object. The object of anxiety is a “not-without” object, a “pas-sans object,” which one only encounters in passing, that only passes by and cannot be confronted directly. Cf. Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire X. L’angoisse, (Paris: Seuil, 2004), p. 105. The idea in cinema has an analogous function: it is the “not-without” (pas-sans) that one only encounters in passing.

17 I borrow this from Alenka Zupan¬i¬s book: Das Reale einer Illusion: Kant und Lacan, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001).

18 A distinction can be made here between cinema and philosophy: cinema is a battle whereas philosophy, as Kant stated, is a battlefield. 

19 Review of Sucker Punch in the New York Times, at

20 Review of Sucker Punch in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel,

21 Alain Badiou, Dialectique de la fable, in: Cinéma, p. 320f.

22 As one reviewer correctly states: “The movie’s commercial failure perhaps testifies to the difficulty of making a success of our dissatisfaction.”,5,299.

23 Alain Badiou, Oui à l’amour, sinon la solitude: Entretien à propos de Magnolia de Paul Thomas Anderson, in: Cinéma, p. 305.

24 This is clearly a Hegelian move. If one wants to get to truth, the first thing to do – as any direct access is simply impossible – is to choose the illusion as illusion first, as only this apparently false choice then opens up the very access to the true thing. 

25 Mladen Dolar, “Brecht’s Gesture,” in: Theory & Event, Vol. 15, Issue 4, 2012.

26 Of course, the most obvious reference to Brecht is the direct addressing of the audience, which occurs several times, although the most apparent time is at the very end of the movie when the sentence “You have all the weapons you need, now fight,” is articulated like a battle-call addressing its audience.

27 Cf. review in Die Zeit, at–03/film-sucker-punch.

28 Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 187.

29 Dolar, “Brecht’s Gesture“, op. cit.

30 Alain Badiou, “Pornographie du temps présent“ (Paris: Fayard, 2013), p. 12. Cited as ABP.

31 Fredric Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping,” in: Carry Nelson/Lawrence Grossberg (Ed.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, (Urbana, University of Illinois Press 1988), p. 351.

32 Technically the phallus is the signifier of castration. Cf. Jacques Lacan, The Signification of the Phallus, in: Écrits, (New York/London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), pp. 575–584.

33 As Žižek has argued there are two types of “corruption in democracy: de facto empirical corruption, and the corruption that pertains to the very form of democracy with its reduction of politics to the negotiation of private interests”, see Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London/New York: Verso, 2010), p. 55. One can argue that the most fundamental type of corruption of democracy lies in the idea of an infinite postponement of the approaching apocalypse (be it environmental, economic, or otherwise). Democracy has become the “this is it” state of politics by providing a structure for corrupting even the apocalypse, by endlessly postponing it. Today’s democracy is thus based on a constant deferral of democracy itself (it is a democracy à venir), and relies on such imaginary transpositions. The latter is part of the very means Sucker Punch employs.

34 Alain Badiou, Prefazione all’edizione italiana, Metapolitica (Naples, Cronopio 2002), p. 14. 

35 Giorgio Agamben, “What Is an Apparatus?,” in: What Is an Apparatus? And Other Essays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 22.

36 Alain Badiou, “The Son’s Aleatory Identity in Today’s World,” in: lacanian ink 32, p. 73. Cited as ABSA.

37 The point to be made here is not a nostalgic one. It is just to point out that this very service has forfeited its function. Cf. also Alain Badiou, “The Figure of the Soldier,” in: Philosophy for Militants, (London/New York: Verso, 2012), pp. 41–60. 

38 Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return of Philosophy, (London/New York: Continuum, 2003), p. 162.

39 The only thing that eternal kids desire are, of course, new toys. Here one can also recall one of Freud’s crucial insights: what there is before subjectivization is first and foremost egoist tyranny resulting from the competition of desires and narcissist pleasure seeking. Cf. Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), pp. 258ff. 

40 Cf. Alain Badiou, Figures de la féminité dans le monde contemporain, unpublished typescript. Cited as ABF.

41 This also means that in the traditional model “what separates the girl from the woman is nothing but a man.” (ABF)

42 In this slogan alone what is clear is that if one distributes the terms, one ends up with two (work, fatherland) on the male side to one on the female side (family). 

43 This in-between status is the reason why the woman, according to the traditional model, is able to create a “place out of place” (ABF) whose figures are the girl-mother and the old girl. Today it is the previously pejorative figure of the old girl that becomes predominant. 

44 Cf. Alain Badiou, Seminar on “L’immanence des verities,” at–13.htm. Today: “The contemporary woman will become the emblem of the new One, competing on the ruins of the Name-of-the-Father.”

45 This becomes apparent in the claims of those who demand that women should take over and inhabit all relevant positions of power – as if this would fundamentally change the structure of the world.

46 This is further complicated, because the lobotomy is initiated on the basis of Dr. Gorski’s signature, which was forged by the corrupt orderly Blue.

47 This is where the movie itself employs the very means of democracy itself: it postpones the imminent apocalypse (i.e., lobotomy). One is thereby not only dealing here with the levels of reality (lobotomy) and of imagination (brothel) but always also with the depiction of the function of the relation between the two of them; which is why all things happen from the perspective of Babydoll. In democracy, everyone is a Babydoll. 

48 The following should be noted: first there is a theater stage and on it the mental asylum, then there is the brothel, and third, another, imaginary layer. 

49 In a very telling scene the main male figure, Blue, refers to himself as “your father, your lover, your employer” when he discovers the escape-plan. This is a depiction of the function of the father in contemporary times: he is the one who offers you a position as employee, hence is your daddy and thus able to fuck you (over).

50 It might be argued that a true movie can depict the very immanence of processes that are otherwise impossible to transmit. It can, for example, present a sexual encounter of a love-couple from an immanent perspective.

51 The advent and omnipresence of internet porn, accessible to anyone – no matter how old – is an index of this. Badiou states: “the most humiliating pornography is universally sold. Advice on how to sexually exhibit bodies lavishes teen magazines day in and day out.” Cf. Badiou, Behind the Scarfed Law.

52 Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 57f. Cited as ABHI.

53 Another Hegelian point: Does not the beautiful soul inhabit a position which complains about the situation but resists seeing its own complicity with it? This would be the ultimately Brechtian move of Sucker Punch: depicting how today’s appearance of the beautiful soul consists in the hot girl prostitute and everyone is in this position, i.e., of complaining about the sexism and chauvinism in Sucker Punch itself. 

54 Hegel, Vorlesungen, op. cit.

55 Dolar, “Brecht’s Gesture”, op. cit.

56 Alain Badiou, “L’Affaire Demy,” in: Cinéma, p. 111. 

57 Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 492.

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Frank Ruda

Frank Ruda

ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Sonderforschungsbereich »Ästhetische Erfahrung im Zeichen der Entgrenzung der Künste« an der Freien Universität Berlin. Er ist Mitherausgeber der Reihe morale provisoire beim Berliner Merve Verlag. Er ist Übersetzer von Schriften Badious und Rancières und hat zahlreiche Artikel zu Fragen zeitgenössischer Philosophie veröffentlicht.

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Frank Ruda (Hg.), Jan Völker (Hg.): Art and Contemporaneity

Frank Ruda (Hg.), Jan Völker (Hg.)

Art and Contemporaneity

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Although art always takes place in time, its manifestations – actual works of art – can be characterized by the specific and close connection they maintain between contemporaneity and timelessness. Their relation to time must be differentiated in a twofold manner: on the one hand, there is the relation to the time in which they are embedded, and, on the other, the relation to the time that they themselves create. In particular historical conditions a specific temporality of the artwork emerges. Both temporalities are superimposed on by one another, namely as a timelessness of artworks as such. The book assembles a variety of thinkers that confront one of the most crucial questions when dealing with the very definition, concept and operativity of art: How to link art to the concept of the contemporary?