Deciphering the symptoms
Slavoj Žižek in Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Zizek, 2007, p.55) explains, of course in a Lacanian way, how to notice symptoms that are brilliantly camouflaged in background material. He gives an example from the Alfred Hitchcock movie Foreign Correspondent, in the scene where the main character, Huntley Haverstock, is in pursuit of an assassin, who momentarily goes out of view on an airfield containing Dutch windmills. It’s all quiet, peaceful and natural. But a small detail changes everything. All the windmills rotate clockwise, except one which turns in the opposite direction—the assassin’s hideout. I can give a similar example with Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in the scene where everything is ready for the landing of a spacecraft. The scene frames the night sky above the desert. We see a seemingly typical constellation of stars, and, at least to the layman’s eye, everything is normal. Suddenly, one of the constellations moves left and right and a few seconds later, our eye is able to separate the UFO from the background. Everything is natural, but at the same time not.
Slavoj Žižek uses the scene with the windmills to explain the Lacanian term “quilting point” (point de capiton). This expression is borrowed from the upholstery trade where the upholsterer first coats the hard part of the furniture with a sponge-like or soft material, covers it with textile or leather, and then makes stitches around the material to close the edges as a kind of loop, and thus prevents the sponge from emerging.
This analogy is an essential part Lacan’s theory of the subject, i.e. the theory of what it means to be a person. Lacan argues that the subject is represented through language or through words called “signifiers.” Everything the subject speaks, writes and dreams represents him or her. From this, it can be concluded that there is no direct subject-object contact. In a statement like, “My lawyer represents me before your lawyer, or the Prime Minister of our country represents us before the prime ministers of other states”, the signifier of the other subject, your lawyer, is called the “signified” and thus we get the signifier-signified couple. Your signifier is signified for me, and my signifier is signified for you. (Hill, 1997, pp. 70 – 82.) According to Lacan, in cases where the signifier cannot establish contact or find the signified, it is not possible to have a “quilting point”, which creates psychosis. Put another way, the lack of a link between the signifier and the signified creates psychosis in the subject. (Lacan, 1977, p. 217.)
Let’s go back to the example of Žižek with the windmill. At the moment when it is no longer possible to create a link between the weird movement of the windmill (rotating in the opposite direction from all other windmills) and what it signifies, that small unnatural detail does not allow us to establish the signifier-signified connection and thereby generates fear and anxiety.
Here one can ask the question: Why does the subject need to link his signifier with the signified? To answer this, we first need to get to know another important part of Lacan’s theory, so that, together with the signifier-signified pairing, we can carry out the final analysis of “Stranger Things”.