The HP Series showcases excerpts from excellent Honours Projects by students from the Department of English Language and Literature. [Read all entries here.]
Supervisor: Dr Jason Eng Hun Lee
Avatar as Self:
the Politics of Jouissance
in Natalia Figueroa’s Fran Bow (2015)
and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871)
Fran Bow, a 2015 indie psychological horror video game, is observed to have a convincing parallel to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). On an intertextual-level analysis, Carroll’s fantasy novels impose a context on Fran Bow. Apart from Fran Bow’s child-like appearance and insatiable curiosity similar to Alice’s character, Fran Bow’s psychotic experience wandering in between the Five Realms of Essential Existence has a lot of metaphorical references to Alice’s experience in Wonderland: Fran Bow’s birthday party to Alice’s tea party; Mr. Midnight’s role as a wise man to the Cheshire Cat’s being an anchor to Alice’s sanity; Duotine, the psychoactive pills Fran Bow has always been taking throughout the gameplay to Alice’s “Drink Me” liquid, which both are the keys that bring them to their imagined worlds of delusion and nonsense. In the gameplay, Fran Bow is always seduced by the Real that gives an illusion to structuralise and reify the unrepresentable Thing— the truth that is beyond her comprehension— with the support of fantasy. Applying Slavoj Žižek’s theory of “Das Ding”, the Real usually presents itself in the form of trauma that gives her moments of horror, thus connecting her to an enjoyment that is brought about by suspending or altering the social order, as well as projecting her own excesses onto monstrous and horrifying spectacles (Noys).
This cross-disciplinary study also sheds new light on consuming the grotesque that bombards players with visual imagery and a disorientating experience of time and space. Technological evolution changes our traditional way of seeking pleasure; enjoyment could also be found by watching gore and visual morbidity, amusing oneself at the terrifying and disturbing images that bring out the sublime effect onto the players with Fran Bow’s trauma discourse. Players substitute their self into Fran Bow through immersion into the video-game world, and see her as their own double that reduces their being into a symbol—the young girl figure. At the same time, she becomes a fetishistic object-thing that generates jouissance for the players, as they unconsciously fulfil and follow the game’s command and ideology. According to Jacques Lacan, jouissance has an inseparable tie with the death drive, a symbol of the pain principle; it aims to satisfy the drive rather than the need, and the aim of the drive is the failure of satisfaction that lures the subjects to restart and repeat its circuit (Dimitriadis 2). Alfie Bown further develops the concept of jouissance onto video-game narrative: computers could force excessive desire onto players and command them to desire, since games could naturalise the enjoyment of the Other, thus reorganising and reprogramming the player’s desire (76). Fran Bow, who has been traumatised by her parents’ death, constantly encounters a series of terrifying characters, and rejects the dark side of her psyche by deferring her acknowledgement of the truth as a way to crave jouissance.
In Fran Bow, the juxtapositions of her traumatic flashback, imagination and reality become more and more bizarre as the plot develops; the spatial displacement could be construed as a destabilisation and fragmentation of reality, as well as of Fran Bow’s personality and character. It also de-territorialises and reterritorialises players through detaching them from their long-established understanding of reality and recontextualising them in a newly created territory. Without a linear plot for them to hold onto, moving between realms only allows players to become immersed in the structured subjectivity confined by Fran Bow’s multi-layered worlds and interrogate how fluid “realness” is when the rational discourse given by society is silenced. Besides, the constant appearances of her phantasmal duplication—her divided self in a Freudian sense—confuse players to the extent that the tensions between the chronic duality give no clarity and unity of Fran Bow’s personality, as she has been denying her evil division from time to time. In the end, there is no reconciliation between her Self and her Other; her demonic double problematises the notions of self by returning to the heart of darkness that has been silenced by cultural laws and established norms (Živković 125). The irreconcilable opposites destabilise the unity of character by manifesting the forbidden desire and disorder that should not have existed in the dominant value system, thus unveiling the fictional representation and ideological construction produced by modern culture (126).
In dissolving these dominant structures, Figueroa sees Fran Bow as her own double in a Lacanian sense. She treats Fran Bow’s body as a projective identification of herself, and this attempt of self-identification fetishises Fran Bow, as an image, to be a split from the producer Figueroa herself. Through establishing the coherent sense of “self” onto the image, she finds the inception and contact of a subject that mimics her in all ways to be very satisfying and therapeutic, as Fran Bow is seen as a materialised wholeness of herself. With reference to Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, the child enjoys the specular dimension of the imaginary that forms and maintains their identity in their own subjectivity (Brockelman 214). This applies to Figueroa’s recognition of Fran Bow, a product that is entirely imagined and designed by her, as a Real that is identified by her Ego. Nevertheless, this “unity” is just a fantasy of a narcissistic union between the producer and representation, for Figueroa always remains outside of the image and screen. In fact, she does not acknowledge the gap and space that divides her from Fran Bow, and this discrepancy is what sustains her obsession with the imaginary illusion that produces her pure desire to fill her lack.
Players’ Substitution into the Avatar
Via displacement, players derive pleasure from the sadomasochistic oscillation of controlling the avatar and synchronising and enforcing the subject’s emotional impact onto themselves. Their sadistic tendency for inflicting horror upon the Other puts the avatar in a masochistic position, and their masochistic inclination of copying the Other’s pleasure demonstrates their perverted drives of seeking satisfaction through another’s suffering that is exercised in the wish-fulfilling dream world (Bown 111). Putting her into a series of crises, players dwell in a dromena of grotesque spectacles and constantly confront the repressed side of the protagonist, who tries to hide her murderousness by subverting the socially constructed Symbolic Order. The process of dromena drills players with visual bombardment; the cyclical repetition of certain symbols popping up chapter after chapter compels and stimulates them to have an emotional stir from within (85). Responding to the game objectives that are in line with Fran Bow’s wish, players are forced to subscribe to the game’s ideology unconsciously and compulsively, for that psychological command is reinforced spontaneously and simultaneously with the repetitive reappearance of grotesque imagery. As Fran Bow gradually indulges them in overwhelming gruesomeness, fetishising the apparitions and gore, players, arouse a consumptive desire towards her being an object of the Other’s jouissance.
In a more radical sense, the interactivity of the video game world achieves the effect of “interpassivity” in that players’ uncanny double, Fran Bow, relieves them of their duty to enjoy themselves. Leaving from the perspective of passive observer, players move to a position that allows them to actively participate in the spectacle itself (Žižek 144). Fran Bow becomes a substitution of the players, and, as an object-thing that acts on their place, enjoys and suffers for them. Their intimate feelings are radically externalised and consumed through another (141), for Fran Bow becomes an “empty signifier”, a structure of signifier that is anticipated to be substituted for the signified content. Žižek refers to it as the “element-fetish” (143) when the process of substitution has occurred. These double symbolic registers enable the players to have a transferential relationship with Fran Bow, who is a reified form of their trust towards the subject that is at a distance with them. Fran Bow, as a subject that existed in a reimagined past reviving around the mid-20th century, could never be verified and attained by the players. They transpose their belief onto her by surrendering their innermost content, thus this motive decentres themselves from what they truly and directly are. Their displacement onto the Other is what they account for the satisfaction of believing and enjoying through the Other—the virtual avatar.
The Loss of Innocence
Figueroa has challenged the traditional concept of an innocent child, who is assumed to be an object of curiosity and compassion—the idealisation of the classic bourgeois image of an innocent child, like Alice in Wonderland. Unveiling this poetic illusion, she portrays Fran Bow as an alien monster that initiates a “moral panic” by resisting the social order and committing herself to bloodshed and violence (Jagodzinski 27). The concept of childhood being displaced lies on the premise that the culture of the Internet and the Digital Age has quickened the pace of life, and maturated millennials, born between 1982 and 2002, in a feverish haste (17). Their childhood is invaded by notions of equality, as they see adults as the Other and would eventually make a symbolic break with their parents (Baudrillard 106). This radical alterity endangers the image of “innocent child” and this ideal becomes a mystification of the modern child concept. The loss of childlike innocence paves the way for the fetishisation of the innocent image, as its disappearance constitutes the lack that animates adults’ desire.
Fran Bow as a postmodernist fetish-object could be a transcendental signifier of Alice, who manifests the modernist fantasy of the “divine” child during the Victorian era. This romanticised image—a fantasmatic child who is being removed from the economic and social demand of child labour—was a response to the flourishing modernisation and industrialisation of Britain during the Industrial Revolution. Carroll’s depiction of the “divine” and “innocent” Alice is a fantasy that is invested with an idealised embodiment of promising fullness that disavows the nation’s imperialism, sexism and classism (Jagodzinski 25). Existing outside of the system of capitalist exploitation, Alice fills up the West’s lack by uplifting the symbol of the West’s ideal self of modernity; she becomes the object to be desired, elevated to the status of objet a that causes readers to desire her for her unattainable status (33). Today’s consumerist culture enables this fantasy of the past to return and continue this spectacle of the “child”, as shown in the scene when Alice is re-lived in Fran Bow.
Natalia Figueroa, expressing the concerns of the Millennial generation, has placed the fantasmatic frame of “childhood innocence” around Fran Bow, which becomes players’ consumptive desire to revisit the repressed fantasy of the perfect bourgeois child lost a century ago. Her attempt to restore the “divine” image provides an imaginary fullness not only to the lack of the self and individual, but also for the global audience. In postmodernity, people’s yearning for the loss and death of innocence is caused by the post-adolescence youth culture, in which children are given more adults’ privileges and responsibilities, from being exposed to the internet to becoming involved in sexual activity at an earlier age (Jagodzinski 27). Issues concerning juvenile delinquency, teen abortion and drug abuse become very prevalent in the 21st century, and this implies the collapse of the ethical high ground and the rise of moral panic, for cyberspace is an open landscape devoid of authority, Master, Law of the Superego and the big Other. This sociocultural dimension explains how the moral character is much in demand for supporting the symbolic authority, which is currently and constantly challenged by the youth nowadays.
This controlled environment becomes part of the global capitalist system that constructs an illusion to trick and sustain millennials’ desire. Cyberspace seems to be a utopia where the youth are free and autonomous to choose and decide upon their preferences; yet it is a misrecognition of freedom, a false semblance (182). Fran Bow is similar to Carroll’s portrayal of the “divine” Alice, as Carroll unconsciously plays with the humanist assumption of the child-perfection that is non-existent in the Industrial Age; Alice is merely an image that is misrecognised as an exclusion that is not bounded by any hierarchy. Today, this nostalgia of the “innocent girl” returns, and it, again and again, reproduces a narcissistic fantasy of obtaining mastery on the cyberspace. In a fatalistic manner, Fran Bow also inevitably falls into this phenomenological trap that is established by cyber-capitalism, as it could be an ideological tool to manipulate and alter players’ thought for a political purpose.
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Dark Continent of Childhood”. Screened Out. London: Verso, 2002. 102-106.
Bown, Alfie. The Playstation Dreamworld. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018.
Brockelman, Thomas. “Lacan and Modernism: Representation and its Vicissitudes”. Disseminating Lacan. New York: State University of New York Press, 1996. 207-237.
Dimitriadis, Yorgos. “The Psychoanalytic Concept of Jouissance and the Kindling Hypothesis”. Frontier in Psychology, vol. 8. 21 Sept. 2017, 1-12. Accessed 24 Apr. 2018.
Jagodzinski, Jan, and Brigitte Hipfl. Youth Fantasies: The Perverse Landscape of the Media. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Noys, Benjamin. “The Horror of the Real: Žižek’s Modern Gothic”. International Journal of Žižek Studies, vol. 4,(4): 2010.
Živković, M. (2000). “The double as the ‘unseen’ of culture: Towards a definition of Doppelgänger”. Facta universitatis-series: Linguistics and Literature, 2(7): 121-128.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.
Mignon Chiu is a graduate of the Department of English and Department of Education (Class of 2018). [Read all entries by Mignon.]